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The beat goes on

Poet Dave Thomas on swimming in the big soup



Dave Thomas has never owned a phone, and he’s never owned a car. Lucky for anyone trying to track him down, the elusive Missoula poet is also a creature of habit: Since 1982, he’s lived in a room in the Montagne apartments on the corner of Third Street and Higgins Avenue, and on Saturdays he watches the Griz games at Charlie B’s. He’s the guy with the long white beard and ponytail who seems to know everyone in the bar.

Thomas says that when he lived in San Francisco after his 1969 UM graduation, he “wandered around in Golden Gate Park and pretended I was some kind of character out of Jack Kerouac.” Asked at Charlie’s if he is a character out of Kerouac, Thomas puts his hand around his dollar beer and shrugs. “I might be,” he says.

On Saturday, Oct. 23, at Shakespeare & Co., Missoulians can decide for themselves when Thomas gives a reading from his new book of poetry—his third—titled The Hellgate Wind.

“I think you’ll find in all three of my books that they’re pretty closely related,” he says. “They’re all just moments for the most part, moments of my life that I just try to delve into, or where maybe I was able to stop time for a moment and kind of see a larger picture for a second.”

Raised on the Highline near Chinook and enrolled at UM in 1965 on a ROTC scholarship he eventually forfeited to become a war protester, Thomas has accumulated a lot of memorable moments over the years. There was the time he organized a protest after Martin Luther King Jr. was shot and thought 25 people might show up; 300 gathered in the UM Oval. There was the summer he spent living “on the sly” below an old mattress factory in Seattle, “catching the occasional shift down on the docks, but the rest of the time we were just hustling, you know? Had a lot of hungry days.”

“I always wanted to be some kind of artist,” he says, “but I kind of lost sight of that growing up in a little town on the Highline, where there’s not much use for artists, and even less for poets, and so I tried to be a football player in high school. I was a miserable athlete. Then I thought, well, I wanted to be a soldier. I think I thought somehow that would compensate for [my] shortcomings in some way or another, and plus, at that time, the draft was mandatory. My dad was an officer in the Navy during World War II, and I thought that might not be a bad way to go.”

But by his junior year at UM, Thomas was having serious doubts about the Army and the war in Vietnam. In Seattle that summer before his senior year, he met “a whole bunch of beatniks and artists,” he says, and that’s when he started writing.

Back at UM the following winter, he took a story-writing class with author Jim Crumley. He recalls:

“I’d written this little story kind of based on Lenny Bruce, and I showed it to Crumley, and he said, ‘Oh, this isn’t a story. This has got many problems.’ He kind of told me what the deal was, so I think I rewrote that damn story six or seven times. Finally, the last weekend of the quarter, I went down to Eddy’s Club, got rip-snortin’ drunk on wine, and the next day I finally got over my hangover and I had a little epiphany about how to write this story and I just went home and sat down for three or four hours and wrote the son of a bitch out. The next morning, I took it in to Crumley, and sat there in the seminar room, and he’s reading through it, and he starts chuckling, and finally he goes, ‘Oh, I think this will do.’ He says, ‘You still got some backwards sentences in here, but this’ll work. This is a story. I’ll give you an A for this.’”

Thomas still takes a run at writing a short story every now and then, but says his switch to poetry happened after reading an interview with poet Richard Brautigan. “[Brautigan] said he started writing poetry so he could figure out how to write a sentence,” says Thomas. “So I thought, well, all right, that sounds reasonable.”

Thomas signed himself up for a seminar with poet and essayist Roger Dunsmore, immersed himself in Jack Kerouac and Gary Snyder (“Especially Snyder,” he says, “because he was writing about things that I could really relate to, you know, climbing around the mountains and doing hard physical work”), and just started writing a lot: “I was writing whatever came into my head, you know, and I sort of think I got into writing poems because you could sort of do it on the run, and I was moving around an awful lot in the 10 to 15 years there between 1969, when I graduated, and the early 1980s, when I kind of ran aground here in Missoula again.”

Asked if he had publication on his mind while he was cranking out those poems, Thomas says, “Yeah. Otherwise, why bother?

“I always kind of liked what Gertrude Stein said when someone asked her why she wrote,” Thomas says. ‘Well, I write for myself, and for strangers.’”

“I’m a pretty shy guy,” he goes on. “And I wasn’t very good at talking to people, and [poetry] gave me a way to get what was going on in my head out and organized, and give it a shape, and a way to relate to the world—a way to swim through the big soup, you know?”

Thomas published his first book of poetry, Fossil Fuel, in 1977 through his friend Peter Koch, who opened a printing press in Missoula and started the magazine Montana Gothic. Fossil Fuel was a collection of Thomas’ poems that had previously appeared in Montana Gothic; publishing that book, says Thomas, “was kind of a fly-by-night operation.”

Buck’s Last Wreck, his second collection, was published in 1996 after another friend, Lance Olsen, approached him in 1995 saying he was thinking about getting into the publishing business. “By the time we got done putting out Buck’s Last Wreck,” says Thomas, “[Olsen] had gotten seriously disillusioned [by the whole deal].” But the book is still for sale at Shakespeare & Co., complete with an illustration, which now hangs in Charlie’s, by late Missoula painter and printmaker Jay Rummel.

Thomas sent his Hellgate Wind manuscript to Camphorweed Press in Seattle in 2003 after yet another friend, poet Mark Gibbons, had a collection published there. “They read the manuscript, and they liked it, and they finally got around to doing it,” says Thomas. “This is the first time I’ve actually had a book published by an outfit that’s actually published another book.”

But Thomas has no grand illusions about the future. “I’ve done all kinds of manual labor and menial jobs,” he says. “I’ve never had any kind of exalted position, and I probably never will. I read somewhere in an article, you can make a killing as a writer, but you can’t make a living.”

Asked if he might ever need bigger living quarters than his one-room walkup in the Montagne, Thomas laughs. “Well, it’s starting to become a contest between me and my books,” he says. “I’m getting to where I might need another room. Either that or seriously sort out the one I got.”

Dave Thomas will read on Saturday, Oct. 23, at 2 PM at Shakespeare & Co., 525 N. Higgins Ave.

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