At a Window

I was ready to post this new piece, Carl Sandburg’s At A Window,”  early yesterday when I had one of those days that come to challenge artists. Artists less fortunate than I can perhaps point to a single thing that holds them back, but with myself it’s often several smaller things.

I’m a habitual early morning reader of the news, a rhythm that may have started in my earliest teens when I delivered newspapers before school and continued through night-shifts in hospitals where I’d read the papers as they came out in the predawn hours. Nowadays, it’s not the papers I turn to for news, but Internet newsfeeds, and the pre-dawn hour was filled with the reports of another mass shooting profaning music, this time in Las Vegas. These events hurt me because I often spend as spend as much of my day as I can carve out making the music here in combination with the words that I combine with it. One of art’s purposes in my mind is to allow us to set aside momentarily the real consequences and strictures of life. Not necessarily to escape them—in fact, many times art allows us to examine them so that we can treat them as the reality of what they really are, because those strictures, even things we fear most, have their limitations, just as we do. And art can be the “R&D Department” of the soul and the repair of the world.

Thus, the hurt when those borders are crossed. Thus, the feelings of one’s work in an inadequate field.

Of course, my feelings on this matter are a small and abstract hurt, compared to the suffering of those more directly impacted. Small things closer to my heart feel larger than great things farther away. This is one of the limitations of our perception. Then my day continued with another unrelated hurt, closer yet to my heart, and I was reminded again of my limitations and imperfections.

Real hurt seems so large, art seems so small, and I feel like a poor worker in a field of playful trivia.

Which may be so, the limits of my perception may not be able to tell. However, I believe this is a common feeling for artists to have, and so if you create art, you may also have felt this. We try to do so much, and all we can see is so little. This is part of why the Parlando Project principle: “Other People’s Stories” has value. Speaking the words of others helps me by adding what their eyes and hearts have seen.

SONY DSC

“He is an observer with sympathy but without fear”

This morning, it turns out that Carl Sandburg, in the very piece I was working on this previous weekend, “At a Window,”  was speaking to this experience, though in my down-heartedness, I couldn’t hear him for a while. This short poem, appearing first in 1914 in Poetry  magazine alongside his “Chicago, hog butcher for the world…” poem which will overshadow it, waited patiently to speak into my ear. What good could a more than a 100-year-old poem have for me?

Poetry Magazine March 1914

Eight poems of Sandburg’s Chicago Poems debuted in this issue.

“At a Window”  says that even in shame and failure you must hunger for even more of the same. In the context of the sampling of Sandburg’s Chicago poems, which spoke so frankly about the situation of poor and working-class Americans, I think that window in the title means so many things. Yes, it means there is an imperative to look outside oneself as an artist. The dusk and shadows out the window lets one see little, but one must still look.

Will there be any consolation? Sandburg apparently had such consolation in his spouse, who championed his work, who he speaks of in the “Leave me a little love…” section. Perhaps you have such a champion in your life, perhaps you don’t. We are called in “At a Window’s”  conclusion to look out the window anyway. Perhaps the one who comes walking out of the dusk is yourself, to champion someone else?

To hear the performance of Sandburg’s “At a Window”  use the player below, and thank you for listening.

One Year of the Parlando Project

A couple of days back the Parlando Project passed its first birthday. It’s eating solid foods now, and is making efforts to walk. I thought it might be a good time for some posts to catch up a few things.

First off, some of you may be new to the Parlando Project and its presence here on this blog. What is the Parlando Project? We combine music (various kinds) with words (various kinds, but mostly poetry). I’m the Frank Hudson in this blog’s domain, and I’m the “editor” of this Project, but Dave Moore (whose voice you’ll be hearing again soon) is the alternative reader and vocalist here, and the project wouldn’t be the same without him.

I ask you to note the “various” used twice above. I’m one of those rare people, who when asked what their favorite type of music is, cannot answer. Yes, I have moods when I don’t want to hear one kind of musical expression, or when I strongly desire to hear or make another kind, but overall, I can’t say there is one type of music I want to be gone from forever, or another that I will never listen to or try to make.
 
So please do not take any single example of our music as representative of what you’ll hear next. I like noisy and chaotic music and sweet consonant sounds, I like solo acoustic guitar, I like modern day composers who refuse to die, I like artificial sounds created electronically, I like the natural sounds of strings vibrating in air, I like things simple and I like things complex.

The same somewhat applies to the words we use. I have a certain framework that we use at the Parlando Project. We favor shorter pieces for example. We both like a darkly comic touch. We generally don’t use our own words, even though Dave and I have written our own words since our youth, and we’ll use some of them here.

Rather than add another “I” speaking to the mesh of the Internet, I want to jointly experience with you some understanding of what others have written and spoken.

Why is that? The Internet is full of self-expression. I don’t want to put that down, but I feel the various mediums the Internet carries to your phone, tablet or computer are awash in it. Even our literature has become primarily memoir in one guise or another. Well, I consume some of that, you probably do to, but I’m currently not in the mood to create more of it. Rather than add another “I” speaking to the mesh of the Internet, I want to jointly experience with you some understanding of what others have written and spoken. That’s what I seek to do by performing the Parlando Project pieces, and writing about them here.

A poet who Dave and I have known for decades, Kevin FitzPatrick, was once reviewed as writing “poems that have other people in them.” Kevin’s other people are real characters, they have their own lives and wholeness, they are not hand puppets speaking only the words he mouths for them. They, like Kevin, are sometimes funny and sometimes subject to their own misconceptions and foibles.

Rush Hour cover

This is one of Kevin’s four published collections of poetry
You can find a copy here, here or here.

Stop and think for a moment now of how few poets do what Kevin does. Perhaps, if you write poetry, you too, fall into that larger grouping, writing from your innermost feelings, allowing other voices to speak only as you would have them. At the Parlando Project I use the idea, the rule, “Other People’s Voices” to remind me of this principle. I join with you, the listener and reader here, in trying to understand those other voices, by merging our performance of their words with the music we create as an audience to them.

Potential Graveyard

Our last episode featured words by Phillis Wheatley, whose story I first heard about in a graveyard.

I was taking a walking tour in Boston, and there was a lot for the guide to talk about as we strolled through the Granary Burying Ground near one end of Boston Common, the cemetery where many of the instigators of the American revolution are buried. That’s where I heard Phillis Wheatley’s story.

Granary Tombstone Boston

the Granary Burying Ground, Boston Massachusetts

 

There’s no tombstone for Phillis Wheatley there, and no record of where she was buried, though it could have been there. So, we don’t even know her graveyard, but we know her story.

Only a few days after wrapping up the work on the Phillis Wheatley episode, I happened to catch Viola Davis’ Oscar acceptance speech. Like David Harbour’s speech earlier this year, it compressed an artist’s calling into a few well-chosen words, and so, I set about creating today’s audio piece.

I trimmed and recast Davis’ words a little, turning it from her own pledge and testimony, to an artist’s pledge than we all can take:

There’s one place that all the people with the greatest potential are gathered – that’s the graveyard.

People ask me, what kind of stories do you want to tell?

I say exhume those bodies, exhume those stories,

the stories of the people that dream big and never saw those dreams to fruition,

people who fell

in love

and lost.
Become an artist

They are the only profession that celebrates what it is to live a life.
Here’s to August Wilson, who exhumed, and exalted, the ordinary people.

There are only a few words here, but the opening sentence announces itself strongly, while going—to my take on it—in two directions. “There’s one place that all the people with the greatest potential are gathered—and that’s the graveyard.” In that magnificent sentence, we may think of all the potential that’s totaled up short in every graveyard: potential lost due to life’s duration, lost due to injustice, lost to just bad luck, potential never reached for the many human failings. One of the most common of those human failings is to just not try, and when we fail to try, the graveyard is where that potential will end up.

This direction, where the sentence could go, is not where Davis takes us however. She reminds us: there, in those graveyard lives is that precious struggle, the part-ways reach, all the somedays that someday may see victories. We should “exhume those stories,” she says.

And then Davis’ makes a daring statement. Art “is the only profession that celebrates what it is to live a life.”

Can that be so? Certainly, historians and social scientists collect and analyze information about lives too—but perhaps they must step beyond that role to light the footlights that art does. Art is the transference of the emotions and the perceiving inner being between people.  Only at that level of communication can the celebration of what it means to live a life be reached. That’s what we do when we create art, or when we consume it actively.

Davis repeats her specific charge to artists, as she praises the creative acts of August Wilson, the writer and playwright: art’s radical empathy empowers and obligates artists to tell other people’s stories.

Writers listen to her here, listen to her evoke August Wilson: even your story is not your story. It’s your great-grandparent’s story, perhaps it will be your great-grandchild’s story. The graveyard, the grocery store and the stars are full of stories. Allow them to ask you to tell them.

 

Viola Davis delivered her words much better than I could, but today’s Parlando Project piece “Potential/Graveyards” adds the music I composed and played to go with my recasting of them., To hear this short piece, use the player below.