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.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Poetry Scores Art Invitational logistics for May 18

"The mind of hungered innocence must turn to strange cuisine - kebab of houseflies"
by JoAnne Houle
for Ever-Ready Bank Accounts

Poetry Scores has invited 50-plus artists from St. Louis, Hawaii, New York and Texas to make art to the same Wole Soyinka poem. Come see their work at Ever-Ready Bank Accounts, a one-night-only art exhbit and auction this Friday, May 18 at Mad Art Gallery, 2727 S. 12th. St. in Soulard,

This will be the 7th annual Art Invitational for Poetry Scores, a community-based arts organization based in St. Louis that translates poetry into other media. Our shows have a few quirks that take some explaining.

First, the basics: it's a free event, open to the public, with a cash bar operated by Mad Art and some free snacks. The art is all for sale on silent auction.

We say the event runs 7-10 p.m., but people will start wandering in before 7, we will start closing bids before 10, and we will continue to party after all the art is sold.

It is a one-night-only event and sale on Friday, May 18. If you can't make it that night but really wish you could support Poetry Scores and local artists and buy some great new art, we have a proxy bidder program. Contact creative director Chris King at and he will appoint you a proxy bidder to conservatively manage your money under a bid ceiling set by you.

It's a silent art auction where the artist sets the opening bid and people are welcome to bid against each other. When we see a bidding war break out, we will move to close it out, make the sale, and let the people who got outbid know they still have some cash in hand.

There will be no live auction component this year. We have experimented in the past, and couldn't make it work.

We accept payment by cash, credit card, PayPal and Square. No checks.

We split any money from art sales evenly three-ways: artist, Mad Art and Poetry Scores. Mad Art is an artist-run gallery we consider our community partner. We use our income to print multi-media projects. Any money we make Friday will fund an LP release in Istanbul of bicycle day's poetry score to Ever-Ready Bank Accounts.

Poetry Scores is a Missouri non-profit corporation with 501(c)3 federal tax status. All donations are tax-deductible. It has an all-volunteer board and staff. For more information, email creative director Chris King at

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Wole Soyinka and Poetry Scores live on KDHX

Poetry Scores has two live radio exeriences with KDHX this Monday, May 14 in connection to Ever-Ready Bank Accounts, our collaboration with Wole Soyinka.

* 11 a.m. Monday, May 14: Three Fried Men scores "Ever-Ready Bank Accounts" by Wole Soyinka on Mystery Train 

* 9 p.m. Monday, May 14: Wole Soyinka interviewed on Literature for the Halibut.

Listen to KDHX live online or at FM 88.1 in the St. Louis metropolitan area. Also, follow the links to the respective programs, above, where these shows will remain archived on audio for two weeks.

Wole Soyinka is the Nobel Laureate in Literature from Nigeria.

Three Fried Men is Poetry Scores' in-house band. This version of the band is all new: Chris King (voice), Josh Weinstein (double bass), Sunyatta McDermott (glockenspiel).

(The real, official score of Ever-Ready Bank Accounts is being composed on commission by bicycle day of Istanbul for an LP release in Istanbul later in 2012.)

The Poetry Scores Art Invitational for Ever-Ready Bank Accounts -- featuring more than 50 artists from St. Louis, Hawaii, Austin and New York -- will be held 7-10 p.m. Friday, May 18 at Mad Art, 2727 So. 12th. St. in St. Louis.

Poetry Scores thanks KDHX for a long, exciting partnership. It only makes sense that an internationally minded community-based multi-media project like Poetry Scores would work well with an international leader in community multi-media like KDHX. Both being in St. Louis, and all.

It's also fitting that our project with Professor Soyinka would involve radio. Poetry Scores evolved from the field recording project Hoobellatoo. Hoobellatoo's most important project was producing rebel radio for the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People on Radio Kudirat, London. Our connection to the Soyinkas originated in Radio Kudirat.


Image: "By Wole Soyinka" by Dana Smith, for Ever-Ready Bank Accounts (2012)

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Ant as "father forager" in Wole Soyinka's prison cell

For the Poetry Scores Art Invitational we are hosting next Friday, May 18 at Mad Art, 2727 So. 12th St., a number of our contributing artists are working to some of the more disturbing images in Wole Soyinka's poem Ever-Ready Bank Accounts. Soyinka attacks the problem of child hunger aggressively, unforgettably:

Children slay the cockroach for a meal
Awaiting father-forager’s return
The mind of hungered innocence must turn
To strange cuisine – kebab of houseflies
On a broomstick prong; beetles broiled in carapace
Slugs are scientific stores of high protein –
They tell me – I never tried it yet. 

These seven lines have inspired pieces by 12 artists with titles like “Children slay the cockroach for a meal,” “Awaiting father-forager’s return with empty sack,” "The mind of hungered innocence turns to strange cuisine,” “Kebab of houseflies,” “Slugs” and "Scientific stores of high protein."

It's important that the poet says of this strange cuisine, "I never tried it yet." He is an angry observer, rather than a raw sufferer. His point of view in the poem is the self-mocking, salaried intellectual who whines about a royalty check being late while children in his country are eating slugs for food.

“I take a mordant look at the huge gap between what one longs to do for the less privileged, and one’s material capacity to do so,” Soyinka told The Alton Telegraph in an interview about our project. “Self-mockery is part of it.

Soyinka wrote Ever-Ready Bank Accounts in prison, where he was detained in solitary confinement for 18 months during the Nigeria Civil War. In his prison notes The Man Died, we see where this vermin imagery may have been inspired: his flying cellmates.

The predatory rounds begin with the rains. ... From a long hibernation they emerge, beetles, flying-ants, sausage flies, moths, a violent flock of fragile wings battling the lone bulb on the pole. It is a blind and fierce riotous whirr from the long silent sleep.

Inter-species predatory warfare occupies long stretches of Soyinka's prison notes. In this case, the "father forager" is an ant carrying insect prey home to the nest.

Finally the last corpse is borne away on invisible shoulders to unseen larders, a lone wing is dropped on the doorway pile for later building schemes.


Image is "Scientific stores of high protein" by Michael Marshall, a silverpoint drawing (color-corrected badly by me to be visible in this post)

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Wole Soyinka christened them poetry-sculptures

Our first project for 2012 is Wole Soyinka's Ever-Ready Bank Accounts, which we are subjecting to what has become the Poetry Scores basics: an Art Invitational (Friday, May 18 at Mad Art) and a poetry score (by the three-man orchestra bicycle day of Istanbul), with a silent movie to be named later.

That's what we do: We translate poetry into other media, Though now I am thinking me missed an opportunity to add a new, highly appropriate medium to this project: namely, translating poetry into a mobile. Because that's what Professor Soyinka did in prison.

He wrote Ever-Ready Bank Accounts while unjustly imprisoned during the Nigerian Civil War. We know an awful lot about what he was thinking when he wrote these prison poems, because he had a lot of time to do little else than think, languishing in solitary confinement, and he managed to keep a journal of his captivity, written in the margins of books and the insides of cigarette cartons.

He is a very brave man. He gives us the imprisoned mind unvarnished. He shares, not just the fact that he nearly loses his mind -- as one would expect, over 18 months of enforced solitude -- but the loopy, embarassing, often childish things he did to hang onto his sanity, or some semblance of it. This makes for some quietly terrifying reading. We talk casually of the mind "playing tricks with itself," but Soyinka shows us what this really means.

One of these childish tricks, one of the least crazy of them, is a Poetry Scores modulation: He translated poetry into mobiles.

It started with just the mobiles:

I began to work on Mobiles, the most soothing single creation in that dark place. From first making them spontaneously I began to design them first. The weighted end was the empty shell of my toilet roll closed and filled with stones and gravel, covered in cigarette foil to glint in the sun. They functioned smoothly on several points, finely balanced. They danced and bucked in the wind. I was never tired of watching the delicacy of the movements.

Then the poet worked poetry into the new medium:

And after the plain sculptured forms? The entire artistic gestalt! Light self-contained verses to fly in the wind. Single-verse lyrics plus invectives on my tormentors (in Spanish, the latter was always written in bad Spanish) I christened them poetry-sculptures, muse-on-the-air, poetrees, sculpture in verse, etc. I made chaplets of wood and paper, wrote out verses and watched them fly.

Wole Soyinka has been remarkably engaged in our project, for a Nobel Laureate who didn't need to be bothered. He told The Alton Telegraph that Poetry Scores is "a very special celebration of creative collaboration," and he is doing a local radio interview on KDHX (9 p.m. Monday, May 14). This is a clue as to why. He is an old hand at this stuff!

Now, I guess it's up to us to translate this prison poem of his into a mobile. Or maybe we just just add the mobile to the standard Poetry Scores inter-mediary treatment, in honor of this courageous and playful poet.


Picture from Juniper Books.

Monday, May 7, 2012

Wole Soyinka, hunger artist

Poetry Scores is hosting an Art Invitational to Wole Soyinka's poem "Ever-Ready Bank Accounts" at Mad Art Gallery (2727 So. 12th St.) 7-10 p.m. Friday, May 18. Soyinka is the Nobel Laureate in Literature from Nigeria.

Andrew Torch is guest co-curator for the invitational, which is also a silent art auction. We'll use our share of the proceeds from art sales to release bicycle day's score of Professor Soyinka's poem.

Soyinka wrote this poem while incarcerated during the Nigerian Civil War, a period also covered by his prison memoir The Man Died (1972), which I have been rereading, looking for clues to the poem and its imagery.

Ever-Ready Bank Accounts is a poem about poverty and greed. He takes greed all the way up to the abstract concentration of wealth in banks, and he takes poverty all the way down to child starvation. But this is not child starvation in the abstract; rather, Soyinka leaves us with unforgettable imagery (we might prefer to forget it) of children eating vermin to stay alive.

Rereading Soyinka's prison experiences in The Man Died, I could see why hunger was on his mind. Already a well-known and influential public intellectual, Soyinka was a political prisoner of the Nigerian military government, and he repeatedly employed one of the political prisoner's few tactical moves: He went on hunger strikes. Soyinka's prison diary is a hunger diary; indeed, it's as good as a how-to manual for engaging in and surviving a hunger strike.

He embarks on his first hunger strike the first time his legs are shackled:

Well, just in case it was real, just in case other realities such as going to the toilet, stretching out my legs in the middle of sleep or jerking them involuntarily at night from a mosquito bite, just in case all these other hazards of extistence would be manifested, would accentuate the feel of the pendants at my feet, I commenced without any internal debate a hunger strike. It was one obvious antidote to a mood which half-mocking, half-earnest raged: Ogun, comrade, bear witness how your metal is travestied!

Ogun, the Yoruba god of iron, war and politics, is Soyinka's tutelary deity. The leg irons -- iron used to shackle an acolyte of Ogun -- is a travesty that drives him to starve himself in protest.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Art Invitational May 18 for Soyinka's "Ever-Ready Bank Accounts"

Poetry Scores' Spring 2012 project is Ever-Ready Bank Accounts by Wole Soyinka, the Nobel Laureate in Literature from Nigeria. As Professor Soyinka told The Alton Telegraph, Poetry Scores is "a very special celebration of creative collaboration."

On "special" for you this spring:

* Andrew Torch is guest co-curating an Art Invitational to the poem at Mad Art Gallery (2727 So. 12th St.) 7-10 p.m. Friday, May 18 (it's also a silent art auction)

* meanwhile, the three-man orchestra bicycle day from our sister city Istanbul is scoring the poem on our commission. We plan a vinyl LP release in Istanbul, with digital downloads in St. Louis and everywhere else.

"Ever-Ready Bank Accounts" began its life as a prison poem, first published in Wole Soyinka's collection of solitary detention poems, Shuttle in the Crypt (1972). Soyinka endured a very peculiar, sub-legal incarceration in the turmoil surrounding the Nigerian Civil War. This story is told for all time in his prison memoir The Man Died (also 1972), to my taste one of the 20th century's most bravura performances in prose.

I reread The Man Died recently on an exploratory Poetry Scores mission to Hilo and Honolulu, Hawaii. I'll aim to blog about it while we're producing the Soyinka project. Here's a first post:

The Man Died reads as a composite text, where a free man has drafted new thoughts over the often desperate and at times crazed scribbles of an unjustly detained man. I remembered that he scribbled new thoughts between the lines of the few books he had with him during his captivity, but I was amazed to see one of the books in which Soyinka wrote his prison poems and journal was Primitive Religion by Paul Radin.

Paul Radin! Paul Radin has a spot on the shortest short list of Poetry Scores' ancestors. Radin did all the original ethnography on The Winnebago Indians, whose migrations used to include the confluence of the Mississippi and Missouri rivers, the source of our home city, St. Louis.

The Winnebago's startling trickster cycle concludes at the river confluence. We know about that today thanks to Paul Radin, who in The Trickster left us (in my personal opinion) America's greatest prose (ethno)poem. I borrowed my first copy of The Trickster from Heather Bascom, who had an enormous influence on the rocks bands from which Poetry Scores evolved.

I have read most of everything Paul Radin did on The Winnebago. You could poetry score all of it, actually. Our rock band Three Fried Men scored a fragment of The Autobiography of a Winnebago Indian, Radin's as-told-to Sam Blowsnake memoir. Here is that song.