Reflections on PoemJazz

Hi all!

I'm finally getting a chance to write up my thoughts on the PoemJazz presentation by Robert Pinsky at the Singapore Writers' Festival last Sunday - I'm sorry this took so long! As I've mentioned before, Pinsky is basically a genius, his poetry is phenomenal, and his presentation was lovely. It certainly wasn't what I was expecting when I walked in the room, so I was pleasantly surprised! :D

Basically, the gist of this presentation was that Mr. Pinksy did a reading of his poetry, but with a bit of a unique twist. What made it so special was that he was accompanied by two musicians (a bassist, Rick Smith and a guitarist, Christy Smith) who added such depth to the poetry. It was incredible how they managed to complement an already complete work of art - certainly a memorable experience.

Afterwards, Mr. Pinsky, along with the two musicians, answered some questions from the audience on writing, music, and how they intertwine, so I thought I'd share some of that with you guys. I took many, many notes, but I'm just going to post some of the ones that are the most relevant - it primarily centres around music, a lot more than poetry. :)

The larger text is what I wrote in my songbook, in most cases paraphrasing or directly quoting what was said. The smaller text is my own thoughts on the matter.

Don't be afraid to be influenced by musicians you love.

There are definitely conflicting opinions on this, I think - as some people see it, influence is all well and good, but when does one cross the line into the murky waters of plagiarism? I'm definitely a big, big supporter of influence - after all, where can you learn if not from your heroes? - and I know I've been influenced quite a bit by my favourite musicians. It was lovely to hear Mr. Pinsky, a musician himself, also advocating it.

Silence is a powerful tool.

This is wise (and unfortunately drastically underrated) advice. Silence can be such a incredible technique in music - to highlight an important line or to bring attention to the stanza right before or after. One of my favourite uses of silence is in Taylor Swift's "The Story of Us", in which she sings the line I've never heard silence quite this loud alone, without any music. It makes a huge impact, and I saw the musicians use this technique beautifully to bring the attention to the words in the poem during the performance.

Always focus on character, but don't forget about the beauty in sound.

This applies not only to music, but to writing as well: characters always come first. No exceptions. Without characters, nothing can happen - the entire story hinges on their motivations, their loves and fears, and everything that makes them who they are. We listen to music because it reminds us that we're not alone in whatever we're going through, and we know we're not alone because of the stories and characters woven into the sound.

With that being said, however, Mr. Pinsky made an interesting point: many of us tend to focus on either character or sound in our music, and we need to learn how to achieve both. You can't have a great song with just one or the other: the elements have to combine, or it'll fall flat in some way.

Take what you have. Make something beautiful out if it.

In response to a question about the choice of instruments in the performance, Mr. Pinsky said quite candidly that they chose guitar and bass because... well, because those were the only musicians he could find on such short notice to come perform. (Fun fact: they had only had one rehearsal, in which the musicians composed their parts - and it was the night before the performance. Ladies and gentlemen, I present to you improv done right.) I think there's such an important lesson to be learned there - in music as in life, sometimes you just have to make do with what you have. And - case in point! - the best performances can be the most on-the-fly ones.

Poetry & music are sisters.

I love how he worded this, especially since it's something I've believed for a long time. Honestly, I don't think I could say it as beautifully as he did, but it's such a true statement - music is simply poetry with instruments. I firmly believe that the only way to improve your music is to add poetry to it, and vice versa. They're connected and inseparable, and in order to succeed at one you can't help but hone your skills at the other.

So those were my takeaways from PoemJazz! I'm so sorry this took me so long to write up, but I know I definitely won't be forgetting that presentation anytime soon. I'd highly recommend taking a look at some of Mr. Pinsky's poetry - he is a wonderful poet, and his work is worth a read for poets and musicians alike. :)

love, Topaz