The generosity of writers in Crisis

Just a quick note from my hermit’s retreat: I am so impressed by the gallantry of writers, editors, and reading series organizers, so many of whom are ingeniously making the show go on. I wrote last time about hitches in publication pipelines, but for authors who had reached the culmination of years of work and were ready for spring book launches, there’s an extra edge of strangeness in how the world has shut down. You do all this advance work to set up events (unless you have money for a publicist? not me!), and then some are scrapped, some go virtual, and you’re scrambling for find new launch outlets like podcasts, interviews, and web features that might get your name out there. I’m trying to say yes to every offer, but it’s a challenge! Unexpectedly, I’m figuring out how to record mini-audio-readings with a blanket over my head for extra resonance, and how best to prop my laptop on boxes of books I can’t sell to get a flattering angle on Zoom video recordings. Live readings are challenging to get right, but recorded ones are much stranger, since you can’t respond to visual cues from your audience.

Whenever you read this blog, you can check out a recorded 6-minute podcast from The Drum: A Literary Magazine for your Ears, featuring memoirist Alia Volz and me. Thanks to Kirun Kapur for including me!

If you read this by Saturday 4/11, also check out a Zoom reading I’m doing with Destiny Hemphill and Alan King from 7-8pm EST, put together by Ross White as part of the Bull City Press Presents series based in Durham, North Carolina. (I just canceled my hotel reservations; Chris and I had planned to make a fun weekend out of the trip, which would formerly have occurred during my students’ exam week.) If you’d like to join us, info on how is here. We’re each reading for 15 minutes and I’ll be in the middle.

In other news, I did not win a Guggenheim–not that I expected to, but you always feel a little spark of hope–nor was I accepted for a residency that I applied to. I’m somehow not down about those things at all. It’s such a sad, scary time and it’s hard to keep up with my classwork and even find time to check in with distant loved ones. I’m not sure how caregivers are managing this at all, and I watch friends organizing community outreach efforts with an energy I feel entirely unable to muster. I just collapse at the end of my long days at the screen. Again, I feel grateful and amazed about all the ways people ARE coming through for each other. Our federal governments may be dangerously incompetent, but so many others are good, kind, and generous. It’s enough to give a person hope that we’ll weather this.

Dessert for closure: I was just reading/ viewing/ listening to a presentation on punk by my amazing Poetry and Music students, and I went looking for pictures of myself in my commodified punkish teenage outfits. I didn’t find any of the pre-ripped sweatshirts with weird zippers and safety pins, nor the tiny leather miniskirts, but here’s me at 16 or 17 in fishnet stockings bought at Paramus Park Mall, by a Christmas tree no less. I’m pretty sure I was using Dippity Do to mimic David Bowie’s wet look on the cover of Changes Two. You’re welcome.

How poetry approaches music (and dances away again)

magnoliaThat’s the little magnolia in our side yard, intensely pink but browned from last night’s ice. A very intense winter term is just ending, one that included lots of grief and good news for the people around me, and that struggling tree, planted by the previous owners, seems a reasonably good emblem for it all. A little scraggly, but in persistence, beautiful.

I’ve been meaning for a while to post some reflections about my winter term courses. One of them, a general-education level seminar, focused on poetry and music. We started with prosody and moved through a series of mini-lessons on poetry riffing on various musical genres: spirituals, blues, jazz, punk, hip hop. Anna Lena Phillips Bell visited and talked about old-time music in relation to her book Ornament. A student composer stopped in, and two other visitors analyzed song lyrics poetically, focusing on Kendrick Lamar and Bob Dylan. It was all tremendously fun, not least because my students were smart and game. I’m not sure I feel much closer to answering my big question: what possible relations exist between poetry and song? But I did write up the thoughts below for my students and they seem worth sharing.

First: while there are pieces about which I’d say with perfect confidence, “That strongly fits my definition of poetry,” or “that’s absolutely a song,” there’s a gray area where the genres lean strongly towards each other–a cappella singing, rap, poems recited rhythmically or over music. If music means “sound organized in time,” performed poetry fits the bill, whether or not the words are set to melody or there’s instrumental accompaniment. Rhythm is latent in words; voices have pitch, timbre, dynamics.

Conversely, song lyrics can be printed out and analyzed poetically, and singer-composers in various eras have had a very strong influence on what page-poets try to accomplish. I’m still bothered when people conflate the genres or put them in competition with each other, because the differences in media feel profound to me, yet lyric poetry and songs with lyrics share a strong sisterhood.

But given my own devotion to patterned words on a page, a medium I find powerful in its own right, I wanted to systematize the ways a printed poem can engage music. My provisional answers:

  1. Through allusion: by referencing a song or a type of music, the poet can sketch a time & place or hint at a speaker’s frame of reference, as epigraphs in Ornament help connect the poems to Appalachia. If the reader knows the song, the allusion can even function as sensory detail does—the poet transfers an ear-worm so that scraps of music play in the reader’s memory while reading. This helps conjure a literary world the way reference to a taste, scent, or texture can.
  2. Through rhythm and sound effects: readers can perceive meter, alliteration, rhyme, and other “sound” effects without actually voicing a poem. These patterns or discords shape tone and can help imprint lines in memory; they engage us in making predictions about when the refrain will come or what the rhyme will be. Sometimes intensely patterned poems are contagious: you want to voice them, as if humming along.
  3. Through imitation/ adaptation: sometimes a poet is trying to achieve what a song or a musical form achieves—to stir or move readers—so that a poem includes, in some metaphorical sense, its own music. Certain Langston Hughes poems ARE blues or jazz, at least as far as print can simulate them. Rhythmical effects and rhyme, as in #2, contribute to the “music.” Typographic and other visual effects may come into play.
  4. Through response or criticism: a poem can, in a more expository way, explain what a song or musical element means, giving us a new and better-informed way to hear it. I’d put Yusef Komunyakaa’s “February in Sydney” in this category.

Scraggly list, or beautiful, or both? I’d be happy to hear about angles I’ve underplayed or overlooked. I really liked this topic for a course and plan to come back to it.