Rubber Side Down is the first book to anthologize the output of an emerging underground genre of "biker poetry." The verses contained cover the range of attitude and lifestyle of these poet bikers and renegades who aren't aiming to become Shakespeare's successors, but simply to express the quiddity of their outsider existence.
I'm not quite positive when the biker poetry movement truly began – it's tied to the Beats through Allen Ginsberg, and it's also akin to cowboy poetry, and I have no idea how long that's been around — but it seems that even fewer people would be acquainted with this genre of poetry if not for the Highway Poets Motor Cycle Club (HPMCC).
The seeds of the HPMCC were planted in the fall of 1975. Some bikers and hippies (and, according to legend, Hunter S. Thompson) were sitting around a fire and began reciting poems to each other, the hippies resorting to classic works and the bikers spewing original works on the fly. Afterwards, a couple of the bikers discussed the responsibility they had to encapsulate the biker lore in verse. One of those bikers was a guy named Sky who would go on to become a founder of the HPMCC.
In the early 1980s, Sky met another biker poet named Peddlar Bridges. The pair ran into each other now and then and finally established the HPMCC in 1990. One of the results of this Highway Poets group is this anthology; you can read more of the history of the club in the book.
I like to write poetry on occasion. Usually I hear some music in my head and I'm really writing lyrics to a song no one else can hear; my words are only half realized or fulfilled. That's the impression I get from the poems in Rubber Side Down. We can't hear the music so we miss the full power the song, so to speak. Of course, I don't have a bike, and I think that would make a big difference. The music is there, no doubt, in the growl of the engine, the piercing wind, etc.
The first half is a little hard to read; it jumps and starts and sputters, but by the time you get to the second half — where most of the premier poets seem to show up — the motor is mostly thrumming. Colorado T Sky seems the sagest voice in the whole book. Eddie Pliska touches on the origin of bikers — not as a group but as individuals and why they may choose the biker life — and there is some powerful emotional content in his poetry. Mary Susan is very visceral with some good images in her poems.
My favorite by far, though, is Chopper Kate. She has the best grip on language. Her poems live. Her poems move down the highway, revving, pausing, turning, never parking:
Friction is born / as the asphalt bites / and rubber's torn. // Deep and dark / you leave a black mark / that stays forever / here embedded / like ground tattoos.
These guys and gals love their bikes. There's lots of innuendo here: moaning and screaming and kissing and squeezing thighs. Interestingly, as we non-bikers tend to stereotype bikers, these poems give us a glimpse of how bikers stereotype us "cagers" — no freedom, bad drivers, and convinced that the biker life is what we want.
There are a number of photographs included in the anthology as well. The photos are as rough as the words, portraying a rough, dirty life full of leather, bald heads, big bellies, tattoos, and lots and lots of motorcycles. I would really have enjoyed seeing some poets put a thousand words to each of these pictures, though, distilling the history of the events.
Rubber Side Down is really is a fine introduction to the eclectic world of biker poets. It seems to be a genre still trying to find out what it really is and what it can accomplish but it should be a really good ride.