Chris Mason’s “Normals Books and Records 425 E. 31st St. Baltimore Maryland”
In this Revisionings, great Balto poet and effortless human being Chris Mason gives us a peek at the process behind his poem “Normals Books and Records 425 E. 31st St. Baltimore Maryland” from his book Where To From Out (Furniture Press, 2013) (but now that I think about it, it may have originally been published in Shattered Wig Review—I’ll get back to you on that). I am trying to refrain from gushing. Let me say that reading his poetry, hearing his music, hearing him read, and participating in the unrehearsed literature of conversation with him are always profitable. Here’s Chris:
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In 2002 my friend Gene Carl, California-born composer living in Den Haag, told me about his friend the flute-player Anne La Berge from Minneapolis where I am from. We figured out that she was the daughter of David La Berge, director of Minneapolis’ Bach Society that my mother sang in. In 2006, Anne La Berge played a concert at the Red Room, the performance annex of Normal’s Books and Records, a beloved bookstore run by my friend Rupert Wondolowski.
3-05-06 The electronically-altered flautist is the daughter of Minneapolis’ Bach Society’s founder, Where, in the 60’s musical citizens like my mother sang Bach together. I cast my vote in the performance space of the collective bookstore where words gather.
In 2012, I started writing poems about places, with lines alternating between three- and five-syllable lines, thus written in “syllabics” (a technique used by Marianne Moore, Cid Corman and the Greek Lyric poets among others). The syllable pattern was part of the compositional “magic” I used to trick my subconscious into thinking up lines. As another part of the magic I wrote each poem, and revised it, on an old envelope.
Normals Books and Records 425 E. 31th St. Baltimore Maryland Filling in at register so Rupert can go to Post Office see used book just brought in – book of my poems I gave girl I liked thirty years back – inscribed “Ill-met by moonlight proud Titania”. Coffee stains, finger-smudge, corners of pages curling, spine bloated or spine cracked, books sent out come back older. The flautist performing at Normals Books and Records, her notes altered electronically, is daughter of director of J. S. Bach Society my mother in Minneapolis sang Bach in, their notes in moonlight now dispersed. Each book on shelf at Normals once lay open, face down, on someone’s stomach, half-asleep, half-mouthing words just read to self.
Yeats said he never revised except in the interest of a more passionate syntax. Which I have always liked, except that you might want to be dispassionate or funny, etc. My revisions tend to follow Pound’s “Dichten = Condensare” (to write poetry is to condense). I work toward that in almost all my writing. As Niedecker says, “No layoff/ from this/ condensery.” In the poems written in syllabics, I have found a certain benefit from the process of squeezing words into these patterns. It forces you to jettison the first line that comes into your head (Ginsberg’s “First Thought Best Thought”) in order to come up with a line that fits into this pattern, and thus giving your mind more time to come up with unexpected lines. It also lets some three- or five-syllable words sit on the line by themselves (“electronically” and “Minneapolis” in the poem above) all alone where you can listen to their sounds. My friend the poet and archivist Megan McShea told me that when she read the poems on the commuter train the lines had a train-track rhythm.
I wrote the poem first without the flautist, (though I had included her in the earlier poem about Normal’s, which I wasn’t thinking about) and instead had my 18-month-old son running through Normal’s, but he got his own poem about his high school days, and I remembered the flautist. I can’t find the version with my son—it probably got thrown out when we revised the kitchen, tearing down a wall and adding the little computer room to the little kitchen to make a bigger kitchen that you can sit down in, but requiring that I condense all my piles of papers. Pasternak says something somewhere about lost poems being the most important ones, maybe because their loss fuels later writing. In any case, who wants to keep all those intermediate versions!
The set of two poems about the flautist and Normals is an example (extended in this case over time) of another form of revising I do, starting over without looking at the original, a way of simulating Pasternak’s lost poem. I don’t like to cut and paste poems I am revising (bad for the flow). I prefer to have my subconscious do the cutting and pasting and deleting for me. So I cross out the whole original, then start over, letting the process of misremembering and forgetting reshape the poem.
I like revising—it’s meticulous work against a backdrop of street and sky, like tinkering with a car, or making clay pots in the backyard, or practicing your saxophone on a bridge at night.