Leadbelly’s Other Lesson
April 9th, 2007
If you want to do more than just
if you want to make it sing of sorrow
whale wail and moan,
you can’t just stroll across the fretboard:
you’ve got to stomp your way down
strip the scales of their souls.
You can’t just strum:
you’ve got to slam and slap the strings.
Don’t pluck: pound.
Don’t slide: scrape.
Don’t make the air hum:
make it howl.
“Leadbelly’s Other Lesson” is a brief, carpe diem-esque poem presented in the language of the guitarist. The poem’s rhythm is jazz-like in its surprising starts and stops, and the poet’s use of alliteration as the poem concludes (plucking and pounding, sliding and scraping) is effective and pleasant to the ear.
The title is perhaps the poem’s weakest feature; the allusion to the blues guitarist is both confusing and exclusionary. Confusing, because the poem’s tone seems hopeful and encouraging, but Leadbelly’s life was anything but. Exclusionary, because of how obscure the life and works of this blues musician is today. His appearance in the title serves only to keep the reader at arm’s-length and muddy the waters of the poem’s meaning.
To rate a poem is a difficult thing. Luckily, I am up to the challenge. Grade: A-
I hate interviews.
That will make sense within the context of this poem in a moment, but first, I’d like to talk about my evolving attitude towards writing and how it has affected the quality of my work.
When I first started writing as a child, I soared like a bird. I was only capable of producing stream-of-conscious prose, and poems that only qualified as such because the last words of each line followed a simple rhyme scheme. But I was free. All I wanted to do was get the words out, say what I wanted to say. The total lack of self-consciousness led me to use words and phrases I didn’t fully understand. I took chances, risks.
Grammatically, I was a disaster. Spelling? Unreadable. But vocabulary? The clarity of the thinking? Pretty impressive s*** for an elementary school student, if I do say so myself.
The older I got, the more self-conscious I became. The shift began when I became aware of the reader as part of the writing process. Suddenly, I wasn’t just writing to express myself to myself for myself. Now there was a third person in the room with me and myself, some potentially judgmental reader who needed to be entertained and catered to. I was lucky that the first real audience I wrote for was made up of close friends who were also writing nerds, it kept me from being paralyzed by fear of judgement.
Throughout high school and my early college years, I wanted to be a good writer. I wanted to be confident in my sentence structure and punctuation. I wanted to be clear and expressive.
But I didn’t think I would be a writer. I was studying to be an English teacher. Writing was just a hobby, a skill. The novel I kicked around in my head was just a complicated fantasy. I wrote poems to get into girls pants and I hadn’t written a short story in a year or more. I wrote good essays in exchange for good grades. I posted on Facebook (which was NEW back then, and you had to be in college to get on!) and talked to people on AOL Instant Messenger. I could write; I wasn’t a writer.
That would all change because of one bad interview (told you we’d get there).
As I said, I was studying to become an English teacher. The program I was in required all students to go through an interview process in their Junior year to get approved for student teaching the following year. The interview included 5 faculty members from the English and Education departments, two of whom I had never met, and two that I believed disliked me personally (I was boisterous and swore occasionally).
I get nervous enough when I interview with one person. I always feel like I’m being probed for some flaw that will disqualify me for what I’m apply to. I think this might have something to do with being raised Catholic. Every interview I have makes me think of Saint Peter trying to look up the reason I’m going to hell. This interview was with five people, holding a couple dozen degrees among them, and making a decision about my entire future.
I felt a little pressured.
I wrote “Leadbelly’s Other Lesson” about a month after I got the letter informing me that the panel had decided not to approve me for student teaching, but that I was welcome to remain in the program, try again next year, and pay the college an extra year’s worth of tuition for the privilege, please and thank you.
Without actually saying so, I told them to go f*** themselves. I dropped the Education classes I was in, changed my major, and started pursuing my writing with all of my energy.
This would mark another shift in my attitude towards writing. When I started to consider myself a “writer,” when I wanted my work to be “literary,” the effect on my poetry and fiction was interestingly opposite. In fiction, I lost my sense of fun. All of my stories had serious themes presented in serious ways. My stories lost much of their charm and sense of play. My poetry, however, dramatically improved as I started taking the form and its conventions seriously. Poetry was where I was discovering new things about imagery and metaphor. Poetry was where I continued to take risks. That’s not to say I didn’t write some awful “literary” poetry as well, but something about poetry as a form kept me from turning it into academic drivel most of the time.
I would go back to considering my writing a hobby after I graduated and started working a non-writing job. I would go back to teaching after I got sick of that. And now I find myself in a place where I am writing for myself, and an audience, and I consider myself a writer, AND I don’t take myself to seriously. A good place to be, I think.
I have an interview in a couple of hours, and I’m a little nervous, but regardless of the outcome, I’ll still be me this evening.
Anyway, I hope you liked something here, and if you did, please click one of those SHARE buttons below! Thanks for reading!