Sunday, February 13, 2011

Changing things around

Often, when I'm trying to find something in a poem that's not quite there yet, I'll experiment with tense or person. Interestingly, this is something I worked out on my own, but once when I mentioned it to my mentor, Donald Finkel (I stayed in touch with him for his whole life, so this would be after we'd been talking and corresponding for 30 years or so), he told me he did the same thing. He told me a poem he'd written about an experience a friend had told him about. The friend had been struck by lightning while standing at a window, and knocked clear across the room. Don said he knew that there was a poem there, and he kept trying to write it, and it kept not working. He tried it in present tense and past tense. He tried in first person and third person. I don't think he tried gender-switching -- making his first person narrator or third person character a woman -- although that's something I'll do from time to time. Finally, he said, he got the poem to work by using two strategies, both of which he didn't believe in and would never use in a poem...but they were right for this one. He put in the second person and the future tense ("You will...")

Here's one I experimented with in that way. I had wanted to write a poem about the days when they still talked about jazz, and I had planned to make that the subject of the poem -- impersonal third person voice, a nostalgic/philosophical musing about a bygone era. It actually came out of listening to a Bill Cosby monologue. But it kept coming out hopelessly hokey and sentimental, which is probably OK for Bill Cosby, but not for me. Then I got the hot asphalt, crushed stone, sand and gravel from a sign on the side of a road which I was driving on when I got lost, and the poem started coming together, but gradually. I started with the present tense, I'm sure about that -- putting myself on that byway, seeing that sign. But that didn't work, so I started to try to get closer to the crushed stone by putting someone to work in the paving company. I'd put myself at some distance from a company like this in the past ("The Gravel Business"), but this had to be different.

I had, not long before, written one poem about a woman, daughter of a jazz musician, leaving her husband and trying to find herself. So suppose I put it in the third person, made it about her, had her move upstate to Kingston -- I pictured her living somewhere down around Abeel Street -- gave her a job with the paving company, and worked around to the jazz line that way?


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...

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