A few weeks ago I mentioned a new poetry/music compilation CD titled reVerse. After reading the descriptions and track list on the reVerse website, I was very curious to check out this collaboration of writers, performers and musicians, especially since I saw one of my favorites, Li-Young Lee, included on the roster. I’ve been listening to the CD for a few weeks now and I’m pleased to say it exceeded my expectations and has given me a new perspective on how poetry, performance and music can intersect.
reVerse skillfully and surprisingly takes 14 tracks of poetry, song and every shade in between, then weaves them together into a CD that is an insightful representation of some of the best lyrical minds writing today. The strength in this collection is definitely the diversity. From Li-Young Lee’s steady opening track “Echo and Shadow” (backed by guitar and a haunting vocal), to the jarring chaos of Marvin Tate’s “Take Off Your Shoes and Run” and later the gospel-toned “Words Are My Salvation” by poet Sherrille Lamb, listeners will quickly and directly gain a sense of the range in today’s poetry scene. reVerse juxtaposes seemingly unlikely collaborators in such a way that you feel they were meant to collide. Some tracks are purely spoken word, some poets read alongside music in a range of styles and there are a few straight up music tracks thrown in — but then again, where does poetry end and music begin? Alexi Murdoch’s “Song For You” is a real hidden gem on this CD, as is Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s performance of “History of the Airplane” and Kent Foreman’s rapid-fire “It’s About Time”. Lou Reed fans will want to be sure to catch his reading of “The City and the Sea” and the intense, quiet “What It Was” almost told as a secret by poet Mark Strand will make you want to be the unnamed subject of his performance. Each track exists strongly on its own merit, but it’s the sum of all parts that is the power behind this work. Listening to the CD in one sitting is an accurate re-creation of styles and personalities you could find at any poetry reading — that is if you’re lucky enough to attend a reading by the likes I’ve mentioned above.
reVerse does what it sets out to do. It blurs the line even further between music and poetry while celebrating them both and much more.
KC Clarke, Executive Director of The Poetry Center of Chicago and creator of reVerse recently took some time to share his thoughts on poetry, performance and the birth of reVerse:
Caryn Thurman: I’m curious how you first became interested in poetry and who some of your first influences were. How did you decide to make poetry a major part of your life?
KC Clarke: I first became interested in poetry in grade school through my 4th grade teacher Mr. Sutherland. He had a poet visit my classroom. We were living in Detroit at the time. Soon afterwards, my mother gave me my first books of poetry: Dylan Thomas, Wallace Stevens, William Carlos Williams, Robert Frost. I remember reading these books and in most cases having no idea what was going on, but loving it anyway. I’ve never been successful in resisting the artistic impulse. All said, I think poetry decided that it would be a part of my life. This sounds corny, I know, but I’ve sworn off poetry on several occasions and even got away from it entirely for a six year stretch during the late 1990s. This lead to a big relapse — taking on the job as The Poetry Center’s executive director. I think major league baseball is partially responsible for my poetry inclinations, but that is different conversation all together.
Poetry is the one area where I can include all of my artistic whateverings — a cross genre of mediums and contents reduced into words. For me, the structures of poetry make it one of the most wonderfully morphable of art forms.
CT: I know the reVerse project has been a long time in the making. What prompted you to take on such a big project? How did the idea form and how has it evolved since you first started on the collection to what it is today?
KC: I love music. I’m always looking for good new work, even if it is only new to me. For instance, my recent obsessions include Interpol, The Faint and Arcade Fire. In a few months I’ll start digging around and find some other bands/artists. Anyway, I don’t have many choices in recordings of poetry. There isn’t that much out there that combines poetry and music with respect to the art form of poetry. Most of the stuff out there either self-indulgent or is poorly recorded and produced.
I’ve always loved the Sire Records “Just Say Yes” compilations from the late 1980s. I think well-produced compilations do a good job at introducing people to new artists and artistic concepts. “Just Say Yes” put Depeche Mode with Ice-T and The Throwing Muses. Brilliant. Lots of electronica artists have become known through compilations. The fringe of music and the art of poetry aren’t all that different is some respects. So put the solutions/outcomes/influences of all these things together and you get reVerse.
CT: I read a bit about the selection of the musician on the reVerse website — did the final roster of artists grow and evolve over time or did you have a strong idea of who and what you wanted to include all along? Did you request specific works from them or did they select pieces they felt most strongly about?
KC: We had a pretty good idea of what people would offer since we asked for demos in advance. We included as many different aesthetics as we could. After our first studio session, we listened to the tracks over and over and found stuff we hated or were bugged by and fixed or replaced those things in other sessions. Alexi Murdoch and Lou Reed were wonderful late additions. We fell in love with Murdoch’s EP Four Songs. “Song for You” is Murdoch’s favorite from that album. We thought the piece Reed offered went spookily well with Ferlinghetti’s piece, though they are thematically unrelated. The fact that Reed was featured on Just Say Mao, Volume III of “Just Say Yes” in 1989 is too perfect, for me at least.
CT: I see on the site that you refer to the current CD as reVerse Volume 1 — I assume that a Volume 2 is in the works? When can we expect the next reVerse?
KC: Yes! We are working on Volume 2. I hope it doesn’t take three years. But since it might take us two years to get the word out about reVerse Volume 1, who knows. There are not a lot of channels by which to easily promote and distribute a weird hybrid thing like reVerse, so we are in this for the long haul.
CT: I see you have a strong web presence with reVerse and The Poetry Center — how do you feel the online world and “blogosphere” is changing the face of literature? Or is it at all? For better or worse?
KC: reVerse is primarily available via the internet. reVerse is its own little shop thanks to the internet. The net is good for literature, especially poetry. The traditional poetry publishing biz has produced lots of good and lots of bad books. One can find good and bad poetry on the internet as well. OK, nothing new in that comparison. Traditional news and information sources don’t seem to consider poetry newsworthy. Can you imagine something like Blackbook actually devoting a dedicated corner of its magazine to poetry? Well maybe, but it is not likely. But we don’t have to rely on Blackbook for our poetry, do we? We have the “blogoshpere.” Viva la blogosphere! The only thing that is a bit scary about the internet is anyone anywhere can sit in front of a monitor in their underwear eating a block of cheese simultaneously posting outrageo
us claims of being a sort of savior of poetry or whatever. People believe what they read. Hopefully as time passes we’ll be more able to sort fact from fiction and enjoy both as they should be.
CT: Many writers on LitKicks have notebooks and notebooks (or document files and document files) of their writing, but may have never attempted to read their work in public. What advice would you give to someone who needs a little pep talk in this situation?
KC: I believe these writers should host their own poetry readings. Doesn’t matter where. Host readings on a rooftop or in a garage. This way these writers can read their work for each other. They can invite other poets to come read. I’m completely serious. Reading in public is kind of like writing. A poet has to read a lot of poetry and write a lot of poetry to produce good poetry. Most people have to read their own poetry to an audience to become good at giving a reading. A Sony minidisk recorder is a handy tool. A poet can record and listen to their own poetry over and over. I don’t know a single poet who doesn’t have an opinion about what they like and don’t like about how other poets read their work. If poets subject themselves to their own readings via minidisk, they can at least practice until they enjoy hearing their own poems.
CT: Finally, LitKicks always wants to know — What are you reading? Any recommendations?
KC: Poetry: Franz Wright, Anselm Hollo and the book of Ecclesiastes (again). Fiction: Jose Saramago. Film: foreign Chinese films. The Suzhou River is an amazing flick.
(Thanks to KC Clarke for giving me a peek inside the creative energy of reVerse.)
reVerse Volume 1 is available through the reVerse website, where you can read more about the project, the artists involved and listen to an audio collage of the entire CD and individual track snippets.