A Collaboration With The Audience: Gerry LaFemina on Music and Poetry

One of the intersections of music and literature that we have explored is the parallels and distinctions between songwriting and crafting both prose and poetry. While Don Biggar drew our attention to the parallels in structure between his songs and his wife Lisa’s stories, Truth Thomas brought our attention to the contrasts between a poet’s solitary efforts and the collaborative musical ensemble. This week Gerry LaFemina, poet and punk rocker whose “Sunday Girl” appeared in our Music issue and whose music can be found in the media player on the sidebar of this site, extends the ongoing discussion to the collaboration between performer and audience. Without further obstruction, Gerry LaFemina:

Gerry LaFemina. (Photo: gerrylafemina.net)

Gerry LaFemina. (Photo: gerrylafemina.net)

First and foremost, I’m a writer, primarily a poet. I spend many hours trying to decide which word is the best word, which order is the best order. And in that space it’s up to me to make those choices. I read the poems aloud, usually at home but sometimes when I’m out, too, which prompts looks from strangers at nearby tables. I tweak words all the time. In all the poems I read regularly at public events, there are changes penned into the books.

And even though there are people whose opinion I trust about what’s going on in my work, even writers I admire and like, people who have the best interest of my poems and fictions in their minds when they approach my work, even then, it’s still up to me to make the decisions. I can agree or disagree with any opinion.

That said, when I’m in the band basement, with the Fender Jaguar hanging from my shoulder and working on a new song with The Downstrokes it’s a completely different process. There, with my fellow song writer Mike Holland as well as our drummer William Poorbaugh and bassist Jamie Lockard, I’m not just writing something that represents me to the audience (as a poem does) but trying to come up with something that represents us–the vision we have for this band. Whether lyrically or musically, it’s a collaboration, and as such I’m focused on who we are: four guys in our forties playing (punk) rock & roll.

And then there are all the strictures of writing what is essentially pop music: a hook, a chorus, a melody, something that can be sung along to.

It’s not unusual for Mike and me to struggle for the right chord or for me to ask him to play a riff over and over until I have a melody, a set of words–invoked in part by the chords and notes and tempo he’s playing. Nor is it unusual for Bill to suggest a tempo change, Jamie to suggest a variation on the progression, or me to suggest we go high instead of low. I find it refreshing, this give and take.

Perhaps this has to do with the fact that, ultimately, the song writing process is not just collaborative with the other band members; it’s also a collaboration with the audience. When we’re on stage and I’m singing and playing, the audience is there–they’re real, they’re listening to us, and (I hope) they’re responding. Which is to say that, when people in the audience left our first gig singing the chorus of “Punk Rock Lolita,” I had the verification of success that I rarely have as a poet: someone remembered the combined efforts of the songwriters and it was lodged in their heads.

Rarely has this happened at a poetry reading, and when it does, when someone comes up to me and says “When you read those lines . . .” and they can quote a few lines of a poem, I feel a kind of success that far trumps most acceptance letters. I feel the same way when someone takes the time to write me an email about a poem of mine they read.

Poetry writing, fiction writing, they are different from song writing in ways both obvious and subtle. I like to think the relationship between the artists and their audiences in songwriting (at least when the song writer is also the performer) is the key difference. I know when a song is working almost immediately because the audience lets me know ASAP. As a literary writer, it may take years of rejection letters about a particular piece before I give it up. That’s the real challenge of the artist going it alone as a writer. You have to decide yourself when to give a piece up. The band, they’ll let me know something isn’t working almost right away.

A graduate of Sarah Lawrence College, LaFemina holds an MFA in poetry from Western Michigan University as well as an MA in literature with an emphasis on twentieth-century literature from WMU. He has taught at Nazareth College, Kirtland Community College, West Virginia University, Wheeling Jesuit University, and Sarah Lawrence College. He directs the Frostburg Center for Creative Writing at Frostburg State University, where he is an associate professor of English.

Meet the Neighbors: Columbia Festival of the Arts

A journal such as ours requires a vibrant literary and artistic environment to thrive—and even survive. In appreciation of the various cultural entities around us, we present “Meet the Neighbors,” a series where we provide you with personal introductions to a diverse assortment.

I met the people who put on the Columbia Festival of the Arts over champagne, a good way to start any relationship. We were at the launch of the LPR Audacity issue, the first time that the summer iteration of our biannual event was formally part of the Festival.

MOMIX's Botanica

MOMIX’s Botanica, performed at the 2012 Columbia Festival of the Arts. (Photo: Max Pucciariello)

I then attended an intimate reading by award-winning writer Edith Pearlman, hosted by HoCoPoLitSo and part of the Festival. I was there not only because I admired Pearlman’s short fiction but also because she was featured in our Audacity issue. My final Festival events were to be more pleasure than [literary] business: the performance of Botanica by MOMIX, a company of dancer-illusionists, and a reception celebrating the Festival’s 25th anniversary, where I assumed that more champagne would be consumed.

But the derecho intervened. I was trapped in my historic house, built into the side of a hill on a steep bank overlooking the Patapsco River. No power, no phone or computer connectivity and trees down everywhere. So I sipped bottled water instead of champagne. But a mere seven miles away, Botanica went off without a hitch, as did the reception.

Recalling that, I was determined to give the Festival its due by placing it first in the series of articles that will appear here in preparation for the June 22 launch of the LPR Music issue. And I asked Nichole Hickey, Executive Director and CEO, for the inside scoop.

Here’s how she responded:

When asked to give a first-hand perspective of the Festival, I wasn’t sure where to begin or how to summarize both the Festival and my experience with it. Especially not at this time of the year, just weeks away from the 2013 season and days away from our annual gala, which this year featured Paula Poundstone. But I couldn’t let this article pass. After all, it is a perfect fit for LPR readers: you are our audience.

There are so many people who contribute to the production of Howard County’s premiere arts festival each year. We are fortunate to have a talented, capable, hard-working staff, people who year in and year out help make the season the unofficial start to summer in our area. I am also lucky to work with a supportive Board of Trustees as well as the 200 volunteers who offer their time and support annually. And then there are the sponsors and donors who step up each year, providing financial and in-kind resources. There could not be a Festival without all of them.

I am in my 11th year working with the Festival. What began in 2002 as a part-time role as deputy director has turned into a full-time, year-round, 24/7 job. I start with a blank slate each year, conferring with my team on what to present over 16 days in June. Our goal is to offer a varied, well-balanced lineup of non-stop events from the international, national, regional and local scenes that serves to celebrate our own community. Budget, performer availability and a host of other factors help to define each season. It’s a great deal of work, but we have a lot of fun along the way, as well.

The desire to produce an arts event of this magnitude isn’t what brought me to the Festival. My husband, Michael Hickey, was a founder of the Festival in 1987, and we have remained supporters ever since. When the Festival needed someone to help re-staff the organization in 2002, they tapped into my human resources background. Before I knew it, I had stepped into the role of deputy director. Late 2004, the Board convinced me to take on the role of executive director when it again became vacant.

I was tenuous during my initial year, being a visual artist who was suddenly running an organization focused on performance arts. Certainly, one of my first priorities was to identify ways to enhance visual arts programming. I succeeded in doing this, but there is plenty of room for improvement. During my tenure, film was also added as a regular feature and more emphasis was placed on literary offerings. This year, attendees will be able to enjoy the unique pairing of poet Patricia Smith and the Sage String Quartet playing a Wynton Marsalis composition. Programming that melds artistic disciplines is something that I try to bring to the Festival each year.

My job is not without challenges. Budgets are tighter, fundraising is more difficult and staff reductions have occurred. These are universal issues, particularly in the arts and for nonprofit organizations. Also universal is question of audience development: how to best secure the next generation of devotees. Faced with the challenges of the past decade, economic and otherwise, we need to work harder than ever to arrive at the correct formula for making our Festival a regularly recurring success.

Each year, we seek a mix of recognizable names and eclectic acts that we hope will appeal to the widest possible audience. This season’s weekend headliners—Rhythmic Circus, Reduced Shakespeare Company, Pilobolus and Preservation Hall Jazz Band—offer a balanced array of high-energy performances. Additions such as award-winning Sundance movie shorts, the return of Baltimore’s Stoop Storytelling, the zany family-friendly AudioBody, a theatrical hair and makeup competition and the Patricia Smith event add the sort of flavor to the Festival that attendees have come to expect.

When asked about my favorite acts over the years, it’s tough to respond. Blood, Sweat & Tears, America and The Neville Brothers were personal indulgences and, fortunately, the performances were well-attended. Household names such as Wynton Marsalis, Judy Collins, Ed Asner and Smothers Brothers also come to mind.

Nichole Hickey

Nichole Hickey (Photo: Nicholas Griner)

I love the fact that we can bring these iconic artists and others to perform in the accessible settings of our local theaters, the Smith and the Rouse. They provide a personal experience that doesn’t exist in the larger venues of the Baltimore-Washington corridor. That’s what we strive to offer at the Festival: a personal, interactive experience between artist and audience. What’s the best part of the job for me? When I stand in the lobby after an amazing performance and feel the energy of audience members as they exit the theatre. That makes all the hard work worthwhile.

I can’t say where I will be ten years from now, but I do hope the Columbia Festival of the Arts is still going strong and has engaged a new generation of arts lovers.

I completely concur with Nichole, having experienced what she describes for myself last year. The Edith Pearlman reading, for example, was held at a lovely Columbia venue, the Historic Oakland manor house. Sitting in the last row, I was still close enough to engage her without a microphone. But others had good questions and comments, so I remained silent. One person observed that what Pearlman had read was not quite what appeared on the printed page. Pearlman smiled, saying that she never stopped revising. We smiled in assent, and the whatever distance remained between audience and author disappeared.

That reading also illustrates the kinds of synergies that can occur among neighboring cultural entities. Three organizations came together around Edith Pearlman: Columbia Festival of the Arts, Howard County Poetry & Literature Society (aka HoCoPoLitSo) and Little Patuxent Review. The first two brought Pearlman here, and the latter, through a print-issue interview conducted by Susan Thornton Hobby (who not incidentally sits on both HoCoPoLitSo and LPR boards), to an audience extending beyond county borders.

I now offer “An Interview with Edith Pearlman” online, giving it international reach since approximately 10 percent of our blog readers reside outside the States. Click and enjoy!

My Two Heads

Linda Joy Burke, Artscape, Baltimore, MD

Linda Joy Burke, Artscape, Baltimore, MD
(Photo: Dianne Connelly)

My first memory of a structured music environment comes from the fourth grade at Nativity, a Catholic school in Washington, D.C. The overexuberant nun insisted that we bend our thumbs at a ninety-degree angle, open our mouths, and stick the top of the crook between our lips so that they would form an oval. That was how we were supposed to sing the hymns and old Americana songs such as “Oh Shenandoah” that we were taught. It felt like torture to me, and I discovered early on that I often did it wrong. Even when I managed to get it right, I still could not carry a tune.

In high school, I went through the rite of passage that many kids go through: choosing an instrument to play. In my school, there were only two types of instruments: guitar and piano. I chose guitar because it was not what my sister played. I studied classical guitar and learned enough chords and strums to play a little folk music for church and a handful of other of the simple and popular songs of the early Seventies. I was barely competent. And, compared to other musicians, it was clear that I lacked a sense of complex rhythm and would never make it solo as a guitar player. I became the quiet backup player, happy to have my little time in front of people and sing the simple melodies as well as I could. After high school, it would be another 30 years before I played the guitar again.

As a young adult, I was slow to find my sense of rhythm; I did not learn how to dance until I was in my early twenties. Frequently, I attended music festivals, music clubs, free concerts and the like. At these festivals, where I had begun to perform and emcee, I was exposed to the drumming community. I had the privilege of seeing some of the best female drummers, including Edwina Lee Tyler, Olufunmilayo Jomo, Ubaka Hill of the Drum Song Institute, Jaqui MacMillan, Nurudafina Pili Abena, and Alessandra Belloni. But even though I loved seeing the women and admired how powerful and free they seemed to be, I was afraid to touch the drum. I believed that I could never learn the tempo or feel that I had the stamina to keep up with the rhythms if I played with others.

I was told by various drum teachers and students that my first drum should be one in which I could hear my heartbeat. To use the drum as a kind of meditation tool appealed to me. When I finally did buy a drum, I chose a Native American frame drum called a Four Winds drum. The only rhythm that I had to pay attention to was my own; it was not about being in a show, and there would be no worry of making a mistake.

I took my first workshop with a drummer and music therapist who used drumming and percussion as part of a treatment protocol for addiction and mental health issues. I loved the concept of using percussion and vocal exercises to deal with anxiety and stress, and I found the practice just physical enough for me to be grounding. I continued to study facilitation and eventually blended that work with storytelling and poetry. I spent two years working with a storytelling partner in assisted living and nursing facilities in the Baltimore area. Some of the people that we worked with had profound disabilities.

When the residents of the facilities arrived in the room where we worked, it was hard to tell if they were present, or if they understood why we were there. I remember one small and wrinkled woman who came wheeled in by a staff member. She sat bent over in her wheelchair with barely enough energy to tilt her head or to extend her fragile bird-like hand to take the shaker that I offered. My partner and I both noticed how sad she seemed to be. But when we came with our drums and bells and shakers and rain sticks, she smiled. We were told that she did not have visitors, had been institutionalized most of her life, and had eventually been abandoned by her family. The staff found her response to the music extraordinary, and there was a kind of awakening in that audience.

After attending a poetry workshop and finding it unsatisfactory for my learning style and assuming that there were others who needed a different approach as well, I created the Free Fall Writing workshop. The sessions began with percussion and continued with writing exercises done in meditative silence. In addition to percussion facilitation and drumming, I had studied Frederick Franck’s The Zen of Seeing: Seeing/Drawing as Meditation, which presented the concept of spending hours in silence “seeing” an object before drawing it. The combination of drumming and silence offered a perfect balance for my mind to focus on where it needed to be before I could put pen to paper.

I blended my practices into an experience that was very kinesthetic but that did not allow for small talk. Integrating percussion into the experience was like offering a portal to the participant’s inner self, unearthing memories and producing unexpected pieces of writing. I discovered, however, that most people have questions and want to know what to expect, so I abandoned the practice of no extraneous talk after the first year.

When I introduce the interactive music experience to a new group, I tell them that the group percussion is a metaphor for their neighborhoods: Dundalk could be the bells; Reisterstown, the wood; Columbia, the shakers; and Baltimore City, the drum or the heartbeat. If the participants are not musicians, it sounds a little crazy. People feel uncomfortable or do not trust themselves. They become self-conscious and look at me as if I have two heads. Once everyone has an instrument, even those who did not want to look silly are playing. And if there is at least one person holding the bottom or the main beat and everyone else is willing to let go of a little control, then this cacophony shifts to music and a profound inner listening occurs. People start to trust what they hear.

It is important for me to create an environment where participants can be vulnerable and can access their writing. In the early years when we let the writing do all of the talking, I noticed there were lots of tears. There is an instrument for that, usually a long rain stick or an ocean drum, and there is breathing. There are still tears, but these days I notice that folks are more wary about being overexposed in person and may not share their work.

Recently, I gave a non-traditional keynote address where the audience played with me during the introduction. When we were done, a woman thanked me for the music. “You never know who you’re going to touch,” she said. She shared that her husband had been taken seriously ill a couple of days before and she had been so worried that she could not sleep and barely ate. She told me that my program had helped her to relax and that she needed that because it had been a rough couple of days. Once after a church performance, a woman grabbed me and hugged me, thanking me profusely for my “ministry.”

I had never looked at what I do that way and found it humbling. It took distancing myself from the narrative that I could not sing and had no rhythm to understand that I could hear music in my head. The gift in that is profound, and I watch what happens when strangers come together in a shared experience of making music and writing stories.

Poetry and Music: Songs of Salcman

Music starts with sound and silence. As such, music and literature likely arose as a single entity. Even as the two drew apart, they maintained a continuum, causing Alphonse de Lamartine to state, “Music is the literature of the heart; it commences where speech ends.” And continued to influence one another in both form and content, causing Ezra Pound to pronounce, “Poets who will not study music are defective.” Be that as it may, literary figures as disparate as William ShakespeareTS Eliot and Ralph Ellison have made music an essential part of their works.

Join us in exploring this ageless theme and its contemporary variations through poetry, prose and the visual arts in preparation for our Summer 2013 Music issue.

Lorraine Whittlesey

Lorraine Whittlesey at the piano (Photo: John Dean)

A few words to set the stage, so to speak. Music has always been an integral part of my life. Family legend has it that I sang my first sentences to the popular tunes of the day. The combination of words and melodic line continues to be a powerful force in my life.

Poets and other writers engage audiences in ways that are personal to the individual listener. When Michael Salcman’s poetry came to my attention, thanks to our mutual friend Clarinda Harriss, I recognized that he was someone whose poems appealed to me for a variety of reasons. I noted his careful and obvious affection, passion and respect for his subject matter. His words, the cadence of his delivery and the images that they evoked engaged my entire person.

After a reading at Minás Gallery in Baltimore, I approached Michael and asked if he would consider allowing me to set some of his poems to music. He graciously agreed. Since I already had one of his collections of poetry, The Clock Made of Confetti, I re-read the poems, which always seemed to come alive and remind me, in a visual sense, of structured notation on a musical staff.

The poem that I selected from the book was “Einstein Sailing; A Photograph.” All things Einstein have always held special appeal for me. Einstein was an accomplished violinist and declared repeatedly that had he not been a physicist he would have been a musician. His statements about the power of music are legendary. Several years before this, I had written a musical adaptation of Alan Lightman’s Einstein’s Dreams, and the prospect of using him as subject matter again was irresistible.

Not long after we had decided to move forward with our collaboration with the intent of a future performance, I received a wonderful surprise. Michael sent me a poem, “Song,” that he had written following that decision. That poem was the first of Michael’s that I set to music. When the composition was completed, I invited him and his wife Ilene to my house and performed it for them. His generous response and feedback convinced me that I was on the correct path and gave me the confidence to move forward.

Michael then sent me a copy of his new poetry collection, The Enemy of Good is Better. I devoted my time to reading each poem aloud as well as in silence. The poems for the performance were selected, and I knew that I had arrived at a crossroad. At that point, I felt that Michael’s input would be critical. I asked him to read the six poems aloud to me. I wanted to be as faithful as possible to his nuances and rhythms when composing the music. We sat in his kitchen. He read, I notated. The experience was invaluable.

Michael knew Henry Wong, the owner of An die Musik in Baltimore, and arranged to have our performance presented at that site. I was delighted as I had performed there a number of times and always appreciated the house piano, a marvelous instrument that was kept in good repair. The space itself was very intimate with comfortable seating, fine acoustics and sight lines.

We presented Songs of Salcman on April 28, 2012 to a full house. There were many poets in attendance as was befitting since April was National Poetry Month.

Publicity poster

Songs of Salcman publicity poster

Michael gave a gracious and generous introduction that addressed the history of the art song. He first read the poems, after which I performed them. The poet was relaxed, confident and poised. The musician was nervous and nursing a sore throat. The audience was appreciative and attentive. The pieces that we presented were as follows (click on the first item for the full text):

  • Einstein Sailing; A Photograph
  • A Song of Spirals
  • Baltimore Was Always Blue
  • Poem on a Single Word from Richard Serra’s Verb List
  • Everything But The Ashes
  • Song

In every collaboration there’s the possibility of ruffled feathers, miscommunication and myriad missteps that leave one or both parties wondering whether it was as good an idea as it seemed at the outset. My collaboration on Songs of Salcman left me exhilarated and appreciative of the freedom and trust that Michael provided throughout the process.

The first words of Michael’s opening remarks at the performance were, “The omens are good.” Indeed they are, and we are both looking forward to upcoming performances that will include new works for the Songs of Salcman art song cycle.

Online Editor’s Note: If the stars align, a selection of poems set to music, both old and new,  from Songs of Salcman will be presented this summer and autumn as part of an LPR program celebrating music and literature. (More on that later.) And if that’s too long to wait, stop by An die Musik at 8:00 pm this Friday, February 15  for Love: Error & Eros, a contemporary cabaret event with Dyana Neal and Lorraine.