Written by Bill Tremblay
I've been listening to jazz since 1953 when my brother Gerry who was on leave from the Air Force where he played horn for the 8th Air Force Band including some jazz combos cut out of the marching band at Peterson Air Force Base here in Colorado caught me at home listening to Fats Domino. "Why you listen to that?" he asked. He was still wearing his uniform but his tie was loosened around his collar as he lit a cigarette and fell back into a stuffed armchair that went back in the 1930s. "I love it," I said. "Yeah, but listen to the saxes. What are they saying?" "They're saying, ta-da-ta-dah-dah-dah." "I could teach you to play that in five seconds," he claimed. "Would you?" "That's not the point. The point is there's a lot better music."
He got up, went to the bedroom we used to share and came back with an EP album. He slipped the recording out of its jacket and put it on the Webcor. I was looking at the jacket. It was a picture of GiGi Gryce and Don Byrd. All of a sudden, here comes "Over the Rainbow," jumping an octave from low to high, "Boo-bee, be-ah-boo-be-ah-bah," the notes kind of bent like I never heard before. Gerry saw the smile of astonishment on my face, so he got the rest of his collection--Gerry Mulligan and Chet Baker on the Pacific label, Chico Hamilton, a bunch of West Coast stuff.
I never stopped liking rock 'n roll and rhythm & blues. Was jazz "better"? It was just as alive and it certainly required greater musicianship, so I ended up taking the attitude of, "Why do I have to choose?" Indeed I ended up relating to the whole "high-brow/low-brow" American culture issue of the 1950s pretty much that way. Was Marilyn Monroe just tits and ass and blond tinsel? There was something special she brought in "Some Like It Hot" that was amazing and that's what counted, I thought.
So I started going to Mrs. Fontana's Music Store on Elm Street early Saturday mornings, she would let me listen to LPs. Then, later, when I was a student in New York City I would listen on the radio to an old Symphony Sid who played a lot of be-bop, Lenny Tristano, and Monk. I was 17 years old in the city which was a big change from Southbridge. But I already knew about Dizzy, Bird, Lady Day, Lester Young, the Bean, and the young phenom Miles Davis whom I saw at the Village Vanguard. I have a poem in my book RAINSTORM OVER THE ALPHABET about that night in a poem called "The Music While the Music Lasts." And when I came home I started going to Newport. Just the other day my friend Floyce Alexander posted a video of Anita O'Day and I wrote back to him, "I was there. In the cheap seats." Which was a reference to my UMass Press 1971 book, CRYING IN THE CHEAP SEATS.
I think about the days I re-started writing. I'd written in high school and then in college but when I got married and we started having kids I thought it was you know like in the Old Testament one of those "childish things" to be put away. But in 1967 I was teaching at Leicester Junior College and living on campus and I started drinking and acting more than a little nuts. So I started writing again. I thought maybe it was acting nuts because my soul was telling me I should be writing and I had shut it down.
Anyway, a college friend of my wife's came to visit. I read some poems to her. She said she thought it wasn't good for me to be writing all alone. She said she'd been to Norway on a freighter with a couple of guys who were poets. She gave me the address of this guy from Minnesota to write to. So I did. Turned out the guy was Robert Bly. I was writing narrative realism, and he was trying to promote neo-American surrealism so he didn't publish me in THE SIXTIES but he saw something in my work. He did a reading in Worcester and wrote and said he would be there at the Holiday Inn, would I like to show him more work? So I did. We sat in his hotel room, and he went through my poems and he drew blue lines through everything that was me trying to explain. What was left was pure story and images without my attempts at metaphor. It was like what they say about sculpture, that the sculptor chips away the stone until the statue underneath comes out.
Later, I went to spend an afternoon with Charles Olson in Gloucester. His advice was entirely the opposite. He looked at the poems and said they were like "lumps of coal." He couldn't swallow them. He said I needed to put a lot of space and air around the stanzas and that I needed to noodle my brain and talk about how to perceive what he admitted was powerful content in existential terms. He didn't have the same attitude toward powerful story content; it was more like enjoyment of mental high-jinks--a sort of "low-tragedy-content" and more flying around with aesthetic ideas like in THE MAXIMUS POEMS, which I admired. It was an entirely different poetics--Bly had actually mocked Olson by using the back cover of THE SIXTIES to advertise an "Olsonian Breath-o-meter."
It was up to me to find my own way, but I listened to Bly because what he said was that "the reason American poets are so obsessed with technique is that they are looking for a poetry-machine so that even people with no imagination can write it." Which was an odd attitude because I got a job teaching poetry workshops and I didn't trust technique ... unless it was not so much you know a set of prompts or rules like "write a poem with nine colors and nine saints in it" or something but rather "go inside yourself and find what you most desire or are most afraid of," that sort of thing. Later I would see it was the difference between Structuralism and Post-Structuralism, Modernism and Post-Modernism. But aside from all the "-isms" which was an academic thing there was always "what does your heart tell you?" If there was a judgment it was the sort of thing where in a poem someone would use a word like "pain." And I would say, "What pain?" Sometimes the person would answer by saying, "Pain pain," meaning "I don't want to talk about it specifically." But OK well then Olson would speak up and ask, "What do you want to turn this pain into then?" Emily Dickinson would turn "hope" into "a feathered thing." Huge dialogues would emerge from these questions and issues, weeks of reading, thinking, probing, wondering. By 1975 I had stopped drinking completely, so that was a new era.
My best experiences with my students have been when I could see the talent and I would just help with suggested readings and close examination of certain word choices but it was mostly support in the nature of how poems open up and evolve themselves down a page. In tutorial sessions. But I'm retired now. I have been so lucky with the people who came to study with me.
BILL TREMBLAY is a poet, novelist, librettist, and reviewer. He directed the MFA in Creative Writing Program at Colorado State University, founded the Colorado Review and served as its chief editor for 15 years. His work has appeared in seven full-length volumes including Crying in the Cheap Seats [UMass Press], Duhamel: Ideas of Order in Little Canada [BOA Editions Ltd.], and Shooting Script: Door of Fire [Eastern Washington University Press] which won the Colorado Book Award. He is the author of a novel, The June Rise [Utah State University Press/Fulcrum Publishing] as well as the libretto for an operatic musical entitled Salem, 1692. He has received fellowships and recognition from the NDEA, NEA, the NEH, the Fulbright Commission as well as Pushcart Prize, Best American Poetry, and the Corporation at Yaddo. His latest book is Magician's Hat, a voyage into four crucial years in the life and work of David Alfaro Siqueiros, the most radical of the Mexican Muralists.
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