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You’re currently reading “lisa polisar | renowned poet and jazz evangelist, writer mark weber talks freely about his bohemian life in the american west | copyright © september, 2011,” an entry on metropolis | jazz, free-jazz and improvised music
- 16.09.11 / 11am
lisa polisar | renowned poet and jazz evangelist, writer mark weber talks freely about his bohemian life in the american west | copyright © september, 2011
Ever heard of a Jazz Anthropologist? It’s someone who studies the behaviors, traits, culture, history and development of the genus: jazz musician. It is a highly revered occupation, requiring decades of copious research, writing, photojournalism, recording, listening, interviews, along with significant field work and observation.
I know of only one person with this particular occupation. And if you live in New Mexico, you may know him as that gravelly voice on KUNM Radio every Thursday, playing an eclectic set of jazz recordings anywhere between the 1920’s to now. You may have hired him to paint your house. You may have read one of his Zerx Press poetry chapbooks or, if you’re a musician, you may have been recorded by him on a Zerx compilation CD. He plays guitar, he plays the gamelan, his poetry and jazz journalism have been widely published for over 20 years, and he has a 10,000+ jazz and blues photo archive in the UCLA Music Department’s Special Collection. Like I said, a jazz anthropologist. But he’s accomplished in so many different areas, finding a singular label to accurately describe him is like trying to explain reality.
Before landing in New Mexico, he spent the first 32 years of his life in California. With that came an eclectic resume of work in a plastics factory, on oil boats in the Gulf of Mexico, as an auto mechanic, wedding photographer, all the while living the essential writer’s life – observing, writing, recording and archiving jazz musicians during the most potent period in jazz history.
Lisa Polisar: What do you think is the connection between jazz and poetry?
Mark Weber: One is deliberate, the other is spontaneous. Now, of course there exists some jazz that is only about 5% spontaneous. With poetry, the closest I come to spontaneous is preparing myself psychically, mentally, physically to be ready to write clearly and fast when the poems come through.
I recently performed at the Outpost Performance Space in Albuquerque, and I was in duet with pianist Kazzrie Jaxen — poems + piano. During rehearsal, Kazzrie noticed that we needed a certain type of poem to fit into a certain part of the performance sequence. She practically spelled out the entire poem with her description of the elements needed. “Do you have a poem like that?” she asked. I looked around and paused, not sure I should inform her that poets don’t have mystical turbans and write in a trance directed by the clouds. I hurriedly scratched out a poem for her on the table and she said, “You just wrote that now?” and probably ruined her romantic notion of poets in eternal garrets.
Lisa Polisar: How much revision do you do?
Mark Weber: I try to get 98% of it down in the first draft. Poems are not written on demand, though I’m embarrassed to say that I am guilty of cranking them out in this manner if the need arises. Jack Kerouac’s and Allen Ginsberg’s notion of “Spontaneous Bop Prosody” has always appealed to me. But for me, it has to be crafted. So, I revise. Just a little.
When a poem is electrical, it’s because it has captured that moment of inspiration, that instance of heightened awareness somehow makes it into the written poem. Now, I’ve come to enjoy the 2% of revising that I allow myself. Sometimes you just have to toss the poem and wait for the spirit to visit you again. For fun, I once published a book called POEM REVISED 39 TIMES (Mt. Aukum Press, 1999), and it’s an idea I’d like to explore further. I revised that poem to death.
“One has to be careful not to revise too much because you can drain the blood out of a poem with too much revision.”
Lisa Polisar: Do you write about jazz and play music in the spaces between poems, or the other way around?
Mark Weber: Poems are everywhere. A person who has designs on writing poems merely needs to learn how to notice them as they pass by. I keep a little notepad in my breast pocket. And while I’m waiting for poems to occur to me, I busy myself with jazz journalism. I’ve found I can be quite productive writing my little jazz articles and the poems just pop up now and again with some regularity. Mostly, you have to decide which poem you want to bother with. I don’t write down every poem that comes floating by. Some of that stuff is just pure anxiety masquerading as a poem. It’s the mind trying to figure out a way to get center stage. “Look at me! Here’s something you need to worry about, make a poem, make yourself the hero, the martyr, the guy that everyone wants to love.” That’s the mind doing its busy work.
“I tell beginning writers to write with their stomachs and leave the mind out of it.”
Lisa Polisar: In what ways has jazz influenced your poetry?
Mark Weber: Jazz is so lyrical. It taught me flow. It taught me clarity. It taught me to trust the moment. It taught me brevity, abstraction, and power. It taught me integrity and rhythm.
Lisa Polisar: How has your poetry changed over the years?
Mark Weber: In a lot of ways it has stayed the same. There have been no drastic left turns in style. My first published poem — age 15 in high school paper — is a very good poem but there was a LOT of learning yet to do. It wasn’t until I was 28 that a true flowing narrative style kicked in. Learning how to write was very difficult for me, for some reason. All those years I was writing for jazz magazines and by age 21 I had my own by-line in CODA writing the Los Angeles jazz column ( in over my head, to be sure, but that’s one way to learn!). I struggled over those columns. Hard work. I built those paragraphs like you’d build a house. Cut and paste. And the poems, well, I just couldn’t get the hook-up back then.
“I wrote ten years of poems that were so clunky they drove like a tricycle with an oblong wheel.”
I have three main types of poems: my slice-of-life, day to day plainspeak that I jokingly refer to as angst poems; my atmospheric landscape poems; and then a new thing for me: poems that reject the anxiety of a busy mind and look to larger things. I don’t want to call them spiritual, necessarily, but they lean that way. I wish I could be Rumi but there’s been too much weird water under the bridge for that. Maybe my meditation practice will clear that up.
Lisa Polisar: What was your first published poem?
into the ocean.
appiered dead ships.
Lisa Polisar: As a longtime jazz observer, how do you think the jazz scene has changed?
Mark Weber: Tough question. Has it changed? Of course, the Buddha says change is the constant. I can’t say that there’s been any great innovations in the last few decades. I was discussing this with composer-trombonist Michael Vlatkovich the other day and he pointed out, quite correctly, that most of the valid innovations these days are happening merely with individual soloists in how they deal with the landscape of saying something within a group. That their solos are where it’s all happening these days, while riding the tide of a cranking jazz band, in the moment.
So, nothing like what happened with bebop when it arrived in the mid-40s. Or when Ornette Coleman showed a multi-tonal “free approach” to harmony in the late 50s. Or Cecil Taylor at the same time who showed how to work with tone rows and energy. There’s been a lot of different things tossed into jazz that seem like a change, but mostly still basically jazz. Mostly, the change has been in me.
That’s what jazz does – it absorbs everything in its path… and turns it into jazz.
The “CD Era” has made it possible to re-issue so much music from the 1920s clear up to now, that I’ve gone back and now spend a lot of time in those places, where my youthful interests were a lot more avant garde. Recently, my dear friend JB Bryan defended me when a local nutjob attacked me at the Outpost for “playing all that old music” on my radio show. I couldn’t dispute that. But, JB calmly explained, “Mark’s so avant-garde…he popped out the other side.”
I love going into local joints and seeing those cats working the trenches. This is where the real jazz is taking place. Now, I love our performance spaces where an actual presentation is mounted to show what you do. But it’s out in the bars, lounges, restaurants, and sidewalks where the music lives. You step into one of these places and we all speak a common language.
Lisa Polisar: When did you first leave California?
Mark Weber: In May of 1986, because the cops had intended to capture me and keep me permanently in the California Penal Colony. I had committed no crimes against people and was mostly my bookish self, spending my evenings in jazz clubs, but over the years my dabbling in heroin had progressed to an addiction. And with all the jail and hospitals behind that scene, I finally had to leave town.
I went north to Redding, California, where my Hardshell Baptist grandmother lived and wound up in Redding General Hospital for 28-day lockdown where I was cured of heroin. When I left there, I was lounging on the beach at Whiskeytown Lake and met Janet. She was on summer break from Podiatry College in Cleveland. So we took up housekeeping and have been together ever since.
Lisa Polisar: When did you start playing music seriously?
Mark Weber: In 1991, Janet and I moved to Albuquerque after 2 years in Salt Lake City, where she was doing her medical residency. And in 1994, I quit the sauce and have been clear of all that foolishness ever since. And once sober, I discovered that I could play music, sort of. I joined the local gamelan orchestra and, in the same year, started a honky tonk country band called The Bubbadinos. Talk about schizophrenic!
Those are two wildly different musics. And my forties were like that – off in five different directions at once. My involvement with jazz deepened and I became a deejay at KUNM in August of 1996 that is on-going to this day. I think it was like a slingshot effect once I got the various addictions out of my system. I had all this energy saved up and WHAM! I shot off into the stratosphere. I even built the second story on our house…in 9 weeks! And I wrote all the songs for the Bubbadinos’ third CD while building the rooms up above. How? I have no idea. And all those years I had a house painting business to finance my record company, Zerx Records & Books.
Mark Weber, The Projects, New Mexico, August 28, 2011 | Photo by Mark Weaver
Lisa Polisar: What are you reading right now, and what genre do you read most?
Mark Weber: I read a lot of Lawrence Block — mostly his Matt Scudder series. And I’m always reading Vedic and Buddhist texts. Presently an annotation of Nagarjuna’s Buddhist treatise, Mulamadhyamakakarika from the 2nd century A.D.
I’m also a big fan of Al Franken’s masterpiece that I have read ten times “Rush Limbaugh Is A Big Fat Idiot.” It’s so pitch perfect and the timing of his delivery still catches me off-guard. And I hardly know anything about politics! My wife walks by and sees me with that book and says, “Are you reading that again??”
Lisa Polisar: What is the book you’re writing now?
Mark Weber: Like most books, it has spent years percolating inside my head. It’s about the Los Angeles jazz scene of the 1950s through the 1980s, sort of noir impressionistic, incorporating not only the jazz scene but the socio-political layout and the vibe of that period.
I want it to work on the rhythms of a Ross Macdonald novel, somewhat hard-core night-like, dream-like. The jazz critical establishment is going to hate it. I’m sorry for that but it’s my book. This book will have historical facts as well as dream poems, photos, maps, diagrams, sheet music, and other graphics. I used to tell student writers to get a camera. That taking pictures is a great way to have the feeling of accomplishing something…while you’re waiting for your poems and writing to mature.
Lisa Polisar: Where did the idea for Zerx come from?
Mark Weber: Zerx Press started in 1983. The first chapbook was an edition of 50 copies. Thereafter, the print runs were around 300 copies, then in the late 80s through 2005 the print runs were 500 and now they’ve backed off down to 300. Zerx Records started in 1995 and all releases up to 076 were glass mastered in editions of 1,000 (except for the Bayou Seco CDs which were editions of 2,000). Zerx 077, 078, and 079 and forthcoming 080 are CDRs in unlimited editions somewhere in the neighborhood of 200 to 300 copies.
The name “Zerx” is a funny story. I made my first chapbook using the office copier where I worked at the time. An edition of 50 copies. And in the rush of production, I realized I needed to put a name for the publisher. So, the machine I was using was a Xerox company machine so the first chap was published under the imprint “Xerox Press,” merely because I was tuned into the word in its generic sense, not its trademark scene. It was Gerald Locklin who told me I should maybe consider changing the name. And so, I crunched it down to Zerx.
OF CHARCOAL & TEMPORALITY
The Buddha was right:
apparently there were olden days
that were not any older than
this day right now –
You look at the cave paintings
of Chauvet and the intervening
32,000 years fall away –
You walk into Walmart and a man
wearing a Mohawk whose face has
been swallowed by a lawnmower is telling
the greeter that he is God –
You note that time has done a number
on God, you hope it has been kinder
to the avocados, you fold your sunglasses
and discreetly watch this poor broken-hearted
fellow traveler ranting and raving,
not an uncommon scenario in this part
of town: cops handcuffing and hauling
the gods off to the clinker to sleep
it off –
I was on a bus in this very time zone year before last
when I overheard a wino in seat behind me
tell the wino across the aisle that
he was going to Heaven, soon,
and the other wino affectionately said
that he too was going to Heaven, maybe
they’d run into each other up there?
And the first wino said, Yeh, that would be
great, will you say Hi to me if you see me?
And the other wino quite matter-of-factly said, Oh
yeh, I’ll be sure to say Hi when I see you –
Blending my avocado-banana-blueberry smoothie
I think about news item regarding the planet Gliese 581d
twenty light years distant, recently discovered to have
possibilities of life, they need a more advanced
telescope to see for sure –
Probably look in a complete circle and see
charcoal paintings of cave bears, saber-toothed cats,
woolly mammoths, and horses flowing in time.
Mark Weber | 1july11
is a fiction writer, journalist, musician and screenwriter. Her love affair with mysteries began with English mystery writers — Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Agatha Christie, Colin Dexter, P.D. James, and she remains an insatiable devotee of Sherlock Holmes to this day. Lisa did graduate work in psychology and orchestral music at University of Exeter in England. Forever fascinated with the psychology of crimes and criminals, she has continued to study forensic science and psychology ever since as a way of digging deeper into the heart of her characters. Her published novels include Escape: Dark Mystery Tales, a collection of short mystery fiction published in 2010, The Ghost of Mary Prairie, a classic mystery/suspense published in 2007, Blackwater Tango, a psychological thriller published in 2002, and Knee Deep, an eerie suspense published in 2001. For more information and to read excerpts and reviews of Lisa’s novels, click the Books link on this website or go to amazon.com.
Lisa was six when she began flute and piano lessons, and she earned a degree in music and psychology from University of Hartford’s Hartt School of Music. As a professional jazz flutist, she has recorded on numerous CD’s, has taught workshops on jazz improvisation and creativity, is a private flute teacher, and performs with various ensembles. In 1998, Lisa wrote the book, Straight Ahead: A Musician’s Guide to Learning Jazz and Staying Inspired (Chile Piper Press).
Lisa has written three feature-length comedy screenplays and she is currently working on a fourth, along with a new thriller. Her short fiction and poetry have been widely published in literary journals, and as a journalist, Lisa writes features articles, technical articles, art reviews, and book reviews for a variety of magazines. In 2004, she won two journalism awards from the National Association of Press Women. Lisa grew up in Hingham, Massachusetts, and has lived in Connecticut, England, and New Mexico. She now lives with her husband in northern California.
To read more about Lisa Polisar, please go here… or just click the photo portrait above.
Editors Note: Thanks to Lisa Polisar for the use of this interview on Metropolis