Settings: On Collaboration, RE-vision, and the Artistic Process

This month, I had the great luck to attend the premier of award-winning composer Jonathan Santore’s choral setting of a group of my poems, collectively entitled, “Smoking, Drinking, Messing Around.” The piece was featured in a larger performance by the New Hampshire Master Chorale, “From Time To Time.”

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This is the second time my colleague and friend has “set” my poems to music for singing, and I consider such setting a gift. Listening to the poems sung by such talented vocalists to music Jonathan composed is a profound gift to me, personally – I get to hear my poems through the artistic ears and imagination of a brilliant composer, which is like hearing them for the first time, or hearing them anew, separate from the composing/revising voice in my own head. When Jonathan “sets” my work, he makes a whole new thing and offers me a new relationship to the poems – to the words, to the emotional colors, to the tone and tempo.

I used to spend more time doing letterpress work (hand-setting lead type to make poetry broadsides), the “setting” of the poems was also an (unintended, but welcome) opportunity to gain new or different access to old/familiar material, especially at the most fundamental level: the letter, the word, and the line. Setting my own poems using this old technology was so inspiring to me that I wrote a poem ABOUT type-setting my poetry! It’s featured HERE.

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These two kinds of experience—hand-setting poems with lead type and having poems set for a chorus— both have me thinking about how a given work is never really finished in the sense of, say, cement “setting.” Even if the author is done with it, a reader will transform the piece in some way. Even if the reader is done with it, she may return years later with experiences or perspectives that transform, again, her (re)reading. Same for the writer. And when another artist enters the conversation, as Jonathan has done with my work, I find that the new work, the un-finishing, the re-liquefying—the work opens new doorways to the poems I thought I was done with, that I thought were done with me.

My collaborations (here’s an EXAMPLE) over twenty years or so with musicians, composers, dancers, and visual artists, as well as with other writers, have taken many different shapes and directions. They have, across the board, been invigorating, educational, and transformative. I’m feeling resolved today to work actively to seek out opportunities to work with and learn from other artists. Just last week, I met with an area songwriter with whom I hope to collaborate/perform in the coming year. I hope that I have afforded and will continue to afford other collaborators the gift (of insight, of RE-vision) that Jonathan and the Master Chorale (and others!) have provided me.

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