Last week, my good friend W. Joe Hoppe visited with my poetry students at Austin Community College. http://www.austincc.edu
Joe read bits of his really meaty new book Galvanized (check out http://www.wjoehoppe.com), and talked about everything from baby jaundice and the inventor of Bugs Bunny to working in homeless shelters and the myth of Kerouac. My students were rapt, as was I.
There’s nothing like hearing good poetry read aloud by a good voice. It’s art-making all over again.
So on his way out the door, Joe mentions William Carlos Williams’ “No ideas but in things” theory. This is the notion that conceptual thoughts and emotions require concrete images to be truly felt and understood. Thus the need for good metaphors, vivid verbs, incredible specificity of language.
I’m absolutely on that train and I spill a good deal of ink circling chunks of my own work (and my students’) with “word choice???” scrawled in the margin. I’m on my third copy of Rodale’s Synonym Finder and its already missing its cover. At Joe’s urging, I left campus newly committed to finding just the right ‘thing’ for every ‘idea’ I want to explore. I hoped my students had, too.
Then, that same afternoon, I partnered with a group called Austin Jazz Workshop (http://austinjazzworkshop.com/) to facilitate a school assembly on jazz, thankfulness, community and a whole host of other loose threads. (Believe it or not, it all made good sense that day in the Cedar Creek cafeteria.) The kids, I think, went away knowing that “it don’t mean a thing if you ain’t got that swing.” I left with something murkier in mind.
I’d written a piece comparing individuals (with their unique habits and temperaments, strengths and challenges) to single lines of music, whereas a whole community becomes a living, breathing jazz composition. All well and good, except for the fact that the emphasis on improvisation – on the distinctive appeal of our own, ever-mutating jazz notes – seemed juxtaposed with my morning lesson on anchoring ideas with exactitude.
Now, having mulled it over for a few days, I’m working out how these schools-of-thought enrich each other. Precision and spontaneity. It’s like having the trunk of the car well-stocked for a wild road trip. Maps to anywhere in the back seat.
So today, trolling for words, I’ll say to my students and to myself, “Wing it. Roll with it. But be specific, dammit.”
Fish-owl wings, rolling like a plastic bag on an updraft…