Drafting: “Playing the Trombone”

For our final poems for workshop, our poetry workshop class chose to do a “Secret Santa” idea. We drew names, and whoever’s name we got, we were to write a poem imitating that person’s style. This can be really daunting, especially if you get someone with a completely different style than your own, or that particular writer has a lack of thematic coherency.

It’s sort of like we are translating each other’s poetry, mingling our -nesses with this other person’s other -nesses: “A translation is a friendship between poets. There is a mystical union between them based on love and art. As in ordinary religious mysticism, the problem of ineffability exists: how do you find words to say the unsayable? Since a vision cannot be replicated, you seek equivalents for the other” (found here).

When I was at the Southern Festival of Books, I attended a wonderful panel on translation. Darren Jackson, William Pitt Root, and Marilyn Kallet were on it, and they described how translating a poem is like an intense friendship or romantic relationship, creating a completely new poem comprised of the original author’s words and your own art form in the language you’re translating it to.

My “Secret Santa” person is a Creative Nonfiction writer whose poetry tends to focus on music, particularly the Los Angeles music scene.

I decided to look up L.A. music characters and discovered Charles Mingus. What was most interesting to me about him was his violence. He raged all the time and was particularly brutal, particularly against the ones he should love. He broke basses, tried to crush another musician’s hands, and, most notably, punched a close friend of his, Jimmy Knepper, in the mouth, breaking one of Knepper’s teeth, which ruined Knepper’s ability to play the whole range of his trombone. It’s so brutal to imagine trying to ruin other musician’s ability to play. I can’t imagine how awful it would be if I could only write some of the alphabet or had to try to formulate thoughts just through speech if someone had crushed my hands.

I chose to focus my poem on the relationship between Knepper and Mingus. What I didn’t know, I made up.

I researched how one learns to play the trombone: what they have to do physically to play it, how they hold their lips, their breath, etc. I then thought about how the tension could be pushed more. To ruin your friend’s ability to play their most beloved instrument is awful, but what if you guys were lovers? How awful would it be to permanently ruin your lover’s ability to do something they truly love?

So, that was the basis. I then wrote out the frame: the physicality of playing the trombone.

It begins,

“Your lips grab air vigorously,
making a sustained-ffffff.”

I then brought out the sense of the tension by jumping between the physicality of playing the trombone and language that pushes at the nature of their relationship:

“When he fastens his pants,
you’ll swear it sounds like a guillotine.”

I am pleased with the draft, and I really enjoyed the way it made me approach my own work differently. Thematically, I don’t write about gay men or music, and both provide really interesting avenues for me since they are foreign topics. This poem is definitely both a homage to my dear colleague and a re-thinking of my own style. My AP English teacher in high school had us write an “autobiography” riffing off this Lawrence Ferlinghetti poem, and I loved the exercise. I think interacting with another author’s work and re-creating some literary lovechild is a really interesting way of keeping our work fresh and engaged.

What poems would you like to re-visualize? How might you approach it?

4 thoughts on “Drafting: “Playing the Trombone”

  1. Hi Tara!

    i’ve been reading your blog for a while now, and I’ve only just made a connection (I’m a little slow!). You are in the same MFA program as my friend Tom Useted…. do you know him? We went to the same college and he was my boss at a bookstore 🙂

    1. Ha! The writing world is so small; we always end up running into seven degrees of Kevin Bacon issues… He actually is the fellow whose style I riffed off of for this draft! I’ll pass on the hello. I bet he’ll appreciate it. 🙂

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