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Dick Lourie

You started out as a "folkie" inspired by Woody Guthrie and by the Alan Lomax recordings in the 1950's. Talk about this.

That's what I grew up with. My family background is Depression era-middle class-left wing-socialist-communist- Brooklyn-Jewish, not necessarily in that order. The culture and the music were indissolubly linked. So we had Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger and Leadbelly and Almanac Singers and Josh White and Sonny Terry/Brownie McGee records, old 78s that are still on the shelves in my study. My aunt and uncle literally sat at Leadbelly's feet as teenagers in summer camp in the 1930s. This was the music of my youth-I was born in 1937. Then as a college student and trumpet player in the late fifties I got interested for some time in jazz. In 1961, as a young college instructor, I discovered the newly released Anthology of American Folk Music from Folkways Records, which connected me again with the old traditional music roots. At that point I started learning and singing some of the old songs. I took up acoustic guitar, though I never got further than being a just competent enough picker and strummer to accompany myself. But I thrived on combing scholarly collections of regional songs and learning old obscure songs that nobody else knew. It was a satisfying thing. My singing and playing, and other aspects of my life, have always been inspired by Woody Guthrie. When he died in 1967 I wrote a poem that I still like a lot.

For Folkway Records in the 1960's, you cut 2 records of children's songs. What were the names of the records? Did you sing on these records? play the trumpet? If not, explain your role.

These were actually in 1973 and 1980. I worked for some time in and around New York, doing music with preschool kids, accompanied by my just-about-competent guitar strumming, and sometimes the Autoharp, a wonderfully sweet and quirky instrument with a story of its own. In the course of this, I wrote some songs, and in '72 or '73 sent a tape to Moe Asch, the grand old man at Folkways. I was really excited to hear that he liked it. He told me to go to a certain recording studio he worked with in Manhattan and record some songs. I went there with instruments and an eight-year-old collaborator, Jed Hershon (son of my Hanging Loose colleague Bob Hershon), and spent a few hours doing my own songs for kids. I played guitar and Autoharp and sang. Jed was a terrific partner; he sang in tune and did some great improvising. This record is called Small Voice Big Voice.

In the 1970s, during a long period of residence in Ithaca, I had fallen in with a disreputable crowd of bluegrass musicians. My guitar strumming remained musically too primitive to fit in with these hot pickers, but I did manage to do some jamming with the trumpet when they would get around to playing some Western swing. Two of the most disreputable characters I hung out with were Alan Senauke and Howie Tarnower, who as a bluegrass duo were called the Fiction Brothers. Howie and I shared a house, and we did shows for kids, sometimes with Alan as backup. I wrote more kids' songs, and in 1980 we recorded another Folkways album, Sitting at Home With My Apple Friends, which included both some of my originals and some traditional songs. This was, by comparison with the first one, a highly produced affair, despite the fact that we recorded in Alan's apartment. Alan played guitar and bass, Howie played mandolin and banjo, and I played guitar and trumpet on this one. Plus we all sang, along with half a dozen local kids, and special guest Jed, who was now fifteen. Much later, after I had moved to Boston and taken up the sax, Howie and I formed a 50s rock-and-roll band called the Blue Suede Boppers, which is now celebrating its twentieth anniversary.

At the age of 40, you took up playing the saxophone and played regularly in the Boston area blues and jazz clubs. Did you ever play at the old 1369 club in Inman Square when Jay Hoffman was one of the owners?

I loved the Sunday afternoon jam sessions at the old 1369. This was mid to late 1980s-I never met the owner, so I don't know if it was Jay Hoffman then. As you say, I came late to the sax, though it quickly turned into my primary instrument. Even when I was a relative beginner, the 1369 jam was a welcoming place, and it was there that I first got to know some of the great Boston blues performers.

Every year you perform at the Sunflower Blues and Gospel Festival in Clarksdale, Mississippi with Big Jack Johnson and others. What is this like for you? You are working on a book of poetry with photographs on the history of Clarksdale. How exciting. How is this manuscript progressing?

Strictly by chance, I took my sax and sat in at a New Jersey blues club with Big Jack in 1995. The term "life-changing experience" is a cliché, but I have to use it here. I had been playing the sax for twelve years, with a focus on American roots music-rhythm and blues, soul, rock and roll, less so jazz, and, though not primarily, blues. Had I been more familiar with the national and international blues scene, I might have been intimidated by Jack's reputation as one of the master performers, and not even asked him about sitting in. In this case, my ignorance was an advantage. Jack is always gracious about people sitting in, though he may know nothing about their level of musicianship. We hit it off musically and as friends. Jack was pretty much on a perpetual nationwide tour at that time, and I continued sitting in with the band when they got near Boston or New York. I also began playing increasingly with blues bands around Boston. In 1997 my wife and I went to Clarksdale Mississippi, Jack's hometown, so I could play with Jack in the annual blues festival. I had never been to Mississippi. To be on stage at a festival like this can spoil you forever as an audience member. You look out at an audience-blues fans-and you play with a star like Big Jack, and you are never again satisfied to watch and listen and not be part of the show. It was an amazing experience.

I went back two months later, and again the following year. I became fascinated not just with performing in Clarksdale, but with every aspect of the place, from its long association with the blues to its history, its Delta culture and subcultures, its surprising (to a naïve outsider) ethnic mix. I made friends within and outside the blues community. I realized that Clarksdale was what I really wanted to write about; I've been doing that and visiting twice a year since my first trip. On my visits I interview people and do library research (and of course I play music). And when I can catch up with Big Jack Johnson, we still perform together.

The idea of an entire collection of poems all on one subject is new for me and very exciting. The book has a lot of oral history, people speaking in the poems in their own voices; and of course it's got my own experiences in the Delta as a visitor and musician. It's completed now, though I may add a few, and it's a good size for a poetry collection, over 100 pages. I am now in the process of looking for a publisher. I'll be sure to let you know if I succeed in finding one.

You have been playing back-up for many years for the legendary Doo Wop group the G-Clefs. What was their # 1 pop chart hit? You and your wife are doing a documentary about the G-Clefs. How far are you with this to completion?

Aah, the G-Clefs. What a story. Four brothers and a next-door neighbor from Roxbury, singing together for fifty years, and still performing. I've been with them since 1993. Their 1961 hit "I Understand (Just How You Feel)" went to #9 on the USA pop charts, and #1 in-where?-apartheid South Africa. Another whole story. My wife, filmmaker Abby Freedman, who has always had an interest in roots music (hence her willingness to visit Clarksdale, Mississippi every August), saw these remarkable guys and their history as a rich subject for a movie. She is currently producing a feature-length documentary about them. I'm the narrator in the movie, and have been helping her shape the story. It's within weeks of completion, and we expect to have the premier early next year.

In the movie, "Smoke Signals" by Sherman Alexie, your poem, "Forgiving Our Fathers" was featured. What was this like for you? It is a remarkable poem. Please talk about this poem and your experience with "Smoke Signals."

I'm glad you like the poem. Sherman is a Hanging Loose Press author, and we've been friends for years; of course I was gratified and excited when he asked if he could use the poem in the movie. Sometimes he jokes that he wrote the movie in order to lead up to in the poem. And of course he modified the poem slightly, with my permission, so that it could realistically be spoken by Thomas. It does seem an appropriate fit, though I have to say that when I wrote that poem Sherman was two years old. One reason the poem by a New Jersey Jewish guy about his childhood in the 1940s and 50s fits into a movie about two Northwest indians 30 years younger has to do with the poem's rhetorical strategy. I was a child of divorced and remarried parents, with a father and stepfather who displayed what seemed to me very different personalities. The poem seeks to heighten those differences by making them into irreconcilable contrasts, and also seeks to demonstrate my own then inescapable dilemma by making it a universal dilemma, not "my fathers" but "our fathers"-that part of the strategy is always risky, but it seems to have worked here. The other thing the poem does is to move from unconscious to conscious thought, starting with dreams, then from past to present and future. Again, risky in that it seeks to include so much. But again, it worked.

When I say it worked, I'm judging from the response to the poem in the movie. What an experience that was. Evidently, a good many people who saw the movie sat through the credit roll at the end until, somewhere beneath the name of the second assistant electrician, my name appeared as author of the poem. I got letters and emails from strangers about how the poem had touched their own experience. This went on for maybe three years after the movie had come out. Meanwhile, my book Ghost Radio, including that poem, had been published; it has sold well and gone into multiple printings. Among the many poetry titles Hanging Loose has published it's right up there near the top as far as number of copies sold; and I attribute this almost entirely to the presence of "Forgiving Our Fathers." That's because, realistically, while I certainly have an appropriate appreciation of my own work, I am sure my reputation as a poet has never been broad enough to account for the volume of sales of this book.

You have published many books of poetry. Discuss your latest one, Ghost Radio, which includes a CD where many of the poems are set to music.

These are actually two separate projects, though we do try to "bundle" them, as the phrase goes, when we can. The title poem and many others in the book are about blues and roots music. The book was being put together during the time I started playing with Big Jack, so music was on my mind. Shortly after it came out, I began thinking that there might be a way to combine the hitherto separate tracks of my artistic life, poetry and music, by shaping blues music to fit the performance of poems. As it turned out, the fit was natural, in part because many of my poems seemed to fit, loosely or tightly, the three-part structure of a blues verse. I took many of the poems from the book, plus some others, and combined them with a blues band accompaniment, and myself both speaking the poems and playing sax. Not quite like the "poetry and jazz" movement of the 1950s: there the musical emphasis was on improvisation to go with the poems. Here the music is crafted so that the poems fit into the length of blues verses. The CD is called Ghost Radio Blues. Both book and CD are projects of Hanging Loose Press.

Why did you start writing poetry in syllabics? Why do you continue to write in this way?

Another serendipitous life-changing experience. During the time I was studying with Denise Levertov-this was 1964-a friend suggested I try syllabics; he thought (I don't remember why) it would suit me. It did, from my very first attempt. I have tried to figure out why, but I have only speculation, as follows: Maybe, as I go through what must seem to some a daft and obsessive exercise, keeping track of the syllables (not words or rhythms or stresses) in each line, maybe that takes my mind off other things. I don't think about rhythms, or stresses, so whatever is going to happen is permitted to do so without my being conscious of it. I like the idea that, as I write, my unconscious is at work. Also, what started happening from the beginning of my work with syllabics was a pairing of simple diction with complex syntax. I liked the tension of that combination; it seemed to work well for me; I just kept doing it, striving all the time to achieve the effect of effortless off-the-cuff conversation. So that's become my way of writing; it's so natural to me now I'd be hard pressed to write anything any other way. I've thought a lot about this, about my use of syllabics. Here I am writing a poem and struggling to re-phrase, to change things around so that I can end a line after a certain number of syllables. On the face of it, this makes no sense. For me personally, all I can think is that there's some truth in Frost's famous remark that writing poetry without rhyme is like playing tennis without a net. Except that Frost didn't realize there could be other kinds of net as well; syllabics is my net.

In the 1960's, you were one of the founders of poetry-in-the-schools started in NYC. Discuss this.

In New York in the mid-sixties, a number of organizations and individual poets were all experimenting with teaching the writing of poetry to children, primarily in public schools. We were all acutely aware of the bad rap poetry has always gotten in schools as either hearts and flowers or puzzle-solving. Teachers and Writers Collaborative was getting started. Columbia University's Teachers College was involved-Maybe they had some initial relationship with T&W; I don't remember. Some of us living in NYC got involved with these various programs; then someone got a grant to start the New York State Poets in the Schools group, and those of us with some prior experience got involved in that as well; it became a de facto collective group. We developed programs around the state, worked together for several years before internal personal/political/power-sharing conflicts ultimately brought big changes. That initial group shrank; others emerged. Hanging Loose magazine has always maintained the same kind of involvement with young poets that we all felt necessary in the mid-sixties: There's a section of high school writers in every issue, and the press publishes a series of anthologies, so far three of them, collecting the best of that high school work.

You were a student of Denise Levertov's first poetry class/workshop (described in her essay "The Untaught Teacher"), describe what her classes were like. What are some of the important things you learned from her?

I was thinking about this recently, when I found lists of some of the old reading assignments we had. I actually don't remember much about the readings or the class discussions. I remember that we were able to help one another tremendously in our own writing, and I remember the atmosphere Denise established of cooperation and camaraderie. She was somehow able to function simultaneously as teacher and comrade, perhaps in part because this was in fact the first time she had taught. After the official one-semester workshop was over, some of us continued to meet in Denise's apartment. In that workshop I met Emmett Jarrett, forming a friendship that led directly to the beginnings of Hanging Loose, and Denise remained a close friend and mentor for me until her death in 1997.

In 1966, you were one of the founding editors of Hanging Loose Press. Talk about the other editors. This year, you celebrate 41 years. What is the secret to such longevity? I see so many magazines and presses disappear.

When I met Emmett, he and Ron Schreiber were just in the process of transforming one magazine into another. While Emmett was a grad student and Ron a teaching assistant at Columbia, they had produced an elegant-looking poetry magazine called Things (after WC Williams: "No ideas but in things"). They wanted to turn it into something less grand and less expensive to produce; someone hit on the idea of loose pages in an envelope, and the title. Bob Hershon was a Things contributor whose work I liked. I called him up and the proverbial one thing (or Thing) led to the proverbial other. The magazine stayed literally loose through the first twenty-five issues; complaints from bookstores about purloined pages helped persuade us to switch to the more conventional format.

Emmett and I were East Village buddies and neighbors in that old Alphabet Village: I lived on Avenue C; he lived on Avenue D. We're still buddies. Without going into the long story: Emmett got a spiritual call, went to seminary, became an Episcopal priest, retired from editing, still writes, runs St. Francis House in New London. Ironically, he of all us young radicals is today the most political.

Ron was in Amsterdam when all this was happening; when he returned in the spring of 1965, we were beginning to get under way. I met Ron for the first time when he came back. We were friends and colleagues, and took turns mentoring and hectoring each other, from then till his death in 2005. Ron was militant, gay, political, outrageous, dedicated to friends and to Hanging Loose. He worked and worked at it. We all loved him and we miss him.

Bob has always worked in some aspect of publishing or printing, from copy boy to trade magazine writer to his current gig: He runs the Print Center in New York, brokering all the services necessary for someone who wants to produce a book or magazine but doesn't have the wherewithal to deal directly with all the typesetting, design, production details that must be attended to. He's a prolific poet himself, well known in New York, but not as widely appreciated as he should be. He writes poems that are terribly funny and terribly serious at the same time.

Mark Pawlak replaced Emmett in 1980. He was a friend of Ron's who, amazingly, fit right in to this group that had already been together at that point for 14 years. As Bob is a publishing industry guy, and I'm a music guy, Mark's other hat is mathematics, his major at MIT (where incidentally he, too, took a course with Denise, which launched him into poetry). His poems are rigorous renderings, sometimes found, of what goes on day to day. Mark is a decade younger than me and Bob, and I'd like to say that this gives a look at what today's youth is thinking, but at this point Mark is no spring chicken either.

The longevity of Hanging Loose: We are a collective. We trust each other's judgment sufficiently that if I vote "no" on a poem, and the others like it, I may grumble a little, but I'm comfortable with seeing it in the magazine.

We are close friends as well as colleagues. I'm proud to be the godfather of Mark and Mary Bonina's son Gianni. Bob and I talk on the phone a couple of times a week, and we share forty plus years together. The first poetry reading for both of us was in 1966, when we performed together at the old Folklore Center, Izzy Young's legendary gathering place on Sixth Avenue. I mentioned Jed before; I've known him and his sister Lizzie since they were tiny. Mark and Bob and I all got married within two years of each other. Another long story.

Also, we share responsibilities according to our by-now-familiar strengths and weaknesses. I'm an excellent book editor; they don't let me touch the money. Mark can handle a lot of what computers are needed for. He keeps track as each issue of the magazine builds gradually from manuscript to proofs. We don't let Mark spell anything. Bob handles production from book or magazine design and cover art to final product. Etcetera. And all three of us make all final manuscript decisions together, sitting around a table.

I would never never have been able to keep Hanging Loose going myself. Not even the magazine, let alone the 150 book titles we've done. It's all a matter of collective labor. And specifically for me, it's a matter of having colleagues who can keep me focused. As you can see by my history, I can easily slip from one discipline to another. I'm fine when given a task. So when I'm editing a Hanging Loose book, the manuscript is there, I'm looking at it, I know what to do, start on page one and end on page 100, or whatever. I count on the other guys for a lot of support and a lot of organizing.

What are some of the challenges you face as an editor?

One challenge is always deadlines; just getting stuff done on time. Standard editor's problem. Another is dealing with authors who (like most) are sure their particular words in a given passage are the very best way to get their poem across. Sometimes during an argument over wording, an author will offer to seek arbitration, so to speak, by showing the passage in question to a few friends for their opinions. That's fine, I say, as long as you want your friends to edit the book. Another problem is figuring out when to back down on some dispute with an author. He or she is after all the creator of this piece, so sometimes I do back down. But I have to weigh the question carefully each time. One other problem that gets bigger as we age: Turning down work by old friends. Everybody's work (with rare exceptions) is of course uneven. The work of some poets gets more and more so. Old friends send us poems sometimes that seem to be just tired, or parodies of former strong work, or the same old poem dressed up in different outfits. Saying no to old friends is hard. I think if we ever make compromises in our editorial judgments, it is most likely to be in these cases; we'll say "OK, let's take one of these," though we are in agreement that it's not up to this old friend's (or our) high standard.

How do you balance your time?

I balance my time the way the proverbial seal in the circus balances a ball on its nose. I'm always busy, always frantically trying to keep that ball spinning. I try to play two of my three horns (trumpet, tenor sax, soprano sax) every evening for at least a 20-minute warm-up. Weekend gigs keep me playing more extensively and more intensely. I try, often unsuccessfully, to write every day. Right now my writing time is devoted to getting the book proposal in the mail to a few publishers. I do Hanging Loose work every day, though my colleagues will tell you, truthfully, I'm usually the late one in reading manuscript submissions and passing them on to the next guy. My desk and study are a mess. It will probably take me at least a week to open today's mail. So I guess the answer is that I don't really balance my time after all, though I make periodic efforts to do so. And I don't ask anyone for sympathy, because I'm retired from my day job, so theoretically I should have all the time I need. But I can't complain. I do get things done, and I think of myself as a productive artist.

Any last comments?

Sometimes I am asked which was my first interest, music or poetry. My answer is that I was a musician first, but realized that I'd never be able to make a living at it, so I decided to get into poetry (joke).


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