Jazz and Poetry: A Conversation
[Robert Kelly:] Jazz has been present in literature at least since the twenties and thirties when James Weldon Johnson and Langston Hughes translated the emotion in the music into their poetry. The Beats used jazz to explore more open forms and to create new rhythms. Recently, Al Young and Michael Harper have written openly of their affection for jazz musicians. And James Baldwin reminds us in “Sonny’s Blues” that such music has contributed both form and content to literature when he says that jazz helps us to tell “the tale of how we suffer and how we are delighted and how we may triumph.” Why is jazz important to the two of you in your work?
[Yusef Komunyakaa:] For me, jazz works primarily as a kind of discovery, as a way for me to discover that emotional mystery behind things. It helps me to get to a place I thought I had forgotten. What I mean by that is a closer spiritual connection to the land and the place I came from. For me, the poem doesn’t have to have an overt jazz theme as such in order to have a relationship to jazz. But it should embrace the whole improvisational spirit of jazz.
Historically, the African American has had to survive by his or her sheer nerve and wit, and it often seems as if we have been forced to create everything out of nothing. Music kept us closer to the essence of ourselves. Thus, there is little wonder that the drum was outlawed in certain slave-owning locales. The drum was a threat because it articulated cultural unity and communication. But we of course began to clap our hands and stomp our feet to maintain that connection to who we are. Music is serious business in the African-American community because it is so intricately interwoven with our identity. Most of us don’t have to strain to see those graceful, swaying shadows of contemporary America in cahoots with the night in Congo Square—committing an act of sabotage merely by dancing to keep forbidden gods alive.
This is almost Hegelian. We refused to become only an antithesis—lost and incomplete. So music was the main thread that linked us to the future, was a process of reclaiming ourselves. Being in motion—improvisation, becoming—this was the root of our creativity, our accentuation of the positive even when the negative pervaded. Our music became an argument with the odds, a nonverbal articulation of our pathos. In this sense, even the blues dirge is an affirmation—the theft of possibility, words made flesh. Music has always been the bridge to what Houston Baker calls “the journey back,” this needful voyage back to the source, the spawning bed of our cultural existence.
[William Matthews:] Yusef’s comments seem to me very astute, and I endorse them almost entirely. But I’d like to make one variation on his comment about connection to land and place. There are many Americans, including me, for whom jazz and the best poetry are ways to describe their relationship to rootlessness.
I live in New York City, perhaps our ultimate haven for homeless people. I mean not only those poor souls sleeping on sewer grates and in subway stations, but also the many people who uprooted themselves to come to New York. Some came to work on Wall Street as arbitragers and grow fat, but I’m not thinking of them. I’m thinking of people like my sister, who came to New York because she’s a dancer and could most fully pursue that passion in the city, or of a gay friend who left a small town in Oklahoma because he had no emotional or social home there. To find an emotional home, they had to leave a geographical home. This is a very American theme. That’s why so much of the blues and jazz—and of American poetry—is full of place names, geography, travel. These songs and poems are set on planes and boats and trains. Perhaps they offer the other side of Whitman’s great empathetic ideal that if you can make a home wherever you go, no place is really more a home than any other.
Yusef has stressed the emotional sources of jazz...
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