Poet Sterling Plumpp captures rhythms of the blues

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Sterling Plumpp

Portrait of poet Sterling Plumpp at his Downers Grove home. (Chuck Berman/Chicago Tribune / June 4, 2013)

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:

I/saw Muddy
operate/on a broken
heart/one day.
And/I left
self/a truck.
be/a heart
I/got equip
ment/take calls/from
where I am.
I/got so much
business/cause every
body/refer/the broken
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.
My/words/restock/the air.
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/am journeying.
I/am journeying.
And/I do
not know/where.
I/cry my blues.
They/come out/as
a prayer.

--- 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.

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