There’s something about John Macker’s poetry that invites you in. As poet Donald Levering put it, his poetry is accessible and yet transcendental.
His work has also been described as “exhilarating,” “honest,” and “forged of desert grit and mysticism, history and imagination, love of nature and love of the arts.”
All of the above might also be said of Macker himself, who is known for his award-winning writing and also for his championing of other writers — whether it’s through publishing their work, exhibiting their art books, organizing and hosting readings or, occasionally, mentoring them.
In many ways, the 64-year-old poet is part of the lineage of the Beats. He didn’t stumble upon their work until after college, despite having grown up in the Beat hub of Denver. He went to school at the University of Missouri to study journalism and never took a creative writing class, but a history teacher taught him how to think an idea through and make his papers more lively, coherent, and structured. “I kind of entered through the backdoor,” he says.
When he returned to Denver after college, he came across Ann Charters’ Kerouac: A Biography and realized that much of the story took place in Denver, which prompted him to read work by Kerouac (he started with On the Road). Then, like a pinball machine, he bounced from one author to the next, taking in the writings of the Beats and the Black Mountain poets.
In the late 1970s, he began to sit in on classes at the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics at Naropa University, in Boulder, and became poet Gregory Corso’s teaching assistant there. Being at the school allowed him to mingle with William Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg, Ted Berrigan, Robert Creeley, Diane di Prima, and other “Beat heavies,” as he puts it, who passed through. “It was just an extraordinary experience ... to be around this Beat hierarchy,” he says. “I was just 22 years old, so being that I was young and impressionable, it made an impression.”
Inspired by people like Lawrence Ferlinghetti, who opened City Lights Booksellers & Publishers in San Francisco, Macker opened a used and rare bookstore in Glenwood Springs, Colorado, in 1988 and began hosting readings and publishing the work of writers he knew. His literary magazine, Harp, was “what I called a total theater journal,” he says. “It had poetry and essays and short stories and writings on the community. There wasn’t really a scene there, but Hunter S. Thompson lived there, so I interviewed him.” In those days, Macker would cut and paste the text onto graph paper, take a photo of each page, and send them off to a printer.
Meanwhile, he continually worked on his own writing — poetry, essays, short stories, a bit of everything.
In 1995, he and his wife wanted a change and moved to New Mexico. He remodeled an old adobe roadhouse near Las Vegas from the ground up. It was formerly a gas station and then a bar before becoming their home.
He worked as the director of marketing for Wild Oats grocery store for five years before becoming the bookstore director at Gerald Peters Gallery, where he’s worked for the past 19 years. Part of Macker’s role at the gallery entails curating exhibits (predominantly photography, prints, and artist books) in the intimate “jewel box” portion of the gallery while managing the collection of art books in the store. In the mid-2000s, he picked up where he’d left off in Colorado by founding another literary magazine, the Desert Shovel Review, though he published only one issue; he also hosted readings at the gallery.
“There’s a lot of people who won’t buy a book, but they like to listen to it and have that experience and that energy and that honesty that you get from being up close and personal to someone reading their work. What a way to communicate. This,” he says, tapping a book with his fingers, “only takes you so far, but when you hear it, it’s a different thing.”
He began by inviting poets from Colorado, but over time he became acquainted with Santa Fe poets, many of whom have since become good friends.
“Santa Fe is a town that’s just crazy with poetry,” he says. “I’ve never seen so much talent in all my life. Just a multitude of voices. And they’re all different. Old, young, male, female — it’s all here. Pretty good for a town of 70,000.”
He hosts readings at Teatro Paraguas, too, and often attends monthly poetry open mics at the theater.
“He’s a real champion of poetry in this town,” says Teatro Paraguas co-founder Argos MacCallum. “He’s a generous contributor — keeping poetry readings going, working one-on-one with poets in town as a mentor, and working with literary groups.”
Macker moved to Santa Fe in 2014 and sees a lot of writers who are drawn to the area because of its tri-cultural influences and art museums, but also because of its landscape. “It’s the physicality of the place, its geography. It’s a turn-on. Everybody has to write about that, too.”
Much of his work is saturated in place. “There are no degrees of separation/from the heat/the desert is a fever dreamt graveyard and/the wind is alive with hymns,” he writes in the poem “Border Wall Blues” from his latest collection, Atlas of Wolves (Stubborn Mule Press, 2019).
His poetry book Underground Sky (Turkey Buzzard Press, 2010) explores Apache history in Arizona, gleaned from not only reading books but also from hiking and camping along the Mexico border in his 20s, “back when it was fun to do that.”
El Paso-based poet Lawrence Welsh, who has known Macker for decades, says Macker’s poetry has moved toward a “deeper depth of the very essence of spiritualism of the Southwest. There are things you can’t learn as a poet; they’re just deeply in you. I think the land of the Southwest is that for John. He’s internalized the West. It’s in his blood and soul,” he says. “As I became more immersed in the Southwest — deeply immersed — hiking in the desert, praying in the desert — I realized he really was and is the real deal.”