So many strands/strains of the old country and other people’s cultural traditions inform the arts of the Americas, even if we do not readily acknowledge them. Klezmer, Blue-grass, Deep soul, southern Gospel, the Blues: these musical styles embed in me, and I’d be so lucky to exact poems that are their equivalents in spirit and expression.
I am often asked after a poetry reading, maybe too frequently, by some earnest undergraduate, if I listen to music while composing a poem, because, well, my poems sound so rhythmic, “even on the page,” a dubious observation, at best, in my opinion. It’s like saying water is liquid. Probably the query of music listening is 2nd only to “creative process.” (Then, third would be: “What hip-hop artists are you listening to these days.” I wonder if my buddy Billy Collins is posed that question.)

I normally offer up a polite, “Depends on the poem,” which is actually quite true, because none of this is formulaic, for I slowly build to some pitched space before writing; music is only one source to tap my way into a zone, and mostly, it’s ‘60s jazz or baroque classical musical or late ‘90s minimalist New Music. Or if I desire a grimier, punk-like anger, I’ll listen to some old-school Suicide Tendencies or Diamanda Galas. Last year, Ahmad Jamal’s composition “Yellow Fever” must have inspired ten or more poems.
But, I have a myriad of methods of developing some emotional/intellectual space by which to leap into a poem:
Major’s Top 10 Suggested Pre-writing Activities
1. Read other authors’ work with pencil and notebook nearby.
2. Sketch a drawing on a large sketchpad.
3. Free associate (or doodle) a memory.
4. Lip-sync a favorite tune: “Give me a kiss to build a dream on and my imagination . . .”
5. Meditate in the center of your living room/office.
6. Dance around in your kitchen, after sniffing your spice rack.
7. Play yourself a game of chess.
8. Call one of your parents and attempt to engage them in an argument.
9. Call one of your grandparents (or a beloved relative) and tell them you love them, then lean back and bask in their affection.
10. Go for a jog in your neighborhood.
Lately, I’ve desired to capture the spirit of elegance and resistance of a Peruvian folk song: Toro Mata. It is one of Peru’s most widely known songs sung and influenced in the musical style called landó, which was brought from Angola to Brazil and developed by black slaves in certain provinces in Peru. The chief instrument of landó is the cajon, a box-like drum that West Africans created when they had to give up their native drums. Toro Mata is Spanish for “The Bull Kills.” Much like capoiera, the dance performed to Toro Mata is subversive in that it mocks and parodies the waltzes slaves observed while serving their masters dressed in colonial ruffles.
All through graduate school in Oregon, I listened daily to this album The Soul of Black Peru put out by David Byrne's label Luaka Bop and thought of all the migrant workers working the northwest from Mexico, South America, and beyond.
So moving, so much soul and history and resistance in the voices on this album. The video below features one of Peru's reigning divas Eva Ayllon (also on the album) singing Toro Mata and Perú Negrito, a stunning group of young Peruvian dancers. It captures the spirit of what I felt inside while listening to the whole album, living in Oregon, and writing. I wanted then and still today, the poetic equivalent of that album. Again, I’d be so lucky to write poems with such vibrancy and soulfulness.

How do I explain to those young people inspiration and entryways into poems are a function of how much of the world one takes into one’s self? Film, music, visual art, gardening, carpentry, sculling. Aren’t clichés really statements of full-on stops, where we have stopped living? As my friend Arthur Sze would say, “It’s endlessly fascinating.”
What traditions and conversations from poetry's sister arts do you emerge?

Originally Published: November 29th, 2007

Major Jackson's books of poems are Holding Company (2010, Norton) and Hoops (2006, Norton), both finalists for an NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Literature-Poetry, and Leaving Saturn (2002, University of Georgia Press), which was awarded the Cave Canem Poetry Prize for a first book of poems and was a finalist for the National Book...

  1. November 29, 2007
     Don Share

    In addition to music, I think of fiber arts, about which I've been educated by Jacquelyn Pope, and also Cheryl Floyd-Miller (who blogs about both arts very well).

  2. November 29, 2007
     barbara jane

    Great post. Something finding its way into my writing is Filipino cooking, thinking on processes and ingredients that are "native," and "indigenous," what is Chinese, what has been added and amended by the Spanish, Western/American military and popular cultures, what is "everyday," and what is celebratory, ritual.
    I realize, of course, this food and ethnicity thing is not without its own set of cliché and trope.

  3. November 29, 2007

    Good post. Will send my students to it this week -- especially the dancing in your kitchen.
    I'm b-boying again. Yup, 38, going on 39. I was trying things seriously with my body before I was trying them with language, before I even gave a shat about a book. The dancing, it's renewing my relationship to poems in the air.
    Furthermore: Susana Baca's version of "Panalivio" -- also Peruvian, also slave tradition. You know this? I love it.
    Thank you, brother. Be well.