Blues Poet: Chicago writer Sterling Plumpp gives the lowdown

Dec 1, 2006

Chicago/Chicago sorrows 
ways/So blue. Empty pockets/Every day/Friday
the rent is/Due. Chicago/Chicago. 
Big Shoulders/Bronzeville 
where/Lay my spirit. Lord/Knows
 . . .


from Eighteen
in Velvet BeBop Kente Cloth
by Sterling Plumpp

Poet Sterling Plumpp was born in Clinton, Miss., about 40 miles from what could rightfully be considered a part of the Delta region that produced Chicago blues legends Muddy Waters, Willie Dixon and Howlin' Wolf. He still speaks, writes and feels the language. "I think I'm essentially a blues poet who also writes jazz," says Plumpp, who retired in 2001 as an English and African-American Studies professor  with emeritus status from the University of Illinois at Chicago, where he had taught for 30 years.

One of the first poets — if not the first — to emulate the blues was Langston Hughes, the major Harlem Renaissance figure who wrote his first poem when he was an adolescent living in downstate Lincoln. Hughes' first book, a poetry collection published in 1926, was called The Weary Blues.

"He tries to create the sound, syncopation, the technique of the blues singer in the poetry,'' 20th century American literature specialist Barbara Burkhardt says of Hughes. "That's an important aspect of his work: trying to mimic the sound, the improvisation of blues in poetry, which is not easy." To explain the difficulty facing the blues poet, Burkhardt, an assistant English professor at the University of Illinois at Springfield, cites a singer who was a major influence on Hughes: Bessie Smith. "She does all kinds of slides. She will do things like break right in the middle of a word or break in the middle of a sentence. It's hard to show slides and stretches and to also, I think, capture the real slowness with which a lot of the music was performed." 

Plumpp, who grew up listening to the blues as sung by relatives working beside him in a Mississippi cotton field, made it his mission to express the blues through the printed word. He is one of a group of contemporary Chicago poets who writes blues poetry. Others, who might be more accurately described as poets who have written in the blues style, include the late Illinois Poet Laureate Gwendolyn Brooks; Haki Madhubuti, director of the Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing Program at Chicago State University, who is not only a poet and nonfiction writer but publisher of the Third World Press; and one of his co-founders at the press, Carolyn Rodgers, who wrote in Jazz:

Mood Indigo:
your life all in pieces.
you have/
fallen, fallen down/
and my fingers and my 
soul are blue, blue/ 
. . .

Plumpp, a visiting professor at Chicago State University, has published more than a dozen books, including Blues Narratives, Ornate With Smoke and the most recent, Velvet BeBop Kente Cloth. Honors he's collected include the Richard Wright Literary Excellence Award for outstanding contributions to literature, Illinois Arts Council Literary awards, the Carl Sandburg Literary Award for poetry and a Keeping the Blues Alive Award from The Blues Foundation based in Memphis. 

He still spreads word of the blues by conducting workshops and participating in the annual Mississippi Valley Blues Festival in Davenport, Iowa, for which he composes a poem each year for an honored artist. They have included Muddy Waters' band member James Cotton and Odetta.

In a photograph from the 2004 festival, Sterling Plumpp looks a bit like his name, with short silvery hair and a round expressive face. He recently told Illinois Issues his own blues narrative. What follows is an edited version of that discussion.

• • •

It is true that I was born on a cotton plantation in 1940 to maternal grandparents who were born in 1880 and 1890, respectively. Their parents had been slaves and had lived on land very close to where I grew up. And it is true that I did not attend any school of any kind until I was 8, and then I did not attend for any more than three or four months a year. The thing was we had to be big enough to walk to school four or five miles. We had to take care of ourselves. That much is true.

And it is true that when my grandfather died in Jackson, Miss., I was 15 years old and in the seventh grade and then went to a very fine Catholic school [Holy Ghost High School], and I eventually was valedictorian of my class of 1960. That much is true.

Southern school folklore, wisdom — all of that —was ingrained in me growing up. And then I'm put in a situation where I'm looking at life through the prism of middle-class blacks, some of whose parents are doctors, civil rights lawyers, newspaper editors, dentists. I went into that environment; I mean it was almost like I had a way of looking at the life that I had lived for 15 years in the rearview mirror of this kind of privileged environment that I went to school in.

It's true, I picked cotton. What happened was: I was 5 or 6 years old and they gave me a flour sack. I would pick cotton along the rows with one of my grandparents and then, maybe when I was 10 or so, I had a sack and I was expected to take a row the same as an adult picker. So I picked cotton. 

Coming up in this culture, which is primarily oral, I cannot remember a time in my life when the blues was not in my imagination. My uncles and aunts were always singing the blues in the field. They had what was known as a gramophone; that is a kind of phonograph that runs by battery power. And then I would hear them played on at night.

The blues is expressed with a feeling, almost moaned. They talk about hard times, but they always talk about reality. They don't talk about hard times in a hopeless manner. That's not the blues. You know what I'm talking about, you know, the blues might be something like:

'I got up this morning. I got me a jug and I laid back down. I got up this morning. I got me a jug and I laid back down. I was searching for the future but the blues was all I found. Hard times has come again' [from singer Percy Mayfield's My Jug and I ].

The blues is sung in a way that is intended to get rid of the blues. Blues are not sung to give people the blues; the blues are sung to get rid of the blues.

It's almost the same situation you find in rap lyrics. I don't know about rap music, but when they are talking about all of the bad things they have had, the drugs and all that, in identifying it, they're confronting the irritant in the existence. It's almost as if singing the blues takes the poison out of that.

• • •

His book of poems, Blues Narratives, is soaked in the sorrow of a man who lost the mother he never had. 

From #13:

. . . You pay my fare
wells with a request

The irony
you telling a son
stranded on a bridge
between love and ambivalence how

to assist you on
to the stage of exit

but the morgue
cosmetician thinks
you are going
to a party

I order him 
to remove powder
and rouge

so blues 
lines can still
reside in this symphony
of night which is
your face

When I 
ask for bread
ask for medicine
ask for clothes
ask for rent

When I
ask for bread
ask for medicine
ask for clothes
ask for rent

They say
that money was all
ready spent
 . . . 

• • •

Let me explain Blues Narratives. My mother had died. I was with her when she was operated on, and she had called me in and asked me to take care of her funeral, and she had asked me to forgive her.

Now, the situation with my mother is: I have absolutely no concept of my mother in my imagination as my mother. Zero. When I was born, I was raised by my grandmother so much that I don't even remember my mother as my mother. And then, I never lived with my mother until I was about 15 or 16 years old. You know, I was out of wedlock and she [my mother] married and then she married again. 

What I tried to do in Blues Narratives was to have a dialogue with her, but she's dead. Now the disconnect between my mother and me comes out of this blues tradition. By having her mind in blues song, it meant that she was always confronting reality. That was the only way I thought I could represent her in the poem. 

Let me see, what I will read is what a great-aunt told me about one of my slave ancestors. She told me about this ancestor as I'm trying to write a family history. This woman's name was Tymp, and I was told that she was born in 1772 and died in 1908. That would have made her 135 years. Now, I don't know about that, but in searching through certificates and census [records], I do know that she had a son that was born in 1828 and I do know that she was born in North Carolina. 

. . . I take bad times
make them into Sunday
clothes I stitch I stitch
I invent my days out

of patterned rags. . .

My main influences? One of them was the great Jimmy Baldwin. Particularly in Go Tell It on the MountainNotes of a Native Son and, to a certain extent, Nobody Knows My Name, he is trying to describe his language. For me, being Southern, being African American, [he] had a great deal of work that really inflamed my imagination. James Baldwin, he said something I found that really turned a switch on in my imagination. He said that it was only when he was in Europe from '47 to '57 that he — while listening to the great blues singer Bessie Smith — recognized what he must have sounded like when he was a child. He developed a thought that blues could serve as a narrative example of a cleaner imagination, an omnipotence. This was getting me to thinking and listening to blues. This was not about trying to replicate a blues song. I was trying to develop an imaginative literary language that would have the same impact.  

Langston Hughes, and the great poet Sterling Brown, had impact on me. But the poet I learned blues from was Amiri Baraka because of the way he phrased without always rhyming. It's the way he used ellipses, the way he phrased, the way he used metaphors, for lack of a better word, allowed me to update the blues.

Ralph Ellison, who has been maligned because some people thought maybe he was not political enough, really felt that the blues, as a ritual and a celebration, was one of the major art forms. I have tried to come to the blues in respect of a great musical tradition and tried to look at it as a kind of platform from which to launch my literary imagination. That's what I think of when I write poems. 

More recently, a man of my age, Haki Madhubuti (Don L. Lee) — a great deal of his work deals with vernacular language as did the work of Carolyn Rodgers, and of course the world-class poet Gwendolyn Brooks: A Street in BronzevilleBean Eaters and, to some extent, In the Mecca, you get a sophisticated kind of blues line, and it works.

I'm a part of the Great Migration [of blacks from the South to the North] between 1938 and 1960. I spent a great deal of time over the last 45 years witnessing and trying to understand the great blues singers, the Delta blues singer Muddy Waters, Junior Wells, Buddy Guy, Koko Taylor. I have spent a great deal of time in clubs listening. And I've spent a great deal of time watching the great bebop jazz musicians — people with names like Fred Anderson, Von Freeman — because I see this relationship between blues and jazz. I just think that jazz is nothing but the imaginative treatment of blues by extremely capable musicians. That's the way I've always seen it. At the very beginning, there was Duke Ellington and Count Basie, Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, very sophisticated people on their instruments who found their voice, and it's not vocal music. I see a relationship to what they achieve in their music. [It] is a wonderful example of what a poet ought strive to achieve within his or her language and his or her metaphor. 

I will read something. I'm gonna start with something that's obviously blues because it's a blues lyric and segue into something that's obviously jazz: 

. . . my daddy./ He had nothing.
And it rubbed off /On me 
when I/Was born.

I am/So glad
I got/Nothing.
It/Gon be here
when I am dead and/Gone.

I drink/Three quarTet
offensive cries/Every
day I rise/My work shift
is forever and for/Ever 
green/Dreams flush as weeping
 . . . 

I think Langston Hughes understood when he wrote The Weary Blues in 1926. He was ostensibly looking at American vernacular in the form of black vernacular expression that made the blues, and I think its most imaginative expression is jazz. You do more with intonation. You intuit more. You're trying to invent a language that approximates the aesthetic, the imagination of the jazz creator. There are a number of spoken-word, hip-hop- influenced artists; many of them have not written books. There's a lot of blues influence. But when I think of a poem, 

I think of a different aesthetic. While in the hip-hop spoken work there's blues, I only call something poetry if I can see it as a written script. I think that without a written script I would call it a performance. I've been trained not to speak it, but to write it down. I think that that's how you preserve it. I think that's how you shape it to make it last. 


Illinois Issues, December 2006