Poetry Around Us with James Ballowe

An interview series with featured poets of Fifth Wednesday Journal

Poet Of the Ear: an Interview with Sterling Plumpp


 This interview with Sterling Plumpp took place on the morning of January 14, 2014 in a Downers Grove, Illinois Public Library conference room not much larger than a carrel. The formal interview lasted a little over an hour. But the discussion continued well into the afternoon. Now into his eighth decade, Sterling continues to evoke the life and work of those in whose world he feels fortunate to have lived.

Fifth Wednesday Journal: Sterling, Howard Reich begins a review of Home/Bass, your latest collection published in 2013, by declaring, “[Plumpp] is the poet laureate of Chicago jazz and blues, a man who conveys in words as much melody and rhythm as the musicians he immortalizes in print.”

That accolade from a distinguished critic of jazz, blues, bebop, and gospel at The Chicago Tribune begs putting your work into the perspective of a lifetime in which you have honed a form and a language that gives shape and voice to your own cultural and intellectual experiences. To help understand that background, readers might want to look up an interview Reginald Gibbons did with you in 2003, published in full in the April 27, 2010 issue of the on-line TriQuarterly. The interview produced a remarkable memoir in which you describe your personal journey from Clinton, Mississippi where you grew up in the forties to Chicago and from a childhood on a tenant farm to a career as a professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago and as a chronicler in poetry of a family and musical history which you have consistently evoked over the years.

Could you begin by commenting on how these new poems in FWJ continue the work you have been doing?

Sterling Plumpp: Yes. When I began writing poetry in the 1960s there were three individuals who made an imprint on my mind: Ralph Ellison, James Baldwin, and Leroi Jones [later Amiri Baraka], the latter mainly because of his book Blues People. And initially what I thought I was writing in terms of black poetry was then black musical poetry and culture. Ralph Ellison, more so than any other American writer, felt that the Negro spiritual, blues, and jazz perhaps rivaled anything produced by the world in the last four or five hundred years. And that led me to try to understand the craft side of it, initially from the spoken word from blues, then through sophisticated bebop.

There are things that happen in bebop. And that is that jazz is deconstructed from big bands down to a combo, a trio, and you could begin to focus on one instrument with a great rhythm section. And what captured my mind so much in that, the man who is credited with co-inventing it, Charlie Parker, was not a composer. So [laughing] how do you arrive at that kind of musical plan? I spent a great deal of time watching people listening to Sonny Stitt. He was a great bebopper.

And what happened by the time I wrote “Migration” — what happens when you grow up as a tenant farmer — is that the vernacular becomes your first language. It takes you a long time to understand that, so much so that the first time I heard the blues, I was intrigued by it because it sounded like my grandparents sounded when they would pray aloud together every night before they went to bed and when they got up in the morning. That was the sound I mean rhythmically, more important as they were talking to the Heavenly Father. I did not understand it at the time, and so I’m drawn to it. And years later when I would see — in particular Muddy Waters who had taken devices that come from preachers’ prayers and then put into blues — they were singing, and what’s going through my imagination is that in the process of developing Negro spirituals and later blues and jazz is that the African-American was creating the basis for a new language.

And the problem is that I’m a poet. And what happened was that I had been to private school, I had been to college and university, and I had to tell myself that I was not Muddy Waters. [laughter] “You’re not folk, boy; you read all these books.” And the question is, “What happens when you add literacy to all that experience?” That’s what I’m thinking. I mean I’m not thinking about these models that come from music. The task is trying to find a language that evokes that. And fortunately for me I knew the family history of when and where and how the family had migrated from about 1938 down through 1960. And so I had the details of it. So one time I was writing the details, and when I wrote “Miles and Miles” I had to try to deal with – no matter what my beliefs are – the fact that these tenant farmers were people who believed in a God, who had a sense of morality, who had a sense of community, and I tried to bring that and tried to keep it real in the sense of the actual hardship and a sense of celebration. And the thing is I had come to know that they had found a kind of miniature heaven that did not last always. The fact that you could buy a bottle of wine or a new suit was a kind of heaven, and it did not last always.
FWJ: Like Plato’s cave.

SP: Yeah. And you almost have the blues and the gospel happening in your life. The good news and the bad news everyday, and you continue to survive. What happened, when I came to the City, I didn’t have to go to a factory job. I was literate enough to go to the Post Office.

FWJ: You and Richard Wright.
SP: What happened is that when I continued to go to college, they told me I was crazy. They said, “What’s wrong with you, boy? [laughter] You got that good job, so why are you going to college?” And I told them that I was not interested in the job. So what’s happening with me, I’m trying to use autobiography and biography of family to apply the vernacular and use blues and jazz and improvisational rhythms as a method of telling a story. You know, what would have happened to me in the sixties was that I thought I was writing black, but by the year 2010 or so I realized that what I was looking at was a kind of improvised music linguistic model that had come from how African-Americans had lived in various communities, because I had access to both Richard Wright and Muddy Waters.

FWJ: In the interview with Gibbons you say that Louis Armstrong has two axes, his horn and his voice, and that his voice is even stronger than his horn. Do you, as a poet, have more than one axe? And can you explain what voice means to you as a poet?

SP: I think you can take my last book Home/Bass as an example. It is dedicated to Willie Kent, who was born in 1936, and who is the persona of the poems. I bet I followed 90 percent of Kent’s shows over eighteen years that he played in Chicago, and maybe I formally interviewed him three or four times. And one of the things that happens when you are a poet . . . I never tried to recreate who I thought the musician was. I tried through a poem to allude to the truth of his music. So my task was always linguistically daunting. How do I place the words that evoke that? And two things happened. They make you conscious of the fact that you are a professor. Just being an African-American does not mean that you have a totality of their experience. You know, you’re tenured. You understand the game, but it’s capricious. You know, why is it that you don’t understand it? At that point, I realized that as a poet I did not know that the truth of that experience could be told. I really did not know how much insight I had into that music I got because I studied it or how much I got because he said it to me. I couldn’t surmise that I thought he said that. I don’t know that I thought that, because this was over eighteen years that he was in a whole lot of incidents. He said things, and I said that in that case the persona has to be a blues singer. He cannot be a poet.

And that makes me think of some of the historical stuff. If I go to Mississippi, I’m absolutely appalled that in Natchez in Adams County where in 1827 or 28 there were more millionaires per square mile than anywhere else, including New York City. But there is no evidence that black people were ever there.

FWJ: Can you describe the instruments that you have used in your poetry since you published your first book in 1971?

SP: One thing I have to say. In reading the Beat poets — I know the Beats primarily through the first two volumes of Leroi Jones’ work — there’s something about ellipsis and the line, how you think a poem would go on in one direction and then it abruptly changes direction. I learned a great deal and experimented a great deal with that.


James Ballowe, FWJ advisory editor, is Distinguished Professor of English Emeritus at Bradley University. His biography of Joy Morton, A Man of Salt and Trees: The Life of Joy Morton, was published by Northern Illinois University Press in 2009. In 2010, the University of Illinois Press published his anthology, Christmas in Illinois.

This interview appeared in the Spring 2014 Issue 14 of Fifth Wednesday Journal. To purchase a copy, please visit our Store.

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