John Sinclair - Fattening Frogs For Snakes: Delta Sound Suite, New Orleans: Surregional Press, 2002,
206 pp Illustrations by Francis Pavy
by SuZi, 3/22/03
There are those of us for whom the homogenization of culture is an obscenity far exceeding that of taboo language; an offense in the exclusions created by the very marketing forces which promote unelected deities. Not all of us are willing to abide the perverse amnesia insisted upon by the purveyors of our cultural marketplace whose primary interest seems to be mind-numbing numbers of items sold. We live in an art world which, as critic Raphael Rubinstein says, is "commercialized, capitalized and institutionalized" and he says we are encouraged to forget the past, or keep it safely quarantines, perhaps never having known it in the first place.
In such a situation, any reference to our own history is a history which is safely sanitized for public consumption. Any research is then institutionalized, funded, processed, designated by varying degrees of prestige and then locked up by category in a sort of intellectual zoo. Thus, the wildness is lost; the freedom to be as was meant to be becomes only the safely incarcerated glare of some rare species.
We need not submit and accept what we are served; we have options, choices beyond the hot lights of arena art, choices found in smaller venues and speaking in a power which reaches the original intent of culture--culture in its origin, its first manifestation: the human soul and that which calls us.
An epitome of such indeified but powerful voice is blues scholar John Sinclair. His recently released book Fattening Frogs For Snakes is the result of decades of unfunded scholarship; and the book is also the product of the small, uninstitutionalized Surregional Press. The physical presence of the book itself is superior to that of many small press products; the hardbound edition boasts a glossy paper cover over its boards, crisp type and chapter illustrations of superior quality than that of most larger house publications, but sells for an equal or lesser price. There is also a CD of the same title; a testament to Sinclair's commitment to culture as a whole.
We might expect over twenty years of scholarship to result in a test of unreadable density, but Sinclair crosses the boundaries of institutional expectations by reporting the results of his research in poetry. Beyond the chapters of poetry, there is an extensive appendix containing not only the references typical of scholarly work--pages of general bibliography and source notes--but also extensive discographies of those persons whose lifework has come to comprise Sinclair's own: Charley Patten, Howlin' Wolf, Sonny Boy Williamson and a further cast of folks in the index.
The poems themselves are directly from the research-- Sinclair uses extensive quotations--and on the surface their content is biographical. We might still expect the dryness of scholarship or the postmodern puns of current poetic fashion, but Sinclair's work is neither: the poems are constructed with careful veracity to the spoken story of people's lives in griot style and the cadences and language choices of the source material is preserved here. Yet Sinclair's own resonance is also audible in these poems. There is a specificity of place-name which clearly informs of Sinclair's tight area of research: the blues as they originated in the Mississippi region of our country (with some excursions to Chicago and a place or two out west).
These are poems about the blues, the people who made the blues; an honoring of those people who gave our country the rootstock from which all our current music has flowered. To those people living outside of New Orleans, the relevance of the blues might seem to be an exercise in the exotic; for those living outside of New Orleans, any music beyond today's top ten tunes might seem a strange and foreign entity; music is a part of daily life in New Orleans--the only city in America where music is always in the air, breathed by citizens of every caste. How fitting that Sinclair's book should be published by the unfunded Surregional Press, also of New Orleans, and of a press run of less than two thousand copies. The commitment to culture is exemplified by both press and author, a commitment which has not yet bowed to lack of economic reward--although our collective financial fashions may undo us all.
Sinclair himself addresses the usurping of culture for economic gain in the title poem of the book. It is the only poem in which Sinclair expresses overt authorial opinion; in most of the poems he maintains no authorial presence beyond the sculpting of the poem from researched sources. The poem "Fattening Frogs For Snakes" is an indemnification of all cultural exploitation, but also remains specific to Sinclair's subject:
that their bitter experience
could be shaped into art
of the highest possible order
that would inform
all of popular music
for the rest of the century
& the music of the Delta
would be appropriated
& exploited beyond measure
&they would be left
to face the terrible future
of life in the ghetto
with nothing to sustain them
nothing but the watered down sound
of what was once their music
played back at them [...]
on every television set in America
These are poems about people's lives : lives whose truth finds divinity in the transformation into an artform; people who might be, as James Baldwin said in "Sonny's Blues" some sort of god or monster. But the monstrosity is not in the immortal resonance of the artform itself, it is in our ignorance of what critic David Kunian calls the "joys and suffering of the United States' most marginalized citizens" (2)
If we, as truthful lovers to and of culture, are to refuse and resist the genetically engineered products of culture blasted over the airwaves, cables into our homes, displayed in mass-produced glare in our bookstores, then it is these marginalized and dedicated people with whom we must ally ourselves. It is with these artforms we find a deeper satisfaction and it is with these yet unrevered artists, writers, scholars and their ever-battling small presses and small production companies to whom we owe our hard-earned wages and our gratitude.