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