He is the poet laureate of Chicago jazz and blues, a man who conveys in words as much melody and rhythm as the musicians he immortalizes in print.
For more than four decades, Sterling Plumpp has transformed the sounds of Chicago jazz giants – such as Von Freeman and Fred Anderson – into phrases that swing and dance and sway on the page. Read a poem by Plumpp, and you can hear the rasp of Freeman's horn or the free flights of Anderson's solos.
Now Plumpp has turned his keen ear and poet's heart to the music of Chicago bluesman Willie Kent, a legendary singer-bass player who died in 2006 at age 70. In "Home/Bass" (Third World Press), which Plumpp has been honing since 1988, he writes largely from Kent's perspective, taking us inside the blues.
Plumpp will read excerpts of "Home/Bass" at 1:30 p.m. Sunday at Printers Row Lit Fest (alongside other Third World Press authors), the lilt of his gravelly voice and the eloquence of his words amounting to a kind of musical performance.
Just listen to a bit of Plumpp's "Identity," from "Home/Bass," in which he imagines Kent riffing on how he became smitten with music of Muddy Waters back home in Mississippi. Kent headed to Chicago, got a job as a truck driver and began gigging on the side as a bluesman, trying to heal the world's woes:
operate/on a broken
where I am.
I/got so much
heart cases to me.
--- from "Identity" by Sterling Plumpp
Or check out the rolling rhythms of Plumpp's "I Cry," also from "Home/Bass," in which Plumpp envisions Kent explaining his art.
Some/times. I cry.
Put/on wings, sail out/as
prayer. I/got church/in
side and/a preacher/talks
to me. Believe/I sing
tone lines/I borrow/from a
burden's prophecy. …
I/cry my blues.
--- from "I Cry" by Sterling Plumpp
Why did Plumpp turn to the visceral blues of Kent after penning rhapsodic poems on the complex jazz of Freeman and Anderson?
"He had the command and the ability to control the audience with the absolute sincerity of his singing," says Plumpp, who spent years observing Kent in performance and showed him an early version of the manuscript before the bluesman died.
"He sang from that corner of the experience that prayer comes from. …
"I had the same childhood as an African-American – that folk tradition is part of me."
Indeed, Plumpp was born 73 years ago in Clinton, Miss., and raised by his maternal grandparents – sharecroppers who toiled in the fields alongside Plumpp and his siblings. Plumpp didn't start school until he was 8 because "it was about four or five miles from the plantation I was on to the school, (and) there were no buses for blacks, so you had to walk." His grandmother didn't want the children to take that potentially dangerous trek "until we were big enough to handle ourselves," says the poet. "In her mind, if she lost one of us, she would not know what to do."
If the harsh realities of life in the rural South would eventually draw Plumpp to blues and jazz – music that amounts to a cultural response to such adversities – growing up in his grandparents' home helped shape him as a poet. For their prayers and laments taught him the power of vernacular speech.
"My grandmother and grandfather each would get on their knees and pray loud enough for the house to hear, when they got up in the morning and when they went to bed at night," recalls Plumpp.
"It sounded like blues – rhythmic. Also, if there was some possibility of tornado or a storm was coming, they would get on their bended knees, and they would pray that the storm would not take the house away.
"And the stories coming out of the South! What happened to so-and-so when he spoke out of turn at cotton gins. I didn't read that in the newspaper. I heard someone tell me about that. Or what happened at the funerals. When you rose (in the morning), it was like entering an oral world – you learned through the stories you heard."
It's that tradition – oratory rich in tone, inflection and rhythm – that drive Plumpp's poetry. His song-like verses, copiously marked with slashes and spaces and commas, cry out to be heard, the punctuation expressing key accents and beats. Plumpp's poetry doesn't just address blues and jazz, it exemplifies them.
When you read his words, "You hear the poet – sometimes commiserating, sometimes laughing, always signifying," says Hermine Pinson, a poet and associate professor of English at the College of William & Mary in Williamsburg, Va., who has written on Plumpp's work.
"His poetry also is about orality – bringing orality to the page. … Also, Plumpp's poetry synthesizes African-American history, myth, culture, music and ritual."
The first time Pinson encountered Plumpp and his work, in 1990, she adds, "I was really blown away by not only the way he read, but the content of his work and its rhythm and its references to the music, but also the ways in which it embodied music."
Plumpp came to Chicago in 1962 – having graduated as valedictorian two years earlier from Holy Ghost High School in Jackson, Miss. – and found Chicago "was like being in a galaxy where there were possibilities that never existed in the one (I) left," he says. "The first thing that struck me was these musicians like Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf and Lightnin' Hopkins, I could walk from where I was living in Lawndale to see them perform.
"Then, because I was trying to become literate, you had all these bookstores, and you could go and buy books on jazz (and by) Ralph Ellison, Richard Wright. So that the black bibliographies all of a sudden had a reality to me, and I immersed myself in them.
"Simultaneously, you could see (opera star) Leontyne Price at one place, and go to another place and see (gospel great) Mahalia Jackson."
Plumpp blossomed in this setting, graduating from Roosevelt University in 1968 with a B.A. in psychology and doing graduate work there until 1971, when he was hired to teach at the University of Illinois at Chicago. He credits the formidable Chicago bluesman Billy Branch, an early student of his at UIC, with bringing him key recordings and guiding him through the labyrinth of the city's blues scene.
As a writer, Plumpp has drawn inspiration from some of the most profoundly lyrical of American authors, including James Baldwin (whose story "Sonny's Blues" remains a landmark), Ellison, Wright, Langston Hughes and Leon Forrest.
In effect, Plumpp combines the folkloric experiences of his youth with literary traditions he studied and the music he devoured, inventing a language at once expressively rich and tersely economical – much like the lyrics of a blues song. No wonder some of Kent's most powerful tunes – "Lonely Streets," "Address in the Street" and "9-1-1" – used lyrics by Plumpp. Yet it's in Plumpp's poetry, which is unencumbered by the conventions of blues songwriting, that his voice emerges in full.
In 2001, Plumpp had the surprising good fortune of winning $1 million in the Illinois Lottery, a turn of events that, he says, allowed him to erase some debt, buy a car and, "if you want to go somewhere, you just go."
He retired from UIC that year and has been working assiduously to bring "Home/Bass" to fruition.
And he remains a poet enchanted by music, as "Home/Bass" attests.
The book, says Plumpp, contends that "a major prism for viewing survival, success, beauty and loss – that the major prism is through the blues and the genius of the blues singer," says Plumpp.
"Somehow I think that those individuals who created that music were telling the story in the true American language, which is the music."
That music flows through Plumpp's poetry, and in ways that the musicians themselves might not have imagined.
To read more from Howard Reich, go to chicagotribune.com/reich.
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Sterling Plumpp will read from "Home/Bass" at 1:30 p.m. Sunday at the Arts & Poetry Stage. Visit printersrowlitfest.org.