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HOOKED ON CLASSICS ‌ Provençal Song

Local poets find their muse with music

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It's National Poetry Month. That's right, one lousy month to honor poetry and we get April: the cruelest month of the year.

I thought I'd ask some local poets about classical music — favorite composers, do they use it for inspiration, that sort of thing.

Turns out it's like asking random Los Angelenos on the street how their screenplay is coming along — everyone has an answer.

James Island's Linda Annas Ferguson was the 2005 S.C. Arts Commission Poetry Fellow. She's published three chapbooks of poetry and has a full-length book, Bird Missing from One Shoulder, coming out this June.

She likes to get into a "writing trance" by listening to Mozart, Mendelssohn, and Tchaikovsky, plus Rachmaninoff's Rhapsody on a Theme from Paganini, which is also a favorite of mine. (Although I admit I sometimes like to skip ahead to the lilting melody from Somewhere in Time — it's technically the 18th variation, the Andante Cantabile, about 11 minutes in.)

"Sometimes I look to music for inspiration," Ferguson says, "to take me out of the everyday feelings that we get from doing mundane things like reading the newspaper or watching the news."

She likens it to going out into nature, or to an art gallery or reading other poets' work.

"As a poet, I write very tightly, with the least amount of words, so I relate to minimalism," Ferguson says.

She noted the "angelic" voice of soprano Dawn Upshaw's recording of the somewhat minimalist Third Symphony by contemporary Polish composer, Edward Gorecki. Subtitled the "Symphony of Sorrowful Songs," the words for each movement come from a 15th-century lament, a folk song, and from a teenage girl, writing on the wall of a Gestapo prison cell, invoking the Virgin Mary.

Carol Ann Davis also won the S.C. Poetry Fellowship, in 2004, and also has a book coming out this year, Psalm.

The director of the creative writing concentration at the College of Charleston, Davis' attitude towards music when writing is the opposite of Ferguson's. Like John Cusack's character in High Fidelity in the record store the day after he's dumped, she just wants something she can ignore. Whenever Davis listens to music while writing, it's either one of two CDs: Coltrane's A Love Supreme or Django Reinhardt.

"A lot of music bothers me while I'm writing, I get involved in it," Davis says. "It doesn't mean it has to have words, but something in the music causes me to pay attention to it. For some reason, and it's not that those aren't complicated pieces of music, but when I'm writing, I don't even hear them."

Davis's husband, fellow Crazyhorse literary journal editor and poet Garrett Doherty, is more of a classical fan. His poetry has been published in Poetry, The New Republic, Verse, Slate, Seneca Review and The Southern Review, to name a few.

"I love those Glenn Gould box things," he says, of the prolific Canadian pianist. "He's real interesting because when you listen to him you can actually hear him breathing in the background or singing along."

Doherty, like me, isn't a snob; he likes the "old chestnuts like Tchaikovsky," and Barber's Adagio for Strings. Like his wife, when writing, he likes things he can tune out.

"What's good about jazz is with all the improvisation, it's something you really can't follow, there's no regular pattern to it," he says. As for why poets are often classical fans, he muses that they identify with the complexity and density of it, adding "I don't know what good it does for the writing, though."

April is the cruelest month, breeding

Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing

Memory and desire, stirring

Dull roots with spring rain.

T.S. Eliot, "The Waste Land"

Jonathan Sanchez wrote this column at his office at Blue Bicycle Books while listening to the Talking Heads.

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