SPEAK-SPAKE-SPOKE: AN INTERVIEW WITH KIRPAL GORDON
NORMAN BALL: Let's talk about Speak-Spake-Spoke, your new CD of jazz and poetry, just out from LDP Media, a companion to your Eros in Sanskrit: Lyrics & Meditations, 2007-1977, simultaneously out from Leaping Dog Press. First, it is a sprawling hyper-ambitious work ranging from Sanskrit to Buddha with echoes of Morrison's American Prayer, New Orleans jazz and that sort of wry humor you seem to possess in abundance, an ever-so subtle humor that will be lost I imagine on many ears. The music is at times scrappy, at times languid, always in sort of service to the words without being in subjugation or mere serviceable accompaniment.
KIRPAL GORDON: Yes, the music and lyrics serve each other, just like Ezra Pound said. The musicians in the band really have ears for our concept: spoken lyrics wrapped around an American songbook melody. Of course, our idea of the American songbook includes "Cisco Kid" and "The House of the Rising Sun" right alongside Gershwin, Rahsaan and Trane and two of our own original musical compositions that embrace the blues and acid jazz. As for the subtle humor, Warren Smith on the drum kit is like punctuation marks on the words, creating his own form of humorous commentary. Dave Hofstra is the Rock of Gibraltar on bass, which gives us room to stretch and still swing. Eli Yamin on piano is a finger painter of subtlety and nuance. James Zollar and Art Baron are full of fun on trumpet and trombone. For sheer joy and exuberance, check out Claire Daly on bari sax trading lines with Zollar on "Evil Ways." Or how out Tim Price gets on "Tree, Mend Us." They contextualize the lyrics, quoting from other tunes and building a delightful integrity of words and musical notes.
NB: At other times, the language descends from Ararat with compartments of meaning, sound becoming language like breath pored into clay.
KG: Homonyms really fit my idea of invocation, how the same sound can mean more than one thing at the same time, how like cubism, we contain multitudes and can hold apparent contradiction in one mind breath. We're the negatively capable love children of Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson, Duke Ellington and Ma Rainey.
NB: I think you are working within that fascinating language-sound crosshair, in and around that particular dialectic, sometimes pre (i.e. native sound), sometime post-linguistic. This makes for a copasetic whole. I am ignorant of Sanskrit and sadly lacking in your Eastern immersion and vantages.
KG: I know your work with Lonnie Glass which has the inherent magic involved in making poetry a lyrical art with music. My model is that most New Orleans of foods: gumbo. It's gotta cook for a bit, and it's gotta blend its flavors, not overpower you with one ingredient. So if you're talking, in particular, about Track 2 with the Sanskrit quote of the Iso Upanishad, the band really took off on our re-working of Tommy Dorsey's arrangement of Rimsky-Korsakov's "Song of India," a tune perennial in those piano books for beginners. Warren nails that tom tom intro, James's trumpet and Art's 'bone get that muted blend from those great swing bands of the Forties and Tim's greasy tenor sax solo gives the track an extra jolt. My word solo is traditional East Indian: I recite the shloka or shabad in Sanskrit and then offer a midrash or interpretive frame in English. It's call and answer, too, like a blues shout or a kirtan, except that the band does the answering. Maybe that helps create that language-sound crosshair you note. This band can play. Listen how they vamp on "Evil Ways," for example, swinging their asses off throughout. They create the container that allows words to "go native" as well as go post-linguistic. What can I say: they are poets on their axes!
NB: It's everywhere on the CD, this playfulness that makes the words less combative (less rhetorical cunning and adept, perhaps more naive) and more reconciled to sound, more willing at times to carry water for sound as opposed to always being the western hand-maiden for meaning. I think of Sanskrit as a sort of 'first language', a pre-reflective utterance or proto-language.
KG: Sanskrit is a kind of proto-lingua with a metaphysical kick. The mother tongue of all Indo-European languages, its script is called Devanagari (language of the gods) and is said to have been evolved by rishis (sages). The oldest record of written "scripture" is in Sanskrit, i.e., the Rig Veda, which is essentially a manual on the invocational and incantatory qualities in human speech. From a Laya Yoga (union through sound current) point of view, the vibration of the word causes it to become manifest. Like the Navaho who chant the dawn into appearance, the rishis call the world into manifestation. In India, however, one might say they are not using language to get "saved" by a good god from an evil devil or a sinful nature but to get beyond all opposites as well as all appearances and manifestations (maya) in order to enter into our original condition. Like the Tao of China and Zen of Japan, India speaks of reality as a primal integrity; advaita, or non-dual, you know, the human not as separate from nature but one with the source and root of our existence. I think of salvation as the saddest hustle in human history, a manipulation of our fear of death by clerics who claim to know what is humanly unknowable, i.e., what happens after we take our last breath. Heaven and hell, what a sad crock! What misery and warfare follows!
NB: How did you come to study Sanskrit?
KG: In 1970 I attended the experimental wing of Fordham University that had just formed at the Lincoln Center campus in Manhattan where Margaret Mead ran the Anthro Department. My mentor, Frank Kenney, a Ph.D. in Patanjali's Yoga Sutras, advised me that learning Sanskrit would not only count as my college foreign language credit (one of the only requirements to graduate) but would be helpful in understanding Indian philosophy, which intrigued me a lot more than Augustine and Aquinas. It was the wildest tutorial I have ever taken. We used the whole city as a classroom. A life of things Indian flowed from that experience: art, history, dance, meditation, philosophy, poetry, tantric and kundalini yoga.
NB: So it is safe to say your eastern fixation flourished long before it became de rigueur?
KG: Maybe it was part and parcel of growing up in the Sixties. It was a different time, less concerned with the "de rigueur du jour" than following one’s own interests and inclinations, no matter how screwball, a post-Coltrane moment in which the world seemed to be moving away from colonialism, racism, slavery, genocidal warfare and restrictive categories of all kinds and seeking an openness and a welcoming of ancient world cultures to speak to our contemporary imbalance. So we elevated experience over belief, sought to internalize authority and become the authors of our own lives, not soldiers obeying theocrats, but dancers uniting the circle unbroken. All the cultures that the West had sought to dominate (India, Africa, China as well as what Kerouac called the Indio world) became re-discovered for their value in moving us toward A Love Supreme. Heady business, though it didn't prepare us for the nasty backlash. People are afraid of being free or acknowledging their inter-connectedness. You've said as much in your own essays, Norm!
NB: Inevitably the genre-hounds will tear their hair out as to whether we have here Lyric, Poetry, Spoken Word, Prose, Word-Music or Magical Incantation. The strength to my ears lies in the synthesis. There are no ready seams serving as clues. I think you succeed here PRECISELY because you defy categories. Again, I am speaking outside my comfort-zone, but I imagine this is a Naropa-inspired (or the essence of Naropa's original Pilgrim Compact) East-meets-West where both worlds are forever altered by the encounter producing a pretty fascinating realm for further reflection.
KG: Tear away! From Day One my work has never fit into the basic poetry or prose question, so I never thought too much about that. I like the list of possible categories you outline. Another way to say it is that the CD is a love song for, and a tribute to, Claire Daly, the musical director, who plays baritone sax and flute on the record. I fell in love with her and her playing a few years ago and haven't been the same since (laughs). Among other things, her old school style gave me new ears with which to appreciate the larger and more subversive opportunities in the American songbook. It was from gigging with her working band that these marriages of poetry and jazz happened. When Jordan Jones heard us on tour during the election season of '04, he insisted that a musical CD accompany the poetry collection that was already in contract. In fact, Jordan's poem on the first track is like a gateway into the CD.
NB: You're sort of a walking time-capsule of the American landscape, KP. How does your time at Naropa University in the midst of that sort of Beat milieu color your work? You've shared with me before some great anecdotes about Corso and Ginsberg? Care to share again?
KG: I found Naropa in ‘78 to be a great inspiration. I had just come out of two and a half years working in a steel mill in the middle of the Sonoran desert and was in a grad writing program at Arizona State that didn’t draw from the New American Poetics and breath-line as anthologized by Don Allen in 1960. Don't get me wrong; I loved getting to go to grad school; I'm still in touch with many of those folks, we had a great community there, but it was a trip to be Allen Ginsberg’s apprentice for a summer. I had been in correspondence with him throughout my undergraduate years and had emulated his approach to the public poetry reading, his attempts to add music, whether harmonium or Don Cherry or just guitars. So to proofread his manuscripts, show him poems, read with him on stage, sit on the tracks at Rocky Flats and do satyagraha, it was quite a sense of connection. It was also a sobering, poignant and all-too-human deal, too, especially with Corso’s jones and Bill Burroughs burying his son, dead from drink. Enlightening to me to see these aging hipsters were not going gently into that good night. Robert Duncan, on the other hand, impressed me as a singular and otherwordly gifted human, a monster of multiple meanings, a living Projective poem! But Naropa was also in turmoil; troubles were brewing over that Merwin incident from the previous summer, and loyalties between sangha and the poetry community got divided. That was how the era ended for some of us who had gone to Woodstock ten years earlier. The center could not hold. Nevertheless, I should add that I am no Buddhist nor Beat poet nor gay, but all those folks were awfully kind to me, so on the individual level it was transcendental instead of competitive or rubber stamped.
NB: Despite much of the ethereality and your sustained immersion in yoga, I still find in your work possessing an unmistakable NYC swagger. It's like despite a lifetime of meditative edge-softening, you still exude attitude, a beguiling rough edge. I guess I'm saying that you've still got ants in your pants or at least a restless curiosity. How has your
Brooklyn-ese 'dialecticized' with an Eastern vantage?
KG: Life is too impermanent to ever happen as planned, the meditative mind reveals that at every turn. As for swagger, maybe New Yorkers are more naturally "Blues People" or street-wise because the Mecca for this music has been the Big Apple from before be-bop, so we assimilate the walk and talk of jazz which is edgy, unpredictable, improvisational.
NB: I've heard you describe yourself elsewhere as a voice-musician, sort of one of the boys in the band. Can you elaborate for the uninitiated your thoughts on John Coltrane, and in a larger sense how jazz infuses your work?
KG: Voice-musician or spoken word soloist, a guy who takes a couple of choruses, (w)rapping his lyrics around the song form and then laying out to let the band take solos and build the piece, seems a wiser approach than insisting the band back up the poet and merely accompany. "Wed to the ensemble," as Mik Horowitz described what we are doing with words, part of a lifelong pursuit of mine to get literature off the page and into the ear in new and subversive ways. As for Coltrane: his sound was like the call to prayer for a generation or like Baraka wrote: "live, you crazy motherfucker!" Ben Ratliff just released Coltrane: The Story of a Sound, and he writes, "This is about jazz as sound. I mean ‘sound’ as it has long functioned among its players, as a mystical term of art: as in, every musician finally needs a sound, a full and sensible embodiment of his artistic personality such as it can he heard, at best, in a single note." To me, the same could be said about American poetry: it is distinguished by voices that are distinctive, unique and original. The other inspiring thing about Trane was how he embodied and embraced the whole history of the music, from Sidney Bechet and New Orleans roots to Ornette and beyond. I guess another thing that impresses me about jazz is that is perhaps our deepest contribution to world culture. Our music and poetry have been bedfellows from Jump Street. Even T.S. Eliot tried to record with a jazz band back in the day.
NB: When we hear you what exactly are we hearing? Voice, sound, language, meaning? How would you characterize these various aspects of the human utterance? I often think your rhyming is a stab at accentuating sound over meaning. If there wasn't enough room on the lifeboat, something tells me you'd ask meaning to stay behind. Or is it that pre-reflective sound augurs a “larger meaning” or at least a non-rhetoricized meaning? I'm dying to hear your theories.
KG: Nothing quite reveals the Emperor's new clothes like a rhyme scheme! In free verse end rhymes can feel predictable, even corny; but tied to a tune, they can carry all kinds of possibilities, especially when you rhyme in many directions at once, not just rely on the expectation set up on the last syllable. It's even better when you can signify on an existing classic, like "Spring Can Really Hang You up the Most." It seemed most natural to tie the Orpheus legend to that gorgeous tune and to imply Jim Crow's hanging noose, the book of Ezekiel and the life of Jesus as well! It all makes sense in the playing when you hear how Eli and Claire connect these innuendos. As for your wise eye to the pre-reflective, music helps imprint words deeply in our psyche, something Madison Avenue appropriated at the dawn of mass media and now fully employed non-stop by our Bush-Rove White House; the imprint is certainly pre-verbal or pre-discriminative, so why not subvert it, you know, not so much to create or order or distort meaning but to extend meaning to include the pre-rational, the dream-drenched and the intuitional. What if sound were the primal magilla and mystery door? What if there was more going on every time we open our mouths? Imagine invoking a sound current that was like a deep pool capable of joining unrelated bits and fragments into new meanings? Om to that, I say.
NB Thanks, KP.
KP Thank you, Norm.
(originally appeared in Soundzine http://soundzine.org/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=129)