Identity Poetics

English 685 ~ Fall 2001 ~ Susan Tichy 

Week 4: Sept 17: 
Jazz Poetries: Nathaniel Mackey

There is a cruel contradiction implicit in the art form itself. For true jazz is an art of individual assertion within and against the group. Each true jazz moment (as distinct from the uninspired commercial performance) springs from a contest in which each artist challenges all the rest, each solo flight, or improvisation, represents (like the successive canvases of a painter) a definition of his identity: an individual, as member of the collectivity and as link in the chain of tradition. Thus, because jazz finds its very life in an endless improvisation upon traditional material, the jazzman must lose his identity even as he finds it. -- Ralph Ellison

Poems  ~ Secondary  ~ Quotes ~ General Schedule ~ Back to Week 3 ~ On to Week 5


Core Reading: Poems:
Despite the tempation to put together a poem pack measured in pounds, I've given you only a handful of "jazz poems" by other poets. Identify those that deal with jazz as a noun, a subject, an object of description or narrative, vs. those in which form emulates, translates, or parallels jazz form(s). In the MAP readings, those in parentheses are repeats from last week.

Nathaniel Mackey:
School of Udhra

Hughes: The Weary Blues 504, The Cat & the Saxophone 505
Kaufman: Crootey Songo 819, No More Jazz at Alcatraz 819
(Dumas: Son of Msippi 991)
(Cortez: I Am New York City 1026, Do You Think 1027)
Harper: Brother John 1044, Dear John Dear Coltrane 1048
(Reed: I Am a Cowboy in the Boat of Ra 1050)
Inada: Listening Images 1054

Poems Handed Out in Class: ALL

Core Reading: Interviews & Secondary:

Read all of these:

Copy Shop:

Nathaniel Mackey: Two excerpts from Discrepant Engagement: Dissonance, Cross-Culturality, and Experimental Writing: parts of "The Changing Same: Black Music in the Poetry of Amiri Baraka " and all of "Other: From Noun to Verb."

Nathaniel Mackey: Interview with Edward Foster, from Tallisman.

Electronic Poetry Center (EPC) <>
One of the best poetry web sites, includes author pages with reviews and interviews, sound files, links & more. Read: Nathaniel Mackey interview with Christopher Funkhouser

MAP Website
Harper>About John Coltrane

And then read as many selections as you can from these:

MAP Website
Komunyakaa>Cultural Aesthetics of Black Jazz
Kaufman>About bob Kaufman
Inada>Inada & Jazz, About  Legends from Camp, Jacket & Table of Contents from Legends from Camp, Ghostly Camps Alien Nation

Instructor's Notes on Henry Louis Gates, Jr.'s Signifying Monkey

Additional Sources:

EPC: Chris Funkhouser, review of Mackey, including School of Udhra

Two anthologies of Jazz poetry/prose on the course bibliography.

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Quotes from Biographical Notes & Statements of Poetics
in The Jazz Poetry Anthology
edited by Sascha Feinstein & Yusef Komunyakaa
(Indiana University Press 1991)

The power of the word to evoke time the power of the word to make change the power of the word to uproot to make whole to sever the power to be heard long long long after silence. - Wanda Coleman

The feel is that time has a precise center. Like tightroping on a moving pulley clothesline, you're always trying to keep up midway between the poles. It really gets that sharply physical. As a drummer you're holding time's cutting edge in your righthand (ride cymbol), a simultaneity of holding and shaping. You occupy the center of the sonic sphere, the world, and ride it and bear it, inviolable (why heroin is Bop's perfect chemical). And everything that happens there happens once and at once. Once and Ounce, Groove and Chord, Wave and Parcticle: the Complemenatarity of Bop. Touch is essential. Can you touch time?... Time is a substance if you hear           you can get on and ride. 
-- Clark Coolidge

Without meaning to, I learned something which years late crossed over to the makng of poems: the joy and exhileration of taking chances, leaping into phrases without knowing how they were going to end. I learned to trust the movements of sounds and spaces far beneath and beyond the charts. 
--Rod Jellema

Finally: fearlessness--you know, even if you know nothing of music, that he [Albert Ayler] was taking chances every breath, every minute--which the artist must always do to attain the coherence of voice, the timbre 'charged with meaning to the utmost possible degree'. -- Victoria McCabe

The influence of jazz in my poetry is natural. Like most Black people--espesiacally those of us who were born in the south--I grew up in an atmosphere that was permeated with music: blues, gospel, and jazz. I was conceived in the Great Song of the Universe. And before I was born, I boogied in my mother's belly while she sang her songs in the country churches and clubs in northern Miss. So jazz is not an abstraction to me, it is a physicality...We speak rhythms, ask anyone who stutters. Our speech pattens,--the intonations, inflection, nuances--are to a large degree determined by the music of our lives. We talk jazz and walk jazz...And when I die I hope Coltane is played at my funeral. 
--Etheridge Knight

Further back, when I was an aspiring bassist instead of an aspiring poet, I knew another aspiring bassist named Jay; well, years later, he turns out to be poet Jay Wright!...By dint of history, neccesity, I've whittled my own reeds and got my own chops together. Sort of, I suppose, blowing shakuhachi versaphone. -- Lawson Fusao Inada

Blues and jazz and the American language [are] part of America. And I'm sorry that everybody feels more comfortable when they go to England. and I mean that very seriously. I mean, I think we can learn a great deal from Wordsworth and Coleridge but they're all Englishmen, you know, coming out of this tradition that's a thousand years old...But the American language and the American idiom is entierely different and it has components in it that don't England... Jazz music is so indigenous to American culture that even if you have a predilection not to like it you have to really be informed about it if you want to be informed about American culture. -- Michael S. Harper

In the early 60s, there were two synchronous movements in poetic technique: one was the intellectual reaching symbolized for me by Jackson Mac Low...the other was the sensual reaching symbolized by the Beats...I was then and still am interested in syncopation, dissonance and assonance, and the correspondence of words to the body which produces them...John Cage opened me to realizing the "music" inherent in all sound--I'm now aware that everything in physics/nature has tonality and specific response and rhythm in its auditory quality...It seems to me that jazz music has pervaded most good poetry and prose in this country since the first world war. -- Carol Bergé

Is a jazz poem one that uses some of the structual elements of jazz, that is, call-response, repetition & variation of theme, improvisation within form, etc., or is it one that sounds good when read right with jazz accompaniment...?  I decided to send you what I have, in the past, felt inspired to perform with jazz because the poem answers to jazz the way a child answers to its mother. So these are the poems that jazz begat. Words got to fooling around with jazz, folding it into the soft curves that made them feel right--or sometimes jazz seduced words to cary them higher and deeper than they could ever go on their own--and these poems were born. But I don't know what they are or which world they properly belong to, which is why I like to read with musicians: to keep the family together. But you can't dance to them, and most of them look awfully tedious or flat on the page, so I'm afraid most of them will have to go on being the little bastard misfits they are. --James Nolan

Two things come to my mind whenever I am confronted with the word jazz: black experience and a method for articulating the parameters of that everchanging experience musically... Thus jazz for me implies improvisation, the ability to negotiate a chaotic mode into some cohereent and maageavle pattern through articulation...I accept james Baldwin's observation that it is only through his music that the Black man has been able to tell his story, and I further accept the function black art, ;petry in particular, had in the African cultures which my ancestors were snatched from. --Sterling D. Plumpp

In my opinion, Black Literary artists (especially) have suffered under the illusion of an inferiority complex--as if music--JAZZ--was superior and had therefore sole claim to legitimate Black expression. True or false? Some of us who worshipped forgot that we all are children of the same God. -- Calvin Forbes

Once having come to jazz, like language, there is no leaving. There is only the trying to decide against being turned into the called and bespoken, there is only the constant trying to decide to stay alive. -- John Taggart

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