Q & A

POETRY: Bob Kaufman, Michael Harper, Amiri Baraka, just to name a few, have written “jazz poems”—is “Johnny One Note” in dialogue with such poems, or with the genre? Can you talk about what jazz means to you and how it might infiltrate your work?

W.S. DI PIERO: I don't think I've ever responded to questions about specific poems—what an intimate act: I feel very exposed—so this is a stretch for me. You ask if “Johnny One Note” is “in dialogue” with poems by contemporaries who have written about jazz. It's not. The poets I'm in dialogue with are, most of them, safely dead. One bat that does fly around the cave is Williams's phrase in “Portrait of a Lady”—“since the tune / drops that way”—because that's the way “Johnny” got written. It doesn't have much to do with Bobby Hutcherson, in fact, much as I like the man's style. And I like his style all around, indeed: he's a dapper, elegant guy. The vibes' stretched, oscillating waves of sound course right through me as they do for many other listeners. So I thought vaguely (William James: “the reinstatement of the vague to its proper place in our mental life”) that I'd get something going about sound, or the instrument's voice, but since the tune of the poem dropped that way, “Johnny” turned instead into a poem about the disappearing act of unrecorded improvisation, which occurs then goes away for good. Forget it!

P: To what extent is Bobby Hutcherson's music in particular reflected in the prosody of “Johnny One Note?”

WSD: I followed the poem as it seemed to be following the note Bobby struck, wherever it might lead. Which explains the “prosody” you refer to, or what I think of as the poem's (any poem's) movement, its action. Since you ask about the poem's being virtually one sentence, I didn't intend anything “mimetic” of Hutcherson's sound. I just wanted to find out where that note went.

As for the how of things, musical phrasing isn't poetic phrasing: when Pound talks about composing according to the musical phrase, not to a windshield wiper, he's talking about resources particular to speech. But listen enough to music (poetry for me begins in musicality) and you'll absorb and turn into poetic instinct—I don't pretend to understand the psychology of any of this: I only know it happens—a feeling for timing, register, melisma, whatever. I'm so leery of making parallels between arts that I should really just say no, no connection whatsoever. Aspiring, however, to the chocolaty enchantments and piercing Orphism music rules us with—aspiring, say, to the quiet sublimity of Janácek's Intimate Letters quartet, Freddie Hubbard's plaintiveness on “Blue Moon,” the glassiness of Webern's Five Pieces for Orchestra or . . . or . . . or . . . Well, that's a different story.

P: The “Pacific Surfliner” is a train that runs from Seattle to Los Angeles. In your poem about it, “everybody's here”—but not the “you” being looked for, or “Ellis Island's ghosts,” or even, in a way, the speaker. Can you say something about these lost presences?

WSD: You ask about “'Pacific Surfliner' Now Arriving San Diego”: that “everybody's here”—but not the “you” being looked for, or “Ellis Island's ghosts,” or even “the speaker” (which isn't a speaker: it's me). True enough, since the dog of that poem, too, as in “Johnny,” noses the fast vanishing scent of something gone. I imagine actions past, present, maybe to come, existing in a hollow sound cylinder: noise and reverbs from any time or place tumble and ping up and down and around, and poetry wants to register the sensation of receiving all that. As for the prosody (there it is again), you ask how it is that after those bricky stanzas the final lines drop like risers. Who doesn't admire how Hardy's “The Voice” breaks and staggers towards its ending? (There's that dialogue again.) Anyway, I wasn't “thinking” about it. Poems, for me, sooner or later—and it can take years—begin to fall into the form they seem to desire, operating inside their own little sound cylinder, with little explosive devices timed to go off I know not when. My task is to sustain, firm up, maybe vary that form, trusting the detonations will take care of themselves.


This poem originally appeared in the March 2008 issue of Poetry magazine

March 2008

Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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