Seven for Kwame
Kwame and I have a running joke each time we begin a new collaboration. It begins and ends with him saying, “Good luck finding some music in these [poems] [chuckle chuckle].” It goes back to 2004 when he handed me a printout of the manuscript for Wisteria: Twilight Songs from the Swamp Country and said, “See if you can do anything with this.” What I discovered while pouring over those poems is what I rediscover each time he hands me his poetry: it is filled—so utterly—with music. And any composer worth his salt would wonder, as I had, in a bit of a panic, “How am I supposed to find additional music in this?!” I was at pains to figure out what sort of musical adaptation could add to an already-finished composition, something so lyrically dense and self-singing. Call me a purist but I think most artworks function well enough on their own and adaptations very rarely make something new that can stand on its own (more on this later). Thankfully, despite my apprehensions, I was able to find “additional” music in Wisteria, which became a multimedia stage performance featuring Kwame, five singers, and an instrumental ensemble of strings and woodwinds, and a touchstone for my work as composer.
Since then, I have written music for two additional full-length works by Kwame: the Emmy Award-winning HOPE: Living & Loving with HIV in Jamaica and Voices of Haiti—each completed with the soul-wrenching trepidation that I’d botch it all up. I’m happy to say that the anxiety has diminished over the years, not because the task has become easier—it hasn’t—but because taking up the challenge to compose musical adaptations of Kwame’s work has led to some of the most enlightening endeavors of my professional life as both a composer and as a poet.
The spirit of Kwame’s work—all of it—springs from generosity and a conviction that poetry is an entry into and an expression of all things. I stress all because anyone looking at the scope of what he’s considered in his own work, and as a curator, arts administrator, editor, and literary impresario, would be hard pressed to say his enterprise isn’t one of consummate inclusion and breadth. Spirituality, politics, race, sexuality, art, history, illness, music and nature are just some of the topics that come readily to mind. Nothing is off limits, nothing is unworthy of poetic exploration and expression. This has been an education for me.
Trained as a classical musician, for years, my idea of creative rigor was more akin to rigor mortis. Craft was utmost and lent itself more readily to certain subjects, certain contexts, certain audiences. This was a tenet of my beliefs as a musician, composer and writer and, much like the religious zealotry of my youth, hampered the development of my spirit and that of my work. Kwame’s example helped relieve me of that bloodless orthodoxy. His poetry about the sensuality of illness, the imperiling of mind, soul and body through systematized racism, the resilient and buffering bodies of children in aftershock, the testaments that only he could witness and dispatch with such clear affection. As his young collaborator, my music and my reading of poetry had to risk roaming and displacement and disruption if it was to adhere, in any way, to his vision for what poetry could and should do.
There have been some near misses. One in particular, makes me cringe anytime I recall it. During rehearsal the night before the debut of Wisteria, I decided to cut music from a piece because I thought the poem should stand a cappella—in Kwame’s voice alone. Though I had initially placed the poem in the MUST SET WITH MUSIC stack, as the performance got closer, I began to doubt that the musical timing would work with Kwame’s pacing and thought, better safe than sorry, let’s cut it. It’s not that I felt the music was insufficient to support and, ultimately, to amplify the text. I made the call because I was afraid there might be a hiccup in the performance, that everything wouldn’t fall in place and there would be some overhang, either the music would linger longer than it should or that it would end abruptly. Kwame said, “I think we should keep it” in that calm and knowing tone that quietly opposes my overwrought protestations and proclamations.
When the moment came for the quartet (Kwame, two singers and me at the piano), my hands were shaking. I know this because the audio recording has forever immortalized a couple of slippages (my playing some rogue notes that I quickly wove into the fabric of the music). As the piece unfolded, as the singers sang into Kwame’s rhythm, as he crescendoed and decrescendoed through the telling, as I rolled the chords and held my breath, we got caught up, lifted up. Us and the audience. It was transcendent.
For a long time I came to the page to quantify my various selves in poems that were essentially ciphers. I took to hiding, to stashing. It was a privacy that didn’t serve to create poetry that could function publicly. I was afraid and ashamed to write of family, of trauma, of an unreconciled past. All these years later, I cannot conceive of writing a poem that isn’t explicit because I’m ashamed to make it so.
At the Cave Canem faculty reading in the summer of 2006, Kwame read a series of poems that, to this day, stand sentinel for me, presiding over whatever part of the mind governs inhibition. One, in particular, recounted a very personal event that shook his family in Jamaica. It had the musics of a tone poem and a requiem and the elegiac strains were unapologetic and bare. It was a master class in how craft, form and subject matter fracture and flow into a poem. And then there was Kwame’s trembling voice, embodying that shameless ecstasy, performing the poem.
While promoting Wisteria, a BBC interviewer asked me what qualified Kwame to write about the history of the American South, a history that was not his own. Taken aback by such an ill-informed question and anxious to fill the silence on live radio, I couldn’t formulate a pithy response and instead said something about him having lived in the South. That was 10 years ago when I was less ornery and battle worn than I am now. What I should’ve said was that the African diaspora is capacious but running through it are the threads of the drum, the griot, the field holler, the ululation, the bending note, the call and the response, the backbeat, the moan. It’s the congregation of these utterances, and others, that mark the individual and collective experience of the African diaspora of which Ghanaian-Jamaican Kwame is unequivocally a part. Had this interviewer ever heard Kwame read his work, perform its music?
Long before the recent proliferation of “stage meets page” events in which performance (slam) poets are paired with those who are not, or those whose work isn’t readily associated with performance, where audiences can relish both the performative and the crafted word, I witnessed these combined forces in Kwame. Simply put, his are impassioned readings that flame. Kwame is the griot, the tribal elder who fans the embers of art that lights the way, burns and ignites. When I wrote the music for Voices of Haiti, the most recent collaboration with Kwame, I reduced musical forces from 11 performers to a duo: longtime collaborator, soprano Valetta Brinson, and me (piano and computer). The chiaroscuro I’m after (by combining instrumental timbres and human voices) finds a generous range in Kwame’s voice. It took a few years of ego shaving to write for lesser forces and with improved strategies to enhance and expose more of his chromatic range.
Bruised Totems, Kwame’s collection of poems inspired by pieces included in the 2004-05 exhibit “Perspectives: African Art from the Bareiss Family Collection” at the University of Wisconsin, Madison is a favorite of mine. Something epic happens inside this deceptively thin collection, something emblematic of the polyphonic complexities at work in his oeuvre. There is, of course, the confrontation happening between each object and its accompanying poem. Take that of “Sight” (for Rwanda) and the eyed ax:
Every ax should have an eye
to see the havoc
that it wreaks.
These days our tools are made
in factories. Machetes
blind as stone arrive
stacked high in trucks.
They do not see
the soft eyes
of a child.
Every ax should have an eye
to see the havoc
that it wreaks.
But what’s also happening on each of these facing pages is a slow merging of object and poem as, one by one, they explore and extrapolate their own rich traditions while implicating the heinous history of white invasion, occupation, pillaging and revisionism. This collection is one of reclamation and corroborating witness, a site of multiple and necessary convergences willed by the poet who’s willed by the chastising truths of history and art. He speaks this clearly in the title poem:
A man must make poems
of such things, and hope
to conjure the myth
of laughter and clapping hands;
the bruised totems
of a civilization.
Here, he speaks of himself and his life’s work. Thankfully for us all, the civilization he gives voice to is boundless and, as he sees it, borderless as the sun.
Kevin Simmonds is a poet and musician originally from New Orleans. His poetry collections include Mad for Meat, Bend to it, and the edited anthology Collective Brightness: LGBTIQ Poets on Faith, Religion & Spirituality. He composed the score and cowrote the text for the Japanese noh-inspired theater work Emmett Till a river, commissioned by the Creative Work Fund and debuted at San Francisco’s Theatre of Yugen. He’s received fellowships and commissions from Cave Canem, the Community of Writers, Fulbright, Napa Valley Writers Workshop, San Francisco Arts Commission, and the Edward Stanley Award from Prairie Schooner. He lives in San Francisco and Tokyo.