The Majlis “Figure of Speech” multidisciplinary experience was intense and rewarding. Tricia Postle, the organizer of the series, selected the members of our motley crew, which consisted of Gauri Vanarase, a kathak/modern dancer; Hallie Fishel-Verrette, a soprano and Baroque guitarist; John Edwards, also a Baroque guitarist; and myself, a far left field experimental poet. The point of such groupings is to throw together people from various disciplines and see what emerges from their collaboration. They gather for a series of rehearsals and then perform a concert on two evenings. Although some of the collaborations are expected to be designed as structured improvisations, our group, according to Tricia, was one of the most rehearsed ones.
The performance facility was rustic but warm. Tricia converted what I think used to be a woodworking factory into a performance area. She opened up one side of the building to create a stage, and stretched a large canvas from the roof to a nearby fence to cover the outdoors seating area. It was a nice surprise to find, just down the path between the stage and the restroom, a peach tree full of large ripe peaches.
In rehearsals I worked mostly with Hallie and John, who make up the Renaissance/Baroque duo The Musicians in Ordinary. To get things started before the first rehearsal, I emailed Hallie and John several of my poems that I thought would work well set to music: sonnets inspired by nursery rhymes and my “Poor Souls” sonnet series. I tried to select poems that were based on repetitions of various kinds or at least phrases of a fairly uniform length. And John emailed me samples of some Baroque styles that might work well for turning my poems into songs. At our first rehearsal, Hallie and John had already worked out several song settings of some of my poems and ended up performing five at the concert: “sixpence,” “if all the seas,” and “this is the tune,” “poor souls 1” and “poor souls 3.”
The blend of the poems and Baroque settings with a continuo-type guitar part worked out well. The continuo guitar part provided the structure of a repeated harmonic progression, which is very typical of Baroque composition. John’s repeated harmony gave the composition coherence and also provided opportunities for Hallie to improvise embellishments on the melody based on that harmony.
After that first rehearsal, I remembered having set a Dylan Thomas poem, “We lying by seasand,” to a capella soprano a long time ago, longer than I’d like to admit, as a graduate student at the Eastman School of Music. So I downloaded a music notation program and wrote the melody as best I could remember it. I thought, ok, I wrote this, maybe I can set some of my poems to music.
I knew that for the Majlis concert it would be good to have some pieces that I could perform with Hallie and John in various combinations, so I wrote a “shadowing” piece to perform with Hallie, based on my poem “if you are somewhere.” I’d speak a phrase or sentence, and a half a second later, Hallie would shadow my spoken words with the same words sung to a melody that I had composed. I’d seen this kind of collaboration improvised at a poetry reading in New Orleans to great effect. In performance, it worked out beautifully between Hallie and me.
Hallie and I also performed an “echo” piece based on my double sonnet “where you are when you,” which consists of a series of—I can’t believe I still remember the rhetorical term—aposiopeses, sentences that break off mid-stream. I’d start one phrase and a half-second later, Hallie would echo the same phrase. After we got the hang of the rhythm of the echo effect and the breaking off of the incomplete sentences so that they seemed to end suspended in mid-air, the echoing was very effective in performance.
I composed another collaborative piece in which John accompanied Hallie, who hummed a melody in a series of four-bar phrases. During each four bars, I spoke a sentence or phrase of my sonnet “does it take.” Hallie sang the last two lines of the poem. For the performance, Gauri joined this piece and improvised movements that beautifully expressed the sad nostalgia of the poem.
I wrote three song settings of my poems for Hallie and John to perform: “sometimes i write about cats,” “comatose in paradise,” and “dear perpetrator,” of which they performed the first two for the concert. I had never written for guitar, so there was some guesswork in my notation, but John gamely arranged them for his instrument. It was very moving to hear these songs performed—I got to experience what composers must feel like hearing their works in concert. In performance, the realization of the songs was better than I had imagined them in my mind’s ear as I was writing them. I felt as though I’d returned to an old friend, music, after my piano playing had lain fallow for so many years.
Gauri based one of her dances, which we nicknamed “the hat dance,” on a poem that has a line about putting a new ribbon on a hat. She attached a long red ribbon to a hat and used it to great effect in her dance, which seemed to address the inner conflict and restlessness of the speaker of the poem. The photos that I will soon post show some of the highlights of her choreography.
This collaborative experience allowed me to perform with others, which added one or more layers to what I normally do in a solo reading. But it’s more than just adding layers—it is learning to listen carefully to the phrasing, articulation, inflection, and tone of others to try to mesh your own part with something that is larger than just the sum of the two or three layers of the collaboration: the spoken, the sung, and the strummed. The players become a single creature that just happens to have three voices. And when Gauri joined Hallie, John, and me in “does it take,” it was apparent that she was very aware of what was being spoken and sung so that her improvisation would harmonize with the sounds of the others in the group
The collaboration sounded very classical and traditional in its realization, nothing, for example, like a performance of poet Bruce Andrews and dancer Sally Silvers. In the beginning I had tried to get a little avant-garde action going, but in reality, the collaboration needed to grow from the strengths of each person, and part of the process is finding out what those strengths are and how willing each person is to try things that lie a little beyond their usual practice. At first, I have to admit that I was a little skeptical about setting my poems to Baroque music, but I was very pleasantly surprised at the first rehearsal, on hearing Hallie and John’s rendition of two of my sonnets, to find that the blend sounded natural, even inevitable. I’m delighted that Tricia brought the members of our group together, and I couldn’t be happier with the results of our collaboration, which stretched my usual practice at poetry readings and pushed me to take risks and try new approaches to making poetry happen.
Soon I’ll post some photos from the concert, taken by Cameron Ogilvie, and Tricia will post video clips from last night’s performance, for which I’ll provide the link.