the World of the Improvising Poet


Dave McIntire


Much has been said and written on improvised music and I hope the debate and analysis continues. Such academic pursuits are healthy and beneficial to the continuing evolution of (dare I say it?) improvisational philosophy. However, I have seen nothing on the improvised word. In fact if there are any other improvisational poets I have never heard of them. So I suppose it is without too much arrogance that I can lay claim to a certain uniqueness.


I try to be fairly humble in my artistic pursuits, keeping in mind that there is always room for improvement. However, I do take a great deal of pride in the fact that when I perform with Paper Bag or Bag Theory all my words are indeed improvised. Of course this whole exercise here is based on the rather presumptuous premise that anyone would be interested in such minutiae. So working off that premise I would like to go into the theory and practice of improvised poetry.




To put this into context I will take the liberty of giving a brief history of poetry and the Bag. Poetry was a small part of the Paper Bag regimen almost from the beginning. If you've ever heard such early works as "Drapes of Rain" or "Victimless Crime" then you've heard the fine and dark poetry of M. Segal. Kenny Ryman also would contribute poetry on a regular basis. Their poems however were not improvised. They were usually written the day of a performance/recording, often just prior to going on. The text was known only to the author, the other band members hearing it for the first time along with the audience. Whenever M. did his poetry live he would crumple up the sheet as soon as he was done reading and toss it out into the audience, emphasizing the disposable nature of art. Tom Shannon and I were sometimes able to recover the wads of poetry but some of them are simply lost to the ages.


When I joined the band as resident poet Kenny was gone and M. wanted to concentrate on his percussion. So it was all on me to provide a lyrical voice to the controlled chaos that is PB. I started out imitating Kenny and M. in that I was writing poems immediately prior to a performance. I found this extremely limiting however because for some reason I couldn't drive my creative juices under such pressure. The poems I wrote tended to be rather short and narrow of scope, all depending on my mood and state of mind at the time. I also found it very difficult to come up with many pieces that way so I ended up sitting most of the gig out.


I soon made up my mind to do what no one in PB had previously attempted, specifically to compose my words spontaneously along with the music. To be honest I found this to be a terrifying and intimidating prospect. I wasn't entirely sure I was up to the task. I suppose some people might say that indeed I am not up to the task but I don't let that bother me too much.


My approach was initially was to try to keep as many bare bones ideas in my head as possible. These ideas could be any of a number of things; a name, a phrase, a general subject, a recent news event, a vague musical concept, a rhythmic pattern, etc. The plan was to give myself a catalog of concepts from which to draw as the show progressed. This generally worked well and I surprised myself by suddenly being much more creative and prolific than when I was writing poems before going on. I found myself with a great deal more flexibility and the longer we played the more confident I became.


The only drawback to this approach was my faulty memory. After a show I would suddenly remember half a dozen ideas that had gone completely out of my head while performing. To try and remedy this I started writing down my ideas ahead of time. I take an index card and make a list of subjects and musical concepts that I want to use. I start this list sometimes days ahead of time which some might argue impinges on the "purity" of the improvisation. I would refute that by saying that one of the advantages of the list is that once I write down an idea I am free to forget about it entirely until the performance. Previously I would feel compelled to rerun the ideas through my head so as not to forget any of them. This way I avoid thinking about them until the show and so the idea remains as fresh and "pure" as possible. During the show I find that I usually do not even have to refer to my card. The simple act of writing it down often fixes the idea in my head. I will pull out various ideas depending on my mood or the direction I get from the conductor of a given piece. Very often the idea will work out completely different from how I may have pictured it originally, but that's part of the fun in improvisation. I'll start out with a name or phrase and let it build from there as the music builds along with it. Often the music steers the words in directions I could not have predicted. In fact I have found to my great surprise that some ideas will come to me in the middle of a show. Stuff that I hadn't previously considered will appear in my consciousness and make itself available for my use. I can't explain it but it happens. Again, that's part of the fun.




The facts and figures regarding the practice of improvised poetry are easy to come by. The theory is going to take a little more effort on my part in order to articulate something, which until now I have not analyzed but only experienced. I suppose I could start by comparing it to a more conventional method of composition.


From the very first poem I ever wrote I have felt a strong, innate resistance to revising and editing. As near as I can figure this stems not so much from my arrogance but rather from what I can only call a certain distrust of the creative process. Something inside me tells me that if you can't say what you mean, the way you mean it the first time out then you probably need to go back and think about it some more before you open your mouth again. Of course this applies strictly to me and in no way affects my analysis of any other artist's efforts. I suppose it's some kind of instinct that dictates this method. It would have to be since no one has ever made a serious attempt at "teaching" me how to write. Of course I haven't gone out of my way to seek a teacher either. All of this can be traced back to a strong punk rock ethic that favors the autodidactic over the academic.


So from the beginning I have essentially written each poem in one go. Only occasionally have I gone back and made any significant changes to a poem. Usually if I look back at a piece and find it fundamentally flawed I simply throw it out and try to remember my mistakes so as not to repeat them.


When I write I usually start with the first line (duh!). What I mean is that a line or a phrase will start rattling around in my skull. I let it wander around for a while, sometimes days before I actually sit down and start writing. Once I get that first line on paper the next line is coming out as well. From there it just flows (or doesn't) until I have a finished poem. If I'm lucky it goes quickly. If not then I can struggle with it for quite a while. Almost always though it is completed in one sitting. This is in essence improvising albeit in a rather drawn out and carefully considered framework.


When performing or recording with the band I start pretty much the same way, with the first line. But then I have to make sure that the inevitable flow of lyrics continues in a fairly rapid manner. It's not something that can be forced to occur. Rather it is something that I allow to happen through me. I'll begin with a line or a phrase and then simply permit that line or phrase to fish down into my brain for more on the same subject and let it string the words together in a (somewhat) coherent fashion. I apologize if this seems to be a rather flighty explanation of the process but it is difficult to put into words just how I come up with the words. It is in some ways the same process I use when writing only in fast forward.


The other main difference is that I really have to turn my brain off. This is not something you can spend any time thinking about. If you try you are doomed to failure before you even open your mouth. If I resist editing my written work out of a certain distrust of the process, it may seem strange but I am able to improvise on stage because of a total and complete trust in the process. I know I may fail miserably, fumble my words, look like an idiot. But I trust that the process will serve me well, that in a sense it will allow the poems that already exist inside of me to come out into the open. If I go into a performance with anything less than total trust in the process, in myself, in my band mates then I am condemning myself and all the others to a dismal excuse for art. If on the other hand I shut down my brain and open my heart then the magic may just happen.


George has written about the process from the musician's point of view and compared the experience to that of an athlete getting into the "zone". As far as I can understand it, it is the same for the poet. At least it is the same for me. When things are going well and you're in tune with your band mates an energy is created that seems to feed itself. It's a very special experience.


To illustrate let me give a couple of examples of how it can work.


One time the other guys started playing and I had no idea what I was going to say. Suddenly I remembered a TV show I had seen the night before. I started relating this story, or rather my version of it as the music continued. It was a serious tale of loyalty and betrayal and family. I tried to tell the story infusing it with my own moral interpretation as lyrically as possible. After the show a number of people came up and raved about this intense story, what a powerful reading it was, asking how did I come up with something so involved on the spur of the moment. Standing next to me was my wife just laughing and laughing at these comments and questions because she recognized my poem as nothing more than a reworking of the episode of Star Trek we had watched the previous evening. This is an excellent example of how improvised poetry (or music for that matter) can simultaneously manifest in both sublime and mundane forms. Needless to say improvising requires a demanding intellect and an even more demanding sense of humor.


On another occasion the band began the piece and for whatever reason Lenny Bruce was on my mind. Out of my mouth came the words, "Lenny Bruce was a man." Profound? No. But it got me started. The first verse was a brief tribute to the ground-breaking comedian. Before I could think too much about what else I was going to say about the man, someone else's name popped out of my mouth. If I recall correctly I continued with a verse about Syd Barrett. Eventually an entire poem appeared extolling the virtues of several of my heroes (and one verse denigrating Elvis. NOT one of my heroes.) How did I get from the simple name of Lenny Bruce all the way to a lengthy tribute to artistic and political trailblazers? I wish I could tell you. Perhaps a research scientist familiar with the workings of the brain could sketch out a path but frankly I wouldn't be very interested.


I kind of prefer that some mystery remain to fog our view of how we improvise. It can be a process both metaphysical and concrete. Spiritual and linear. Abstract and clear-cut. It is for me probably the closest I've ever been able to come to a true meditative state. Because of the spiritual aspect of this particular form of creativity, I can tend to become rather zealous regarding the "purity" of the process. It is important to me that the level of improvisation remain as high as possible, as pure as possible. This in no way implies that there are "lesser" forms of improvisation but the controlled chaos as practiced by Paper Bag and its offshoots is a far cry from most jazz or rock improvisation. In most jazz improvisation there is a definite starting point, a musical theme from which the musicians break free and to which they eventually return. A lot of rock improvisation is restricted to guitar solos (well within a strict musical structure) or it degenerates into aimless noodling, e.g. the Grateful Dead's spacier moments. Again these forms of improvisation are in no way less valid, less relevant. But they have their limits; they have clearly defined boundaries within which they are free to roam. The real beauty of the Bag theory of improvisation is that while it creates a structure on which to base all improvisations, that structure is as spare and as open as humanly possible.


Look at it this way. If music is a house, then most improvisation is the framework of that house before the walls and roof are completed. And the Bag theory might be seen as the surveying stakes around the lot before the foundation is even laid. And you might notice that some of the stakes have been pulled up and thrown around by the neighborhood kids.





I love music and I love poetry. Passionately. I have learned that as much as I love the artifacts of art it is the act of art that makes my little heart burn intensely. Live performances of any art form are usually more exciting because they are unpredictable, dangerous. When that performance consists of creation as well then the potential for excitement increases exponentially. Of course so does the potential for dullness and failure. Remember, that's part of the fun. If it's not fun then you shouldn't be doing it. Personally, I have never had so much fun as when I'm improvising.


David McIntire


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