Useful Discomfort, by Peter Longofono

Peter Longofono

This glorious guest post is authored by Peter Longofono, a musician / poet who received his MFA in Creative Writing from NYU in 2012, where he co-edited international content (with meself) for Washington Square Review, and served as a Goldwater Fellow, teaching writing to patients at Goldwater Hospital. Recently, he has joined forces with Alissa Fleck to host this year's Graduate Poets Series at Cornelia St. Cafe in Manhattan. His poems and/or criticism have appeared in Hangman, Cumberland River Review, and Coldfront. He lives in Brooklyn. His influences, poetically, include Paul Celan, Ben Lerner, Tony Tost, Zachary Schomburg, Hölderlin. Musically: The Bad Plus, The Mars Volta, Theolonious Monk, Sun Ra, Charles Mingus, John Scofield.

Jazz is a lot of what New York City means to me. The art and practice of it, yes, of course, and rightfully so, but what I'm interested in is how the city gestalt makes itself apparent: through cognitive dissonance, gems in deeply uncomfortable circumstances, the overabundance of attention-grabbers materializing from the aether. The whole city comes that way—categorizable from a distance, hyperinvolved with proximity. Jazz as a term feels right because of all the autonomy (too much, often) afforded to the whole citizen/performer/audience mess one has to navigate in order to actually accomplish anything. That whatever-I-want-ness, in all its connotations, like a clustered chord, colors so much of the intake. One finds oneself publicized, damn it. There are so many reagents within arm's reach that a private reaction is strictly off-limits.

Friedrich Hölderlin Stamps it, Baby

The situation is exacerbated, or foiled, for me because I live in an apartment with no windows. It isn't a desirable retreat except for sleep, which I here acknowledge. My choices are a kind of sensory deprivation or an all-out improv war (this holds even for simple laundry trips, a walk for a falafel sandwich, etc.). One can never be safe from the threat of being accosted, as one realizes one shouldn't ever really be. And I find that as soon as I stop fortifying against it—as the urge comes to fruitlessly stand the ego up against psychedelics—I'm given material of value. Naked sentimentality, even, is enriched against such a background. The interrupted thought becomes the fulcrum of a successful poem, a new kind of poem, a new kind of success. My initial reaction is almost always to play the victim, harried by bickering, trainscreech, human shit, obstacles. I'm right, and I'm wrong; having the intelligence to weigh both is creative gasoline.

Mingus Smokes a fat one

Jumping around:

1)     You participate as a jazz musician would: never stop practicing, overlay the particulars of any situation with an off-kilter voicing, accomplish the task the other way, operate on the edge of your subtlety. Operate on both edges of your subtlety.

2)     Jazz as a device for endless reinterpretation. An idea, an intent, can be as thoroughly qualified or distracted as a photon on its way out of the sun.

3)     The music itself undergoes these processes as well. My jaw drops at local musicians' choices in instrumentation, orchestration, and improvisation. The sheer excellence can reverse on itself in a way I didn't quite get before I met the right people: the act of a tearing down a tower, say, or how quickly an assembly scatters. Drones, non-languages, no wave, disintegration, etc. It's a cerebral flavor.

4)     The taste for the zany, the brash, and the fundamentally inexplicable emerges. The truth is, I couldn't always listen to a lone baritone sax. I didn't always have the means to measure how “out” art can be. Over time, the act of standing in a hallway between two unrelated auditory phenomena has become sweet to me. I used to be repulsed by the octave-skipping flush of celestial bop my brain would sometimes conjure on stoned walks. It was too much. It was unlistenable.  And then I stopped, and it wasn't.

5)     I can gauge my musical development by interval. At one time, even a dominant seventh—even orchestrated far apart—was too dissonant. I can never be sure, but in my experience it seems that I had more virgin ears than most. It doesn't really shame me, now (I mean, weird, right?), but in consequence I've gone through discrete appreciative modes instead of a blurred continuum. 9 chord, bam! Maj9, even better! Creeping elitism, probably. We are what we pretended to be. I pretended to not hate jazz, and over about 5 years the hate dwindled and starved. Defining moment: grasping the 13, fully realizing the sweep of a two-handed polychord, cultivating my ear to the point that something came sharply true. This moment was as central to me as my first orgasm.

Often it seems that I couldn't have taken NYC without some of the aforementioned preliminaries. I run into people whose mindsets roughly match mine from age 17, 21, 23 (I'm still young enough for these to be wildly different). How are they here? I would have broken long ago if I hadn't learned the sourer language. It's probably that any mental clothing will serve if worn long enough—less adaptability than toughening. And it's not as if I don't have my own psychic maladies: I'm entirely too forgetful, some territories of thought are still too unforgiving. Peace of mind is decidedly foreign. I operate in useful discomfort, and conveying that is largely the content of whatever art I make. That's jazz: it can't be premeditated, terming it kills it, it hasn't moved anything (least of all you) without failing on some other important front. On encountering another instance of itself, as galaxies sometimes do, the cosmic space between its constituents allows interweaving, with the occasional riveting collision.

I'm the kind of poet for whom words, wordlets, -fixes, roots, and morphemes hold the most potential. I think of language segments as possessing or lacking violence. The harshest insult in my arsenal is tame. This (exo)skeleton I borrow and return to music; that fluidity saves me. I retreat from one to the other. NYC is a chief reservoir of oddness in my life—for this alone I would be grateful—and in gridding its miniscules in liaison with and against one another, I'm gifted an outstanding toolbox with which to do violence to any of my ideas reeking of singleness.

The mantra: nothing gets to be itself for long. No one is in charge of how anything is received. The author's best and most worthy act is to retract authorship.

These are arts and practices of jazz. They serve me, and I will serve them until a better way presents itself.


 This is the third in a series of guest posts hovering around the question Why Do I Live Here? I ask the question because I am interested in hearing about the impact NYC has on others. The question has other questions swimming with it, baby questions, such as: is there a lot of pressure in their work lives? How do they deal with the lack of space? What are their coping mechanisms? Are there more substances involved, whether legal or illegal, than when they lived elsewhere? Has iPod usage increased to drown out subway screech? Do they jog or yoga to maintain peace of mind, and filter out the Borg-like nature of competing stimuli? Does the city shatter their life's bones, but enrich their creativity? Or, do they simply thrive on it? If you are interested in contributing a guest post, please write to for consideration.