It’s the opening night of the poetry festival in Heidelberg in Germany, one of the International Cities of Literature. Onstage stand a poet and musician who’ve travelled from Ballarat in regional Victoria. Nathan Curnow introduces his first poem, ‘Student Kiss’, about a famous Heidelberg chocolate. He’s googled those things that make Heidelberg unique and written poems to deliver. But he’s taking a risk; like saying ‘put another shrimp on the barbie’, it might not sit quite right. He gauges his audience as he shapes the delivery. When Nathan has finished, musician Geoffrey Williams starts singing into his loop machine, using sounds and notes and clicked fingers to create scaffolding that holds his song together. It’s a song built from the ground up, an improvised response to ‘Student Kiss’. Like the audience, Geoffrey is hearing the poem for the first time.
While the term ekphrasis has been traditionally used to describe the process of writing a poem about a work of visual art viewed in a gallery setting (generally a painting), its definition is gradually broadening to cover all kinds of creative acts that bounce off each other. Poetry about music, music about poetry – and not just poetry. Prose fits here too. In my own fiction, I often use ekphrasis as a tool to help me get into character, to explore setting, to call up a sense of history. I’m writing a novel about the early ‘80s music scene in Melbourne with Nick Cave and his band, The Birthday Party, featured as characters. In the chapter, ‘Nick the Stripper’, my main character enters the scene of the song’s video clip and writes from the insideout of the frame as the band wreaks havoc around him.
In Australia, ekphrasis as a writing practice is becoming more and more popular. The Queensland Poetry Festival hosts the Philip Bacon Ekphrasis Award while the recent Nillumbik Ekphrasis Poetry Award invited Australian poets to respond with poems to artworks from their collection. ‘Cordite Poetry Review’ had a special issue (#58) dedicated entirely to ekphrastic poems in 2017 and the Pure Poetry Project has been evolving for a decade, involving emerging regional poets from Ballarat, Shepparton and Castlemaine, celebrating the meeting point between poetry and music.
Music and poetry have always been intertwined in many cultures. With poetry starting as an oral tradition, the bards would speak accompanied by live music. In the contemporary sphere, it’s everywhere: In ‘M Train’, Patti Smith riffs off her obsession with the French poet Arthur Rimbaud – she recently bought his home in Roche – while Antony sings Edgar Allen Poe’s ‘The Lake’ to life. Closer to home, Natalya Vagner’s recent CD, ‘Explorations of Soul’, includes a number of songs reflecting on the poems of Judith Wright, while musician Angie Hart has composed music around Dorothy Porter’s evocative writing in a new project, ‘Borrowed Verse’, where musicians like Simon Munro, Ben Salter and Jessie L Warren have been paired with Australian poets including Michael Dransfield (Paula Keogh’s beautiful memoir ‘The Green Bell’ is a wonderful meditation on the early life of this poet) and Maria Zajkowski.
Poet Nathan Curnow sees the connections between music and poetry as an exciting space to explore on stage, sharing rhythms, gaps and pregnant pauses, ‘the build of words and delivery of words’. It’s also about the audience, the reception of those rhythms. ‘There is this primal thing within us for rhythm and to hear that rhythm broken and to hear it reinstated and those expectations set up’, he says. Working with singer-songwriter Geoffrey Williams offers a new dimension to Nathan’s work because the musician uses chords to explore ‘the tone in between the lines and what we leave out. It’s the feeling that you allude to but don’t state.’
For Geoffrey, the energy comes from improvisation. As he’s listening to Nathan’s poem on stage, he homes in on the ‘tone, vibe, emotion of the piece, the rhythm and the phrasing, waiting for the pertinent ones to show themselves so I can write them down.’ But most important of all is a sense of the mood of the poem. ‘I’m aiming to express how I feel about that poem, using a cocktail of words (Nathan’s and mine), melodies and rhythm to continue telling the story.’
Both Nathan and Geoffrey agree that the key to their symbiosis is the transference of feeling, to the audience and to each other, whether it’s the silly, joyous poems that often begin and end the show, or those looking at love, grief and loss in the middle. As Nathan says, ‘Geoffrey wants to feel something and that will dictate everything that comes. That’s good for me because I’m a poet of feeling and I believe in feeling and I want to write things that make people feel.’
The dynamic works both ways now, too. Nathan has started crafting poems based on Geoffrey’s songs – his ‘Cinderella’ was a topten hit in Germany in the 1980s – and likes to surprise him with them on stage. But the result is always unexpected.
''Cinderella’ is a big song for Geoffrey, right. He’s got it always stuck in his head. He came up with the phrasing that made that song. It’s a kind of challenge to him because I’m saying, get the song out of your head, and do something new. But then, I want him to, you know, ‘just sing a line like you sing in the song, please’, but no, he never does.'
For writers, it’s the interconnections between various artforms where exciting possibilities are shaping up for collaboration and the chance to reach new audiences. Nathan and Geoffrey’s performances and workshops were popular overseas, even in places like Poland where the poems relied on written translation, because of the transformative power of music and spoken work to use emotion, mood and atmosphere to connect artists with those listening.
'How do you do what you do, so it’s for others? That’s the aspect of performance that Geoffrey and I are fascinated with. I wrote this line once, which is ‘how to fill the spotlight so the spotlight shines for all’ – that is the paradox of performance. How do I use that spotlight so it’s for everyone?'
About the author
Kirsten Krauth is a writer and editor based in Castlemaine. Her first novel is ‘just_a_girl’ and she’s working on her second as part of a PhD in creative writing.