Thrilled with the Gifts of Humans
A Conversation with Michael Zapruder
May 29, 2013
May 29, 2013
15 Min read time
Michael Zapruder discusses converting poetry into music.
I first saw Michael Zapruder perform one of the tracks from Pink Thunder, his beautifully produced collaborative poetry book and 22-track CD, at a Poetry Society of America event in 2007. At the time, he was performing the poem-songs alone at the piano. He started to play his rendition of Gillian Conoley’s poem “Birdman,” and I vividly remember laughing out loud—not because the song or the poem was particularly funny, but because his phrasing and the melodies he was able to find in the poem dehabituated my mind so quickly, my only way of coping with such surprise was spontaneous laughter. Challenging our sense of the standard forms that popular music has to fall into, Michael Zapruder’s Pink Thunder asks the listener to simultaneously enjoy the song as song and poem as poem. While my immediate response to a poem-song was laughter, I quickly sought to quiet myself and return to my senses—my five senses— doing my best to absorb every note and word. As soon as the song was over, I wanted to hear it again—much like I want to immediately reread and wrestle with the best of poems. Thankfully, Black Ocean has given us Pink Thunder, and the recordings, thankfully, give the listener the opportunity to track back and hear the poem-song again. With an introduction by Scott Pinkmountain and an artist’s statement by Zapruder, the hardcover book features illustrations by Arrington de Dionyso alongside his gorgeous hand-lettered versions of the poems Zapruder has set to music, including work by such poets as James Tate, D.A. Powell and Mary Ruefle. Over the past several weeks, Michael was kind enough to take the time to answer some questions about Pink Thunder.
Dan Chelotti: During a recent show, you said that one of the ideas behind the origin of Pink Thunder was to investigate whether or not songs could do what poems do. What do poems do?
Michael Zapruder: Touché. It’s impossible to reduce poems’ myriad effects to a single thing. Happily. What I was referring to has something to do with how, especially when they are read aloud, poems sometimes create a space in which experiences, ideas, feelings can be encountered in what feels like a pure, unmediated form. Poetry brings people into an awareness of their own living experience in a way that seems very valuable to me. Somehow, sometimes, poems can create a particular kind of meaningful space that I like—a space that is completely focused on an object or subject of contemplation.
I’ve mentioned to poetry students that, from my position as an artist who works with music, it seems to me as though the poet, while composing the words, is also composing a particular kind of silence. These silences don’t seem generic to me. A good poem’s silences are in a particular key, you might say; and an important portion of a poem’s meaning for me exists, or at least develops, in this silence. In my experience, the silence is the locus of the meditations—intellectual or emotional or otherwise—that the poem engenders.
When I started Pink Thunder, I was looking for a kind of song that achieves the same internal state of clarity that a strong poetic silence does.
DC: Did Pink Thunder solve the mystery? Can songs do what poems do?
MZ: You know, I don’t think there really was a mystery to begin with. Of course songs can “do what poems do,” in general. Lots of the songs people listen to already bring people into contact with meaningful or important aspects of their living experience in one way or another. So I guess you could say my investigation was Socratically ironic, in the sense that I wanted to prove something I already believed to be true. But at a deeper level, I did want to prove that songs can do—in their own way— something like what these particular poems do. In general, I don’t think most songs develop that particular internal state of clarity that I find so compelling in poems.
Song is an art form that can be remarkably useful—I’m thinking of lullabies, the alphabet song, religious prayers, hymns, the happy birthday song. Poetry can be useful in similar ways, but unlike poetry, song’s utility has in the last roughly fifty years been disproportionally oriented towards certain highly enjoyable commercial forms. Song form and song’s ultimate purpose as an art form have also been significantly defined by its commercial potential.
I love popular music, but song is not only that. In fact, song is an ancient, profound, and potent mode of human inquiry and expression. Songs can and do engender meditations on things of value and create spaces in which nuance and true meaning can exist in exact and un-reduced form.
Whatever else Pink Thunder accomplishes, I hope it at least proves that to be true.
DC: What is it like to attempt to negotiate with, and engender silence in a collaboration where you are using art that is already established in another genre?
MZ: Well, I think in the case of Pink Thunder my role was a little bit unilateral with respect to silence: if I didn’t abolish it, I at least atomized it. The kinds of silences one hears in most types of music are effective because of what comes before and after them. They are in some basic way parenthetical. I think I see spoken poetry more as silence punctuated by sounds.
In some of the songs, like “Birdman” by Gillian Conoley, there are silences that are long and dry in a way that makes the music seem ugly or awkward. They are like poetic silence torn out of its natural context—which is to be surrounded by more silence—and wedged into music. It’s interesting, but I’m not sure what it does for the poem or the song. And in any case, the silence didn’t have the chance to negotiate anything with me, I’m afraid.
Using a pre-existing meter and form for lyrics lets me write songs without thinking about what the music will be.
As for working with fully-functioning poems, I’ve found, especially in the live shows, where we’ve mostly been performing as a duo, that some of these poems provide a structure—like some kind of sui generis, 3-D printed polymer architecture—that it allows for the music to take enormous risks and to do things that simply would not work if it weren’t for the fact that these particular poems always reward the listener’s faith that things are going to end up somewhere worth going to.
Not all of the poems have that particular kind of excellence, nor do all of the songs take those particular kinds of risks. In many cases, I hope the music provides payoffs to the listener in a way that the poem on its own never would be able to. This is especially true at the level of individual lines or the equivalent of verses. The poem is taking a longer road to a more singular statement; the song reaches milestones at various points along the way.
DC: Was there a method to your compositional process for the songs on Pink Thunder? Did that process differ from your compositional process for your work as a solo songwriter?
MZ: My method for Pink Thunder was to follow my intuition. If I saw a poem that seemed to imply a song, I’d investigate by singing the poem from the beginning and harmonizing those lines as I went, generating musical material that I could hopefully reuse throughout the poem.
I’ve written some free verse songs of my own before, so that process wasn’t totally unfamiliar, but for one thing, the fact that these poems couldn’t be changed actually made it easier, since half of the song was already fixed. There was only one variable: I just had to find the right music. And, of course, as I mentioned above, the excellence of the poems gave me a huge advantage. If I could just write the music in such a way that it preserved the poem’s basic utterance, my belief was that the power of that utterance would support the music.
DC: You have used formal verse—as well as free verse—to write your own songs. You performed one recently at Flying Object in Hadley, Massachusetts. Could you talk about what it is like to write using a poetic form? And about that particular song?
MZ: Well, for one thing, using a pre-existing meter and form for lyrics in songs lets me write songs without thinking about what the music will be. In some ways it’s a more open process, because I can write any number of verses without concerning myself about any particular one of them, and then, usually, there will be one or two that have something worth pursuing, and the song develops from there. It’s verse, and so although it is metered and has rhythmic, and therefore musical, characteristics, it is primarily about the text. After doing Pink Thunder, I’m feeling a strong interest in working with verse again.
As for that particular song, which is called “New Quarantine,” this is going to sound pretentious I fear, but I was trying to write in a Latin American form called a décima. This was during a period when I woke up every morning and the first thing I did was to write at least one verse or chorus—one chunk of a song. I was using all kinds of tricks to start the engines, such as writing new lyrics to a familiar melody or just writing in strictly metered lines using simple rhyme schemes.
So I found this form, which has an involved, ten-line rhyme scheme in which each line has four beats. And as it turns out, I made some error in transferring the scheme from wherever I found it on the Internet to my notebook, so what I ended up with is a bastardized form of the décima. I wrote some verses that weren’t very good, then went back to it a few years later and wrote a song from the point of view of the presumably privileged inhabitants of a place called New Quarantine, who are singing to some underclass that lives outside their enclave. I think it’s interesting that this song form elicited what is a political folk song in the same tradition as much Latin American folk music. That was not what the original lyrics were concerned with at all.
DC: How much time did you spend on the Wave Books Poetry Bus? What was the general atmosphere like?
MZ: I rode the bus for a week, from Charlotte, North Carolina to New Orleans. As you’d imagine, the atmosphere varied depending on time of day and the number of poets and their relationships to one another. There was a fair amount of drinking. One thing I think people don’t know about poets is that, when they get together, things can get crazy. Let’s just say that when the cardigans come off, it’s anyone’s guess what’s going to be underneath.
I wanted to set up a situation where people would not be in their usual workaday mental and emotional state.
I always have to negotiate my status as a fortunate guest and witness to the private lives of poets, and the bus was no exception to that. As a composer and songwriter, I’m from a different tribe, and so, although I relate strongly, I can never share the exact same species of artistic blues the poets share with one another (and which I share with other musicians). That’s always a little poignant to me. We (the poets and I) are obviously equally obsessed, and probably deep down have the same fundamental drive that makes up make things, but we are obsessed with different things. In general, with the constantly shifting manifest of souls on board, and the luxury for the poets to have hours together on the bus to talk shop, work, and to be together, my sense is that a great deal of awesomeness was incubated there, which will never be traced back but which nonetheless has a shared origin.
DC: Is there a story behind “Pennsylvania?”
MZ: Indeed, although I wasn’t there as it was being written, so you could ask my brother Matthew Zapruder, or Travis Nichols, Joshua Beckman, and Anthony McCann about it. They wrote the poem together on the bus, and emailed it to me with the instructions I should have my computer read it in one of the voices that come with the operating system. One can only speculate as to the forces, foods, drinks, and other things that nurtured that aesthetic decision, but I followed the directions, then got right to work setting it to music. It was one of the first Pink Thunder pieces I wrote.
DC: Can you describe the portmanteaus that you made and placed around the AWP conference in Chicago?
MZ: Sure. Just by way of basic explanation, a portmanteau is a combination music player and visual art object. It’s an original invention, as far as I know, but it’s a big world and I know others are going to eventually develop these kinds of things, too, since a portmanteau is a pretty lovely way to experience recorded sound.
I got the name from the French word for a suitcase that opens into two equal parts, and from the literary term designating new words made from combining two existing words (like “spork” or “frenemy”). The Pink Thunder portmanteaus are single objects in which several things (poetry, music, visual art) are combined, so . . .
We made a circuit board that is programmed to play a song at the press of a button, and put that inside a small wooden platform (a wooden painting canvas, to be exact). We put a headphone jack in an easily accessible place, and added a start and a stop button. On top of this base that doubles as music player, I put a found object, something from the world of the poem. There is one unique portmanteau for each song on Pink Thunder.
For a few reasons, sometime near the end of the recording process for Pink Thunder, I started to consider the form it might take—cd, vinyl, book, etc. I knew I wanted it to be a book, but I was thinking about digital formats and how they can sometimes disadvantage music and can, in my opinion, reduce music to a kind of emotional thermostat, a kind of homeopathic aural balm that one regulates while doing other things. I do that too and it can sometimes be pleasant, but I don’t think any musician particularly wants his or her music to be experienced that way. I felt especially convinced that I wanted Pink Thunder to be presented in a more vivid way.
I wanted to set up a situation where people would be a little curious, and would not be in their usual workaday mental and emotional state. I wanted people to hear Pink Thunder while they were mystified, open, pleased. So I made the portmanteaus.
DC: It may be over-reductive to ask whether you prefer working in the studio or performing live—but given the vast differences in instrumentation on the record and on the stage, I wonder if you could talk about the decision to strip down the songs when performing live (outside of lugging around a string section). Are there different levels of available intimacy between artist and listener on an album as opposed to artist and listener at a concert? Or using one of your devices?
MZ: This is a great question, Dan. I actually love the writing the most. Once that’s done, anything—performance or recording—becomes a battle between the thing I wrote and the thing that turns out to be possible in the real world.
I don’t think I have a preference between performing and recording. I know both so well that even though I’m intimately familiar with their worst qualities, I’d be lost without either one.
With Pink Thunder, although the original versions of the pieces were either guitar or piano and voice, the record turned into a kaleidoscopic opus. So far we’ve been performing as a duo, so at the shows, people are hearing something closer to the songwriter version of the song, as opposed to the recorded version. It’s been a real surprise performing the pieces that way, because they do seem to work well. Then again, we are currently only performing 10 or 12 of the songs, because we haven’t figured out how to perform the others yet.
The decision to strip things down was 99 percent logistical and the other 1 percent was also logistical. 99 percent to make it possible to afford, and to fly to shows; and 1 percent laziness in not wanting to even think about how we’d be able to play the recorded versions of these songs live.
As for intimacy, performing is an honor, and it can be very gratifying if the audience lets me know they are happy. That’s more intimate, in the sense that I’m sharing an experience with the listeners. Recording is more indirect for me, since I obviously I’m not there when people are listening; but for the listeners, there is a different kind of intimacy in the way they are connecting with the recordings. People listening to portmanteaus are in states of uncertainty, curiosity, perplexity, and so I think that may be the most intimate, even though it is also the least self-conscious state for the listener. I’d like to think that when someone listens to a portmanteau, something is happening, but who knows what?
DC: Is there a line or two, or a poem from the album that capture the experience of putting together this record?
MZ: Here are a few lines that seem apt:
In the forest writing on a tree
I found a tree
a naked tree
a big fucking deal tree
Future people, I went to
the museum and saw all so curious and
substantial make its presence known
above me, and so thrilled with the gifts
of humans I was, their talents, that
soon I departed
(from “That You Go On”)
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May 29, 2013
15 Min read time