Memphis Minnie on the Icebox

By a poet, though not technically a poem, “Memphis Minnie on the Icebox” is this month’s Music post — a hell of a great piece of writing by Langston Hughes penned originally for the Chicago Defender newspaper in 1943.

All of it is fabulous. For instance, the description in this paragraph:

Then, through the smoke and racket of the noisy Chicago bar float Louisiana bayous, muddy old swamps, Mississippi dust and sun, cotton fields, lonesome roads, train whistles in the night, mosquitoes at dawn, and the Rural Free Delivery, that never brings the right letter. All these things cry through the strings on Memphis Minnie’s electric guitar, amplified to machine proportions — a musical version of electric welders plus a rolling mill.

You can hear it, even if you’ve never heard Memphis Minnie (or possibly even if you don’t know what the blues sounds like — hard for me to say on that one, but I’ll venture it’s so).

And then the turn the piece takes from the music to the world from which the music comes, with the gesture of the question, the mindset, “It was last year, 1941, that the war broke out, wasn’t it?” and then that end bit, about the men who take the money. Chillingly, thrillingly good little bit of writing, this piece — it seems to me it does everything a good short essay should. Sets the scene and puts you in it, has something to say, says it, and leaves you feeling your life has another before and after to mark, before and after you first read this.

 

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Minor Seventh

For this month’s music poem, a look at Jeffrey Bean’s “Minor Seventh“, which segues neatly into a review of Jeffrey Bean’s 2009 book Diminished Fifth.

Minor Seventh” is a prose poem, it’s a list, and it is built (built of various materials, built so it holds up, and built in the way you talk about someone in very good shape being built). And like all the best list poems the items in it cohere, surprise, make sense logically and make sense in the other ways amalgams make sense (the “poetry” kind of making sense).

And so too do the sounds. They cohere, surprise, make sense and make sense. Listen to how, at the beginning of “Minor Seventh,” the ks and rs and ns in ricochet, kitchen, mixolydian run together then modulate into the ns, ms and fs of Mississippi, blues, smokestacks, hymns, grief, hiss, then swing back to timber and trucks and crawling:

Foghorns, grackles, wheat fields sighing in wind. The night hawk’s ricochet. You better come on in my kitchen. Mixolydian trumpet runs boiling up the Mississippi turning into urban blues and smokestacks over Gary, Indiana. Hymns. Grief. The hiss of sprinklers in timber yards, brawl of log trucks crawling up Mt. Hood. [...]

It’s hard to talk about a poem like this without devolving into analogies of music in your description, but it really does work that way, Continue reading

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“First Day in Sydney, 1992″

Just a quick note that Literary Bohemian’s Spring 2014 issue is up, including the poem “First Day in Sydney, 1992” by yours truly — a trip to Australia and to the 10th grade. Check it out!

Poetry Month Favorites: A Recap

Each day in April, on account of National Poetry Month, I tweeted a tidbit about a poem that means something to me personally (not just that I admire or recognize the greatness of).

It’s funny how often in a conversation with a stranger (or in last week’s case, a barista) in which it comes up that you write poetry the stranger (or barista) says something about not knowing anything about poetry and not understanding it at all, but then a few beats or a bit later, inevitably, the stranger (or barista) remembers a poem they really liked. In a high school class, say, or from college, or heard read at a wedding or funeral that stuck with them. Every time it seems the first reaction is backing away, but then there’s always at least one that they remember, that means something to them. Does poetry just have the worst marketing ever?  That everyone’s first reaction is to back away? (Until they remember there was at least one time they didn’t have to?)

Anyway, I thought maybe I’d see some style thread running through them all, other than a basic love of words, but I think that analysis might be for someone farther removed to pull. But here’s how those 30 stand in relationship to me. Continue reading

And so it is.

For this month’s Music post, I point you to A.E. Stallings again (and why not?), this time to  “Listening to Peter and the Wolf with Jason, Aged Three.”

I don’t know how she does it, is part of why I re-read Stallings, how she uses such formal (here rhyming triplets for goshsakes) forms but sounds so natural and contemporary so, yes I’ll say it (and why not?) accessible. Shouldn’t this poem be sort of boring? But it’s not.

It’s a small domestic moment, the action of “Listening to Peter and the Wolf with Jason, Aged Three,” taking place at present, and the detailed look it’s given, quite perfectly described — but not at length. I mean the moment, the listening to the music, the speaker’s reaction to the child’s grave and logical pronouncement, is not expanded to make some much larger point or dwelled upon philosophically, expounded or held up from all angles. Continue reading

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Levine’s Bud Powell and Matthews’ Bud Powell

For this month’s Music post, a look at two poems about jazz musician Bud Powell, William Matthews’ “Bud Powell, Paris, 1959” and Philip Levine’s “On 52nd Street“.

There are poems about the sound of the music, and there are poems about the musicians, and there are poems about the experience of music. It’s probably true that all music genres have a special hero worship to their culture, but it seems like jazz in particular has HEROES. (Rock music I guess more has rock GODS.) Both Matthews’ and Levine’s poems are about their jazz hero Bud Powell in less-than-stellar form. Continue reading

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National Poetry Month

It’s April, which means more people than usual are talking about poetry. And I’ll be talking about it more than usual on Twitter, linking each day to poems that mean something to me personally—poems that for whatever reasons I just love. With a tweet-length bit about why. (To be followed I imagine by a post at the end of the month looking at those 30 all together in some fashion.)

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Briefly Reviewed: Rin Tin Tin & Stiff & Packing for Mars

Susan Orlean’s book Rin Tin Tin: The Life and the Legend tells three stories, well four. There’s the partly heartbreaking and partly inspiring tale of Lee Duncan and the puppy he found on a French battlefield and named Rin-Tin-Tin, there’s the legend of Rin Tin Tin in all his film, television, merchandising and dog breeding iterations, and then there’s the story of the changing place of the dog in Americans’ lives in the twentieth century, in our homes, in our wars and on our screens. It’s an engrossing read, and I found the balance of informational detail to pace just right (that’s always my litmus for a good non-fiction book).

And the fourth story is the story of Susan Orlean’s quest to find those other stories. Orlean herself is definitely a figure in the writing, not only why she became interested in Rin-Tin-Tin in the first place, but stating which topics she cares about, and is therefore delving more into than others, and why. (For instance mentioning that it’s unclear in many Rin-Tin-Tin movies which dog is actually playing the part, but not getting much into what is and isn’t provable about that, because that’s not something she finds very interesting). So it’s on that level a different style than, say, Dorothy Ours’ Man O’War: Legend Like Lightning, which I also highly recommend, but which isn’t about Ours’ personal story. I like Orleans’ voice, and found the occasional personal sections worthwhile. It’s a big-hearted book, without getting treacly.


 

I’ve read two Mary Roach books now, Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers, and Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Voidand I highly recommend both for learning, with just the right filter of humor and empathy, about the stuff you might never have thought to ask about the human body or if you had thought to ask wouldn’t have been sure who to ask (or might not have been sure you wanted to). But I also highly recommend not reading them while you’re eating— Continue reading

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“We still believe what we hear.”

For this month’s Music poem, I point you to Seamus Heaney’s “The Singer’s House

Like all great Heaney poems, and especially appropriate for a poem engaging with music, it is delicious to read/hear aloud. The give and take of the alliterative/echoing sounds, “a hint of the clip of the pick / in your winnowing climb and attack” to “Raise it again, man. We still believe what we hear” —oh, delicious. And the salt imagery builds more the more you read it. (There are a million more things to say about how this poem is built from a form and structure perspective which I might come back to in future, but this’ll just be a short post this month.)

In an interview in the Paris Review the late Heaney says this poem is about “the poet’s and the poem’s right to a tune in spite of the tunelessness of the world around them” and has more to say about the situations from which it arose, and of course there’s information about Carrickfergus and its salt mines and Gweebarra you can find online worth poking about in, but, as with all the best poems, that’s all not strictly necessary for an enjoyable first reading.

 

 

 

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Almost time for “A Time to Write”

The next Saturday “A Time to Write” group at the Attic Institute starts April 12th—I’ve got a slew of great generative prompts designed to get your pen moving (I love coming up with prompts), revision exercises to nudge your brain into seeing an old piece in a new light, and you can also use the time as just a designated work session to work on whatever it is you’re itching to work on.

It runs for 5 weeks, Saturday mornings, 10am – Noon, April 12 – May 10. More details and registration. It’s a great opportunity for writers of all genres and levels to be proactive about being productive, to have fun, and of course to meet other writers. Spread the word to friends who might be interested, would you? After all, “The art of writing is the art of applying the seat of the pants to the seat of the chair.” (Mary Heaton Vorse)

 

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