Generally, it is thought to be ill-considered to needlessly tangle with a large and powerful subculture of mayhem-causing clowns. But poets are rarely an overly cautious bunch—one reason, perhaps, is that Erato sings through them so easily—a reason why poet Stan Gebhardt, 60, recently decided to sue Insane Clown Posse.
For those not versed in the ways of the Juggalos, Insane Clown Posse is a hip-hop group from Detroit, consisting of Violent J and Shaggy 2 Dope (né Joseph Bruce and Joseph Utsler, respectively). As the name implies, the group’s aesthetic wellsprings are malevolent insanity and creepy clowns. Both Violent J and Shaggy 2 Dope perform in elaborate clown makeup and encourage their followers, dubbed Juggalos, to do the same. Over the years, ICP and the Juggalos have had frequent and unhappy interactions with law enforcement. Both Messrs. J and 2 Dope have themselves personally faced charges ranging from death threats, battery, aggravated assault, and robbery to disorderly conduct. The Juggalo community is split between violent Juggalos and peaceful Juggalos. The former have been convicted of things like murder—one reason that in 2011 the Juggalos were added to the FBI list of organized gangs. (After the group appealed, their name was taken off the list.)
As has been frequently noted, even benign clowns are scary; Imagine the terror of an insane one. Now multiply that, by some estimates, by a million and you have an idea of what kind of dangerous army faces whatsoever foe who dares oppose them.
At this point I should note a few things. Firstly, that the FBI’s inclusion of ICP in the National Gang Threat Assessment was pretty weak tea. The vast majority of Juggalos are law-abiding. And secondly, without understanding the nuances of the Juggalo subculture, which draws equally from the kayfabe world of professional wrestling, the deleterious intergenerational poverty of the rust belt, H.P. Lovecraft, and Midwest hip hop scene, it’s easy to demonize, otherize or dismiss ICP. No matter how one cuts it, Juggalos seem terrifying. But when wearing clown makeup, drinking Faygo (a local soft drink much prized within the subculture), and rhetorically embracing violence is the rational response to life’s inputs, one has to wonder which is more terrifying: Juggalos or the society that gave rise to them?
Now back to the story.
I caught up with Stan Gebhardt as he was about to plant some tomatoes, peppers, and flowers in his greenhouse in northern Ohio. Stan grew up in Bucyrus, Ohio, the Bratwurst Capital of the World. He went to Ohio State University and, he told me, didn’t discover poetry until his late 20s, early 30s. “I haven’t met a poet I didn’t like,” he said, though noting, “Longfellow has got to be up there.” Gebhardt never made his living as a full time poet. In his 60 years, he has been many things: a farmer, an auctioneer, an insurance broker,, a pilot, a boat captain, the president of a software engineering firm and, for the past five years, the director for the Erie Ottawa Airport, a tiny airport that serves the island communities of Lake Erie.
But for the last thirty years, Gebhardt has found artistic outlet in verse. His best-known poem, and the work at the center of the current conflict, is called But You Didn’t, written in 1990. In a series of couplets channels Gebhardt limns the progression of a child’s relationship with an inattentive father:
I looked at you and smiled the other dayI thought you'd see me but you didn'tI said "I love you" and waited for what you would sayI thought you'd hear me but you didn'tI asked you to come outside and play ball with meI thought you'd follow me but you didn't
The poem ends with a strangely Vietnam-era flourish. “My country called me to war, you asked me to come home safely / But I didn’t.” Mr. Gebhardt told me he wrote the poem after seeing the many young men in Columbus, Ohio, without father figures. As for the war part, “I’ve been a history buff my entire life.”
Had it not been for a friend with a computer in Columbus who was helping Mr. Gebhardt type up his poetry, But You Didn’t might have been among the millions of unread poems written over the years that fail like little versified sperm unable to find the egg of readership. But after his friend submitted the poem to the editors of Chicken Soup for the Soul, a collection of all manner of emotional ephemera, the poem was accepted and appeared in the second edition in the Chicken Soup for the Soul franchise: A Second Helping of Chicken Soup for the Soul. And so it was that But You Didn’t was sucked into the Transnational Industrial Sentimental Complex. In 2000, the poem was even inscribed on a memorial to veterans in North Merrick, Long Island.
Cut to earlier this year, when a friend alerted Mr. Gebhardt to a Youtube video called “Violent J’s Poem.” Sure enough, accompanied by psychedelic clip art of a grinning joker, Violent J is heard reading Mr. Gebhardt’s poem. The video, appearing on the personal account of a fan named JuggaloFreeman91, was uploaded on December 29, 2007. His (or her) bio reads simply, MMFWCL, an acronym for Much-Mother-Fucking Wicked Clown Love.” According to Faygoluvers, a Juggalo website, the poem appeared on an ICP Hotline in the early 2000s which Juggalos could call to stay updated with ICP news and, as in this case, hear Mr. J read poetry.
Mr. Gebrandt had never heard of ICP. “I’m more a John Denver guy,” he said, but the video took him aback. “Imagine if someone came in and stole your television,” he said, “you’d have a tendency to feel violated too.” And so, on March 28th, Mr. Gebrandt filed a federal lawsuit in the Eastern District of Michigan against INSANE CLOWN POSSE, LLC; and Joseph Bruce (a.k.a. “Violent J”), jointly and severally, alleging copyright infringement. “I’m a very private person,” said Gebhardt. “I can’t get over feeling violated.”
Obviously, the idea of an Insane Clown—THE Insane Clown, Violent J, King of the Juggalos—cadging a poem from A Second Helping of Chicken Soup for the Soul is catnip for media. Perhaps under that makeup, there’s a softie inside. Add the weltenschauung-ian thrill of a plagiarist captured and the episode is pure poetry. But on the face of it, the merits of the case seem flimsy. The hotline is a free service and nowhere in the recording does Violent J claim he wrote the poem. Importantly, he does not control the account on which it appears or the title under it.
Even more confusingly, there’s another poem called But You Didn’t which is eerily similar to Gebhardt’s, written by a woman named Merrill Glass, who was supposedly an American woman whose husband died during Vietnam and whose daughter found the poem after her death. There are some claims she’s from Queensland, Australia, but this like much of Glass’s life is murky. In a series of couplets, just like Gebhardt’s, Glass describes an enduring love. It ends like this:
There were plenty of things you did to put up with me,to keep me happy, to love me, and there areso many things I wanted to tellyou when you returned fromVietnam…But you didn’t.
Is it the same as Mr. Gebhardt’s? No. But is there sufficient structural and thematic similarity to occasion a raised eyebrow from the scansion-loving skeptics? Certainly. Gebhardt undoubtedly owes something to Glass, if she existed in the first place. But it’s also not entirely clear that Merrill Glass ever did. The poem lives in this strange hinterland of sentimental internet poetry which is largely apocryphal and mostly lives on domains you think you’ll get a virus from visiting. (The theory that Glass is a non-entity was first floated by a Reddit user in 2015.) Even more curious, Leo Buscaglia, the motivational speaker known as Dr. Love, read the same poem, calling it Things You Didn’t Do, attributing it to a student of his in the Vietnam War, in his great motivational address, The Time Is Now.
When asked if he was familiar with the poem read by Buscaglia, Gebhardt said he didn’t. Nevertheless, he is prepared to take on the posse and go to war for the soul of But You Didn’t. “I’ve got my conceal-and-carry permit. I’ve informed the local authorities about the situation,” he said, “I’m not afraid.”