A Conversation with Poet Philip Bryant about writing, jazz, and the art of Zen
When he was 13-years-old, Philip S. Bryant, author of Stompin’ at the Grand Terrace: A Jazz Memoir in Verse, told his parents he wanted to be a poet. It would have been understandable if Bryant’s father, James, a city college student who was stuck doing menial labor, had hoped his son’s declaration was a lark. Instead, the progressive, union-label Democrat was proud that the books and records crammed in to the Bryant’s Chicago flat had rubbed off. He encouraged Philip to put his dreams on paper.
Bryant, now 57, earned an English degree from Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, Minnesota, and then a master’s degree in creative writing from New York’s Columbia University. From 1975 to 1989 he taught in and around Chicago. He eventually returned to St. Peter where he is a Professor of English.
In 1998 Bryant published Sermon on a Perfect Spring Day (New Rivers). In one of the collections final poems, readers meet James’ friend Preston, who whiles away the hours bent over the Bryant’s turntable “bullshitting” with Jame about “jazz, jazz, jazz.” In the ensuing year, the memories of those night kept stacking up and found their way onto the pages of the book Stompin’ at the Grand Terrace, a labor of love of memory and understanding.
Earlier this summer, Bryant sat down with David Schimke, editor in chief of Utne Reader, to talk about growing up on the South Side of Chicago and writing jazz poems in Northern Minnesota.
David Schimke: What are the origins of your passion for poetry?
Philip Bryant: I dedicated Stompin’ at the Grand Terrace to my dad. My parents both had working-class backgrounds and were college educated. My mother actually did, in her late 30s and early 40s, finish up her degree at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. My dad was about three credits shy of getting a BA from Roosevelt University [in Chicago]. That was a really cool place. Harold [Washington]—the first black mayor of Chicago—came out of that school. It was an integrated, forward-thinking, progressive school in the 1950s. Both my parents went there and took courses on and off.
My dad was trying to be a writer—and was actually quite good. I don’t know if you want to call him a failed writer or not, but it just didn’t work out for him.
There’s an old joke: Where can you find the largest collection of African American PhDs? In Chicago.
That was true when I was growing up. Some really heavy people ended up working in some odd and out of the way places. My dad was one of them. He was a sanitation worker. It was a very blue-collar, working class existence.
DS: And yet you were surrounded with big ideas and progressive politics.
PB: Oh God, yeah. They were book people, and I was very privileged for that reason. I grew up surrounded by books. My mother read poetry out loud to my sister and me from real early on. I think that’s probably how it got into my ear.
DS: So when did your interest in poetry first manifest itself?
PB: I think it was sixth grade. One of my teachers got sick and had to take an extended medical leave. We had a substitute teacher who was this white guy. He was affable and nice to us. We thought it was a vacation of sorts because our mean black teacher was convalescing at home.
It was Halloween, and Halloween was always one of my important days because you got to dress up, go out after bedtime, and get candy. That was just magical for me. I mean, you were with your parents, but it was really cool to do that.
So the substitute teacher said, “OK, I want you guys to write a poem about Halloween.” So I went home and I wrote this poem and turned it in and didn’t hear anything about it. A couple of weeks later, he was passing these things out and I’d gotten a G, which is equivalent to a B, and I was real happy about that because my grades weren’t so great back then.
He said, “Can I see you after class?” And I said, “Sure.” He says, “Sit down. That’s a pretty good poem.” And I said, “Aw, yeah, I’m glad you like it.” And then he was talking more to me and he says, “You didn’t write that, did you?” And I said, “What? Yeah, yeah, I wrote this.”
I started trying to convince him that I really wrote this poem. It became a sort of standoff. He says, “Well, I’m not gonna flunk you or anything, but I don’t believe you wrote that.”
As I was walking out, I thought it was kind of weird, because I’d done a lot of other things, but cheating wasn’t my métier. But then it hit me. I said, “Damn, this must be pretty good if he thought I copied it out of a book.” That always stuck with me.
DS: Was there ever a moment where you remember thinking to yourself, “I’m going to be a writer”?
PB: I was 13 years old and I enthusiastically told my parents I was going to be a poet.
They were proud. The thing is, there was no community to support that kind of thing on the South Side of Chicago. It would have been better if my father had been a musician, as opposed to a writer, because there was much more of a community to lean on. Either you were in a band or you hung out in the clubs or you got with these guys who were teaching out of their storefronts or their apartments.
There was nothing like that for writing.
DS: What is it about the writing process that calls you?
PB: I can talk a lot. My students will tell you that. Go to RateMyProfessor.com: “He kind of goes off on tangents a lot.”
When I write and when it’s going good, I can think clearly and sort things out. That’s what I’m aiming for: clarity. And maybe truth, I don’t know. But clarity for sure . .
DS: Emotional clarity?
PB: Yeah. It’s intellectual, too. I decided early on that there were writers better equipped to tackle race head-on. I’m at the home front, you know. I know I’m making an analogy to war, but yeah, I’ll make it. I’m writing about what’s going on on the home front. In this country, you have African American writers like Richard Wright who are out on the front lines. [Ralph] Ellison was trying to escape that—he didn’t want to be there. Langston Hughes, Gwen Brooks, they were on the front lines. They were writing about this war that had been going on since they brought my ancestors over here.
I wasn’t necessarily going to run away from that; I was just going to take a different tack on it—and it took me a long time to figure out what that was. That’s why I had to get out of Chicago in order to write my first book [Sermon on a Perfect Spring Day]. All the Chicago poems in that book were written in Stearns County, Minnesota, among the Stearns County Germans.
That book [New Rivers, 1998] ties into Stompin’ at the Grand Terrace. The poem “Stella by Starlight” is the first poem where Preston and my dad appear. It’s one of the last poems I wrote for Sermon, and I included it in there and didn’t think anything of it. I thought it was a nice poem.
DS: What was it about that time in your life that opened you up to this stuff?
PB: It was such a transition. I was finally out of Chicago and I could finally think about what that meant to me. I could think about it in ways I never had thought about before.
DS: Was the decision to write about Preston and your father a conscious one?
PB: I don’t think you decide about these things. You’re able and willing. That’s what the muse . . . I’m here at the ready line: What do you want me to do?
I tell students: “Don’t try to direct the work that you’re working on. Let the work direct you. Trust it.” It’s extremely hard. You want that control but you can’t have it because then you’re going to take things in some direction where you shouldn’t really go.
DS: What’s your writing practice?
PB: I write every morning, early in the morning, for as long as I can. I picked that up from meeting [poet] William Stafford back in the ’90s. It was about a year before he died [on August 28, 1993], and Stafford gave this great talk.
He said, “I get up every morning, write out a poem.” And I thought, “Aw, you’re bullshitting.” Then later I saw that somebody asked him in an interview, “Well, how do you do it?” And he said, “Easy. I lower my standards.”
It’s a funny thing, but it’s Zen. He talks about it in one of his prose pieces: accepting the poem that you’re writing and trusting the piece to lead you in the right direction.
DS: Do you have a strong affinity for jazz?
PB: More so now. My dad and I had a lot of conflicts, too, father and son things. That’s why I went very heavily off into ’60s rock when I was a kid. I even passed over Motown. Motown was ubiquitous, but I was really interested.
My dad was into jazz. My mom was more [into blues], but my dad collected the records, so . . . you know how that goes.
DS: A number of the poems in Stompin’ are centered on late-night conversations between your father and his friend Preston. They listen to jazz, drink, and pontificate on the meaning of it all. What period during your childhood was Preston around?
PB: It was late. I took poetic liberties with this.
DS: What was the nature of their relationship?
PB: It was as it is in the book, but Preston was not as folksy as he is in the book. I made him folksier because I had to make a contrast, and I wanted to draw on that.
DS: What does that contrast, or conflict, speak to?
PB: It speaks to folk culture versus what happens to folk culture in a society like this. What happens to folk wisdom. What happens to a subculture that informs the larger culture, yet the larger culture can be hostile to its spirit. That subculture creates its own tradition, its own language, its own grammar, and its own achievement. There’s a gold standard there. What happens to that as time moves on and things change and a new generation comes up and doesn’t really feel that connected to it?
DS: How did you come up with the dialogue?
PB: I would recall something specific, and then get creative.
DS: So in those moments when they’re arguing, giving each other the business, what you wrote captures the spirit of what you were hearing?
PB: Oh, yeah, no doubt about it, because I heard that from my bedroom. Their conversations about jazz were vociferous, engaged, often funny, brilliant and profane.
DS: When you write, are there any connections to the creation of music?
PB: A hundred years ago poetry was at the center of popular culture. People who could read, who were literate, usually knew a poem they could recite by heart. They’d learned it in school, or they read the newspaper and there would be the local poet writing something, and it would move them and they would remember it, and over dinner they would recite it. And people read the Bible and knew it by heart, and that was poetry. So it was much closer. Now that’s been replaced by popular music; that’s where the popular poetry resides now.
DS: Are you uneasy with that?
PB: No. If you go back to Langston Hughes’ “Weary Blues,” that was a call-out poem—this old black guy playing the blues. It’s a perfect poem, and it captures something that was immediately picked up by African Americans who read that poem back then, during the Harlem Renaissance. They understood what that poem was about. And the forward-thinking, progressive white writers also began to feel that there was a connection between the music and American literature.
DS: Is poetry in some ways a performance art, at least for you?
I think it should be. We had [poet] Ed Bok Lee on campus a month ago, and he was just fabulous. He can do straight poetry in terms of how we’ve looked at poetry over the past 50 or 60 years, where a guy gets up and reads his poem and everybody’s quiet. Then he can break out into a hip-hop, spoken-word poetry slam.
DS: Is that how poetry will stay alive?
PB: Oh yeah, I think everything cycles out. It will be revitalized and some interesting things will come out of it. I’m not sure what. I don’t think it’s forced; that’s just how young people are hearing the poems they write. The words are honest and come from an experience.
Click on the links below to listen to sample tracks from Philip S. Bryant's Stompin' at the Grand Terrace:
Stompin’ at the Grand Terrace: A Jazz Memoir in Verse, published in 2009 by Blueroad Press (www.blueroadpress.com), includes the CD A Stompin Suite, featuring the music of Carolyn Wilkins and poems by Philip S. Bryant. Wilkins, a jazz pianist and vocalist, has been an active participant in the Boston music scene for more than 20 years, is an performer, composer, and Professor of Ensembles at Berklee College of Music. The following tracks compliments of Blueroad Press.