Learning to Listen


By Charlene Diehl

As a kid, I had two main gravitational pulls: music and books. It’s true I liked to eat, ride my bike, sew, provoke my sister, and hike in the pastures outside my small town, but most often I was finding my way toward the piano bench or looking for a place to hide out with a book. Fast forward a handful of decades and here I am, still charting my path by those same two gravitational pulls.

On the book side: my day job puts me in the way of a few hundred submissions a year, from which I handpick an eclectic mix of writers for THIN AIR, Winnipeg’s September literary bash. We also host off-season events, and take on projects—like the current poetry audio-archive, Say the Word / Dites les mots—that take our fancy. In around the edges, I read everything that enters my field of vision, and I play around with my own writing projects.

On the music side: I listen to music relentlessly (especially jazz which compels me more and more), I head out to concerts and masterclasses, and I work with Steve Kirby, jazz bassist and force-of-nature, to coordinate a jazz outreach program in the inner city, and to generate dig! magazine, a zippy bi-monthly publication that hooks together the city’s jazz artists, apprentices, and appreciators.

Some days there’s a lot of balls in the air—and yes, some days I drop a few—but what’s interesting to me as the years float past is how all these separate activities have begun to intersect. Let me tease out what I mean.

When a publisher sends me a new book to consider, I may take a minute to gather what I know about the writer, the publisher, the genre, the subject—then I will dive in. I’m on the lookout for writing that is fresh, authentic, arresting, and for a certain something that marks this book as a creature with its own force field, its own voice.

It’s hard to define exactly what that “certain something” is, but it’s obvious to me when it’s there, and almost as obvious when it is missing. It’s not so much about whether the book is to my taste—often the books that call out to me are books I wouldn’t necessarily choose. It’s more about the distinct impression that I’m in the presence of a living thing, and it deserves my respect.

We attribute books to their writers, but I think that’s too simplistic. Obviously the writer is essential, but a book needs a reader to kick it into gear. Books that feel like living things? They’re another level entirely, a spin of writer and reader on the infinite and elaborate networks of language.

I’ve spent a lot of studious years thinking about writers and readers, and the ways both are marked by language and culture. Every day I am grateful for that training. Still, I think I have to credit my more recent apprenticeship as a serious student of jazz for sharpening my ear and my judgment as a reader.

Working to decode the harmonic maps, learning to track where I am in a song form, struggling to master the basic rudiments of improvisation—these efforts have tested my intellect and my determination, and have ushered me into a fuller awareness of the elegance and integration of the materials that make jazz possible.

Also the extraordinary skill involved in actually making this music, since the ultimate goal for jazz musicians is to take all those polished elements and fashion them into something original and rich and absolutely personal right on the spot. Composition at the speed of conversation, as Steve puts it.

My godawful attempts to improvise over the simplest song structures have given me a tremendous appreciation for the efforts of young players and patience with experienced players. Nobody is inspired all the time. Still, jazz musicians are all aiming for the same state of sharp awareness and engaged, collective intuition—I think of it literally as presence of mind, where that mind belongs not to an individual musician but to the group. When that collective “group think” happens, they channel music that feels alive and present. It can pull the laughter and tears right out of you.

Studying jazz, releasing my grip on my classical training to become a vulnerable, shaky-voiced beginner again, has given me a chance to revisit the world of books too—to see with new clarity the materials they depend on, and the balance of effort and surrender that make them work.

So over the past few years, my book self and my jazz self are gradually aligning themselves—like the frameshift jitter that disappears as soon as you put on those 3D glasses. One of the biggest things I have learned is that reading is ultimately about listening. Listening: such a simple word, such a challenging task. In order to really hear the voice, the energy, the pulse of a book, you have to hollow yourself out and become a resonating chamber for someone else’s muse. At the same time—and this is the jazz piece—you are invited to call up and shape a counterpoint based on your own sensibilities and lived experience.

Listening is an embodiment of presence of mind, and that’s a tall order: you have to quiet the noise and pay attention, and bring all the wit and creativity you can muster.

I’m still learning.

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In the Pocket

Charlene Diehl

Charlene Diehl is the associate editor of dig! magazine and the director of THIN AIR, Winnipeg’s annual literary festival. Her last book is a memoir, Out of Grief, Singing.