On My Black Angel, Blues Poems and Portraits
by Kim Addonizio and Charles Jones

The California Journal of Poetics had the recent pleasure of discussing the dynamic artistic collaboration My Black Angel, Blues Poems and Portraits with its creators, poet and musician Kim Addonizio and musician and printmaker/artist Charles Jones. We invite you to enjoy this glimpse into their creative processes and what inspired them to make this journey together, as well as a sampling of the gorgeous poems and woodcuts that resulted from this fusion of passion, talent, and a shared love of the blues.

 

CalJoPo: How did My Black Angel, Blues Poems and Portraits come to be? How would you describe this meeting of minds and arts?

Kim Addonizio: I met Charles Jones when Stephen F. Austin State University Press reprinted my book Jimmy & Rita. Knowing my interest in blues, he suggested we do a project together. I spent about a year writing poems, and then he started making images, at which point it all came together pretty quickly. There are one or two images that connect directly to the poems—“Black Snake Blues,” for example, shows a woman and snake—but for the most part, the portraits show various singers, and the poems are, metaphorically, songs. I didn’t want to stick to just the earlier blues artists, because I see blues as an ongoing tradition, so I asked Charles to include a couple of contemporary (women) musicians as well—Rory Block and Samantha Fish.

Charles Jones: I started visualizing a pairing of woodcut images of blues musicians when I heard Kim reading her poetry and playing that harmonica [as part of the Visiting Writers Series at Stephen F. Austin State University in February, 2013]. I had made a broadside for one of her poems for the reading, and had her take a look at some of the work I was doing. I could imagine images and text together that would be as bold as her reading—that we could make something new, making images and text into compositions that would really “sing.” Kim and I are thinking of our collaboration as more of a musical duet, than me illustrating her work.

 

Poet plays the harp

Poet plays the harp

Harmonica

Traaain goin north, sang Noah
Lewis, father unknown, who’d charm
Satan from a woodpile with his horn.
He could play two harps at once. Cain
and Abel, from his nose and mouth. Play that Iron
Horse, though he never left the south. Cold rain,
cold end: frostbite and gangrene, no choir
to carry him from poverty, the blues gone minor.
Busked, stomped and sang. Couldn’t keep him from harm.
The spirit burns away; what’s left is char,
until someone pulls up a kitchen chair
and starts in on “Chickasaw Special.” No
tears for Noah Lewis. Moan
and sing Take a woman from another man
and bang like holy hell on a coal-oil can.

 

CalJoPo: How have the blues inspired you both as artists?

Addonizio: I see the blues as an attitude towards life. An awareness of loss, and at the same time a need to sing, to celebrate. The blues says, “This is what’s happening, and this is how I feel about it.” It’s not intellectual. That’s inspiring to me. I connect to the music and language of the blues on a visceral level.

Jones: I grew up in rural East Texas with an extended family who played music at family gatherings. I began playing guitar when I was 10 and then added banjo, mandolin, and fiddle in the years that followed.

I also grew up fewer than 50 miles from Lightnin’ Hopkins, Mance Lipscomb, and many other blues musicians. I was aware of the music from an early age. The country blues was the basis of popular music and I think influenced other elements of culture as well. This area of East Texas is known as the “Big Thicket” and is a major timber producing area as well as home to artists and musicians as diverse as Robert Rauschenberg, Janis Joplin, and Johnny Winter. It seems to me that the more expressive the content of an art form, the more controlled the structure. Blues, for example, usually follows a fairly rigid pattern of twelve bars and chordal structure as does flamenco music and dance. For me there is a parallel in the creation of woodcuts as that medium demands a composition of essential form and a play of one texture on another to create an emotional effect. In creating an effective woodcut print one must accept the restrictions of the medium much like limitations of the “twelve bars” of the blues.

 

Mance Lipscomb

Mance Lipscomb

 

When Joe Filisko Plays the Blues

cotton claps & shouts in every Georgia field
& the hounds are set loose to run down the fox

they will forever never catch.
He can play a front porch on a rundown shack

where a man is singing his hurt
like pressing a thumb on a bruise,

probably it’s shaped like a woman
or a few years in prison.

You can ride those blues all the way to Chicago
where the lake swallows snowmelt

& turns bitter with whiskey.
That’s the kind of blues he plays.

The kind where a muddy cloud
looks like a train. The kind where a train

looks like a trip to Paris, & Paris
is a woman wearing nothing but jewels,

& you have to know her but never will.
Go back home, follow the high notes down.

Joe will take you all the way underground.
He’ll fill your mouth with dirt

& convince you it’s barbeque.
He’ll lay those blues down on you.

If you meet the devil, tell him Filisko
sent you—he’ll let you go.

If you meet an angel, hold on hard
& don’t ever let her meet Joe.

 

CalJoPo: Any additional thoughts you would like to share about the process or the finished product?

Addonizo: The finished project is just a beautiful piece of art that could only have happened through this marvelous synergy, two different artists in love with the same music. It’s now available as a limited-edition fine arts book. Stephen F. Austin State University Press will be releasing a trade edition soon, which will include a CD; I think we both have lots of ideas for that.

Jones:  The printing was completed in March of this year in an edition of 100, 25 of which were presented in a deluxe edition that includes a suite of prints on Japanese mulberry paper, housed in a clamshell box.

 

Jones at the press

Jones at the press

 

 To order your copy of My Black Angel, Blues Poems and Portraits contact The LaNana Creek Press:

Box 13001 SFA Station Nacogdoches, TX 75962

or

cjones@sfasu.edu

 

Black Snake Blues

Black Snake Blues

Black Snake Blues

I’m tired of dragging a man’s name
like a stick along fence slats

and the song always broken
and the light always asking me for money.

Let me lie down where the roads cross.

oh black snake crawlin’

I’ll scatter my powders and salt
and wait for the rider

with a bottle of whiskey
and another of graveyard dirt.

crawlin’ in my room

I’ll wait
while the heat seethes up and becomes

pure silence for miles
in all twelve directions.

I’ll watch for a wild horse, a storm.

Let me wait for the sky to bear down
and tell me who it wants,

oh black snake crawlin’

let it want some other woman,
let it find her and hold the night open.

 

Pearl Bailey

Pearl Bailey

Spell Against Impermanence

Faeries, gryphons, wrens, blue roses.
Cartoon girls in impish poses.

Isis. Sanskrit text. Chinese.
Snake eyes. Marijuana leaves.

Skulls. Knives. Hellhounds. Scorpions.
Tygers. Harpies. Gangrened demons.

Lover leave and child abort.
Brother’s liver dredge in dirt.

Steep in piss and shit and pain
father’s corpse and mother’s brain.

Fire feed, and ash inhale—
heart lash to the breaking wheel—

Lightning. Lotus. Chameleon.
Slide the needle deeper in.

 

CalJoPo: Which underrecognized or up-and-coming poets and/or artists would you recommend to our readers? Why?

Addonizio: A student of mine, Tracey Knapp, is coming out with a first book called Mouth that’s very good. Deviants by Peter Kline, another first book, is both formally accomplished and emotionally complex. Tyehimba Jess’s Leadbelly, which came out a handful of years ago, is a beautiful book. 

Jones: Among the up and coming musicians that I think are also great writers are Elyza Gilkyson and David Olney. Their work is influenced by the blues. There is a guitarist in Houston, Erich Avinger, that is the real thing, great on electric or acoustic blues.

 

The California Journal of Poetics would also like to highlight another stunning compilation of work by Charles Jones. In December of 2012, Jones published CHOPPER BLUES a powerful combination of visual art, poetry, music, oral histories, and Jones’ own narrative which tells the story of his unit in the early years of the Vietnam War. Jones served as an Infantry Platoon Commander in the US Marine Corps. Of the 44 men in his platoon, all but 16 were lost. About this collection Jones said, “CHOPPER BLUES uses the blues, as echoed by the sound of helicopters, as a narrative device. I did the writing, the visual art, the book design, and the music performance as a tribute to the men in my company, and to give my children, and whoever else might read it, a true idea of what happened and what we did during that dark time of American history.” (Click the link in the side bar to order your copy!)

CHOPPER BLUES

CHOPPER BLUES


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