Sunday, September 26, 2010

Rhapsodic Doings- August through September

I have much to report concerning the progress of rhapsodes and rhapsodics since my last posting.

On August 11, I performed Reverberance: A Poetic Rhapsody at the Albert-Carlton Cashiers Community Library in Cashiers, North Carolina. At the inspiration of the library's program director, Marilyn Staats, we dovetailed the evening into a Favorite Poem event, inviting Cashiers community members to submit their favorite poems and the reason it was their favorite. The Favorite Poem project was started by Robert Pinsky when he was U.S. Poet Laureate in the late 1990s (visit for more details). The whole evening was a great success. Seventy people attended and twelve community members of all ages read (and sang) their favorites. We have plans to reprise this event next summer with a new repertory from me and the community members.

Here is the program I performed, with subject headings by which each section was arranged:


Walt Whitman Have You Reckon’d a Thousand Acres Much

Shakespeare The Lunatic, the Lover, and the Poet (Midsummer Night’s Dream)

S. T. Coleridge Kubla Khan


Walt Whitman Smile, O Voluptuous, Cool-Breath’d Earth

William Wordsworth Daffodils

Alfred Tennyson The Eagle

John Hollander Vowel Owl


John Keats Bright Star! Would I Were Steadfast as Thou Art

Sir John Suckling The Constant Lover

Shakespeare My Mistress’ Eyes

Andrew Marvell To His Coy Mistress

John Donne The Flea

Leigh Hunt Jenny Kiss’d Me


William Wordsworth My Heart Leaps Up

Robert Frost Choose Something Like a Star

Leigh Hunt Abou Ben Adhem

Emma Lazarus The New Colossus


Percy Shelley Ozymandias

Alfred Tennyson Ulysses (excerpt)

William Oldys On a Fly Drinking Out of His Cup

A.E. Housman To An Athlete Dying Young

Dylan Thomas Fern Hill


all anonymous except where noted

The lim’rick packs laughs astronomical

(an introduction in rhyme:)From all the available rhymes

A dying mosquito exclaimed,

A verb brought a noun home to dine

There once was a girl named Irene,

There once was a man from Japan

There once was a gal from Peru

Audience Participation

H.W. Longfellow Excelsior


Horace Happy the man (translation by John Dryden)

My idea to perform Excelsior as an audience participation moment was inspired by Pete Seeger, who almost single-handedly sparked the folk music revival in the 1960s by traveling and performing all over the United States. His aim was to encourage everyone to sing folk songs and his method was to get them to sing along with him during his concerts. I wanted to find a way to do something similar in poetry concerts. I thought that having the audience perform a one-word refrain (excelsior) would be non-threatening and fun. I introduced the piece by letting the audience know that I wanted to initiate them into the realm of rhapsodizing and for them to listen to the words of the verses for clues as to HOW to perform the one-word refrain. It was great fun and met with enthusiastic success in performance. Appropriately, one of the community members, Lee Knight, is a folksinger who knows and performed with Pete Seeger. Lee ended the community member performances with his rendition of “Where Have All the Flowers Gone.”

The performance space at the Cashiers library was more than I expected. It was an raised stage (about a foot) with a well-outfitted dressing room that had theatre lights around the mirrors! All the library staff was just marvelous in preparing for the event. Head librarian Sarah Skrobis made a great poster and display for the library and fliers to post around town. Marilyn Staats worked tirelessly every day since the middle of July to spread the word and get community members to participate. If not for Marilyn and Sarah, we would not have had even one-quarter of the people attending – a small town on a Wednesday evening (which I later found out was church night).

While the performance was gearing up and being performed in Cashiers, I was arranging for a similar but also different version of Reverberance at the University of Tampa scheduled for production on Friday and Saturday nights, September 24 and 25. I invited university professors Bradford Blackburn, a composer of electronic music and Tracy Ann Morse, a professor of rhetoric and interpreter using American Sign Language, and six University of Tampa performing arts and theatre students to join me in the performance. Dr. Blackburn would accompany me in my performance of the poem “The Conqueror Worm” by Edgar Allan Poe, Dr. Morse would sign some of the poems, and each student would perform about five minutes worth of poetry. The collaborations with both my professional colleagues are also tied to research that we will do with topics related to our mutual performances. Dr. Blackburn and I will research and write about our process of combining spoken word poetry with music and Dr. Morse and I will research and write about the effect of the gestural language stemming from American Sign Language on a hearing audience.

My repertory at the U of Tampa performance was:

Walt Whitman The Origin of All Poems

John Keats On the Grasshopper and the Cricket

Alfred Tennyson The Splendor Falls

S. T. Coleridge Kubla Khan

Walt Whitman Smile, O Voluptuous, Cool-Breath’d Earth

William Wordsworth


My Heart Leaps Up

Sir John Suckling The Constant Lover

William Shakespeare My Mistress’ Eyes

Andrew Marvell To His Coy Mistress

John Donne The Flea

Edgar Allan Poe The Conqueror Worm

The Bells

Percy B. Shelley Ozymandias

A.E. Housman To An Athlete Dying Young

William Oldys On a Fly Drinking out of his cup

Dylan Thomas Fern Hill

H.W. Longfellow Excelsior

Horace Happy the man (translation by John Dryden)

The six students and their performances were:

Victoria Williams

"Postscript" by Henri Coulette

"The Makers" by Howard Nemerov

Colleen Cherry

"Meditations in an Emergency"

"A Step Away from Them" both by Frank O'Hara

Aileen Suseck

"The Thread of Life"

A selection from "Monna Innominata"

Patricia Yeazell

Two Poems by T.S. Eliot from his book Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats

"The Naming of Cats"

"The Ad-dressing of Cats”

Danielle Calderone

A Selection of Percy Bysshe Shelley:

"Love's Philosophy"

"Love, Hope, Desire and Fear"

"When A Lover Clasps His Fairest"

"A Widow Bird Sat Mourning For Her Love"

Griffeth Whitehurst

Selection from Walt Whitman's "Song of Myself"

As we worked together, I thought that Brad (Dr. Blackburn) should perform a companion piece along with “The Conqueror Worm” and we both agreed that “The Bells” would be the best choice. For “The Conqueror Worm,” Brad employed a 10-string guitar that he adapted from a 12-string guitar. This was processed through his MacBook Pro laptop and audio console. My voice was also slightly processed for dramatic effect to fit with the audio effects. For “The Bells,” Brad went through several versions of electronic audio “patches,” which processed sound samples from various sources, including rattling chains. The final effect was very satisfying to both of us and I found that it really helped my performance of the piece.

As Tracy (Dr. Morse) and I worked together, I thought that I would like to sign one simple poem in tandem with her. We both agreed that Wordsworth’s “My Heart Leaps Up” would be the perfect choice among the repertory for the show. In fact, I loved Tracy’s designation of the poem as “the little black dress of poems.” We worked together on choreographing the movements and the signs themselves. There was aesthetic and communicative license taken in trying to convey what my interpretation was and what Tracy saw as appropriate sign interpretations. For example, I wanted to emphasize the word “natural” in the final line “Bound each to each by natural piety.” Tracy suggested we add the gesture for “natural” – two fingers of the right hand making a circle and coming down with a slap on the top of the closed left fist – to communicate this word. We agreed to enlarge the size of the circle and bring the two fingers down with a clearly audible slap in order to effect the emphasis desired.

I worked very little with students, mostly only clarifying and guiding them in their selections. I did get a chance to hear four out of the six students and make suggestions for their delivery. I hand-picked all of them based on having worked with them in class and/or in productions. The students who worked with me the day before the first performance showed a noticeable improvement in their performances and I was happy that I could contribute to their performances. I was very happy to have them all in the shows and their presence and performance there gave added variety and a sense of momentum to my larger vision of the rhapsode project.

The performances on the University of Tampa campus took place in the Edison building, a space used more for dance concerts than plays or poetry concerts. About seventy people attended on Friday night and perhaps twenty attended on Saturday night.

I am hoping that the performance encourages other people to perform poetry aloud and I look forward to starting a pilot rhapsode group at the university. I mentioned this in the program and at the end of my first part of the performance. I had several audience members approach me wanting to perform in a rhapsody in the future. I have arranged for some to perform next week at our scheduled performances at the Gorilla Theatre here in Tampa.