Allen Guest

Pine Row Issue No. 1 Spring 2020 - Featured Poet

Moving to NYC in July

Can you fathom the moths –

gray and brown, black and green –

swarming the streetlights

like school kids around

a playground fight,

with sirens howling

two streets over?

It comes down to this:

will you close your windows,

drop the shades,

and draw the curtains, or

will you smuggle a bottle

into the tiny jazz club,

the one behind the red door

at the bottom of the narrow stairs,

the one below street level,

dark, windowless, where

the trombones sit close

and the piano closer still,

the one where the clocks have died

and the waitresses hold

trays high as they hip-sway

between tables packed tight,

the one where bass notes

circle the stage lights

like ravens in the sun,

and the sirens are drowned out

by the wail of a trumpet player

who closes his eyes and dreams

of walking home at 3:00 AM

on streets still wet

from a thunderstorm

no one noticed.

Interview with Allen Guest

by Andrew Hutto, Pine Row Editorial Board

J. W. Mackail writing for Macmillan's Magazine in the 19th century points out the disjunction of writing the quatrain in English and it’s been an adage to avoid such stanzas in most writing courses. Yet it strikes me that your poem has considerable command of the four quatrains it employs. How are you able to navigate the historical difficulty of this form?

I think this is a case where I benefit from my lack of formal training in literary theory. The four quatrains seemed to flow out somewhat naturally as I was writing this piece. I would like to say there was some careful thought behind the form, but in reality, the stanza breaks just seemed right. It was not until the poem was about complete that I realized there was some common structure to the four middle stanzas, at which point I made a conscious effort to keep it as I revised the piece. You could rightly say I navigated the “historical difficulty of the form” by accident.

In the poem jazz and the “jazz club” are central to the speakers telling. How do see your poems relationship to jazz poetry or is the jazz club a red herring for a more working man’s poem (by the wail of a trumpet player /who closes his eyes and dreams / of walking home at 3:00 AM) Jazz is the occupation and the escapade is something to go home from rather than a home in of itself?

The inspiration for this poem was a recent visit (my first) to the legendary Village Vanguard in New York City. The club is indeed below street level, and tiny, with tables packed closely together. In the poem, jazz and the jazz club mostly serve as metaphor for living a rich and engaged life, as opposed to a life behind closed windows and drawn shades. I see the trumpet player as emblematic of living in the moment – blowing so hard and true that neither he, nor the entranced audience, notice the thunderstorm going on outside.

Is jazz playing when you write poems?

Yes, I often have something playing when I write, usually jazz, and I’m partial to something a bit laid-back and quiet. I find Bill Evans and Paul Desmond, for example, to be perfect background for writing.

The poem’s city life and encroaching night strike in a similar vein to Eliot’s “Rhapsody on a Windy Night”. There is a kind of reminiscent melancholy to the Eliot poem however in “Moving to NYC in July” nightlife is presented as a daring possibly: “draw the curtains” or “smuggle a bottle into the tiny jazz club”. There is a cautionary optimism about what the city might offer even if it’s just a contrast to the stillness of introversion. Is this a warning or a celebration of city nightlife?

I think it both a warning and a celebration of the city, but not entirely about the city. It warns, in a somewhat obtuse way, of the dangers of venturing out (“sirens howling two streets over”), and by extension, offers a warning against new and perhaps dangerous experiences in general. But outside the apartment with the drawn curtains is a lively place – a place where one might participate by descending into a jazz club with illegal liquor in one’s coat pocket. That the speaker might “smuggle” a bottle hints at an embrace of the chaos and uncertainty of a city, which, I suppose, is a celebration of city nightlife, and life in general. I see the poem as a celebration of an uncertain (and perhaps unwarranted) optimism, but a very necessary optimism.

I read in your biography that you teach mathematics. How do you parse the analytical world and the poetic world? Or is the separation not as great as it might seem?

Separation of math and language is one of the great fictions – the either/or mindset that so many people have. I think of math as the study of patterns, and I see poetry as nothing more or less than the construction of a sparse and pleasing pattern, in much the same way good mathematics is both economical and elegant.

As someone who isn’t working in an English related field, how do you find the time to write poems and hone your craft?

This is the greatest challenge for an amateur writer like myself who has a full-time work in another field, plus the everyday demands of home, family, and physical fitness (running and mountain biking for me). As many writers do, I carry a small notebook for composing whenever I get a few minutes, and I’ve done lots of work in doctors’ waiting rooms. I also joined a writing group three years ago, and the commitment to the group has made me more productive. I tell myself that twice each month I am obligated to show up with new work to share with my group. I don’t always make it, but I don’t miss very often. The feedback I get is very useful, and I usually make some good revisions based on it, but the simple commitment to going is just as valuable. In addition to my writing group, I try to attend a couple of writing conferences each year.

What authors come to mind when you think of your poetic maturation? Or is there more solace in music?

Some of my favorite poets of bygone years are William Carlos Williams, Robert Frost, Walt Whitman, and Frank O’Hara. Of more recent poets, Mary Oliver and Maurice Manning are standouts. And then there’s Bob Dylan and Hank Williams. Sooner or later, I’m circling back to those two for inspiration. I think their best songs are as good as poetry gets.

What do people get wrong about moving to New York?

Having only considered moving there, but having always lived in the American South, I can only speculate as to what people get wrong. Based on my visits, however, I would say that New York City is not the cold and unfriendly place that many southerners believe it to be. It’s fast paced and people always seem to be on a mission to get somewhere, but that’s not really a character flaw. When you engage with the typical New Yorker, you find them to be just as friendly (and unfriendly) as people anywhere else.

Allen Guest is a Senior Lecturer in the School of Mathematical and Statistical Sciences at Clemson University, where he teaches courses in the calculus sequence for science and engineering majors. His poetry has appeared in Tilde, Flying South, The Petigru Review, The Esthetic Apostle, Cathexis Northwest Press, Running with Water, and From the Depths.