“Genre doesn’t exist,” claims Dane Swan in a 2013 interview on the website Black Coffee Poet. “There are different ways you have to manipulate your work so that it fits a medium. Medium exists. For me writing is writing.” The disavowal of proscribed categories is appropriate for an artist like Swan, a Toronto resident of mixed Bermudan and Jamaican heritage who defiantly straddles the line between the improvisatory attitude of slam and spoken-word poetry and the more formalized world of print poetry. It is also appropriate given the guiding spirit that animates Swan’s second collection.
Charles Mingus was a virtuoso of the double bass, and one of 20th-century jazz music’s great innovators. He was also one of its most volatile personalities, subject to clinical depression and a violent temper that resulted in the musician getting into altercations – both verbal and physical – with other members of his ensemble and even concert audiences. Christopher Carroll of The New York Review of Books writes that Mingus once got in trouble for chasing a bandmate across a stage with an axe, and chastised noisy audiences by telling them, “Isaac Stern doesn’t have to put up with this shit.”
The comment resonates with one of Swan’s abiding concerns: the disparate treatment of blacks and whites in supposedly civilized western society. “That’s not poetry, it’s rap,” says the eponymous figure in “To the drunk guy in the elevator last night.” To which the poet responds: “You might as well have said, ‘Go back to where you came from.’” In “Fear – a work in two voices,” the speaker bemoans the assumption that a black man walking the streets at 5 a.m. could not possibly be headed to the park to watch birds: “Police brutality is not covered by your camera’s warranty.”
Swan turns his gaze directly on the iconic jazzman in a sequence of “epitaphs” that focus on incidents from the musician’s life. But Mingus’s restless spirit infuses the entire collection, which combines charged political verses and more intimate poems about love and sex (Mingus, who had four wives and numerous mistresses, was notoriously priapic).
The rhythms of the pieces owe a debt to Mingus’s improvisational jazz and the oral dictates of spoken word, while also recalling the bebop of Langston Hughes and the Harlem Renaissance poets. The vernacular argot is appropriate to Swan’s material, but occasionally comes across as heavy handed (“I balance my heart on the edge of razor blades, / trying not to pierce my aorta / (my heart bleeds)”) or clichéd (“These words have power”).
However, the poems succeed in negotiating tensions between language and action, thought and potential, while also recognizing that the most productive impulses frequently result from chaos or oppression: “These words /were not born in a safe space,” Swan writes. Or elsewhere, in “20.06.2010,” about the G20 riots in Toronto: “If violence were the answer / I would be on the front lines – / Molotov cocktail in one hand, / Communist Manifesto in the other.” These poems are not quite lullabies, but one can imagine that Mingus would have approved.