Music, Magic and the Muse

It’s no news to anyone who follows me that I am a fan of Lighthouse Writers Workshop in Denver, especially the Friday 500 program. We never know till close to the event what our guide Dan Manzanares has planned. Yesterday he served up magic. What else can I call the mix of award-winning author Claudia Rankine’s work, the a capella group In Harmony’s Way–live, in the room with us–and a gaggle of writers?

Here’s the process: Dan read selections from Rankine’s Citizen: An American Lyric, and immediately after each reading the singers responded with spontaneous harmonies and rhythms. Two of the singers had studied with Bobby McFerrin, so that gives you a sense of what we heard. The music sounded to me a blend of scat and gospel. Amazing sounds made of pure air, percussion of stomping and clapping. Being in the same space with live music is itself magic: an inspiration of air, and then the risk of expiration shaped and shared.

While the singers worked their magic, writers took notes (though not like the notes on a music score) and then had 20 minutes to create something out of the experience. So we had an absent author, live music, and spontaneous writing, all in the same hour. Harmony in an age of disharmony! Here’s what I made:

ATLANTIC SONG: Sea waves stretch to touch the tideline, swish in, buzz, retreat. Crest, break, withdraw, low vowels and keen of gulls, syllables sway and skip a capella to the shore.

Remember to read for equality

Jericho Brown, The New Testament (poems)

Judging a Book by Its Cover

Whoever first coined that phrase was not in the business of selling books. Authors and editors pay for and applaud effective book design. Readers expect to know at a glance who wrote the book and which genre it fits. The all important title may do the job, but often a sub-title helps to categorize the book. And given that we have probably hundreds of Book Industry Subject and Category (BISAC) codes that help sellers, librarians, and publishers sort books, genre is a very big deal.

I don’t often read noir or romance, and the typical dark or décolletage covers usually tip me off, so I don’t need to see the BISAC. The author’s name, if he/she is someone whose work I know, will tell me if I’m likely to read the book, but I am suspicious if the author’s name glares at me in gold 100-pt font and the title is squeezed in at the bottom of the cover. Says something about marketing and ego.

Some books lie. They pretend to be what they are not. Recently I saw one that had no identification on the cover, front or back. Not even the author’s name. Quite a ruse, as I then had to pick it up and open it to find its DNA. Not one I could relate to.

Of course, the physical properties of the book matter. I don’t expect Stephen King’s latest novel to be printed on heavy stock like a baby’s first book. For one thing, King’s book would then require a fork lift to get it to the register.

I’m about to design books I’ll publish this year and I won’t allow the fiction to look like poetry. Nor will I shout out my name and override the title, thus robbing the work of its own appreciation.

A Day Like No Other

Popham Beach, Maine, June 8, 2017: an hour’s drive, lunch en route at Sebasco. The beach is large, clean, not crowded. A couple of small children chase seagulls. I walk barefoot in fine, warm sand, step into the edge of the Atlantic, very cold, but I want to stand, however briefly, in that ocean which is a living being, more than scenic, more than useful. As I step in on the Maine coast, someone on the edge of France, maybe Poitou where some of my ancestors left hundreds of years ago, and someone in Australia and someone else on the Shetland Islands does the same dance step.

This day is for the senses, the sounds of surf and a gull’s cry, the fresh green of summer trees on the near islands, the scent of salt air, the warm sand and cold water, and then raspberry sorbet from Dot’s Ice Cream in Bath on the way home. A day of being, not creating. May be June 8th will become a day of remembrance–Popham Day–to commemorate life and freedom instead of war, a reprieve from chaos and inhumane idiocy.

Chasing Rainbows

Yesterday on my way home from dinner with friends in W. Kennebunk, I was awed by a double rainbow, one of which was the biggest, brightest I’ve ever seen. So entranced by keeping it in sight, I made my way to Rte 95, also known as the Maine Turnpike, paid my dollar and realized that, horrors, I had gone through the south-bound toll booth, when I needed to drive north. By the time I reached the next exit where I could turn around, the rainbows were gone and I had to take a stretch of Route One in order to get back on the north-bound highway.

Why am I telling you this? Because chasing rainbows is a bit like chasing my imagination. I had a draft for today’s blog, but I worried that its truth would sting people I love. Writers are truth tellers, right? Rock hard truth tellers. But what if the truth is like throwing rocks at people who don’t deserve such an attack? So I have let that true essay fade. I got back on the right road and it feels so much better than trying to wow the world with clever words.

One of my early readers, a fine writer and teacher named Merrell Knighten, had no problem challenging me about my writing: “It’s clever but is it good?” Good means taking full responsibility for the aftermath of publishing something as ephemeral as a blog. Be careful where you travel, you will want to go home again and not find the door locked.

Have You Heard?

Editor Susan Greene of The Colorado Independent has recently called for a fresh approach to Colorado news. She has created a section called News Poetry. On Saturday seven Colorado poets met with Susan and Poetry Editor Jacqueline St. Joan to explore at the possibility of adding poems to the discussion about current issues. The contributors will include more than the seven poets present on Saturday.

As poet Edward Hirsch says, “Poetry is a mode of associative thinking that takes a different route to knowledge.” (Best American Poetry 2016, xx) We expect to take this different route to understanding the complex issues that face Coloradans. Make no mistake, the poems and editors involved in the News Poetry project will not be preaching or ranting. Our charge is to be fair and accurate as journalists, but creative and nuanced as poets. This is a challenge that will take us beyond the frequently published lyric poems that engage personal experience. News poetry harks back to the beginnings of poetry, to poets as witnesses to the world, to poetry that chronicles the life of a community, in this case the state of Colorado.

FMI: Colorado independent.com/news poetry

Not Your Grandmother’s Poetry Reading

How to build an audience for poetry: combine words with song, with percussion, with a delivery that goes beyond the traditional solitary poet at the mic reading original work. Stir in familiar and fresh music. Read interpretively, dare to be political, personal, confrontational and/or confessional. Last night a performance group called The Readers’ Lab did just that. The troupe performs with and under the direction of SETH, a well-known Denver performer, poet and novelist. Included are Cathy Casper, Cyndeth Allison, Dave Greenwald, James (the man of) Steele, Kathleen Cain, Pandora Wilson, and Rob Taylor.

Much of the performance was created by the performers, who, according to the program notes, “help and guide each other in exploring and experimenting with expanding their vocal delivery and enhancing spoken word by adding music, theatrics and interweaving multiple poems and voices.”

This is not a poetry reading in which one performer is the feature, not a sales pitch for a new book. It’s not about individual ego or advancement. This in itself is refreshing. There were selections from writers whom you might recognize: Donovan, Stanley Kunitz, Carl Jung, Terry Tempest Williams. (Because there was no cost of admission, no one’s copyright was violated.) The cover art on the program was by Kit Hedman of Hedman Photography, another collaboration. And it’s exactly that inclusive reach that makes this group unusual.

Now, instead of the familiar academic or coffee house venue, choose a setting like the Denver Puppet Theater where hundreds of marionettes hang on the walls, plush hand puppets are available for fondling, and huge, gorgeous Chinese dragons over arch the performance area. The entrance to the theater is through Zook’s Coffee and Ice Cream serving good food and drink. Believe it or not, there is ample on-street parking.

If you don’t have access to appearances by The Readers’ Lab, get busy and create a similar group. It’s important, although not easy, because this requires some risk-taking and regular collaboration and rehearsal. (FMI visit www.wagingart.com)

 

Climate Facts & Fiction

How can I convince you to read Climate of Hope by Michael Bloomberg and Carl Pope? Maybe the credentials of the authors will tempt you. Bloomberg is a famously successful business man and philanthropist and a former mayor of New York City (2002-2013). Pope, a former head of Sierra Club, led a successful Beyond Coal campaign to shut down a number of dirty coal-burning energy producers. Fortunately for readers, both are talented writers who offer a promising approach to surviving ominous changes in Earth’s climate. And a way to thrive in the decades to come if we are smart, aware, and ambitious.

According to Pope and Bloomberg, as their subtitle declares, “cities, businesses and citizens can save the planet.” Given the revitalization of New York City under Bloomberg’s leadership, I  believe this claim. And in our divisive and paralyzing political situation in the U.S, that’s a gift.

Before you start to sweat about reading science, let me tell you that this book is full of well-documented data, but not intimidating. Plain language and engaging style make it a good read. I couldn’t put it down and my notebook is full of info which I will use to challenge my local government to develop a more robust sustainability plan. I believe we need to act locally, despite the overwhelming attention the press gives to Congress.

Why would a novelist/poet read such a book? I refuse to be defined by a narrow concept of writing. I am not an ivory-tower, head-in-the-clouds romantic. I write climate fiction and poetry, and I want to know what’s real. I’m tired of empty-headed pessimism that allows us to throw up our hands, swear and wail, and do nothing to clean up our mess.  What these two authors have done is art in the guise of good advice. Or it’s good advice masked as good writing. Either way, it’s a good, good book.