INTERVIEW BY: JOHN WISNIEWSKI
Before the word hipster was a commodified subjectivity, there were authentic hipsters pushing the envelope in art and music. Hipster or hepcat, as used in the 1940s, referred to aficionados of jazz, in particular bebop, which became popular in the early 1940s. With Steve Dalachinsky we progress to an appreciation of later variations of jazz as well, such as hard bop, avant-garde/free jazz and improvisation. His love for music, however, goes way beyond that to most other forms of contemporary and classical music from all over the world.
Poet/ collagist Steve Dalachinsky is a New York Downtown Poet and is one of the mainstays of New York’s downtown scene. He was born in Brooklyn after the last big war (1946) and has managed to survive lots of little wars. His book “The Final Nite” (Ugly Duckling Presse) won the PEN Oakland National Book Award. His most recent books are “Fool’s Gold” (2014 feral press), “A Superintendent’s Eyes” (revised and expanded 2013/15 – unbearable/autonomedia) and “Flying Home,” a collaboration with German visual artist Sig Bang Schmidt (Paris Lit Up Press 2015). His latest cds are “The Fallout of Dreams” with Dave Liebman and Richie Beirach (Roguart 2014) and ‘ec(H)o-system with” the French rock group The Snobs (BamBaLam 2015). He is a 2014 recipient of a Chevalier le d’Ordre des Artes et Lettres and was nominated for a 2015 Pushcart Award. Forthcoming from Overpass Press “The Invisible Ray” with artwork by Shalom Neuman. Dalachinsky has been writing poetry for many years and has worked with such musicians as William Parker, Susie Ibarra, Matthew Shipp, Roy Campbell, Daniel Carter, Sabir Mateen, Mat Maneri, Federico Ughi, Loren Mazzacane Connors, Rob Brown, Tim Barnes and Jim Rourke among many others. He has read his work throughout Europe and Japan particularly in France and Germany and has appeared at most of the Vision Festivals, an Avant-jazz festival involving many of the above musicians. Dalachinsky has written liner notes for such prominent figures as Charles Gayle, Anthony Braxton, James Blood Ulmer, Matthew Shipp, Roy Campbell and Assif Tsahar. His poetry was accompanied by William Parker, Matthew Shipp, Daniel Carter, Sabir Mateen, Susie Ibarra, Thurston Moore and Vernon Reid on his first release, and by drummer Feredrico Ughi on his second release (“I Thought It Was the End of the World Then It Happened Again,” 577 Records, 2002).He currently lives in Manhattan with his wife, painter and poet Yuko Otomo.
You are inspired by avant-garde jazz in your writing. Why does music inspire your writing, Steve?
Avant-garde jazz is just one inspiration for my writing/poetry, though I admit it’s been a big one, of my many published books and chapbooks as well as CDs with avant-garde players on them. Six books have been dedicated to Jazz – five of which have been poems for so-called avant-garde jazz musicians – they are as follows and in chronological order:
- “The Final Nite,” a full length book of poems written over twenty years of listening to tenor saxophonist Charles Gayle
- “Logos and Language,” a collaboration with and poems for pianist Matthew Shipp
- “The Mantis,” an oversized chapbook of poems for pianist Cecil Taylor covering a period of almost 50 years. the first one being written when I was 19 years old
- “Reaching Into The Unknown” (With Jacques Bisceglia), a large 450 page book in collaboration with photographer Jacques Bisceglia that contains some 140 poems written to/for/while listening to avant-garde as well as straight ahead jazz players from 1967 through 2011.
- “Long Play E.P.”, a small recent chapbook of poems for saxophonist Evan Parker
In all cases the majority of poems were written listening to the music live and many were written in the 80’s, other influences however besides of course, life itself and what goes on around us both inside and outside of us daily are visual art, other poetry, nature/human nature (the biggest topic probably)/ sociopolitical content even in my abstract work / the deficiencies of the human species as well as just about anything else – wow what a mouthful.
To get to the crux of your question, when I wrote theses several hundred poems while listening to the music – the rhythms – the movement – the physical space I was in and whatever was happening or had happened around me just all fit together. Music is my main obsession and in avant-garde jazz just like in Beethoven’s late string quartets, the artists are always taking risks. Though many of my poems are fairly linear, they in part follow and try to become part of that rhythm, that movement, that risk.
Who are some of your favorite jazz artists?
Ah so many – right now I’m listening to Max Roach /Clifford Brown, a main link between bop and hard bop. Such grace and lyrical power! Others from ( let’s just say bop) through the avant-garde include Charlie Parker, Monk, Art Blakey, Lee Konitz, Horace Silver, Sonny Clark, Jackie McLean, Sonny Rollins and so many others, leading to my ultimate heroes who are bridges to, or are the avant garde – John Coltrane first and foremost, Eric Dolphy, Cecil Taylor, Ornette Coleman, much of McCoy Tyner, Albert Ayler, some Sun Ra and many from that period of the 60’s and now so many others from the 70’s – the Art Ensemble of Chicago on and on – up to some younger ones from the 80’s and a few even now. In the present a few I love for their daring and individuality, though there are very few voices that are truly unique – some of whom I have mentioned in this “list.”
Could you tell us about writing “A Superintendent’s Eyes”. Were these poems about those you observed while working as a superintendent?
Though the majority of the work in this book was written while I was the actual super of my building, some of it was from older pieces that seemed to fit. This is a revised and expanded edition of a book from 2000, so I also added a few other pieces from that time (basically the 80’s and 90’s and from earlier times in the building as well as a few from the 1960’s and 3 or 4 new pieces written to fit the theme.)
The first edition had photos so it was important to keep that element. The photographer Arthur Kaye and I got together to discuss what I wanted. Most of the photos if not all not only accompany the mood of the book but are done at my request to reflect specific pieces. The interior and exterior shots are of my apartment and my building with a couple of rare exceptions that are for descriptive sake but were taken elsewhere like garbage bags, garbage cans , the moon and the cherry blossoms for the last piece “Night Viewing”. All the people, incidents and dreams are real though some like Methadone Bobby, Shower Stall and Lester are incidents from the 60’s that seemed to fit and some names were changed to shall we and some names were changed to shall we say, protect the guilty. The work is not all poems, some are prose others prose poetry and others still, haibun, a Japanese form that combines prose and haiku. An example of this is the piece Dead Lips. My wife and I are still living in the same shoebox under even more crowded conditions as the photos show and now and then, the other night being an example, seeing a new young pretty tenant taking her garbage down while talking on her cell with head phones on. I thought “if the book hadn’t come out this would have made a perfect ‘Eyes’ addition.” I’d better stop there’s too much more to say.
Can you speak about your collaboration on your first CD with Thurston Moore and others?
That project in 1999 was my first real break. I had a few chapbooks out and really wanted a book. I knew few if any publishers and other than assorted zines had little of my work which was/is in abundance out. Someone suggested I ask the Knitting Factory, which had its own label and where I had spent much time listening to live music, if they’d give me a CD. I knew the owner well. I’d even go so far as to say we were friends at that time. I also knew the record manager and really don’t remember how the subject was broached. They agreed on the condition that I invite musicians since I knew many and even suggested a few. Of the ones I asked only two declined and as you can see, fourteen or so accepted. I was offered a certain amount of money which I divided up among those that would take it and kept some for myself. I designed the package with the help of the then blossoming computer technology The Knit possessed. I insisted on only one thing – that a booklet with the words be added since what I really wanted, as stated earlier, was a book. They said yes, but that it would come out of my royalties. Since a friend had counseled me on the contract and had assured me that I would probably never see any royalties (and he was right), I agreed and “voilà!”. Now almost all my CDs are accompanied by some form of insert with the words. I must admit however that though I am still partial to that first CD, I generally am never happy with the majority of results produced from recording. I like to think it’ll work, but the process always bugs me because I am so self conscious of the fact we are doing it, though working on these recordings with The Snobs these problems rarely, if ever occurred.
Even with “incomplete directions,” Sasha the sound person/recorder was great – she made me as relaxed as she could and the results show this. As for the common vision, I just picked poems that I wanted the musicians to play behind – in many cases in opposition to what the poem had to say.
The idea was duos and trios. I also was already tired of being referred to as a jazz poet, so I picked lots of poems, many of them new at the time, a few older, that did little to reflect music or jazz. If a musician asked what/how I wanted them to play, I’d say, like in the case of the short poem “empire”… well this poem is about America. Then Stephanie Stone launched into that beautiful opening with “Oh Beautiful.” But I never told them what or how to play. Although I did ask two saxophonists who played hard to just bring flutes and they ended up playing way too soft. It’s truly hard to say whether any of the participants shared my vision but with good players and good editing – sensitivity being the key – the end result was a good if somewhat shaky (reading wise – like all my products) recording. Since then I’ve made numerous CDs and as I stated am generally unhappy with most of the results though the musicians are always top-notch and great.
My three latest ones are all very different and like with my books except for one variation of a poem there are no repeat poems except in one case. As a result of that first CD the first edition of “A Superintendent’s Eyes” got published by a small press partially because they were Thurston Moore and Lee Renaldo fans. I wanted them to publish “The Final Nite” which had already begun to be gathered as a manuscript but it was even then too long for them. I put the “Super” book together which was a good thing because the “Final Nite,” which went through three publishers, grew in size and by the time it was published was almost twice what it had been in 1999.
Are there any writers who may inspire you, Steve?
That’s a yes/no question since I rarely read anymore. I get inspiration from listening to or looking at what I feel is good work be it writing, art, music, or film. But yes, my wife’s work is always inspiring and a barrage of folks from my youth still inspire me even if I don’t read them anymore: Homer, Basho, Blake, Keats, Lorca, most of the Beats and the Beat related writers, many experimental writers both living and dead. There are so many.
How do you communicate to your readers through your projects?
The words I hope instill a sense of place of being, of worth, and understanding about how this crazy world is structured and how humans have so tortured themselves and other species for decades. I want them to feel the same thing but through my emotions with horror, anger, sadness – I don’t know if I get through but if I do and someone gets it – this gloomy condition I am always exploring and feeling about humanity then, though it seems so contrary, I am happy. Although, many times when I give readings I think and/or say aloud how depressing a lot of the work is – books like the “Final Nite” express this constantly.
Do you keep well-connected to the world of jazz, Steve? Any new jazz artists that you like?
I am still very well-connected to jazz though the scene has and does keep changing. I had given up hope after the 80’s for awhile that I might never hear players that excite me anymore, but have since found a host of players between the ages of 10 – 40 that have piqued my interest. A lot are women and their instruments range from drums to piano to saxophone to trumpet. The entire gamut. I feel I don’t need to mention names, but there is an abundance of good music still being made both here and in Europe. I go to France a lot and have had the pleasure to both hear and play with some fine improvisers in both what is termed the jazz world, art rock and free improv world and I feel very privileged to know many of them on a personal level.
Are there any jazz musicians that you would like to collaborate with, that you have not already?
This is a difficult question that I can only answer by saying > many and all > I want to read/play with all kinds of folks and in all kinds of musical genres though this might not happen. I’ve recently played in heavy/hard rock/metal situations. With electronic music. With great young art rockers like The Snobs and wonderful jazz folks like pianist Connie Crothers and saxophonist Edith Lettner. I am open to everything and anything and if it works then WOW another miracle, if it doesn’t, another mishap to add to a long list of miracles and mishaps. I recently did a duo with percussionist / drummer/theramin player Michael Evans. We had wanted to play together for a long time. We started late. The audience was very small. like most gigs I do we asked no questions of each other. He didn’t know what I would read and vice-versa. We hit, did solos then duos, played about 40 minutes. it was great. We went home near midnight $3 and a whole lot spiritually richer. Ditto with a recent gig with percussionist Tim barnes and Barry Weinblatt on electronics.
Could you tell us about your most recent collaboration with Alex Luzapone, Steve? What kind of sound were you trying for?
This was an interesting unexpected gig. I had known Alex for a while but knew nothing about his music. He asked me to do a gig with him and his band Eighty Pound Pug and I agreed. I showed up to the back room of Otto’s Shrunken Head and there was Alex, his guitar, a drummer and a cute young Japanese woman on alto sax. There were about five people in the audience including my wife, his wife, one friend of mine and a couple of Alex’s. I forgot all the details but when we hit I realized right away I was dealing with heavy metal music. It was possibly my first time reading in this situation though I had just finished my second CD with The Snobs, who had a less intense, as in loud, approach… I adjusted my personality and a bit of my reading style to accommodate the music. The sax play was great, playing very free. Alex roared on guitar and I had fun just going with it. Afterward he told me he had recorded it and asked if he could put it out as a CD. I said sure! He asked me to do the art work for the cover and inside.
This pleased me very much. I am getting old and am willing to take chances with any genre of music/sound so for me it was a fun experience. We got voted number fourteen by Steve Holtje on his top 20 CDs list for 2015 for Culture Catch, an online music journal. We never played again though I’d do it any time he asks if my time is available. The only thing I regret is not doing all new material. If I knew he wanted to make a CD I would have read stuff that I have never recorded before. But so it goes. Rock on Pugs, rock on.
This is difficult. I am bored with the proliferation of electronics though I would like to experiment more with them myself. I see an increase in multi-media/inter-disciplinary projects though I am not a big fan of most. More electro-acoustic crossover. More projects like what I did tonight with Gen Ken Montgomery (I hope). Large ensembles of many different voices and instruments in a controlled but open environment of notation and improvisation. Less labeling. None of these are new concepts however. There are not many new things happening in the music scenes I converge on and I don’t know enough about the experimental rock or classical worlds – trend is a tough word. It basically means to have a general direction tendency or course. It is a very stale, neutral label. And usually if a trend takes hold it becomes, no matter how underground, mainstream and redundant and boring. Something new today becomes a trend tomorrow. Constant mix and match in a post – post modern world where everything and nothing is new under the sun, moon or stars. Maybe something truly new and exciting is happening on another planet though there are quite a few artists and musicians out there whose work I still admire and who at times do their best to push the envelope. Is anything really experimental anymore?
Could you give us a look into your projects for the upcoming year?
Just finished a new CD with The Snobs as well as a very limited edition DVD/Cd of a live gig we did in Paris. My newest book “The Invisible Ray” with illustrations by Shalom Neuman from a manuscript from 2005 will be out in a couple of months from Overpass Press. I am hoping that in the next two years or so I will travel to Germany, France and Italy though this is not a certainty. I have two liner notes and a few poems just finished. Lots of readings and my ongoing column, Outtakes, for the Brooklyn Rail. I was asked to contribute to various upcoming projects and hope to keep writing, reading, collaging and getting more work out there whenever I can. The goal is to keep the work alive.