Winter ‘20-‘21 Parlando Project Top Ten, numbers 10-8

I’ve been tardy in many things for this project lately — but let me get on to recounting which pieces were most liked and listened to during the past quarter.

It may be a bit strange to revisit a winter we are glad to be emerging from, but poetry is about remembrance of all kinds of emotions and experiences. Which ones did the Parlando Project readers and listeners most connect with?

As we usually do, this is a countdown, so we start with the 10th most listened to and liked piece, and then over the next few posts we’ll move on to the most popular this winter. The bold-faced titles are links to the original post that introduced the piece in case you want to read what I wrote then.

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10 Trifles – I Know What Stillness Is   by Susan Glaspell.  I wanted to do something special for this project’s 500th audio piece, and I decided to try to use some words from my distant relative who was herself a figure in the Modernist revolution of the early 20th Century that I mine for many of the pieces used here. Glaspell is not a poet like most writers I present, but this short scene is from what remains her most famous work: a still effective short play about two women who have accompanied their husbands who are charged with investigating a murder* in a remote 1900 Iowa farmhouse. At this point in the play, we know that a farmer has been strangled there and that his wife, Minnie, has been taken into custody as a suspect, even though there is some doubt that a small, quiet woman could have had the motivation and strength to commit such an act.

While the men continue their very official investigation, the two women discover a dead canary entombed in a fancy box and connect it with the lonely life of the farmwife. Should they tell their husbands what they found?

I solved a difficult problem by treating this scene as “poetic” enough to work with the music and then locating a dialog performance that let me avoid trying to do the voices of the two women myself. I’m also quite proud of the music I composed for this one. You can hear it one of two ways: this highlighted hyperlink, or for some of you, a player gadget  below.

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Susan Glaspell by the fireside

Susan Glaspell getting her work done. Per the radio-play practical audio-effects tradition: in the wintertime it’s nice to sit next to the crinkling cellophane and work on your manuscript.

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9 The world is a beautiful place  by Lawrence Ferlinghetti.  I bent the rules to publish this older performance that Dave Moore and the LYL Band did with my off-the-cuff reading of a piece from Ferlinghetti’s A Coney Island of the Mind  collection that so many treasured decades ago. These words are not in the public domain, and I had never received a reply when I sent in inquiry about presenting them here a few years back, but on the occasion of Ferlinghetti’s death I felt I had to share this with you, some of whom are among those that treasured those words.

But maybe some of you hadn’t “met” Ferlinghetti’s words before. Buy or read his book and meet more. Perhaps a few of you have an idea that the label “Beat Poetry” requires a dour and slack protest, a litany of muttered and solipsistic defeat. Maybe that’s not so.

This highlighted hyperlink will play the performance, or you can use the player gadget some of you will see below.

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.8 Escape  by Georgia Douglas Johnson.  I still know little about this “Harlem Renaissance” writer who wasn’t actually located in 1920s New York City. As time for this project gets harder to locate, I still hope to remedy that. Despite my deteriorating ability to complete new pieces, I made an extra effort this year to do work celebrating Black History Month this February, using work found in the landmark The New Negro  anthology published in 1925. “Escape”  was the one that found the most favor with this Project’s current audience.

Musically, I used the magic of MIDI “virtual instruments” to pay tribute to the Afro-American fiddler tradition, playing the featured violin part on my MIDI pickup guitar. At the end of the recorded performance, I tacked on a verse by the altogether unrelated Moondog, a musician who ironically was  connected to New York City. Here’s the link to hear my performance, or if you see it, you can use the player gadget below.

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*Glaspell was able to use her earlier reporting on an actual Iowa murder case as matter in her ground-breaking play.

Georgia Douglas Johnson’s Escape

When I look through an old anthology like Locke’s The New Negro from 1925, my eye is not just looking for the well-known work featured there, but to the ones that somehow got overlooked, and that’s how today’s piece “Escape”  by lesser-known Black poet Georgia Douglas Johnson came to my attention. Unlike Countee Cullen from last time, or several other authors in that handsome book that served as the bound and determined launch point of what would be called The Harlem Renaissance, I don’t think I even knew Johnson’s name.

Why would I not know Johnson’s work, or even her name? I’ve got some initial theories. Like a few others classed as part of the Harlem Renaissance (old favorites from this blog Anne Spencer and Fenton Johnson are two others) she never spent any significant time in New York City, and so missed out on the direct network effects of that vibrant cultural scene. She was a woman, and by 1925 that was not where literary culture was focused. She was politically engaged, but as far as I can tell, not closely associated with the Communist left that was an important nexus for Afro-American radicalism between the world wars, and her early poetry from which The New Negro  had to draw from was more like the work of some other American women poets* of her time: lyrical, interested in presenting complex interpersonal relations and emotions considered at the time as being outside of politics.

Georgia_Douglas_Johnson

Georgia Douglas Johnson, 16 of her lines brought her to my attention, and now to yours.

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Johnson spent most of her life in Washington D. C. where she was married to a man who had a lower-level government job when her first books of poetry were published. The short biographical notes say that her husband wasn’t fully supportive of her literary efforts — but then her situation changed again without advantage when she was widowed at age 45 with two children to support. Somewhat like one of my grandmothers, she was forced to scramble for low-paying clerical jobs that were among the few open to middle-aged women in the days when the want ads were as segregated by gender** as many public accommodations were by race.

One good thing that came to her from widowhood was that she founded a long-standing literary salon in her modest home in Washington which seems to have been — like Anne Spencer’s home in Lynchburg, Virginia — a place to celebrate, support, and promote Afro-American thought, activism, and arts.

But if it’s her poem that brought Johnson to my attention instead of her fame, we should move onto that. “Escape”  is another of those short lyric poems that can seem slight on first reading, something that might justify itself solely for being musical on the page. Here’s a link to the text of the poem if you’d like to follow along. Yet, if one looks closely at what it’s saying, its insight should come forward. This is a poem of withdrawal into solitude to escape sorrow. Though short, the poem makes clear this isn’t some kind of graceful meditative solitude either. She calls it a “black abyss.” Though the cause of the sorrow that the poem’s speaker is fleeing is not stated, I note that Georgia Douglas Johnson genders this pursuing sorrow as “She.***”  If one stays with the poem a bit, as I had to as I composed today’s music and figured out how to perform it, its easy to consider that the poem’s speaker’s “Escape” has her fleeing one sorrow for another, and an even lonelier one at that.

Here’s another quick judgement to avoid with this or other poems. Johnson isn’t necessarily advocating for what the speaker of the poem describes. Because the poem doesn’t go into specifics, we are free to supply from our own experience what is the sorrow that has caused the poem’s speaker to flee to an abyss. Patriarchy? Racism? Poverty? The struggle to create art in a society that has many competitors to that? Something else?

Johnson’s life tells us she fought off that sorrow, suspended herself from that abyss of loneliness, sought to advance her art and other Black artists, and to redress the inequalities of racism. I think she left us with a statement about what such sorrowful obstacles feel like, and it also tells us, “Yes, I know how that feels — but it’s a trap.”

Besides composing today’s music, I made two additions to Johnson’s words for today’s presentation of “Escape.”  Because I was attracted to the “music of thought” in how Johnson uses parallels/refrains in her account of fleeing from sorrow, I decided to end the piece with the same word, “sorrow” that ended the first stanza. A second addition happened as I was performing the song. As I got to the second or third take, I started to sense somehow a song by the American composer Moondog was asking to be let in, and so I sang a phrase from his piece “Loneliness”  using the variation of his lyric that Janis Joplin used when she sang it.

Musically, I think it’s an interesting chord progression I used. The song is in the key of E, but besides using the obligatory 5th more as a passing tone, I dwell on the key of E’s 2nd and 6th degrees in this piece. The player gadget to hear my performance of Georgia Douglas Johnson’s “Escape”  should be below, but if you don’t have it in your blog viewer, this highlighted hyperlink will also play it.

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*Examples of non-Black American woman writers working with these subjects include Sara Teasdale, early Genevieve Taggard, Elinor Wylie, and Edna St. Vincent Millay. Taggard and Millay were moving to political engagement in causes also championed by male writers by this time, and Georgia Douglas Johnson is noted in many passing mentions of her work as also being an anti-lynching activist. For Taggard and Millay this change in subject matter didn’t really prevent them from being de-emphasized by the more male-centric literary culture of mid-century America.

**I don’t know how many young people read this blog, but when I was growing up a great many job listings were printed in pages of small print in daily newspapers. Hard as it may be to believe, they were explicitly split into jobs for men and jobs for women.

***My reading? This is something she feels women may inflict on themselves.