Thursday, October 27, 2011

The madness and method of Poetry Scores (UMSL panel presentation)

Irish poet and UMSL professor Eamon Wall, colorized by overhead projector.

Today Eamonn Wall, Irish poet and UMSL professor, hosted literary critic Guinn Batten (Washington University), composer Barbara Harbach (UMSL) and yours truly (Chris King) for a panel on Paul Muldoon's "Incantata," the text for Poetry Scores 2011 events. These were my remarks. More (much bigger news) from this panel to come!

I am very pleased Eamonn Wall organized this event this afternoon. I knew of Guinn Batten’s interest in Paul Muldoon through a student of hers who follows my work as a music producer, and I have been eager to hear her take on this fabulous poem, “Incantata.”

Eamonn suggested we do this event after Barbara Harbach and I invited him to perform “Incantata” when we premiere Barbara’s score of the poem on Sunday, October 30, here at UMSL. Eamonn, I’ll admit, was my second choice for reader, only because I first asked Muldoon himself. Paul Muldoon fully approves of what Poetry Scores is doing with his poem, and we already have recorded him reading “Incantata” (at a friend’s home studio here in St. Louis) for our eventual CD release of the poetry score. Unfortunately for us, Muldoon was not available for any of our live events surrounding “Incantata,” however, because he is on sabbatical in Ireland. So, in a roundabout way, we get to have this nice event here at UMSL today because Paul Muldoon got to go home.

I’ve really been looking forward to hearing Guinn Batten talk about “Incantata” and my friend Barbara Harbach talk about the original score to the poem that she composed on commission from Poetry Scores. I don’t have any insight or expertise to add on the subjects of Muldoon’s poem or Barbara’s new poetry score of it, but I did want to speak a bit about our humble St. Louis-based arts organization, Poetry Scores, that instigated all this exciting activity around what I consider to be the single greatest poem written in English by a poet who is alive today.

Poetry Scores translates poetry into other media. We named the organization around the musical form which we would like to think we innovated. A poetry score is a long poem set to music as one would score a film. We stumbled upon doing this work when we were a field recording collective, which really was just a rock & roll band that had acquired some recording equipment, lost its audience for the most part, but not lost our romance with the American road. So we stayed on the road, asking people if we could pay attention to them while they played music and told stories, rather than the other way around.

Doing this, we recorded Leo Connellan, a gritty poet from Maine with a lobsterman’s twang who was at the time the Poet Laureate of Connecticut. We recorded Leo reading his long poem “Crossing America” (a bicentenial poem first published in 1976), and when his reading timed out at 37 minutes – exactly half the length of a CD stretched to its limits – we decided to write and commission musical interludes to sequence between each of the poem’s sections. The poetry score was born.

Since Leo Connellan, we have scored the Turkish poet Ece Ayhan, translated by Murat Nemet-Nejat; the Salt Lake City/St. Louis poet Stefene Russell; the Australian poet Les Murray, a fellow Griffin Poetry Prize winner with Paul Muldoon (and, like Muldoon, a poet perenially rumored to be due a Nobel Prize); and just last year, we scored the New Jersey/St. Louis poet David Clewell, who was announced by First Lady Georganne Nixon as Missouri’s second Poet Laureate just after we started to score his long poem, Jack Ruby’s America.

I might add that I serve on Gerald Early’s board at the Center for the Humanities at my alma mater, Washington University, and the Center awarded Orhan Pamuk its Distinguished Humanist Medal soon before he won his Nobel Prize for Literature in 2006. I am more than a little superstitious, and like to think I’m a little lucky, so I was fully prepared for Les Murray to get the Nobel in 2009 when we were scoring his long poem The Sydney Highrise Variations, and almost expecting for Muldoon to get tagged for the Nobel this year while we were on our home stretch of the Incantata poetry score. But alas, David Clewell’s Missouri Poet Laureate gig is the only major accolade for which Poetry Scores can claim prescience.

There is more madness than method to what we do at Poetry Scores, but in terms of method, we do have a few rules. A poetry score can import no new language that is not in the poem. This rule came into play after Barbara Harbach finished her score to “Incantata” and sent me the titles of her four movements. At which time I realized I had not bothered to explain to Barbara our rules! Some of those proposed titles incorporated language that is not in Muldoon’s poem, and after I explained the rule Barbara and I had fun tossing alternate titles back and forth until she settled on title language that is found in “Incantata.”

Another rule is that we alternate scoring poems by U.S. poets with poems by international poets. We always have a number of projects in the pipeline, so we have options, from year to year. Last year we scored David Clewell, an American guy, so it was international for 2011. Paul Muldoon has lived in this country for many years and seems very much at home in Princeton, New Jersey, where we have mutual friends at the university. It occurred to me that I should ask the man if he minded being classified as an Irish poet, for purposes of satisfying our self-imposed “international poet” requirement for 2011. It fascinated me when Muldoon replied we could classify him either way – he really didn’t care if we chalked him up as an Irish or an American poet.

There is one other thing you should know about Poetry Scores, especially if you think you might want to work with us. We also had an early track record of getting in just before the bell, as in the bell that tolls. Both of the first two poets we scored, Leo Connellan and Ece Ayhan, actually died before we finished their score. Truly, this shook us up. A very morbid feeling of absolutely the worst sort of jinx vied with the more heroic sense that we came along just in time to capture these great poets and put their works to music just as they were leaving us.

More pragmatically, it forced us to release records for dead people. Though in 2011 we find ourselves happily producing a live event with Eamonn Wall standing in for a perfectly alive poet who happens to be across the Atlantic, back in 2003 when we released our first poetry score, Crossing America by the dead Leo Connellan, in the absence of the poet we staged an art show instead. This has now evolved into the Poetry Scores Art Invitational and art auction, which started as the way we release our CDs and has become a stand-alone event, one of St. Louis’ best art parties and art bargains of the year.

I would like to invite you all to the Poetry Scores Art Invitational to Incantata, which will be held Friday, November 11 at Mad Art Gallery in Soulard. More than 50 artists from St. Louis, Chicago, Denver, Boston, New York and Istanbul will present original art that responds to “Incantata” and is titled using a direct quote from the poem, then we hang the work depending on where in the flow of the poem the language chosen for the title appears. It’s also an art auction, and how we intend to raise the money to release our poetry score to “Incantata,” featuring Paul Muldoon’s unforgettable reading of his poem enfolding Barbara Harbach’s adventurous and exquisite musical meditation on “Incantata.”

Since the mission of Poetry Scores is to translate poetry into other media, since we have these musical artfacts called poetry scores, and since we are a bunch of silent film mavens, perhaps inevitably we came around to the idea of making silent movies to our poetry scores. Currently, we are in production for our second feature movie, Go South for Animal Index, based on Stefene Russell’s poem about the making of the atomic bomb. Our first movie, Blind Cat Black, based on Ece Ayhan’s poem about a transgendered prostitute, premiered at the 2007 St. Louis Filmmakers Showcase and has gone on to play three Turkish cities, including the poet’s provincial hometown, where the showing of our movie – which also happens to be a zombie movie – was incorporated into a midnight visit to the poet’s grave on the eve of the anniversary of his death.

We very much hope you join us in the Lee Theatre at the Touhill Center for the Performing Arts at 3 p.m. Sunday, October 30 for the premiere of Barbara Harbach’s chamber piece Incantata and our poetry score, with Eamonn Wall standing in – ably, I am certain – for Paul Muldoon. When you do, I invite you to close your eyes and imagine the silent movie we will make to it one day. If you have any ideas for us, be sure you let me know.


Thanks to UMSL and its various programs in Arts & Sciences for its partnership.

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