On July 20, 1969, Neil Armstrong became the first human to step on the moon. He and Aldrin walked around for three hours. . . . They picked up bits of moon dirt and rocks.
NASA, The First Person on the Moon
A friend recently asked me about the process of writing poetry for me.
I had not thought about it until then. In an instant, it struck me that I am not a disciplined poet. I do not write poems at some fixed hour during the day. I have no motivation to construct an anthology of my poems, even though I may have written a few hundred of them in the last fifty years.
It is a whole other thing with my fiction-writing exercises, where I actually try to sit down and concoct a story . . . and evidently there is a structure to this process. I have a story skeleton that I work on continuously. I mean, I find a kernel of an idea that I want to pursue and I build around it. Then I take a quasi-disciplined approach to it. I build the story chapter by chapter, shuffle episodes around and start working on the chapters themselves. Then there is research, checking the authenticity of use, the historical and geographical appropriateness, the scientific truth as well as the science-fictional, and the possibilities of fantasy. And the character development, which is so important for reviewers and other doxies (ok, maybe I should have used paramours!) of the publishing trade. And of course, once the process has started, my own editing commences almost simultaneously.
But how do I write poems? Do I sit down, do I stand up? Am I lying down? I think it begins with some indignation, a sense of remorse, a feeling of hurt or an absolute pleasure or sense of happiness that I feel I must expatiate on. I am probably walking when it happens. I probably have headphones on when it hits me. And that kernel of an idea sits in me. Indolent. I do not touch it . . . but I do write it down in a draft file, on my phone or somewhere else. Then I eventually get back to it at some point and look at it, and still nothing registers . . . until eventually, someday, I hear a SOUND. And a rhythm that associates with the note I wrote. I hear in my head a resonance . . . a beat . . . and the words start to happen.
Boom-boom-shock, Boom-boom-shock, A boom-a-boom-a-shock –
The man walks by
by the window framed,
a dirty window, finger stained,
he is headed he say,
headed for the top, the mountain top,
Boom-Boom Shock and the wind blast hit,
he’s seen his past,
a shadow turn, like a follow spot,
the clouds stop,
he whip around and what’s he see?
A child that’s him, following he,
And so on.
Ok, I just did this as an exercise right here – and it needs to be edited, don’t you think? No, it does not, because it is not an essay. It is not something I want to sell. It came out of me and it stays. Because I am not telling a story (but I could). I have a brush and some paint – like Pollock, I hear a thump in my head and the brush goes to work – because it is a poem that got triggered by a phrase and a beat in my head.
That is what comes out. Just like that – the signal for the line in the hidden file has found a beat to follow. A beat mother. The rhythm has started, it matches the beat, and that is a beginning. That is the beginning! It is the mother at the top of the mountain who starts to melt, and that is the process! And if that is a school, so be it. It could be Frank O’Hara or Amiri Baraka. It is the school where social context combines with music, dance, rhythm and beat. It is a school that sees poetry as written for a purpose and that purpose is triggered by the context – not by “person-ism,” not because it is academically taught and digested, not because it must follow rules.
It goes on like that and then it starts varying. I adjust my non-existent headphones and I add castanets, maracas, timbales, and I try to change the beat . . . in my head. If it does not work, I switch back and I slow it down and make it twist, turn. But it is the thump, the bassline that I hear the most. It is the sound, the beat in my head that finally takes over – because in it is a tempo that I must follow, otherwise the words fall off the cliff. Lose their meaning.
I am not a rapper, nor do I absorb hip-hop any longer . . . not as I did before, as when I first encountered Gil Scott-Heron or Run DMC. I like to listen and I like to imbibe. But I do have a lineage. It is not in the poetry of words, which is full of metaphors, of aphorisms or aphrodisiacs that vibrate my endorphins and ease my pain. You see the rhythm that comes from within?
But what I do have is a sense of injustice, a sense of ruling-class bull-shit that is peddled in the most liberal democratic namby-pamby manner (yup! I am aware that word may soon get proscribed) . . . and I do have a long-standing sense of theatre as it has evolved . . . and when I write that down, I wait with patience to hear that beat in my head. And when that beat comes out, I could be hearing the first bar of The Bengal Citizens United Collective’s mind-shaping and shifting song “Nijeder Motey Nijeder Gaan” . . . I could be hearing Carlos Santana starting up “Soul Sacrifice,” fifty years back or for that matter the first bar of “Jail House Rock” or the yelping of the Stones in “Sympathy for the Devil.” It does not matter . . . but the idea, the beat, the percussion, cuts me to the bone, as Baldwin said, and the words start to cascade.
So I tell my friend who asked that question: Wait for the beat in your head, and all will follow.
Was all that money I made las’ year
(for Whitey on the moon?)
How come there ain’t no money here?
(Hm! Whitey’s on the moon)
Y’know I jus’ ’bout had my fill
(of Whitey on the moon)
I think I’ll sen’ these doctor bills,
(to Whitey on the moon)
Gil Scott-Heron, pre-eminent spoken word performance artist