Friday, April 13, 2012

History of Poetry Scores for University of Hawaii-Hilo artist residency

I will be the guest of the Art Department at the University of Hawaii - Hilo for National Poetry Month 2012. Michael Marshall, department chair, asked me to prepare a 15-minute history of Poetry Scores as a preface to a screening of our movie, Blind Cat Black. This is what I will say. -- By Chris King, creative director, Poetry Scores

I’m really grateful to Michael Marshall, the Art Department here at Hilo and the other campus sponsors for my visit. Though they’re not here to share this with us, I’d also like to thank the great many artists working in various media who have contributed to Poetry Scores over the years. I’m a co-founder and creative director of Poetry Scores, an artist collective based in St. Louis that has regular, active collaborators in Los Angeles, Nashville, Chicago, New York, Salt Lake City, Denver, Athens (Georgia), Birmingham (Alabama) and Istanbul. And because of the way Michael Marshall has planned my visit to the islands, by the end of my stay I expect we’ll also have some active collaborators here in Hilo and Honolulu.

Poetry Scores translates poetry into other media. We’re a non-profit arts organization that started out (all the way back in 1989) as a rock & roll band, so it’s not surprising that our first medium was music. First, we were Enormous Richard (as in “Little Richard, only bigger”), an “alternative country” band before that phrase was invented to describe bands like us. Half of Enormous Richard were graduate students in English at Washington University in St. Louis, and without really knowing what we were doing we set to music scraps of poetry by the English mystic William Blake and scraps of prose by the British writer George Orwell. That band traveled the country for years and briefly shared a New Jersey record label with the Jewish outlaw country artist Kinky Friedman and the mass murderer folksinger Charles Manson.

Enormous Richard jamming on the road in the van, ca. 1992.

Enormous Richard evolved into the band Eleanor Roosevelt, where what would become Poetry Scores really started to take shape. We owe a lot to a guy named David Greenberger, who got a job at a nursing home in Massachusetts straight out of art school. He began to publish a zine, Duplex Planet, based on the amazing things these old people said to him. One Duplex House resident, Ernest Noyes Brookings, began to write a poem a day based on a topic that David would give him.

David Greenberger and Ernest Noyes Brookings

David had been in rock bands in New York City and knew people in the business, so he began commissioning bands to write songs treating Ernie’s poems as lyric sheets. I went home from a band gig on Cape Cod with a woman who played me one of these records, which fascinated me. I sent David some of our music, and in 1994 we ended up on Lyrics by Ernest Noyes Brookings: Volume 4.

Eleanor Roosevelt continued to experiment with what our guitarist called “literary sampling.” We set to music words from just about everywhere – the ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead, a Winnebago Indian autobiography, West African proverbs, a Jewish children’s song to summon rain. We had the most success with a song setting we did of a fragment of Meriwether Lewis’ frontier journal, where he is falling off the face of a cliff and barely saves his neck with the assistance of a pike-like instrument called an espoontoon. The song we wrote with Meriwether Lewis, “Espoontoon,” appeared in both an indie film (Omaha: The Movie) and on the second volume of “Insurgent Country” music released by the seminal Chicago label, Bloodshot Records, both in 1995.

Eleanor Roosevelt began to fade. We didn’t get famous, but we never got tired of traveling around the country together, meeting people and making music. We had accumulated our own recording equipment, so we decided to stay on the road and record other people – to go around asking people if we could pay attention to them, rather than asking them to pay attention to us. I earn a living as a journalist, and at that time I was a book critic for The Nation magazine in New York, so I knew publishers. We went and stayed at Curbstone Press in Willimantic, Connecticut, publishers of revolutionary Latin American and Vietnamese literature in translation, and we recorded some poets they organized for us. We were really struck by Leo Connellan, a poet from Maine who had this lobsterman twang and was at that time poet laureate of Connecticut.

Leo Connellan as a young poet in New York

Over two visits, we recorded Leo reading his entire 1976 hitchhiking epic, Crossing America. When we timed his reading, it was 38 minutes – exactly half the length of a fully crammed CD. Being musicians, we decided to write and commission 38 minutes of music that responds to Leo’s poem and is interwoven with the poet’s reading. And thus, the poetry score was born. We released Crossing America in 2003, and it was profiled on BBC Radio 3, which helped give us the courage to keep doing what we were doing.

It so happened that the first two poets we set to music – Leo Connellan and Ece Ayhan of Istanbul –

Ece Ayhan

died while we were making their records. You know, it’s pretty hard to stage a record release party for a dead poet. By the time we had become a fully-fledged not-for-profit arts organization with a Board of Directors (in 2005), our most active board members were visual artists. Together – and everything we do is completely collaborative – we hit upon the idea of releasing our records at art shows that also relate to the poem we’d set to music. After one solo photography show that responded to Crossing America, we evolved the concept of the Poetry Scores Art Invitational.

Here’s how it works. We ask about 50 visual artists to respond to the same poem that we’ve set to music. We require that they title their work using a direct quote from the poem. Then, we hang the work in the gallery according to where in the flow of the poem the language used for the title of the art appears. So, if the quote is early in the poem, the artwork appears early in the show. And in this way, in a sense, the poem curates the art exhibit. We also have 50 visual artists inhabiting the same poem with us for a certain period of time, which is very cool. Poetry Scores Art Invitationals – and we are about to produce our seventh of these things – are silent auctions where we raise the money to fund our projects.
"Freud's conbwebbed poem" by Dana Smith
"Freud's conbwebbed poem" by Kim Keek Richardson
From music and visual art, we moved onto movies. This was a logical progression. We had been making things we called poetry scores – long poems set to music as one would score a film – and the core of our group were fanatics for silent movies. So, we hit upon the idea of scripting, shooting and editing silent movies to our poetry scores. So far, we have finished one movie, Blind Cat Black, a silent movie edited to our musical setting of a Turkish poem by the late Ece Ayhan, translated into English by Murat Nemet-Nejat.
Still from Blind Cat Black
We have finished shooting and are just beginning to edit our second movie, Go South for Animal Index, based on a poem about the psychic fallout of the nuclear Bomb by Salt Lake City poet Stefene Russell.

Dan Cross shooting Go South for Animal Index on location in Cuba, Mo.

So, the basic Poetry Scores model has evolved into this: We pick a long poem that moves us, set it to music, release the poetry score on CD at an Art Invitational where 50 visual artists make work to the same poem, and then we go back eventually and make a silent movie to the poetry score. But, we’re an all-volunteer community-based group, and we desperately want to appeal to people who are not necessarily artists or poetry mavens. So, we have tried a lot of other things, and we’re open to just about anything.

For example, hats. One of the visual artists we work with, Robert Van Dillen, makes his own hats, so he has been translating poetry into hats for us. Since these hats went into Poetry Scores Art Invitationals, according to our rules each hat was titled after a direct quote from the poem we had scored. He made a hat called “Madness puts on a porkpie hat” to Blind Cat Black; he made a hat called “Trussed up with astral flowers” for Go South for Animal Index; and he made a very vertical hat that incorporates a very tall feather called “At apogee” to The Sydney Highrise Variations, a poem by Les Murray of Australia, one of the world’s most celebrated poets.

"At apogee" by Robert Van Dillen
Our art shows have evolved into art parties that tend to draw about 350 people, and we have to feed them. So, we started making food based on the poem we had scored. This was pretty easy last year, when we scored Incantata by the Pulitzer Prize-winning Irish poet Paul Muldoon, because Incantata mentions all sorts of edible plants and stuff like chicken chow mein. We’re a bit more challenged this year. We’re scoring Ever-Ready Bank Accounts by Wole Soyinka, the Nobel Laureate in Literature from Nigeria,
Wole Soyinka
where Soyinka writes about starving children reduced to eating things like flies, beetles and slugs just to stay alive. To make a point, and at the risk of making light of a terrible human tragedy, we’re probably going to let our guests go hungry and serve things like Gummy Worms and Tootsies Rolls on sticks, which will be a translation into candy of Wole Soyinka’s line of poetry “a kebab of houseflies.”

Detail from "Kebab of houseflies" by Leyla Fern King

As I’ve said, we very much want to reach everyday people. Everybody who has a dog or a car has to wash their dog or their car, so we translated poetry into a dog and car wash. In 2010 we scored Jack Ruby’s America by David Clewell, who was named Missouri Poet Laureate after we started our project with him. Many of you will remember that Jack Ruby was the Dallas nightclub owner who killed Lee Harvey Oswald, the man arrested and charged with killing President Kennedy.

"Business is business" by Michael Hoffman
You may not know that Ruby’s defense that his murder was not premeditated hinged upon the fact that he had left Sheba, his beloved daschund, behind in his 1960 Oldsmobile when he went into the basement of the Dallas police station and killed Oswald. Clewell dwells on this incident in his poem, listing an inventory of everything in the Oldsmobile (including the dog), so we translated Clewell’s poem into a dog and car wash – and raised a few bucks for our projects.

Jack Ruby’s nightclubs in Dallas were burlesque clubs that featured softcore strippers.

"And it's getting all mixed up" by Michael Paradise
St. Louis, where we are based, happens to have one of the world’s greatest live burlesque scenes. So we partnered with our most beloved local burlesque performer, who is also a national burlesque star, Lola Van Ella, and we translated Clewell’s poem into a live burlesque show.

Lola Van Ella and David Clewell; photo montage by Mike DeFillipo

Taking that one step further, we commissioned an original costume for Lola to do this show, translating poetry into sexy clothes. We then auctioned off this piece of poetry costume – titled, from Clewell’s poem, “And you dance. With class.” – at the 2010 Art Invitational.

Becky Simmons arranging her collaboration with Lola Van Ella, “And you dance. With class.”

Lola is a beautiful woman with a rabid fan base, so we took the costume from her after the burlesque show, made a point of not laundering it and of announcing at the art auction that the costume had not been laundered since Lola Van Ella wore it and took it off. I know the buyer, a huge Lola fan, and she treasures her purchase like the relic of a saint.

Little G with her purchase from Jack Ruby's America Art Invitational

Okay, I’m going to stop at that point and briefly introduce the movie we’re going to show you this evening, which is a silent movie based on a Turkish poem about a transgendered streetwalker.

Toyy Davis as The Absent Minded Tightrope Walker in Blind Cat Black; photo by Wiley Price

This is Blind Cat Black, produced by Poetry Scores and directed by me. We didn’t provide a writer credit for the movie, because we didn’t want to distract from the writer of the poem, Ece Ayhan, or his translator, Murat Nemet-Nejat. I came up with the storyline, trying to bring to life some themes in the poem, without being too literal. We can talk about that after the movie, if anyone wants to talk about it.

I will say in advance the movie has had very mixed reactions. It premiered at the St. Louis Filmmakers Showcase in 2007, where it was not particularly well received. Somehow, the underground arts scene in Istanbul, Turkey – where the poem is based – got wind of the movie, and after asking me if they could screen it for a couple of years in a row, I finally got over the initial hometown rejection and sent them a DVD.

Poster for first Istanbul screening of Blind Cat Black

In 2010, Blind Cat Black was shown both in Istanbul and in the poet’s hometown of Connakle, where the screening was incorporated into a midnight visit to the poet’s grave. In perhaps our biggest and best exposure to date, Blind Cat Black screened last year at Contemporary Istanbul 2011, the largest contemporary art event in Western Asia.

I’m very proud tonight to add to the list of places where our movie has been seen: The University of Hawaii – Hilo.

So, let’s take a look at Blind Cat Black. With the closing credits, it runs almost exactly one hour, so we’ll have plenty of time after the show to talk about the movie or Poetry Scores in general or the poetry score project we hope to do here in Hawaii – with Hawaiian poet Wayne Westlake’s poetic sequence Down on the Sidewalk in Waikiki.

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