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Reviewed by:
  • Conversations with Sterling Plumpp ed. by John Zheng
  • Tiffany Austin (bio)
Conversations with Sterling Plumpp. John Zheng, ed. Jackson: UP of Mississippi, 2016. Pp. 179. $55.00 (cloth). ISBN 978-14968-0742-7.

Publication of Conversations with Sterling Plumpp arrives two years after poet, essayist, editor, and professor Sterling Plumpp received the American Book Award for his thirteenth poetry collection Home/Bass. The fourteen interviews in the collection edited by John Zheng reveal the complex nature of Plumpp as a blues poet, influenced by Langston Hughes and Sterling A. Brown, inspired by musician Muddy Waters and Chicago artists like Von Freeman, Fred Anderson, and Willie Kent. Also, Plumpp is a blues poet if one considers the inclusivity of blues as sensibility and aesthetic, instrumentalized to jazz and elongated to epic. Through these interviews, Zheng meticulously gathers "conversations" about Plumpp's multiple contributions to poetry in relation to both his personal and the larger public history of music.

In his introduction, Zheng emphasizes that Plumpp's poetry was influenced by his Mississippi roots as well as the emigrated-to-urban Chicago blues infused through rhythm, language, and slashes/line breaks rather than conformity to the exact form of the blues refrain. He also highlights the interviews (published in literary and scholarly journals as well as airing on radio) that provide biographical information, comment on his literary and musical influences, and show Plumpp explaining his opinions about Black movements and travels to places like Australia and South Africa, all of which ground his importance as a poet who primarily was influenced by the blues and the church. Spanning thirty-five years, the interviews were conducted by Graham Hodges (where Plumpp was interviewed with Amiri Baraka and K. Curtis Lyle concerning poetry and jazz), Jerry W. Ward, Jr., Toni Costonie, Michael Antonucci, Reginald Gibbons, Dike Okoro, John Edgar Wideman, Hermine Pinson, John Zheng, James Ballowe, Mamie Osborne, and Diane Williams. Over all, the collection posits Plumpp as a global "blues" poet.

In "Sterling D. Plumpp: A Son of the Blues," Ward says of Plumpp: "He talks ancestry in a global sense and resuscitates language" and is "the [End Page 193] most gifted blues poet of his generation" (11), a refrain heard throughout the collection that sees Plumpp as combining his Southern ancestral history with blues language. In the 1984 interview with Ward, Plumpp states, "I think the basic self in Sterling Plumpp is blues," but again this descriptor of blues belies its general definition as a closed in musical expression or form. He insightfully points out, "My problem is to look for and develop a language out of the blues, because the blues is not static" (17). Blues is at once experience, language, and experience, for Plumpp. In the same interview, recounting his rearing in Clinton then Jackson, Mississippi and then education at Saint Benedict's College in Atchison, Kansas, Plumpp reveals that at different times he thought of becoming a blues singer and priest as professions. But then he describes "discovering" James Baldwin's "Sonny's Blues": "From the moment I read Baldwin, I knew that my life would never be the same again" (30). And he further confesses, "And James Baldwin helped me to deal with the phenomenology of my own experience. And Richard Wright helped me to uncover the psychological perception one gets from facing the horror that I faced in Mississippi" (31).

Mississippi remains a mainstay as subject as Plumpp also explores his changing technique and "vision" of his work from the collections Portable Soul to Clinton in the interview. Here you have Plumpp articulating the black blues tradition as epic. This early interview also broadcasts his desire to do so: "We should get back to the folk in a more searching way. A writer revives language, retranslates language. He resuscitates it" (34). In fact, as revealed in Toni Costonie's 1990 interview, blues, for Plumpp "is a language, it is a history, it is ancestry, it is music, it is lyric, it is mood, it is an attitude" (37). Rather than narrowly seeing the blues as a singularly Southern music tradition, Plumpp names blues as one of defiance, bespeaking the blues artist's and blues figure...


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