On Monday, November 14, the Humanities Center, Creative Writing Program, and Miami University Press sponsored the panel “Collaborating Across the Arts: A Conversation” featuring Miami University Press poet and musician Janice Lowe, acclaimed poet Tyehimba Jess, and musician Yohann Potico. They spoke about the importance of respect in collaboration, their creative processes, and their current projects to a rapt audience.
Lowe, author of Leaving CLE: Poems of Nomadic Dispersal, is a poet, composer, and performer. Her poems have appeared in the American Poetry Review, Callalloo, and other journals. She has composed music for numerous plays and musicals, and is currently working on an album while also collaborating with both Jess and Potico to set some of the text of Jess’s 2016 collection Olio to music.
Jess, newly announced winner of the prestigious Lannan Foundation Award in Poetry for Olio, is an associate professor at the College of Staten Island. His first collection, leadbelly, won the 2004 National Poetry Series and was named one of the Best Poetry Books of 2005 by both The Library Journal and Black Issues Book Review. Many anthologies and journals have featured his poetry.
Yohann Potico, a multifaceted musician, composes, plays, and produces music. A talented bassist, he has been active in the New York City music scene for the past eleven years. He has recorded with an impressive list of artists and ensembles, and for the past four years has worked closely with Lowe, a collaborative relationship which has allowed him to explore unusual sounds and musical textures.
The panel was moderated by poet and Miami professor cris cheek, described by presenter Dr. Keith Tuma as “a distinguished serial collaborator, musician, visual artist, performance writer, and poetic collaborator.”
cheek: I would be curious to start off hearing Yohann talk a bit before we come to the interdisciplinarity, about how musicians even work together. How do you start playing together?
Potico: For me, for example, being in an indie rock band for years—someone comes up with a simple idea, like for instance a drumbeat. We mostly jam, just playing around, and the song forms by itself. ‘The band’ becomes the fourth character. We all bring an element to the table but in the end, what we create is bigger and so much different than what we are individually. Sometimes you listen back to the recording and don’t even recognize yourself. Like if I’d tried at home and recorded it by myself, I would have come up with something completely different. But the energy that’s in the room triggers something in me that I didn’t even know [I had]. It’s very interesting to discover yourself musically, artistically speaking. It’s interesting collaborating when the others get something out of you that you didn’t even know existed.
cheek: What kind of collaborations have you done, Tyehimba?
Jess: I’m not a serial collaborator. [Audience laughs.] I think the first time I did collaborations was back in the ’90s, I did this [performance ensemble] called Drapetomania, which was a disease slave owners said slaves have when they’re trying to get free. I’d be on harmonica, and Glinda Baker would be in singing, and it was like we would compose these poems, and develop a flow around them. With Janice, that collaboration was more like constructing an object then saying, to a certain degree, run with it. Going over the various permutations of the object, it’s like an act of release. And participation and consultation, a conversation back and forth, and then standing back in awe of what’s been created.
cheek: So giving some parameters, but not being too [structured]?
Lowe: I really like to compose and get my compositional ideas out there. When I start hearing things, I start notating them, or recording them somehow. Sometimes I work words first, sometimes music first. I’ll compose something, and that definitely doesn’t have to stay, because in the true spirit of collaboration, you know, collaborators have to work together and think about it and how it should grow. When Tyehimba came to me and asked me about considering setting some of this text to music, I felt like I had no time to do this, but I’m literally doing this to save my creative life, to remind myself that yes, I love collaboration. Maybe I should be focusing more on ‘me, me, me,’ or ‘book, book, book,’ or ‘Leaving CLE, Leaving CLE, Leaving CLE,’ but I love so much to collaborate, so that’s how we [started].
cheek: So how are you and Yohann working together?
Lowe: I really love and respect working with Yohann because he looks at my compositional ideas and will play them as written and lift off of them, when I want the music to open up. Creatively, it’s really exciting. When we’re talking it’s artist to artist, it blurs the boundaries of what kind of artists we are. We’re both musicians—I write as well—but I like being able to go back and forth. We talk in images. As instrumentalists we discuss and experiment with how sound effects are made.
cheek: So there’s a kind of language that develops to talk about what’s working?
Potico: You kind of have to. Collaborating with a musician is one thing; with writers, something different. Poetry—that form of writing seems more technical than others, and I think there’s some kind of inherent melody and rhythm that other forms of writing don’t have, so it can be easier for me to rely on that. It’s also difficult at times, the concepts she wants to hear; she’ll say, “I want to hear water,” but I’ll say, “Okay, I’m playing bass, I don’t know how I’m going to do that.” So it’s not easy, but it was great practice and she’s an amazing writer. It’s a fine line, respecting her work—it’s really personal—but to bring in my vision and my understanding to it.
The discussion moved on to explore Lowe’s current project, which is setting pieces from Jess’s collection Olio to music. Lowe played an early version of a song, calling it “the beginning of a compositional idea” of her interpretation of Jess’s poem “Millie and Christine McKoy.” Born into slavery in 1851, the McKoy sisters were pygopagus twins, meaning they were conjoined from the bottom of the ribcage to the top of the pelvis. Jess wrote the poem in three voices: Millie’s, Christine’s, and the two combined. It is a multidirectional, syncopated sonnet—the reader can choose to read the poem starting at the top or bottom; on the left side (Millie’s voice), right side (Christine’s voice), or in the middle (their combined voice); and can read straight through or diagonally.
cheek: What do you think when you hear Janice singing your words?
Jess: First off, I think it’s like seeing your characters finally breathe for a minute. I imagine them in my own head for so long, but then to hear them liberated through Janice’s voice… One was contralto and one was soprano; that kind of mastery is astounding to me. In hearing her interpretation, it makes me think about that kind of syncopation between the piano parts and the voice and how it matches what’s going on in the poem. It makes me feel like it got lifted to another dimension.
Lowe: I can’t wait until we have… more people, more collaboration. I’m talking about the instrumentation, stretching it, growing it, continuing to add. It’s going to be wild—the sounds of their organs basically. These are nineteenth century people, maybe bringing some guitar shredding into the nineteenth-century-ness of it… Part of the music could be what they heard inside themselves. We can’t stop until we hear all kinds of sounds.
cheek: How did you write this poem?
Jess: A pencil, a blank piece of paper, and a bottle of bourbon. [Audience laughs]. This one was the first one of its kind. This was first line, second line, third, fourth, etc., going straight down. Others were composed straight down and then they were flipped. It’s about thinking about their story, thinking about trying to maintain that rhyme structure (abab cdcd efef gg—that’s the Shakespearean sonnet), and also thinking about the integrity of the poem in every direction. The first two lines are the easiest and then it starts to get steadily more and more difficult as you go down.
cheek: Tyehimba, obviously you are doing the layout of these pieces as you’re working on them. But there is this other aspect of collaboration, collaboration with the publishers, the designers… Is there something that you can share about that? Especially with [Olio]?
Jess: That book has four foldouts in it, and all four of them are perforated to tear out of the book, which is highly unusual for a publisher—to want to engage in that kind of bookmaking. I happen to be with a press that is more vested than most presses in the idea of the book as an object unto itself, as a piece of art, or as a tool that can have multiple dimensions. Very few presses have the skill and the desire to do that, and Wave is one of them. They had a really good idea of what I wanted to do and how I wanted to do it; there was a lot of back and forth. They got [the book] a little better than I thought it was going to be. That’s very rare. You hear a lot of bad stories about publishers, and their relationship with their authors, and this is definitely not one of them.
Jess: [I have] a question for Janice about playing an instrument and its effect on your writing, your poems. Do you see a link between your music—I mean obviously, there is—but how does music affect your view of poetry?
Lowe: Everybody who performs works with tempo, and there’s a person’s natural tempo—like I
have a very calm exterior, but it’s very fake, I’m very jumpy—so when I get to play or sing really, really slowly, that is something that takes a lot of effort. Every tempo is a world; every tempo is a character. The bulk of what I’ve been doing is setting the work of other writers [to music] and almost working in two different head spaces. Something that’s new is actually working with my own text as a musician and going, “Oh, I hear music in that, too! What am I going to do with that?” I’m blurring those lines in myself and you’ll see some of that tomorrow.
Prompted by cheek, Lowe treated the audience to a preview of the following night’s performance, playing a recording of herself and Potico performing her poem “Resistance Girl T.” It began with Potico on bass, perhaps improvising, staccato and meditative, before becoming lighter as Lowe joined in, her voice mixing with her keyboard playing in a way that was imploring and disorderly, building urgency throughout the song.
Cheek: There are many, many voices inside that piece. How do you see that in relation to the spatiality of the text? There’s a kind of Sprechstimme, a kind of speaking-talking-singing happening inside that piece which I really like, that feels as if it’s trying to discuss the interrelationship between poetry and music.
Lowe: Yes, there are a lot of voices in Resistance Girl T – speaking, singing and speak-singing and a lot of experimentation. So Yohann and I talked about the feel, and experimented on that… Now I’m performing the book with three other musicians besides myself and look forward to adding more musicians into the mix. It’s different every time. Though composed and notated, this is one of the more improvisational pieces that I’ve ever done, specifically in the stacked up layers of vocals in the end of the piece. Those weren’t planned.
In answering questions from the audience, Jess acknowledged the “fundamental importance” of speaking a poem out loud during its creation: “You hear things that you don’t ordinarily hear when you read it out loud. That’s just generally true, and you’re getting closer to the voice other people will have in their heads when they read it.” Lowe further presented another benefit of collaboration, a benefit that is also perhaps one of the most important processes a writer: “Collaboration forces me to engage in a dialogue, and forces me to interrogate the choices I have made on the page.”
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