Saxophonist and Richmond music legend, James “Plunky” Branch, has written over five hundred songs during the course of his 50-year musical career. But he still doesn’t consider himself prolific, he says, noting that Dolly Parton has written over 5,000 songs in 54 years: “It takes your breath away,” he says of her songwriting prowess.
However, in addition to his own 550 songs, Branch has also spent his life writing poetry, dating as far back as his college days at Columbia University in New York. Sometimes inspiration for his poetry arrives fully formed and other times, it’s just a verse or line that he returns to repeatedly until it develops into something bigger. Music, as well as people he knows, can inspire him.
“Sometimes it just comes from me imagining myself in a situation,” says the former co-founder of the Richmond Jazz Society. “It’s the subjective nature of poetry I like so much. It’s the opposite of science, another love of mine, which is definitive and has one proven truth. Poetry is about the personal viewpoint, where the reader gets to superimpose their views to find out how the poem interacts with them.”
Now in his 70s, Branch admits to feeling a stronger sense of time as he’s gotten older. The realization put him on the path to exploring his artistic past (a reissued album, “Oneness of Juju: African Rhythms 1970-1982,” was hailed by critics and earned Best New Reissue designation from Pitchfork). As a touring musician, he found himself with unexpected time on his hands when the pandemic hit and used some of it to craft 35 new songs.
“It also gave me more time to be introspective, so I used it to go through my old notes and diaries and look through the poems I wrote over the last 20 years,” he says. After digging into so much of his writing, he decided it was time to shape a portion of the hundred poems into a book. The result became “Juju Jazz Poetics.”
Branch turned to friends Charlayne “Chyp” Green and Tonya Lazenby Jackson, the two vocalists in his band, to help him make the ultimate selections for the book.
“They both lamented not being equipped to make those decisions, asking who they were to decide,” he recalls. “But I knew they’d empathize with the work. I didn’t want an English professor to choose, I wanted people who represent typical readers.”
The women culled the poems to 60 and then finally to 30, focusing on Branch’s most political, cultural and musical poems. Those relating to romance and physical love were set aside for possible future publication.
Next came choosing the order of the poems in the book. In the same way that a musician finesses the order of songs on an album for maximum effect, Branch carefully arranged and rearranged the poems, eventually choosing to lead off with three haikus. “It’s an easy way to begin, one that hopefully coaxes the reader to come back for more,” he says. “I didn’t want to start heavy and long like James Joyce. Length can be off-putting in our YouTube world.”
His role model in deciding what his book would become was a book of poetry by Richmond’s first poet laureate, Roscoe Burnems, a spoken-word artist, poet, comedian, author and teacher. Branch recently had taken Burnems’ slim volume of poetry with him on a family vacation and kept returning to it all week long. Its compact size meant he could keep it in a pocket and pull it out easily whenever he had a moment. “I hope my book could be that kind of companion for readers,” Branch says. “It’s 30-some poems, so it’s a little book, very concise and inviting and not at all intimidating in length.”
Released in early December, the poems in “Juju Jazz Poetics” have been called “as lyrical as his music” and almost surely will be considered of a piece with Branch’s long, heralded musical career as a performer, songwriter, lyricist and producer.
“I’d like to be remembered. Full stop. I would like to be remembered as an artist,” he says with a smile. “And as someone who contributed to the positive because the arts contribute positively to the world and that’s important to me. I gave up being a chemist way back when.”
“Juju Jazz Poetics” is available at VMFA, the Black History Museum, the Virginia Museum of History and Culture and at plunkyone.com