“I don’t just hear the blues in these poems / I see the blues in these poems / I see myself in these poems…” —Lucinda Williams
My first love was music; I played guitar in my teens, studied classical voice in college, then took up the flute. A few years after that, I discovered poetry.
When I did, I gave up my first love. I understood that this new passion, like any art, was going to require a lot of my time and energy in order to learn the skills I needed. Eventually, I started playing music again. I wondered how and whether I could bring those two arts together. Blues and jazz, especially, have been amazing inspirations and have led to some truly gratifying opportunities neither one alone could have given me.
This kind of synergy is what every writer should get to experience: the back-and-forth with another creative genre that can inform their work and often bring it to a larger audience.
Is there a musician or a kind of music you’re particularly drawn to? That’s a great place to start. Write a portrait of your favorite saxophonist or fiddler or opera singer or rapper. Get inside their head and heart and music; choose a moment in their life to explore, a low or high point. Or cover a few of those points in a mini-biography. Do some research, and spend some time listening deeply, so you can bring to a reader what you find in the music, and what draws you to that artist’s experiences and sensibility.
Once you start down a path of collaboration, even with artists you’ll never meet, you’ll have entered that enchanted woods where birds start conversing with you and magic cloaks appear. When you meet a witch humming a catchy tune—and you will—pay attention to opportunity. (In my case, one opportunity, that led to the book and CD My Black Angel, came along in the form of a banjo-playing, country-blues-loving woodcut artist.)
Working with live musicians is a great way to hone performance skills. To gain confidence. To discover that new thing that gets made when your words go out into the air accompanied by a flute or guitar or drum, reinforcing the beat, adding texture and underlining nuance.
On the evening of March 8, I’ll be performing with fellow writers at an event we’re calling Lit Jam, where we’ll bring together some of the results of our word/music collaborations. On Saturday, March 9, I’ll lead a workshop, In the Groove: Poems & Music, that will guide writers toward the ways music can engender not only writing, but also greater possibilities for live readings, along with practical tips for finding and working with musicians.
Kim Addonizio (blues harmonica and jazz flute) is the author of a dozen books, most recently Mortal Trash: Poems (W.W. Norton) and Bukowski in a Sundress: Confessions from a Writing Life (Penguin). She has two word/music CDs: Swearing, Smoking, Drinking & Kissing (with Susan Browne) and My Black Angel. She performs internationally and teaches poetry workshops online. Visit her at www.kimaddonizio.com.