His name is Erik. He spells it with a K. He’s stationed on Marsh Street in front of Jamba Juice, and he’s likely the most influential addition to modern San Luis Obispo smoothie culture.
Erik Thurston started his slam poetry career a year and a half ago in New York, where he panhandled on the subway.
Wide-eyed and a bit rugged, the self-titled “Wandering Poet” and I talked about his move to California, how anger led to freestyle slam poetry and the transformative power of literature. The Wandering Poet has traveled all over California and Arizona, perfecting his craft.
Mustang News: Why did you choose Jamba Juice as a location?
Erik Thurston: The awning and the trees. And puck. Definitely puck.
MN: What’s your inspiration? How did you get started with slam poetry?
ET: I had a notebook when I was 16, and I was really angry, so whenever I listened to music, I would write in the notebook. Then I just went from there and it transformed from kind of rappy little lyrics to full-blown poetry.
MN: What kind of music were you listening to?
ET: Well, right now I’m working through the Morning Benders’ albums. Have you heard of the Morning Benders? They’re so cool, so laid back [laughs].
MN: How long have you officially been slamming poetry? I mean, when did it finally become a lifestyle?
ET: A year and a half ago. And I’ve been to many cities.
MN: Did you travel by yourself or did you go with a group, like a squad?
ET: At times, I wouldn’t be alone. I’d be rolling with one or two other people. And other times, I’d just take off by myself and do my own thing.
MN: I’m imagining you in an RV. Did you have one?
ET: Well, my friend has an RV, and I’m living there.
MN: What color?
ET: White and blue.
MN: So how did you decide to come to California?
ET: It was about exploring. I came here four months ago for my third time. Both my first and second times, I wasn’t here for long — maybe two weeks at the most. I stopped through and circumstances kept me here, doctors’ appointments and stuff, and so I said, screw it, I’ll be SLO’s poet. And just every single day almost, I came out here and did poetry for three months straight.
MN: So what are your days like?
ET: Well, I wake up in the morning. I write a poem. I read a book. And then when I get bored of reading or writing I go downtown and bus. I drink at night, a little bit. Tends to be some beer or something.
MN: What’s your favorite beer?
ET: Ooh. I like IPAs. It depends which one. Probably the best IPA I’ve had has been Red Trolley. New Belgium is good, too.
MN: So you compose in the morning, but do you normally freestyle here or ideas that you’re playing off of?
ET: Both. Sometimes, for instance, with her playing the ukulele (points to girl playing ukulele nearby), it’s a lot easier for me to get ideas from my surroundings, so when somebody walks by I’ll just freestyle.
MN: What are some major themes of your poetry?
ET: Uh, societal indifference and … whatever I observe. Especially concerning people who are foot traffic or don’t own cars; because I’ve been in a bind, which I’m just getting out of — I’m finally getting a car — but for a long time I didn’t have a car and I was just backpacking, and I like talking about the average person. The ideal backpacker. Who is the ideal commoner? Who is the ideal modern-day street merchant? What do they do? Who are they? Why are they there? There are many people that are stuck in homelessness and are 20, 21, 22 — not by choice. And it’s not that all of them are mentally ill; not all of them are drug addicts, I found that out on my own. I used to just assume. I’d walk by some kind of street performer or just a panhandler and say, “Oh this person is on drugs. They’re just gonna spend my money on drugs.” Then, when I actually got to that point I was amazed. Because it’s not all like that.
MN: Do you generally have good experiences with people who ask for poetry here?
ET: Most of the time, yeah. Once in a while, on a bad day, I’ll get one or two hagglers. Some guy, he likes to fuck with me, he’ll get in his car and yell, “Get a job,” or something like that. And I would get a job, but the barrier to that is, if I got one, I’d lose my purpose. Not that I don’t want to work, it’s just isn’t the right time for me because I’m caught up in a lot of stuff and I’m having my own personal transformation — writing a lot of poems and reading a lot of books — and just because I don’t want to work a dead-end job where I’m making $8.25 an hour or whatever the goddamn minimum wage is, doesn’t mean that I’m a worse person, right?
MN: Are there any books that completely changed you?
ET: “A Course in Miracles.” It’s a 669-page treatise about how what we see in terms of poverty, death, starvation, etc. is meaningless and just an illusion. Not to say that it’s telling you to turn away when you see someone in need, it’s just telling you that you chose to be born into this world and you chose ultimately to either look on this with love and compassion and want it to be gone, or you don’t. It blew my mind.
MN: Do you feel like poetry serves a means to tell the truth?
ET: Yeah. I’m a poet. I don’t often tell lies.
Thurston has written three books and is working on his fourth. Below is the poem he wrote for me:
Jacket of jeans,
like the future
eloped with, locks
of her sunny hair;
absorbing as much
energy as they can
But what are these
that make the acquaintance flustered;
What is inward is
not so gossamer;
paint our hopes to
know so a faint blue
in the atmosphere,
determine how our
will cross again,
Thread, the morae, parcae;
as we stand alone
together on an island
to parley with what
the Moia Statues are
aimed directly at,
I see one still
moment directing the
speaking of machinations of expert