Truth Thomas on the red carpet at this year’s NAACP Image Awards event, where his book Speak Water won in the poetry category.
I liked Truth Thomas the moment that I met him and soon came to appreciate his poetry. But I never knew how much until I heard him read “What The Snake Whispered in Eve’s Ear,” which eventually made its way into his book Speak Water, which eventually won him the 2013 NAACP Image Award for poetry. When he told me that he was a musician as well as a poet, it suddenly all made sense. (Click here to see for yourself.)
I don’t know that I’d go so far as to say, as Ezra Pound once did, “Poets who will not study music are defective.” And, after posting musician-poet Dylan Bargteil’s comment regarding my piece “There’s Reading, Then There’s the Reading,” I can’t even say with certainty that being a musician gives anyone an advantage when it comes to compellingly conveying the written word to a roomful of people. But I do know that when it comes to Truth, in particular, being both a musician and a poet creates a special synergy.
So I asked Truth how just how that works for him. Here’s his reply:
It is an honor and a privilege to be counted as a musician and to be called a poet. I am the confluence of both arts and identities, which has proved to be a lifelong joy. Many thanks to my sister Ilse Munro for her kind invitation to share a few words on the subject of my life as a musician and a poet.
I think it is important that I point out from the start that I only speak for one musician-poet, namely me. My respect and love of music and musicians, poets and versifiers is wholehearted, so my reflection must be a humble one. I would never presume to paint one life experience over the complexities of all my creative kin. Every artist is singular, and every artist’s journey is unique.
However, I do think that most musicians, poets and musician-poets would agree that to be good in any expression of art represents the acquisition of calluses. Some of those calluses must be born in the physical realm of the practice room, but the most important calluses to develop as an artist must be suffered by the soul. Any serious musician who attempts to make a lasting mark on the score of the world will endure rejection. The same world of rejection is enduring fact of the writer’s life. You have to be strong to deal with all of that. I am strong. I’ve had to be.
I came to music as a singer-songwriter and pianist in the early Eighties, signed to Capitol Records by Don Cornelius and known as Glenn Edward Thomas. I came to poetry in the same period. Of course, I was so consumed by music that any technical awareness of the poetry in my music was incidental. While I recognized that music and poetry were related, that fresh narratives and lyrics without clichés were important to songwriting, the idea that words could exist and captivate without music did not move me at the time. That epiphany would come years later, once I returned from Europe to the States and began my formal study of poetry.
Being a professional musician was then, as it is now, about gigging and making as much money as you can in that endeavor. Mind you, the record industry in the Eighties still existed as an entity that could potentially make an artist a great deal of money. Consequently, in that period of my life my focus—Don Cornelius’ focus—was on making hit records, not on making hit poems.
It is interesting to see the evolution—or dissolution—of the record industry over the years. It used to be broken in favor of the record companies. Now, it’s broken for everybody. That notwithstanding, if you can play you can still make a living in the Twenty-first Century music industry. While you may have to be more creative to redefine the record business in a way that makes that possible, it is possible. Again, you have to be strong. Perhaps the best answer to the question of what it’s like to be any kind of working artist must be penciled in on a page of strength.
The worlds of music and poetry are two different planets. That has to be stated plainly. Musicians often rely on ensemble interactions to hone their skills and to perform. The group is the thing for musicians, although there are exceptions. Composers write for orchestras and are exhilarated when their works are brought to life by fine families of instrumentalists. While poets may spend time with master writers in workshop settings, poets lean inward. They engage in a great deal of reading and solitary composition. Certainly poets—even iconic writers—get feedback from their peers, but the poet’s creative process is often a passionate solo expression.
My artistic life is both an ensemble collaboration and a hermit’s walk. I thank God for that. It is refreshing to spend time practicing and expressing art through music with other musicians after I have spent a great deal of time alone with the pen in poetry. I need the release that comes with company.
The experiences that I have had as a professional musician also inform my approach to poetry and the business of books. I don’t regard any competition other than the competition that focuses inward; that competition is only with me being the best writer that I can be. Similarly, I don’t regard any one group, canon, literary tradition or literary business approach as god, as something immutable to be worshiped, as something that cannot be challenged and creatively transcended.
In fairness, while the territories of music and poetry are different, there is significant overlap. Most musicians want to be heard, as do most poets. Big egos, big hustles and big cliques abound in both artistic settings. There is no sugar-coating that. However, the creative weight of both genres is significant and of equal value, at least for me.
Without question, many poets write while immersed in music. Langston Hughes often wrote in blues clubs. He also traveled with a typewriter and a record player for his 78s. Conversely, many musicians are inspired to create compositions as a result of their encounters with poetry. The iconic song “Strange Fruit,” popularized by Billie Holiday, was inspired by a poem written by Abel Meeropol.
And serving on literary journal editorial boards such as those of Little Patuxent Review and Tidal Basin Review feels a lot like musical collaboration. No doubt, any thoughtfully published journal is something akin to a symphony of words. Still, a legitimate orchestra-like composition comprised entirely of poetry would be a wonderfully satisfying piece to witness. I’m still waiting to hear it.
There are times when I feel that I exist between two worlds, and balancing those two artistic residences is difficult. As previously mentioned, to be an artist of note in any genre requires hard work. Music is all-consuming. Poetry is equally so. There are only so many hours in a day. As both music and poetry are so much a part of me, the quest to master both art forms—and to succeed on a high level—never dissipates. For me, the challenge is finding the time to invest to be great in both genres. Yes, it’s a strength walk, a faith walk and a journey that requires a great deal of discipline.
Fortunately, God has blessed me with a supportive family. He has also guided me at every stage of my artistic journey. When the time was right, I was blessed to have a recording contract with a major record label. When the time was right, I was blessed to have publishing success and, most recently, to win the NAACP Image Award for poetry. Despite high artistic ambitions, I do not know what lies ahead. But I trust God. Perhaps the best insight that I can offer is that creativity cannot be controlled—or balanced evenly like scales—when it comes to growth and achievement. Being an artist is less a matter of managing talents and more a practice of yielding to them.
I am grateful for all the great musicians and musician-poets who continue to inspire me: Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, Roy Nathanson, Bob Marley, Curtis Mayfield, Gil Scott-Heron, Nina Simone and Patti Smith, to name a few. It is always good to know that you are not alone, even as a poet who writes alone. To be able to put a song on by a great artist is almost like an ensemble experience.
I suspect that when the Little Patuxent Review Music issue launches this summer, the act of reading will feel like a similar ensemble experience for all who have the good fortune to absorb it. My hope is that our audience will give themselves over completely to it, just as our editors and contributors have given themselves over to creation of a one-of-a-kind piece of musical literary art.
Now, I know that I shouldn’t spoil what Truth shared by being that annoying aunt who can’t resist pulling out those long-lost photographs you wished would stay that way and showing them to strangers. But here is how our award-winning poet looked and sounded back in the days when the creator of Soul Train signed him. I’d say it was pretty good.
Truth Thomas is a singer-songwriter and poet born in Knoxville, Tennessee and raised in Washington, DC. He studied creative writing at Howard University and earned his MFA in poetry at New England College. His collections include Party of Black, A Day of Presence, Bottle of Life and Speak Water, winner of the 2013 NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Literary Work in Poetry. His poems have appeared in over 70 publications, including The 100 Best African American Poems, and been twice nominated for a Pushcart Prize. He serves on the editorial boards of Tidal Basin Review and Little Patuxent Review, guest-editing the Social Justice issue for the latter, and is the founder of Cherry Castle Publishing. A former writer-in-residence for the Howard County Poetry and Literature Society (HoCoPoLitSo), he currently serves on the HoCoPoLitSo board.