MIKEL K: Guerrilla poet comes full circle
Waller’s in Decatur to host event in recognition of Mikel K’s eccentric, storied career
Mikel K will be honored this month to celebrate the recent acquisition by Emory University’s Rose Library of the infamous Atlanta poet’s collected works. The laudatory evening of poetry and music is set for May at Waller’s Coffee Shop to honor the local poet and writer (born Michael Kinsella) and will feature bluesman Danny ‘Mudcat’ Dudeck; singer Ralph Roddenberry; multi-instrumentalist Eskil Wetterqvist; and Serson Brannen with his In Sonitus Lux project. Kinsella himself will be reading from some of his work, as will Rosser Shymanski, who formerly personified drag queen DeAundra Peek to notable effect; photographer and multimedia artist Heather Vitale is set to appear as well. Art by Lou Majors will provide the visual backdrop.
Rose Library curator Randy Gue says the archive includes thousands of notebooks about the history and culture of Atlanta. “His poetry, journals and his local music column provide a unique look at the city’s underground poetry, music, and art scene in the 1980s and 1990s.” The library also has videotapes of Kinsella’s public access television show “Your 15 Minutes R Up” which “highlights Mikel’s role in the madness,” Gue says. “I knew about Mikel years before I met him. In the mid-1980s, Atlantans confronted the words ‘Mikel K Poet’ painted in four-foot-high black letters on the sides of buildings throughout the intown area. His name and his calling stood out even back then,” he added.
“They’ve got famous poets like Walt Whitman over there, then there's me. I’m really humbled by that,” Kinsella told Creative Loafing . He says that for years he carried a pen and notebook everywhere he went. “There are seven large bins of them filled with my writing — mainly poems,” he says. An autobiographical novel titled ‘The Delivery Guy' — written while working for Chico & Chang and Johnny's Pizza — is part of the collection, and so is his book of poems ‘Please Allow Me To Introduce Myself,’ which “is just a small sampling of the thousands I’ve written over 35 years.”
While making ‘Your 15 Minutes R Up,’ Kinsella was penning a weekly music column called ‘Backstage Pass’ in two publications, Footnotes and Poets, Artists & Madmen. “Many of the bands that I wrote about, I had on the show. I also had poets and other crazy people on.”
Kinsella eventually gathered some musicians together under the name Mikel K and the Semantics, playing gigs initially at the Blue Rat Gallery in Midtown. That group morphed into the Mikel K Band. “We played all the Atlanta clubs for several years,” he says. “I both spoke and I screamed.” Did he sing as well? “No. Every time I tried to sing, the drummer would throw his sticks at me.” He described his band as a mix of improvisational punk, jazz, and rock that “never played the same music at any gig.” The band released two CDs, ‘Sober and Don't Say Hate. “Sober was put out a few years after I stopped drinking,” says Kinsella, now 65 and a grandfather. “I was quite a mess — a wild man who blacked out regularly and spent quite a few nights in the drunk tank.” He has been sober for 32 years, and had an epiphany after stumbling across a report of his escapades in a newspaper. “I got out of jail one morning; I was at the MARTA station looking down at my feet and saw a headline that said Sick Poet; I was having success as performer and writer, so there was a dichotomy in those two worlds.”
Los Angeles-based filmmaker David S. Barron remembers Kinsella as a “rare human being” from when they worked for Atlanta public access channel People TV in 1991. “We both had television shows. His was avant-garde, kind of sloppy, and featured local music artists and performance art. He was a really cool guy, but reeked of booze — I had to keep my distance from him,” Barron writes via email. “He had anger issues that got him in trouble with the law and with People TV. Mikel was still partying and somewhat of a raging alcoholic, and at some point he vanished — disappeared. It turns out he had a moment of rage while blacking out at the station and hit (operations manager) Don Hedden over the head with an acoustic guitar. Needless to say, his show was finished, and he went underground for a few years.”
For some time Barron has been working on a documentary about Mikel K, although “creative differences” have put the project on hold “until we find a path to finish the film.” There are “hundreds of hours of content” documenting his life, his family, his sobriety, and his poetry. Barron returned to Atlanta in 2017 and conducted several more interviews for the film. “Folks like Dave Sloan, Tony Paris, Billy Fields, Mark Willis, his son Graem, and Art Linton,” he says. “Lots left to shoot to make it complete.” A previous film made by Barron in the 1990s was titled Outspoken Word and featured the poet at the Atlanta Local Music Awards. “He delivered an unforgettable performance of ‘Dead Rockstar’ where he goes on and on about Jim Morrison’s horrific death in Paris,” Barron says. “The audience didn’t know what hit them as K was in rare form, shocking people, and pissing some of them off.”
All was not mayhem, however. Dale Miller, the drummer in the Mikel K Band, says, “Mikel really knew how to express himself in the Key of K, as we used to call it. He was open to criticism and a team player who gave over the reins to a bunch of guys he respected. He also promoted and supported the other bands we were in all while he did it. More than anything, I think he was glad to see this group he created all become friends.”
Kinsella’s son Graem describes his father as a “pretty intense” manic depressive who nonetheless “looked out for me, my brother and my sister at all times, and if he ever yelled at us or lost it, he was always quick with an apology.” Graem would often accompany Kinsella to AA meetings as well as open mic nights, and says it was always entertaining to see how he commanded an audience's attention. Kinsella’s own father was far less encouraging to his offspring. “He once told me about my stated desire to be a writer that ‘one in a million make it at that game’ and that I didn’t have what it takes,” he recalls. Due to his father’s disdain, Kinsella dislikes being referred to by his legal surname. “Until Facebook outed me,” he says, “I was known as K everywhere, except on traffic stops and in doctor's offices.
Voted "Best Spoken Word" performer in 1996 and 1997 by Creative Loafing readers and more recently "Best Poet," Kinsella is to be found these days working as a cashier at Sean’s Harvest Market on Amsterdam Avenue. “I gave (owner Sean Germain) his first job at Rocky’s Pizza on Peachtree. He’s hired me 30 years later, so we’ve come full circle.” —CL—
7-9 p.m. Fri., May 26. Waller's Coffee Shop, 240 DeKalb Industrial Way, Decatur, 30033 wallerscoffeeshop.com