By Kenna Caprio
Before joining FDU visiting professor, novelist and musician Wesley Stace and poet Tom Sleigh for the second day of WAMFEST 2012, punk-rocker Kristin Hersh tweeted Stace asking: “question: when are lyrics poetry?”
He replied, “We’ll get into that this afternoon!” And they did.
Welcome to WAMFEST—the Words and Music Festival, a celebrated annual event at Fairleigh Dickinson University where creative writing and popular artists meet.
“I’m pragmatic in my approach to people and their art. Students want to know how they (WAMFEST guests) got going and how to be a success,” says Stace, a British import and the permanent WAMFEST artist-in-residence. “It’s why ‘Words and Music’ exists in the first place — it’s applying what students are learning at university. It’s not where the arts are as lofty as Parnassus,” he says referring to a mountain near Delphi, the supposed home of the mythical Greek Muses.
Mark Morris—world-renown dancer and choreographer and the first guest of WAMFEST 2012—would most likely agree with Stace that becoming a part of the arts community is not such an impossible pursuit.
“My father taught me to read music when I was six,” says Morris. Also at a young age, Morris started taking dance lessons: he learned Israeli, Bulgarian, Croatian and Yugoslavian folk dancing and later, Spanish dance.
“Everybody likes dancing better than not dancing. As children discover, spinning around is much more fun than standing around,” he says.
In 1980, Morris formed the Mark Morris Dance Group, and has since created more than 130 works for the company. He also choreographs ballet and opera, and has created works for the San Francisco Ballet.
Despite composing across genres, a constant for Morris is that “the music comes first,” notes Stace. “Do you hear music and say ‘I want to walk to that?’” Stace asks Morris during their conversation.
“I do my job as a choreographer because of music. I don’t have dances in my head,” says Morris. “I think like music does.”
Which is similar to the headspace that punk-rocker Hersh finds herself in when composing a song.
“The process takes 24 hours as the song refines itself into instruments that I know, a phonetic melody,” she says. “I don’t feeling like I’m the one deciding. I wait and see what the song said.”
Hersh founded the art-punk band Throwing Muses at the age of 14 in 1981, and in 2004, moved on to form 50FootWave.
Similarly, Sleigh — the author of eight books of poetry and recipient of an Academy Award from the American Academy of Arts — says he “listens a lot too. I’m perfectly useless as I’m concentrating,” he cracks. Unlike Hersh though, Sleigh also admits to sometimes going through 200 drafts of a poem before settling on a version.
“I’m not interested in ‘ideas’ in terms of poetry — it’s the reaching inside the mind and feeling the texture of a mind, of a life,” says Sleigh.
Hersh agrees, “I would hope that any work would be an idiosyncratic version of something universal that people can relate to,” she says.
Eventually, the three return to the topic Hersh tweeted to Stace: When are lyrics poetry?
“An old teacher of mine in Baltimore, went to a club and saw Billie Holiday (perform),” says Sleigh. After meeting her, she said to him, “‘You know the difference between a song and a poem?’ ‘No.’ ‘I don’t want many words or long words,’ she said,” says Sleigh. The three laugh, and then Stace quips: “I’ve worked out the difference between rock songs and novels.” And Hersh offers, “I like meter because it tricks you into what you want to say.” They don’t come to a consensus, but it seems to be better this way, open to artistic interpretation — just the way they like it.
At the following day’s event, with novelist Barbara Froman and poet P.K. Harmon but minus Stace, the topics of inspiration and music continue to be paramount.
Froman and Harmon — the prose and poetry winners of the 2011 Serving House Books Award, established by FDU professors and writers Walter Cummins and Thomas Kennedy — both have music backgrounds as well. Froman has two degrees in music composition and Harmon plays in a rock band.
“Lyrics and poems are two different things. (Still), it’s that whole ‘show don’t tell’ thing — something has to be physically and emotionally present for the reader,” says Harmon.
And so when Froman reads from her first chapter of “Shadows and Ghosts,” it’s hard not to notice the cadence of the words, and in Harmon’s poetry it’s also easy to see the musicality. How could a reader or listener not, with these words: “In the tiniest of tide pools is reflected the faintest of stars,” in his title poem “What Island”?
WAMFEST, an annual series hosted by FDU’s Becton College and the Creative Writing Program, is an ongoing celebration and exploration of the arts. Events bring together artists from various fields for unique conversations, collaborations, and performances. Past guests include Bruce Springsteen, Robert Pinsky, Josh Ritter, Rosanne Cash and Paul Muldoon.
The festival continues next week with author Michael Gray on “Bob Dylan & the Poetry of Blues” on April 17 at 5:30 p.m., Poet Laureate of South Africa Keorapetse Kgositsile on April 18 at 2 p.m. and closes with poet Quincy Troupe and hip-hop artist Kalib Kweli on Thursday, April 19 at 2 p.m.