Channeling Coltrane by Lenny Della Rocca
by Lenny Della Rocca
I seem to unleash lines that come from the ether. Many of my poems start as a musical phrase in my head. A little Coltrane at midnight is a phrase that came to me in the 1990s and ended up in a poem. I run with the initial riff. An exception is when I write something topical. After reading a Life Magazine article on the 75th anniversary of the beloved film, “Casablanca”, I knew I had to write the poem. It was a challenge to fit “Here’s looking at you, kid” and “Major Strasser has been shot!” in it. When I saw a mention of an annual meeting in Australia called the Festival of Dangerous Ideas—off I went—It’s now a book-length collection, and if all goes as planned it will be released January 2019.
More often than not, however, something comes over me—a spell, the Muse, a flashback—and that mysterious musical line imagines itself in my head. And as soon as I grab a pen (keyboard always comes after the hand-written first or second draft) it’s pretty much automatic writing and word association. I usually tweak as I write deleting words or lines that are uneventful. But before the juice runs out, I explore where the lines take me. In a blurb on the back of my chapbook, The Sleep Talker (NightBallet Press, 2015), Denise Duhamel says “he does what every poet (and driver on wet roads) should do—he steers into the skid”. Of course, too much steering into the skid could cause a crash. My dear friend, poet Gary Kay, tells me that I need to Slay My Darlings, and he’s usually right.
Once I have the first draft—like all of us—I begin editing. I look for a solid center, a location in time and place, and depending on the poem, I ask myself to whom is this being addressed? Who is speaking? Then I start removing anything that doesn’t fit what might be a theme, or central narrative. I ask what am I saying? What does this mean? But meaning is not always the point. I love obscure poetry. I love a mystery. (How many interpretations of The Beatles’ “I am the Walrus” have there been?) I air out the lines using leaps to suggest rather than “mean” as long as the language is compelling. This short poem of mine means nothing other than what it may evoke.
Three ripe pears in the sun.
Smell of lavender in the dark.
Earth upheaved in the wake of a plow.
A triangle of birds in the sky.
Children under the spell of puppets.
Madness in an ordinary home.
The way history finds its way to your door.
Women who love girls and fire.
*Published by Every Day Poems, (2015)
One could argue each of the lines could be developed into their own poem. I like them as they are without exploring what they might be in eight different poems. There is, I think, something about them on the page, something magical. I don’t need to know what it “means”. My poem “Prisons” goes on for five full pages of anaphora: “A prison of 2s./A prison of angry ventriloquists/ A prison of spiritual sodomy/…” As in “Eight Lines” each line in “Prisons” could be considered a one-line poem. And it doesn’t mean anything. At least not overtly. There is something to be said about what it might mean in the subconscious mind, the dream-world. Readers should re-read a poem at least two or three times, not so much to get a literal meaning, (although there is that, too) but to let the “music” seep into the body and occupy a space where it meshes with the visceral and intellect. Poetry is not for those who want to be told something (although exceptions certainly apply). Poetry is for those who want to open their imaginations, to let the words and music move inside like lightning or a jazz.
Like most poets I write several drafts. I’ll put it away for a time and then go back to it. I’ll change lines around, take the ending and make it the beginning. Etc. Sometimes changing a word here or there makes a difference between good and great. I like to put two words together in the same line for contrast and surprise: “You are an infant, too, curled in the dark chocolate of history among proverbs and calculus, inhaling passages from the lives of oracles and thieves”—from my poem “History of the Invisible Child” (The Sleep Talker, NightBallet Press, 2015).
I’ll workshop new poems with friends and listen to their ideas, too. But too much work—shopping and/or editing can ruin a poem. As poets we must trust ourselves. Often a poem just doesn’t want to appear. But I don’t throw uncooperative poems away. I put them in my Junk Heap folder. Every now and then I’ll go through it to find something I can shape into something acceptable. Mostly those poems live the rest of their unfinished lives in that blue box on my computer screen.
I usually write very late at night or very early in the morning. It’s 2:52 a.m. right now! I love a cup of coffee next to me at my desk; A brew for the muse. And when the jazz starts all I do is get out of the way.
Lenny DellaRocca won of the 2017 Yellow Jacket Poetry Chapbook Contest for his collection Things I See in the Fire. He is founder and co-publisher of South Florida Poetry Journal: SoFloPoJo. A former president of the Hannah Kahn Poetry Foundation, his work has appeared in Fairy Tale Review, Nimrod, Poet Lore, Seattle Review and other literary magazines. His second book-length collection, Festival of Dangerous Ideas is forthcoming from Unsolicited Press in January 2019. Della Rocca has two other poetry collections.