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Marc Jampole

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Marc Jampole is the author of Music from Words, published in 2007 by Bellday Books, Inc. His poetry has been published in Mississippi Review, Oxford Review, Janus Head, Main Street Rag, Ellipsis, Wilderness House Review and other journals. Over the years, four of Marc’s poems have been nominated for The Pushcart Prize. More than 450 articles he has written on various subjects have been published in magazines and newspapers. Marc has worked professionally as a filmmaker, television news reporter, university instructor in French and German, options trader, advertising executive and writer. When he graduated with a Bachelor of Arts (Honors) from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, he won the scholarship for the outstanding student. He also earned a Masters or Arts at the University of Washington and conducted independent research at the University of Berlin, Germany, on a Fulbright Fellowship. Born in New York City, Marc now resides in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Where is your favorite place to write?

I have an office on the second floor of my home in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood of Pittsburgh. My computer sits in front of three windows which look directly at two magnificent maple trees. Everything in the office is arranged to meet my writing needs: a bulletin board and filing cabinet to my left; a sturdy printer within arm's reach; a pile of audio CDs (as I have not yet switched to iPod), a large desk space to spread out stuff. Often during the day I gather stray thoughts that I write down on slips of paper, which I pile on my desk when I get home from wherver I've been, and begin to sort through whenever I sit down to write creatively--generally for at least a few hours a day.

What writers inspire you?

Among poets, Wallace Stevens and T.S. Eliot above all, although I also have learned a lot from H.D., Plath, Dickinson, Pound and Hopkins. What inspires me about all of them are two things:
1. The way each, in his or her own way, uses sound to create the emotional meaning of a poem, much like background music does in a movie.
2. The way each can inject two or more levels of meaning into a poem.
Among non-prose writers, I love the great French novelists, especially Stendhal and Flaubert. Stendhal may have written the first novel about the "knowledge worker," The Red and the Black, in which the tragic hero Julien Sorel escapes from the rural squalor of his home town only because of his intellectual abilities, specifically the fact that he has a photographic memory. Julien's ambitions, loves, rise and fall represent a chilling object lesson for writers, graphic designers, lawyers, accountants, professors, engineers, social workers, physicians, nurses and so many other knowledge workers struggling today to put food on the table while maintaining their ethical standards in what has become a hard, cruel world.
Inspiring writers: I can't forget Dante, Cervantes, Joyce, Twain, Proust, Joseph Heller, on and on.

How would you define your poetry?

The thing people always notice immediately about my poetry is the musicality, which I achieve through a variety of tactics, including repetiition, use of both regular and irregular metrics, internal rhymes, variations on theme, emjambment, assonance, aliteration, alteration of natural stopping points and dissonance. I want the sound qualities in my poetry not only approach the status of music, but that the music conveys an emotion that underlies the narrative of the poem. Because I will frequently change meters from line to line or create irregular meters, I think of the music I make with words as "jazzy," but my poetry does not qualify as "jazz poetry" if you use Rexroth's classic definition, and besides, what you label it is not important.

Another striking characteristic of my work, one that that distinguishes it from most other contemporary poetry, is the dissociation of the voice from the poet. It is very rare that the speaker in one of my poems is me or my alter-ego, and just as rare that the poem is autobiographical in the sense of telling a story about my life. For example, some of the speakers in Music form Words include a man with advanced Parkinson's disease; the composer Arnold Schoenberg; John Coltrane on his death bed; a pine tree that dominates the woods of Squaw Valley. Sometimes, there are two or more speaker's in a poem; for example, "The Death Song of Lenny Ross" is told from a total of seven distinct voices. I love to explore the inherent tension when the narrator(s) of a poem is not the author, and may in fact, disagree with the author. How does the author then make his or her point, while expressing the reality of the dissociated narrator? It's a central question in much of literary history, and I love exploring at least a few of the infinitude of answers in my poetry.

Please talk about your new book, Music from Words (Bellday Books). For me, this book was brilliant!

Music from Words has five parts, each of which explores a different kind of musicality in poetry: The first part, Operas and Arias, contains stories sung by one or more of the characters in each poem. Part two is called Love Songs, which is fairly self-explanatory. The poems in part three, Abstract Music, are word equivalents to some of the more intense, weird music of the 20th century, like Charles Ives or John Coltrane. The poems in Protest Rock reveal my take on social issues, while the last section, Songs of Self, are first-person confessions of the self, but usually not of my "self."

How does music/rhythmn connect with your words. Explain your process.

Sometimes I write simple narratives, sometimes in a very abstract way. But in all cases, I want the poem to sound musical, and for the music to convey a specific emotion or emotional ride. So even when people don't understand the abstractions, they can say, this poem is beautiful or this poem makes me feel something:sad, happy, nostalgic, angry, disillusioned, ecstatic, horny, hungry or... That's my goal in every poem, which doesn't mean I always achieve it.

Sometimes I start with an idea, sometimes with a word, sometimes with a phrase that is inherently musical, like the name Joe Venuti, which serves as a mantra in "July Fourth." For example, in my reading I came across the stylites, who were early Christian aesthetics who lived for years on top of tall columns in the middle of the Syrian desert around the time of St. Augustine. I had a whimsical thought that a stylite is a state of mind that could flourish in other belief systems, and decided to write a rant from the point of view of an atheistic styilite; the result: "Confessions of an atheistic stylite." In another book I read I discovered the rafflesia, the largest flower in the world, and a parasite that sucks its life from the liana vine. My crazy mind imagined all the couples I know in mutually parasitical relationships, and I mean that in a good way--each symbolically feeding upon the other to fulfill basic needs, including the need to feed upon and be fed upon. So I thought I would describe the relationship between the rafflesia and liana from the point of view of a liana who, in the middle of the poem assumes the role of rafflesia. Thus the idea for "Liana ro raflesia."

Once I have an idea, I do a lot of research to make sure my facts are right. For "Ghost," which is an indictment of the U.S. worldwide torture gulag, I read thousands of pages of reports by peace organizations, the U.S. government and journalists, searching for realistic details I could use to build the nightrmare within a nightmare that is "Ghost."

I won't begin to put words on paper until I know the point(s) of view that will tell the poem's story. I think carefully about the language the voice or voices would use, and consciously look for ways to put music into that voice. I consider the question, "What is the music playing in the head of this person?" Then I try to use words and meters that convey that music. Perhaps it's through repetition of key phrases, or maybe a type of metric pattern or a certain approach to diction.

Rewriting is essential. It is in the rewrite that I can work on the musical details--changing words to improve the musicality. I also can work on the overall musical and emotional structure, which means the flow of feelings I expect readers to experience as they move through the poem. It is usually in rewrite that I create this flow of feelings.

One last word on process: I never know if I'm done with a poem until I cut something out that I love or think is beautiful. It is only then that I know that the poem has escaped from my ego to become its own thing.

How long were you working on this body of work?

Music from Words is my first book, so of course, so a few of the poems are as old as 20 years. But about three-quarters of the book was written between 2004 and 2006.

Discuss the importance of writing and reading experimental poetry in today's society.

That's a very thorny question that begs the broader question of the role of all poetry in today's society. First to the general role of poetry in society: there is none right now in the broadest sense, even though there are more people writing poetry than ever before, and writing in a wonderfully diverse array of styles. But other than other poets, not many people are reading poetry, just as there are not many people reading serious fiction or history. Our society treats poetry like a relic of past times, and I mean really ancient times. I believe this situation-the marginalization of poetry--is temporary, but I don't know the events that will change it.

There are several special roles that experimental poetry plays, can play and/or should play. One is similar to the role of the scientist, to seek new knowledge, in this case, knowledge in how words can be put together to convey meaning and create pleasure. One gloomy example: much of what we consider part of the standard language of television commercials originated in either Joyce or the Dadaists. Another role of experimental poetry is to provide the pleasure of a word adventure, at least for those adventurous enough to set aside preconceived notions of the relationship between words and meaning. Finally, like experimental music or painting, experimental poetry jolts the reader into reevaluating how he or she views the world; it's like an intellectual coaster ride, or perhaps like putting the mind through a mental decathalon. In other words, it's good for people's mental and emotional well-being to read and hear experimental poetry, even if they don't understand all of it. Wallace Stevens said that one should view modern poetry as one does modern art--sometimes you don't understand it, but you know it's beautiful.

Talk about some other media you've been involved in. How does this work in regards to your poetry?

First the facts: I have worked professionally as a filmmaker and television writer/reporter. When I was a a bit younger, I managed a rock group and produced some jazz group recordings. I have taught both German and French language, which I bring up because to my mind, every language is its own medium. I have also written hundreds of articles for magazines and newspapers and done a lot of commercial writing, such as TV and radio commericals, websites, corporate training videos and brochures (and I will add in defensive parentheses that in the marketing stuff, I never sold my soul, refusing to work on any projects that go against my fairly liberal political and social beliefs).

I have learned from my work in all these media. For example, I learned a lot about point-of-view from filmmaking. One central concern in filmmaking is where to place the camera, which is really a point-of-view decision. As you move the camera, you change the point-of-view of the narration, sometimes abruptly, but often in subtle ways that the viewer doesn't even notice. Filmmaking also taught me many lessons on how images can be ordered to create meaning Luckily, these lessons were conveniently described for me (and anyone else!) before my birth by the Russian filmmaker Eisenstein in his essays collected in English as Film Form and The Film Sense.

I recently wrote an article, still unpublished, about what poets can learn from other art forms. Here is what I said about painting, an art form I have studied extensively, but never practiced:

The painter’s vision can be brought to the page in words, but not by mere description. A poem that faithfully describes a painting is not necessarily written in the poetic equivalent of the style of the painting. Instead, the poet must find word-thoughts similar to the depiction processes inherent in line, color, imagery, depth of field, point of view, stroke, media and the relationship of these elements to each other.

Here are how four principles of painting translate into poetry:
The limited palette: The limited palette exists in virtually every art form, but is identified most commonly as a defining element of style in painting, e.g., Picasso’s “Blue” period or Pollack’s action painting. But a string quartet or the limited vocabulary of the voice speaking a poem are also attempts to limit the palette as a means of expression. Limiting the palette in any art form should not limit the emotional scope of the content. Let’s look at the limited palette as the range of rhetorical tropes engaged by the writer, similar to how the tessitura of a singer defines the general range of a voice part, the part of the register in which most of the tones of a voice part lie. The full range of emotional expression can expand or contract in its sensual manifestations to fill any tessitura, or any palette.Look at Picasso’s “blue” period in which he demonstrates a wide range of expression within a very limited palette of colors. Composers have used the four instruments of the string quartet to express a range of emotion at least as wide as that expressed by a full symphonic orchestra. In a bloodless Racine drama in which characters speak a sparse and stilted vocabulary of less than one thousand very proper and sanitary words, even the nuance of verb conjugation becomes an element of expression. When we see the story unfold exclusively through the eyes of Benjy, a mentally retarded man in The Sound and the Fury, we are viewing reality through his limited thought palette, and yet we manage to understand a full range of emotional states felt by the characters in the narrative.

Cubism: The underlying thought process of Cubism is to break a physical reality into pieces and then present each of those pieces from a different point of view. The idea is to capture the post-Einstein physical world, i.e., the reality of the 20th century, which requires multiple points of view. For example, “Imaginary landscape with 29 birds” in Music from Words develops the Cubist principle as the syntax of the poem, fragmenting descriptions of 28 different Audubon prints and one Brancusi sculpture into parts and then reordering those parts to present a heightened Cubist reality of them.

Collage: Collage in painting is the juxtaposition of different media or different pieces of the same media. The painter glues bits of newspaper stories, photographs or soccer tickets onto a painted canvas that may include colliding styles or a combination of different painted materials. In a real sense, collage in painting, as practiced by virtually all painters from the Dadaists to Larry Rivers and beyond, is similar to sampling in hip hop music. You can see painterly collage in much of Ezra Pound, or, closer to my home, in a number of poems in Music from Words, such as “Remember the fool in the rain” and “Dreams of old men.”

Simultaneity: Many painters have tried to capture multiple moments of a process on a canvas for simultaneous viewing. Duchamp’s “Nude descending a staircase” is the classic example of this attempt to capture movement in time on the canvas. In the composition, Duchamp depicts motion with successively superimposed images. I would assert that to achieve the same effect in poetry, you have to create a written page that can be read in more than one direction, that is, can have two word realities that seem to be merging into each other or co-existing in the same space. Simultaneiety in poetry thus tends to have some element of calligraphy in it. Ready examples from Music from Words include “Source of all” and “Pascal’s Triangle.”

You lived in NYC and then moved to Pittsburgh. Why the change? What is the poetry scene like in Pittsburgh?

Since I left New York in the middle of high school, I have lived in Miami, Milwaukee, Seattle, Berlin (Germany), San Francisco and Pittsburgh, plus spent large amounts of time in Los Angeles, Syracuse and New York. I kind of drifted from place to place for a long time, having many adventures and getting to know many people with diverse backgrounds, cultures and aspirations. I moved to Pittsburgh as part of a decision to settle down someplace and get serious about my creative writing. If an old woman-friend I was visiting had lived in Boston or Washington instead of in Pittsburgh, I would probably have ended up one of those places.

On many levels the poetry scene is very vibrant in Pittsburgh. Two or three nights of most weeks you can hear non-university poets read at a bar, coffee house or art gallery. There are several lively small presses, plus the University of Pittsburgh and CMU presses. Pittsburgh offers both open workshops, plus some fairly exclusive ones. There seems to be more interaction between university-based poets and community-based poets in Pittsburgh than in most places, which has to be a good thing. But just as the population of Pittsburgh is much older than that of Boston so is the universe of people who write or care about poetry also much older in Pittsburgh. The other interesting contrast with Boston is that virtually all of the poets in Pittsburgh write in a very conservative, mainstream vein in which there is a unity between the narrator and the poet and the subject matter is mostly autobiographical. My sense is that while mainstream poetry may dominate the Boston poetry scene, the Boston poetry community is generally more open to experimental poetry than Pittsburgh's.

Any last comments?

Thanks for the opportunity to articulate some of my thoughts about poetry and the writing process.


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