Saturday, March 31, 2012

Children draw beetles, roaches, flies and slugs as food

Kebab of houseflies by Bailey

News reports of vegan outrage at Starbucks ingredients usually would be the last thing on my radar, but the fuss over extracts from a Peruvian beetle being used to make coffee foam look strawberry-tinted caught my eye.

We are in the process of scoring "Ever-Ready Bank Accounts" by Wole Soyinka. This is a poem about hunger and greed, written by a man in prison. It deals in gritty detail with the extremes of hunger that drive people to eat things like slugs, cockroaches, houseflies -- and beetles.

On Friday, May 18, Poetry Scores will hang work about this poem by some 50 artists at Mad Art Gallery. We like to involve children, because they are exciting to work with and famously adventurous as artists. We partner with SCOSAG, where I recently drew for an hour with a dozen children. I wrote phrases from the poem on the board, talked the kids through what the phrases meant, and then they drew whatever they wanted to draw.

I really wasn't sure how it was going to go with all the "bugs as food" stuff. But the children surprised me, as children typically do. No one acted totally grossed out, and everyone got the idea right away. I talked about hunger and starvation, very briefly, and said, "Would you eat a cockroach, or starve?"

"Eat a cockroach!" they all said decisively.

"Would you eat a slug, or starve?"

Everybody: "Eat a slug!"

"Would you eat a beetle, or starve?"

Everybody: "Eat a beetle!"

There may be a lesson in here for the vegan soy strawberry tinted frappe consumers of Planet Earth.


Here are some of the bug food pictures these kids drew with me, placed in the order their titles appear in the flow of Soyinka's poem, as is our method.

Children slay the cockroach for a meal [detail]


Kebab of houseflies [detail]
Leyla Fern

Leyla is my daughter and drew with me later at home. She seized on a more familiar domestic critter (the fly) that many of the children drew.

Kebab of houseflies

Kebab of houseflies

Kebab of houseflies

Beetles broiled

Beetles broiled in carapace

Bailey was one of the more advanced artists in this group. He had a distinctive style of pairing two images from the poem, often in ways that show profound insight into the dual themes of hunger and greed -- like this beetle BBQ paired with a bank vault.


Slugs really spoke to Matthew as a subject. What poured forth from the boy was a veritable Matthew's Slug Variations.

Slugs (ii)

Slugs (iii)

This concludes the Matthew Ernst Slug Variations, but two more kids also drew terrific slugs


Slugs are scientific stores of protein


This is only the second year we are working children's art into a Poetry Scores Art Invitational. We are going to try to do a better job with the model we introduced last year. We put one piece by each child artist into the "big people's show" with an opening bid of $5 each (it's a silent auction). The rest of the child art we put in a separate space at the gallery (actually, a jail cell; Mad Art is a former police station) for $1 each.

My daughter helped me pick a first draft of the children's art for the big people's "Ever-Ready Bank Accounts" show, previously posted; the images presented in this post in "[detail]" are from the big people's show.


A copy of "Ever-Ready Bank Accounts" by Wole Soyinka with details on the May 18 Art Invitational

A superb piece of newspaper journalism in The Alton Telegraph about our larger project with Wole Soyinka

Friday, March 23, 2012

12 child artists respond to "Ever-Ready Bank Accounts" by Wole Soyinka

Yesterday I spent an hour with a group of children enrolled at a daycamp at SCOSAG, drawing pictures from imagery in the poem "Ever-Ready Bank Accounts" by Wole Soyinka, the Nobel Laureate in Literature from Nigeria.

My daughter and I picked a favorite from each of the child artists. These drawings, or ones like them, will be curated into the Poetry Scores Art Invitational to "Ever-Ready Bank Accounts" on May 18 at Mad Art.

Each piece is titled by the phrase in the poem that inspired it, and they appear in the order their titles appear in the poem, which is how we hang our art invitational shows.


Bank accounts

Arms stacked too full of loaves

Children slay the cockroach for a meal

Father-forager’s return

The mind of hungered innocence

Kebab of houseflies


Rats are sleeker now

A fortune when he farts

Seven ... lies

Monster for a home

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Fitting tribute to Adam Long in Tape Op Magazine interview

Eating Ogoni fish pepper soup with Adam Long during a break in a Radio Kudirat session.

The wonderful Tape Op Magazine has published an interview with St. Louis songwriter and music journalist Kevin Renick that includes a really nice appreciation of Adam Long, the cofounder of Poetry Scores who has played a large role in all of our recordings.

Renick scored the gig of a life when he handed a cassette demo to a movie director at a public event and his song actually ended up in the completed film, Up in the Air, filmed in St. Louis. Apparently Renick made some money out of the deal and has plowed it back into his recordings.

We're not surprised to hear it, but this evolving songwriter and recording artist says he hit a turning point when he worked with our own Adam Long.

I worked with a guy named Adam Long, and that's where the real turning point came. That's a song called "Call it a Life." Adam Long is actually a Grammy-nominated engineer. He's done a bunch of Broadway cast albums. He's got a home studio and he absolutely gets what I'm trying to do - the sort of introspective, contemplative vibe that I'm trying to capture. He was just magical to work with. I'm going to do most of the next record with him.

(Clearing throat.) I remember living in New York, coming home to St. Louis and doing a session with Adam. At that time he had gone kind of overboard on astronomy. His apartment, where Kevin Renick would later have this epiphany, was a graveyard of telescopes. Adam had an astronomy nerd magazine out and was showing me the next $400 telescope he was going to buy. And I asked him why he was paying room fees to record in other people's studios instead of turning his apartment into a home studio? He put down the nerd magazine and started to buy equipment instead. Now he gets mixes original Broadway cast recordings in the former telescope graveyard.

Back to Kevin Renick. He really understands our guy. Check this out:

With Adam, he just sees more deeply. He was very proactive. He would make suggestions. He wouldn't just listen to what we were doing. On "Lost Time" there is an instrumental section in the middle where my partner, Ted Moniak, started doing these little ambient reverberations on the guitar and Adam picked up on it and started tweaking some dials, getting some echo in there. It was just an amazing thing 'cause I've always said that I want music that can give you chills.

Truth in journalism! I can assue you this is true, because the same thing happened to me. When we were doing overdubs on the poetry score to Stefene Russell's atomic bomb poem, Go South for Animal Index, Adam really went to town on some tracks where we turned some experimental tricks on harp compositions by Amie Camie. As Kevin said, Adam "picked up on it and started tweaking some dials, getting some echo in there". This is what we got out of it.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

The first time Wole Soyinka heard Lead Belly

So like we were saying, Poetry Scores has commissioned a score of Wole Soyinka's poem "Ever-Ready Bank Accounts" by the experimental music group Bicycle Day from Istanbul, and we have scheduled an Art Invitational where artists respond to the poem on Friday, May 18 at Mad Art Gallery. 2727 So. 12th St. in St. Louis.

Soyinka is the Nobel Laureate in Literature from Nigeria, and we are very excited to have his personal permission to score one of his early prison poems, written as a war captive during the Nigerian Civil War.

I use our projects as an excuse to embark on some independent scholarship. In August 1996 I wrote a lead essay for The Nation magazine in New York, "Coffin for an Oligarchy," about Soyinka's then new book Open Sore of a Continent. When my editor (the late) John Leonard accepted my pitch, he directed me to review the new book in the context of the man's entire career. I read everything by Soyinka available in the U.S. up to August 1996 to write that thing.

By now, of course, I've forgotten most of it, so rereading Soyinka feels like a fresh experience. This morning I am reading Art, Dialogue and Outrage, a 1988 collection of essays expanded for republication in 1993. Since we are producing a musical adaptation of one of Soyinka's poems, I was keen to read some fragments of music criticism scattered in these essays.

Soyinka is remembering his early days as a Nigerian student in England at the University of Leeds, 1954-9.

After years of listening to English bands play "Irene Goodnight" at student hops, I heard, for the first time, the original version of that song by Ledbetter -- known more commonly as Lead Belly. This could not be the same song -- that was my thought. This cry from a ghetto of pain, of humiliation, mixed through some magical formula with an affirmation of tenderness, hope and yet harsh despair, surely this threnody, counterpointed by the downbeat chords of a twelve-string guitar, was not the same song as the treacly, deoderated "Irene Goodnight" with which these English bands ended their ballroom dances.

This is probably the Lead Belly version Soyinka heard:

And the "treacly, deoderated" skiffle band version would have been closer to this:

Soyinka also recalls his poetry being scored -- by none other than Fela in 1959! "I have never forgotten those trumpet improvisations," Soyinka writes. Wish we could hear them!