The Poetics of Blues

Featuring interviews with Kiese Laymon, Tyehimba Jess, and Derrick Harriell, as well as new poems by Angela Narciso Torres and Eleanor Kedney. Plus, Blues poems, essays, and a story from the NOR archives.

Perpetual Reckoning: An Interview With Kiese Laymon

“For me the blues is the perpetual reckoning with what should be agony, but finding ways of making that reckoning pleasurable. The agony and the pleasure exist right up next to one another. The question is how do we most effectively hold ourselves together through the pain, through the suffering, and through the agony? My history in this country teaches me that you have to do it through art. That doesn’t mean the art that gets sold. But the art of talking. The art of listening. The art of making sounds. The art of rhythmically manipulating repetition, which I think was really at the core of the blues.” – Kiese Laymon

Interview conducted by Josh-Wade Ferguson

Read More

Obsession, Desperation, and Curiosity: A Conversation on the Poetics of Blues with Tyehimba Jess and Derrick Harriell

“And that’s what you’re talking about when you’re talking about the essence of the blues and its relativity to what we’re doing today. Because we’re working in the tradition of the literature, right? That’s inseparable from that stream. That was the literature we had before we could read and write. And once we were allowed to read and write without the force of death being put upon us, all that imaging went right into the literature. And that’s the connection between African American literature and the blues. So there is no separation between the two.” – Tyehimba Jess

Interview Conducted by E.M. Tran

Read More

From the Archive: Jazz and the Blues in Poetry

Horn

by Robert Pinsky

Originally published in New Ohio Review Issue #7

This is the golden trophy. The true addiction.
Steel springs, pearl facings, fibers and leathers, all
Mounted on the body tarnished from neck to bell.

The master, a Legend, a “righteous addict,” pauses
While walking past a bar, to listen, says: Listen—
Listen what that cat in there is doing. Some figure,

Some hook, breathy honk, sharp nine or weird
Rhythm this one hack journeyman hornman had going.
Listen, says the Dante of bop, to what he’s working.

Read More

Harmonica

by Eleanor Kedney

When it was clear my brother
wouldn’t kick his drug addiction
and return to all the things he was great at—
baseball, tennis, downhill skiing—
he still played the harmonica.

Once, at a summer wedding, in the lull
between the toasts and dessert
he took the band’s mic,
tossed his curly hair to one side,
and put the blues harp deep in his mouth—
puckered lips, blocked tongue,
the bending sound like a train
going through a tunnel.

My mother stood and clapped.
That’s Peter, she kept
saying.
That’s Peter.

                                   His eyes closed
to everyone in the room.
“Not Fade Away” took all his breath
to play.

Read More

From the Archive: “Influence” and “Homer and Jazz”

Both essays originally published in New Ohio Review Issue #7

Influence 

by Sydney Lea 

Those who know me know that I’ve long been deeply in love with what Roland Kirk called “Black Classical Music,”

especially of that era whose great practitioners include Monk, Rollins, Davis, Jackson, Roach, among others;

and I’m frequently and unsurprisingly asked about the influence of jazz on my poetry.

Read More

Pantoum With Lines From Lucille Clifton’s Memoir

by Angela Narciso Torres

It’s a long time after, and I just wanted to know.
What was it like on the boat?
I wonder what became of our Mama?
And they would just rock and rock.

What was it like on the boat?
Oh slavery, slavery, my Daddy would say.
And they would just rock and rock.
Even the good parts was awful.

Oh slavery, slavery, my Daddy would say.
In history, even the lies are true.
Even the good parts was awful.
She walked from New Orleans to Virginia. Eight years old.

In history, even the lies are true.
Slavery was terrible but we fooled them.
She walked from New Orleans to Virginia. Eight years old.
We come out of it better than they did.

Slavery was terrible but we fooled them.
Don’t let nobody tell you them old people was dumb.
We come out of it better than they did.
Things don’t fall apart. Things hold.

Don’t let nobody tell you them old people was dumb.
Our lives are more than the days in them.
Things don’t fall apart. Things hold.
I only wanted to find out about these things.

Our lives are more than the days in them.
I wonder what became of our Mama?
I only wanted to find out about these things.
It’s a long after, and I just wanted to know.

Read More

From the Archive: “Audition”

by Leslie Rodd

Originally published in New Ohio Review Issue #20

San Francisco, 1969

Outside the jazz club where I’ve been audience, player, and piano tuner over the years, it’s quiet at this sunstruck ten o’clock, and I have a shivery thought of a guitar and a girl that began inside my head last night. No rocking, no rhythm, no foot-stomping or window-shaking. Only the fifty measured strides I’ve counted from the corner where the 30 Stockton dropped me off, past the police station to the alley, the dip in the pavement and the sloping rise, the manhole cover to my left, yes, here it is, the last of my landmarks, reassuring me I’m in the right place. A thought of a girl, who used to make my music glow.

Read More