Jazz. The theme for Volume XXXIV of The Worcester Review. Jaydn DeWald titles his poem after the famous jazz pianist and composer, Thelonious Monk who played at Minton's Playhouse in New York.
The Worcester Review: Why did you decide to write "The One Time I Saw Monk Playing at Minton's" in open form rather than something else?
Jaydn DeWald: Because [it] is the product of an assignment—Write a piece of prose in 50 words or less—put to me by my terrific friend and fellow writer Kyle Bilinski (whose work can be found here: http://kylebilinski.weebly.com). There was far less freedom, less openness, involved than one might expect. But I feel impelled to mention that, for me, “open form” poetry, or “free verse,” tends to produce too many choices, too many possible (and equally alluring) paths. Preferring my choices to be fewer and more susceptible to the vagaries of chance, I almost always adhere to some self-imposed requirement(s), whether traditional (rhyme, meter, syllabics) or non- (lipogram, found poetry, N+7).
Furthermore, since we’re on the subject of jazz, I find it somewhat odd that “free jazz”—the music equivalent of free verse, one might argue—should be reserved for our most virtuosic and most eccentric musicians (the Ornette Colemans and Cecil Taylors among us), while verse libre should be so ubiquitous and, in general, dull.
TWR: Did you actually see Monk perform live himself at Minton’s? Or was the inspiration for the poem the desire to experience the music from a perspective of that time period?
JD: Monk died in ’82, the year before I was born, so I never had the opportunity to see him perform live at all, much less at Minton’s Playhouse—the club Miles dubbed “the bebop laboratory”—where he (Monk) served as house pianist during most of World War II.
For better or worse, I also think it’s impossible for me to “experience the music from a perspective of that time period.” While I can appreciate the historical freshness of the bebop vocabulary, for instance, I would struggle to hear its historical freshness; it even strikes me, in certain moods, as quaint.
More precisely, “The One Time I Saw Monk Playing at Minton’s” is a quick exploration of conflicting interests and temperaments: the juxtaposition of a jazz enthusiast (“Did [Monk’s] ‘angular rhythms clash like gods in the smoke overhead?’”) and a stereotypical club-goer (“Cigars and whiskies and little hotties on our shoulders”).
TWR: Do you enjoy writing about the small moments in life as you did with “The One Time I Saw Monk Playing at Minton’s?” If so, is there a particular reason as to why that is?
JD: I do like to write about small moments, particularly moments of fantastic, life-altering interiority in which nothing, outside of a person’s mind, happens. Lyric poetry often seems to have been created for, or to have arisen out of, these moments, and though it’s unfashionable to admit it, I tend to think of myself as writing old-fashioned lyric poems.
TWR: Why do you write poetry?
JD: Like a great performance, a great poem is (for the poet as well as for the reader) an exhilarating, revealing, moving, evocative, indelible, inexhaustible—this list could go on and on—experience. “Poetry is,” as Stevens wrote, “one of the enlargements of life.” Yet there are other, more pragmatic reasons why I write. I like to noodle around with language, for instance. I like to wriggle into other people’s skin (an exercise in empathy). I like technical challenges, emotional challenges, and challenges of the imagination. I call them “challenges” but they are, of course, pleasures and are quite divorced from the quality of the poems themselves. Marvin Bell once told me that Donald Justice, when asked to reveal a private pleasure, said: “I like to do puzzles.” More often than not, I’m simply trying, in the act of composition, to puzzle out a poem, and it can be a terrific joy.
TWR: Who are your inspirations when it comes to poetry?
JD: Instead of reeling off an interminable and diverse list of artists (many of them jazz musicians), I’ll mention just two intimates: my longtime writing comrade, d., whose work has inspired me for many years, and my wife, Kali, whose heart and body haunt—lovingly—my poems.
TWR: What is your profession outside of poetry? Is it related to writing or something entirely different?
JD: I currently teach Business Communication, a writing class for Business majors, at San Francisco State University. Next fall, however, I’ll have a teaching assignment (as a PhD candidate) at the University of Georgia in Athens. I also serve as Senior Poetry Editor for Silk Road Review.
TWR: What advice do you have for writers who are going in the professional field of writing?
JD: I’ve only met three or four writers—none of them poets—who make their living as writers, so the “professional field of writing” is an alien planet to me. Most of us hold day jobs or, if we’re lucky, teach.
Still, professional obligations, the desire to make money as an artist, might be harmful to an artist’s work, anyway. Think of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Hollywood years, or all the lackluster tunes emulating Lee Morgan’s unexpected hit, “The Sidewinder.” Sometimes I think poetry’s poor profit-making ability—with the significant exception of the Poetry Foundation—is a blessing in disguise.
I suppose I have, finally, no advice for writers entering the professional field of writing, except to mention that art and money are dissimilar, often incompatible, forms of value. (Pictured below: Angela White’s in-progress collage, “Foggy Money,” in which a dollar bill is being cut into varying shapes of fog.)
A thank you for Jaydn DeWald for his contribution to The Worcester Review and his participation in the online web feature.