Yaddo is the artists’ colony in Saratoga Springs that abuts the Saratoga Raceway. I spent the month of July 1959 there between my stint at the University of Connecticut as both undergraduate and, during the spring semester, grad student-part-time-instructor of English, and my transfer to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop the following fall. One of my new Yaddo friends was the artist Roger Crossgrove who, coincidentally, would become a member of the UConn faculty.
Roger and I were having lunch in my room one day, and the conversation turned to how quickly or slowly one might compose a poem or work of art. The evening before he and I, and several others, had gone to a bar located across from the race track to drink and listen to live jazz. We were attended by a young waitress named Lorrie with whom we flirted and exchanged banter.
One of the features of jazz, of course, is improvisation which is no less a feature of poetry composition worldwide, as for instance in contemporary hip-hop and in the qasida or, particularly, the ghazal of Arabic poetry. Poe’s “The Bells” was discussed in the twentieth century as a “jazz poem” written before jazz had been invented.
While we ate our lunch I told Roger how fast I could write. I boasted that I could compose a decent poem in twenty minutes or less. He didn’t believe it, so I said, “Okay, I’ll prove it.” I took a pad of paper and a pencil off the table and said, “Give me a subject.”
“How about our waitress, Lorrie, at the bar last night?” Roger suggested. This is what I wrote (listen to Lewis Turco read his poem Lorrie):
The poem was published in The Carolina Quarterly in 1961; I included it in my master’s thesis at Iowa, Summer’s Raceway, in 1962 and in my chapbook, The Sketches of Lewis Turco, the same year. I read it as part of a poetry reading at George Washington University somewhere around the same time, or perhaps a bit later. Afterward a young black man, a student, came up to me and said, “A white man isn’t supposed to be able to write like that.” I guess it was a good thing I didn’t know that.
Many years later, in 1984 during my tenure as a professor at the State University of New York College at Oswego, my friend and colleague George O’Connell, a printmaker and amateur jazz musician who played the vibes in local combos and orchestras, decided he was in love with “Lorrie,” and he made an Xmas card of it that year, which we sent around.
In 1989 George made an entire artist-book of the poem* and gave it to me as a birthday present in 1996, the year I retired from teaching. I have posted the images on my blog, Poetics and Ruminations. It’s a beautiful production.
*Lorrie, Poem by Lewis Turco, Drawings by George O'Connell, Oswego, NY: Grey Heron Press, copyright 1989, all rights reserved.