Open Mic Blog
|Posted on May 22, 2014 at 9:40 AM|
Poetry is Meant to be Heard, Not Seen
I always have known poetry is meant to be heard, not seen. My earliest memories of poetry go back to nursery rhymes and Robert Louis Stevenson’s A Child’s Garden of Verses. Nursery rhymes and Stevenson’s poems don’t dwell on the page – they come alive in a child’s ear. And they stayed in mine. I started writing poetry at Vinson High School in Huntington in the 1960’s and continued through college at Transylvania and Marshall Universities. I never quit. But, from the beginning, I always constructed the structure and form of the poem around the sound of it. The words, the line, the symmetry, assonance, dissonance, alliteration, etc. That’s the basis of all my work. Always has been.
I come by the rhythm naturally. On both sides of my family, as far as I have gone back, there are musicians. My Father’s father played the fiddle. My Mother’s mother played guitar and piano, and her father played fiddle and banjo. That’s how they met. He had a trio called The Derby Serenaders, and they played on the first “country music show” on WSAZ radio back in the forties and fifties. So that is there. But I didn’t get the music itself, just the rhythm of it, and how it felt. Mostly I think it is the rhythm of the language of my people, and of most people here in the Appalachian region. The language has a wonderful lilt and cadence that blends seamlessly with that same rhythm of the music. Maybe one predates the other, but who knows. I just always knew they fit. And that infused my writing.
And that continued. I started into Appalachian Studies at Marshall, and found myself reunited as a fraternity brother with Mike Bing, an old sports rival. We like to say we graduated from different high schools together. His family also contained musicians, and his brothers were already playing fiddle and banjo, and Mike was just beginning on the mandolin. It turned out that we both had a mutual friend in Pocahontas County, another musician named Sherman Hammons.
I had met Sherman in 1971 on a fishing trip to the Williams River. He was part of the legendary Hammons Family, the subject of studies by many traditional cultural entities and whose tunes and stories were recorded by the Library of Congress. The Bing family had known the Hammons family for years, and was then beginning to learn some tunes from him. I was lucky enough to spend 17 years watching that exchange. More importantly, I watched as Sherman taught not only how to play the music, but how to feel about playing the music. It was an incredible experience and remains the most influential period of my life.
Since I’ve always known poetry is performance, I’ve always treated it that way. And I had some great influences other than Sherman. In the early 70s, I was a volunteer assistant asked to work on the Hillbilly Festival held at Morris Harvey College in Charleston. It was a creation of Bill Plumley, who would go on to become one of the founding members of West Virginia Writers, Inc., the largest state-wide writers’ organization. I was in that group, too. Bill introduced me to Muriel Dressler, a wonderfully talented poet from St. Albans. She was a performer! She flowed across the stage and recited her work from memory. Very dramatic. And right on the money. I was thrilled. Then, in 1979, I was asked to read at the installation of Louise McNeill Pease as the Poet Laureate of West Virginia in a ceremony at the Capitol Cultural Center in Charleston. I had already devoured everything I could find from Louise, and was ecstatic to meet her. We became friends, and she was the greatest poetic influence on me.
Other influences may seem a little unusual for a poet. My parents loved music. I grew up listening to and watching the great ballad singers – Bing Crosby, Sinatra, Nat King Cole, Rosemary Clooney, Perry Como, Peggy Lee, Dean Martin, Brenda Lee, Bobby Darin, etc. I was always impressed with the way they interpreted the songs. It was more than just singing. There was transference of emotion between the performers and the audience that transcended just the sound. It was an act of giving. Nothing is more important in spoken word poetry than timing. The best way to understand how to deliver lines with perfect timing is to watch comedy and stand-up comedians. And I did. Jack Benny, Bob Hope, Carol Burnett, The Smothers Brothers, Bill Cosby, Bob Newhart, Lucille Ball, George Burns and Gracie Allen, Jonathon Winters, etc. By far the best was George Carlin. Impeccable timing and rapport with the audience. He could have the house in the palm of his hand and on the same page with his first two lines. That is amazing talent. And I still love to hear and watch singers and comedians. And I still learn from them.
So that is a little of my background and how that factors in to the creation of the project. The project itself is a labor of love 40 years in the making. The title of the book, My People Was Music, comes from a refrain in one of my most popular poems, "The High Country Remembers Her Heritage." Most people always call the poem that, so I just decided that would make a good, recognizable title. And it fits with the theme. There is little separation from my poetry and the influence of music, heritage, and the rhythms of life in West Virginia. I started putting poems to music 30 or 35 years ago. I had spent so much time listening to the Bings, Sherman, and other traditional music that it just seemed right. I recited "The High Country" to a cassette recording of the Bings playing a neat old fiddle tune called "Grumblin Ol Man and Growlin Ol Woman." I was stunned by the fact that it fit perfectly. Perfectly. I told them about it, we started doing some other poems and other tunes, and found that they all fit! It is more than a little spooky. A genre was born. So I’ve been doing that ever since, and the idea of the CD included with a poetry collection was a natural. The studio recordings are great. It is better live, but the CD is pretty darn good. The musicians all are so good. I am always humbled and honored by their incredible talent and generosity. It is amazing to work with them and experience the way it all comes together. Magic.
The photographs also are pretty magical. Dave and I have been friends for a long time, and he started taking the creative writing class at Allegheny Echoes many years ago. I have watched him work and progress on his photography, and I think he is one of the most talented photographers in the state, and West Virginia has some pretty fine photographers. His photos fit as well with my poems as the music. I am proud to have those photos in the book. We collaborated on the choices, but mostly Dave knew which ones would work. Just like the music, once you realize the fit and connection, you can’t see or hear it any other way.
The poems are the poems. Some of them are over 40 years old. Some of them are new. Some were collected in my two previous chapbooks, and some have been published in literary magazines, but this is the first light of day for many of them. They pretty much represent my life’s work. This project constitutes what I’ve done. It is basically a love letter to West Virginia, her music, her art, her culture, her attitude, her tragedy, her story. If there is a rhythm in this state, I hope I have given voice to it here.
* * *
Kirk Judd has lived, worked, trout fished, and wandered around in West Virginia all of his life. He was a member of the Appalachian Literary League, a founding member and former president of West Virginia Writers, Inc., currently serves on the board of the Pearl S. Buck Birthplace Foundation, and is a founding member of and creative writing instructor for Allegheny Echoes, Inc., dedicated to the support and preservation of WV cultural heritage arts. Kirk is widely published and the author of three collections of poetry: Field of Vision, TaoBilly, and My People Was Music. In addition he was a co-editor of the widely acclaimed anthology, Wild, Sweet Notes: 50 Years of West Virginia Poetry 1950-1999. Kirk is internationally known for his performance work combining poetry and old time music, and has performed poetry in Ireland and across West Virginia at fairs, concerts, and festivals for the past 35 years.
On May 21st of 2014, Mountain State Press released this announcement about the publication of My People Was Music, “…a stunning collaboration of poetry, photography and music/spoken word performances written and produced by Kirk Judd, one of West Virginia’s best-known poets and literary personalities. The book contains 70 original poems by Judd, 11 beautiful photographs by Huntington photographer Dave Lambert, and 26 performances on compact disc featuring Kirk with well-known West Virginia musicians and artists. Included on the CD are The Bing Brothers, Danny Arthur, Dave Bing, Mike Bing, Tim Bing, Bob Shank, Pops Walker, and Sherrell Wigal. The performances are recitations of the original poetry recorded live in the studio with musical accompaniment. One of the pieces is a dual-voice spoken word performance with Judd and Wigal. The CD was produced at Otter Slide Studio in Preston County, recorded and engineered by well-known musician Bob Shank.
The book is an incredible collection of superbly crafted poetry as well as a celebration of West Virginia cultural heritage arts. Judd combines wonderfully written words and images of his beloved home state with just the right feel of the traditions of spoken word, song, story-telling and inspiration of the natural world of West Virginia. The collection spans 40 years of a life spent working in, living in, experiencing, and writing about this complex state. Judd expresses profound respect, mixed with sorrow, loss, renewal, joy and hope for this land.
The combination of poetry and music is a unique and incredible blend of soaring emotion and indelible impact on the reader/listener. This is a must for any lover of West Virginia and poetry.” For more information contact Mountain State Press at www.mountainstatepress.org
I would like to thank Laura Bentley for asking me to share some thoughts about my new poetry collection My People Was Music. It is my response to inquiries from Mountain State Press and others.