Like most people, I have shelves in my home stacked with books that say something about who I am. Eggers, Vonnegut and Sedaris in one corner, Dillard, Descartes and a collection of Calvin and Hobbes in the other, like some piecemeal personal ad. If this short list is any indication of my taste, then the North End bungalow Norman Weinstein shares with his wife, writer Mary Owen, is a paper and ink mosaic of his soul. Every room is heaped with books by such giants as D.H. Lawrence, Walt Whitman, Gertrude Stein and Shakespeare, each title a testament to the unique mind of a man with enough words in him to fill a house.
We met to discuss the release of Weinstein's seventh book of poetry, a collection of "sentences" called No Wrong Notes. Before we could delve into exactly what constitutes a sentence, he handed me a five-page resume--a lifetime of work ranging from jazz criticism to counseling to dismantling metaphors in Kamau Brathwaite's poetry. His teaching credentials are almost as extensive as his areas of expertise, which include Caribbean literature, educational technology and folklore, just to name a few. As an undergrad at Bard College, Weinstein wrote the first of many books. This book, Gertrude Stein and the Literature of the Modern Consciousness, was published in 1970 and today is assigned reading in graduate courses around the country.
Forty years ago, the same man nearly failed out of high school. He was bored and unmotivated, cutting class to study at the Philadelphia Art Museum and the University of Pennsylvania Library. It was there that a book called A Controversy of Poets literally fell into his lap. The book lay open to a poem by Robert Kelly, and the writing inspired Weinstein to do some research. He discovered that Kelly was a professor at Bard College in Annandale, New York, and despite dismal grades and SAT scores, Weinstein was determined to pursue a degree.
At 15, he taught himself how to use a printing press and published a poetry magazine that circulated in New York and California, and administrators at Bard recognized his potential. They accepted him and he spent four years working with Kelly and coming into his own.
"My parents were dead-set against me being a poet or a writer. Going to Bard gave me permission to be myself," he said.
Strange that for someone of Russian Jewish ancestry, "being himself" meant plunging into African and Caribbean culture and the metaphysics of jazz. "What I heard and loved in jazz is what I heard and loved in poetry," he said, "so I started looking at life and the people around me through jazz and Caribbean culture. I don't see the world with enormous clarity, but I hear the world well."
When he truly began hearing the world and expressing it, Weinstein realized that his style didn't fit into a category. It is prose and poetry, and the debate rages on as to whether the two twine in a separate form. Weinstein remembers being taught about each respectively and feels lucky to have turned away from such rigid thinking.
"That was an advantage to me, learning how to drop all that. Now I really don't know the difference, and I'm not saying that coyly. I've worked at getting thoroughly puzzled about this, and it's tremendously exciting--not to bypass the fact that there are obvious differences," he said.
No Wrong Notes exemplifies this defiance to the draconian rules of syntax. Each sentence could also be called a paragraph, and many of them begin in lowercase, play with punctuation and proudly run on to reveal multiple meanings weaving into each another, the structure, the space between words. The title is a nod to jazz great Thelonious Monk, who once said, "the piano has no wrong notes." Weinstein explained that in jazz and in writing, the work is to find a way of resolving wrong notes so they aren't wrong. This doesn't make for the most accessible poetry, but Weinstein isn't in it for the praise.
"You can write in a way where everybody immediately 'gets it' or write in a way that throws down a challenge," he said. "My poems are about a multiplicity of meanings as opposed to the school model of having one intention. If you like jazz, you don't believe Sonny Rollins gets up to play with only one intention. I'm putting out a field of possible meanings."
Weinstein is as unswayed by profit as he is approval, though he admits he wouldn't mind having tenure at Harvard. Becoming a writer was not a decision; it was an instinct, what he calls "an act of survival."
"It wasn't because I was great, it was because I had to write or I would die," he said. The will to live and express life became alchemy for him, a psychological and spiritual alchemy that figuratively renders what is low in life into gold. This is a stretch for some readers, especially in Boise, Idaho. But if you ask him what his writing means, Weinstein will tell you he sees the world as a balance of composition and improvisation, that music and religion are echoic and that writing is spiritual. Elements of music and faith are evident in certain rhythms, images and language in his work. He seeks to put the pieces together, make them cohere like a good song or the "impossible questions" asked by his muse, Gertrude Stein. He'll tell you that life is about finding your form, whether it's painting, writing, dancing, working on computers, running companies or cleaning floors.
"You are your form, and putting all the tiny pieces together becomes that form. It's very arduous. It takes a good-sized ego and knocks it around," he said. "I write for the world I live in, to connect people to pieces of their own lives and help them come to their own words. This is us, this is it. We get this time, we get this form. You're between what you've written in the past and what you hope to write in the future. And whether I wake up in the morning loving myself or thinking I'm 90th degree mediocre, the question is still there--what will the next sentence be?"
Norman Weinstein reads from No Wrong Notes, October 2, 3 p.m., $4 members, $6 nonmembers, Log Cabin Literary Center, 801 S. Capitol Blvd., 331-8000.