allen ginsberg

Nathaniel Mackey: Black breath matters

African American poet, essayist and academic Nathaniel Mackey gave us an extended consideration of breath—in poetry, music and black life

Gregg Popovich, the best and most innovative coach in professional basketball, responded physically to the election of Donald Trump. It made him “sick to my stomach,” he told NBA beat reporters before the Spurs played on Friday.

He wasn’t alone. The election took a physical toll, if my Twitter and Facebook feeds are any indication, sometimes attacking the gastrointestinal apparatus and sometimes the nervous system. Or maybe your windpipe became scratchy and your chest constricted with the enormous weight of the political events, compressing your lung and interfering with your respiration.

Maybe you couldn’t breathe.

“I can’t breathe.” “I can’t breathe.” “I can’t breathe.”

Eric Garner said it 11 times, face down on the sidewalk on July 17, 2014, as a New York City policeman applied a chokehold to his neck. Then he passed out, and neither the gathered squad of policemen nor the EMTs who responded to the call attempted to revive him. The cause of his death, according to the medical examiner: “compression of neck (choke hold), compression of chest and prone positioning during physical restraint by police.” Garner couldn’t breathe.

Poet/academic/music writer Nathaniel Mackey mentioned Eric Garner several times at Reed College this week, both in his poetry reading Thursday night and his lecture, “Breath and Precarity,” Friday, a talk that linked the advanced jazz explorations of black jazz musicians in the ‘50s and ‘60s—Coltrane, Pharoah Sanders, Archie Shepp, Ornette Coleman, Sonny Rollins, Roscoe Mitchell—to experimental poetry at the same time, to Amiri Baraka, Allen Ginsberg, Robert Creeley and Charles Olson, among others. Maybe the common theme of lecture and poems was simply that Black breath matters, a phrase Mackey used.

Nathaniel Mackey, the Reynolds Price Professor of Creative Writing at Duke University, spoke at Reed College this week.

Nathaniel Mackey, the Reynolds Price Professor of Creative Writing at Duke University, spoke at Reed College this week.

The common language the poets and musicians of the ’50s shared, the common physical link, involved breath. Ginsberg famously organized “Howl” with the idea of breath: “Ideally each line of ‘Howl’ is a single breath unit,” he said. “My breath is long—that’s the measure, one physical-mental inspiration of thought contained in the elastic of a breath.” As Mackey pointed out, it doesn’t quite work out that way in practice, neither with Ginsberg nor with Olson, here in his 1950 essay, “Projective Verse.”

“And the line comes (I swear it) from the breath, from the breathing of the man who writes, at the moment that he writes, and thus is, it is here that, the daily work, the WORK, gets in, for only he, the man who writes, can declare, at every moment, the line its metric and its ending—where its breathing, shall come to, termination.”

Breath is funny. I can control my breath to a certain extent. I can huff and puff until I make myself light-headed, for example, or slow my respiratory process to a level barely perceptible. But then, most of the time, I am breathing without thinking about it at all, autonomically, firing up under stress and damping down during rest. I like the effort to connect creation (in Olson and Ginsberg’s case, poetry) to breath, both to acknowledge its importance and to employ it consciously. I do have to say that it seems…abstract. Idealized. Theorized. Both Olson and Ginsberg would have hated that characterization, because they were so interested in linking mind and body, maybe even to argue the primacy of body.


Third Angle New Music review: Text Fatale 

“Hearing Voices” concert illuminates rocky relationships between words and music


Composers often have fraught relationships with text, unlike songwriters, who cheerfully shoulder the familial responsibility of marrying text to music, popping out song-child after song-child. Some composers emulate monks, staying as far away as possible, while others only let text into their creations as a domestic servant, forced to repeat mindlessly while the music comes and goes as it pleases. (Of course, as many a barstool debate on the subject brings up, a number of composers have fallen in love with text and become supportive songwriters too.) Then there are the bad boys and bad girls, the texts your parents / teachers warned you about. They seduce composers into dangerous, even impossible relationships.

Third Angle’s latest concert celebrating the spoken word, Hearing Voices 4.0, at southeast Portland’s Zoomtopia studio 2 on November 13-14, was full of such texts. Violinists Ron Blessinger and Emily Cole, violist Charles Noble, and cellist Marilyn de Oliveira gave committed performances of works by Portland composer Jay Derderian, Chicago composer LJ White, and recently passed Boston composer Lee Hyla. But the poets not only had the last word, they also left a trail of, if not broken hearts, at least spurned overtures.

Poet Sandra Stone, flanked by Third Angle's Blessinger and Noble, read her own text. Photo: Jane Jarratt.

Poet Sandra Stone, flanked by Third Angle’s Blessinger and Noble, read her own text. Photo: Jane Jarrett.

Derderian came off the most understanding lover. His nervous, atmospheric music for violin and viola duo, Frozen Smolder, deferentially framed acclaimed West Coast writer and architect Sandra Stone’s charnel house of a poem, which lavishes the same kind of richly evocative detail on scenes from the trenches of World War I that the Romantics once reserved for babbling brooks in sighing forests. Any attempt to match the poem image for image would have been melodramatic at best and futile at worst. Instead, Derderian’s music left us space for the kind of stunned response that seems the only humane one possible. Stone’s absorbing narration was underscored by a backdrop on which some of the poem’s most striking phrases were written in giant script. (The room-spanning backdrop, designed by PLACE studio, was an inspired addition, cutting off visual and acoustic dead zones and creating an intimacy missing in previous Third Angle concerts here.)

Wilder Shores, a near-sonnet sequence by Lents twin-brothers-made-good Matthew and Michael Dickman, has a different kind of poetic richness. Its idyllic images, which might be from a story of love or maybe just obsession, gradually split up and rejoin in multifarious ways, giving both depth of perspective and sheer kaleidoscopic beauty. The brothers split up the reading while stationed on either side of Blessinger and de Oliveira, who charged through a highly colorful score that seemed to incorporate about every way of getting sound out of a violin and cello anyone has ever imagined. White made the most distinctive musical statement of the night, but its relationship with the text was a stormy one, as they often seemed at odds.

Portland's Dickman brothers performed their own text at Third Angle's concert.

Portland’s Dickman brothers performed their own poetry at Third Angle’s concert.

The Dickmans also gave a refreshingly clear and well-paced reading of Allen Ginsberg’s larger-than-life, breakout poem / prayer / harangue Howl. The full quartet of musicians gave an incisive performance of Hyla’s accompanying score, and I wish the composer, who passed away last year at only 62, could have heard them — especially since the rather harum-scarum performance he (and I) heard in Portland some 20 years ago, when the piece was new, could not have been one of his happier experiences. However, the poem still blows the music out of the water. I may be a text-loving composer, but the key word is composer and for me music always comes first. Even so, I barely paid attention to Hyla’s. The overwhelming music of Ginsberg’s hypnotic rant was the baddest baddie of all, brazenly living life to its fullest with barely a nod to the distant admirer serenading its heart out. It was sweet in its way, but as the hard saying goes, ain’t never gonna happen.

Nonetheless, Third Angle is to be congratulated. Even when “things didn’t work out,” none of the relationships were boring. And while most of the works were completely new to me, it seemed the performers did all anyone could ask to put them across. We want domestic tranquility for ourselves, but its absence among others often entertains us more.

Jeff Winslow is a Portland pianist and composer, and serves on the board of Cascadia Composers, as does Jay Derderian.

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