Chris: Welcome to Lyric Essentials, where writers and poets share with us a passage or poem which is “essential” to their bookshelf and who they are as a writer. Today Scott “C” Fynboe reads “Dear John, Dear Coltrane” by Michael S. Harper.
Scott, absolutely amazing recording you’ve got here. To begin, what can you tell us about Harper and his work? What’s the relationship he has with John Coltrane?
Scott: Harper is largely invested in the African-American experience, particularly in terms of social and personal history. But his work also tries to go further and connect with all readers, using a shared pop culture to make audiences stop, look at each other, and say “Shit, we’re all in this together.”
As for his relationship with Coltrane, I won’t put words in the poet’s mouth. But going by this poem alone, I think it’s safe to assume he views Coltrane as both mortal and immortal. He sees Coltrane as a man with a history and character flaws, but Harper also reveres Coltrane as an artist, a legend, a spiritual leader – someone who is essential to the human experience.
Chris: Interesting note about Harper’s work being social, personal, and universal. What is it that “Dear John, Dear Coltrane” is saying we’re together in?
Scott: A lot of things, really. On one hand, the longer each reader lives, the more they experience pain and loss, feel their body begin to break down, understand the desire to please someone and make that someone proud, reflect on their past selves, recall doing things that seem impossible, and want to have their voice heard, to feel significant.
On the flip side, there’s also a spiritual togetherness. Harper has said that his poem – specifically the middle “Q and A” stanza – is meant to mimic the call-and-response style of a church service. And, when you think about it, a church is a group of separate voices, speaking to one another and unified by shared beliefs. Kind of like players in a jazz quartet.
Chris: A chronological arc about Coltrane here is clear, but what do you make of the invocation of the “Dear John” epistolary genre?
Scott: I don’t know how common the term is in the age of social media and text messages, but “Dear John” is shorthand for any generic breakup or goodbye letter.
There’s a bit of both of those things in this poem. Not an “I loved you once” breakup, though. Instead, it’s breaking up with the public, celebrity idol vision of Coltrane and reminding the reader that a mortal man made this music.
And it’s also saying goodbye to that same man. The poem is as much eulogy as epistolary.
Chris: In addition to the poem’s ability to operate on multiple levels (personal/social/universal), what makes it essential to you and your writing?
Scott: Much of the poetry I’m attracted to deals with personal narrative and memory. That alone would make it essential, but it doesn’t hurt that “Dear John, Dear Coltrane” is also about pop culture, which is my biggest knowledge area.
A lot of what I read and write about is infused with pop references, and that’s what drew me to this poem in the first place. I saw it as a chance to get more acquainted with an artist and an album I was only tangentially aware of. A couple days later, I went and listened to A Love Supreme – and I’m serious when I say that on the final fade out (on “Part IV – Psalm”), my brain was having trouble focusing on other tasks; I found myself humming the four-note mantra hours later.
I may have even wept a little.
In short, it was a transcendental experience with music, and because of that, both poem and song are inexorably linked in my head. I can’t hear one without hearing the other. Harper’s poem is like a great cut on a kick-ass album that you remember every line, every note, and can’t help but sing along as soon as it starts up, no matter how long it’s been since you listened to the track.
Chris: What’s something (or multiple things) writers should takeaway from this poem?
Scott: Buy a copy of John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme and a good pair of headphones. Then listen to the album.
Chris: Are there other poets, contemporary or otherwise, that are writing about pop culture/celebrity idols as effectively as Harper? What sort of pop culture appears in your own work?
Scott: Sonia Sanchez and Nikki Giovanni have done some great stuff over the years. Giovanni’s tribute to Tupac Shakur, “All Eyez on U,” is a hell of a good read.
Beyond music idols, I love how Jennifer Jackson-Berry uses 80s pop touchstones as both set pieces and talking points in her chapbook When I Was a Girl. It’s a move that both Dan Crocker and Daniel Shapiro echo in their works, turning something like the McRib sandwich or The Match Game into meditations on loneliness and longing. Oh, and I can’t forget to mention Todd Kaneko’s The Dead Wrestler Elegies, which is both sensitive and unflinching.
As for me, I feel kind of in the middle of all of those writers. I tend to use music a lot and the references can be famous or obscure, used to establish a time period or a place, or just act as a silly premise or image (like a poem of seeing Iron Maiden’s Bruce Dickinson in my swimming pool). Rarely, though, they’re the center of the poem. Like the poets I just mentioned, Harper included, I use them a spring board to discuss something more. Something personal but universal.
Scott “C” Fynboe is a former radio disc jockey from Binghamton, NY, who currently lives on Florida’s Treasure Coast. His work has appeared in The Los Angeles Review, specs, The Naugatuck River Review, and Milk Money, among others. When not writing, teaching, or obsessing over Christmas music, he hosts The SAFTAcast, the official podcast of the Sundress Academy for the Arts.
Christopher Petruccelli survived his first winter in Fairbanks, Alaska. His poetry has appeared in Connotation Press, Cider Press Review, Still: The Journal, Nashville Review, and elsewhere. His chapbook, Action at a Distance, is available from Ulndy’s Etchings Press. In his free time, Chris enjoys smoking cigarettes and drinking whiskey with older women.