Poet Joel Lipman is this week’s guest columnist on Think Music.
What’s In the Background
The essential journal notes and sketches leading to the composition of “Sweet Home Chicago,” a long poem of some 500 lines published sectionally and in its entirety by a number of periodical editions and chapbooks by small presses [Quixote, The Great Blafigria Is, American Poetry Review and Chicago, You Got a Wide Stance (Piirto Press)] in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s, were laid down in Chicago blues clubs. Most of the assembling, revision and organizing of “Sweet Home” was completed in an apartment a couple blocks from the Niagara River in Buffalo, NY, with Delta or Chicago blues LP playing in the background. Delmark records dominated what I listened to – Luther Allison, Buddy Guy, Magic Sam, Jr. Wells, Muddy Waters, Little Walter, helped along by Ray Charles, Etta James and gritty LPs by Sunnyland Slim and Mighty Joe Young. I ended up with a Delmark heavy Chicago and Delta blues collection because I caught a bus to work at a stop on Grand Avenue, in front of Bob Koester’s astounding Chicago Jazz Record Mart, the back shop of which comprised Delmark’s recording studio and office. The poem’s dedication quotes a blues chorus and three of the poem’s four sections are infused with a Chicago blues sensibility there from the first club-specific jottings of the poem’s origin, through revision and the final illustrations and graphic elements or the white-on-black print format used by one publisher.
I’ve filled entire journals in music venues, clubs and, in the days when I more often attended them, at music festivals. Writing publicly in rhythms, pulses and patterns inspired by or attentive to live music has been a routine part of my practice for five decades. Quite regularly, tight, minimalist, gestural poems, both lexical and visual, have origins in club journal notes and found phrases overheard and appropriated from song lyrics and background patter. I carry a notebook I can slip in a pocket – my immediate journal is usually physically 3×5 inches or smaller in size. Writing in a physically compact journal while listening to bands or solos limits my words, keeps the language of the lines imagistic, abridged and compressed. I compose broken words and enjambments notationally, and the impulses, look and feel of an embryonic poem’s notes are saturated by the music. The activity of musicians and performance choreography, as well as a few beers, affects my letters, words, sense of line, spatial arrangement and phrase clusters. The poems resulting from club notes might be either lexical or visual. During the 1980’s and 1990’s these sketches would also lead to the active, functional paperworks and poeMvelopes of mail art.
While their notes and ideas have various beginnings, the visual poems and pages that have been a specific focus of my practice for many years are crafted in my studio where I’ve a drafting table and the diverse type, stamps, inks, books and papers characteristic of sequential bodies of work such as “Origins of Poetry” or, earlier, “Jesse Helms’ Body,” and where there’s a wall of old LPs and newer CDs. Some of the records I listen to I’ve played for fifty or more years. Some of the discs arrived yesterday somehow, from somewhere. Something is always on either the turntable or player or the radio is on. Or there’s music through the walls since my wife plays fiddle in a band and five people are practicing in the next room. Right now I’m listening to rim shots in a drum heavy, jammy riff by Merl Saunders from “Fire on the Mountain.” The Jorma Kaukonen Trio playing “Keep On Truckin’ Mama” from a 2000 disc was on earlier. Yesterday, when I started writing this sentence, I was listening to Waylon Jennings’ “Satisfy You,” a tasty honky tonk thing from 1983 with harmony licks by Willie Nelson and Emmylou Harris. Before that I was spinning Ben Sidran’s Live in Montreux LP. Like many of my compatriots I’ve worn out plenty of Miles, plenty of Dylan. And, last year I overplayed a stupidly delightful CD by Flight of the Conchords night after night while working on “Eclectic Series,” a suite of visual poems overprinted on the pages of reading primers and rhetoric manuals circa 1920. My youngest son works at a jam band venue and leaves all sorts of mixes in the sleeve pockets of the sun visor when he borrows my ride. I listen to it all and just keep writing poems.