Concerning Craft: A Memory Is Not a Poem

This guest post comes from Tim Hunt. In 2013, Little Patuxent Review published Hunt’s poem, “Thelonious Monk (The Village Vanguard, NY City), Third Take.” This poem will be included in Ticket Stubs & Liner Notes, which is forthcoming in November and which won the 2018 Main Street Rag Poetry Book Award. The poems in the collection tend more toward 1950s rock ‘n roll and 1960s rock with some folk and blues mixed in, but there are also poems relating to Sun Ra and Yusef Lateef.  

A memory: I’m seventeen. It’s the fall of 1967, and I’m a freshman in a college 3,000 miles from the California hills in a town that I’ve discovered is not called “Eye-thack-uh.” Here, people seem obsessed with whether one’s last name is “Goldberg” or “Kennedy,” “Schwartz” or “Monroe,” and I don’t know why. I don’t yet know what a bagel is. These details are not a poem—simply some recalled particulars of a fairly typical adolescent dislocation as one moves out from one world into another, discovering that there are things you don’t understand but others do. These details could develop into a poem if I were to find an angle, a hook, that would lead to opening this sense of dislocation and drive an exploration that becomes (though from the personal and by means of the personal) more than just these particulars, this memory.  A memory is not a poem.

But a poem may draw on memory to explore things that originate in memory but aren’t restricted to it: That fall, I spent the Thanksgiving weekend with a classmate who lived near New York City. Friday night we took a bus into the city to hear The Electric Flag, the new band of my first guitar god, Michael Bloomfield, play at The Bitter End. It’s a small room, a club, with little tables for drinking—not a ballroom like the Fillmore or the Avalon back in San Francisco. And the room is much too small for the horn section and amps and Buddy Miles’ drum kit jammed onto the tiny platform. But when the band kicks into the first song I’m maybe six feet from Bloomfield, his left hand on the fretboard is electric—as if he’s plugged into the socket and the current is playing him through the guitar and the current radiating out through the band filling the tiny room. I don’t remember what the opening song was that night (“Killing Floor”?). I remember his hand gripping the guitar neck, the tremolo of his fingers, his body trembling as his knees bent, and the guitar line, as if a pure electric current, freed of wires and strings.

Off and on over the years I’ve wanted that memory to be a poem, but it’s always shrugged its shoulders and walked away. As I wrote the pieces gathered in Ticket Stubs & Liner Notes, a collection deriving from encounters with American music of the 1950s and 1960s, I kept trying to write something about that evening at The Bitter End that would be part of the set. I’d pretty much given up hope, when I finally let go of my memory and instead tried to remember (to re-remember) and realized that that evening was also a moment of dislocation: how much I’d felt like merely a customer as I paid a cover charge and minimum for drinks I wasn’t old enough to order, how much the short set made the music feel like a commodity, and how different this was from the Fillmore and Avalon in San Francisco where the bands played for hours and there was that odd illusion that audience and musicians were a kind of community:

The Electric Flag, An American Music Band, Plays The Bitter End (New York City, November 1967)

In New York you are almost old enough to drink
as you sit at a tiny table and your friends
who have showed you how to ride the subway
explain cover charges and two drink minimums
and how the club tosses you out after the set.
Or makes you pay all over again, because here
this is the order of things—in the real City,
where no one means The Golden Gate when they say
the bridge and San Francisco is just Frisco. But you
pay anyway for an overpriced coke because tonight
Mike Bloomfield will play, and he is your guitar god,
and you have worshipped hour upon hour
spinning East-West as if the blues mantra were not
just a Prayer but the revealed Word—an electric Tongue
speaking the modal truth in liquid bends. But
tonight is “Killing Floor,” the fingers scaling
the neck, twisting the strings into a scream
that is, somehow, still the Wolf’s killing floor,
his Delta, Chicago, a West Side slaughter house
and the floor blood-slick as the black men swing
their sledge hammers to crush the bawling skulls
of the cattle forced, one by one, down the chute,
but, too, your killing field, that jungle
where your friends are already dying to the beat
of the chopper blades, the rim shots of spattered
rifle fire and the napalm’s whoosh, the screams
that are not an electric guitar. And this, too, a truth,
as if the guitar string were a live wire, the electric
shock a scream—the guitar’s scream, your
scream. And then Bloomfield drops
his hands, and stares off over your head,
and when you turn you see The Gray Line
Tour being led through to stare at the band
and gawk at you, as if you are aliens
from some unknown planet and you gawk
back at the ladies in heels with their clutch
purses and the gentlemen in jackets
and ties, and they, too, are exotic. But you know
what planet they are from
because you are from there, too.

In my memory of Bloomfield’s hands, the detail of the Gray Line Tour being led through that evening to gawk was a kind of “oh and by the way.” In the poem it matters more, and perhaps it did that evening, too. And in the poem, the way Bloomfield was transforming the racial and economic protest of the blues of Howling Wolf’s “Killing Floor” into a protest of the war in Vietnam is treated as if it was part of the evening, something remembered, when it’s something I came to realize only later, after I’d started listening to Wolf’s music. But that’s also to say the poem is not a record of a memory, even as it draws on memory and remembering.  A memory is not a poem.

“The Electric Flag…” (recording of the poem)

TicketStubs & Liner Notes, Main Street Rag Publishing Company

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