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Punk as Frank: Mr. T Experience Singer and YA Novelist Frank Portman Is Still Fighting the Good Fight Against "Normal" 

Tuesday, Dec 2 2014
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Frank Portman arrives at the MacArthur BART station early on a clear November afternoon. He looks sharp in black pinwale corduroy over an AC/DC T-shirt, and his characteristically loquacious, near-peppy demeanor is set off by his right eyeball, which is solid bloodshot more than halfway across. It's a bold fashion choice; it's weird and it works.

"It's weird and it works" can describe a lot of things Frank Portman does — the frontman of the essential underground pop-punk band the Mr. T Experience first became known for his signature style of bratty, hilarious, and incongruously literate rock 'n' roll music. In the last few years he's morphed into the author of equally b., h., and i.l. young-adult novels. The third of them, King Dork Approximately, comes out Dec. 9; he'll celebrate with a release party and show at Oakland's 1-2-3-4 Go! Records on Dec. 7.

Portman is representative of a lot of people who grew up in the Bay Area: He's a product of counterculture. "I was raised in a world where the worst thing you could do was censor. You wanted to celebrate honesty, and openness about sex, and tellin' it like it is. Like, 'You kids wanna come in and rap? I'm going to tell you how it is.'" A tie-dye diaper baby, you might say.

As a result, if you say "the Mr. T Experience" to a lot of people today, they'll immediately shout back at you "Even Hitler Had a Girlfriend"! What they'll mean is that not only did the heinous dictator have a documentable romantic relationship, as asserted by the Mr. T Experience's "hit" song, but also that Frank Portman's band changed their lives. MTX, as it's known to aficionados, gave a bunch of teenage punks and other alienates the feeling that life, along with being enraging and tragic, could be pretty funny sometimes — especially if you like to mess around with words, rhymes, tricks, and inside jokes.

At a bright, busy Oakland cafe, Portman and his eyeball discuss King Dork Approximately, YA publishing, and writing in general: He reads his drafts out loud to his cat. He has never been in a writing workshop. Although he recorded a theme song for the new book, as he has for each of the other two, it will not appear on vinyl 7-inch like its predecessor, because most vinyl pressing plants have since gone out of business. It will, however, be a cassingle. He's currently reading Patrick Hamilton's later, unsuccessful novels, which he describes as "hostile and nasty and negative." His dream project would be to reread the books he read as a teenager and disagree with himself on all of them. The Listening Library audiobook of King Dork was longlisted for a Grammy nomination. He's going to see Judas Priest tonight.

Essentially, says Portman, writing novels and being in a punk rock band have a lot in common.

The new book is a sequel to King Dork, Portman's first novel. (Andromeda Klein was published between them, in 2009.) It follows a 14-year-old boy through the ravages of high school, the painful realization that he actually kind of likes his embarrassing, insane parents, and elaborate plans to trick his band's drummer into sucking less. Plus there are girls, obviously.

In the telling, Portman uses abbreviations, neologisms, repetitions, at least four kinds of code, and rampant nicknaming to construct the inner voice of the protagonist, Tom "Chi-Mo" Henderson. The reader not only feels like she's reading Henderson's journal, but also like she's reading everything he's reading (Pride and Prejudice; pitch-perfectly rambling notes from a skinny bug-eyed girl) and thinking everything he's thinking. For example: "Sure, the assistant principal put hidden cameras in the bathrooms, but in every other respect it is far from the pit of terror, torture, and iniquity that was the real Hillmont High, if 'iniquity' means what I think it does." This construction — "If ______ means what I think it does" appears every few pages, and highlights a slew of choice vocab words: metaphysical, thenceforward, camaraderie, annals. "'Don't you knock?' said Amanda with studied petulance, if s. p. means what I think it probably has to mean."

Portman is aware there are critics of what he calls these "contrivances," but at the same time, he likes them. "Metaphorically, a puzzle is a great, authentic frame, particularly for an adolescent story, because when you're experiencing something for the first time, it's particularly puzzling and confusing ... [besides,] figuratively and also literally, your life pretty much is a series of puzzles."

On "process," aka the complete mystery of how anyone ever writes anything, Portman says "The first draft of [King Dork Approximately] was written in about three weeks." He's not bragging. "But it was years of working up to it, and years of not being able to do it, and then I woke up one day and was ... nuts. When you're writing, and this goes for songs as well, you're waiting for the moment where you're not analytical. It's like I'll type for five weeks, doing nothing else, liquid diet, damage my health, crash for a month after that, wake up afterwards, and go 'What the hell just happened there?'"

It's quite a different approach from, say, the disciplined practice espoused by university MFA writing programs, which tend to insinuate that getting up early to write the same number of pages every day — no Judas Priest allowed — is really the bare minimum a responsible person will commit to producing.

When you see the gleam in Frank Portman's bloodshot eye, you realize what kind of advice it really is, especially if you're holding his third book in your hand. "There are forces arrayed against you," confides the b, h, and i.l. writer, "to keep you normal."

Some of those come from unexpected quarters, he says. The world of Young Adult publishing is more exciting than the mainstream at the moment, because it's a more vital market force, and publishers are more willing to take chances. But while YA has in the past been whitewashed, sanitized, and dumbed-down by family-values-wielding religious types, Portman grouses that these days, the gatekeepers to watch out for come from "People like us ... We live in a funny kind of moment, where people are trying to figure out what's 'OK.' The answer is there's nothing that's entirely OK." He argues for a separation between pedagogical concerns ("Does it fit the age group," for example) and literary ones; they get conflated. He likes Madeline L'Engle's directions to "Write the book that wants to be written." And for the most part, he says, he gets to write whatever he wants, but he does occasionally run into restrictions he finds baffling. "If you write about teenagers and you leave the sex out, you're doing something very weird," he points out, reasonably, proving he's never worked with teenagers in a school setting.

"I think if nothing else, you have a responsibility to be honest. That's the whole point. That's why books exist." Frank Portman may not imagine himself as incredibly punk rock at this moment, but he is.

It's weird, and it works.

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