Behind the Words: L. Ward Abel

Posted by on Sep 28, 2016 in Uncategorized | 0 comments

FullSizeRenderI had the pleasure to talk poetry, jazz, and human frailty with poet and musician, L. Ward Abel. His multi-faceted poem, “Bill Evans,” appeared in Spry’s Issue 2. Read this poem out loud and feel the movement beneath the surface of the writing. Before ever speaking to the poet, I knew he was a musician.

Jennifer Martelli: I read “Bill Evans” first as an elegy, and then as an ode. The speaker (you?) establishes an immediate connection by letting us know what Bill Evans knew (“deafening”) and then by inserting himself into Evans’ psyche (“. . . .I sense a brokenness a spiralling. . . .”). What is amazing is how much information is condensed into this six-line poem. What is your relationship to the subject? To Bill Evans?      

L. Ward Abel: I am a great lover of jazz, particularly the era that produced Evans, Tyner, Coltrane and the like: those giants who did so much with open spaces that could occur in the music of the late 50’s and early 60’s. Of course Kind of Blue comes to mind, which is perfection. But I’m also drawn to those tortured souls like Evans who used new approaches to confront the inner demons of insecurity and obsession, like Charlie Parker and Jackson Pollack . Evans always portrayed a lonely image to me. I have a poem about Glenn Gould that examine such a landscape.


     to Glenn Gould

He used to be a friend

of mine, Toronto, though

someone said he didn’t like

to talk, but sing, not really

singing. And even Bernstein

acknowledge the sun

humming with piano notes. I

don’t believe Glenn would

know me now, come to think of it

I think he walks Ontario,

his overcoat, agonized

the penance the pilgrimage.

He plays so late at night, he sings,

how can his parents sleep?

Jennifer Martelli: Here is a sure sign of an excellent poem: even though I knew this poem was about a musician, I was compelled to Google Bill Evans. What a story! His death was described as “the longest suicide in history.” This brings me back to that gorgeous second sentence in the poem that so mimics “a falling that is/wordless. . . .” Do you see his life as a long suicide?      

L. Ward Abel: Well, he never seemed to recover from the death of his brother…and when you couple such occurrences with a terrible heroin and cocaine habit, you have a volatile mix. Such artists can’t seem to cope with their own genius, so any personality issues seem to explode, like they did with him. The art came first when he wanted to live, and when he lost the will to care for himself and his work, he faded away. I suppose the fact that he was a pianist makes his loss even more “wordless.”

Jennifer Martelli: You use syntax masterfully in this poem, and in other poems (“Upriver Cloud to       Cloud” comes to mind). I love that “Bill Evans” consists of three sentences, with incredibly complex movement: one half of a compound sentence, a long sentence, and then that killer last line: “Those/beautiful fat fingers.” As a musician, are you informed by that type of composition when you’re writing poetry?       

L. Ward Abel: Absolutely…and again the simplicity implied by the last line belies the fact that his work was so incredibly complex. My own compositions make an attempt at simple imagery, cutting the unnecessary and keeping some kind of essence. That idea is what I love about poetry: a concept that ordinarily could fill volumes can be addressed in ten lines of a poem.

Jennifer Martelli: In so many of your other poems, place appears to be important: Missouri, Zebulon, Toronto, Herculaneum. And yet, your poems are not traditionally “narrative,” in that they need a physical starting point. How do you use place in your poetry?      

L. Ward Abel: My home is is basically in a rural part of Georgia, or at least rural until recently…and it has become in many ways a character in my work. I think it is a manifestation of my need for some kind of stability, a built-in compass that, even when reflecting on the philosophical or the spiritual, allows me to know “where” I am. If I meet someone for the first time, I always ask where that person is from. It can reveal a great deal about someone. And the use of setting creates such an important layer of information while still preserving the need for retaining a concise approach.

Jennifer Martelli: Ironically, “Bill Evans” describes “so-called/places.” Why this choice of not naming a place for this poem?      

L. Ward Abel: With Evans, he is the true “place,” transcending mere geography and reflecting a geography of the troubled heart. I guess I don’t just associate him with just New York, New Jersey, Florida or Baton Rouge, although it’s all part of him, but he seems like weather…he’s everywhere.

Jennifer Martelli: Another choice I noticed in your work is the “he” and “she” who show up in many of your poems. I’m thinking of the poem “Oconee,” or “Busthead Skies.” You are able to embed such quirky and exact imagery in the poems, they seem to be actual folks, and yet they’re given an “otherworldly” aspect by leaving them unnamed. Are they based on people you know?      

L. Ward Abel: Usually they aren’t people I know: they are images that evoke an emotional connection with an idea that is being examined, and the “character” takes on human characteristics. Oconee is a river in Georgia, yet it represents something else, whether human or not.

Jennifer Martelli: You write with such precision about Bill Evans and George Wallace! You seem fascinated by dramatically flawed characters. How do you approach these subjects (in these cases, drug addiction, racism)?      

L. Ward Abel: I really think the flaw is always the focus…it is who we are, this imperfect vessel that may or may not find redemption. Sometimes it doesn’t or can’t happen. Maybe it shouldn’t happen. But I’m fascinated with a disheveled landscape, one with broken glass and wrappers, abandoned, left to its own devices.

Jennifer Martelli: You are a prolific poet and musician! Do you have a new project in the works–either poetry or music….or both?      

L. Ward Abel: Yes, I always have something I’m working on, like my new collection of poems to be published next winter entitled Digby Roundabout. I’m shopping a new collection called A Jerusalem of Ponds. And I’m working on some new songs that I’ll release this or next year that I’m recording with with my musical partner, Steve Rawls, with our group, Abel & Rawls.

Jennifer Martelli’s debut poetry collection, The Uncanny Valley, was published in 2016. She is also the author of the chapbook, Apostrophe. Her poetry has appeared, or will appear, in [pank], Broadsided, Vector Press, and Tar River Poetry. Her prose has appeared in Drunken Boat, The Green Mountains Review, The Mom Egg, and Gravel: A Literary Journal. Jennifer Martelli has been nominated for Pushcart and Best of the Net Prizes and is the recipient of the Massachusetts Cultural Council Grant in Poetry. She is a book reviewer for Up the Staircase Quarterly, as well as an associate editor for The Compassion Anthology.


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