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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Poems or Poem-like Things

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The glorious Grolier’s Poetry Bookshop shall inspire me…

I am thinking about my writing today. No particular New Year’s Resolutions (I am not a fan), but some general resolve, buttressed by the support of a couple of good friends who are also poets AND who know the kinds of shots in the arms to give me.

I have not been writing much poetry at all these last months. This is sort of par for the course, given how much of that energy is devoted (rightly so!) to the students in my creative writing courses. I have mostly made my peace with getting the significant writing and editing done during summer. But I also feel so much better when I am writing at least a little bit.

I had a good run of 750 words, but am not yet ready to climb back on. I don’t need to write that many words every day. I need to make a poem (or poem-like thing) every day. It is already 3:45PM, and I have written neither a poem nor a poem-like thing yet today, but I guess now I have to, otherwise the three people who read this blog will give me what for.

Perhaps / if i break / this post / into / lines?

What keeps you going, poets? Any new tips or tricks other than the tested and true “sit your lazy ass down and write?”

I am pleased that this year will bring some new publications — I’ve got a couple of poems coming out in Measure, one in String Poet, and several in the forthcoming OVS. I will also have two poems in This Assignment is So Gay: LGBTIQ Poets on the Art of Teaching, which you can pre-order HERE!

Moon Shot, in memory of Neil Armstrong

Some of you know that I’m very interested in the U.S. space program of the 60s — particularly the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo missions. I have a healthy handful of poems inspired by various moments in the program — and a few more that linger in the purgatory of “unfinished.” In memory of Neil Armstrong, who passed away today, I offer this one — one of the earliest of my space program poems. For the non-poets out there, you might be interested to know that this is a sestina — a form which requires the repetition of the words at the ends of the lines in a specific pattern, through the whole poem, which must also be broken into six-line stanzas, with a final three-line stanza. Not my strongest sestina, but one I’m fond of nonetheless.

I was born in April of 1970. You do the math. 😉

Moon Shot

When Armstrong hit the moon,
my planet, country, dad and mother
watched on the black and white TV.
It was another hellish cold war summer,
the anchor leg of the space
race. When Armstrong took his step —

you know — that “one small step–”
and then many others, the moon
was somehow brought from distant space
into the living room. My mother
lit a cigarette. The whole summer
seemed to have led to this TV,

right here. But how could TV
do this? Another inexplicable step
into the future. It was the summer
of ‘69, and somehow the moon
was in her TV. She wasn’t mother
yet — still hadn’t filled the space

reserved for me, the tiny inner space
where I’d bud and grow. On TV,
Cronkite said, “Wow,” and my mother
and dad-to-be agreed. One solid step
ahead of the Reds! The moon
was ours! This was the summer

of Armstrong, the decade-capping summer
before I was born. The space
between the landing on the moon
and my birth: nine months. The TV
my third parent, a vital step
in my conception. Not vital as mother,

of course; TV can’t be mother.
Or father. But that hot summer
Armstrong took one foolish step,
the Fred Astaire of outer space,
and got my parents in the mood. TV
news got them happy and moon-

drunk, moon-eyed. My father and mother
made me. The TV helped, that summer
I was conceived. Such a wide space, such a small step.

Love in the Wild & Encyclopedia Destructica

Last night I read a beautiful limited-edition chapbook by poet Elizabeth Hoover. It’s called Love in the Wild, and not only does it contain memorable poems, it’s also a great example of the chapbook genre/format. Elizabeth was briefly a student of mine in a summer writing program a hundred years ago, so I’m thrilled to see her succeeding as a writer in a variety of venues and multiple genres.

The chapbook is smaller-sized — about 5×8 inches, about 20 pages of poem. The whole thing is just eight poems — and I must say they were well-selected and well-arranged. The eight poems offer plenty of hearty sustenance, packed as they are with striking images and ideas. Gender, war, violence, race, the politics of place/travel — seriously, Elizabeth is not wasting anybody’s time here! The volume is deceptively slim — inside its pages a rich and difficult world engages and challenges me.

She tells me she made this chapbook, which really is quite a beautiful thing, at a book-making collective called Encyclopedia Destructica. My heart got all fluttery to see a photograph on their gorgeous website — of a bunch of folks gathered on and around a front porch, as if for a party or barbecue — only they are sewing books.

*swoon*

Why does all the cool stuff happen in Pittsburgh? Because Pittsburgh is the coolest. It was pretty cool when I lived there briefly (92-95), but is way, way, WAY cooler now.

Speaking of chapbooks (okay, I was speaking of Pittsburgh, but we’re back to chapbooks), if you haven’t seen it yet, I did an interview this spring with Madeline Wiseman about my chapbook publishing history — this interview is a part of her larger blog series on chapbooks, which I recommend to those interested in thinking more about the genre/format.