What Can We Steal From Allan Johnston’s “Wild Solo”?

Title of Work and its Form: “Wild Solo,” poem
Author: Allan Johnston
Date of Work: 2013
Where the Work Can Be Found:  The poem appears in the May 2013 issue of The Bacon Review. The poem begins here.

Bonuses: Here are some Allan Johnston poems that appeared in SNReviewHere are a pair of very nice poems that appeared in Verdad MagazineHere is an interview the highly accomplished Mr. Johnston did for the r.kv.r.y quarterly literary journal.

Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Ambiguity

“Wild Solo” is itself an improvisational jazz solo.  Mr. Johnston makes music with his words, employing a great deal of alliteration that twists and turns through the irregular stanzas.  The last two stanzas explicitly introduce a protagonist: the “he” who plays the solo.

I don’t think if this was Mr. Johnston’s intent, but I love the way that the poem captures something ephemeral and auditory with words.  Check out this cool solo duel:

You could follow Mr. Johnston’s lead and treat the challenge as a kind of exercise.  What would it be like to write a poem or short story that translates, say, the experience of laughter into written form?  A car chase?  Filling out your child’s birth certificate?  Thunder?  A strobe light?

The metaphor can easily be extended.  A screenplay or novel can’t really be a “white-knuckle thrill ride.”  Anyone who has ever been on a roller coaster or read a book can attest that the two experiences are very different in most ways.  The great magic of literature, however, is that you can use words to recreate these experience, whether you do so as an exercise or in a more explicit manner.

I love the turn that Mr. Johnston makes in the last two stanzas:

he played this way, paid against death,
the pawed alternative possible
no more contingent than the operation

the band played on

That last line can be taken in (at least) two ways.

  1. If read as an unbroken sentence, the ending of the poem suggests that “the band” was playing as part of “an operation.”
  2. If read with a break in that last sentence, “the band played on” is a thought unto itself, a judgment rendered upon the entire poem.  “What is life,” the sentence seems to say, “but a wild sax solo without an end?”

I don’t know if Mr. Johnston did so intentionally, but he made the choice to leave interpretation of his work ambiguous.  Being a writer is definitely about offering the world your unique understanding of the alchemy forged by the human heart, but it’s also about offering your reader the opportunity to stir up their own alchemical dreams, as well.

What Should We Steal?

  • Fulfill the great promise of literature: capture a non-literary experience with the written word.  At some point in your reading life, literature has offered you powerful experiences that resemble others.  Think of the way you felt when you won a big competition; what can you do to recreate that feeling through the use of your literary toolbox?
  • Trust your reader to determine what you meant to share.  No matter how clear you think you are, many of your fans will have a very different understanding of your work than the one you may have intended.



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