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.

Trifles–I Know What Stillness Is

I made it! This is the 500th audio piece presented here as the Parlando Project since it began in the summer of 2016. In the month of December I’ll write more about what the work for this project has been like, and what I think I’ve learned. I’ll also share with you, my valued audience, what I plan to do going forward in some upcoming posts, but let’s get onto presenting today’s piece based on a small portion of Susan Glaspell’s pioneering American play about pioneer women and their isolation.

I’ve long wanted to do something with a text from Susan Glaspell since she’s partly responsible for this project so often dealing with the beginnings of Modernism in the first two decades of the 20th Century. In America, I think we have a cultural tendency to forget our pioneers, to think of them as imperfect, “beta test” versions of what we consider to be the current and vital expressions of art. We owe them some gratitude, an obligation, but it turns out that looking at first attempts, first intentions, can reveal insights we’ve forgotten, potentially useful tactics we set aside. That said, there’s coincidence in wanting to point out Glaspell’s work here, I’m related to her in one of those fractal-branched family trees; and elderly relatives I once knew, now dead, knew her as a living person, a person with roots in Iowa along the Mississippi River, a place that was home for some time to my people.

Susan Glaspell at the keyboard

Susan Glaspell at the keys. Can’t have a Modernist American theater unless someone writes some plays!

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In a previous post I’ve noted that some figures important to American Modernism came from that mid-river region. Carl Sandburg, the forgotten Imagist with dirty fingernails was one. Glaspell was another, not just forgotten as a Modernist, but forgotten as a prime-mover in Modernist American drama. You see, she and her husband had a wild idea while living in an artist’s colony on the East Coast: plays that reflected the “make it new” ethos, radical social analysis, and the symbolic undercurrent that European dramatists were exploring. The theater she organized in 1915, The Provincetown Players, was nothing less than the CBGBs of independent and experimental American theater.

The one-act play that supplies today’s text is her ground-breaking “Trifles.*”   It’s now remembered largely as a primary piece of feminist drama, rightfully so, and that outlook might see it as a piece of the social-realist school. There are good reasons for that. Recent scholarship has uncovered that Glaspell, as a young journalist, had covered a murder trial in Indianola Iowa with parallels to the story of “Trifles.”

But the Provincetown group wasn’t just about plays about issues, or gritty realism in opposition to melodramatic fantasy, gaslight adventures, and blithe romances. Modernist poets were also playwrights and actors in the group. “Trifles”  isn’t a verse drama, it isn’t a choral poem, but it’s also not unaware of those forms of dramatic expression. In the play’s language, Glaspell uses extraordinary compression, objects representing feelings not explicitly told, and long arias of extravagant emotional expression are conspicuously absent. I’ve never heard it called such, but it’s not outrageous to call “Trifles”  an Imagist play. In today’s presentation, which I call “I Know What Stillness Is”  I have extracted a section of dialog near the end of the play between two women incidentally drawn into a murder site investigation. One, Mrs. Hale,** a neighbor of the murder suspect, speaks first; the second speaker, Mrs. Peters, is the wife of the sheriff leading the investigation.

Original NYC production of Trifles

Picture of the original New York production of “Trifles.” The woman playing Mrs. Peters at the far left is Marjorie Vonnegut. Yes, she married into that Vonnegut family. So it goes…

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In my presentation, as per the ways of the Parlando Project, I want to combine music and words in some useful way that illuminates the piece. So, while not rewriting, I removed some sections of dialog, slightly compressing the scene, and added one subtle use of refrain not in the original text.***  If I was a bel canto singer perhaps I’d think of making this an opera, but instead I’ve kept the dialog spoken word, but by setting this to music I want you to hear the dialectical conversation the two women are having as one would listen to it sung. Does this work? Maybe, and that’s what I wanted to try.

One challenge I had in completing this given our pandemic isolation and my lack of collaborative resources was how to perform the two women’s voices, and I broke through that issue by finding and using recorded voices from a reading of the entire text of the play collected by Librivox. In the performance I used, the part of Mrs. Hale is played by Elizabeth Klett, and the part of Mrs. Peters by Arielle Lipshaw. The whole play is performed and is available here, but it’s a reading of the entire 1916 script, which includes Glaspell’s extensive stage directions which are read interspersed with the dialog.

I could go on about the things expressed in the play, the remarkably early and clear-eyed feminist analysis contained in it, but I thought my audio piece does well enough in portraying the sense of isolation that rural women of the time faced (and to some modern degree face again in our current pandemic.) There is an extensive overview of things others have noted in the “Trifles”  Wikipedia page.  Before leaving you to listen to our 500th audio piece I thought I’d say instead something about the music I composed for this. It’s an orchestral strings score with a female vocalese part, all of which I played via my MIDI guitar interface and little plastic keyboard. Musical mavens will note that I use simple musical devices in my orchestral stuff, and if I was high falutin I might call myself a Minimalist composer—but frankly, when exploring composition I’m naïve enough to find the simple musical materials produce results that I still find moving and effective.

500!

I started this project thinking I might get to a nice big number of pieces combining various words with original music, like maybe 100, or dare I dream, 200. Thanks for reading and listening along the way!

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Since this is the 500th piece, I decided to provide a bonus today for those that would like to listen more distinctly to the music I’ve composed by also providing a separate version without the dialog, just the instrumental music. The version with Glaspell’s words performed in a way to suggest the word-music in them, “I Know What Stillness Is,”   has a player gadget below. If you don’t see the player gadget, this highlighted phrase is a link that may work to allow you to hear it.

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And here’s the version with only the instruments and the wordless singer, and its highlighted hyperlink alternative, in case you don’t see the player below.

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*Glaspell later transferred the script into a short story which was titled “A Jury of Her Peers”  and the piece is therefore known under two titles. Much later (in that year that read the same upside down and right side up: 1961) the somewhat revised and extended script became an episode of the TV anthology show Alfred Hitchcock Presents under the “Jury of Her Peers”  title. In titling my excerpt and attempted recasting of the piece with yet a third title, I think I’m following a tradition.

**The part of Mrs. Hale was also played by Susan Glaspell in the play’s first production in Provincetown.

***The entire original script is available at this highlighted link. The section of dialog I used begins near the end of page 26 of this script.

Three Places In New England

You may have noticed fewer new pieces posted here over the past month. There are a variety of un-interesting reasons for that, but one cause is worth a post, even if it’s not representative of what you usually find here. Think of it as a “make up post” for the missing activity this July.

This month I traveled to Massachusetts with my family and some friends. My concerns with this project have lead me to cast some recent trips as literary pilgrimages. Since our expedition was a mixed-age group of five, that wasn’t all that we did of course, and many of my memories of this trip are more about fellowship with the rest of the travelers, and not just with the connections I sought with long-dead writers. But let me focus on the literary highlights of this trip today.

 

Boston/Cambridge

We stayed at the Parker House hotel, which was well situated and has a long history connected to the culture of the city. Operating since before the Civil War, it was the meeting site for the Saturday Club, where the region’s considerable 19th Century culture elite met. And for desert, the Boston Cream Pie was developed there too! The current hotel building doesn’t go back to those days, it dates to the 1920s, but since two of our party were 21st Century people, there was plenty of historic charm along with a good night’s sleep to be had there. Alas all that masonry or other infrastructure issues meant the WiFi service was at 1920s level too, so my blog activity was minimal during the trip.

My companion book for this trip was Matthew Pearl’s The Dante Club.  I was delighted to find our hotel and the still-standing (though it’s a Chipotle now) Ticknor and Fields publisher and bookstore building just down the street were locations used in the book. The book is ostensibly a mystery novel, but what it actually does is attempt to recreate post-Civil War Boston and Cambridge as it would have been experienced by the prominent local poets of the time. Particularly in the opening chapters this requires the reader to struggle with their 21st Century sensibilities. Pearl uses excerpts from these authors’ books and letters repurposed as spoken dialog to convey that time’s sensibilities, and I found that slow going. Not only am I a 20th Century Modern in my own literary sensibilities, but I also believe that their ordinary conversational speech would not be the same as those fountain pen strokes. In the course of the book, Pearl violates every one of Elmore Leonard’s rules for good writing—though they were only the rules that worked for Leonard, and even he admits exceptions. The plot too is somewhat creaky, though that’s a common fault for mysteries.

Am I not tempting you to read this book? On the contrary, I eventually found it captivating. As we moved about Boston and Cambridge, and as I read more of the authors it references, the level of historical research Pearl put into this became apparent. I now want to try his current book, a sequel, that is apparently set among the Pre-Raphaelites, to see if his magic works when you aren’t walking around in the characters’ footsteps.

Longfellows Desk

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s oh so modern standing desk. The small statue on top? Goethe.

 

Pearl’s book is largely responsible for our visit to Longfellow’s house in Cambridge, and for me taking the time to check out Longfellow’s now unfashionable work. We walked through the room there where Longfellow’s beloved wife was sealing envelopes containing locks of their children’s hair with help from her daughters one summer’s day when the sealing wax melting candle caught her dress on fire. The room where Longfellow rushed in and tried to smother the fire engulfing his wife with a rug and his body. He suffered burns from that fire, painful and life-scaring (that bushy beard wasn’t just a fashionable affectation), but not fatal as were the ones that took his wife’s life by the next day. The room he rushed from? His writing room, with it’s nowadays in-fashion standing desk (a tactic he shared with Hemmingway), a room decorated with carved Goethe, Dante, and Shakespeare, all looking at him, asking him to “Let us, then, be up and doing.” I now read his work and think of what it does not say in what it does say.

 

Provincetown

When told we planned to go to Provincetown, someone asked my wife “You know how wild it is don’t you?” Well, yes, it’s extraordinarily crowded on a summer day with people from other New England places looking for a change of scene, and gayer than a Pride parade. The main street is full of establishments that cater to the not-quite-needs of no-purpose-but-the-change visitors, and the milling throngs are deep in thought of how good a time they are having verses their expectations.

We got off the ferry and had a tasty early lunch of hip-casual fusion food in a place with a patio covered in sand that had a view of the beach, and past that to the ocean that which can’t be bothered with time, which is always visiting, and therefore isn’t a visitor.

We then picked up rental bicycles, and after reminding one brave member of our expedition that riding a bicycle is, well, like riding a bicycle, we took off on a five-mile jaunt up to the highest point on this area of the cape. There’s a widow’s-walk porch atop the visitor’s center at this high point, full of fresh breezes and a view of that ocean again, beside which lie grassy sand dunes that meet that wind with ardent curvatures. I’ve read that the higher water levels and fiercer storms of our human-heated climate have damaged these features, but to us, visitors, it still read as wild and timeless.

After a good long meditation with wind and outlooks, I was reminded of my reason for going to Provincetown, and we set back on bicycles for the town again too look for the house once owned by Susan Glaspell and her husband George Cram Cook. My paternal grandparents are from the same south-eastern Iowa location that Cook and Glaspell grew up in, and though as far as I know they had no direct participation in The Davenport Group, Glaspell was a cousin of my grandmother.

Back in 1915, Provincetown was what was called an artist’s colony. That term is now somewhat outdated I think, but the concept is timeless. Artists, writers, musicians, and the like look for somewhere unfashionable, perhaps a bit run-down, with cheap rents to reduce their overhead while they work on things that won’t bring in a steady cash-flow. These artists naturally knock into each other, igniting collaborations and idea sharing. Often those unfashionable areas gather value, and before you can invent the term gentrification, the upmarket consumers, who though they might bring disposable cash to spend on art, bid up the rents and crowd out all but the most financially successful creators of art.

But all that hadn’t happened yet. Cook and Glaspell settled in a house on the main street, the street we now find full of folks looking for a good day or weekend, walking and driving fender to footsteps so thickly that it was hard to even walk our bikes up to the address. Back in 1915 the couple had redecorated the house’s interior with bright colors and Charles Demuth had sculpted them a sundial for the yard held skyward by a nude statue of my cousin Susan.

Here’s where things get uniquely interesting back in 1915. What could this little group of artists do while waiting for the paint to dry, or while you waited to afford a replacement for the worn ribbon in your typewriter? They decided to put on plays. Whose plays? Well, they were writers, weren’t they? Let’s write them. A stage? Look, we have artists, they should at least be able to wrangle some lumber into a set. They were given the lower floor of a former fish house that was situated on the end of a dock out over the timeless ocean to use.

What did they know and didn’t know, and did that matter? Theater in the United States was a commercial enterprise, exclusively that. This was before broadcasting, and a huge enterprise existed, with theater chains from Broadway to the small cities across the country to supply those things that could make money by presenting live entertainment. In one way, theater was tremendously broad, but it was also predicated on presenting what was going to work for that big audience. In poetry, music, and art, the Modernists were experimenting, trying things that weren’t supposed to work to see if, in fact, they could. Driven by Cook and organized by Glaspell, this little cadre of artists began trying to do that with drama, but I doubt they had any idea of what would happen when they tried this, way out on the Cape, with at first only their friends in the audience.

A disheveled man who shared a rented room in the town, down on his heals and with an already well-established reputation for alcoholism claimed he had a bunch of plays in his trunk. “Trunk plays” is theatrical lingo for old work that might be revived if a need arises, but this was an actual sea trunk he was hauling around with him, stuffed with unproduced work. In an artists colony, many writers would claim they had good stuff already written, just waiting for the world to discover, but then as now, some of this would be an empty boast useful to get someone to pay for the next round.

It fell to Susan Glaspell to arrange an informal table reading of a play from that trunk. Worth a chance, since the new company was short of material and game for anything.

Remember it’s 1915. Europe had Ibsen and Strindberg, sure. The Abbey Theater in Dublin had started a few years before. Some around the table would be well-travelled and would even know their work. But this is America, and this was a hanger-on in a little beach town artists’ colony. The author with the trunk was too shy to read his own play, someone else was deputized, and the author sat in another room as the reading commenced. The guy’s name was Eugene O’Neill, and the play, Bound for Cardiff.

Glaspell wrote about this more than a decade later, but she recalls that right away they knew they had something. Bound for Cardiff,  a play set on a tramp steamer, was performed in their makeshift playhouse at the end of a pier that year. The sound of waves, wind and gulls, the murk of fog and evening chill did not have to be added with theatrical tricks. The smell of the sea wafted up through the cracks in the dock floorboards.

The Provincetown Playhouse had its first star playwright, and Modernist American drama had its starting point. And in Glaspell and Cook, they had the organizers who could keep the artistic cats herded and pick up new strays. Within a year Glaspell, who had co-written the first play the Playhouse had produced, wrote Trifles,  a seminal work of Feminist drama.

Provincetown Theater Sign

I believe this remaining sign is from a later theater, not the rustic fish-house. However when I was taking this picture a charming older lady walked up and asked if we knew what it meant, and was pleased and surprised that we knew about Susan Glaspell and the original Provincetown Playhouse.

 

That weathered makeshift theater building on the end of the dock could never have timelessness, though it apparently stood for some years after this. Cook and Glaspell took their organization to Greenwich Village and continued with seasons there as the Provincetown Playhouse for the next decade. There’s more to this story, but I bring the curtain down by noting that while scanning a book of plays the Provincetown Playhouse produced in the towns wonderful small library, I saw that two poets from this month, William Carlos Williams and Mina Loy, once performed on stage in a two character play there.

 

Amherst

This was my prime target for this trip, as the Parlando Project has lead me deeper into not understanding Emily Dickinson, which I’m still finding an interesting place to be. Emily Dickinson spent almost all of her life in Amherst, much of it living in her family’s house. Not being a Massachusetts native I had no idea where Amherst was, or any sense of what I’d find. My first surprise was how rural the region seems to be. We entered into the town on a winding two lane road that reminds me of those paved highways that followed what were once wagon rutted dirt roads and before that indigenous footprints.

Dickinson Homestead

The Dickinson Homestead. Emily’s front window is the one on top floor left.

 

The two neighboring houses that make up the Dickinson site are imposing as you pull up to them, reminding you of her family’s prominence in the town. Early on in our tour I learned that the present lot is actually smaller than the holdings in Emily’s time. Across the road running past the house’s front door and under the sight of Emily’s room’s window, the Dickinsons had a hayfield that they cultivated. And the garden that Emily tended, the accomplishment that she was most recognized for by her peers? It was much larger in size and scope than I had imagined, though only a conventional, more modern, grass lawn grows there now. There were flowers, though not in an organized English garden sense, but also a large vegetable garden used to feed the household and a remarkable orchard which the guide told us included fig trees—trees way outside the zone that should survive New England winters due to some ingenious horticultural tricks. Although they were Puritan stock who thought household servants would be a stain on a family’s industriousness, the Dickinsons did hire some garden and field help due to the size of the holdings. None-the-less it was the household’s women who managed the gardens, first Emily’s mother and then Emily herself.

Not only the grounds, but the house’s interior has been redone and revised since her lifetime, and our guide was scrupulous in describing what parts reflected the original arrangements. Emily’s bedroom, where she did much of her writing, and where she stored the hand-made booklets that became the prime source of her ground-breaking poetry, has been recreated in considerable detail however. It’s a bright room in the daytime, and the table by the window where she wrote and revised at night, has a whale-oil lamp that would have been a luxury in her time, but must have facilitated her incredible productivity during the 1860s.

The biggest surprise was the second house, built for Emily’s brother and his new wife next door at the behest of Dickinson’s father. That sister-in-law, Susan Gilbert Dickinson, should not be overlooked as a factor in Emily Dickinson’s genius. They had a close friendship from the time Emily’s brother started courting her, and like Emily, Susan was unusually well educated for a woman of her time and place. Besides emotional bonds deep enough to cause modern speculation about a sublimated or overt lesbian relationship, Emily seems to have used Susan as one of her trusted readers to give her feedback on her revolutionary poetry. For a woman so far out on her own avant garde as Emily Dickinson was in the middle of the 19th Century, Susan may have been indispensable.

This second house, “The Evergreens” remained more or less as it was in the late 19th century, and to a large part has not been restored. It’s spooky, you feel almost like you’ve broken into an abandoned house with wear and lack of maintenance left intact. That feeling is even stronger when the tour takes you to the floor where the bedroom of Gib, Susan Gilbert Dickinson’s youngest child was located. In 1883, at age 8, Gib died of typhoid. Afterward the room was locked and kept closed by his distraught mother. Decades later, when the house was finally turned over to the group that now conserves the site, the room still contained a small boy’s toys and his clothes still neatly tucked away in the dresser, some of which are now tenderly displayed as you walk past the door.

 

I could speak of more, but those were the literary high points of my trip. I hope to return with normal service in August, combining various kinds of original music with various words (mostly poetry). To tide you over here’s the most popular Emily Dickinson audio piece with listeners here so far, “We Become Accustomed to the Dark.”  Use the player gadget below to hear it.

 

There is another sunshine Part 2

As I warned everyone yesterday, I seem to like Daze & Weekes Sunshine Blogger questions a little too much. Longest post ever…

1. What inspired you to start blogging?

The Parlando Project started out as a podcast, which I wanted to be just the short audio pieces combining various words (mostly poetry) with as varied music as Dave and I could produce, presenting just the piece itself, without chit chat. The Parlando Project is available on all the leading podcast sources, it still can be consumed that way, even though it’s not a podcast as the form is now expected to be. In contrast, I loved how pop music radio operated in my youth, when bang bang you’d hear 3 minute records by Aretha Franklin, The Zombies, Slim Harpo, The Beatles, Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs, James Brown and Bob Dylan all jumbled together without any defenses of their value other than the glorious, various, numerous sound that came out of the speaker grill.

But, some folks will want to know something about the pieces, and rather than rambling on mic about them, the “show notes”/ blog entries began to get more elaborate as the project went on. Last summer I started to think of the blog as the main thing instead of the adjunct thing.

2. What is your favourite post on your blog?

My favorite (losing u, and crossing the ocean—which sounds like the germ of a might-be-too-half-clever song)? The blog post is one of my shortest, and the audio piece doesn’t even have my voice, but The Garden of Trust  is the Parlando Project piece that moves me the most. I’d tear up when I was mixing it.

By far the most popular piece has been George Washington’s teenage love poem, “Frances.”  Why? Illuminati web-bots boosting Washington’s hits? Angsty teenagers? Xerxes fans looking for a break from Purim?

3. Who are the top 3 bands/musicians that most inspire and influence you as a musician?

Oh, this is so painful. The list should be more like 300. Even though the blog is about “Where Music and Words Meet,” I must rein back from talking about music on the blog or I’d wear a reader out. Doesn’t everyone understand that the book and movie “High Fidelity”  is a documentary and has no funny parts whatsoever?

Artists—just as important in some regard to me—will be left off! You ask three, so I’ll focus on musicians associated with words that motivated me most generally, and not singer-songwriters.

Frank Zappa. I met him and talked with him for a bit more than an hour in 1970. Reformed me artistically from a romantic to something else in that short of a time. I don’t completely share Zappa’s Dadaist sensibility, which is something like Dave Moore’s, but I need that to buffer my tragicomedy, even when it offends me. Here was a guy who didn’t separate R&B, rock, jazz, and “classical”/serious composed music. There was nobody who did that before him, and there’s nobody that’s done it since, so I try to do it at a lower level.

The Patti Smith Group. I could fill a list somewhere between 50 and 100, of artists who combined music with spoken/chanted word and poetry, therefore influencing the Parlando Project in doing the same; but if I had to pick one, it’d be the PSG. I’d read Patti Smith on the page before the PSG, and so I was already primed, but their first single and LP galvanized me when they came out. Taken together they are predominately spoken/chanted word records with co-equal music that’s not just a background sound bed. Obviously, there’s a sensibility there that comes from Patti Smith, but I’m saying the Patti Smith Group not just Patti Smith. Lenny Kaye from the first poetry readings with just Smith and Kaye on electric guitar had to invent something new with whatever musical chops he had on hand. I still think “What would Lenny Kaye do?” when working with a poet, and the younger Smith’s ecstatic vocal style, along with the other modes she added since then, is something I still aspire to.

John Coltrane. In regard to musical chops on any instrument, I’m not John Coltrane’s left pinky. I even have trouble faking saxophone lines. I like his later free jazz recordings in small doses, and appreciate the concept, but I can’t listen to it for hours, but when I’m most troubled or down on myself, listening to prime era John Coltrane just sets me vibrating with him on a molecular level. If I had to suggest a syllabus for a course on being an artist (any field) I’d suggest a John Coltrane biography or two. To me they’re like reading the life and sermons of the Buddha must be to Buddhists. It’s this, and his uncanny ability to speak wordlessly on his instrument, that makes me include him as a music/words influence.

Apologetically, I’ve just realized that none of these are musicians who are invariably easy to listen to; that they all have more detractors and “does nothing for me” listeners than fans. Two out of the three even offend on purpose when they wish too. That’s not representative of the whole of my musical influences, or how I want art to always work—but these are three who moved me to do work. If you want to stream a musician you haven’t heard of until you read it on a blog, then I suggest Bill Frisell, Steve Tibbetts, or Dean Magraw, all of whom have a breadth and beauty to their work I try to emulate, both as a guitarist and in my use of percussion.

Mason Zappa Cale Patti Smith Television bill
That last show in particular sure looks worth $9.50

 

4. If you could have a drink with any poet (alive or dead), who would it be?

Once more my love of variety makes for a hard choice. Often if asked, it would be the poet I’m trying to interpret with performance and music on that day! That said, I’ll say Emily Dickinson. I’d so want to tell her “You’re going to win! You and the immoral Mr. Whitman are going to be the founders of American poetry. Every single day, people are going to read and be pleasantly puzzled by your little verses, and esteemed writers will look at what you did and wonder how you could invent such a new way to speak poetically.” I’d want her to answer all the Sunshine Blogger questions and more, and finally, though we’d be challenging bladder capacity by then, I’d want her to dish.

sunshine

Alas, Emily Dickinson has no blog and can’t  be nominated

 

5. If you could go back in time, when and where would you travel?

Easy first part. I’d target the first two decades of the 20th Century. I’ve always been drawn there for some reason, even though it’s not a period that gets much attention generally. That feeling has only intensified from my need to draw largely on works in the Public Domain (pre-1923) for the Parlando Project. Modernism in a lot of delicious flavors was breaking out all over, and in every art. Politically, a challenging time of vast inequality, but also a time of great hope that change was at hand. So, like time-travelers everywhere I’m going to expect to be reasonably well-off—but where to land?

If New York City, a chance to observe the melting pot at its most brimming. Visit the 1913 Armory Show to watch the onlookers’ new eyes seeing for the first time the paintings by the new eyes? Hobnob with the political, social and artistic radicals, some of them recently emigrated from my own family’s base in south-eastern Iowa like my “cousin” Susan Glaspell. Maybe fake a letter of introduction from my grandparents and ask Susan to show me around the Provincetown Playhouse and Greenwich Village? Meet Edna St. Vincent Millay.

Or Chicago? Meet Carl Sandburg and his young family. Swing by the offices of Poetry magazine and suggest to Harriet Monroe that she should read my blog (grin) for tips on hot new writers. Ride with Fenton Johnson in his electric motor car, and refrain from telling him he isn’t going to win and that there’s nothing I can tell him with my extra century of knowledge that can change the racial ignorance and prejudice of America between his time and now.

Or Paris. Meet Apollinaire, Reverdy, Picasso, Satie, and—oops! my French speaking skills are non-existent. OK, next.

London. That’s it! Frost! Pound! Yeats! HD! Florence Farr! George Bernard Shaw! Crash the Poets Club to meet T. E. Hulme and hope I don’t get on his bad side. Sit close to F. S. Flint as a cover and act like I know him. Ask Flint about Herbert Read. Learn to play the Yeats’ psaltery and find out exactly what the Yeats-desired music “chanted, not sung” style sounded like. Slip Rupert Brooke a can of Deep Woods Off and suggest he look up Pound. Visit with Rabindranath Tagore in Hampstead. And the clincher for London? Buy a Raleigh bicycle with a Sturmey Archer 3 spd hub and a kerosene headlamp and ride around town. Why is that the clincher? I’m an introvert. Sadly, I might never make those social connections, even after traveling through time, but the bike ride would be worth it.

1910_Raleigh
Yeats, Pound, HD, Frost, & Flint…tally ho and toodle pip!

Next up, my Sunshine Blogger questions and nominations.

Rosemary

It’s been awhile since a new post, what with holidays and family occasions, but here’s another piece, “Rosemary,”  using the words by Edna St. Vincent Millay.

Millay was one of the most popular, most often read, poets of the first part of the 20th Century, but the later part of the century gave her less consideration. A contemporary of the Imagists and other poetic Modernists that we’ve featured a lot this year here, and while connected to their world, she didn’t sustain favor with the rise of the “New Criticism” that became the dominant academy in the English-speaking world after WWII.

Reasons? Well, there’s gender. One must assume that played a role. And popularity of the general-readership sort would not have been an asset either, as perhaps only Robert Frost and Emily Dickinson survived being read by a general readership in the mid-century without losing their high-art cred. Why couldn’t Millay have joined Frost and Dickinson in these critics’ esteem?

Millay with books

Millay at work. Other than the lack of guitars, just about the perfect décor.

I think it’s largely a case of her poetry not seeming to have the subject of their criticism: fresh, complex, allusive and illusive, imagery. Frost and Dickinson may have used homey sounding language, but in the end those funerals in the brain and snow, roads and woods added up to something to talk about in critical prose.

The New Critics were an inflection point. Before them, poetry was largely considered musical speech, a container that could hold a variety of subjects, after the New Critics, poetry was about the imagery, how you portrayed things with it. And unless one aimed for satire, such complex rhetorical structures must be in service to serious matters.

And so, there’s subject matter too. Millay’s great subject was love and affection, it’s presence, absence and all the shades in-between. In doing so, she addresses much of life and its condition, but did she receive enough credit for that? Is a heartbroken man a tragic philosopher of fate, and a woman merely a spurned lover? Narrow-mindedness can’t be ruled out.

“Rosemary”  allows us to examine these issues. This looks to be a poem about the death of a passionate love or the death of a dear one. I’m not sure which of those two possibilities is standing for the other, but for an audience, it does not matter as both events are common to our hearts.

I think there is an intent here to conjure a complex world of timeless folk magic. Though written in the 20th Century, it could have been written anywhere up to five centuries earlier. In the title we have rosemary, an herb associated with remembrance even in Shakespeare’s time (Ophelia’s mad speech in Hamlet for example), and in the first stanza we have rushes being scattered on a room’s floor, a custom from medieval times to hide the stink and mess of a less hygienic age, a strewing of reeds that may have included rosemary because it was thought to be something of an insecticide. Bergamot is another fragrant plant. Stink, rot and pestilence are all inferred subtly in this verse that on the face of it seems only a short catalog of flowers.

The second verse adds a rain barrel to catch rain, or is it tears? And what’s with that iron pot. Is it a cauldron? The poems last two lines are in quotes on the page. I was suspicious that the “An it please you, gentle sirs,” line was a quote, and finding out what it was from might be important, but I can’t place that line—if any reader knows, please clue me in.

And at the end of this timeless lament: “well-a-day,” which might sound to you or me like “have a nice day,” but is instead a word that harkens back to Old English, meaning woe-is-me.

What I think we have here is a poem, that read quickly, seems to be a trivial verse about some flowers with a bit of a kitchen scene, but it’s stated with deliberately archaic specifics so that the attentive modern reader might notice that time cannot heal this loss. And each thing in it is an image, though they don’t loudly announce themselves as such.

I’m reminded of my distant relative Susan Glaspell’s famous play “Trifles,”  where the domestic clues hide all the information the dense men seeking important information miss.

The Pentangle

The Pentangle. It’s not fair to compare. There’s 5 of them, and only 1 of me. Oh, and talent.

Musically, I went with bass, drums, two acoustic guitars and my voice for this. I was aiming for an impression of the sort of thing The Pentangle did many years ago. They were better at it, but it was good to try. Use the player below to hear my performance of Millay’s “Rosemary.”