Concerning Craft: Kathleen O’Toole

The “Concerning Craft” series introduces Little Patuxent Review contributors, showcases their work and draws back the curtain to reveal a little of what went into producing it.

Please meet Kathleen O’Toole. Kathleen has taught writing at Johns Hopkins and the Maryland Institute College of Art, which is just a part of her thirty-year career in community organizing through writing and teaching. In 2005 she published a chapbook, Practice, followed by a full-length collection, Meanwhile, in 2011.

We published her poem “Mo-Bay, December Score” in our Summer 2013 Music issue. Here she is reading that poem and another piece at our launch event:

Here are the insights she had to share about the writing and refinement of the poem:

The wise poet and teacher Lucille Clifton often asked fellow poets in discussing a poem: “What does the poem want?” I thought of her counsel in reflecting on how my poem “Mo-Bay, December Score” found its form.  The poem emerged from a series of journal entries after a winter getaway over a decade ago. In its original draft, it rambled through the Jamaican landscape, weaving together nature and street scenes with impulsive digressions on culture and language. (I am after all a community organizer as well as a poet!)  The poem had not found its organizing principle, and it showed.  Images were strewn across several pages like a leggy bush in need of pruning.  Here and there an authoritative voice emerged to conduct the jumble of impressions.

An opportunity to submit to a Jazz-themed journal a few years later sent me looking for suitable poems, and I noted the embedded musicality in the Montego Bay material. My mother introduced me to poetry by reading to me from a very young age. My ear was tuned there, and my own early poems showed it.  I still enjoy playing with internal rhyme, and the rhythmic elements of poetry surface even when I’m not writing in metric form.

Once I read “December Montego Bay”, as it was then titled, aloud, I heard how much I’d been preoccupied with sound ─ the soundtrack of my trip ─ in the environment, in human interaction, the sound of Jamaican English, and the constant cacophony of actual music. It showed up in my language, whether mimicking reggae with short percussive syllables, or responding to the landscape with lush, melodic lines. So, subsequent revisions aimed at heightening those elements, including a new title (first “Mo-Bay December Blues” then its current, more inclusive “December Score”).

Further playing with the language of the piece, I looked for musical metaphors and allusions, consciously selecting verbs like “scaling” and “serenades”. Then as I edited and compressed, I observed that the poem contained several “movements” that set up the possibility of a jazz-like improvisation.  So some sections begin with an observation: “You can learn a lot about a country from its dogs,” or “Egrets keep the cows free from ticks,” then break into a musical riff from that starting chord. Others, like the final section, seem to be propelled by an inherent music ─ a rhythm or syncopation that I had simply heard and transcribed: fragments of local street patois, or the way images resonated in my ear.

Banana, pineapple and cane sugar for rum

coffee beans from the Blue Mountains.

A swarm ─ bees to honey.

A plague              ─             rats to garbage.

A storm─          and the plastic leftovers flood

from hillside culverts into the pristine bay.

The version of “Mo-Bay, December Score” that appears in the music issue has been revised and revisited over 7-8 years. Still I found myself tinkering with the stanzas and line breaks right up to print deadline. I fretted: it looks raggedy on the page. But when I read the poem, as I did at the June launch, I hear the “bristle and edge of the daily score” as clearly as I experienced it that December. And I find myself playing with the sound as I present the piece. As I commented at the launch:  ”This poem was fun to write!”  And just as much fun to interpret in my own voice.

Note: If you enjoyed Kathleen’s poem and want to read more poetry and prose from our Music issue, you can purchase copies of that issue and others online.

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3 thoughts on “Concerning Craft: Kathleen O’Toole

  1. Thanks for this, New Online Editor DB, and thanks, Kathleen Taylor, for reminding me to listen to Lucille Clifton’s dictum about what the poem wants. Your work over many years on this intensely musical poem heartens me. I am a slump a tough, a slough of despair as the Medievals might[‘ve said, but your essay nudges me to look back over the reams of failed stuff that I’d been turning a deaf ear to. I’m also reminded, sorrowfully and alas, that I suffer from a kind of cultural poverty, having abandoned every instrument I ever played and every language I ever studied. Somehow this essay (plus a morning housecall–should say cat-call?– from a Mobile Vet hailing from the Camaroons) nudges me to re-up my French. I don’t see why that wouldn’t help my ear to re-learn music, and I do mean the music(s) of language.

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  2. Thank you, LPR for recording Kathleen O’Toole’s grand reading. I appreciate it so much, since I really wanted to make it to that reading. Now I can enjoy it, and I can pass it others to enjoy.

    Like

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