Storyteller and drummer James Norman’s collected poetry evokes a hard-lived nomadic life

James Norman hangs out with his dog, a 6-year-old Catahoula Leopard named Abilene.
Photo: Steve Marcus

“These poems first appeared under desperate conditions.” That’s how Las Vegas-based author James Norman begins his collection of writings, All the Broken Fire Escapes to Heaven in One Room. On the adjacent page, an epigraph by Henry Miller reads, “I have no money, no resources, no hopes. I am the happiest man alive.”

It’s a fitting opening for the book, which Norman, now 33, wrote while living and working on a pot farm in the hills of California’s Humboldt County in his early 20s. “I probably wrote 200 poems at the time,” the poet says. (His mother is Jean Reid Norman, former editor and reporter at the Las Vegas Sun, to whom he says he owes everything in his life.) “I know I wrote a huge chunk on the hill. I just had my typewriter, and at the end of the night I would just crank them out when I had free time. It was just something to keep you sane.”

Divided into four parts (Love Poems for the Insane, Chasing Rimbaud’s Ghost, People Eating Other People and He Who Laughs Last Laughs Alone), Fire Escapes comprises 64 poems Norman wrote from age 23 to 26. Once a vagrant and a wanderer who rode freight trains like Kerouac throughout the American Midwest, Norman chronicles everything from the mundane (“the sink was full of dirty dishes/we drank water from the tap and slept in late”) to fleeting romps (“women came and women went while typewriters were built to last”). The pages swim with the kind of nomadic idealism and whiskey-fueled imagery Bukowski lovers will readily devour—“we blow each other out like the veins of a junkie/always with one sick and the other just nodding/and our love is like that: a one-way street best traveled alone,” he writes in “How Clever Our Madness.”

“I guess the strangest part is putting it out now,” Norman says of Fire Escapes. “I don’t know if it so much reflects the person I am now. The person I was here had a lot to prove … to the world, to myself, to people.”

Norman, who also drums in Vegas psych-rock band Ted Rader and the Magic Family, will celebrate the release of Fire Escapes September 10 at the Bunkhouse, aided by performances by his band and fellow locals The Acid Sisters plus select readings throughout the evening by the poet himself. The collection is being put out by San Francisco- and Vegas-based independent publishing company Zeitgeist Press, co-founded by Clark County Poet Laureate Bruce Isaacson.

It might not reflect the Norman people know today, but it’s the first installment in a series of the poet’s personal musings, an honest introduction to the drifter-turned-storyteller as a voice Las Vegas needs to know. “I really love people, but there is that self-destructive vein running through [the book],” Norman says. “I really did live on a pot farm and drink 12 hours a day. There’s times where it feels really romantic, but if I still lived like that I’d be dead now … or something like that.”

All the Broken Fire Escapes to Heaven in One Room September 10, 6:30 p.m., $5. Bunkhouse Saloon, 702-982-1764.

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Leslie Ventura is a staff writer at Las Vegas Weekly and Industry Weekly. She’s picked the brains of rock stars ...

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