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Punk Hostages Practice the Healing Power of Literature

Posted on Sep 11, 2013
Neil Kremer (CC-BY-ND)

By Michael Juliani

punk hostage (n.): “a hostage to freedom”

On a dusky evening in Echo Park, Calif., in October 2012, Punk Hostage Press hosted its launch reading at Stories Books & Café on Sunset Boulevard. At the time, the press had already put out a handful of books, mostly poetry and stories by founders A. Razor and Iris Berry. Aged denizens of ’80s Hollywood filled the seats on the back patio and spilled out into the alley and parking lot of the bookstore. Razor—burly and tattooed, soft-spoken and shy—read several poems, long, lyrically drenched glimpses of tenuous situations laced with deep remorse. Berry, a natural entertainer, bottle blond, read stories from her book “The Daughters of Bastards,” recounting harrowing and goofy scenes from her childhood and her life in Hollywood in the ’80s. Next to her signature in your book, she leaves a freshly applied pink-lipstick kiss. Her author photo shows her clutching William S. Burroughs’ typewriter against her nude chest—it was taken on the side of a highway. 

Berry and Razor founded Punk Hostage Press in 2011. For years, their lives had intersected, with Razor cutting an elusive presence through the Hollywood scene Berry inhabited. By 2011, both were straightening out their lives, and a mutual friend put them back in touch. After meeting for lunch at Canter’s deli in Los Angeles, where they discussed options they had for publishing their work through other presses, Razor sent Berry a text message: “Why don’t we just do it ourselves?” Since then, in the spirit of their punk, do-it-yourself roots, they’ve published more than a dozen books by several authors—editing, formatting, designing and funding everything themselves. They called their operation “Punk Hostage,” merging what they saw to be contradictory terms: “punk” being the essence of freedom and “hostage” its antithesis. The phrase seemed to be a potent representation of absurdity that felt close to home.

As Berry and Razor worked jobs in shelters for homeless men and battered women, they started to feel strongly about bringing literature into the situation as a complement to established recovery programs. At the start of 2013, they announced the launch of a nonprofit organization, Words As Works, dedicated to bringing books and creative writing to institutionalized people in prisons, shelters and recovery programs. Words As Works stemmed from their own use of literature to remove themselves from traumatic situations.

They both credited literature with saving their lives and bringing them out of their own pinholes of institutionalization. They had each spent many years battling drug addictions and had accumulated pasts full of scenes of violence and distress. They are survivors, in other words, and they realized they had something to offer.

Don’t Ever Let a Beatdown Get in the Way of Freedom:

“I hated the system and how oppressive it was, but I realized I had to take fucking responsibility because there was something I couldn’t quit doing, and till I addressed that it didn’t matter what society was tripping on. I finally found a way to be accountable and I don’t think I’d have been able to do that without reading.” —A. Razor

The poet known as A. Razor has spent nine of his 50 years behind bars. For most of his life he supported himself by selling drugs and weapons and running after-hours joints and escort services. He crossed state lines under constant threat of violence and arrest. Meanwhile, he also wrote voluminously, becoming known in underground poetry circles and within the punk rock scene in Hollywood in the ’80s.

In jail he read everything that was available, often nothing more than Bibles, Qurans and supermarket paperbacks. In his cells, he filled thousands of yellow legal pads with writing. Whenever he got moved to another cell, it all got thrown away. (“In jail, if you’re attached to something, it’s going to lead to a not very positive outcome,” he said.)

Into his 40s he was nursing serious drug addictions and kept getting arrested, leading to his last incarceration at San Quentin State Prison in Northern California. At San Quentin, Razor had finally had enough. “I saw the writing on the wall the last time I was arrested. Pretty soon nobody was going to give a fuck. I knew a couple guys like that: they’re never going to get out and people forget about them. I saw that there were worse things than death, and I thought I could do better than spend my dismal end in jail.”

He started to work toward getting sober, which became a process of facing and understanding his traumas. His daily life had for so long been a game of survival, with violent memories lodged in his consciousness: a guy standing next to him on the yard in jail hit in the head and killed by a “warning shot,” friends and lovers dying in front of him from drug overdoses and gunshot wounds. There were also actions Razor had to take to survive, things he speaks about only generally with me.

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