Monday, October 01, 2007

Hot Asphalt, Crushed Stone, Craft and Creativity

A friend asked me "what happens when you begin to construct a verse and at what juncture in the process do your muses merge with your craft to produce a poem"?

Well, Sookie doesn't like the idea of merging with anything unless there's oral sex in it for her, and she won't be lumped together with any other muses, but I managed to bat out a response to the question without telling her, and let's hope she doesn't find out.

Here's what I said.

I don't know if there's any one answer to that, so maybe I can start with a few small answers.

You have to find a way in to the heart of the poem, and you don't know before you start what that way will be. My friend, the poet Marvin Bell, has said, "Writing poetry is not a way of saying what one already has the words for, but a way of saying what one didn't know one knew." And it's even more elusive than that. It's not about finding the words to say what one already knows, either.

Another friend, Patti Marshock, wrote a wonderful essay on one process of finding your way in. If you're interested, it's here.

Sometimes to find a way in, I'll reshape the poem. I'll change long lines to short lines, or vice versa. I'll impose rhyme and meter on the words, or I'll take them away, and try the poem in free verse.

I've talked to other poets who do this too. Donald Finkel told me of trying to write a poem about an experience a student had related to him, of being struck by lightning. He couldn't make it work, although he knew there was something there. Finally, he tried doing two things he never did, and would never have recommended to anyone. He had tried the poem in the first and third person; now he cast it in the second. He had tried it in the present and past tense, now he tried the future ("You will...") And that was the way in. "You" gave him the distance he needed between the speaker of the poem and the subject of the poem; "will" gave the event a sense of inevitability.

At least that's my guess. All Don told me was that it worked.

Sometimes I'll change the gender of the persona in the poem, from male to female, female to male. Perhaps this can be criticized as "femininity defined by men," but I hope it's not. I don't think of it that way. I'm just looking for the voice within me that's right for the poem.

here's one example. I had found a line in a notebook, a line I discarded from another poem, about carrying belongings in a mesh bag. I started building around it, making the belongings old records, and pretty soon discarded the mesh bag, because you can't carry old records in a mesh bag. So who was carrying the records? It became a woman, a woman leaving her husband, and taking nothing but these records. Why would she do that? They meant something to her beyond their values as music or collector's items. They were her father's -- he was a jazz musician. So the poem started to be about what you take, and what you leave behind. The form that worked for it turned out to be regular but syncopated -- a three-stress line, sometimes iambic, sometimes trochaic.

Here it is.


She left home after sunrise,
but before Jack woke. She took
— scrupulously — only
a cardboard suitcase. In it
all she knew was hers:
six polyvinyl choride
records, 78
RPM, cut in
by a band called Ellis
Perkins’ Swing Commandos
Her father was Ellis Perkins.
Curiously, she had no
pictures of her father,
but one was in the archives
of the Chicago Defender
when the Commandos played
The Gate of Horn, their
one brush with the big time.

What she had were solos,
trumpet — plunger mute —
derived from Bubber Miley,
more from burlesque: old-fashioned,
even for ‘47.
Ellis Perkins played
with dogged fervor, on
the beat, half-step behind
the feeling. Late at night,
listening, she would urge him
with wrists, breasts, shoulders,
to walk astride the notes,
to walk inside the tone,
like Bubber, Cootie, Buck
Clayton, Red Allen, Roy
Eldridge — till she realized
Ellis was done walking.
Now it was her turn.

She lined the suitcases with
dishtowels, to protect
the fragile vinyl. She
didn’t think Jack would miss them,
but she planned to send them back.

Some of the details -- her Chicago background, the fact that her father played the trumpet and was influenced by musicians of the 20s and 30s -- came out of the three-stress music of the poem.

A while later, I had a line I tried to build a poem around -- "the days when they still talked about jazz." But it wouldn't work. I loved the line, but maybe I loved it too much, and for the wrong reasons -- for what I felt about it, not for what it felt. It was too sentimental -- it forced sentimentality into a poem every time I tried it.

While I was keeping this line in the back of my mind, I went to visit a friend in New Jersey, took a wrong turn, and passed by a sign that read: HOT ASPHALT, CRUSHED STONE, SAND AND GRAVEL. It sounded right, For something. What, I didn't know, but I wrote it down.

Then I started wondering about the jazz line again, and wondering if it would work in another context. But what? How about if someone else said it, not me? I hadn't intended to go back to the woman from "Walking Blues," but I started to wonder if she might be right for this. What do you leave, what do you take? How do you use the past to find yourself in the present? I decided to bring her closer to me. She was looking for a new life -- why not bring her up to the Hudson Valley, put her in a new place that would give her a different perspective? That led to this:


By spring, she was living in upstate
New York, working for a paving company:
hot asphalt, crushed stone, sand and gravel.
The view from her window was great heaps
of stone, scooped, conveyed to barges,
an inlet of water, a distant high bridge, mountains.
Below her flat, old white men drank and talked
about guns and rights. She could hear,
late into night, the tunk! of darts, like
the patter of of raindrops slowed way, way down
by a drummer intent on mastering their rhythms.
She thought about her father, Ellis Perkins,
in the days when they still talked about jazz --
Louis Armstrong and Jabbo Smith at the Rockland Palace
and the next day it was all over Harlem
how Satch had smoked him with F over high C.
How Cootie left the Duke.
How one day everyone opened the windows, and played
Illinois Jacquet’s solo on “Flying Home”
to the streets and stoops: blat... blat... blaat... blaat... blaat...

And that led to several other poems, as this character became an important persona for me for a while.

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