- An Interview with Sterling D. Plumpp
Click for larger view
View full resolution
[End Page 136]
On December 16, 2015, I met with Sterling D. Plumpp in Chicago at the offices of Third World Press, his longtime publisher. Plumpp has nine books (eight of poetry and one of prose), four chapbooks, two edited volumes of poetry, and one broadside to his name, along with dozens of publications in academic journals, literary magazines, and other periodicals. Plumpp's first published poem, "Black Hands," appeared in the September/October 1968 issue of Negro Digest, and Third World Press brought out his first chapbook, Portable Soul, in 1969. His most recent volume, Home/Bass (2013), won the 2014 American Book Award for poetry. Plumpp employs innovative form, complex wordplay, unique lyricism, and African American vernacular culture—especially the blues and jazz, which are generative forces of his work. Nearly three decades' worth of his archival materials reside in the John Davis Williams Library at the University of Mississippi. Since retiring from the University of Illinois at Chicago in 2001 Plumpp has been a visiting professor at Chicago State University and Mississippi Valley State University.
Along with his creative output Plumpp has given numerous interviews, fourteen of which are reprinted in John Zheng's Conversations with Sterling Plumpp (2016), in the University Press of Mississippi's Literary Conversations series. There is a small yet high-quality body of scholarship about Plumpp's work, and interviews with him further illuminate the biographical, [End Page 137] musical, literary, and cultural forces that have shaped his writings.1 Zheng's edition provides an indispensable overview of Plumpp's life and poetic process. I spoke with Plumpp while the collection of his interviews was in production, and sought in my questions to have him expand upon and deviate from previous interviews. Indeed, during our nearly four-hour meeting Plumpp held forth on several of his touchstones: his literary contemporaries and influences, including Amiri Baraka, Leon Forrest, and Ralph Ellison; African American music and musicians, including bebop (Charlie Parker), post-bop (Fred Anderson), and the blues (Willie Kent); and how Western literary traditions and African American cultural practices coalesce in his work.
Plumpp also offered insights into his poetry, especially regarding its formal elements. He talked about the influence of performance and mastery—of a musical instrument, or of a poetic idiom—on the development of his inimitable style and linguistic virtuosity. I also asked him, given his lengthy career as a professor, about the often-overlooked educational qualities of his poetry. Plumpp provided an update on "Mfua's Song," his multi-volume epic poem on which he has been working since the early 1980s. He discussed the challenges of completing the work, a sliver of which appeared as Blues Narratives (1999), in terms of weaving together multiple, complex narratives into a cohesive whole. "Mfua's Song," when it eventually appears, will stand out among Plumpp's works for its strong female perspective—as he noted, the poem's characters are female and the stories that inspired it are matrilineal. Plumpp recounted two biographical instances that led to the genesis of "Mfua's Song": his mother's battle with cancer and learning his family history from a great aunt. Plumpp has recounted these events previously, but here he was particularly vivid and detailed about his grandmother's upbringing.
Perhaps the most noteworthy elements of this interview, though, are Plumpp's recollections of growing up in Mississippi. His observations about William Faulkner's fiction led to a discussion about his experiences as a Southern African American: He described scenes of his youth in Clinton and Jackson, and offered anecdotes from later in life that took place in Oxford. Plumpp told stories of racial intimidation and violence that he and others experienced, and discussed his research about the history of slavery in Mississippi. Despite the ostensible progress made since the civil rights movement, Plumpp sees the legacy of slavery and the compounded effects of racism and socioeconomic class divisions hardening the South into an intractable caste system. [End Page 138]