Sunday, August 2, 2020
Wednesday, July 8, 2020
Photo by Patricia Seaton
(it was election day in Peru and the peasants were in town from the hills to vote and have a few drinks)
Red plastic bag like refuse marks the chichería,
its benches half the breadth of my behind.
This shed I think was built in just a day –
a few good kicks would turn it to debris,
and yet I think the place must serve up hope.
I’m seated with the rest to seek my share.
A chichería is an unlicensed establishment
selling the indigenous people’s homemade
beer, usually based in corn.
Saturday, July 4, 2020
BLM/Independence Day: Drummer Warren Smith Reflects on Growing up on Chicago's South Side in the 1930s
KIRPAL GORDON: I had a peek at the memoir you are writing on your life in music. On Independence Day during this national moment of Black Lives Mattering, would you share some of your experiences coming up in Chicago?
WARREN SMITH: At the time of my birth (5/14/1934), Black people lived south of 12th Street. Chicago was fast, hip, intense---whatever was in style at the time. There was music, dance, theater, opera, night clubs, blues joints, jam sessions. Prohibition had just been rescinded, and now marijuana was illegal. I remember my father, a musician, putting on his tuxedo and tying his bow tie to go to work at the establishment whatever it was (sometimes the establishment was run by gangsters like Al Capone). Here it was right after the Depression, and everyone dressed up formally to go to work. It never occurred to me at that time to ask, who covered the costs of all that production?
We lived south of the Loop between 12th Street and 31st Street next to the Lakefront. The real estate phenomena that continually occurred when Black residents moved across that line resulted in their getting harassed and/or vandalized initially. Then there would be a “White Flight” as the Caucasian residents moved further south to avoid integrating with Black folks. The family rumor has it that our Uncle Steele and Uncle Lloyd had bought a house on 37th Street and Ellis Avenue, in which several of our families were living along with our paternal grandfather, James Madison Smith. Someone set off a bomb in front of the house and blew out most of the windows. My younger brother Frank and I were untouched, but there was glass embedded in the wall above our crib. Our grandfather died not long after, certainly not helped by the experience. Other cousins and friends had similar experiences as we gradually expanded further south, but eventually the violence stopped, at least the physical violence. Until I left for New York in 1957, not much had changed. But things are quite different now for our next generation of cousins, at least geographically, as far as I know. I don’t live there anymore; I’m going on hearsay.
The important point I want to make is that this segregated segment of Chicago society felt completely empowered and pretty much self-sufficient. We had our own school system with Black superintendents, principals and associate principals. For context, let me add that I started teaching in “integrated” New York City in 1958. They got their first Black principal in 1966.
We had our own Musicians Union, with its own Credit Union. The first building it owned was on State Street at 40th Street. When urban renewal caused that whole neighborhood to be raised, the Union bought another on Cottage Grove and 61st Street. And they owned an apartment on Drexel Blvd in Hyde Park which afforded many of its members an affordable home during trying times. Many of these resources were lost to us when the AF of M integrated Local 208 with the White Union Local 10 becoming the present Local 10-208. Chicago’s South Side, however, has retained its power as a thriving black community. And it was so much that way during my youth that I almost never ventured outside of it except to go to school. I joined the Musicians Union at the age of 14 and got my driver’s license as well. I didn’t realize there was a Local 10 until I was 21. I was playing music in church, in social affairs, in parades and summer concert bands.
KIRPAL GORDON: You also lived in Maywood? How did that move come about?
WARREN SMITH: Moms did not like the environment around A.O. Sexton Grade School, so in my second year my brother Frank and I transferred to Washington Grade School in the mostly Black school in District 89, Maywood, Illinois, where my maternal grandparents lived, some twenty miles due west of the Loop. Chicago’s South Side was completely urban and paved with asphalt, but Maywood had cobblestone streets. We lived in a big two-story house with a basement, large side yard and a back yard that featured a vegetable garden cultivated mostly by my father, produce we ate daily. There were cherry trees, a rhubarb bush, currants and my grandfather’s herb garden with mint and other medicinal plants. We had a well from which we drew water daily and a rain barrel for utilitarian purposes. We raised chickens.
Maywood was just west of Oak Park/River Forest, a rather affluent area with many Frank Lloyd Wright Prairie houses in the residential neighborhoods. Maywood went from 1st Avenue in the east to 26th Avenue in the west and from St. Charles Road on the north to Madison Avenue on the south. All the Black people in the town lived between 10th and 14th Avenues. One wealthy businessman owned a nice home on the corner of 15th and Oak Street. The renowned scientist Dr. Percy Julian lived on the corner of 14th and Oak. A few years later Dr. Julian had the temerity to move to Oak Park itself, and of course his house got bombed in true Chicago style.
Now here’s where fate gets tricky. During the Second World War the common thread of thought was that Black men weren’t courageous enough to go into serious battle with the “enemy.” So all the Black soldiers from Maywood were sent out as orderlies, cooks and other non-combat duties. A battalion of soldiers containing all the White enlistees from Maywood was sent to the Pacific where they were wiped out by Japanese forces in the battle of Bataan. There was a Hollywood movie, starring John Wayne, made years later by that name. All the Black soldiers came back from the war and the town turned BLACK within that generation.
When we started school in Maywood, during the first week we had to fight our way back to our grandparents’ house every day after school, until the neighborhood kids got to know we were “Mr. Derrick’s grandkids.” Then we began to make friends that lasted for a lifetime. And we had lots of cousins from my mother’s side of the family. We all went through grade school together and high school as well. Most of our parents also had attended the same school before us.
KIRPAL GORDON: Would you take a chorus on your family’s “pilgrimages” to North Carolina?
WARREN SMITH: Yes, but first here's the background: My mother had an older sister and a younger brother; my father had ten siblings. I never saw them all, but the ones present in my life were very influential. All my role models were organically related to me. I grew up with my younger brother and more than a dozen first, second or third cousins. They were all like brothers and sisters. We lived together, often ate together, slept together and frequently traveled together from Chicago to North Carolina to visit the Smith family homestead. I guess that was James Madison Smiths’ 40 Acres, and there was a mule involved also. In North Carolina we also raised pigs and grew peanuts. We could walk down the red dirt road in the morning and pick wild berries and fruit from the trees and bushes for our breakfast. Sometimes my brother, my cousin Ethan and I would bring back enough blue berries for our aunts to make a couple of pies. We’d go fishing and cook outside in a big kettle over an open fire. Both sides of the family preserved canned fruit and vegetables for the winter. We made wine from fruit or even dandelion flowers! We cooked the dandelion leaves as greens or used them in salads. Very little was wasted in those days.
The trips to North Carolina took several days. We would leave Chicago with enough food to last us until we got to Washington D.C. In the 1930s and 40s we didn’t know where we might or might not get served or abused so we drove straight through to where we knew it was safe. In D.C. we had relatives. We’d spend the night, re-supply our food bank and drive the last five or six hours to the homestead. After a week or two we would all pile back into the two or three car caravan and travel back to Chicago the same way. We did this annually until our grandmother died at 103. Now we occasionally return for periodic reunions or meet at some other hosting location every few years. Somehow the tradition is still intact.
KIRPAL GORDON: You were born into quite a musical family. What was that like?
WARREN SMITH: My dad played saxophone and clarinet; my mother played piano and harp. Literally every one of our aunts and uncles were musicians and were always preparing to perform somewhere. Often even as infants we went along with them, to drop them off or pick them up and sometimes even allowed to come inside and see what was going on. This was live theater with full orchestras, dancers, singers and stage lighting. You can’t imagine how early this captured my imagination. I had decided to be a professional musician by the time I was three!
One of the most exciting times was when one of the bands was getting ready to go on the road. Maybe they had a three-week engagement in Detroit or six weeks in Buffalo. The morning of their departure, women would be cooking and preparing bags of food. There would be three or four cars lined up at the curb, all being cleaned and simonized, the white walled tires painted with white wash, a water-based paint. Then the musicians would appear, each one dressed stylishly and sharper than the last. Finally, after all the loved ones got their hugs and kisses and the food bags were distributed in all the cars, the motors would start up and they’d be off to cheers from the crowd. Boy, how the young kids longed to go with them. We couldn’t wait for them to come home and tell all the funny stories and strange adventures they had experienced.
Every once in a while, one of our special talents would get the opportunity to go to New York City, Harlem. Almost all the aspiring musicians from Chicago wanted to follow the footsteps of their musical idols to the Big Apple. As Black kids our idols were entertainers, the few professional athletes who managed to break through like Jack Johnson Joe Lewis or “Sugar Ray” Robinson, and the doctors, lawyers, and educators from our neighborhoods. Our families probably had a lot more power and influence over their lives than we do now. We certainly didn’t have as much then, but it wasn’t necessary either.
I started trying to play my Dad’s saxophone at around four. In a couple of years I could play what I could think of (not much) by ear. Being precocious, actually arrogant, I thought I knew more than I actually did. I began to tinker around with the piano, by ear. My mother and no fewer than three aunts had degrees in piano and organ, but I never thought to consult them at all. I just did it by ear and my folks were wise enough to let me find my own way. Then one day at about six I went into a ballroom called the “Rum Boogie” with my mother and brother to pick up my dad from his gig. The ballroom was on the second floor. When we entered, I immediately saw in the corner of the stage a scene that changed my life. There was the drummer and he had a set of flashing lights inside his bass drum! I immediately decided to become a drummer right then.
Times were quite different then. I remember that there was a place called “Bacon’s Casino” on Wabash Avenue. It was a Quonset hut structure, that is, a long tent with a curved roof and flat sides. On many Sundays they would have jam sessions at this place in the afternoons after church and the kids could come and hear the music. Naturally the Smith clan was usually in full attendance. We heard all the cats that were in town at the time or passing through. Roy Eldridge or Coleman Hawkins or whoever, they would make that session on Sundays and we would be there listening.
My first gigs as a drummer were at the Elks social club, with my father. Actually, my very first gig also included a young baritone player named Laurdine Patrick. Everyone called him Pat. He went on to play many years with Sun Ra, touring and traveling across the world. Pat was also on the faculty of SUNY Old Westbury for many years. His son Deval Patrick is the former governor of Massachusetts. I continued drumming during my teen years and playing in the marching and concert bands in high hchool. After my freshman year I stopped taking weekly lessons from my most significant teacher, Oliver S. Coleman, because of the commute to Maywood, an expanding social life, athletics (I started running distances around 8th grade) and just being a teenager; I grew away from music for probably the only time in my life. I still played in the school bands and did gigs with my father and cousins, but I stopped taking lessons. I also developed a greater interest in architecture, through my friend Joe Black, one of my high school teachers at Proviso, and my dad making me aware of Frank Lloyd Wright and the Bauhaus gang with their glass and steel buildings in Chicago. One of the things that kept me connected with music was the opportunity to perform with Capt. Walter Henry Dyett and his summer concert band. in Washington Park. I would go to DuSable High School every year to see the legendary “High Jinks” show the students put on with live music. My older cousin Eddie played in the sax section with Johnny Griffin, who was also a student of my father.
I mustn’t forget to mention the constant reinforcement I received within my social environment. When we had a social occasion, there was never a question about who would entertain us. We provided our own music for all occasions almost spontaneously. My maternal grandmother’s genesis came about as the result of my African great-grandmother, Nora Sellers, being raped by a white Doctor of Music, Dr. Foxx, who fathered a famous baseball player, Jimmy Foxx. However this worked, my grandmother had 11 children. All of them were thoroughly educated in music. And this musical tradition has continued through another three generations and counting.
KIRPAL GORDON: You were exposed to European classical music as well?
WARREN SMITH: From my family and my studies in school. I managed to get into the District 89 School Band, the only black musician in the band at that time. As a result of this experience, I was immediately accepted into the Proviso Township High School Concert Band. It proved a quantum leap in my exposure as the director, J. Irving Talmadge, was a big fan of Richard Wagner. So I leaned about everything from the “Ring of the Nebilungen” to “Taunhauser Overture.”
I spent four years in the high school marching band (which I abhorred except for the football games). Then at the University of Illinois I spent another four (out of five) years marching with the ”Marching Illini.” The pattern was interrupted in my fourth year when composer Harry Partch did a year’s residency. I quit the band to play tympani in the university’s symphony orchestra. All my extra non-class time was spent in Harry Partch’s ensemble. The previous summer I had received a scholarship to Tanglewood, the summer camp of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. I studied with retiring Roman Shultz and the incoming tympanist, Everitt “Vic” Firth, as well as Harold Faberman, on snare drum techniques.
It was on my summer in Tanglewood that I realized how strong my cultural attachment was to my upbringing in Chicago’s South Side. I borrowed the car of my friend and fellow Illini, Harold Jones, to go into Pittsfield and get a haircut. As I drove, I turned on the radio of the car, and the first thing that came out was the blues! I, in my early arrogance, had lost respect for the form because I had not yet been exposed to its more intricate forms and variations. But the power and familiarity of what I heard changed my opinion of the form forever. I got so homesick I never forgot it. And the next time I got back to Chicago I started hanging out at all the old blues clubs and learning a lot more.
It’s been that way for me ever since.
Saturday, June 27, 2020
EMILY RIVERA: Round Earth, Open Sky was published in 2011. It got great reviews. Why make a second edition nine years later?
KIRPAL GORDON: Flaws kept me up at night. The story needed to get leaner and cleaner. I sped up the third (final) part to help readers feel as if they, like Sky Man, are falling from space, and instead of dying, entering their bodies as if for the first time. I lost two characters but gained for the reader a fuller appreciation of Maurice Plante. By unburying him, the story got more intriguing yet more coherent. Who knew?
But to put your question about time in context, writing REOS stretches way back. It was conceived by accident in 1970 when I read this Ojibwe saying in Technicians of the Sacred: “Sometimes I go about in pity for myself, and all the while a great wind carries me across the sky.” Humility in the face of spirited winds makes sense to me, and the great outdoors has often felt more civilizing than civilization, especially when I lived in Arizona, ‘74-’79, where the first part takes place. Over a campfire on Manitoulin Island one summer night in ’86 I shared my Sonoran Desert adventures with a friend from Detroit. The next day we handed each other short scene descriptions with the invitation to take it further. I collected the scraps; a couple of years later I started to fill in the gaps.
In the first draft, in order to create a sense of time and timelessness interwoven, I alternated chapters from the first and third part. But fragmenting the time line wouldn’t cut it. My dilemma was that the healing method Sky Man practices in the first chapter is something he only learns in the last chapter. I needed to start as close to the end as possible. Since Sky Man is the only character who can collapse past, present and future, I had to trust him to show the human characters that time is an illusion.
In telling a paranormal story about a luftmensch from another dimension, suspending readers’ disbelief is crucial. Hence, every event had to be timely-twisty-switcheroo-ey just like in a murder plot, resolving one problem but creating another. Getting the narrative to unfold smoothly bought Sky Man’s confidence game a little more credibility, you might say.
EMILY RIVERA: Although throughout this journey it was a supernatural experience, it does seem very natural. While reading the book I got a Jack Kerouac On The Road feeling due to taking us on this adventure to find the truth while interacting with different characters. Do you have any comments on that?
KIRPAL GORDON: Both are buddy road novels of real people, places and vision quests, but REOS cannot live up to the comparison. On the Road has mythic dimensions. It foretells the back-to-nature rucksack revolution, hitch-hiking Dionysian counterculture and psychedelic Aquarian conspiracy. Kerouac’s Mahayana Buddhism marrying his Roman Catholic St. Therese devotion proved a way out of post-war mutual(ly) assured destruction.
The book reads like an injection. Everything is alive. Like Walt Whitman’s “Song of the Open Road,” the sense of discovery pervades, of containing multitudes, of reinventing America’s experiment with freedom, of reclaiming a larger identity with what Kerouac called the Indio world. And with the world of jazz. Those long rolling sentences curl and swoop, wiggle and writhe like Charlie Parker’s acrobatic alto saxophone solos. Robert Lowell referred to the 1950s as “tranquilized,” but Sal and Dean are popping amphetamines and smoking the chronic, driving into dawn, searching for father/farther-further, seeking Be-at-it-ude, forsaking the “air-conditioned nightmare” of Western civilization and embracing the code of the outsider/bodhisattva.
The fraternal tension between writer Sal and trickster Dean, as well as their sizing up each other, is revealed most effectively by their interactions with the other characters. I hope Moses and Sky Man are doing likewise. Their relationship keeps changing at every stop they make on their road adventure. Like Dean with Sal, otherworldly trickster Sky Man offers photographer Moses another way not only to see things but to participate with the world around him, to embody a larger consciousness.
EMILY RIVERA: Personally, the book reminded me of being in your class and writing on my identity formation. As Alan Watts framed it in The Book: On the Taboo against Knowing Who You Are, “We need a new experience, a new feeling of what it is to be I. Just as sight is more than all things seen, the foundation or ground of our existence and our awareness cannot be understood in terms of things that are known.”
What kind of identity were you trying to build for your characters in REOS?
KIRPAL GORDON: An identity that accepts, per your Watts’ quote, it can never be fully known. Like your essay, “I Dare You,” https://giantstepspress.blogspot.com/2018/10/i-dare-you-reflections-on-identity-by.html, Sky Man celebrates himself as non-binary, always changing and therefore nothing to get hung about. Whoever he comes in contact with alters him, yet he treats each change in his identity as merely the next “alias disguise” he must wear in order to get to the appointed place at the appointed hour.
EMILY RIVERA: So is he a hero or hustler, a villain or victor, an immortal tricked by human sorcery or the immortal trickster himself incarnate?
But in framing the question into either/or form, am I missing the bigger picture? That is, are you suggesting the entity called Sky Man can be embodied in many forms or are you leaving these decisions about his identity up to the reader?
KIRPAL GORDON: Readers must solve for themselves the question of Sky Man’s multiple identities by cohering all of his parts. So instead of who-done-it driving the plot, who-is-it drives REOS.
EMILY RIVERA: There are multiple themes of love and connection between Sky Man and Moses, among his other interactions with women, but also between Moses and his women. On the ferry Marie Twiceborn tells Rainie that strange things happen on the Isle of Oanay: “Some say that forgotten impulses, held down by regret and denial, appear at the unlikeliest of places. For example, one’s desire is made flesh. To long for a certain lover is to see him walking toward you out of the woods, calling your name out sweet and low.” What is the significance of these parallel characteristics or recurring theme of love?
KIRPAL GORDON: Every character in the story gets a first, second or third chance at love. It’s the medicine Sky Man brings and why he’s bound for the Isle of Oanay. Although he’s new to the ways of humans, he’s no fool. Whoever women proclaim him to be, he’s willing to be: tube-suck doctor, Hey-sus Christay lovemaker, Navaho love counselor, Rebbe Yeshuwa, Dionysus Lysios, time-traveling shaman, necromancer, schlubby Maurice Plante, mad medicine man Red Plante, Ojibwe manitou Nanabozho. Each name and subsequent story bring him closer to his home. They show him that love is his mission and his destiny.
As for Moses, for whom love is a catastrophe in the making, for the first time in his life he gets lucky at every port in the storm, thanks to a mind-reading Sky Man who speaks the sexy love thoughts that Moses and his women are only thinking. Consequently, Moses and Sky Man develop a strong but conflicted connection in the first part and a growing understanding in the second part, but it’s not until the third part that you realize Moses and his photography quest have been driving the action the whole time. Borealis Cove has been his destination all along. Contrary to all the alleged evidence, Sky Man is just along for the ride.
EMILY RIVERA: What are you hoping for the reader to learn from this book? What’s the purpose? Regarding Moses’s motives for making art you write: “Casting doubt had been Moses’ style as a photographer—to search underneath appearances, to stir a little gray into the black-and-white world.” Do you want to bewitch, bother and bewilder readers in order to have the last laugh or are you helping us access a deeper vibrational intimacy with what we can’t see but sense is out there?
KIRPAL GORDON: It’s a good question. I admit that having a telepathic space man trying to make sense of the world he’s visiting really helped me cast doubt on earthling ways and reveal our limited thinking. As for the book’s possible purpose, I don’t know.
Friends who saw early versions said that after reading the manuscript they dreamed vividly; I took this as a propitious sign. Readers of later versions liked the way landscape, plot and dialogue dovetailed; they called it a page turner. In later versions readers said they got into playing detective, figuring out the characters’ motives. Readers of this new version remarked on how much clearer is the narrative flow, how its smooth lake-like surface keeps every possible ending up for interpretation.
Another way of saying this is that the story has always been a crossword puzzle/ rubric cube. I’ve had to keep writing it until all the pieces fell into place.
EMILY RIVERA: The print and e-book versions are for sale at the Writer page at www.KirpalG.com. Here are a few reviews for the first edition of Round Earth, Open Sky:
Amazing book, start to finish! The work draws its compassionate hybrid vision from American Indian, Buddhist, and Judeo/Christian mysticisms as well as its celebration of compassion and open-heartedness, elements of the author’s own aesthetic lineage and varied personal experience. But it’s the meta-elements of the work that are so profound, the great truths wrapped within magic characters in picaresque multiverse landscapes from the Arizona deserts to the lakes of Michigan wilds, and centered around the psychic trans-spiritual figure of Sky Man from whom we regain an eternal delight in the power of language we widely inhabit, which is also our world. By far, the best novel I’ve read of my generation; Gordon has created a work of holy parables.
Naked, animal-like, a curious alien being slips out from the US-Mexican desert landscape to mingle on the margins of civilization, a sky-man inhabiting the body of an unidentified dead son. Like a new born unraveling the needs of its new form, his journey is both disorienting & very entertaining. He pieces together the meanings of our world & his own purpose for time spent among us, helped by his host-body’s lingering memories & those of a wild range of encountered characters. Shifting details of 21st C. life are everywhere evident. We get intimate access to a cosmic awakening. Round Earth, Open Sky is a remarkably inventive novel. The fusion of sci-fi & mystery together with indigenous elements make for an exciting first-class ride, flawlessly executed. Gordon’s writing here seems the perfect salve for a US that has lost what little humanity it once pretended to have.
A masterpiece of creative invention. Sky Man and Moses Abitol are an odd couple, to be sure. But Abitol, a New York freelance photographer (a visual person, a wanderer), is Gordon’s particular stroke of genius, by mating him with Sky Man, this mysterious, magical character, who drops out the sky, whose mission is to “mend the tear in the world” and return to his cosmic home. It’s a journey of enlightenment, where earthly values are often skewed when pitted against a competing universe of existing myths and legends and cultures, and other pathways not easily explainable, but ever present in the universe’s consciousness. A joy to read because of its brilliant imagery, brilliant language, the strength of its characters, its storytelling; and the ride: wild and wooly; and fearlessly imagined to depths rarely seen, or, for that matter, so effectively engaged.
A must read. Kirpal Gordon has written a tour de force that takes you on a journey from the magical realm of New Mexico to Detroit and Canada. From the first page you are taken in by the mysticism and magic of Sky Man and by the end of the book you believe in his powers. Everyone who reads this masterpiece will be able to identify with at least one of the characters and relate to the experiences they have as they are enumerated upon in this truly engrossing book. Gordon’s imagination is unsurpassed and his ability to draw the reader in with a mix of humor, mysticism, reality and tenderness is amazing. The book is poetry in a narrative form. It is as if Elmore Leonard has met Carlos Castaneda and as Gordon takes you on the road trip of your life you will not be able to stop until you reach the end. I know I couldn’t. As soon as I finished the book, I wanted him to write a sequel so that I could renter his magical world.
—David A. Safran
Round Earth, Open Sky is altogether a marvelous read, constantly forcing me as reader to re-adjust my grasp of its multiple narratives, to reexamine the nature of identity itself, and to confront the mystery of “mending the tear in the world.” The finale alternately had me jumping up and down regarding Kirpal’s moving the characters in among the manitous of my own region and wondering at the beauty of its Jungian & Freudian overtones, its mythos of buried folklore, its wisdom filtering from many spiritual traditions
In Round Earth, Open Sky, Kirpal Gordon presents an alternative mind cosmology, countering the prevalent materialism/cultural hegemony with a shamanic telepathy that employs an inventive picture theory language ESP. This is depicted through Sky Man’s visitation in southwestern USA in an entertaining, incisive prose narration. A must read for anthropologists, poets, lovers of fiction and readers seeking a peek behind the cosmic mirror.
Combine one part Homer’s Odyssey with one part Kerouac’s On the Road and multiple parts of the unfettered imagination of a virtuoso writer and what you have is Kirpal Gordon’s Round Earth, Open Sky. An epic tale of cosmic adventure, funhouse surprise and spiritual exploration. Gordon wields his pen like a great Jazz trumpeter with the funky abandon of Lee Morgan, the sardonic wit of Lester Bowie, the razor-sharp articulation of Clifford Brown and the cool mysterioso of Miles Davis. Climb aboard this rollicking express train to uncharted vistas and hang on tight!
Kirpal Gordon has written a strangely unique yet captivating tale which takes the reader upon the mother of all road trips. Round Earth Open Sky is a high-spirited romp along the landscape of Americana up into the Canadian wilderness with two of the most oddball personalities, Sky Man, an alien life form living in the body of a resurrected dead human, and Moses, a hard-edged New York photographer who wrongly thought he’d seen everything! Gordon's latest novel is a gripping sci-fi mystery chock full of interesting characters and intriguing plot twists. REOS held my interest right up until the very last chapter where Sky Man’s earthly journey ends with the discovery of the portal that finally leads him home. You won’t want to put it down!
Gordon slings each word of his story as he sings his poems, provoking your interest to the point of frenzy as he takes you in all directions on all levels sometimes simultaneously. Who is Sky Man and why is his chosen guide out of the desert a Jewish man named Moses? Fall into the fantasy-based reality or is it reality-based fantasy?
Together with Stephen-Paul Martin, Eric Basso, Greg Boyd and Tom Whalen, Kirpal Gordon is one of the best American storytellers of the last 20 years. Round Earth, Open Sky is a fun, mystical road trip from the Land of the Hopi to Manitoulin Island. Hip readers should snatch up REOS and Go Ride the Music, and then explore his whole catalog.
A mystical healer falls from the sky, inhabits the body of a newly dead Native American and begins a journey to find his way back home. He soon pairs up with “Moses,” a skeptical, yet intrigued photojournalistic philosopher, running from his past, trying to save the future and hoping for a Pulitzer Prize photo op. Initially, the Sky Man (as he is soon dubbed) does not do well with language, which renders some interesting nicknames for people he meets. In a series of missions, each with a clue/vision/tool to the next one in line, he must prove himself to be who he is to the multiplying skeptics. As adept as any Kwai Chang Caine, Sky Man conquers all obstacles affronting him, be they to harm, educate or seduce. Talismans, totems and spirit guides are offered, shared and experienced along the roads of a countryside still beautiful, as we are shown it through the eyes of respect and adoration. Given the abundance of Native American characters within the pages, there is a hefty dose of metaphysical—natural teachings, lingo and rituals, which I personally devoured, dictionary and internet at hand. The injection of humor eases the intensity of content, blunders and missteps allow a humanistic perspective when broaching an almost peyote-infused ride into desert, mountains and prairies. Round Earth, Open Sky is fast-paced and covers multiple genres and fulfills in each. Witty, deep, violent & sensual. In final scene intensity, words before you, you still cannot blink, lest you miss that transformation, that flash of light, that perfect shot that finishes his journey. Loose ends tie up into a nice dreamcatcher to hang over you as tidbits flit into your slumber.
—Cheryl A. Townsend
A fascinating portrayal of connectedness—textured characters involved in their own AND interrelated paths. Spiritual and physical worlds interwoven through poetic language.
—Janet A. Bellusci
Reading the novel, it struck me that one of those Chinese balls meticulously carved from a solid piece of ivory, rendering moveable layered spheres, where each sphere turns and each can be perceived simultaneously works well as being emblematic of the landscape. At a glance, one can see the sky, the earth with its multiple layers and patina--the now of it; digs, rituals, and dances--all existing, synchronized and grasped concurrently. I appreciated Gordon’s layering and gradation of seams with cinematic Godardian jump cuts creating strong transitional movement from one character/scene to another. Also liked the loop of how early on landscape is used as character and anchor and similarly presented and utilized at the end. An arc that mirrored Sky Man’s path. I was on the journey and sometimes found myself in Moses’s skin, sharing his body movements and thoughts. I was behind the wheel on HW 40, making the turns in Oak Creek Canyon. In other places images of the Hohokam, Hopi, and Orabi smashed against my windshield. I found Sky Man’s humor and manner of speaking entertaining. He is also a more accessible and rounded character than Don Juan Matus. Moses made a film. I gather that was something shot on 16mm. With the mentioning of light readings and using the small / tiny Leica it seemed he probably shot with 4 X 5s or and 8 X 10 cameras--which would follow if he was focusing on landscapes. Interesting, too, his occupation captures what has passed. I was pleased with the way Gordon pulled me in. Well done.
It seems like Gordon is putting us in a magical world well grounded in reality where we root around and make surprising connections. But in the end, we realize he is having so much fun with us that we have to laugh with him at ourselves. Round Earth, Open Sky is thoroughly amusing and very, very smart.
If you told me that a book could contain a road trip across North America, time travel, mind reading, bodily possession, and not be a corny mess but, rather, a deeply moving and poetic piece, I would have called you a liar. Until now, of course. Kirpal Gordon's Round Earth, Open Sky is a genius piece of prose that reads more like beat poetry for the next goyim generation. I enjoyed every page I traveled with Sky-Man and his road-bromance partner, Moses Dude. I tore through this book in 2 days, the kind of book I never would have thought I'd like. I love it more than words can say.
If you think that all supernatural fiction has to do with zombies, vampires and blood sucking corpses, then you might want to take a look at Round Earth Open Sky by Kirpal Gordon. The work is outstanding in its prose and very believable in its plot. This is the sort of supernatural tale that just may be happening all around us all the time but if you’re not the subject, then you might never notice what’s going on. Someone from the ‘other side’ gets sucked into this existence and then must work their way back through the portal, once they find out how to locate that portal, but you’ll have to read it to make your personal assessment of just how that is. It’s not poetry but it reads that way and it’s just as much a joy to re-read it, as you’d swear that things weren’t there the first time have somehow popped into the text. The ideas that you had about the characters change just as quickly as if they are all chameleons. This is a powerful read.
I just finished reading Round Earth, Open Sky out loud with my wife. It was great fun, an outlandish, cheeky story, sprouting new connections and changes through to the very end. We enjoyed doing the voices including Sky Man's pidgin. This should surely be made into a movie. It's a mystery/science fiction/transcendental adventure that is genuinely innovative as well as beautiful and entertaining.
The writing is compelling, rich with eroticism and suspense. The plot with its twists and turns is impossible to summarize because it is as much a journey of the reader’s mind as it is a physical journey of an unforgettable character and his photographer friend in search of identity and meaning is a world that has shaken off its boundaries and brought us to the “point of intersection of the timeless with time.” It is a book which will certainly attract readers who are on their own spiritual journey and who suspect that “there is another world, and it’s in this one.”
—Dr. Michael Hogan
Saturday, June 20, 2020
EMILY RIVERA: In the Preface to Lyrical Miracle: Homage to the Great American Songbook you write, “Since the world’s music library is just a click away, why not play the song while reading the prose poem?”
I did as you suggest; I called up the music from YouTube and listened to the song while I read your prose poems aloud. Wow! The pairing of your words in time and tempo to the musical selection really became an interactive experience. Your prose poem made the song more meaningful, and the song provided another context for your prose poem.
It also re-kindled my love of jazz, as a bandmate (flutist), choir member and listener. How did you come up with this idea? Do you personally see it as an interactive experience?
KIRPAL GORDON: That’s my hope. Reading the prose poems aloud or silently to the song, one discovers the sentence’s line and the musical line end on the same beat, and the paragraph breaks signal a new chorus or a change in the form. So by shifting foreground (listening to music) and background (reading the prose poem), Gestalt-like discoveries are possible.
I didn’t come up with the idea, but I came of age in 1960s New York when an experimental multi-media synesthesia aesthetic was practiced. Concerts had light shows and dance space, visual art and words combined on the canvas and in sculpture, music and spoken word wedded on the bandstand. I liked what Jack Kerouac did, but Amiri Baraka with his NewArk band took it further. So did a number of Big Apple musicians I got to know and work with over the years. They showed me that making music and poetry together can be a love supreme.
Lyrical Miracle is the result of those collaborations.
EMILY RIVERA: It’s really intriguing to know the roots and processes of the project’s formation. Your poem “A Word's Worth” was my favorite due to the combination of repetition and improvisation. I could hear James Brown’s tune as I read these lines:
I feel good like absinthe curing in wormwood, like troubadour-ing in knighthood, like Steely Dan’s Josie alluring the pride of the neighborhood—so good like Djuna Barnes losing her moorings in Nightwood, I got you.
I feel nice like can you live with the throw of the dice if it’s three blind mice, like Eldridge Cleaver breaking out in Soul on Ice, like if the world is the body of Christ, let love suffice, so nice like paradise, I got you.
When I hold you in my arms, I quaff the wild balm of your love charms & when love hurts I know what curse words do the most harm:
What’s bum but a sound the mouth casts out, spoken without need of teeth or tongue. Spit it out: stumblebum, a hole in a human face only a bottle of rum can reach.
What’s homeless victim but a double trochee’s play-it-as-it-lays phrase to separate them that got from them that not while keeping those expanding catastrophes at bay.
What’s rat but pink feet & antennae nose sniffin’ through plumbin’, comin’ up outta your throne. Rat: a fink, or raton: what’s left when a species starts to eat its own.
What’s a word’s worth, William, in a world of sound bite, oath & curse, why in silence we can only bow for there’s nothing left to say now among those stung with no tongue.
KIRPAL GORDON: “I Feel Good” is one of my favorite songs, but by riffing on words like bum and homeless, I wondered about a word’s worth in a world afraid to feel other people’s pain. Again, it’s the yin/yang pairing of the tune’s robust vibe with the prose poem’s woeful blues that sets up the possibilities.
EMILY RIVERA: On a more personal note, the dedication page of Lyrical Miracle you write, “In loving memory to my parents, George & Gertrude Gordon.” By connecting with your folks, were you trying to recreate a feeling/memory?
KIRPAL GORDON: My parents connected me to this collection of American folk songs, one hit wonders, Broadway show tunes, Tin Pan Alley ditties, ethnic favorites and love ballads from the first four decades of the twentieth century. I learned what happened before rock ‘n’ roll dominated the radio waves. I remember quite fondly how on rainy Saturday afternoons my mom would play on the piano some of their favorite songs while my dad sang the lyrics: “Alexander’s Ragtime Band,” “Toot Toot Tootsie,” “Sentimental Journey,” “Night and Day,” “Pennies from Heaven,” and their courtship song, “Melancholy Baby.”
They showed me what love looked and sounded and felt like. Their blend of voice and piano taught me the secret of collaboration: the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Though one could say that much of the Great American Songbook has been driven by salesmen in suits to please a particular generation of youngsters, I learned that a well-made song has a timeless quality to it as well.
To my ears, the music of Ellington, Basie, Gershwin, Mingus, Miles, Monk, Pres, Billie, Bird, Pops and Ella—the whole shebang—lives in the everlasting present along with those who’ve furthered their investigations. The deeper I dig, the more I find that the best thing that ever happened to the Great American Songbook has been its re-interpretation by generations of musicians. The irony of the Black Lives Matter is that African American music is in our nation’s cultural DNA. It’s an integral part of who we are and our greatest export. So I’m celebrating the songs, their composers-lyricists and their interpreters as our boldest ambassadors on the road to freedom, a lyrical miracle forging individual genius in collective improvisation.
EMILY RIVERA: Your remarks on our shared musical tradition echo what Cincinnati poet Ralph La Charity wrote of your new book, “The gates that open into the Great American Songbook are never not discreet, never not unique. They are floodgates, forsooth, but whoever tackles that mega-frisk adequately? The particulars comprise so many multi-dimensional resonances, at every turn, that it never was wholly comforting so much as eerily uncompromising, which is the promise of Lyrical Miracle, a book that includes more of America than what its troubled and abundant shores alone bequeath. The Poet begs that whole Further. Along for the ride this Poet limns, we of the readerly cubicle, ears cocked, exult in the Poet’s expansive inclusivity: this book is itself a Songbook that contains multitudes – Rejoice, o!”
His reference to our historical struggles toward inclusivity has the ring of Walt Whitman’s work. In your preface you beautifully take us through your love for jazz, which we can see through your expression of recreating these memories, and that feeling of freedom through a Walt Whitman quote. You carry this throughout the entirety of the book at each new section. What is Whitman’s significance to you and the story?
KIRPAL GORDON: As our political life becomes more distorted through us-them division, reading Whitman, our first national poet, has helped me keep my eyes on the prize. Despite these hooligans holding democracy hostage, we are nevertheless bending toward a more Democratic Vista and a more perfect union. Certainly, our musical tradition is hybrid vigor at work. It’s the true meaning of an e pluribus unum, that is, out of many, one.
Reading Whitman’s “I Sing the Body Electric” in fourth grade was the medicine that helped me deal with Catholic school. I find that I always return to Leaves of Grass. After I had a band and we made a CD, I accidentally played “Take Five” while reading Walt’s “Song of the Open Road.” Paul Desmond’s alto sax choruses fit exactly into sections 1, 9 and 17. I called the band up and said, “Let’s do a Walt Whitman show.” We created “Whitman Meets the Great American Songbook” gigs. We did a few performances at Hofstra University as well. Here is a review of one of those shows:
EMILY RIVERA: I am a yoga practitioner and a poet. I couldn’t fail to miss how much the book is a kind of yoga-through-poetry. Did you intentionally tie this into the book? For example, in “You Make Me Feel So Young,” a tune Frank Sinatra made famous, you flip the lyrics into a celebration of yogic wholeness: “You make me feel so Jung, so psychically spun, re-done, atoned & at one. Just when I dream it’s the end again you steal around the bend with that No panic, the deck chair’s organic, blowing a Titanic glockenspiel, amen, singing what a deal it is to be a spinning wheel-in-sentience…”
The yoga reference is even more direct in “Create Me, Baby, Shout” set to “Song of India”:
The bird is in the field as the field is in the bird, lover. Sanskrit grammar won’t have it one way over the other. Yes, no, both & neither: every spoken word wheels true, but moons only rise in skies & glow because the wise lyric it so.
Sound manifests the world our maws mutter, shudder & spout at. A single inflection’s fall separates a seeker from a sunset. Stressed or blessed, elocution’s slippery diphthong admits our own tongue tips to be Shiva lingam, strike-stroking fissures in our yoni-cave mouths where scores of unborn life forms whisper create me, baby, shout.
In Sanskrit birds fly by wildly, but fields only open with the wail of a word or the wink of an eye. If Maya’s veil conceals to us our own divine at-one, then the other is who we seek to entail, reveal & become.
Guttural, palatal, domal, dental, labial: the sutras of Sanskrit elucidate the exact parts tongue & lips play in the art of love—& so exactly the whole of love—yearning to sing & get sung over & over & over again.
Om purnama dahapurnam edam, purnat purnam udachatay, purnasya purnama dhyam, purnat ava vasishatay: This is full & every emanation full for whatever is produced by the full is itself full, so says the bard of the Iso Upanishad.
KIRPAL GORDON: I studied Sanskrit for my foreign language requirement at my experimental undergraduate program, which helped me appreciate India’s yoga traditions. And I learned from my laya yoga (union through sound) teacher from Punjab that it’s the combination and permutation of certain seed syllables repeated in rhythmic cycles that produce altered states of mind. I practiced Sufi dancing and came to see that the 99 names of Allah are also passwords or portals into cosmic awareness. Ditto singing the Siri Guru Granth Sahib of the Sikhs, the chants of the Buddhists, the Hindustani and Carnatic musical trads.
William Blake, among other Romantic poets, and John Coltrane, among other jazz musicians, sought to produce the same effect on a reader or listener. So, if you define yoga as erasing the separation between self and other, subject and object, perceiver and perceived, lover and beloved, then yes: that’s the lyrical miracle that Lyrical Miracle is lyrically miracle-ing.
EMILY RIVERA: How does the cover connect to the overall experience of the book?
KIRPAL GORDON: I love viewing falling water and listening to its sound since I was a little kid drinking from the fountain in the park. As an adult I have built a few meditation gardens with water features. To me, nothing expresses the theme of Lyrical Miracle better than its cover. Like each vowel sound “freed” from its consonant cluster when sung or spoken aloud, each drop of the waterfall “grows” wings on its descent into the pool where it splashes its return.
EMILY RIVERA: My favorite quote by Miles Davis is that “sometimes you have to play a long time to be able to play like yourself.” Being a writer for over fifty years, would you consider this book as a representation of your growth? What was your favorite part about going through the journey of writing this book?
KIRPAL GORDON: When I starting writing poetry in my teens, I was enamored with the possibilities of free verse. It felt so liberating; I could write on anything for any length and not let formal concerns constrain me. Many of the poems kept getting bigger and some became narratives or monologues in my early books of fiction. When I returned to spoken word poetry, I was glad to have a parameter, even if it were just the number of syllables or rhymes that I could fit into a song’s 32 bars.
So, yes, regarding the Miles’ quote, I had to switch genres, absorb a ton of influences and find a way to take the words off the page and onto the stage with first-call musicians helping me find new meaning in jazz standards. Rather than blow endlessly over the changes, I found that I could deliver word solos that enriched the bands’ musical solos. Here’s an example:
The Speak-Spake-Spoke Band:
Amanda Monaco, guitar, musical director; Warren Smith, drums: Arthur Kell, bass; Kirpal Gordon, spoken word; Frank Perowsky, clarinet; Carlton Holmes, piano; Claire Daly, baritone sax.
Their solos inspired my solos and vice versa; it’s how the first three sections of the book were born. It comes full circle in the last section, “Tales in Performance,” which are the songs the band plays when I read selections from my fiction books.
Poetry and prose, music and words, poet and band meeting and mating: That’s the real story of this lyrical miracle and I’m sticking to it.
EMILY RIVERA: The print and e-book versions are for sale at the Writer page at www.KirpalG.com. Here’s what critics have said of your performances the Speak-Spake-Spoke band
…His voice is wed to the energy of a singly hearted ensemble.
Having graced our stage many times with his spoken word collaborations, we call Kirpal Gordon our poet laureate at Dizzy's Club Coca-Cola.
Todd Barkin, proprietor, Dizzy's, Jazz at Lincoln Center
If you think the notion of mixing jazz and poetry is hopelessly old-fashioned, let his swinging scansion and vivid imagery relieve you of that perception. Gordon swings.
Steve Smith, Time Out New York