Thursday, December 13, 2012

Word into media w/ high art & amateur enthusiasm

It's always interesting to see people you know do work you do, so I was fascinated last night to watch the "May These Changes Make Us Light" production on Cherokee Street. This was an ambitious multimedia show that mixed live music (rock band, string section, handdrums) with dance (aerial, pole, Mexican folk), video, spoken word, shadow puppetry and costumed theatrics. Most of it was ultimately text-based, so they were translating poetry and folklore into other media. That's exactly what Poetry Scores does, so I was fascinated to watch how other very talented people do what we do.

In the cast was one of my very favorite local artists in any media, Michelle Mynx, choreographer and pole dancer and half of Gravity Plays Favorites. Michelle performed in a narrative piece with many other elements. Like most of the production, it had an earthy yet spiritual basis, and I enjoyed to see one-half of the burlesque duo Gravity Plays Favorites choregraph for solo pole dance in a setting where sexuality was not themed.

I have a reverent attitude toward Michelle's work and Gravity. I get so blissed out that I experience it differently and it's hard to compare to the rest of my experience of a show. For the part of the show where I wasn't awestruck, my favorite bit was the opening: Fire Dog playing "Prelude," their collaboration with The Rats & People Motion Picture Orchestra. I listen to that song so often from my sampler of the new Fire Dog record that my daughter, who joined me for the show, blurted out at the second chord, "I know this song."

I was struck elsewhere in another Fire Dog number that Celia is an amazing bass player. I always assumed she was a chord-chopping band leader playing bass in a buddy's band to help out, but she has made the instrument her own.

The aerial dancer Indie Nombrilou had another featured spot. Her work also puts me over toward that awe-o-sphere where there's not much I am able to say about it other than I am glad she is working here while I am here.

The venue was a nightclub, more given to loud bands than multi-media shows, so the lighting was poor. I especially couldn't see Indie's act as well as I would have liked. There is a trade-off in the lighting, because Light was the main theme of the show and various projections of light (which required darkness to work) were integral to the show. That includes skilled video work by Mike Pagano which threaded in and out of the other performances.

The show closer was led by the voice of Lyndsey Scott. Lyndsey is one of my other favorite artists in town whom I've always asked to do everything. I've not seen her in her own element that much, so it was interesting to see her persona in its more native setting. I felt her as a strong spiritual center for the show.

I was dragged out to a show on a school night by Rebecca S. Rivas, who choreographed and danced and had a role in the overall shape of the production. Rebecca and I share a highly demanding and rewarding day job at The St. Louis American. So though I see her more days than I don't, and though we have dozens of friends and creative partners in common, I actually never share art with her.

We talked about the show and about producing shows today. We agreed on a shared aesthetic, which is also an ethic in a way. We agreed it's good to mix high professional talent and vocation with amateur enthusiasm. It's good to have both Michelle Mynx, who could work anywhere in the world, and your friends who want to put on an animal costume and act out a folk tale. We agreed there's something really good, and something really St. Louis, about that mix.

Translating poetry and folklore into other media with a playful mix of high art and amateur enthusiasm -- that's the thing I am talking about; that's the thing we do around here.


Photo of the great Michelle Mynx borrowed from her Facebook page.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

"Water Bread & Beer" served in digits, plastics, live gigs

Our longtime producer, licensing honcho and e-distributor Meghan Gohil is jumping our band Eleanor Roosvelt through the iTunes etc. loops for our new record Water Bread & Beer to be available for worldwide digital download.

The band is also covening in St. Louis from Nashville, Los Angeles and New Jersey this weekend to usher into the world small pieces of plastic with the new record and companion artwork digitally imprinted in physical form. Fred Friction opens for a house concert in Olivette at 8 p.m. Friday, December 7 (email David Melson - - for his address and to get on the list). Then we play a tavern gig in Granite City at 10 p.m. Satuday, December 8 with Dana Anderson at Jacobsmeyers Tavern, 2401 Edwards, by the scenic steel mills.

Our digital distributor asked of us some detailed notes for Water Bread & Beer, and here is what we had to say. I used some vague terms ("Americana") and made band-name comparisons in some feeble attempt at popular appeal.

Eleanor Roosevelt: Water Bread & Beer

Eleanor Roosevelt’s new record Water Bread & Beer captures a folk-rock songwriting team half-way in its evolution from pioneers of alt-country (as Enormous Richard, they released their first record in the same town and summer as Uncle Tupelo) into the music department of an arts organization, Poetry Scores, that translates world poetry into other media.

The new record has an even mix of “original” Americana songs, and musical settings of poetry and traditional texts. Among the songs where frontman Chris King penned the lyrics, “Watch a Cloud” is about doing exactly that while lying flat on your back on a farm; “Seeds & Shit” is about moving off a barstool and down to the country to live with a woman; “Grainery Light” muses on a hometown dominated by that grainbelt icon. But their future as Poetry Scores is glimpsed in “Death & Taverns,” which sets a Federico Garcia Lorca poem to music; “Children’s Rain Song,” a new folk-rock setting of a Moroccan Jewish children’s chant; and “Tortilla,” a new working of  a Peruvian labor protest song.

These songs were composed and the basic tracks recorded while the songwriting team was on the road as Hoobellatoo, a field recording collective that provided a pit stop on the journey between the band Eleanor Roosevelt and the arts organization Poetry Scores. These songs were written and initially recorded in grand, scattered places: a mansion on Mount Desert Island in Maine; a cabin in Door County, Wisconsin; a campsite in the Virginian Appalachias; another cabin on South Turkey Creek in Leicester, North Carolina beside the square dance platform built by Bascom Lamar Lunsford; and in the living room of Pops Farrar in Belleville, Illinois. It was finished by producer Elijah “Lij” Shaw at his studio The Toy Box in Music City, Nashville, Tennessee.

When King, Shaw and their songwriting partners Matt Fuller and John Minkoff wrote these songs, they had been on and off the road for the better part of a decade, as rock bands and then field recordists. In these songs you can hear the edge and unpredictability of the road, especially “Strangers & Dangers” (where the title says it all) and “James Brown Boulevard,” the name of an actual road on the wrong side of the Godfather of Soul’s hometown, Augusta, Georgia. “Pair of Skunks” is an homage to that angel of every traveling band, the pretty girl pouring coffee in the morning at a roadside diner. Certainly “Nothing Feels Better Than Doing Wrong” – though a very free adaptation of a traditional Zulu text – expresses sentiments familiar to anyone who ever saw the country via the van of a traveling band.

The Zulu folktale buried in that rock song points to another element that runs throughout this record. Though Water Bread & Beer is dominated by the acoustic, guitars, banjos and fiddles of Americana, it takes much of its perspective from the traditions of Africa. As Hoobellatoo, these guys recorded a traditional Grebo (Liberia, West Africa) elder named Nymah Kumah, who influenced them profoundly as people. “Pepper Soup & Local Honey” is basically a recipe of Grebo traditional immunology: local honey to inoculate yourself against local pathogens and pepper soup to clear your chest and head once they get in. “Me as a Horse” sets to music a passage from My Life in the Bush of Ghosts by the father of the African novel, Amos Tutuola of Nigeria. And “Head Rolling Down a Hill” includes a fragment of a novel by the great Ghanaian writer A.K. Armah: “We have time to bounce across yards of mud from days of rain.”

Musically, Eleanor Roosevelt sounds like some of the other bands that incubated alternative or insurgent country, such as The Jayhawks, Uncle Tupelo in their mellower moods and Whiskeytown, with scratchy acoustic textures offset by the grime of John Minkoff’s electric guitar. Guest instrumentalists include Geoffrey Seitz, who has won the highest traditional fiddle honors at Galax and Clifftop; and keyboardist Pat Sansone, who would soon leave the Nashville rock scene to join Wilco in Chicago.

Eleanor Roosevelt blog: Or email


Cover painting by John Minkoff

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Nick Barbieri live scores Embirikos' "Desire"

At this year's big Art Invitational devoted to Andreas Embirikos' classic 1935 poem Blast Furnace, we added a new musical component. Poetry Scores translates poetry into other media, but up until now our work producing records, movies and art shows have been disconnected in the public experience of what we do. We wanted to change that. So we hit upon the idea of inviting some composers to write and record a musical score to an Embirikos poem during our Art Invitational (7-11 p.m. this past Friday).

We had slimmed down Nikos Stabakis' selected translation of Blast Furnace, excluding six of the prose poems to leave us with a more manageable text for the poetry score that Barbara Harbach is composing for us. With six poems left out of Barbara's score, we invited six songsters each to score one of these six texts. Six being the number of sides on a conventional die, Embirikos being a Surrealist (the first, and best, in Greece), and Surrealism being absorbed in accidents and chance, we assigned poems to composers by casting a die.

Before songsters reported for duty on Friday night, musical supervisor Richard "Skoob" Skubish and I took turns casting this big puffy yellow die until the numbers 1 through 6 had been assigned uniquely to the six Embirikos poems (in Stabakis' English translation) that we had cut from Blast Furnace. Then, as a composer would come into the gallery, he or she would cast the die and take the poem assigned to that number, provided it wasn't already taken.

Only two poems were left when Nick Barbieri showed up, so it took him a few rolls to hit upon a poem that was not already taken, but a roll of 1 finally assigned "Desire" to him. As a relative latecomer, Nick also did not have the widest selection of spaces to do his composing. Mad Art is located in an Art Deco police station, so we had songwriters working in jail cells, in previously smoke-filled backrooms, and in foyers. We set Nick up in closed space set off from the police station's garage, which now is the gallery's main event space. There was an electric-powered door that closed, giving Nick privacy and sound separation, though it closed from the outside, reducing our valiant songster to pounding on the door from the inside when he finally had finished recording his song.

Nick took his cue from the title "Desire" and wrote sort of a sultry soul song that launches into rock guitar about halfway through. Here is the poem, followed by the song.


By Andreas Embirikos

Prostrate with sugarcoated lips she lay on love’s luminous wreath. Before long the call was heeded. First she was taken away by two birds then by the wires of compassionate intrigue and finally by five roosters resembling trained horses who placed her between her own thighs. The response of alien ingredients vanished and with longing perfumed seaweeds and scintillating sighs she came unrestrained and clean like an essential and intense cloud. Now they are both named Merope.

-- Translated from the Greek by Nikos Stabakis, from surrealism in greece


Music composed, performed produced and recorded by Nick Barbieri for Poetry Scores


Photo is of Nick Barbieri picking up the die. He had rolled a 1, the number randomly assigned to "Desire" among the six poems from *Blast Furnace" we had set aside for live scoring.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Jay Alan Babcock and Deb Douglas have no quinces

So like I was saying, Poetry Scores has an Art Invitational coming up 7-11 p.m. Friday, Nov. 9 at Mad Art Gallery on the southern edge of Soulard, 2727 So. 12th St.

Deb Douglas just sent me this image of her piece, "We have no quinces," after Andreas Embirikos. This Art Invitational is based around the first masterpiece of Greek Surrealism by the great Andreas Embirikos, translated by Nikos Stabakis.

Like all pieces in our show, Deb's collage responds to and takes its title directly from the same poem by Embirikos, as translated by Stabakis. We are scoring a selection of prose pieces from Embirikos' 1935 classic Blast Furnace. Our selection, titled jointly with the composer Barbara Harabach, is Phantom of the dreams' origin.

Barbara is composing miniatures to sequence around the prose poems presented in human voice. My co-producer Stefene Russell and I recorded ourselves reading the whole sequence between us, but we also wanted the options of other voices. So I hit upon an idiosyncratic idea.

I asked Roland Frank, Poetry Scores actor and BBQ curator, to host a backyard BBQ where people were invited to bring an ingredient cited in the poem (it's full of food and animals) for Roland to BBQ, in essence translating Greek Surrealism into a backyard BBQ, and I'd then ask them to read and record the prose poem in the sequence where their ingredient is quoted.

Jay Babcock, longtime contributing Poetry Scores artist, brought his son Owen to the BBQ and they had whipped up some incredibly tasty iced lime concotion. There is a poem in the sequence titled "Lime," so naturally we had Jay read that.


Andreas Embirikos
Trans. by Nikos Stabakis

We have no quinces. We have been deprived of our briefest pulp’s equivalent sum and beneath its murmuring only the young leopards remain alone with their dark florins and with the final gull’s cold desolation. We have no quinces. Eucalyptus burdens die in the palm of our pulses and whatever we say and see we treat the distinguished intelligence of perfumed youths. We have no quinces or is it that their quince-made harshest form struggles of barrages and tepid gleanings of transients pole’s roaming and hole.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Poetry Scores hosts 8th art invitational Nov. 9 at Mad Art

"A most thunderous storm covered the country"
by Robin Street-Morris
after Andreas Embirikos/ Nikos Stabakis

Event includes live collaborative drawing experience and live poetry scoring

From 7-10 p.m. Friday, Nov. 9, Poetry Scores will host its 8th art invitational where some 50 visual artists make new work based on the same long poem at Mad Art Gallery, 2727 So. 12th St. in Soulard. This invitational responds to Phantom of the Dreams’ Origin, an excerpt of the first masterpiece of Greek Surrealism, Blast Furnace (1935) by Andreas Embirikos, translated into English by Nikos Stabakis.
The event is free and open to the public; Mad Art will run a cash bar and there will be some free food. The art work will be for sale, with proceeds split evenly between artist, gallery and Poetry Scores, a St. Louis-based non-profit arts organization that translates poetry into other media. Wole Soyinka, the Nobel Laureate in Literature from Nigeria, describes Poetry Scores as “a very special celebration of creative collaboration.”
Confirmed artists for the invitational include many of St. Louis' most beloved and accomplished working artists, plus Julie Evanoff of Brooklyn, Ipek Tuna of Istanbul and a trio of London artists associated with inc. magazine: Hannah Bailey, MSTR Gringo and Lorna Scobie. The complete list - which includes a chocolatier, a florist and a balloon sculptor -- below.

(Note to parents and anyone offended by human nudity: some of the art work includes adult themes and graphic depictions of human anatomy.)
In addition to some 50 works of art based on the poem, the November 9 event also will feature a live collaborative drawing experience, open to the public – Exquisite Corpse, conducted by John Pruitt – and a live musical score experience, where six local songwriters are each randomly assigned one of six Embirikos poems to score musically and record their composition that night. Their completed recordings will be played at the end of the show.

The songwriters composing and recording poetry scores at the event are Nick Barbieri (Heebie Jeebies), Mike Burgette (Lettuceheads), Amy and John Camie, Ann Hirschfeld (The Deciders), Tim McAvin (Karate Bikini) and Tim Rakel (Union Electric, May Day Orchestra). They will be recorded at the old sergeant's desk at Mad Art by multiply Grammy-nominated Adam Long, whose production credits range from Nelly's first recordings to Broadway original cast show extravaganzas.

The St. Louis Curio Shoppe (2301 Cherokee), which sells only things made by someone from St. Louis or connected to St. Louis, will have a booth selling all Poetry Scores releases and many projects by artists in various media who have worked with Poetry Scores. St. Louis Curio Shoppe will be accepting inventory on consignment at the event, so local artists with a record, movie, book, whatever, to sell, are welcome to bring a few copies to put on consignment at the shop.

Poetry Scores’ work with Andreas Embirikos' poem will continue 7:30 p.m. Friday, January 11, 2013 with a live performance of composer Barbara Harbach’s poetry score to Phantom of the Dreams’ Origin featuring a dance interpretation of the poem by MADCO at the Touhill Center for the Performing Arts.
Info? Contact: Chris King,


Hannah Bailey
Kevin Belford
James Blackwood
Jeff Brawn
Hunter Brumfield III
Dail Chambers
Bill Christman
Jen Collins
Jon Cournoyer
Heather Corley
Mikey Davidson
Deb Douglas
Dr. Andrew Dykeman
Jennifer Saenz Dykeman
Julie Evanoff
Thom Fletcher
Flowers to the People
Marth Rose Green
Paul Hartman
Sue Hartman
JoAnn Houle
Alexa Hoyer
Rick Jordan
Chris King
Leyla Fern King
Julie Malone
Tim McAvin
MSTR Gringo
Carmelita Nunez
Mike Pagano
Hap Phillips
Thomas Plunk
John Pruitt
Jeremy Rabus
Tony Renner
Kim Keek Richardson
Cindy Royal
Stefene Russell
Lorna Scobie
C. Scott
Janiece Senn
Derek Simmons
Dana Smith
Robin Street-Morris
Brian Styles
Mark Swain
Andrew Torch
Ipek Tuna
Wayne St. Wayne
Jess Witte

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

"Dumb Bunny" (Anne Sexton, Ann Hirschfeld)

So like I was saying, Poetry Scores is hosting another "Reading at The Royale" 7-9 p.m. Wednesday, July 25 at The Royale public house, 3132 South Kingshighway. It's a free event.

Poetry Scores translates poetry into other media. In addition to five poets (Stefene Russell, Chris Chable, Chris Parr, Kristin Sharp and Uncle Bill Green) and a fiction writer (Edward Scott Ibur) all at liberty to perform their work through the medium of Noah Kirby's sculpture With Solid Stance and Stable Sound, we'll also have some poetry translated into song.

The theme for the reading is "Bombs & Monsters," since we are celebrating the reprint of the artbook/CD of our poetry score to Go South for Animal Index by Stefene Russell, which is a bomb & monster poem.

Ann Hirschfeld will be our guest songster at The Royale, performing (with Mark Buckheit) songs from her poetry score of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs by Anne Sexton, which she is scoring on our commission with permission from the Anne Sexton Estate. The queen in this poem is a monster!

Here is a demo of a sketch of one song from her score in progress, "Dumb Bunny":

"Dumb Bunny" scores this part ofAnne Sexton's poem:

the mirror told,
the queen came,
Snow White, the dumb bunny,
opened the door
and she bit into a poison apple
and fell down for the final time.
When the dwarfs returned
they undid her bodice,
they looked for a comb,
but it did no good.
Though they washed her with wine
and rubbed her with butter
it was to no avail.
She lay as still as a gold piece.

It also picks up, as intro and outro, two separate lines that will have been scored earlier, as they come earler in the poem:

You must not open the door
She will try once more


Poetry (c) Anne Sexton
Music (c) Ann Hirschfeld


Image by Mathew Rose, borrowed from

Monday, July 16, 2012

Poetry Scores translated a Greek Surrealist poem into a BBQ

Roland Franks (Poetry Scores Curator of BBQ, contributing actor and competitive BBQ chef) manning what is understood to be the world's first Greek Surrealist BBQ grill, located in the state streets neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri.

Poetry Scores translates poetry into other media, and though we are artists and tend to focus on artistic media - music, paintings, sculpture, movies - we try to branch out. Yesterday, we translated poetry into a potluck BBQ.

The poem is Phantom of the Dreams' Origin by Andreas Embirikos, translated from the Greek by Nikos Stabakis. This poem is just jammed with things you can eat, and we asked people to bring something named in the poem to eat raw or throw on the grill. The grill was curated by Roland Franks, an actor in our movie unit who also is a competitive BBQ chef on summer weekends.

Jocko Ferguson, a board member who roadies for the movie unit and plays zombies, brought chicken breasts to throw on the grill. (Embirikos writes of "breasts.") Our board treasurer (and actor in our movies) John Parker brought big floppy mushrooms to grill. Karley M. King, who acts in our movies, brought pineapples to grill (Embirikos writes of being "brilliant and sensitive as a fruit shop," opening the door to all fruit.

Karley M. King ("fruit," construed as pineapple) visits with Jocko Ferguson
("breast," construed as chicken breast) at the Embirikos BBQ.

Paul Casey, who plays a huge role in the next movie we will release and is a big help with props, brought fruit to eat raw, including grapes, a fruit that gets a specific mention in Embirikos poem, which is a sequence of prose poems, one of them titled "Winter Grapes".

It is a very nutty poem, with almonds and hazelnuts, so I brought a Turkish sweet with hazelnuts sunk into powdery white candy. The poem mentions quinces only to say we have none, and though Stefene Russell (board secretary, poet, actor, visual artist) brought quince jelly, no one got around to eating any, so where Embirikos writes, "We have no quinces," at the end of this BBQ you could say no one had any quinces to eat, or we had no quinces.

Jay Alan Babcock, a visual artist (we cast in the last movie but were not able to use), brought limeade he made with his son Owen (one of the prose poems in Embirikos' sequence is titled "Lime"), which was my very special favorite treat of the day. The poem mentions both coffee and ice, so I brought a Thermos of hot coffee  and Leyla Fern King, actor and visual artist, brought ice that was combined into iced coffee.

I can't believe this poem has no "milk" or "honey," such dreamlike substances, but I brought canned milk and locally hived honey to sweeten the one iced coffee I served to board member and actor Amy Broadway.

Broadway herself was on the Nicky Rainey alternative menu plan. Most of us were working from an ingredient list I culled from the poem, but Nicky (poet and newest board member) went her own way and found "mole," refence to the mammal, but she added an imaginary Mexican accent and brought the thick chocolate sauce of the same spelling. She also encouraged Broadway to interpret the "bugle" in the poem ("bugle-calls of roaring vultures") as the conic corn chip Bugle.

As if anticipating just such a revel, Stabakis translated an Embirikos word as "refreshment," usefully authorizing any refreshing drink of any kind. There was a fair amount of refreshing going on. I am a stalwart advocate of St. Louis tap water, have never tasted any better, and really nothing is more refreshing than water, so I brought a giant pitcher and kept filling it up with water from the spigot on the side of the house.

It was so damn hot that day I actually brought home on the floorboard of my car the last pitcher of water I drew from the spigot, iced cold with Leyla's Greek Surrealist ice. It was so damn hot it just would have seemed sacriligeous, a sin against the sun, to throw out that cold water in that burning heat (and my spouse likes her kitchen utensils to come home). I still have half of that pitcher of water from the BBQ, and just now it occurs to me that I will bottle it and save it as souvenir Greek Surrealist St. Louis tap water.

Roland with his people. One of the reasons we want to translate poetry into
non-artistic media is to involve people more likely to go to, say, a BBQ
than a poetry reading. Roland's friends got right away
what we were up to and got a kick out of it.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

My friend Joe Falco's sister Edie Falco watches over me

Yesterday I finished one forbidding stretch of a movie we have been working on for three years with this great actor looking over my shoulder: Edie Falco. I used to work with her brother Joe Falco at a magazine in New York, and after one of her occasional visits to see her brother and meet his friends, Joe hooked me up with a signed portrait.

Without planning any moviemaking mojo or symbolism, I moved the picture of Edie from a place in my basement workspace where you couldn't see it so good to a more prominent spot on a different wall.

Only after I finished the somewhat nerve-wracking task at hand did I notice I had moved Edie just in time for her to watch me do some final scenic architecture on my editing script.

Any moviemaker reading this post will lap and weep on my behalf, to see I have invoked the treacherous word "final" for any semblance of a script.

Unlike the talented sister of my buddy Joe Falco, Poetry Scores makes silent movies that are edited to long musical settings of long poems. The scripts I prepare have no dialogue because we use none, they just describe what I hope we capture visually in each scene.

So, if we perfectly execute my shooting script, then when we are finished shooting I should be able to scribble out "shooting" on the script and write in "editing" and hand the same document over to our editor. But there is no such thing as perfectly executing anything in the world of no-budget amateur moviemaking.

Our method has evolved in such a way that at least I know now how we will arrive at the unexected. We take my shooting script and try to get the best cast available to the best location available, and then depending on the vagaries of the location and any surprises (pleasant or otherwise) as to who we can get to act (and when) that day, we improvise.

As I was saying last summer, in the movie we are still working on we improvised a major minor storyline around my neighbor's gift to me of a watermelon. This fat little thing looked just like my mental picture of the Fat Man nuclear bomb. Our movie, Go South for Animal Index, is based on an atomic bomb poem by Stefene Russell, so we took the watermelon and literally ran with it -- that is, Thomas Crone's swaggering soldier character Buster Jangles literally ran with it. This gave Crone's character new things to do with a scientist wife character I really wanted more screen time for, and it kept going from there.

When you find new screen time for a character, you need more screen time. As we all know from reading the entertainment stories, major talking movie pictures tend to run over budget and balloon in length as the director keeps adding new scenes. In a Poetry Scores silent picture, we are limited to a piece of music we already have created, so we can't just go making our movies any longer.

At least that's what I thought, until this last picture. Local moviemaker Dan Cross came aboard half way in our shoot as a shooter, and as an experienced editor he grasped right away that we had more story to tell from our footage than we could fit in the 58 minute poetry score Matt Fuller and I had produced to Stefene's poem. As I kept listening to Dan, it began to sink in that we certainly could make the poetry score longer.

One technique we use for scoring poetry is to compose, commission or curate an instrumental with the feel of that phrase or line of poetry and use the phrase or line as the title of that instrumental. So all we really had to do was compose, curate or commission as many new instrumentals as we wanted and then sequence them into the score in places where we need to use more scenes we shot, provided we could keep the pace and feel of the poetry score.

So we went back to our archives, picked out some more tracks by Middle Sleep, our beloved early 1980s post-prog rock improvisers from the Hollywood Hills. Go South employs a very talented local musician, Tory Z. Starbuck, in one of the roles that got bigger thanks to the watermelon, since Tory's wacky nuclear scientist plays opposite Crone's soldier character in the movie's final scene, and we had to make more of Buster Jangle's final scene since the character had more presence now. And then of course Tory has a way of making more screen time for himself whatever he does.

So, I talked the situation through with Tory -- who was then an anxiously expectatant first-time father -- and he ran right out and composed three perfect keeper pieces of music: a kyoto piece (that is just right for a confession scene with the General that turned out much bigger than my shooting script called for), a long fractured snyth rock thing (that is just right for the dramatically expanded finale between his scientist and soldier Buster Jangles), and a lightly cheesy spaghetti Western that stole my heart for the closing credits track.

So ... the task has been upon me ever since was to bust open a nice, somewhat tidy editing script for 28 scenes and make it fit a poetry score with 33 pieces of music. And now I had a totally different dynamic of major characters from different storylines to juggle in a silent medium with no language to provide plot and character clues. In a silent movie, you really have to think about the dynamics of who you see when  if you want to get the audience to follow a whole lot of very different characters -- in Go South, tramps, soldiers, a tramp who becomes a soldier who reverts to a tramp, a general, a professor, scientists, scientist wives, a scientist's kid, a priest, tribal healers, tribal people, a tribal healer who works a day job at the Army comissary, zombie uranium miners, zombie uranium millers, zombie bomb targets) for 81 minutes.

That's what I finally (ha, ha, ha) finished doing yesterday, under the watchful gaze of Edie Falco. Was she my lucky charm? I am taking the position that she was my lucky charm. From now on I will move this talismanic picture around with me whenever I am hung up on rewriting a shooting or editing script.

On this job I also figured out at some point I needed to get the scenes off the linear page and onto an array of frames where I can see the whole architecture of the movie in one sweep and be able to walk around it and think about it and move things around.

That was a breakthrough, and I will break down weep when this workroom I've assembled to finish this editing script finally becomes the basement guest bedroom.

As for that Edie Falco, very cool chick. We called my oldest sister "Chick" and Joe's older sister reminded me of my older sister: obviously smart, obviously tough, obviously straightforward and candid. My sister, who was a beautiful woman, used to talk about running errands while looking "hagged out," which meant there would be no major production for makeup or coordinated outfits. I doubt Edie Falco could look like a "hag" if she tried, but she seemed to make a point of coming to see her brother just looking like somebody going to see her brother at work. She presented herself and carried herself on these visits in a way where it would simply have been impossible to give her any kind of a movie star treatment. This was your friend from work's sister and she was just coming through to see him and to take a look at the people in her brother's life. What she did for a living was the furthest thing from her mind.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Translating Greek poetry into food and voice this Sunday

So like I was saying, we are going to try something new with the poem we are scoring for the fall, Phantom of the dreams' origin by Andreas Embirikos, translated from the Greek by Nikos Stabakis. We are going to translate the poem into a potluck barbecue.

This is happening this Sunday, July 15 from 3 to 6 p.m. at the home of Roland "The BBQ Dude" Frank, 4750 Michigan (between Itaska and Delor).

Please note we have chopped two hours off an event that was scheduled for 3-8 p.m. We don't want to conflict with a shoot Thomas Crone is doing for Half Order of Fried Rice starting at 6 p.m. on Sunday.

Our concept is simple. Phantom of the dreams' origin is just larded with references to foodstuffs. So we are asking people to read the poem by clicking on that there hyperlinked poem title, pick out a food named in the poem, and commit to bringing that food on Sunday.

The BBQ Dude will have a grill hot, so you can bring something named in the poem to grill. Or you can prepare a dish in advance. The poem names many foods that are tasty raw. The choice is yours. Note that that there original post lists all the foods named in the poem.

Here is who/what I think I know we have coming already:

Chris King - fish
Jocko Ferguson – [chicken] breast
John Parker with family - mushrooms
Jeff Brawn - nuts
Stefene Russell - quinces
Amy VanDonsel - watermelon
Amy Broadway - fruit
Also RSVP'd with no mention of foodstuff: Ray Brewer, Martha Rose Green, Heather Corley, Tim McAvin. I expect more.

Roy Kasten will be set up in the basement of Roland's house with a mobile recording studio to record people reading lines from the poem for the poetry score, starting with the part of the poem that mentions the food they brought.

Fun? Fun. Come? Come. RSVP with your ingredient to


Images are quinces Stefene Russell is bringing to the table.

Saturday, July 7, 2012

Jack Kerouac on revising poetic co-translation

I just read Jack Kerouac's The Dharma Bums (1958) by accident. I read it to see how Kerouac handled the character modelled on Albert Saijo, but after finishing it and never encountering a Japanese-American free spirit, I figured I had made a mistake. Now I see the Saijo character Baso figures in Big Sur (1962), not Dharma Bums. So it's back to the library for Big Sur.

I was introduced to Saijo by Kevin Diminiyatz, a lecturer in the Art Department at the University of Hawaii-Hilo. We are starting a Poetry Scores Hawaii offshoot in partnership with the department, and Kevin suggested that we do a project around Albert's work.

Though a Japanese-American from California, Saijo settled near the end of his life and died at Volcano, on the Big Island of Hawaii, just up the Volcano Road from Hilo. I expect we'll find the right Saijo poem to score in his collection Outspeaks published by Bamboo Ridge Press of Honolulu.

In Dharma Bums, the perennial second fiddle, hero-worshipping Kerouac is focussed almost singly on Gary Snyder, named Japhy Ryder here (except in one spot where Kerouac loses track of his roman a clef and calls Japhy "Gary"). Reading the book was hardly a waste of time, for The Dharma Bums has the best fictional treatment I have encountered on one of my favorite human activities: co-translation.

The Kerouac character is squatting in the Berklee cabin of the Snyder character when he gets interested in his friend's translation-in-progress of the Chinese poet Han Shan.


I bent over his shoulder and watched him read from big wild crowtracks of Chinese signs: "Climbing up Cold Mountain path, Cold Mountain path goes on and on, long gorge choked with scree and boulders, wide creek and mist-blurred grass, moss is slippery though there's been no rain, pine sings but there's no wind, who can leap the world's ties and sit with me among white clouds?"


"Course that's my own translation into English, you see there are five signs for each line and I have to put it in Western prepositions and articles and such."

"Why don't you just translate it as it is, five signs, five words? What's those first five signs?"

"Sign for climbing, sign for up, sign for cold, sign for mountain, sign for path."

"Well then, translate it 'Climbing up Cold Mountain path'."

"Yeah, but what do you do with the sign for long, sign for gorge, sign for choke, sign for avalanche, sign for boulders?"

"Where's that?"

"That's the third line, would have to read 'Long gorge choke avalanche boulders'."

"Well that's even better!"

"Well yeah, I thought of that, but I have to have this pass the approval of Chinese scholars here at the university and have it clear in English."


It's an exchange that will be familiar to anyone who has ever worked collaboratively on a translation. Kerouac has captured a classic ying and yang of cotranslation, with one translator (Snyder) pushing for adding more context and implied grammar from the target language, while the other translator (Kerouac) pushes for a more blunt, stark, literal translation of the source.

Note that this insightful passage about revision in poetic cotranslation is the work of the ballyhooed master of "spontaneous prose". The Beats gave generations of writers the liberty to let their words flow without revision of editing, but in fact they were skilled revisers and editors of themselves and each other.

For the outcome of this wrangling over the revision, we can look to Snyder's published translations of Han Shan (1958):

     Clambering up the Cold Mountain path,
     The Cold Mountain trail goes on and on:
     The long gorge choked with scree and boulders

I'd say Jack helped him out here.


Image of Kerouac retyping his scroll of The Dharma Bums borrowed from Pitoucat.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Translating poetry into potluck & vocal session

Poetry Scores would like to issue an open invitation to anyone interested in translating a Greek Surrealist poem into a potluck dinner and simultaneous recording session for the poetry score to Phantom of the Dreams’ Origin.

The potluck & recording session will be held at the home of Poetry Scores actor and barbecue curator Roland Franks, 4750 Michigan Ave. (between Itaska and Delor). It will be held 3-8 p.m. Sunday, July 15.

Here is what we'll ask that you do: Commit to bringing a dish prepared from ingredients listed in the poem (see list below). If you don’t wish to prepare a dish in advance, there are many meats and fish named in the poem, so you can always bring something and let Roland curate it on his barbecue. Smoked meat and fish is possible; any meaties and fishies can coordinate in advance with the barbecue curator.

While we are eating our poetry potluck, Poetry Scores will run a recording session for voice in the basement. As you arrive at the party, check in with the production manager (person with clipboard); we will get you on the schedule. When it’s your turn, we will ask you to read some lines in the poem surrounding the mention of your ingredient(s). Depending on the character of your voice, we may have additional reading assignments for you.

Co-producers Chris King and Stefene Russell will speak with you in advance about what is expected of your performance (mostly, we want straightforward readings where the poetry is allowed to speak for itself in the character of your voice). Roy Kasten, of our longtime partner KDHX Community Media, will record the session.

Poetry Scores has commissioned the modern composer Barbara Harbach to score Phantom of the Dreams’ Origin. We will work with Barbara in how the voices are used in the poetry score. We will premiere the Barbara Harbach poetry score on Friday, January 11, 2013 at the Touhill Center for the Performing Arts. We ask all readersto mark that date for a possible live performance of their lines from the poem – depending on our final orchestrations with Barbara.

Phantom of the Dreams’ Origin was written by Andreas Embirikos (1901-1975) and translated from the Greek by Nikos Stabakis of the Athens Surrealist Group. We worked with Stabakis in abbreviating and retitling his (already abbreviated) translation of Embirikos’ collection of prose poems Blast Furnace (1935), which is recognized as the first and most important Surrealist text in Greek.

In these poems, Embirikos takes us on a phantasmagoric journey through a wide expanse of consciousness and experience. Along the way, like Adam naming the world or a chef drawing up orders for his meat and produce purveyors, Embirikos name-checks a savory list of ingredients for a feast. We have taken these ingredients out of the chronology of the poem to group them with an eye towards a menu.


fruit (generic term is used, licensing really any fruit)


Breast (could be interpreted as chicken or duck breast)
[also, “brains”; but let’s not]




refreshment (generic term is used, licensing really any “refreshment”)
ices (could be interpreted as sno cone, shaved ice, ice cream)

Sorry, vegetarians; the poem seems to include no veggies. You are free, of course, to read Phantom of the Dreams' Origin on the PoetryScores blog and look for an edible way to interpret any language in the poem that appeals to you.

If you’d like to play with us, then RSVP to Chris King, creative director of Poetry Scores, at We’ll want to know what ingredients you are working with, whether you’ll have anything you need smoked by the barbecue curator, and we’ll want to hear your speaking voice, even if we already have heard it. Participants are limited to 50. Thanks!


The image is of the painting “The Mighty Quince” by Leslie Lee,

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Four Poets, a Songster, Wm. Stage & a Sculpture

Poetry Scores will continue with its 2012 Readings at The Royale series 7-9 p.m. Wednesday, June 13 with "Four Poets, a Songster, Wm. Stage & a Sculpture".

The reading will be held in the courtyard of The Royale, 3132 South Kingshighway. The event is free; The Royale is a full-service bar and restaurant.

Performers for the night will be poets Chris King, Nicky Rainey, Stefene Russell and Brett Underwood. The songster will be Robert Goetz, performing his poetry scores of Hawaiian poet Wayne Westlake and a Modoc Indian text. Wm. Stage will read a story from his new collection Not Waving Drowning. All readers will perform at — and, at some point, through — Noah Kirby's sculpture With Solid Stance and Stable Sound.

The inaugural Readings at The Royale event (which also featured Poetry Scores regulars King, Russell and Underwood) was reviewed with delight by Walrus Publishing. "The event," writes Jaime Kelley for Walrus, "had the distinctive flair of mixing artistic media right before our eyes."

Since Poetry Scores translates poetry into other media, Kelley got exactly what we were putting out. Kelley also gave vivid snapshots of the readers we will see again at The Royale on June 13.

Kelley described as Chris King as a "royal court jester" and said "I enjoyed his edgy humor, his biting words, and his off-color topics. He cut through the haze."

Of Stefene Russell:  "Like eating key lime pie, her poems surprised and captivated in a tangy, zesty way. Stimulating and provocative, her images endure."

Of Brett Underwood: "He jumped behind the sculpture and gave us a taste of resounding stable sound. Like drinking a shot of tequila at the end of the night – when you don’t want to go home, not quite – Underwood’s poems went down fast and I felt them."

As for Nicky Rainey, who is new to the Readings at The Royale series, she makes zines, writes grants, stories and letters to her pen-pals. She represented St. Louis in the National Poetry Slam 2009. (Read her prose poem "Where Leo is now.")

The songster Robert Goetz is better known as a visual artist, though he has contributed musicianship to two poetry scores and two songs to the poetry score to The Sydney Highrise Variations. Here is a snapshot of him as songster performing at The New Monastic Workshop:

Every song he sang was a hate song. I remember a line about "prehistoric hate" and another about "small fish, small hearts all around." The astonishing thing was the bounce and joy — swagger, even — of the songs. It was a tricky way to communicate hate. It almost managed to sell hate as something that would be pleasant to hum, what with the buoyant bounce of Robert's guitar chordings and the confident, melodic ease of his vocal, singing about the self-hatred of swimming in a circle.

Stage is a veteran writer who will read one of the eight short stories from his first collection of short fiction, Not Waving Drowing. St. Louis Magazine had this to say about Stage's short stories:

If you’d guess that there are "squishy" things in this collection, you would be correct. This is not a book for the squeamish. The first story begins with a process server urinating in an alley and the last story ends with an utterly guiltless murderer fussing over the sudden need to develop a drawl if he is going to succeed as a fugitive in South Carolina. This is true to form for Stage, who first roughed out his prose style and instinct for stories writing things like the “Mississippi Mud” column for the Ray Hartmann-era Riverfront Times. Stage is gritty and scruffy—without apology, but also without fetishizing his grit. It comes naturally to him as skin.

Noah Kirby's sculpture With Solid Stance and Stable Sound entered the Poetry Scores fold through Dana Turkovic's inspired The Platforms series at Laumeier Sculpture Park. The sculpture recently got off the road with Noah and will be rejoining its temporary home at The Royale for the June event. Poetry Scores is curating the piece in 2012 with hopes of acquiring the sculpture as the permanent fixture of a Poetry Scores reading series.

For information about this event, email

Also, coming 7-9 p.m. Monday, July 16: "Readings at The Royale: Poems and Songs of Bombs and Monsters" scheduled for the anniversary of the Trinity Test.

Photo of Chris King reading through Noah Kirby's sculpture With Solid Stance and Stable Sound at Laumeier Sculpture Park by Sean Collins.

Saturday, June 2, 2012

"Tranquility did not exist" by Hunter Brumfield III

This is "Tranquility did not exist" by the late Hunter Brumfield III. It's the first piece entered in the show for the Poetry Scores Art Invitational to Phantom of the dreams' origin. That event isn't until Nov. 9 at Mad Art, but this painting was in my collection and I was anxious to find a title for it in Greek Surrealism's first masterpiece.

I very recently acquired the painting, originally executed as a portrait of the American rock star Iggy Pop, from my good friend Fred Friction. In fact, Fred just sold me the painting at the previous Poetry Scores show.

Fred owns a print by Hunter that Poetry Scores just put in its spring Art Invitational to Wole Soyinka. As a courtesy, Schlafly donates a few cases of its delicious beer for Poetry Scores art shows so we can thank our contributing artists with a couple of drink tickets . When I asked Fred if we could hang his Hunter print at Mad Art, I offered him Hunter's two drink tickets if Fred took me up on the offer. After all, Hunter is dead and not drinking.

Fred arrived for that show with his typical grand entrance. He was playing art collector and maven to the hilt. Before I could even slip him his dead friend's drink tickets, Fred was trying to move a new piece by this artist in his collection, Hunter Brumfield III. Fred already had written out a bill of sale for the painting. This bill of sale is now in the document collection of The Skuntry Museum, and I seem to have paid Hunter a small sum, posthumously, for his paints, cigarettes and whiskey.

Fred Friction has been outsmarting me outsmarting him for a very long time. If I can give Fred Hunter's free beer, then I can pay Fred for the whiskey Hunter enjoyed while making this portrait of Iggy. I got it.

But how did we get from a portrait of Iggy Pop to "Tranquility did not exist" as a statement on a Greek Surrealist poem?

The translation between poem and visual art in a Poetry Scores Art Invitational can work in many ways. One I really like is reading the poem with an existing work of art in mind and sight, and then trying to find the art and its impulses in the poetry.

I had a terrific time reading Nikos Stabakis' brilliant English translation of Phantom of the dreams' origin while thinking of and looking at Hunter's painting, and of course a haunted portrait of a queerly insistent and slightly crooked young man was everywhere in a poem like that. I wanted Fred in on this title thing. I popped him an email.

Hey Fred,

I have been reading the poem we are doing next and have narrowed down possible titles for Hunter's "Iggy" portrait:
"Catamount asylum"
"Tranquility did not exist"
"Terrible are the momentary facts"
Do you have a preference?

Fred got right back to me.

My preference would be "Tranquility Did Not Exist" because I think it fairly describes both artist and subject.

So that was that.


Here is the piece as presently curated into The Skuntry Museum. I have it situated with a portrait of Sunyatta by Colin Michael Shaw, gift of the artist.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Poetry Scores takes up first masterpiece of Greek Surrealism

Poetry Scores is excited to announce its Fall 2012 project: Phantom of the Dreams' Origin by Andreas Embirikos, translated from the Greek by Nikos Stabakis.

Poetry Scores will host an Art Invitational to Phantom of the Dreams' Origin on Friday, November 9 at Mad Art Gallery in St. Louis. We will ask 50-plus artists from New York, Hawaii, Istanbul and a few other places to make art in response to Embirikos' great prose poem, considered the first manifestation of Surrealism in Greece.

Andrew Torch of the St. Louis Surrealist Group is guest co-curator for the Embirikos Art Invitational.

We worked out this project in collaboration with the American composer Barbara Harbach, who has our commission to compose the poetry score to Phantom of the Dreams' Origin in Stabakis' translation. The premirere of that score is scheduled for Friday, January 11, 2013 at the Touhill Center for the Performing Arts.

Here is the text to which our artists will respond and Barbara will compose. Given the Surrealist spirit of the original, we expect to try all sorts of other translations of this poem, into all manner of other media. Stay tuned!


Phantom of the dreams’ origin
By Andreas Embirikos
Translated by Nikos Stabakis

The Necktie’s Vibrations

Her sand is incredible. Her face joyous and each leaf on her boulevard at a standstill. Beyond the grease of the cup-bearing coach her sky became as a tingling knot’s eye and without effort or bridle the kneader of remote murders returns among us. The garden bears her trail toward the west palm of the swollen road and the little wick cries in her ever-shining bending over ices of withering vain ices related to the sly catapult’s unrighteous shrinking. No procession and the forgetfulness lamenting the sea-frayed combs endures like an intrigue inside the husk of the breast’s systemic narration.

Completion of Freighter Steamboat

Like the waters of a sworn jury her eyes’ calmness was troubled yet her recovered sight finally prevailed and flew to the clear sky of her domed dream as does a fly from a sleeping child’s nose to the tumult of brilliant silence. Then the law-observers’ assembly decided to kill silence once and for all and erect on that very point the statue of her eyes’ calmness for the young woman was holding her recovered sight inside her hands like a miraculous snake.

The Wires of Emotions

Attacking with the violence of fever he overthrew the tyranny of precipitous rocks. The clamor of the populace in ruins was hung on the wires and the ruptured brains gazed in ecstasy at the murder slipping toward the ulcer of the abyss. The lamentation of young trees was transformed into a laudation of great dimensions, and the flying animalcules bade farewell to the false panacea once offered to them at five p.m. and after bidding farewell to each other began to sing against seats and shields with admirable accuracy. The nature lovers voted for the abolition of subservience and the spurt of every last one became the pilgrimage of lepers and healthier units alike. At the top of the most illustrious hill an ammoniac catamount asylum was established in whose refreshment room the entrance of all seasons was permitted as was the cohabitation of young ladies with the dancing seafarers of the current year.

Cyclopes and Stores

The solution of the manic affliction contains the fatigue of the icy well’s billowing. The entire dilation of the erect camels’ restoration on the fire-species that we all favor consents as reduction of spring’s briefest semaphores. Here passing bugle-calls of roaring vultures there marks on cheeks of half-bared women expecting us in the place of widowed serpents’ buzz. Beneath the branches of ocean steamers next to us the herbivorous horsemen will be named acrobats and like a practical saracen’s leaning his crystals will flow with the pear-skins preferring a penis’ erection to clouds of dead-calm in lateral roads of chemical refutation and recovery of excrement and jewels.

Light on Whale

Women’s original form was the interweaving of two dinosaurs’ necks. Times have changed since and so has female shape. She became smaller more fluid better harmonized to the two-masted (three-masted in certain countries) ships sailing over the life-struggle’s disasters. She herself sails on the scales of a cylinder-carrying pigeon of long calibre. Seasons change and the woman of our times resembles a wick’s chasm.


We have no quinces. We have been deprived of our briefest pulp’s equivalent sum and beneath its murmuring only the young leopards remain alone with their dark florins and with the final gull’s cold desolation. We have no quinces. Eucalyptus burdens die in the palm of our pulses and whatever we say and see we treat the distinguished intelligence of perfumed youths. We have no quinces or is it that their quince-made harshest form struggles of barrages and tepid gleanings of transients pole’s roaming and hole.

Winter Grapes

She was deprived of her toys and her lover. So she bent her head and almost died. But her thirteen fortunes like her fourteen years sabred the elusive disaster. No one spoke. No one ran to protect her against the overseas sharks that had already cast the evil eye upon her as a fly casts upon it a diamond an enchanted land. So this story was mercilessly forgotten as is the case whenever the forester forgets his thunderbolt in the woods.


A most thunderous storm covered the country. Howling rocks assaulted the broad-brimmed lakes and the injured fish crawled to the anchorites’ station. No aid was supplied there for the bellowing of the megalosauruses scattered its fluttering on both sides and mushrooms kept silence over the actual facts in the hovering nuptial procession of a young planet's sighs. Afterwards nothing meant the same as before. Tranquility did not exist as a real entity. Disaster was curbed by camels. The temples of the dead were blooming. The few doves were laboring because the lake’s pulp had formed a canal at the narrowest point of their passage through thousand-mouthed insults trampled with the frenzied noise of mothers and young children thinner than a bat’s bones.

Decimal Bottles of Some Lean Lever

The day was like a most slender boat and many believed that it bore on its shoulder the homecoming day. The first in line troubled the psalm’s commencement and the glass table streams westwards ever since. Terrible are the momentary facts and our desire goes beyond the hourglasses. Terrible are the maidens’ eyes when tossed in the midst of love in the midst of a font in the midst or indirect midst of vultures. Yet there remain in resurrectional fish the lilies of buy-and-sellers the swords of marble coups d’etat and finally the awe of the fields’ werewolf. The record collection know no satiety. The epic is of no use to cavities neither for nor against the sexton’s vibration when cutting off the acrostic of the holy goat’s right thigh. That maybe is why his eyes were turning mercilessly green. That maybe is why to us the lesson was named shrimp.

Riding Donkeys Loving Ladies

The most incomprehensible whirl attained by a clavichord carried away the mole held by the young nurse’s regular nose. Before the great martyr the nurse’s hand dissolved and the right eye of a serpent in black collapsed with a terrible clatter. Yet the smoke was not carried away. Each of its flakes became a finch and insisted with dangerous fanaticism on envisaging the almond tree of a virtuoso orchestra’s hiding place. The beast-tamer was vanquished and for the one thousandth time shone the bow tie that induced many bathing women to the coffeehouse of the sixty-eighth zebra’s village. No one was more soiled than a burst watermelon. The ancient dotard’s impotence was abolished and on its place a reveling fog arose once and for all.

The Magnates’ Crossing is Completed

Poverty goes ashore the flower-glass today and her borders touch the small toothed screws following us. Our few hazelnuts shine in her hands and on her perfectly round breast wander the flocks that we do not yet own. Nevertheless the pen fell vertically and slowly but with no pretenses the rolls of our own findings started dripping. Our joy shall bring about disaster unless we submit fundamentally to their will. Brilliant and sensitive as a fruit shop it announces our poverty’s end on condition of the taps’ removal and of a silk lamp-bracket’s promotion amidst marine sorrows. Larks on pheasants fishes on mere fabrics and rhombuses on a locomotive accompany the precious screws’ arrival and the polyhedral bell rings the retreat before us in order to retain all continuity and all stitches of our flowers’ shudder and the emission of metal plates already thickening on breasts and inside of our clots’ pockets.

Spinning Mill of Nocturnal Repose

We are all within our future. When singing before the painters’ expressive pictures when learning before a burnt town’s straws when appropriating the drizzle of shudders we are all within our future for whatever we pursue it is impossible to say yes or no without the future of our destination just as a woman can do nothing without the conflagration enclosed within the ashes of her legs. Whoever saw her did not stand and stare at the rotating gardens nor at the revelry of worshiped hair nor even at the fifes of laboratory transfusions from one country to veins of a warm bay protected from this world and from the north winds of the slender virgins’ azure reflection. We are all within the future of a composite flag bearing before my heart’s walls the enemy fleets safeguarding delusions certifying intermediate supplication reformations without the object of struggle being understood. Certain snapshots suggested to us the correctness of our procedure toward the trainer of the same phantom of the dreams’ origin and of each resident of an ancient town’s heart. Upon the exhaustion of our chronicles we shall seem more naked than the arrival of the conviction of certain tentacles and clean winches for we are all within the silence of collapsing pain inside the sparkling tricks of our future.



Phantom of the Dreams' Origin is excerpted from Blast Furnace (1935). The text is from Surrealism in Greece by Nikos Stabakis (University of Texas Press), reprinted with permission of Stabakis.

The image is an untitled photograph by Embirikos, borrowed from the Thessaloniki Biennale of Modern Art.

The deadline for the Art Invitational is Halloween. All work must be sent to or picked up by Chris King, creative director of Poetry Scores, or guest co-curator Andrew Torch by Halloween. Email with questions about this or any aspect of the project.

This announcement is posted the same evening Andy and his wife celebrated the birth of the newest member of the St. Louis Surrealist Group, Amelia Penelope. Our very best to the euphoric parents experiencing together the miracle of birth tonight.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Review of Wole Soyinka for The Nation magazine (1996)

Poetry Scores is doing a project with Wole Soyinka, Nobel Laureate in Literature from Nigeria. I owe my familiarity with his work to a 1996 assignment from my editor at The Nation magazine, John Leonard (R.I.P.), to review Soyinka’s then-new book in the context of everything he had written before it. That was a lot of reading to do for $150, though I’m actually forever in John’s debt for the challenge and the education. This is my Nation review.

Coffin for an Oligarchy

Review of Open Sore of a Continent: A Personal Narrative of the Nigerian Crisis by Wole Soyinka
First published in The Nation magazine, August 12/19, 1996

By Chris King

“Wherever there is a wicked majority, Wole Soyinka will be over here, with the minority, to balance it out,” I was told by Noble Obani-Nwibari, vice president of the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People. “Wole Soyinka is from a majority ethnic group, the Yoruba, but he has done very much for the Ogoni people. I cannot rest in this our struggle, because one day if I, an Ogoni man, did nothing, what if that same day Wole Soyinka was fighting for the Ogoni? That man challenges me.”

Soyinka does indeed challenge us all, as activists and readers. In a poem about apolitical poets, the winner of the 1986 Nobel Prize for Literature once quarreled with verse sloganeering. In the same poem, he declared that if he had a slogan, it was “DANGER – DREAMS AT WORK.” But, for the moment, Soyinka the dreamer has hung up his hat. A screaming philosopher wrote The Open Sore of a Continent.

For now, let us savor poetic moments from past work: perhaps Egbo on the edge of orgasm in The Interpreters, “hanging by the finger-tips to a sharp-edged precipice while the blood coursed sweetly down his mouth.” Or something tiny like the penmanship of his father’s American correspondent, in Isara: A Voyage Around “Essay,” whose letter “t” appears as “a cheerful acrobat dancing on its one leg, amusing the rest of its alphabetic audience.” Or we can simply delight in remembering a literary career that has been, along with much else, a series of love letters to a worthy father.

The polemicist Soyinka marvels that he had developed a metaphor using the Ogoni situation back when Ken Saro-Wiwa was enduring merely “the normal travails of a political activist.” But Soyinka’s work has been pregnant with the Ogoni tragedy from the beginning. In the very early play The Swamp Dwellers, the city is a den of thieves and timber contractors, and the bush is an overfarmed, polluted place in the Niger Delta, “poisoned by the oil in the swamp water.” Oil erupts everywhere in Soyinka’s imagination. It “casts an evil shade” in Shuttle in the Crypt, his prison poems. In his 1973 novel Season of Anomy it gives off, with slaves and gold, the stench of West African history, “a smell of death, disruption and desolation.”

Long before Nigeria’s current dictator, Sani Abacha, strutted into power, Soyinka had developed a keen nose for what he calls in the present work “the diabolism inherent in the phenomenon of power.” He predicted Abacha in the 1967 play Kongi’s Harvest, in which an autocratic ruler embarks on a Five Year Development Plan, hanging an opposition leader in the name of Harmony. Before that, in The Trials of Brother Jero, Soyinka had presented the power trips of a prophet who caters to “strange, dissatisfied people. I know they are dissatisfied because I keep them dissatisfied. Once they are full, they won’t come again.” Appropriately, this play has become both a standard Nigerian school text and the recent subject of interdictions, as Adewale Maja-Pierce notes in Index on Censorship. You can’t say Soyinka wasn’t warned – in Ake, his childhood memoir, Soyinka’s paternal grandfather advises that “book-learning, and especially success in book-learning only creates other battles.”

Ake showed the boy Wole politically active while still in school, serving as “Oddjob man with the Women’s Movement” against unfair taxation, forming what would become a habit of “settling down longest wherever there appeared to be some promise of action.” Indeed, Soyinka, like the hero of Season of Anomy, belongs to a generation “born into one long crisis.” As early as 1965, surveying the political scene in The Interpreters, he could recite a litany like “lost elections, missed nominations, thug recruitment, financial backing, Ministerial in-lawfulness, Ministerial poncing, general arse-licking, Ministerial concubinage,” then leave an ellipsis, knowing the list goes on.

After Soyinka’s two-year detention (1967-1969) during the Biafran War, that “experiment on how to break down the human mind,” his voice turned ever more baroque and bizarre. Madmen and Specialists (1987) is written by the Samuel Beckett of West Africa. The chorus is made up of cripples from the war, including a blind man with lines like, “The limbless acrobat will now perform his wonderful act – how to bite the dust from three classic positions.” The citified African sell-out appears here as Dr. Bero, “a specialist” who gives “the personal word of a scientist. Human flesh is delicious,” especially “the balls.” The specialist first ate flesh as a means to an end: “It was the first step to power you understand. Power in its purest sense.”

Greed for power is typically figured as cannibalism in Soyinka’s work. In The Apotheosis of Master Sergeant Doe (1988) he inventories the “cannibal larder” of Africa’s military dictators. Even the pompous ambassador in The Interpreter tentatively declares “the nature of dictators to be rather ... predatory on human beings.” As a child Soyinka was fascinated with the traditional ruler’s ritual cannibalism of the previous king’s heart and liver. “I would watch the Alake on our visits,” he writes in Ake, “wondering if I could detect the stain of human blood on his lips.” Those same eyes still behold the jaws of power with that question.

And so, long before Soyinka the polemicist, Soyinka the poet of power and disappointment wrote of villagers with oil in their water, murderous business cartels and their paramilitary troops, uncomprehending district commissioners, “the slave in khaki and brass buttons,” the “world industrial seesaws” that ruin dependent economies and the technocratic cannibals who manage them. Though he insisted in an “Author’s Note” to Death and the King’s Horsemen (1976) that political crisis in the literary work merely provides the “catalytic incident” for a metaphysical drama – in the case of that particular play, “an evocation of music from the abyss of transition.”

Open Sore is not so metaphysical, and is tuned only to the most bitter music. It is a howl from the abyss with hope for a transition to someplace human once again. Soyinka sounds quite like the Oba’s praise singer in Death and the King’s Horsemen, once secure in the knowledge that “our world was never wrenched from its true course” but now forced, through the anguish of events, to lament, “Our world is tumbling in the void of strangers.” The strangers ruining the Oba’s world were British colonialists, while Soyinka’s demons are “a carefully nurtured feudal oligarchy and their pampered, indolent and unproductive scions,” but it is the same void. Most torturous to Soyinka is that these strangers are alien to thought; “Abacha has no idea of Nigeria.”

The irascible Nigerian pop idol Fela made a record called Coffin for Head of State after the military raided his home, tossing his mother out a second-story window. Fela’s suggestive phrase would be a more apt subtitle for this book, which is not really a “Personal Narrative of the Nigerian Crisis.” There are a few first-hand reports of Abacha’s “kill-and-go” Mobile Police, import-license scams in the Shagari era (1979-1983), Soyinka’s efforts to end the 1993 interim government, his recent suffering at the hands of government propagandists (“WOLE SOYINKA IN SEX AND FRAUD SCANDAL”) and his 60th-birthday-party protest march, which prompted his exile. Taken together, these personal incidents occupy only a handful of pages. What is most personal about this text is Soyinka’s gift for invective – he produces what he once called “monster prodigies of spleen.” He describes the Abacha regime as “yet another circus of political mutants and opportunists,” “aliens from outer space,” “practiced, back-alley abortionists of democracy.” Their methods are “nothing but plain thuggery,” “the hostage-taking tactics of two-a-penny terrorists” evincing the “straightforward will to domination by an anachronistic bunch of social predators.” Woe to Abacha’s “megaphone” Dr. Walter Ofonagoro and that “inundating spittle-launcher situated somewhere in his head,” or chief Odumegwu Ojukwu, who “has demonstrated a remarkable involvement with the project of browsing where the pasture appears greenest.” If words alone could kill, Nigeria would be quite a few oligarchic corpses closer to democracy by now.

Open Sore is a passionately written recent history of Nigeria, that “tightly sealed can within can, within can of worms” encasing the annulled 1993 presidential election of Basorun M.K.O. Abiola and the resulting “spiral of murder, torture, and leadership dementia that is surely leading to the disintegration of a once-proud nation.” Even here the real drama of Nigeria so deftly collaborates with Soyinka’s strange imagination – he calls enemies “colorful dramatic personae, a veritable tapestry of rather unappetizing prostitutes” – he must repeatedly stress an incident’s historicity because it looks so much like one of his inventions. Consider the case of the physician interrupted from ministering to death squad victims during the Shagari-Adewusi heyday. While his patients bleed to death, the physician undergoes torture; the torturer, it turns out, once studied under the tortured.

Soyinka hammers nails in the coffin of oligarchy and injustice all over the world. He anatomizes what he calls “the spoils of power” with a revealing glance at the case of Richard Nixon. He exposes the common control method of tribalizing dissent, and explains its effectiveness in recent years: “Man resorts to his cultural affiliations when politics appears to have failed him.” He interrupts structural analyses to plumb human costs, mourning “the condition of the internally exiled” under a repressive regime and the “violation of the human essence” that daily life demands. Imagine a U.S. writer with the strengths of Gerald Early, Ishmael Reed and Adolph Reed Jr. chronicling our political underbelly from Nixon to Iran/contra and the S&L swindles, through the Desert Storm massacre up to the Patriot movement and the counterterrorism bill, naming names and heaping scorn where scorn is due, not flinching from the most terrifying implications of the connections he makes and describing their toll on our character – then you will see what Soyinka has done for Nigeria.

At its heart Open Sore becomes a philosophical inquiry: What is a nation? When is a nation? Will Nigeria survive? Should it? There is no sentimental attachment to nationhood, especially given the dangers of nationalism under a military regime: “A bugle rouses the nation to its mission of keeping the nation together while a mailed fist and studded boot silence the protestations.” Soyinka is mindful of the millions of victims “uprooted from their homes, turned into stateless nonpersons, degraded from creatures of feeling or sentience to mere digits in some abstract evocation.” He is loyal to the Nigerian public, which, he reminds us, did not repudiate nationhood; they announced their hunger for it by electing Abiola across all lines of supposed division, only to see their will criminally flouted. “A nation is a collective enterprise,” Soyinka writes, in words that should be translated into all languages; “outside of that, it is mostly a gambling space for opportunism and adventurism of power.”

For Nigeria, Soyinka’s message is simple: Recognize the results of the June 12, 1993 elections or expect the worst. To international observers, he says: Revive your comatose moral outrage and put it into action, or expect the worst. He calls – in the wake of Bosnia, Chechnya, Rwanda – for a series of international forums on the national question before it is too late. Like the Zapatistas’ intercontinental referendum on neoliberalism, this seems a sensible yet visionary question. Let us hope that future faces of the never-ending crisis permit Wole Soyinka to dream again.