John Zheng, editor: Conversations with Sterling Plumpp (University Press of Mississippi, PB 2019, originally published i HC 2016)

Plumpp, what you do is you take your blackness and your folk experience, let it dialogue with the books that belong on the shelf, and let your imagination run wild!” – novelist Leon Forrest (Divine Days, 1992)

With his last two book-length poems, Velvet Bebob Kente Cloth (2003) and Home/Bass (2013), both Third World Press, Sterling Plumpp (1940–) has definitively placed himself as a major voice among his contemporaries, reinventing (“I invent/ and I reinvent”) the blues/jazz idiom first introduced in African American poetry by Langston Hughes (1902-1997) and Sterling A. Brown (1901-1989) during the Harlem Renaissance era of the 1920s and early 1930s.

His stylistic innovations, linebreaks – “although my poems are long, my lines are not long” – and slashes in mid-line, is meant to catch the rhythm and tone of blues/jazz musicians, to ‘score’ his poetry; and in the persona of bass-player Willie Kent (Home/Bass), saxophonist Fred Anderson (Velvet Bebob Kente Cloth) and even Von Freeman (Hornman, Third World Press, 1995), Sterling Plumpp seems to have found just the right voices to speak for him.

And he credits Gwendolyn Mitchell, his editor at Third World Press since Ornate with Smoke (1997), technically an important book for Sterling Plumpp, with the way his poetry looks on the page: “She had some ideas of how the poems might be organized and numbered – for me it’s just one long piece –, some given titles, some not.”   

Mississsippi beginnings. There are a few striking similarities between Sterling Plumpp and Richard Wright: A beginning in a family of dirt poor sharecroppers in a Jim Crow South described by Wright in part one (“Southern Night”) of his memoir Black Boy (1945); the flight from Mississippi to Chicago in search of education and opportunity, only to end up working in the post office; and their view of existentialism – a sense of disorientation, confusion, or dread in the face of an apparently meaningless and absurd world – as a fit description of black life in the South.

But even as Sterling Plumpp like Richard Wright growing up as black boys in Mississippi had to confront “a fear so dreadful that no one ever spoke of it”, his view of African American culture differs significantly from Wright’s bleak view of the barrenness of life in the South.

Plumpp, abandoned by his father and his mother – “she didn’t do anything wrong … she was just not there!”–, was raised by his maternal grandparents until he was seventeen, and he saw their ethos, “the subdued tones of how they talked about trouble, the celebratory tones of how they thanked God for letting them live another day,” their sense of morality, their sense of community, reflected in the rich Delta blues he first heard around the age of five.

Literacy and the cannon.  Sterling Plumpp believes that literature is defined by its canonical texts, even as his idea of canonical texts is somewhat more diverse than either the University of Illinois at Chicago – where Sterling Plumpp taught for some 30 years – or Northwestern would admit.

And Sterling Plumpp’s twelve books of poetry* have been a journey towards ‘literacy’ – a key word in Plumpp’s vocabulary – beginning at the catholic Saint Benedict’s College in Atchison, Kansas, where they were taught  the Greeks (the Iliad, the Odyssey, Aeschylus, Euripides), Divine Comedy, Don Quixote, Paradise Lost, T.S. Eliot, William Faulkner, etc. – the literary canon of the West, Leon Forrest’s “books that belong on the shelf.”

But it was also at Saint Benedict that he discovered James Baldwin’s brilliant short story “Sonny’s Blues” in an anthology they used, discovering African American literature and that black vernacular and black experience could be used to make literature: “Then I read the black encyclopedia!

(Two important poets discussed by Plumpp more than once in these interviews – and not mentioned elsewhere in this article – are Gwendolyn Brooks (A Street in Bronzeville, The Bean Eaters,In the Mecca”) and Robert Hayden (“Middle Passage”, “Runagate, Runagate”).

Hughes, Brown, and LeRoi Jones (Amiri Baraka).  Sterling Plumpp has high praise for his literary ancestors, Langston Hughes and Sterling Brown. Hughes’s “The Weary Blues” became the title poem of his first book of poetry, The Weary Blues (Knopf, 1926), a title he used again for the 1958 LP Weary Blues with Charles Mingus and other top flight musicians, arranged by Mingus and Leonard Feather, Hughes thus becoming a pioneer in the jazz-and-poetry movement: 

In many ways I think that the most important poet of the twentieth century in America is Langston Hughes, because he introduces this rich African American vernacular to poetry … I am not sure he is the person who developed it to its highest level, but … you cannot overlook him.”

For Sterling Brown, for all practical purposes, the blues has become a ballad,” his ‘balladizing’ the blues being Sterling Brown’s great contribution to American poetry: “He is a master.”

But the poets first influencing Sterling Plumpp was LeRoi Jones (later Amiri Baraka), who had studied with Sterling Brown at Howard University in Washington, D.C., and his “bebob rendering of the blues” in his first two volumes of poetry, Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note (1961) and The Dead Lecturer (1964); and poet and critic Larry Neal (Hoodoo Hollering Bebob Ghosts, 1974), Jones’s co-editor of the seminal Black Arts Movement anthology Black Fire (1968).

And there is his friend, the late South African poet laureate Keorapetse Kgositsile, for years living as an exile in the U.S.A. and like Plumpp first published by Third World Press in Chicago, who wrote the preface to Plumpp’s Steps to Beak the Circle (Third World Press, 1974), who helped him with Somehow We Survive: An Anthology of South African Writing (Thunder’s Mouth Press, 1982) – Plumpp visited South Africa twice – and to whom Plumpp dedicated Velvet Bebob Kente Cloth.

Chicago, blues and jazz.  But we must turn now to a different kind of literacy, black music, especially spirituals, blues and jazz, that profoundly influenced these poets and that Ralph Ellison believed to be (African) America’s great contribution to the world’s cultural heritage. And throughout these interviews Plumpp returns to the impact of blues and jazz on his poetry:

My blues/jazz poetry is one writer’s attempt or quest to find language that owes a debt to the brilliance of black diasporic music;” and: “I had to bring the technique of jazz to my blues poetry in order to develop a personal voice,” even as he quips: “Jazz to me ain’t nothing but blues with a little education.” Having to find a way to make his literacy serve his poetry.

Sterling Plumpp has spent more than fifty years listening to live blues and jazz in Chicago clubs (“I am a worshipper at the shrine of the blues”), and Muddy Waters – with Elmo James and Howlin’ Wolf – was the blues priest who baptized him culturally into blues: “People reacted to him as if they were at a revival about to be saved, or as if they were at a church listening to someone preach – they spoke back to him as he was singing,” finding a dedicated audience among the thousands that, like Muddy Waters himself, had left Mississippi to make a new life in the North.

Although both John Coltrane and Elvin Jones – icons of the Black Arts Movement – make an appearance in Home/Bass, Sterling Plumpp would seem to side with Fred Anderson: “Well Plumpp, most of them cats take the late Trane, but I always catch the early Bird,” Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Sonny Stitt and Thelonious Monk being among Plumpp’s bebob greats.

Plumpp’s poetry has changed a great deal over the years since Haki R. Mahubuti (then Don L. Lee) published his first book of poetry, Portable Soul (1969) at Third World Press. A fine sample of Plumpp’s early poetry, including the chapbooks Steps to Break the Circle and Clinton (Broadside Press, 1976) can be found in The Mojo Hands Call, I Must Go (Thunder’s Mouth Press, 1982).

Mfua’s Song.  Special attention must be paid to Blues Narratives (Tia Chucha Press, 1999), portraits of his mother and grandfather, poems “soaked in the sorrow of a man who lost the mother he never had,“ according to a NPR reviewer, an excerpt – thought by novelist John Edgar Wideman to be a complete book in itself – from the still unpublished epic poem, Mfua’s Song, a manuscript of some seven or eight hundred pages, that Plumpp has been working on for years, part of it still in progress: “There will be a version of it in print while I’m alive. The whole thing.”

All// my/talk.// A/song.// All// my/conversation.// A/song.       – From “Five. My name,” Home/Bass

THIS BOOK OF  INTERVIEWS owes its existence to John Zheng, haiku scholar and professor of English at Mississippi Valley State University where Plumpp has served as writer-in-residence, three of the fourteen interviews from 1982 to 2015 done by the editor himself.

Also important are a ‘collage interview’ by Richard Wright scholar Jerry W. Ward Jr. (The Katrina Papers: A Journal of Trauma and Recovery, 2008), Michael Antonucci’s, and Reginald Gibbons’s lengthy interview, which took him seven years to transcribe! according to the editor.

UFI// 12 November 2019

*According to Julius E. Thompson’s exhaustively documented Dudley Randall, Broadside Press, and the Black Arts Movement in Detroit, 1960-1995 (McFarland & Company, 1999), Sterling Plumpp’s Muslim Men is a single sheet 1971 poem, Broadside No. 43, from Broadside Press.