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The heavy-metal mysticism of poet Janaka Stucky

Janaka Stucky outside Vilna Shul, where he'll be performing his poems from "Ascend Ascend" on Thursday.Suzanne Kreiter/Globe Staff

When Janaka Stucky’s 5-year-old son was sick with the flu recently, the poet and his wife, Adrianne, allowed the boy more screen time than usual. They ended up watching “Moana” together over and over.

“For about two weeks now the entire house has been singing songs from the ‘Moana’ soundtrack,” Stucky said earlier this month.

It’s an amusing revelation for the writer and publisher, who has carved a dark niche for himself about as far as you can get from the wonderful world of Disney — occult performance, trance-induced writing exercises, and a stage persona rooted in the dense, heavy sound of doom metal. Stucky performs the poems from his most recent book, “Ascend Ascend,” at the historic Vilna Shul on Beacon Hill on Thursday.


On second thought, maybe his current infatuation with “Moana” makes perfect sense. The title character of Disney’s animated 2016 feature partners with a fallen demigod and embarks on an epic journey to revive her people’s ancient art of way-finding.

Stucky, who is 45, has been searching for the way all his life. In his earliest years, he was raised in an ashram. His parents were religious explorers, attending synagogues and Unitarian churches and consulting with a Sufi teacher. Though he borrows from all of those practices and more — his first name, he says, meaning “one who has wisdom” in Hindu, “rhymes with Hanukkah” — he claims allegiance with none.

“The only thing I call myself,” he says, sitting in a pew at the Vilna, “is a spiritual anarchist.”

His poetry, terse but packed with phantasmagoric imagery, is steeped in mortality. While earning his master’s degree at the Vermont College of Fine Arts, he took a job as a funeral home apprentice and spent the next several years working with dead bodies. Back in Boston, where he’d been an undergrad at Emerson College, he launched a horror night called J. Cannibal’s Feast of Flesh.


At 6-feet-3-inches, bearded and shaven-headed, Stucky cuts a striking figure. Tattooed on his chest is a short quote about language and death from the surrealist poet Paul Celan: “A word — you know: a corpse.” His stage voice, droning and incantatory, is sometimes compared with Allen Ginsberg’s, though he says he wasn’t familiar with the late poet’s recordings until the comparisons began.

Soft-spoken in conversation, Stucky nevertheless comes across more like a hard-rock lifer than a poet. Both “Ascend Ascend” (2019) — written over 20 days while secluded in the tower of a 100-year-old church — and its predecessor, “The Truth Is We Are Perfect” (2015), were published by Jack White’s Third Man Books. Jimmy Page is a fan, and the new two-LP recording of “Ascend Ascend” features cellist Lori Goldston, who is a past member of the minimalist rock band Earth and played on Nirvana’s “MTV Unplugged in New York” album.

“As a teenager, I was one of the biggest Nirvana fans out there,” he says.

He was reading Poe and Shakespeare by middle school, and he wrote his first chapbook in ninth grade, as an extracurricular activity that took the place of a winter sports requirement. Around this time Stucky’s father introduced him to a friend, Dan Shanahan, a co-founder of Boston’s long-running Stone Soup Poetry group. On Saturdays, Shanahan brought the aspiring poet along on walks in the woods, often after a snowfall, during which they read poems aloud.


“I wanted him to experience silence as a language,” says Shanahan, who publishes Lotus Seed Poetry from his home in Northampton. As a young student, he’d read his own poems aloud in the wilderness: “I felt like a falconer. I’d be releasing these poems to see if they could fly, so to speak.

“It’s holy. Even when nothing comes out perfect, it doesn’t matter. It’s bumping up against your bones. You’re fully alive when you’re in the poem.”

The idea that poetry could be “an out-loud art, not just something you read quietly on the page,” took hold for Stucky. In college, he co-founded the Guerilla Poets, who gave spontaneous readings in public spaces. They criss-crossed the country, leaving their tiny chapbooks alongside tips in diners. At San Francisco’s venerable bookstore City Lights, they slipped copies in between the Beat collections on the shelves.

Stucky’s latest performances, celebrating the album release with stops including Seattle, Los Angeles, and Brooklyn, are being presented in conjunction with Atlas Obscura, the quirky database of “the world’s most wondrous places.” In Boston, he will perform accompanied by a soundtrack provided by the ex-Bostonian Adam Glasseye of the cabaret punk band Reverend Glasseye.

Stucky chose the Vilna Shul for practical reasons — as a former synagogue, the Jewish cultural center will permit him to light candles and incense — and personal ones as well.

“My family on my mother’s side are Lithuanian Jews,” he explains.


Having spent parts of his own childhood in Woburn, Winchester, and Gloucester, he now lives in Somerville. By day he runs Black Ocean, an independent poetry publishing house.

His own poetry, Stucky says, didn’t round into form until he began incorporating his spiritual practices into his writing. Today, his work bursts with dichotomies — dread and awe, orchids and ashes, lakes and fire.

Written while fasting, “Ascend Ascend” draws on a prior hallucinogenic experience that remained burned on his brain. A friend noted its similarities to the early Jewish mysticism known as Merkabah, which is rooted in the ecstatic visions described in the Book of Ezekiel.

“When I started experimenting with meditation and trance states while writing, the voice in my poems did a 180,” Stucky says. “It became much more free-associative, more fragmented.” Though the verses are spare, sometimes haiku-like, the emotions he’s expressing — grief, terror, rapture — are big.

As big, you might say, as a wall of heavy metal feedback.


At Vilna Shul, 18 Phillips St. May 25 at 7 p.m. $25.

James Sullivan can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @sullivanjames.