It’s as if you can almost hear Jonah Raskin performing these poems, whipping up the audience into a frenzy; didn’t Walt Whitman say that “to have great poets, there must be great audiences”? My thinking is more that, to put it just as simply, there must be an audience for this book, even if it’s just you and me at home, reading in bed, because “Rock ‘N’ Roll Women” is great poetry. As you hit the hay, these poems will make you dream about the world Raskin creates, evoking music and the favourite rock ‘n’ roll women he knows.
As Ed Coletti states on the cover, “clearly, Jonah Raskin has known and loved more rock ‘n’ roll women than any other male has the right to know”. Each poem features one of these women and a particular music artist, who contextualises the relevant woman’s life. Through this technique, Raskin conjures up a community of people and places, to make you feel like you know them; the poems are successful because they draw us in to the familiar, fulfilling Ginsberg’s ideal of poetry as “the one place where people can speak their original human mind. It is the outlet for people to say in public what is known in private”. How could we possibly resist?
Raskin is a successful poet because he picks up on things that we all may know or think, but don’t necessarily acknowledge. A few of my female friends have similar feelings about Beyoncé as those set out in “Monica and Beyoncé”, in which Monica aches to be her lover, “mimic her moves and her grooves”. Beyoncé is a public figure, and Monica becomes almost a recognisable and universal girlfriend because of her reaction.
Making the personal public is a dangerous business, because there’s a risk of alienating the people you are immortalising. But whilst Raskin’s portraits of “his women” are most certainly personal, they demonstrate a generosity of spirit and compassion. Raskin also has a firm sensitivity to language; in “Joan and Joe Coker”, Joan and her lover are “stealing secret nights/in stolen bedrooms”. In a few alliterative words, Raskin has artfully conveyed this particular couple’s furtive experience.
Raskin is undoubtedly a counter-culturist, and I’d argue that his background in political activism shapes this book; most of the women have edge, or are on the margins. Judy encounters “the smell of tear gas and/patchouli,/the world you’ve known/crashing down/with the Doors and/the hell of Huey helicopters/on the nightly news” (“Judy & The Doors”). The music, as well as the political environment, is part of the central experience Judy has lived through, and Raskin gets there through the rhythm of the lines.
This is not poetry for the faint-hearted; the women are, on the whole, immersed in the underground so that the language is suitably tough to reflect their circumstances. The environment is outspoken so it’s appropriate that most of the poems have a loud-spoken resonance, to be performed perhaps at the Six Gallery or through a loud-hailer. The poet seems willing to question his female friends’ motives; he asks Paula “Did you smoke pot/in the beginning?”(“Paula & Sly Stone”) and Tamara, “Would you be more discreet?” (“Tamara & Otis Redding”).
Raskin’s activist milieu possibly means that as a poet he is more willing to ask difficult and possibly controversial questions, and this draws us in as he holds his friends to account. Whilst Raskin knows the women in the book, it’s as if he wants to verify his understanding of their experience, so we get to know them too. “Hannah and Jimmy Cliff” in particular asks some hard-hitting, difficult questions. Of course, it’s a one-sided conversation, but nobody ever said life would be fair.
These poems are also sometimes marked by a particular geography. “Karen and Ry Cooder” becomes less about Karen and more about the landscape, not “big enough/or wide enough to play the music”. Raskin’s originality is in fitting the right artist to the right feeling to the right person to the right place. Music becomes a marker and a sign-post to personal and cultural history.
“All Together Now”, the final poem in the collection, tests the reader by asking whether we, the fans, have been just as played as the music that inhabits the book. It’s the right question to ask, and the non-direct answer is contained in what follows, a melodious poetic to remind us that music can “set our bones on fire”. Ah, it’s only human to be moved by these things.
3 Questions to Jonah Raskin
Charles Pitter: Do you listen to music whilst you write poetry, or do you need silence?
Jonah Raskin: I don’t need silence to write poetry, but I usually write poetry without listening to music playing on my computer or on a CD. The music is playing in my head and the rhythms are in my body. I can see the women in the poems, too, and remember where they were and what they were doing.
Charles Pitter: Do you feel a kinship to the Beats, and if so, why?
Jonah Raskin: I have a big kinship to the Beats. I grew up with them. On the Road and Howl were published when I was a teenager in the 1950s and they were in the news and out of curiosity I turned to their books and read them on my own. I’ve taught classes on the Beats and I have written a book entitled American Scream: Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl” and the Making of the Beat Generation.
Charles Pitter: What do you make of the “Occupy Movement”?
Jonah Raskin: Where did it go? I haven’t heard anything about it recently. The Occupy Movement certainly made people in the U.S.A. aware of the huge inequalities of wealth – the 99% vs. the 1 %. I was at a few Occupy demonstrations in Texas and California and they were spirited. I think that the Occupy Movement needs to have and ought to have the clout to pressure politicians to do something drastic to protect citizens against the banks and the corporations. There are too many banksters around. Too many inequalities.
“Rock ‘N’ Roll Women” is published by McCaa Books, www.mccaabooks.com.