Hank Sosnowski opens his yet-unpacked, bumper-stickered suitcase and pulls out a gun. It’s a Glock 23—one of a number of curious items he brought with him recently to the outskirts of Death Valley. Other objects: lighters, earplugs for target shooting, Bowie knife, Death Valley map, #2 pencils, flashlight, tape recorder, batteries, journal.
Some people go to Hawaii for vacation. Sosnowski, 58, went to Barker Ranch—the little desert cabin where Charles Manson hid out with his followers before being captured there in 1969.
“This is kind of the Goth world’s Vatican or Jerusalem,” says Sosnowski, a writer and TMCC English teacher with the voice of a radio host and the rhythm of a beat poet. “Out there by myself, I thought, ‘I’m alone alone.'”
Loneliness, paranoia, thoughts of a murderer and that blasted wind that rattled the cabin’s corrugated metal roof all night amid the cries of donkeys—it all had a way of breeding creativity. Sosnowski’s writings from his week there are being chronicled in an upcoming chapbook, Barker Ranch Rants.
An excerpt: “The night wind gusts blow up the draw, the slivered moon throws improbably blue-white light at black shadows, sage brush bends in a whistling tone, potato chip tin roof rattles and rocks the time …”
He’ll read from that manuscript and from his most recently published book of poems, Love, Lust & Lunacy, on June 14 at Dharma Book’s new Arlington Avenue location.
“Find poems that aren’t about love, lust and lunacy—good luck,” he says.
Lunacy is one factor that threads throughout Sosnowski’s work, be it the lunacy of love or of Charles Manson.
“The intersection of genius and madness fascinates me,” he says, citing such artists as Edgar Allan Poe and Pablo Picasso. “They were so blazingly brilliant, they could be as crazy as they want to be.”
Growing up in Southside Chicago, Sosnowski was never a good student. He found a creative outlet in the theatrical, and he’s never let theatrics go. His home is full of nostalgic props. Fedoras top electric guitars in the living room. A 1950s microphone stands beside a desk; a 1920s fan whirs beside it. Atop a little table near his bookshelves sits a black Underwood Portable typewriter—the same kind Jack Kerouac used to write On the Road—its keys set in delicate circles of silver. He’s set his own stage for his writings to follow.
Small wonder, then, that he set up a real stage to mix poetry and performance art for last summer’s “Write Before Your Eyes” Artown event. For seven days, he was “Hank the Revelator,” writing, reciting, sleeping and eating on a stage decorated as a 1930s room on the corner of West and First streets. Those writings are found in his book First & West Streets. Sosnowski will become Hank the Revelator again this summer but in a new location—the window of Salon 7 on Cheney and Virginia streets.
Whether teaching, writing or performing, Sosnowski hopes his efforts will make people fall in love with the written word and stop taking themselves so seriously.
“The gospel I preach is: Go do it, quit worrying about it,” he says. “I’m a firm believer in foolish behavior.”
While others say the world is an ever more dangerous place, Sosnowski says it’s too safe.
“We need to get ow-ies. We need to bump our knees. It’s too damn safe. And the older you get, the more terrified you get. … What’s better? To die at 85 of leukemia, or to die at Barker Ranch? I’d prefer that. To have someone come out and find my body after two weeks, half eaten by coyotes.”