In June 2015 Lucinda Williams and her father Miller Williams, an internationally known poet, sat together to make a video. Grammy Award Winner Lucinda has written a song called Compassion based on her father’s poem of the same name.
It was the last time they were to see each other.
On YouTube he reads his poem, and then Lucinda sings her composition Compassion. You can sense how proud he is of her. He’d often appeared with her, reading his poems between her songs. No big ego from either one of these two talented creators.
In the video, it’s clear that Lucinda had entered her father’s poem and made a different kind of ‘art thing’ from it, a song.
Obviously he didn’t think the song was a lesser art form than the poem, though I can see how some might.
I wonder whether Lewis Carroll would have minded that I stepped into Wonderland to have a look round.
In Three Sets of Literary Haibun, I did just that. Let’s join Alice at table with The Mad Hatter and friends.
“I beg your pardon,” said Alice very
humbly; “ you had got to the fifth bend
in the story, I think.”
“I had not!” cried the Mouse, sharply
and very angrily.
“A knot!” said Alice, always ready to
make herself useful. “Oh do let me help
to undo it!”
by this nonsense
a dormouse growls
It is a little aside, something Carroll may not have noticed, or wanted to put into his account.
The senryu doesn’t complete the story, it merely connects with what we know to an unexpected sound from the dormouse. A dormouse makes little squeaking sounds but sounds its time sleeping. Here the word ‘growls’ indicates a dormouse having trouble sleeping because of the noise and squabbling at the table, a grumpy mouse. Just now, I googled ‘dormouse sounds’, and herd its squeal. If I’d done this earlier, I might have written ‘a dormouse chatters his teeth’, which seems to be another dormouse sound.
In the next haibun, I focused on the lowly Queen’s Gardeners.
“Would you tell me please,” said Alice
a little timidly, “why you are painting
those white roses?”
“Why the fact is you see, Miss, this
ought to have been a red rose-tree.”
The Queen! The Queen! …and the
Gardeners instantly threw themselves
flat on their faces.
paint drops drip
the knaves stressed out
Alice in Wonderland is as contemporary today as it was when written. It’s worth rereading it to note the parallels in our own lives and governing systems. In this set of thirteen haibun, (as in the other two sets on the poems of Gary Geddes and Sue Goyette, I use the author’s words, or a precis of them, in the prose part.
In Alice’s day, people seldom worried about how they felt about the servants and their difficult work and long hours. Twelve hours a day over hot tubs scrubbing and then ironing with heavy irons, or cooking below stairs. They paid insignificant wages so that they could have boiled collars and twelve course dinners. Stressed out.
The Red Queen is a bully. She doesn’t worry about how she made anyone feel, and you could empathize with those gardeners doing their very best, always on the brink of having their heads cut off, and never expecting mercy. Life was absurd, and they had to get used to it.
Sort of like being Aboriginal, or a scientist, a veteran or a creative person under Harper’s Conservative government. After Alice leaves Wonderland, what happens next…
This week, Ottawa poet and short story writer Deborah-Anne Tunney ― cover above of her book The View From the Lane (2014, Enfield & Wizenty, Great Plains Publications) ― read us her poem based on a scene from Hitchcock’s ‘The Birds’. She took us inside a kitchen, focusing on the tensions between Annie and Melanie.
Ms. Tunney enabled us to concentrate particularly on two characters in a scene that is not as often recalled as many of the others in the movie. Her poem introduced us to the women in an intelligent, intimate way, making it more memorable. “…alone in the living room/ of that bungalow off a dirt road, speaking/ of Lydia’s mind shaped like a/ kitchen, the crazed cruel love Annie// keeps hidden in a cupboard…”
From one art work to another, a tribute. I think Hitchcock would have been delighted, just as Cavafy would be pleased at what his poem had generated for Leonard Cohen. To decide to get inside someone else’s work, to show that spending time with it is valuable enough for you to do so, is tribute; it can also be a fascinating adventure. As well, for a practitioner of one form to create a new ‘thingness’ from an already ‘made thingness’ can make it possible for the original to reach a completely different audience/readership/listener, and all in the spirit of ‘upcycling’…
Remember when a poem was something you had to deal with. It was a part of the curriculum and often the teacher didn’t understand the poem either. But the Teacher’s Manual on page 214 had a description of what the poem was about. Our job was to guess what was in that manual. Think of those essays set in which you were to analyze a piece of writing. Often you didn’t understand what was happening in the book, article or poem to start with. Literature was so dull. Précis…Ugh!
One way of understanding complicated writing, or to get closer to the intention of any poem, or even just to enjoy it in its fullness, might be to approach it as a method actor might do.
Whether the work is a popular play, or avant garde, the actors’ mission is to create in themselves a sense of the character, to get inside their thoughts, and develop the psychological, emotional feelings of those characters. Some actors stay in character for the run of the play so they can fully experience living in the character’s life.
Recalling 19th century woodcuts by creating haibun, to create from Cavafy a contemporary piece of music, writing “The Birds” into poetry, forming a new poem based on another, is to disturb the finality of a form, to allow it to leak out into a different environment, a different time. This can be disturbing to the original creator who may feel possessive about his/her work; they may see it as a suggestion that their work is not already complete as is.
Yet to be excited enough about someone’s work to try it, is to attempt to integrate the source world with your own consciousness. It is to realize that any created piece can have an unending future, even though the original work stopped in time when it was completed.
Re-entering a piece of art can bring the original again to the attention of today’s reader, possibly a different audience, to have it reconsidered. Not ‘oh that poem again, I read that ten years ago…’ but a chance to react differently because you have placed yourself and others inside that stopped time, and shifted it to the present.
Because of this altered energy, a contemporary section of a work’s genealogy comes into being, as well as a new bridge to its future. In stopping the time of the work, it says Let’s get on that train, and stop at a different station. Have a look around.Let’s invite ourselves into Hitchcock’s kitchen with Ms. Tunney, sit down for a while with Melanie and Annie. Get to know them, ask different questions of them than Hitchcock did. Let’s watch the woman in the field with Peter, discuss why she might be braiding grass methodically as if it were her daughter’s hair.
Recently, with permission of the two living authors, I invited myself into the lives of three different situations they have created, so I could get closer to imaginary people who represented real people, real conundrums, real relationships: The writers are Lewis Carroll, Susan Goyette and Gary Geddes.
This excerpt is from the third section of Three Sets of Literary Haibun, Gary Geddes and Claudia Radmore (2015, catkin press). It is based on ‘Spearman’, a poem from The Terracotta Army (1984, Oberon Press; 2010, Goose Lane Editions), winner of the Commonwealth Prize, Americas Region.
I have arrived in the workshop/studio of Lao Bi, the artist who sculpted the soldiers’ faces, and I sit quietly in a corner. For the artist it must have been the commission of a lifetime, the culmination of his life’s work so far. I imagine the Emperor summoning him, the artist in awe of the Emperor, and all the bowing involved in the meeting. Or perhaps it was done through an emissary. In any case, this Emperor was more like a god to Lao Bi, at least in his range of powers over a lowly artist’s life and death. I wonder what was going on in Lao Bi’s mind. Was he at all suspicious of the Emperor’s intentions…
Gary Geddes lets you see him through the soldiers characters and the artist’s interaction with them. A spearman enters the studio and Lao Bi tells him where to stand. The artist has a great many portraits to make in clay, and I imagine he was chosen because of his skills and his ability to work to deadline. Where the Emperor was concerned the word ‘deadline’, could mean just that, so he has to work quickly. Here is a haibun from Three Sets written after Geddes’ ‘Spearman’ poem.
He has worn his armoured vest and spear for the sitting. Pleased, Lao Bi laughs out loud, creates an uncanny likeness―not just the face but the way the sleeves bunch up at the wrist, the studs and fluted leather of the shoulder pads.
ordered to the frontier/ the spearman leaves/ himself behind
The haibun is consciously brief, and uses many of Geddes words and phrases, a sort of ‘found’ prose. In the original poem, Geddes builds the spearman’s character, recounting the soldier’s amazement that the artist can take his measure in a single sitting. That would have been the first sitting. It is in the second setting that the spearman has returned in full regalia ― proud of his calling, he strikes his own pose, a daring attitude in the presence of the Emperor’s artist ― and we see the artist suddenly liking the spearman, seeing someone he can relate to, and beginning a relationship with the soldier, with the man; perhaps he will share the contents of his wineskin with him, get to know him better.
Then the spearman is called to the front, and is reluctant to leave his village, but also, strangely , to leave this image of himself. You can imagine him wondering why it was important to him; there’s a sense of awakening. Today we have so many images of ourselves, but in Emperor Qin Shi Huang’s time, it was unknown to even think of such a thing, especially if you were a lowly person, like a spearman.
The original poem makes you aware that the soldier realizes that his chances of returning alive are slim. He may never survive the next battle, but now he knows there will be this sculpture left to remind others of him. There is poignance in the original, especially because though we know his statue would be buried for many centuries, he probably would not have known the Emperor’s plan at the time. This short literary haibun simply slips me into the studio, so that I can emphasize in the haibun the care with which the artist replicates the trappings of a soldier’s existence.
The haiku reminds also of the more philosophical implications of leaving ones’ self behind. It does what much of Japanese-form poetry does ― reminding us of the transience of our world.
Gary has created so many beautiful portraits, so many human soldiers, in The Terracotta Army, and these few haibun are meant as small windows into this collection. In his introduction, you get to see how Lao Bi, or Old Bi himself becomes an interesting character in the poet’s mind, how he began to make his characters come alive for him..
These haibun will also serve to broadcast his work to a different audience. In October I will present this kind of ‘living inside another writer’s work’ at the Haiku North America Conference in Schenectady, New York.
Many American haiku, tanka, and haibun poets will attend, as will several poets from other parts of the world who might not have heard of Gary Geddes’ work. He is well known in Canada and among lyric poets, but this will be outreach to a different readership; once they hear about Geddes’ poems through these thirteen short haibun about the Terracotta Soldier, they will want to read the originals.
Gary, I will only take a small cut of the sales profits.
In a future post, I’ll continue with little literary haibun based on Ocean, (2014, Gaspereau Press) by Sue Goyette, and Alice in Wonderland, by Lewis Carroll., from my Three Sets of literary Haibun.