October 12, 2014

Recorder Visitation from Three Part Fugue

RecorderTrio.jpgThe promise from Capital Early Music and Three Part Fugue's members-- Héloïse Degrugillier, Emily O'Brien, and Roy Sansom--was to show a full spectrum of what a recorder concert could deliver. Indeed the October 10, 2014, "Recorder Kaleidoscope," a program of renaissance, baroque, and contemporary compositions played on recorders varying in size and range from the six-foot contrabass to the ten-inch sopranino exceeded the Dresser's satisfaction quotient. The concert was performed in the acoustically satisfying sanctuary of St. George's Episcopal Church in Arlington, Virginia.

Among the compositions played that was particularly unique for a recorder concert was the jazzy "Kadanza" by the contemporary Dutch composer Willem Wander van Nieuwkerk. This energetic piece that features a percolating beat expresses what is new and old in recorder music, making it a perfect choice for the work that followed.

"Trio sonata in F (after organ trio in C)" by J. S. Bach, the second concert selection, showcased O'Brien playing the contrabass, an instrument that adds depth in the way an organ might. Because this instrument is so large, there is a delay between delivery of the musician's breath and sound production. So part of the pleasure in hearing this lyrically soothing three-movement work was watching O'Brien make the contrabass speak.

Three short Renaissance pieces--the pastoral "In mijnen zin" by Alexander Agricola, the breathy song-like "Helas mon bien" by Jacob Obrecht, and the stately air "Tander naken" by Henry VIII--followed and lead beautifully into the dance composition "Canarios" by Gaspar Sanz. Sanz wrote "Canarios" for classical guitar and Roy Sansom and Héloïse Degrugillier coordinated the composition for recorders, including additions of original divisions (rapid scale-like passages that connect notes of the melody) written by Degrugillier.

After an intermission, the selection turned to two playful compositions from the Middle Ages: "Una pantera" by Johanes Ciconia and "Par maintes foy" by Jehan Vaillant. The latter piece, which featured sopraninos to capture the birds depicted in this spritely work, was introduced by O'Brien with a engaging dramatic reading of an accompanying text.

Two ambitious and serious works--"Abendkonzert" by Modernist Paul Hindemith and "Trio" by baroque composer C. P. E. Bach--bookended four fantasias by Renaissance composers Edward Blankes ("Fantasie VI"), William Byrd ("Fantasia a 3"), Olando Gibbons ("Fantasia I and II"), and John Bull ("Fantasia") to complete a thorough exploration of musical periods.

Three Part Fugue based in Boston is an ensemble with multi-talented members who demonstrated through their program selections and performance the intelligent care and passion they each bring to the recorder as an instrument that can stand on its own for entire concert. Capital Early Music is to be commended for bringing them to the Washington, DC area and attracting a large appreciative audience.

In Ellen Steinbaum's poem "Visitation," the reader experiences an ensemble of voices, where the form using indented lines encourages two different ways of reading the poem until the last two stanzas that counter demand to unite into one voice in a call to join two people romantically. This is much like what one experiences in hearing the different players on instruments with varying tonal range in a chamber group like Three Part Fugue.


I saw the wings first.
.............We were in his kitchen cooking
.............onion soup, a recipe we had each
.............made before, alone. He was slicing
.............onions. I stirred stock, tried to remember
.............where he keeps the skimmer, and
I saw it, an enormous
folding in of wings, dark grey and brown and
startling white against the
falling snow.
.............Carmen had just sung
.............l'amour est un oiseau rebelle.
.............I called him to the window and
.............we stood together long unmoving minutes,
.............willing it to stay.
It was a red-tailed hawk, we later learned by
matching pictures--shape of head and
dangerous beak, size and color, spread of wings.
Later, too, we heard online
the call it might have made
.............though it made none, only stared
.............into us with animal knowing while
.............we held our breath. The hawk, less
impressed, had seen our kind before, watched
for moving food then tired of us,
flew away.

by Ellen Steinbaum
from Brightness Falls

Copyright © 2013 Ellen Steinbaum

Photo byJulie O'Brien shows from left to right Emily O'Brien with contrabass recorder, Roy Sansom with tenor recorder, Héloïse Degrugillier with a base recorder

September 23, 2014

Sirens & Undertow of Florencia in the Amazon

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If you are a Puccini fan, the siren's call awaits with Washington National Opera's new co-production of Florencia in the Amazon.

On September 22, 2014, the Dresser experienced composer Daniel Catán's opera with the poetic Spanish-language libretto by Marcela Fuentes-Berain. The Dresser thought she would have to lash herself to her seat or risk being sucked into the lush projections showing Henri Rousseau-like jungles that surprisingly came alive with flying things--birds and butterflies--and, oh, there, in the corner, a shy monkey.

Under the baton of Carolyn Kuan, Catán's shimmering music, while lyrically accessible and sweet, maintains a fever pitch that caused the sirens-singing effect, particularly in act one of this two-act opera with a run time just over two hours including one intermission.

Inspired by the writings of Gabriel García Márquez, especially his novel Love in the Time of Cholera, the opera, narrated by magic realism character named Riolobo (river wolf) concerns the steamship El Dorado traveling down the Amazon River from Leticia to Manaus in anticipation of a performance by the renown diva Florencia Grimaldi. Florencia, who is traveling incognito on the El Dorado, plans to reopen the Manaus opera house.

Most of the characters in this opera are struggling with how to love, including Florencia (sung as a diva should sing with volume and emotion by American Soprano Christine Goerke). After a 20 year hiatus, the opera singer is drawn back to her native country by the memory of a former lover, a butterfly hunter named Christóbal.

The production, directed anew by WNO artistic director Francesca Zambello--Zambello was the creating director for the Houston Opera world premiere in 2003--is co-produced by LA Opera and San Francisco Opera. It has one set--the steamboat that is periodically revolved to show front, back, and sides. What provides scenic variety are projections (like a storm-filled or sunrise skies), deeply colorful lighting, and the river spirits, a company of accomplished artful dancers.

The Dresser offers this list of favorites from Florencia in the Amazon:

This line--"Love was made up by God on his birthday."

The performance of American tenor Patrick O'Halloran as Aracdio, the seasick nephew of The Captain. (Arcadio's dream is to pilot the boat.)
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The story detail that jettison's the young writer Rosalba's notebook into the river and which Aracdio retrieves with the cooperation of the River Spirits who tease first by tossing around the precious notebook. The notebook contains Rosalba's made-up history about the famous opera star Florencia Grimaldi. Rosalba doesn't know Florencia is on the boat but talks to the diva revealing her (Rosalba's) wish to interview this opera idol.

The sparkling rain that falls.

Least favorite element of the production is the costume for Riolobo (played by American baritone Norman Garrett) when he is lowered from the heavens as a mystical bird with spikey wings and pleads with the gods of the river "Do not destroy the world." The costume makes Riolobo look like he has come to destroy the world.

The Dresser provides Gary Stein's poem "The Undertow: Hatteras Island" as final words to this review. Stein's poetic narrator advises to "forget the ways we know" because the ocean's undertow somehow appeals to a deeper yearning for surrender. This is exactly what Zambello's fine new production requires--surrender to the poetic elements with the faith that the storms of love, body, and nature will not kill you.


And as many times as the ocean curls
itself into an arm and slams
me to shore scattering
memory like dice, I bob up, smiling
postcards and snake my body sideways
to the breakers for another throw.

Reason should prevail or the pain
of knees scraping the shore of all
its shells. But I am leaning out, letting
the undertow suck me down the beach,
laughing like pebbles in the foam.

You may say this idiot's dance,
this giddy, numb surrender to the moon
is what we face each morning--
snake eyes teasing with another chance.

It is not. We predict the ocean now.
If you gauge the tides, the wind, and chart
the bottom you can call a wave down
to the inch. But knowing doesn't ease
the ride, doesn't tell you how you'll
hit the sand or when to close your eyes.

Try to forget the ways we know. The undertow
is a kind of yearning. Pretend this poem
is a shell. It is a shell. Gather it
around your ear until you hear surf, faintly,
as far as the moon, but surf. Surf.
Each distant wave carries
further from the beach.

by Gary Stein
from Between Worlds

Copyright © 2014 Gary Stein

Photo credit: Scott Suchman

September 19, 2014

Isango Ensemble's Magic Flute Pageantry

Pageant. The Isango Ensemble's interpretation of Mozart's The Magic Flute is an elaborate, colorful, and dramatic presentation reaching out to the public that speaks to African tradition and thereby meets the definition of pageant. The slightly less than two-hour love story with one intermission is joyful and dance focused. It is not your grandmother's opera.

A quick summation of the story is that Prince Tamino falls in love with Pamina whom her wicked mother, the Queen of the Night, says is being held hostage by Sarastro. magic fluteSarastroSM.jpgSarastro is her protector and when he learns Tamino is in love with her, he gives Tamino a series of challenges to test the young prince's leadership abilities. Sarastro is looking for someone to replace him as leader of a secret brotherhood. Papageno is enlisted to help Tamino and if Papageno does well, he too is promised a wife.

As the Dresser absorbed the September 18, 2014, performance sponsored by Washington, DC's Shakespeare Theatre Company at the Lansburgh Theatre, comparisons between Isango's creation and Gertrude Stein's and Virgil Thomson's Four Saints in Three Acts surfaced. Pageant is also how the Dresser would describe Four Saints. However, Four Saints is more a parade, and a religious parade at that.

Founded in 2000, the Isango Ensemble, a nonprofit seeking to work with its "clash of cultures, races, and experiences," selects performers who are at various levels of artistic achievement from townships around its base in Cape Town, South Africa. The Ensemble members work collectively to create each production. Like the all Black cast Virgil Thomson chose for Four Saints in Three Acts, the Black performers of Isango bring something unexpected and new to the opera written by two white men, composer Amadeus Mozart and librettist Emanuel Schikaneder. In the case of Four Saints, again an opera written by two Caucasian artists, Thomson said he chose the Black cast--a first in 1934 in the United States--because they had better diction and less prejudice against Gertrude Stein's experimental writing that included such phrases as "Four saints prepare for saints it make it well well fish" and "pigeons on the grass, alas."

Ah, diction. The Isango interpretation of Flute is rendered in English--the original was in German, but the Isango English comes with a South African accent. Few of the Isango players except Zamile Gantana as Papagena and Nontsusa Louw as Papagena delivered clearly enunciated English. Surtitles would have helped but given the pageantry of the production, the Dresser did not occupy herself with the problems of word delivery as she recently had when Washington National Opera partnered with numerous other opera companies to produce multiple English-versions of Flute directed by Harry Silverstein.

In fact, the Dresser didn't focus on how the Isango voices could not fill the Lansburgh Theatre. While Siyasanga Mbuyazwe as Queen of the Night executed a pleasing "The vengeance of Hell boils in my heart," this coloratura aria, directed against the protector of the Queen of the Night's daughter, is supposed to electrify and a listener should feel the Queen's hateful vibration inside his or her body. Instead what the Dresser felt were the energizing slapping of unshod feet on the raked stage and the warm tones of the marimba orchestra that flanked both sides of the raked portion of the stage. Also exciting the airwaves were the players who danced as their mallets hit the keys. And these musicians were alternately the dancers, the actors, the singers showing an impressive display of versatility and unlimited joyful energy. Also inside the listener's body at various times were the beating of drums.

Two aspects of African culture heighten British-born South African theater director-filmmaker Mark Dornford-May's Isango production. The first is the tribal meeting of Sarastro's secret brotherhood showing ritual hand washing and handshaking in a particular order according the rank of its members. The second deals with Dornford-May's program notes detailing the possible connection of an African tale to his adaptation of The Magic Flute. The African tale relates that lightning is caused by the andlati bird, which lives in high mountains. It causes death and destruction during storms. Tamino SM.jpgTo stop this bird, someone courageous must go with a flute to tame the destructive bird. What's unusual is the sound of the flute in Dornford-May's production is actually a trumpet. The more vigorous sound of the trumpet brings attention that this flute, still representing the sound of a bird, is the fearsome andlati.

Continue reading "Isango Ensemble's Magic Flute Pageantry" »

August 1, 2014

ModPo: The Difference Is Spreading

University of Pennsylvania professor Al Filreis' Coursera massive open online course Modern and Contemporary American Poetry (ModPo) has spawned many creative works that includes poems, books, music, dramatic readings, and paintings. The Dresser takes this opportunity to feature Philippian artist T. De Los Reyes who created 25 note cards that combine words drawn mostly from the ModPo texts married with provocative images or backdrops.


Among the Dresser's favorites are: The Difference Is Spreading, a line drawn from Gertrude's Stein long poem Tender Buttons and specifically the opening subpoem "A Carafe, That Is A Blind Glass." De Los Reyes sets these words on a hefty carafe filled with dark liquid, which suggests the dark shading Stein layers into this coded lesbian love poem.

Walt Whitman's repetitive "Urge And Urge And Urge" from his expansive poem Song of Myself sits on top of the keyboard of a manual typewriter. The urge to communicate rings across time and continues to be as fresh as the day Whitman set these words on paper.Notes-from-ModPo_4.jpg

De Los Reyes also quotes Filreis: "Here's the small gasp: we're lost in a poem...and that loss is thrilling." Of course this is what poetry does for its readers--it allows one to step out of time, to retreat into a protected space that redeems and renews. For this card, the artist chose a backdrop of tall trees, trees the source of paper, the stuff of books.Notes-from-ModPo_16.jpg

Meet T. (Twinkle De Los Reyes) in the ModPo discussion forums when the third offering of Filreis' remarkable online course that seems so intimate that you feel like you are there in his classroom. ModPo opens September 6, 2014, and runs for ten weeks but the discussion forums remain open until September 2015 for anyone who signs up for the course.

And oh yes, De Los Reyes has cards that read: "Poetry Nerd and Proud" and "Do the Work."

July 19, 2014

Lucretia Borgia and Romancing the Chairs

Leah Englund Brick's interpretation of Gertrude Stein's 1938 play Lucretia Borgia uses shadow puppets and chairs to deliver Stein's reflexive portrait of a woman who is having an identity crisis. In the forum of the Capital Fringe at the Atlas Performing Arts Center seen July 18, 2014, Brick and Small Batch Theatre Company with support from Towson University presented a 55-minute work of physical theater, which the Dresser thinks is a good way to ground the psychological ruminations of the least read Modernist.ThroneSmall.jpg

While Stein's play calls for five characters and a crowd (Brick's play uses placards during the puppet show to announce that there are five characters and a crowd), Brick's play makes do with three actors--Katharine Ariyan, Sadie Lockhart and Elizabeth Scollan--embodying aspects of Lucretia Borgia as well as a recorded male voice. The Dresser thinks that the first chair on stage, a chair with arms, is the fifth character while subsequent chairs make up the crowd. Are chairs part of Stein's theatrical landscape for her Lucretia Borgia? No, but here the Dresser applauds Brick's good instincts. For example, in Stein's Tender Buttons, chairs--and tables, for that matter--point to a dialectic on existence, a subject that Stein explores throughout her work.

Because there is no story through line, the Dresser will provide some lines from the play to establish signposts indicating a sense of what the work is "about."

"If you made her come can you kill her."
"How pleasant to count--1 2 3 4 5 6 7..."
"Be careful of eight's."
"Once upon a time there was a shotgun."
"They will call me a suicide blonde."
"Later I will kill my twin..."

Stein draws her character from medieval history--Lucretia Borgia came from a sinister family who used her for political gain. Rumor has it that the historic Lucretia wore a hollow ring in which she kept poison.


So, Dear Reader, you might be wondering what happens during the performance. Here are some observations. In the unspoken shadow play as the show opens, we see a woman smoking a cigarette from a long cigarette holder. Cigarette holders are fashion accessories and suggest some kind of affectation. When one of the Lucretia's comes out from behind the shadow puppet scrim, she steps into a long gown and then ascends a ramp leading to the chair that the Dresser will call the throne. Once seated on the throne, Lucretia #1 proceeds to make up her face. In fact each of the Lucretia's dons the same dress and uses the same makeup box. What's new are the interactions these aspects of Lucretia have with the throne and later with additional chairs that get shoved on stage as if a crowd is gathering. Meanwhile, Lucretia has been referred to as Jenny, Winnie, and Gloria. And by the way, Stein used Lucretia Borgia in her novel Ida, which she wrote and rewrote from 1937 to 1940.

Threading the acts and scenes of Brick's production together (did the Dresser say that Act I is announced variously, one of Stein's destabilizing strategies for her plays) is recorded music including a strummed "Tea for Two" and a roaring Twenties tune. Stein suggests that the play is an opera and Brick's audience occasionally sees a placard with the word opera written on it. Even the genre--play or opera--has an identity crisis.

Communication disconnect and the issue of fame chasing makes Leslie McGrath's poem "Two Poles and a Suicide" interesting commentary to Leah Englund Brick's Lucretia Borgia. Is Lucretia living in a dining room hell with all the chairs that appear on stage? Possibly. And where are the men--only a disembodied voice off stage. Why is Lucretia a suicide blonde--a fashionable woman with bleached hair who knocks the men dead? There is a lot to think about in Brick's production. As always with Gertrude Stein, the thinking is best done with aslant aids such the intriguing "Two Poles and a Suicide" that refers to a sorceress, white elephants, black pearls, a nomad, and a dendritic tripwire.


Look at how her dark eyes smile
black as her last night.
Her photo's curled, yellow.
A chip. A chip to shoulder.

She was sorceress, sorely loved,
linger of mint, a plea left
on too many answering machines
when there were answering machines.
Everything is smaller now.

She was, she said, slave
to a slave to fame, a lover
of white elephants, black
pearls. Nomad in a fatherless
land, she traveled from
pole to pole until
left at the altar of exhaustion,
a dendritic tripwire
strung from attic to basement,
she died in the dining room
and she had company.

A tour guide, she was,
not to the hell of her own
despair, blithe and capricious,
but to the imagined hell
even mention of her name
now takes us to. We are not
to be blamed for going there.
We are not to blamed
for going there.

By Leslie McGrath
from By the Windpipe

Copyright © 2014 Leslie McGrath

May 4, 2014

The Magic Flute Speaks English

On May 3, 2014, Washington National Opera premiered a highly colorful interpretation of Amadeus Mozart's The Magic Flute. Co-produced by San Francisco Opera Association, Opera Omaha, Lyric Opera of Kansas City, and Opera Carolina, Kelley Rourke's translation of Die Zauberflöte, Emanuel Schikaneder's original libretto in German, sparkles with contemporary references and current day idioms without going overboard. What's particularly interesting is Rourke has recently done two English translations of Die Zauberflöte. The other produced by Boston Lyric Opera premiered in 2013 and reframes Schikaneder's story using a Mayan setting and a contemporary and dreamscape timeframe. The WNO production directed by Harry Silverstein, conducted by Philippe Auguin, and using sets and costumes by visual artist Jun Kaneko veers into a fantastic world bringing to mind Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland, Maurice Sendak's Where the Wild Things Are, and the Sergei Diaghilev-Erik Satie-Jean Cocteau-Pablo Picasso ballet production Parade.

But wait, this Silverstein-Kaneko production of Flute had other English translators. San Francisco Opera Association, Opera Omaha, and Lyric Opera of Kansas City used David Gockley's English-language translation and Conductor James Meena for Opera Carolina used his own adaptation of the widely used Ruth and Thomas Martin translation. And shall the Dresser mention that Lyric Opera of Kansas City presented Flute sung in English with German subtitles? What does all of this say about the words used to present Mozart's singspiel comic, but still serious, opera? Perhaps this matters only to a critic who has seen these numerous productions scattered around the United States or to a critic like the Dresser who has a focus on the written word. The Dresser has to assume for this production the only parts that have to remain the same to make this production identifiable are the music, the direction, costumes, and sets.

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With a runtime of three hours and presented in two acts with one twenty-minute intermission, the story concerns a youth's journey to prove himself a man and win the hand of a kidnapped young woman. Flute 1Queen-Scott Suchman.jpgHer mother, the Queen of the Night (Kathryn Lewek sings the well-known bel canto aria "The Vengeance of Hell boil in my heart" quite satisfyingly) demands that daughter Pamina (Maureen Kay) kill Sarastro, her kidnapper. Sarastro (sung by bass baritone Soloman Howard) has told Pamino that her mother doesn't have her best interests in mind. Dealing with a bigger problem--how to save his secret society brotherhood from extinction, Sarastro sees that Prince Tomino (Joseph Kaiser) has potential to lead his waning brotherhood and Pamina would be the best reward for the prince. While Tamino and Pamina are pawns of Sarastro and the Queen of Night, they are destined to be a loving couple. Side characters to the main love story are the evil Monostatos (John Easterlin) who covets Pamina, the clownish Papageno (Joshua Hopkins) who serves as an unwilling aid to Tamino, and Papagena (Ashley Emerson), the woman who will become Papageno's wife.

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In looking back at the production, many aspects of the show were enjoyable. The Dresser particularly loved the duet between Papageno and Papagena where they agree to marry and proliferate. The scene is colorfully populated with baby chicks because after all, these two are lovebirds. Baritone Joshua Hopkins stands out for his consistently excellent performance throughout the opera. Stealing the show goes to the three Spirits, child singers--Will McKelvain, Jared Marshall, and Arya Bailan. They sound like the Munchkins whom Alice meets in Oz. The audience first experiences the heavenly voices of the Spirits as they ride across the "sky" in individual buckets. Another favorite scene was the bird ballet that made the Dresser think of Diaghilev's Ballet Russe performing in the highly art-filled Parade.

While the Dresser realizes Kaneko has introduced Eastern inflection into this production that includes the Kabuki-style white face makeup used for most of the characters except Tamino, Paminam and the Queen of the Night, there seems to be a chaotic mix of influences that begins with the evolving and devolving colorful stripes that paint the backdrop of the stage as the overture plays. Perhaps had the Dresser never seen The Magic Flute before she would have given no thought to understanding why these Mondrian-like stripes were playing across the backdrop. The net effect for the Dresser was that the fantasia of stripes detracted from listening to Mozart's overture. Later, the Dresser saw that Kaneko used some of the stripe patterns as set décor which was fine, but that didn't alter her feeling that stripe fantasia interfered with hearing and appreciating the overture.

As to the costumes, many seemed Kabuki-ish with exaggerated collars and extended headdresses, but Tamino's costume looked like something a Russian peasant might wear and Pamina's costumes looked like the dresses of a little girl but, in particular, Alice in Wonderland. Also there were the eye-catching costumes of the Queen of the Night and her three Ladies who initially wore dresses with a big black spot painted over their left breasts. Was one to think that the three Ladies had black hearts?

And despite the scenes with a dragon that makes the prince faint, the fascinating awkward bird ballet, and the spawning of little Papagenos and Papagenas, the production seemed static. Perhaps some of the exaggerated costumes like the one Sarastro wore made for limited movement by the performers. Flute 5 Sarastro-Scott Suchman.jpgNo, the lack of action had something to do with the tone set by the director. Well, WNO is offering ten performances in total, so there is time for you, Dear Reader, to see this production and decide for yourself.

In Hailey Leithauser's poem "Shoot-Out at the So-So Corral," you's situation is much like Prince Tamino's--he doesn't know what is coming at him but he must maintain a high moral standard and keep his eyes on his goal. And yes, there are higher-ups (like General MacArthur and his soldiers in blue or Sarastro and his secret brotherhood) watching. And maybe the unstated question is what do you get if you win? Maybe a good cup of coffee (mountain ground) with some yellow corn four tortillas in a rundown town--the happy-ever-after domesticity of a stable married life.


It is possible
is coming for you.

It is possible someone
is gunning for you.
There is a general

feeling that General
MacArthur, or
his partners in blue,

are coming for someone
who is now;
or is not now, you.

My God, says the firing squad,
how we all
have our ups and owns.

My God, sings the swung
cattle prod,
how we all have our downs

and our ups.
The moral:
Aim your steps

to the left,
your sights to the right,

in other words:

Keep your guns
at your thigh, your eyes

on the trophy
or tiger or skies,
your wit

and your powder,
than dustbowls

of mountain ground,
shanty town,
yellow corn flour.

Hailey Leithauser
from Swoop

Copyright © 2013 Hailey Leithauser

Photo credit: Scott Suchman

April 25, 2014

The Life of Poet Ed Hirsch

Edward Hirsch isn't the first American poet to say that poetry is not part of the fabric of culture in the United States. Muriel Rukeyser detailed this problem in her book The Life of Poetry in 1949. Still, the message Hirsch delivers--that "poetry is a form of necessary speech"--is every bit imperative now as it was for Rukeyser at the end of World War II. Americans, especially men, are embarrassed by, if not fearful of, their feelings, which is what poetry confronts.Hirsch-Charles2.jpg

On April 23, 2014, the Dresser attended a tightly packed room in Washington, DC's Hill Center at the Old Naval Hospital to hear Hirsch being interviewed by Washington Post critic and editor Ron Charles. The program is part of the series sponsored by the Library of Congress and The Washington Post known as "The Life of a Poet." Ever since the Dresser read his celebratory poem "Wild Gratitude," she has been a fan of this man from humble origins.

Among the many questions Charles asked, one led to Hirsch relating the story about how he as an eight-year-old boy came across poems his recently deceased grandfather had handwritten in the back of his books. The grandfather's books led to a misunderstanding that followed Hirsch to high school when he discovered that Emily Bronte had written some of the poems that Hirsch believed were by his grandfather. It's a story he has told many times, but Hirsch's introduction to poetry bears repeating, given that American men think poetry is for sissies.

So why did Hirsch, who had played college football and worked in factory jobs to pay for his college education--something his parents never had, why did he give over his life to poetry? He answered, "It delivers something you cannot get elsewhere."

At this juncture, Charles challenged Hirsch, who has written passionately on how to access poetry (e.g. his book How to Read a Poem and Fall in Love with Poetry), to explain how metaphor works. Hirsch said while metaphor equates one thing to another, it is the way a metaphor functions that binds the poet and the reader together. "Right away there is a contradiction," he said in dealing with the metaphor Charles asked him to talk about--the heart is a pomegranate. Why? Because we know our heart isn't a piece of fruit, he explained. However, what a poet does with the extended metaphor is when the conversation with the reader becomes crucial. If the reader cannot participate in joining these unlike things together then the metaphor fails. And Hirsch has this kind of information ready for his readers in his new book A Poet's Glossary.

In answering many of Charles' questions, Hirsch emphasized how much he considers the dramatic situation that arises out of his subject matter. For example in his recurring theme of insomnia and how that wakefulness comes with a "roaming consciousness," the drama of facing one's aloneness and proverbial "dark night of the soul."

This subject of dramatic situation always comes up in writing about love but Hirsch cautioned that a love poem is not a love letter. Love letters should always be private.

Dramatic situation is also how he handled the subject of his mother-in-law's death in the poem "Blunt Morning." Here are the opening stanzas.

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The poem and the way Hirsch read it in his boyish and sad voice made the Dresser feel like the distance between her chair and the poet's had become so small that he, the poet, and she, the audience, had joined together in private lamentation, such that there was no one else in the room.

What came next from Ron Charles was breathtaking. When Rob Casper from the Library of Congress introduced this poet of many substantial awards, including the five-year MacArthur Fellowship that most of know as the genius award, Casper said Hirsch's forthcoming book, Gabriel, was an elegy for his son. Without pulling any punches, Charles asked Hirsch to tell the audience about his son and this book. Hirsch seemed taken by complete surprise and said he wasn't sure how to talk about this subject, which he considers "unnatural," that is writing elegies for a child who was 22 in 2011 when he died. The forthcoming book is an 80-page poem about a boy who was adopted as a baby and who had suffered troubles ever since. Hirsch said, before Gabriel came into his life he believed in nurture over nature, but he came to learn sadly this would never work with his son. There was "no escape from unbearable grief" and Hirsch as a father had to do something with this pain so he wrote this poem because he didn't want Gabriel to be forgotten. As with poems that Hirsch wrote mourning for his father, the poet established an ongoing argument with God over the injustice of such loss. Hirsch says he can't believe in God, but the fact that he continues to have these conversations with God contradicts his stance on religion. Then he referred to this poem,


Traffic was heavy coming off the bridge
and I took the road to the right, the wrong one,
and got stuck in the car for hours.

Most nights I rushed out into the evening
without paying attention to the trees,
whose names I didn't know,
or the birds, which flew heedlessly on.

I couldn't relinquish my desires
or accept them, and so I strolled along
like a tiger that wanted to spring,
but was still afraid of the wildness within.

The iron bars seemed invisible to others,
but I carried a cage around inside me.

I cared too much what other people thought
and made remarks I shouldn't have made.
I was silent when I should have spoken.

Forgive me, philosophers,
I read the Stoics but never understood them.

I felt that I was living the wrong life,
spiritually speaking,
while halfway around the world
thousands of people were being slaughtered,
some of them by my countrymen.

So I walked on--distracted, lost in thought--
and forgot to attend to those who suffered
far away, nearby.

Forgive me, faith, for never having any.

I did not believe in God,
who eluded me.

--Edward Hirsch

The Dresser wonders if the next Poet Laureate of the United States will be Edward Hirsch. Like the current Laureate Natasha Trethewey and such past Laureates as Philip Levine, Hirsch knows how to reach people in the general American population who do not usually read poetry.


March 31, 2014

SPLIT This Rock: A Poetic Strategy for Audience

The conclusion of the 2014 Split This Rock Poetry Festival was a deluge of poetry readings which were all free and open to the public. The Dresser thinks this is brilliant strategy because toward the end of any conference audience dwindles because there are matters of life--and death--to address. Here are the lineups but the Dresser, being only human, will focus on the Saturday night event, which turned out to be a surprising show of creative energy.

#1 Saturday afternoon March 29
DC Youth Slam Team Member Lauren May
Eduardo C. Corral, Gayle Danley, Claudia Rankine, Myra Sklarew

#2 Saturday evening March 29
DC Youth Slam Team Member Thomas Hill
Franny Choi, Yusef Komunyakaa, Wang Ping

#3 Sunday morning March 30
DC Youth Slam Team Member Reina Privado
Sheila Black, Natalie Diaz, Shilja Patel

RegieBackbend.jpgSaturday night, the sui generis performance artist and poet Regie Cabico moderated--well, no, there was nothing moderate about his flamboyant style of dancing the poets on and off the stage. RegieCabicoClose.jpgThe young spoken word poet Thomas Hill opened with his performance of "Sunday Morning," a piece about his mother that includes this devastating line "I keep her company in the art of hating herself."ThomasHill.jpg

Next up so as not to be upstaged by the performances that followed came the scholar, professor, and prize-winning poet Yusef Komunyakaa. Standing at the lectern, he began with the poem "Ode to the Oud," that "gourd shaped muse." He closed with:

by Yusef Komunyakaa
For Derek Walcott

An island is one great eye
... gazing out, a beckoning lighthouse,
searchlight, a wishbone compass,
... or counterweight to the stars.
When it comes to outlook & point
... of view, a figure stands on a rocky ledge
peering out toward an archipelago
... of glass on the mainland, a seagull's
wings touching the tip of a high wave,
... out to where the brain may stumble.

But when a mind climbs down
... from its high craggy lookout
we know it is truly a stubborn thing,
... & has to leaf through pages of dust
& light, through pre-memory & folklore,
... remembering fires roared down there
till they pushed up through the seafloor
... & plumes of ash covered the dead
shaken awake worlds away, & silence
... filled up with centuries of waiting.

Sea urchin, turtle, & crab
... came with earthly know-how,
& one bird arrived with a sprig in its beak,
... before everything clouded with cries,
a millennium of small deaths now topsoil
... & seasons of blossoms in a single seed.
Light edged along salt-crusted stones,
... across a cataract of blue water,
& lost sailors' parrots spoke of sirens,
... the last words of men buried at sea.

Someone could stand here
... contemplating the future, leafing
through torn pages of St. Augustine
... or the prophecies by fishermen,
translating spore & folly down to taproot.
... The dreamy-eyed boy still in the man,
the girl in the woman, a sunny forecast
... behind today, but tomorrow's beyond
words. To behold a body of water
... is to know pig iron & mother wit.

Whoever this figure is,
... he will soon return to dancing
through the aroma of dagger's log,
... ginger lily, & bougainvillea,
between chants & strings struck
... till gourds rally the healing air,
& till the church-steeple birds
... fly sweet darkness home.
Whoever this friend or lover is,
... he intones redemptive harmonies.

To lie down in remembrance
... is to know each of us is a prodigal
son or daughter, looking out beyond land
... & sky, the chemical & metaphysical
beyond falling & turning waterwheels
... in the colossal brain of damnable gods,
a Eureka held up to the sun's blinding eye,
... born to gaze into fire. After conquering
frontiers, the mind comes back to rest,
... stretching out over the white sand.

Continue reading "SPLIT This Rock: A Poetic Strategy for Audience" »

March 30, 2014

Split This Rock: New Political Poetries & Drama

Everyone the Dresser encountered at the 2014 Split This Rock Poetry Festival said this STR Festival (the fourth) was the best he or she had attended. Top on the list of compliments was those panelists were so prepared and had compelling content. Case in point was this workshop attended March 29:

Witnessing New Political Poetries: Documentation, Intertextuality & Hybridity
Michael Broek, Michelle Chan Brown, Jehanne Dubrow, Suzanne Parker

As moderator Michael Broek posed this question as the point of engagement for the panel: What obligations do we have to ourselves as writers and to our readers when it comes to our subject matter.

SP-JD.jpgSuzanne Parker, who described herself as female, queer, and liberal said she didn't think of herself as a political poet. She thought political poetry was didactic and had no sense of humor. However, she wrote Viral, a book of poetry about Tyler Clementi, the 18-year-old college student who committed suicide by jumping off the George Washington Bridge after his roommate webcammed Clementi kissing another man.

Addressing the purpose of the panel Parker said, "poetry that reports needs to be accurate." Then she asked, what are the obligations and boundaries? How do we build bridge between the writer and the subject? In the case of this suicide, this was a boy just discovering his sexuality. There is a big question of responsibility because this is "writing that hitches a ride on the suffering of others." She said this story haunted her and she had to figure out how the material could be handled credibly. She also said writing about such a topic requires permission.

She said she had to craft a variety of strategies to work with this story. One of the rules she made for herself was not use the word I--no first person point of view. Initially, she wrote none of the poems in the voice of story's protagonist because she felt that approach was too invasive. She asked herself, how does a writer look at tragedy of others without becoming a peeping tom? Her solution was to use many voices to cloak the victim. She said this strategy of access made for a certain level of empathy. However, Parker's critics said that Tyler has to speak otherwise she was showing her own fears. Here is a poem from Viral:


The body has longed for this:

to dress in slightly more fitted clothes,

take the keys, drive for many miles,

pay for gas, tolls, parking, and the $8 beer

held like an anchor against the tides. 

On a bar top, a man, stripped to underwear,

varnished with sweat, moves his hips

as if pressing them into tomorrow,

wraps an arm like a caress

around his face-- here,

where there are only men.

It's the thick callous

on the man's palm against

the back of the body's neck,

a place hidden as a fort

built in high, swaying branches. 

They are in a bar and a man is wet

from the bucket raining down,

a hundred shatters of light

splashing the crowd's desire. His hand

moves to the open stretch of the body's chest,

pulls it toward: "Kiss me here.

Kiss me here and here and here

and--. Don't stop. Don't ever."

-- Suzanne Parker

Jehanne Dubrow spoke about how she is currently writing her mother's story. Her mother came from a Jewish Latino background that includes family lost in the Holocaust and an episode of being held hostage by a criminally insane man. Like Suzanne Parker, Dubrow feels use of the first person I is not workable. Her reason is she feels this point of view manipulates the audience but she said she still takes that risk by using "my mother."Dubrow.jpg

Dubrow's strategy for this set of poems is different from how she usually writes. She usually writes in form but She felt rhyme scheme would be offensive to this subject matter. Poems as reportage--a prose poem that looks like a newspaper column--are how she decided to work. Here is an example:

Screen Shot 2014-03-30 at 9.49.18 PM.png

-- Jehanne Dubrow

Michelle Chan Brown, as the daughter of a diplomat, has learned the strategies of such a privileged life. She says in her book Double Agent, there was no end to propaganda and evasiveness was ubiquitous. She raised such questions as how can a poem be a vehicle for the political when poetry has no market value? She concludes, perhaps ironically, therefore poetry has more room for truth. But, on the other hand, "poetry is not a marketing plan and there is no Survey Monkey to see if your achieved its goals." Here is an example of her poetry:


The natives have absconded
with the hardware and the silk. Please send
a man who fixes things. Please send towels.
These curtains are pretty and incompetent.
They can't brush off the shouting in the streets.
Our recommendations were soft as cashmere.
We wrote it, loud and clear. Don't visit.
Didn't you hear us? Come quickly. Bring power.

-- Michelle Chan Brown


Michael Broek, author of The Logic of Yoo, began his discussion with this question: how does a white man with empathy write with authority? Broek calls himself a middle-class male with feelings, or the WIMF. For him, the personal lyric was not enough. This led him toward intertexuality (splicing together unrelated texts) and hybridity, which blends together various genres. Research, he observes is key to this kind of poetry of witness. Perhaps, he said, this approach leads to an anti-poetic state of mind. Or maybe he is just talking about using government-generated text like the torture memos of John Yoo, the Bush era lawyer who justified waterboarding.

Immediately following this panel, Broek did a dramatic reading of The Logic of Yoo, which brought to life what the panel Witnessing New Political Poetries: Documentation, Intertextuality & Hybridity started. The reading included projections.


The Logic of Yoo: A Dramatic Reading
Abdul Ali, Michael Broek, Martha Collins, Fred Marchant, John Rosenwald, Lee Sharkey

Here is an example from The Logic of Yoo:

Screen Shot 2014-03-30 at 11.11.10 PM.png

After hearing the reading and trying to absorb all its interplay of elements, the Dresser suggested this work was like William Kentridge's The Refusal of Time and should be an installation that one could come back re-visit.

March 29, 2014

Split This Rock: Readings that Breathe Fire--Anne Waldman & More

The 2014 Split This Rock Poetry Festival is conducting its major reading events in the elegant Grosvenor Auditorium of National Geographic.

Gelman.jpgThe March 28 program, which was free to the public (as the two March 28 reading programs also are), began with a tribute to Juan Gelman who died January 14. Master of Ceremonies Dan Vera recited Gelman's poem on poetry in both Spanish and English. Here is the English translation by Rami Saari and Vivian Eden:

Juan Gelman

a few things must be said /
that nobody reads it much /
that those nobodies are few /
that the whole world is into the issue of the global crisis /

and the issue of eating every day / this is
an important issue / I remember
when Uncle Juan was dying of starvation /
he said he hadn't remembered to eat and there was no problem /

but the problem was afterwards /
there was no money for a casket /
when at long last the municipal van came to take him away Uncle Juan looked like a birdie /

the guys from the municipality looked at him with scorn or disdain / complaining
that they are always being harassed /
that they are men and they bury men /
and not birdies like Uncle Juan /

especially as he chirped all the way to the municipal crematorium /
and it seemed disrespectful to them and they were very offended /
and when they told him to shut up already /
the cheeping flew through the truck and they felt
he was cheeping on their heads / my
Uncle Juan was like that / he loved to sing /
and he didn't see death as a reason to stop singing /
he entered the furnace singing cheep-cheep / his ashes came out and chirped for another moment /
and the guys from the municipality looked at their shoes gray with shame / but

back to poetry /
things are grim now for poets/
nobody reads them much / those nobodies are few /
their profession has lost prestige / day by day it's harder for a poet

to win a girl's love / to run for president/
for a shopkeeper to give him credit /
for fighters to perform heroic deeds so he'll sing about them /
for a king to pay him three golden coins per line /

and no one knows if this is because girls / shopkeepers / fighters / kings are extinct
or simply because poets are extinct /
or both of the above and it's useless
to wrack our brains over this question /

what's nice is to know that it is possible to chirp
in the strangest circumstances /
Uncle Juan after his death / I, now,
so you will love me.

If this was the only thing audience heard, it would have been enough, but what followed was impressive and engaging.

Malachi Byrd, a young poet with a history of hard times, gave a spoken word presentation of who he is and where he came from in a moving performance.Byrd.jpg

karen_skolfield.jpgKaren Skolfield, winner of the 2014 Split This Rock Poetry Contest, read her winning poem "At the Mall, There's a Machine That Tells You If You Are Racist." The poem which is comically drawn weighs in on racism in every day America.

Kelson.jpgMaria Melendez Kelson, who said "breath is my first language," moved closer to the audience to deliver her series of poems, including "ICE Agents Storm My Porch."

Seibles.jpgTim Seibles, a poet influence by Amiri Baraka and June Jordan, read in a mellifluous voice from his long poem "One Turn Round the Sun."

Anne Waldman, co-founder with Allen Ginsberg of the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics at Naropa University, gave a performance that conjured the witches of Macbeth moved to Tibet. Waldman who chants, croons, howls her words filled the auditorium with what can only be understood as disembodied poetics. Fascinating to the Dresser was her passages that moved from the evil Decider of the 5th rank to a rant on archives, the importance of preserving the word. Visit her Youtube performance Manatee/Humanity which she performed for Split This Rock.Waldman.jpg


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