Spring 2012 Review

Many thanks to our incredibly talented performers, our wonderful Artist in Residence Wesley Stace, our enthusiastic and supportive fans and our gracious sponsors Bob and Patricia Pures.  Enjoy the reviews and photos below – see you next year!

Tuesday, April 17th: A Conversation with Author Michael Gray, the World Authority on Bob Dylan

Words by Kiera Lanier.  All photos by Dan Landau.

The event was phenomenal – taking the audience on a journey through the life and successes of Bob Dylan. If you didn’t know about Dylan before, you became an expert on him through the discussion of his influence on author Michael Gray.

The uniqueness of how Dylan wrote – using a compilation of lyrics from previous songs rather than words that he thought on his own – was genius. He always acknowledged that they weren’t his own lyrics but rather a combination of lyrics from previous songs by other artists who he admired (this can be seen on the albums Highway 61 Revisited and Bringing it Back Home where the titles hint at a reference of past songs where Dylan gives tribute). He also brilliantly snuck in lyrics from old blues songs that weren’t structured as blues songs.

“He is so specific and critical.  Dylan does a style and incorporates it once and once only in a way where he makes it impossible for anyone else to even attempt to do what he does,” said Gray, astonished at his unfailing efforts of setting himself apart from every other musically talented artist. Most radically, Dylan relied solely on the blues throughout all of his work, which is weirdly twisted in a fantastic way, and became all the more fantastic in Michael Gray’s telling of it.

Gray couldn’t have had a better, more avid audience; they ate up the stories of his beginnings as an artist and the art he is currently making. And, overall, they were given a better sense and understanding of who he is and what he hoped to accomplish with music.

“The purpose of blues music is to express the concerns of the community,” he said. And through Gray’s interview, the audience of FDU students were given the big picture of the community both Dylan and Gray have made themselves apart of.

Wednesday, April 18th: A Reading and Conversation with South African Poet Laureate Keorapetse Kgotsitsile, Poet and Jimi Hendrix Biographer David Henderson, Author  Siphiwo Mahala and Author Jeffery Renard Allen

Words by Becky Fine-Firesheets.

Keorapetse Kgotsitsile began this amazing event with a reading from his poetry collection, This Way I Salute You.  His rhythm and pacing, the multiple tones ringing together in his beautiful reading voice, the way he held out the ends of his words and accented unusual syllables, all made his poems feel more like pieces of music than words on a page; one could almost hear the instruments supporting him in the background.

“Without music, there would be no poetry,” he said during the lively Q&A that followed the readings.  “Poetry is at its best when it approaches ritual… aspires to be sung, aspires to be music.”  His own poems truly capture this concept; lines like, “How you sound is who you are… even in this place of strange and brutal design,” took on a very melodic and mysterious feel as he read them.

“There is music that’s music but there is also the music of language,” he said.  “I think the separation between the two was created in the classroom.  Otherwise, they’re organically related.  When I’m writing, I don’t think.  I think away from writing.  To create music at that moment, I sit down to make my poem, not think it.”

David Henderson immediately agreed, adding, “You just sit down, you get the inspiration and you start writing.”

Before the questions flowed, Henderson shared sections from his biography on long-time friend and musical icon Jimi Hendrix.  From menage a trois to uprooting London society to writing a song alone at night to supporting the Black Panthers and Anti-Vietnam movements, Hendrix led a busy and influential life that Henderson completely captured through a mix of straight-forward language, humor and poetic prose.

Siphiwo Mahala read a short story from his latest collection that sounded much like a night out with Hendrix complete with drinking, dancing and flirting.  Mahala’s sometimes surreal descriptions combined with very physical passages and funny dialogue brought laughter from the audience while also painting a sexy and sensual scene many listeners could relate to.  When asked how music affects his writing process, Mahala said that he “tries to capture sounds more than just music.”  He then went on to describe how he uses the presence of sounds in comparison to silence in order to guide some of his characters and plots.

Jeffery Renard Allen, on the other hand, has completely melded the two forms in his latest book on Blind Tom, a musical prodigy from the late 19th century.  His writing felt more like poetry than a biography or even a story; the words flowed like a song that depicted the idea of Blind Tom, his aura and mystique, rather than blunt descriptions of his life and personality.

“I like the musicality of language,” Allen said when asked about how the two media influence his process.  “Blind Tom played before there were recordings so I have to imagine the music while I’m writing.”

As both Kgotsitsile and Henderson are remarkable and influential activists, the event ended with a question on the connection between literature and politics.

“The political in my poetry comes in simply because I am political.  I don’t think of writing something political, it’s more organic for me,” Kgotsitsile answered.

“Poetry has always been political, especially in the Black Rights Movement.  We were involved in Civil Rights,” Henderson said.  “There’s so much oppression of information that it has to come out somehow.  I think the poets are driven by this.”

Kgotsile then closed out the afternoon with another incredible poem that included a line I feel truly captures the event:  “And when you talk of justice, did you know it’s just another word for compromise?”

Thursday, April 19th: A Conversation and Performance with Hip Hop Superstar Talib Kweli and Poet Quincy Troupe

Words by Amanda Alford.

Lenfell Hall was packed for Quincy Troupe and Talib Kweli’s performance – and both artists certainly rose to the occasion.

Quincy Troupe had a wealth of incredible stories about rubbing elbows and standing toe-to-toe with such artists and celebrities as Miles Davis, Jean-Paul Sartre, Jimi Hendrix and Magic Johnson. Incredible to the point of being fantastic – which prompted Wesley Stace’s question:

“Is there one point I should start assuming you’re making stuff up?” And with a voice like the streets of New Orleans, Troupe replied, “You’re free to do that whenever you want, but it’s all true.”

The completely unassuming appearance Troupe seemed to have when he took the stage fizzled out under the vibrancy of his deep, reaching voice. And it was his voice that brought the melding of iconic street corner jazz and hip hop rhythm to his poetry and stories.

Kweli had all the energy of a natural performer; cool and capable of a personable dialogue between himself and the audience. He talked about his journey through and with rhymes. And how it took a couple of rhyme books before he hit the rhythm and track that had all that he had been doing snapping to attention. His advice?

“You can’t get too caught up in the means to an end or in to the container you’re working in. Because neither poetry nor hip hop is about the rhyme – it’s about the story. Rhythm and rhyme is just a way to reach your audience.”

That idea was made even more explicit in the performances by these artists. As I looked around the room, I saw more tapping hands and feet than still bodies, each and every one of them drawn into dancing along to the beat of poetry and hip hop alike.  All in all, a brilliant end to this year’s WAMFEST.

Tuesday, April 3rd: A Conversation with Dancer, Choreographer and Director Mark Morris

Words by Amanda Alford.  All photos by Scott Giglio.

“There’s a name for that [incorporating eight beats into movement] . . .”Mark Morris was charming; his gestures seemed to embody a dance he had yet to choreograph and, if “gestures are what we use to communicate,” he showed himself to be an engaging and genuine character. What may have started out as a tense meeting rapidly became a warm and personable chat after a friendly jibe by host and writer-in-residence, Wesley Stace, that had the audience and Mark Morris laughing:


To which Mark Morris replied with a droll stare and a careless flip of his flamboyant pink scarf, “Choreography.”

And from there the interview sky-rocketed; topics of conversation ran the gamut – from anecdotes about working with dancers who made poor hairstyle decisions and came out looking like salamanders to his “evolution” as a dancer and choreographer. And radiating from each story was his particular blend of humour, charisma, and deeply rooted confidence in his talent. What more can you ask from an artist?

Wednesday, April 4th: Crooked Walks in Space: A Conversation, Reading and Performance with poet Tom Sleigh and Indie Rocker and Author Kristin Hersh

Words by Becky Fine-Firesheets.

Tom Sleigh  and Kristin Hersh came together on Wednesday for an unforgettable WAMFEST event hosted by FDU visiting professor Wesley Stace. While the two artists may have seemed dissimilar at first, it quickly became obvious why creator David Daniel so brilliantly paired them together; they’re both incredibly talented, producing work in which every minute detail is right on, yet neither of them consciously pays attention to the act.

“Music is something I have no control over,” Hersh said when asked about her process. “The words climb into my throat and then I have to spit them out. I make up new notes that don’t fit anywhere near the chords I’m playing… The craft is invisible to me. There’s no idea. For me, an idea is so removed from a song. If my brain is involved, I’ve already screwed up. I don’t feel like I’m the one deciding… The song is there, fully formed, and the last instrument is the phonetic melody known as syllables. I don’t necessarily think of what I need to say. I think rhyming and meter tricks you into saying what you mean.”

Sleigh agreed, saying, “None of it is very conscious.  It’s kind of like flying off the seat of your pants. Will doesn’t get me anywhere. The discipline comes because it’s all pleasure. I’m incredibly excited to be in the company of all these voices I hear, and to sort through them.”

“In the end, the conclusions we tend to make are far from academic,” Stace added. “We just do what we do best and love to do.”

In his jovial, natural and witty way, Stace moved the event along with a performance and reading by the two artists. Throughout the afternoon, the audience had the joy of hearing three of Hersh’s songs, all of them edgy and even guttural yet simultaneously deep, involved and flat-out gorgeous. She also read from her novel, Rat Girl, a memoir describing her early years as a 14-year-old rock star changing the music world with her bold and unique sound (check out her band, The Throwing Muses, for an example).

“This [novel] is actually my teenage dairy,” she said. “I published it. I wouldn’t recommend it.” But clips about her celebrity friends and their priests were dynamic, while other sections about her insecurities and hilariously deprecating sense of self were poignant and inspiring. We’re glad she published it, and still shocked that she had so much self-awareness and talent at such a young age.

Sleigh’s poems were also poignant and inspiring, along with rhythmic, melodic and truly mind-blowing examples of what a writer can achieve with words. His playful humour came out in lines like, “The vodka, bless its heart, keeps getting in my way,” while his poem, My Mother’s Kitchen is a Space Station, offered deep and thought-provoking insights on life and death, morality and immorality, happiness and longing, fate and control, our own abilities and inabilities as human animals. All of these insights were shared via a metaphor of outer space and gravity, providing the listeners with a beautiful and comfortably distant way to explore these concepts within themselves. Sleigh mentioned the idea of casting spells with poetry and music; he and Hersh certainly cast some magical spells over their audience, mainly because they both tap into this magic when creating and sharing their art.

“I would hope that any work would be an idiosyncratic version of something universal,” Hersh said. “The heaven behind the earth version of the word.”

“I want to achieve this kind of subconscious relaxation, a perfectly useless concentration,” Sleigh said with a laugh. “It’s a matter of fighting through the conscious intentions to write the poem. It’s all very much about the music. I can’t write unless I have it in my ear, a rhythmic impulse. You can’t will it… Good writing is not poetry to me. You wanna write things all the way to the bottom. I detest slick.”

Stace instantly jumped on this statement, dubbing the two artists as the perfect example of “unslick.” This is truly the best word for the artists and the overall event; unslick as in raw, honest and completely beautiful.
Thursday, April 5th: A Reading with Serving House Books Contest Winners Barbara Froman and P.K. Harmon

Words by Amanda Alford.

The event on Thursday was an intimate gathering with Barbara Froman and P.K. Harmon reading to a small but enthusiastic group.

Barbara Froman’s characters in Shadows and Ghosts came alive through the rhythm of her speech and her devotion, artfully portraying them with the tone of her voice and distinct accents.

What  Island, P.K. Harmon’s collection of poetry, brims with captivating imagery. His poem about an unaffected gecko brought laughter; another about voices in conflict brought an appreciation for conflicts largely unrecognized. And each piece revolved around, and brought the students closer to, the heart of Harmon’s interests and unique voice.

Each of these authors brought music to their work in some shape or form: Froman, a former composer and pianist, sees that art has the greatest impact on how she paves structure in her novel and to her inclusion of “pure form, [particular appreciation for and focus on] the sounds of words, everything that is musical.”

For Harmon, the story is a bit different: he recognizes music’s impact on his poetry, but as a lyricist for a rock group he is also quick to understand the differences. “You only have your judgements suggested [in poetry]; singer/songwriters yell that suggestion.”

Whatever the case for each of these authors, they brought something special to their work that made listening to, and being a part of, the reading a unique experience.

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