Tony’s World Sings a Moral Consciousness into Bein
An Interview with Barry Wallenstein

KP: Reading Tony’s World, just published by Birch Book Press (Delhi, NY, 2010 / 64 pages / letterpress soft cover ($16.00) ISBN 9780978997489), your sixth book of verse, over and over, loving its Borgesian shadows, I wondered three things: ---How did Tony come to exist? ---Did you set out to develop a style of literary synthesthia American Book Review called “a probing, jazz-inflected wit wed to a loosely measured form that develops an intriguing persona?” ---Is it more revealing to say Tony’s World is like Henry of John Berryman’s Dream Songs meeting the mood-invoking music of Miles Davis’ great quintet with Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, Ron Carter and Tony Williams?

BW: While Tony’s a fictional character – an invention from the start – there is a part of my mind or being that is close to Tony. The first poem (titled “Tony Talks to Himself” and then later “Tony Upbraids Himself”) developed out of one of those dialogues between self #1 and self #2 in which I was scolding myself for a materialistic cast of mind, an overly acquisitive behavior pattern, and I called one of those selves Tony as a way of distancing myself from the process. That first poem (revised over the years), ending as it does with the command “wake up!” led almost immediately to the next and then the next. Already I was engaged in developing a fiction. I’ve been a fan of Berryman’s Dream Songs for years, but had no ambition to write an extended series of poems in the voice of this character, Tony; it’s just that my mind in certain dispositions drifted in his direction. Besides, like Berryman’s character, Tony provides a certain amount of cover.

KP: Cover? Tony not only speaks in first person but in second and third person as well. To keep it jumping, other narrators appear throughout the 44 poems in the collection and relate their experiences in commentary quite unlike Tony’s. For example, would you read “Crime?”

BW: Crime

If crime showed in a man’s face there wouldn’t be no mirrors. ---B. Travern

But I’m clean says Squeaky the Tailor
looking up from his needle
and thumbing a smile at the Law.
Without hard evidence---soft will never make it
in the land of the strong---Squeaky goes free
and lives a long time making coats
that cover crime: Iris O’Fay is given a dress
all in motley and Squeaky’s sewn in a smile.
No one will see what she hides,
and what stays hidden will cure one
but make the other wish for a cure.
Katherine the Blood, lately out of stir,
needs a hat with a black veil.
She gets it and hides a grin
wide enough to get her back in society.
Tony from the city, having twice worn out
the soles of his stepping-out shoes,
wants. Squeaky to shod him in fashion.
He does.
These things are talked about---
pellets of warmth on a winter evening,
with the stars zapping down comfort.

KP: Though Squeaky’s in the foreground with Tony in the background, the poem’s third person narration is rich in detail and paints a habitat of sorts. By so doing it offers us a contrast to Tony’s clipped speech and ironic point of view which requires readers to be equally alert for what he leaves out as much as for what he says, but with “Crime” the story gets going more cinematically. Seeing that Tony is part of a community changes everything. It becomes the basis for an awakening ethical life that can mediate hard truths like “‘Tony’s Dad’ / carried him across a river of blood” confronting an alternate logic like ‘Tony’s Blade’ … imagines it has memories.”

BW: Thanks for mentioning “Tony’s Dad” – this is the most directly autobiographical of all the poems in the book. All the other characters – Squeaky and his ilk, are imagined characters. Even the mother in “Tony to His Mother” is a made-up mother. In fact, I try generally NOT to be autobiographical – or at least come up with good disguises. Imagining Tony having a blade that moves on its own – has a life of its own—is just another way to extend the fiction and distance Tony’s story from my own.

KP: The price of admission into any subculture is reading subtle clues. Like Squeaky’s name, occupation and cleanliness, there’s a Runyonesque indeterminacy or street-wise double meaning abounding. We can’t quite be sure from what depth of the underworld these players are coming from. Like so much of underground culture or “thumbing a smile at the Law,” context is king.

BW: In a sense, these are faux underground characters, cartoons or stereotypes, not very unlike Damon Runyon’s Broadway types; he has a lot of poetry in his lingo, and reading his stories was a favorite occupation when I was a teen-ager. But I’m sorry to say, this 21st century Tony is beset by dangers never suffered by Runyon’s characters – even the ones who get shot (always off camera). Even in the peaceful poems, the characters in Tony’s world feel the danger they are in and act out a dance of survival. They thrill in their surviving – as does Tony. Seeing these poems in the context of all the poems I’ve written and published since my early 20s, there has always been an undertow of fear and danger. I was initially struck by (and wanted to reject) by a comment made by one of my mentors, the poet and critic M.L. Rosenthal, in the preface to my first book of poems Beast is a Wolf With Brown Fire (BOA Editions, 1977): “I praise these poems because they bring a sturdy acceptance of fear into the open and look at it….” I hadn’t thought of that. I hope I’ve grown as a writer since then, but I still cling to the themes, concerns, and moods – dark and ironic – of those days, and Tony is simply a latter-day manifestation of a vision already blooming in the first poems I made up. You say “context is king” – sure, and the contexts of Tony’s existence are many: his life in the underground is one context; at the same time he is an urban enthusiast, a city booster, wanting to sell it to an audience – that’s another and his amblings approximate or suggest city rhythms. So the city – NYC – is a umbrella context. Another is his attachment to family – here mostly remembered portraits: mother, father, friends gone away forever. The fact that so many of my hours have been spent listening to jazz, hanging out with other jazz aficionados, and then collaborating with wonderful jazz artists – more and more, I found myself writing poems not just intended for the printed page but vocal presentation with musical accompaniment. So this is another context and very few of the Tony poems have not been performed in the company of music. I’m sure there is a connection between this character’s development and the way he speaks and the fact that the poems lend themselves to jazz vocalization or “speechsinging.” All this led me to try my hand (my ears too) at writing songs. Last year I had a commission to write lyrics for seven of Pepper Adams’ ballads. Pepper Adams was a giant on the baritone sax. He was also a fine composer and an avid reader of literature. We were to do a performance at the Great Hall of Cooper Union and we rehearsed at his house in Brooklyn. Anyway, we spent half the time discussing James Joyce. It was wonderful day I remember – but between the times we got together to rehearse and the concert itself, he fell ill (for the last time) and missed the concert and died soon after. I was told he always wanted these ballads to have words and I was honored to have been asked to write the lyrics. Luckily I had the help of Adam Birnbaum, a marvelous young piano player who played the melodies so cleanly, so simply, I could almost make up the words while listening. Of course I had to revise and revise. This was a challenge – so different from making up poems where I start from scratch with the words and the music inherent in them.

KP: I’m glad you mentioned music. In the ten years between Tony’s World and your previous book, A Measure of Conduct, you’ve made three spoken word recordings with jazz accompaniment for Cadence---Tony’s Blues, Pandemonium and Euphoria Ripens---material that gives us a great deal of context about Tony. In fact, on Pandemonium “Crime” becomes the second part of a medley with another third person narration, “Insinuation,” and the effect is stunning. Your ease in delivery meeting the kindred spirits you’ve found musically gives the spoken words additional nuance in a jazz-blues format intimate and assured.

BW: Actually, there is one more CD with Tony poems – in fact, he had his debut as an out loud speaker on the 1995 CD In Case You Missed It (SkyBlue Records, NorthCountry dist.) That was my first recording with John Hicks. Listening to the CDs gives me great pleasure (second only to the actual time in the recording studio) but I am listening to the music – the individual instruments – and sometimes I hear my voice as a distraction. The whole enterprise of having a life (a career?) as a poet who performs (I dislike the term performance poet—when applied to me) might be a dangerous distraction from the main thing – the making of poems.

KP: Unless the poem you make finds its fullest expression realized in a collaborative setting with like-minded musicians sharing an understanding of a tradition. I’m not saying that single-handedly anyone can redeem that disastrous phrase, jazz poet, but you’ve worked with some monsters of music over the last forty years. How did that come about?

BW: My experience working with jazz artists began as an accident. I was studying at NYU in the Village and one of my teachers, the poet Robert Hazel, knew of a venue where poets stood up to read their poems before an audience. The place was the Showplace on West 4th St. This was my first reading. There were three of us fledgling poets (no, we were not from any creative writing or poetry workshops; there was almost none of that back then) heading to The Showplace – what Hazel didn’t tell us was that Charles Mingus would be there to accompany us on his bass. This was Mingus’s showplace – the place where he’d hold his now famous workshops. Anyway, this man – a legend of fierceness – was most gentle with us teen-agers. I’m sure there was no connection between what or how I was reciting and the music. It was clearly just background sounds/ inventive no doubt, but nothing I could or would want to recover from memory. I love the music of jazz but never had much interest really for what the Beats were doing at that time with the music. For all their emulation of the jazz artist, the recordings and public performances, they (and I am thinking primarily of Kerouac, Ferlinghetti, and Ginsberg) treated the music as background sound. It was an ad hoc thing and it did help expand the audience for poetry – not a bad thing at all. They almost never bothered with rehearsal and the theories of “spontaneous prose” extended to spontaneous performance. Of course the effects were sometimes quite wonderful – after all, JK had some hip words and Ginsberg was a master but -- here I quote from remarks made in 1975 by the late poet and jazz scholar, David Rosenthal: “To my mind, the poetry and jazz idea hasn’t worked out too well. Sometimes the writers haven’t understood the music, sometimes they’ve been overwhelmed by it. Often jazz has been used as a crutch or mood-setter for mediocre verse, with the result that, as Jon Hendricks once said, (referring to beat performance) ‘wasn’t nothin’ happnin’ so the musicians just cooked right on like they didn’t even mind ‘em.” So, when what I do with the music is spoken about in relation to the coffee house sessions where beat poets would recite or rant with music in the background – well, I am not happy with the association. I like to rehearse and my aim has always been to work with the players the way a jazz singer might – it’s just that I don’t have a singing voice. I prepare for my performances as carefully as time allows – but this doesn’t mean that every second is scripted.

KP: But it does mean so much depends on a red wheelbarrow beside an empathetic ensemble. You mentioned John Hicks, may he rest in peace, a long acknowledged master of playing in any style dialed and bringing something new and original to the material. He’s the pianist on your three CDs, very much on your wavelength. In this subtle give-and-take between narrative persona and jazz instrumentation, he lays down lines whose precision and formal elegance match the poetry while shaping the soundscape like a musical director with cues for the other instruments to enter. What was it like playing with him?

BW: Thank you for bringing up Hicks – Yes. Yes to everything John Hicks. I look back on the 12 years we worked together as an extended highlight of my life. He listened so well and his playing made me into a better listener. We had performances at colleges, churches, clubs and even high schools – I kept track of about 80 occasions altogether. Often we had other players with us – bass (Curtis Lundy), French horn (Vincent Chancey) come easily to mind. I think it was Arthur Blythe who introduced us. The only other player with whom I had such a long working relationship was the alto and baritone player, Charles Tyler. Charles and I enjoyed a good 15 years collaborating. Both are now gone and I miss them all the time. I was especially honored when both composed tunes especially for particular poems and they both in their ways helped me compose the Tony poems.

KP: It’s no accident that the only other musician to play all three Cadence dates is Vincent Chancey on French horn. While many working in a musical idiom might have a bass line, high hat, conga or wailing tenor sax in mind when they write or recite, you seem more at home soaring along the sonic range of the French horn, variously a buoyant, ethereal, atmospheric and mesmerizing instrument in Chancey’s inspired solos as well as in his ensemble work with trumpet/sax.

BW: Vincent is a total gem to work with and we enjoy a mutual respect that I think is rare between a jazz player and a poet. We just did a duo concert just a week ago in Queens and it went so well – as it always does with him. It’s so different working with just a horn (and Charles Tyler and I did many duo performances) – my initial preference is always a rhythm instrument – first piano, second, bass, third guitar – but with Vincent other tonal factors figure in. His sound is so warm – and he knows my poems well enough to accent the humor in just the right way. There is never a competition of sound.

KP: Your jazz combo improvising on the after-the-rain scenes you narrate is what music and literature is all about, a journey into a transcendent experience of beauty that makes our differences small and our humanity large.

BW: Yes, and even while poets and jazz artists are the most underpaid of artists (civilization’s guardians), that’s OK with me. No personal gripes from me. In fact, I feel it’s a luxury to be independent of the for-profit motive for an artist. Fewer compromises are even available. Of course poets can write jingles and some do – even when not knowing it – and musicians to can do the same; but mostly we do what we do to maintain our separate art’s sanctity – without even thinking in those terms. Novelists, playwrights, and painters, on the other hand, at least hope for a big score – some real bucks -- and their work can be shaped by the marketplace/ expectations of that cash flow. Put poetry together with jazz and there is the guarantee of independence from that flow. On the other hand, there are built-in rewards when “the real thing” is produced.

KP: Yes, but hearing the CDs over and over convinces me that you and your band should get paid well for what you create. Why, “when the real thing is produced,” should its makers get flipped or forgotten? Is something built into jazz and poetry that says not to pay the artists or not to review their work? Along that line, in the many reviews I’ve read on the Tony poems, your central idea---that the hipster-outsider-underground-alternative life inspires and celebrates a deeper ethic than conventional morality---has gone unnoticed. You describe Tony as a character seeking “to be less acquisitive and less selfish in various ways---in short to wake up to the world” in the Afterword, so I think I’m on solid ground here. I don’t know why Rain Taxi describes Tony only as “living in ‘the backlands of blank’ who ‘goes invisible,’ dyes his hair red, reassures his dead mother that jail time is like floating on an iceberg, recites his numbers-running past and hides in a tunnel” with not a word about the moral change taking place within him. Is it fair to say that if the influence of the jazz tradition is underappreciated, the ethical dimension of the poem may become obscured? All About Jazz, in an otherwise praiseworthy review, wrote that your “loose logic and slippery characters don’t tell us where we are or who we’re with (is Tony a Kansas City bartender?).” Is it too much to expect reviewers to be versed in both music and poetry or to focus (mention) the technical elements in your prosody? Is such a concern hopelessly old school? Do you see this as a sign of the times? Bartender, can we get a drink here?

BW: Wow! that’s a long run of questions, and the signs of the times are slapping us about from all directions. But I want to jump on one of your words -- hipster. I find it a vague describer – a stereotype and for those who enjoy the liberation of jazz music and gentle highs, it’s a totally positive stereotype; for those passing a harsher judgment on that “lifestyle” – well then the word has a mocking cast. While Tony often shares the lingo of the so-called hip universe, he’s hardly such a professional hipster as William Burroughs or some of the portrayals by Tom Waits let’s say or sometimes Laurie Anderson. Maybe he knows that world and is in and out of it. He does exist in a shadowy underworld -- labels be dammed. But I think you speak an important truth when you ask, “Is it fair to say that if the influence of the jazz tradition is underappreciated, the ethical dimension of the poem may become obscured?” Of course jazz is both undervalued in every state, every city of the US, the home of its birth and this wouldn’t be so if it were not so misunderstood. One only has to listen a little while to understand jazz is not only jazzy and that improvisation does not mean formless. In fact there is as much form, structure and complexity in jazz as in any other form of music. Then you mention “the ethical dimension” – yes, I imagine when listening to poetry with jazz accompaniment – especially for those unaccustomed to hearing the two together (too often one competing with the other – or one indifferent to the other) – recognizing moral tones or a narrative depicting ethical growth (which is what I believe the Tony series develops into) can be further complicated by the sounds of the music. On the other hand, when the music and vocalization come together in a complimentary, clear way, then everything should transmit to the listener: the substance including the moral progression. You also ask: “Do you think it’s too much to expect a reviewer to be versed in both music and poetry?” – I have no expectations re: reviewers. IF they are reviewing a jazz/poetry collaboration, it sure would help for them to know as much about both disciplines as possible – the more anyone knows about anything, the freer they are to fully respond and not insult what they are talking about – or themselves. Reviewers of everything come in all stripes – of excellence and ignorance – and no artist should overvalue a good or bad review. David Rosenthal (poet, translator, and author of Hard Bop, an essential book on jazz) was a perfect critic and reviewer of jazz and of literature. He was a rare soul – died much too young – in his 40s – but he was a good one and the world good understates his rare talents. Yes, few reviewers – so far – have talked about the “technical elements” – even the poetry’s ironies or what I might call high-jinks. Maybe it’s the character of Tony or trying to formulate a response to this character that has distracted some from approaching the poetry in the poetry. Nor has anyone mentioned in review anything about the physical book itself. Birch Brook Press does only hand-made books. Using 19th and early 20th century equipment, they produce beautiful letterpress editions – and for the same money as regular mass produced off print books. You can feel the type with your fingers – letters as lovely bumps. No one – in print – has noticed.

KP: Yes, the feel of the page as one’s fingers run over the imprint of the letters is part of the overall charm of the project, an open sesame, the entrance into Tony’s world, a realm of imagination but also a place forged from a moral witness. I’d like to return to that theme and to M.L. Rosenthal, a mentor you mentioned earlier because his insistence as a critic on poetry’s political and social dimensions hangs like an ars poetica over Tony’s World, a kind of guardian spirit.

BW: I’m led to remember an op-ed piece printed in the NY Times written by Rosenthal titled “What Poets Do That Politicians Don’t.” He argued – no, he demonstrated – that politicians lie, a requirement of their trade, while poets must tell the truth. Truth telling is one of poetry’s principal virtues – along with its music and display of imagination. He taught generations of students – many of them to become fine poets – Paul Blackburn, Charles Simic, Grace Schulman – and the emphasis was always on what he called “the real thing” – the poem itself/ responsible to ITSELF as a work of artistry, and as a human document deeply engaged in the world around itself. The poems in the Tony book reflect the social/political universe out of which they issued. In fact, Tony tries often to blank out the frightening world around him. In one poem, “Tony’s Head,” – he’s stoned and out-of-it, floating, “Walking with a new head/ within the city's tendrils,/ he's a bobbing red flame, /an aspect” drifting willfully from the quotidian:
But a memory on page 7
holds him like a damp finger
on fresh ice.
Images of waste unconfuse--briefly:
nuclear mountains in the suburbs,
waves of poison overflowing
his stash; even his charm, obscured
by the images, cold and funny
as Death.

Tony keeps getting caught by the real world, even in the middle of “time off” away from the city and its ways. When he visits Hotel Splendide, he realizes he needs to return back home where “cold truths” cannot be fudged. I wish my old mentor and after many years, friend, had lived long enough to see this book. I believe I am telling truths here and I’d like to imagine him approving. Otherwise I’ve made a mistake.

KP: “Getting caught by the real world”---that’s the mistake we’re all making. So what is the next project we will see from you?

BW: Well, I’m still feeling grateful and pleased to see all the Tony poems in one book and am trying to help get the book out into the world by giving readings. Beyond this book, another publisher has expressed what I feel to be serious interest in bringing out a selected poems. I’m thinking about that. I have almost enough material for another recording – poems written expressly for certain musicians. Cadence Jazz Records will look at my script when it’s ready and then we’ll see. Meanwhile I work on what’s in front of me and try not to allow the distractions of either daily life or some imagined acceptance or rejection blur my vision.


Born and raised and often living in New York City, Kirpal Gordon is a spoken word slinger who, alongside a variety of jazz musicians and bands, plays joyous havoc with the Great American Songbook. His stories, music and literary reviews, essays, prose poems and interviews regularly appear in print and on the net. For more on his books and performances, see