Earlier this week, I posted my interview with composer Jacob Cooper about his new album Silver Threads, a song cycle that features Cooper’s collaboration with several poets in a luminous and supple electronic score. I asked two of those poets, Greg Alan Brownderville and Tarfia Faizullah, about their experiences working on Silver Threads and about collaboration more generally. I’m very glad to feature their replies here.
Greg Alan Brownderville
Typically, the singability of song lyrics is crucial, and that factor alone makes songwriting very different from poetry writing. For example, when I’m writing song lyrics, I don’t want to have consonants, especially adjacent consonant clusters, gumming up my lines too much. Sound combinations that would work beautifully in a poem can be super awkward in a song, awkward both for the singer and for the listener. Because I have sung in several bands and written a lot of songs, I am accustomed to negotiating that sort of concern. But interestingly, in conceptualizing and planning Silver Threads, Jacob seemed to welcome the challenge of taking poems that were written as poems and making them work as song lyrics. He never flat-out said as much to me, but I got the idea that solving the awkwardness problems involved in making a poem’s sticky language flow naturally in a song was central to the artistic enterprise. I think he was interested in how the apparent infelicities that result from merging art forms could signal melodic and rhythmic opportunities for him as a songwriter. So in the end, the process, for me, was not much different from writing a poem.
There was one significant difference, though: because I had some sense that Jacob would be using a lot of ambient space in “Jar” [the text of which is available at Granta], and that the song would unspool slowly, I made all the rhyming sounds similar. That’s a departure from my usual practice. The idea was to keep the listener’s ear from losing track of the sonic patterns in the words themselves. The poem rhymes abba, but given the use of slant rhyme and the closeness of the a and the b, you could make a strong case that “Jar” rhymes aaaa. I even wove in some internal a and b rhymes. I want the listener to hear those sounds coming back again and again, haunting the song.
In “Jar,” Jacob and Mellissa use a lot of melisma and long, drawn-out notes. And they accentuate caesuras with long, lonesome pauses. The relationship between the iambic pentameter of the poem and the complex temporal arrangement of the words as sung is one of many interesting and surprising elements of the song.
I’d never done a collaboration with someone in a different genre before working with Jacob. I was pretty terrified at first, to be honest. More than anything else, it was fascinating to hear music in a poem so differently. Because Jacob was writing a song towards the poem while I was writing the poem towards a song, I was even more acutely aware of syllables, syntax, and diction than usual. It was like working in a wildly new form, which is part of reason “Wefted Histories” moved in unexpected directions within the collaboration. It was such a wonderful challenge to follow those strange and twisting paths, led by Jacob and his incredible ear. Some of those paths led me to try a few things in a poem I hadn’t before, and I’m still stunned by the end result of the haunted and haunting song Jacob and Mellissa rendered.
Jamaal May and I have, for some time now, been creating a space for endless collaborations with Organic Weapon Arts Chapbook Press and Video Series. We’re in the middle of collaborating on video, photo, and audio poetry projects. But rather than the specific projects, it’s that spirit of collaboration with Jamaal—the merging of someone else’s vision with your own, the burst of excitement that comes with hearing ideas that mirror, interrogate, or sharpen your own, the magic of surprising synchronicity—that gave me the foundation and the springboard to collaborate with Jacob, a photographer named Elizabeth Herman, and most recently, a collaboration with DJ and emcee Brooklyn Shanti.
I’m the kid who hated working in groups, and mutinously refused to do a science fair project with a partner, so it’s pretty amazing to me that I’m so excited about collaboration these days. I think it’s because I’m increasingly interested in connectivity. What we do as writers can be so solitary, and I think collaboration allows us to form some really cool bridges within and outside other genres that can help us be better ambassadors as artists and people. And so many of the other artistic genres have their own distinct vocabularies, and I love getting to hear their take on a concept familiar to me in poetry. I like that you call it “collaborative practice,” as it really articulates my impulse behind collaboration: that just like poetry, it is a practice, one that I find more and more vital and necessary.