2/14: Pinsky’s Jazzy Samurai Song

PinskyFormer US Poet Laureate (and Long Branch native) Robert Pinsky returns to the Monmouth University stage on February 15, with a words-and-music performance entitled PoemJazz.  (Photo by Eric Antoniou) 

In an interview that appeared almost four years ago on our since-skyfallen Red Bank oRBit site, Robert Pinsky waxed rhapsodic about Long Branch, the seaside city of his youth; telling us “In the Golden Age, you could have a Ballantine’s and a Max’s hot dog when Max’s was on the boardwalk side of Ocean Avenue. When there was a Long Branch boardwalk! Pizza at Freddie’s or Nunzio’s, clams at Danny Maher’s. Crabbing at Pleasure Bay, the circus at Flanagan’s Field. Tea dances at Red Bank Catholic.”

Pinsky — the internationally renowned, Pulitzer-lauded author of more than a dozen volumes of poetry and essays on art — was briefly back on his old turf for a reading appearance at Monmouth University, and a preview of his 2009 book Thousands of Broadways; a meditation on the “Dreams and Nightmares” of small town American life. The man who produced what for many is the definitive translation of Dante’s Inferno — and who served for an unprecedented three terms as Poet Laureate of the United States — had visited Monmouth U previously (even giving the commencement address one year). But when he stepped out onto the stage of the Pollak Theatre that March, he may not have realized at the time that he’d be making the West Long Branch campus a habit.

For a formidable figure who earned a doctorate in philosophy (in addition to many major awards and fellowships), Robert Pinsky has remained an approachable advocate for the role of poetry in mainstream 21st century life. It’s a mission that’s seen him consent to appearances on The Simpsons and The Colbert Report — and a calling that’s seen its purest expression in the Favorite Poem Project, in which Americans from all walks of life were recorded reading and discussing the works of verse that have meant the most to them.

The past few years have seen Pinsky — a genuine jazz aficionado and amateur saxophonist — step up his schedule of appearances in which he performs his poetry to the accompaniment of live jazz musicians. It’s a mode of expression that the Laureate has branded PoemJazz, and it’s an attraction that returns to the Pollak stage on Friday, February 15.

The 7:30pm performance is a followup to a 2012 event at Monmouth, in which Pinsky was joined by the New York-based double bassist Ben Allison. Since that time, Pinsky has released his first words-and-music CD, also called PoemJazz — a set that finds the poet collaborating with pianist Laurence Hobgood on an array of compositions that range from the intensely musical “The City” and the Pinsky favorite “Samurai Song,” to a rendition of the 17th century Ben Jonson verse “His Excuse for Loving.”

Pinsky — who’s jammed live with a variety of instrumentalists, and in settings ranging from duo to quintet — will be rejoined by Allison (as well as by guitarist and Allison bandmate Steve Cardenas) for Friday night’s fricassee of verse and vibe; an event that promises to recall some of the best sonic experiments of the Beats (minus the bongo’d cliches), while custom-crafting a zone that’s pure Pinsky perfection.

Your upperWETside correspondent had the tremendous honor of conducting a virtual interview with America’s pre-eminent ambassador of the spoken word, a few days prior to the Monmouth stopover….and it’s all here, at the flip of a pixelated page…

benallisonBassmaster and bandleader Ben Allison returns once more to Monmouth U, as musical accompanist for an evening of PoemJazz.

upperWETside: I had the pleasure of participating in another email exchange with you a few years back, in advance of a prior Monmouth U appearance. Your book THOUSANDS OF BROADWAYS was just on the verge of coming out, and you took a moment to cite some of your most vivid impressions from the Long Branch of your youth, as well as your father’s/grandfather’s era…everything from the Clams (at Danny Maher’s) to the Klan.

As you’re aware, your old neighborhood, and the neighborhoods of so many of us around these parts, have had the whee beaten out of them in recent months. Thousands of folks displaced, some never to return; reassuring points of reference erased, and familiar scenes made into alien landscapes. Homes turned into cold, dark, hostile environments; communities isolated or dispersed.

In the wake of Sandy’s smackdown, do you have any additional or different thoughts on the role that our Broadways play; on the way that our local towns weathered this widespread disaster/disruption? Do we tend, and this is surely reflected in the willy-nilly rush to “Recover, Rebuild, Restore” — to have a real need to hammer it all back into a reasonable facsimile of what’s been taken away? Or did we reach an awareness that what was worth preserving in our towns was something other/bigger than our local landmarks and favorite watering spots…bigger even than our own houses?

ROBERT PINSKY: Long Branch inspires a peculiar, double reverence for the past in me. A saying I heard often as a child was, “The town isn’t what it used to be.” When I was very young, I merged the more immediate, recent past — when the summer season was perhaps more prosperous — with the more remote, glorious past when the presidents Garfield and Grant gave their name to our downtown hotel. So today I revere and mourn for the local-in-time: my aunt’s house, the house I grew up in, the old Boardwalk with its merry-go-round, Long Branch Stadium, Vogel’s Department Store, Danny Maher’s and the original, beach-side Max’s. And I also revere and mourn for the older Long Branch recorded by Winslow Homer.

To those, we now add the new, terrible devastation.

No town ever is what it was: change is natural, and nostalgia should not soak anything in mere formaldehyde. But we should try to honor and renew what we can. This new, accelerated change is grievous, a terrible part of an inevitable, slower and larger process.

At your recommendation, I read your SLATE piece on “The Sounds Poems Make” and was immediately taken with the fact that your discoveries made at the age of 7 or 8 continue to inform your thoughts on the subject, maybe even more so than any scholarly lecture or essay you encountered later on. It occurs to me that those primary-school years are, for most of us, the first and only time in our lives that we’re even asked to think about how our bodies work to form sounds; make music…

Dancing and singing and poetry are fundamental. They are primary. And maybe when they get to far from one another, they begin to atrophy. Possibly, when we get to far from them we ourselves begin to atrophy?

Now that you’re sharing the stage with musicians on a regular basis, do you find yourself composing certain poems now with the thought of how they’d interact with live music? Or, given that you work onstage with anything from one to five musicians, do you hear some poems as “just me and bass” and others as “full combo?”

Ever since I began composing these things I hope are poems they have embodied what I wanted to do as a musician. The PoemJazz CD lets me express that  longstanding essence in a musical “conversation” with Laurence Hobgood. The Monmouth performance will let me to do the same with Ben Allison and Steve Cardenas.

I recall reading an interview with a sax player…and I can’t remember who…who said that “you play sax with your whole body.” Riffing upon what you wrote in the Slate piece: do you hear some of your poems, even things that you composed years before you started exploring the PoemJazz performances, as “whole body” compositions?  

I hear the poems as I always did. And then, they become conversations as I’ve said, sometimes with one musician, sometimes with several. And I can’t anticipate the conversation, look forward to discovery and surprise in it, every time.

For so many young poets these days…people for whom the Slam scene and its highly competitive atmosphere, audience energy, and formatted time limits are all that they’ve known…pretty much everything they compose is done with an ear toward being delivered “in your face” to a crowd, rather than being read to oneself from a printed page. You see the best of them starting to move their bodies as they speak, to a soundtrack that they hear in their head.

A number of these Slam poets come across as people who’ve encountered little or no formal education in poetry or literature in their lives, and whose exposure to poetry comes largely through the work of their peers…this can be refreshing at times; hopelessly insular at others. Taking off from some of the examples that you cited in the Slate piece, who are some of the poets of yore that can really “speak” to an unschooled but intellectually curious young writer on the subject of rhythm and natural music?

My best answer is to emphatically, desperately, urgently, loudly recommend the videos at Favorite Poem Project. The US Marine with the Hispanic surname reading and commenting on William Butler Yeats’s poem ‘Politics.’ The construction worker reading and commenting on lines from Walt Whitman. And so forth. For me, the printed page is not important beyond its role as notation. Nor is performance the main thing for me. I compose poems with my voice, for your voice, which is to say the voice of whoever reads the poem. For me,the ultimate test and living place is neither ‘Page’ nor ‘Stage’ — it is a voice. Not necessarily my voice, nor an actor’s voice, but the voice of anyone who cares to give voice to the poem. Those videos demonstrate what I mean.

(If any of your readers is a K-12 teacher, or knows one, that same site, favoritepoem.org, gives information about the one-week Poetry Institute for K-12 Teachers this July, in Boston. I hope some Jersey Shore teachers will apply. The idea is to teach poetry as an art, not a challenge for interpretation.)

Do you ever encounter a vintage bit of verse; something that hails from a different time and place than modern America, and say “that’s jazz, right there…this guy gets it”?

A quick example, William Carlos Williams’ poem ‘Fine Work With Pitch and Copper.’  Okay, another one, ‘To Earthward,’ by Robert Frost. (Come to think of it, I use these examples in my little book The Sounds of Poetry).

I don’t know the present-day city of Long Branch to be too terribly arts-minded a town unfortunately, but if they were to ever approach you with the notion of naming a street/ structure/ public place in your honor, would you graciously accept, or defer all such talk to the grand parade of posterity?

There was a little park at the intersection of North Broadway and South Broadway. Touching to me.

(Pinsky refers to a “pocket plaza” in the desolate blocks of lower Broadway, a half-acre space that features a splash fountain for neighborhood kids to frolic thru in summertime. Semi-officially dubbed “Pinsky Park” a few years back with little fanfare, the public area was out of operation in summer 2012 — but following some needed maintenance work and repair of storm-related damage, the space is reportedly due to be back in full flow for the hottest days of the coming season.)

Ultimately, the best memorial is — again — vocal, as in those Favorite Poem videos. To be honored as the Jamaican guy, Seph Rodney, honors Sylvia Plath and her ‘Nick and the Candlestick.’

Tickets for Robert Pinsky’s February 15 PoemJazz performance ($20) are available by calling (732)263-6889, or visiting http://www.monmouth.edu/arts.