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)

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.

hreich@tribune.com | Twitter @howardreich

Sterling Plumpp will read from "Home/Bass" at 1:30 p.m. Sunday at the Arts & Poetry Stage. Visit printersrowlitfest.org.

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