Think Music: Jason Koo

Jason Koo, the author of Man on Extremely Small Island (C&R Press, 2009), joins us today to talk about his “Think Music.”

Crossing the Bridge from Music to Making

I don’t write while listening to music—at least not any more. I used to when I was younger, entranced by the myth of Hart Crane blasting his Victrola while getting drunk and squeezing out a few Marlovian stanzas. Then I got really into jazz while living in Houston and wrote a long poem influenced by the music—specifically Sonny Rollins, Thelonious Monk, Lester Young and Charlie Parker. I wasn’t trying to “capture the rhythms of jazz” or anything like that, an idea which I think is so stupid, as if any of the poems that supposedly do this move with the same highly sophisticated, non-verbal rhythm of a Rollins or Parker solo—or as if all jazz rhythms were the same! I was more interested in the space and freedom that long-form jazz improvisation opens up; I felt this same kind of space and freedom in the huge, multi-lane avenues that go east-west in Houston: Richmond (the street I lived on) and Westheimer. I moved to Houston, where you have to drive everywhere, from New York, where you don’t even need a car, so I was kind of rediscovering the American romance with the automobile while getting obsessed with jazz and starting out as an MFA student at the U of H. I drove back and forth on Richmond and Westheimer the summer after my first year in the program, listening to Sonny Rollins’s Way Out West and his collaborations with Monk and feeling like this music somehow explained the feeling of freedom I felt among the cars collaborating for space on the avenues. Particularly Monk’s idea of improvisation—which influenced Rollins—interested me, how he never got too far from a song’s melody, always touching base with it now and then during even the longest improvisatory flights. I liked this idea of stretching out within an overall governing framework, exploring the unknown by tethering yourself lightly to the known, even if just touching it with a toe.

Behind this was Crane’s idea of power in repose symbolized by the Brooklyn Bridge, how the greatest freedom was released by a physics of restraint—you had to “condense eternity,” as Crane says. Maybe some poets would like to fly down a freeway at breakneck speed; but I preferred the feeling of freedom within control and collaboration on these avenues, how at times I could go for long stretches speeding up and shifting lanes, getting all the green lights, but inevitably would have to rest at reds with the other questers in their cars. I was free and alone and listening to my own music but working within a lawful community. And I saw that, duh, jazz musicians experienced their creative freedom in the same way, even vanguard soloists like Rollins who at times broke away from all accompaniment. I began to see myself in my car as a musical note moving up and down a scale between the musical bars of the traffic lights. Yeah, I was getting obsessed. I was listening to a lot of jazz at this point, but I still wasn’t listening to it much while actually writing. I would work on my poem in the morning, usually with no music, then go for drives in the afternoon west on Richmond and Westheimer (usually ending up at Borders about half an hour away) listening to Rollins, Monk and Young primarily, trying to rev myself up with ideas. I had an early breakthrough in the poem when I saw I could divide it into short sections of two couplets each, then either stop at the end of a section as at a traffic light or “drive through” to the next in a longer, green-lighted improvisation. But as I went on with the poem I was having a harder time carrying the same feeling of freedom forward through the sections and feeling cramped within the short sections, so I wrote for a shorter amount of time and went for longer and longer drives, listening to Rollins repeatedly. The less I wrote, the more jazz I listened to. I was trying to inspire myself but ended up just dulling myself—to the music and my own poem. I eventually stopped work on the poem at the end of the summer and didn’t finish it—and then painfully—until the next.

I guess what I’m trying to get at is that even when working on a poem about or influenced by music, there is no real correlation for me between the music and the composition of the poem. This is why I get so exasperated when people talk about poems about jazz capturing “the rhythms of jazz”; a poem’s composition works very differently from a jazz solo. I did experience a feeling of improvisatory flight while writing the first few pages of “Open Sky,” but that was because I finally figured out the form of the poem after a couple of weeks of butting my head against the first-page wall—that freedom came from establishing the parameters of the form, not from any “rhythm” I tapped into by listening to jazz. I was a young poet then, still trying to figure out what I wanted to say and how I wanted to say it, still trying to develop the habit of writing—that first summer in Houston was the first time I had so much time to write and couldn’t make any more excuses, I felt, about not writing. I had to prove to myself that I could write poems when I had the time to do it. But doing this entailed shedding the idea of musical inspiration, this post-Romantic notion that in order to write a poem a poet has to tap into some Dionysian current and just let the poem “flow” onto the page. The myth of Hart Crane was still with me. Hell, who wouldn’t want to be able to write a poem by just blasting some awesome music, getting drunk and releasing your genius onto the page? But of course Crane didn’t really write his poems this way, and in my own experience, getting “music” into my poems meant attending to unmusical matters like narrative framework, syntactical pacing and details of place—things I associated with fiction-writing, not poetry.

I just wrote a new poem about jazz, this one about the great Stan Getz-Kenny Barron ballad “First Song”—the first I’ve tried since writing “Open Sky” over ten years ago, as if I’ve been repressing any impulses to write about jazz because of how difficult that poem became. And again I tried to get “inspired” to write the poem by listening to the song over and over again, in fact listening to all three versions that Getz recorded live in Copenhagen on three different nights at the Café Montmartre in March of 1991, just a few months before he died of liver cancer. I had some vague notion that detecting the different nuances in each version would help me access this poem, but I got nowhere listening to the recordings so many times. Only when I entered the poem narratively, through a third person male listener, was I able to access what this song meant to me. And once I got going in the composition I didn’t have to listen to the song anymore.

It’s as if music exists for us when we don’t have poetry in our own heads—which is most of the time. Perhaps music reminds us of that poetry, or prods us to it, but it is not the poetry. The poet still has to write that.

You can read the full text of Jason Koo’s poem “Open Sky” here: Open Sky

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