An Interview with Sascha Feinstein
By Cameron Norsworthy
Stadler Center Intern, Fall '12
Cameron Norsworthy: Misterioso is permeated with music—with numerous direct references to musicians and jazz clubs and songs and instruments. Do you think that your poems themselves function as reflective, written illustrations of an aural art? In form and in subject matter, is your writing itself jazz?
Sascha Feinstein: I write a good deal about jazz largely because the music has shaped my life. Originally, it locked into the spirit of my adolescence, and it allowed me to make sense of a deteriorating world late in high school when my mother was dying. At that time, I played with enough focus (clarinet and saxophones) to imagine a life as a musician, and while I accepted my musical limitations long ago, I still play, and I still listen deeply every day.
That said, my jazz-influenced poems are not intended to be some kind of linguistic translation of the music (as if such a thing were possible!) Sure, I hope my poems swing, and I edit as much with my ear as my eye. But nothing on the page can ever impact the body quite like sound. (Hayden Carruth stated the matter in no uncertain terms: "Jazz has the edge over poetry for me.") Misterioso also includes poems for my children, but I would never suggest that a poem represents the vast complexity of a loved one. And as much as I adore synesthesia, I do not believe one art equals another; the differences deserve to be respected and applauded, as noted in Frank O'Hara's poem "Why I Am Not a Painter."
While I'm on painting: If we look at Auden's marvelous "Musée des Beaux Arts," it's obvious that his poem is not the painting itself; words cannot be Brueghel's canvas. But language can bring perception and introspective study to a wordless art, whether created with oil paints or well-oiled trombones.
CN: Did you intend for your readers to recognize each artist to whom you make reference? Is it possible for your readers to understand the overarching meaning and emotion in each poem purely through context, or is a knowledge of jazz vital for appreciating Misterioso?
SF: I'm aware—saddened but aware—that jazz and its history may never be common knowledge, so it would be foolish to assume that readers of my work necessarily know about these artists. That said, if someone responds emotionally to one of my jazz-related poems but doesn't know the music or life of the person mentioned, I do expect that reader to spend twenty seconds on Google. (There's no excuse anymore for absolute ignorance.) Better yet, download a tune or buy an album. After all, jazz references don't direct the uninitiated to the mundane; they allude to one of the greatest cultural contributions in our human history. Intrigued by what I wrote about Sonny Criss? Buy This Is Criss or Sonny's Dream. Is your home without Monk's Music or Miles Davis and the Modern Jazz Giants? Remedy that immediately!
(The poet John Sinclair put it similarly: "I suggest you get the records now—irrespective of anything that I'm doing—for your own mental health.")
I've never alluded to particular musicians or sessions simply to be hip or arcane, so, yes, I hope readers who know little about the music can experience passion and meaning from the work. (Any great elegy, for example, should impact the reader, whether or not the deceased was known.) Many people, I suspect, have enjoyed the movie O Brother, Where Art Thou? without knowing that it's based on The Odyssey—but doesn't a knowledge of Homer make the movie richer? Wouldn't our culture be richer if more Americans knew that the character Ulysses had a mythic Greek past before he was reinvented as one of the Soggy Bottom Boys?
CN: Do contemporary jazz artists inspire your writing in the same ways that John Coltrane, Thelonious Monk, and Count Basie (to name a few) have, or is there a personal nostalgia so ingrained in traditional jazz artists that disallows a similar point of connection to more modern jazz musicians?
SF: Because I continue to host "Jazz Standards" on WVIA, I receive thirty or forty jazz CDs each month. Everything gets spun, if only as a sampling, so I'm aware of the contemporary scene. I'm also blessed to have friendships with a number of remarkable musicians. But, yes, it's true that my poetry turns more frequently to the innovators from the 1950s and '60s. Part of that has to do with respect for those who forged the art and my desire to celebrate their achievements; part of it has to do with the astonishing history of those innovators; and part of it concerns my interest in not being arcane. As you point out, I make references to Thelonious Monk and Count Basie. Man, if those artists are "unknown," what can we say about contemporary jazz pianists?!
My recent poetry collection, Ajanta's Ledge, also includes several jazz-related poems, from a piece about the creation of my soprano saxophone to a sonnet series (ten monologues spoken by famous alto players in the year 1965). What's the connection apart from jazz? A sense of history. In addition to being an aesthetic experience, jazz comments on society and politics. As a writer, I find those crossovers irresistible—and that extends far beyond mere nostalgia.
A final note: I'm concerned that these answers to your good questions may sound too defensive. That's not my feeling, and it's not my intent. But I come from a background where all the marginalized arts—poetry, jazz, and abstract expressionism in particular—have been at the core of my life. So I can't worry if people don't listen to jazz, or fear abstraction, or dismiss poems that don't rhyme; instead, I have to do my best as a writer and a teacher to express the lasting qualities of art.
Sascha Feinstein will present readings from his jazz memoir Black Pearls: Improvisations on a Lost Year at 4 p.m. Tuesday November 13 in Willard Smith Library, Vaughan Literature Building. At 7 p.m. that evening, he will join C. Dale Young for a poetry reading in Bucknell Hall. These and all Stadler Center Writers Series Events are free and open to the public.