Poetry News

'music is the primary layer of experience and intelligence in poetry': Joel Craig and Sheila Davies Sumner in Conversation

By Harriet Staff

Joel Craig

Today must be the day for great poetry conversations. We'll round out the week with this wonderful, in-depth conversation with Joel Craig and Sheila Davies Sumner talking about many-a-poetry-thing, and in particular, Craig's recently minted first collection The White House. Sumner seems well-read on Craig's work and asks him some astute questions. Of which, is this one:

SDS: In my first reading of The White House, I found myself slowing down to accommodate the tone and mood and rhythm of your poems. This cohesive medium seemed to be musical –– and for me it created an experience that was dependable and constant –– a trustworthiness. This music gives range for your poet’s voices to roam, and I relied on it to lead me through the diverse language of the poems. Could you say something about the ways your creative process collaborates in relationship to music, sound, sonics?

JC: Music is where it’s at for me, so I’m glad the urge was prompted in you. To me, music is the primary layer of experience and intelligence in poetry, what makes it such an inclusive contact to anyone open to the participation required, the patience. The way we take it in, what makes it enjoyable, is so personal to our history and maturity with it, which fascinates me. On the one hand there seems to be a simple equation—the more we listen, the better we become at listening and the more we are rewarded. On the other, there is so much music to hear, different reasons for exposure, the accidental, the purposeful, so that the basis for the experience, our taste, is always evolving, even when we aren't trying. There are different states of listening, too, such as rehearsal or improvisation, where you are listening in a very different way to the parts of around you, cognizant of the moment but imagining the whole. Actually giving a musical performance requires listening that is a variant to that of the audience receiving that performance. So the education of the ear can happen in myriad ways.

I spent years studying voice, singing in different choirs, and that was my window into art-making, of what process involves. Trying to place the voice you are responsible for, the voice that literally resonates within your skull into a performance of multiple parts unified, demands particular concentration—a multi-tasking. This is also true of DJ-ing where you must be aware of both the track being presented to the room, and the multiple tracks sampled in the cue before sensing the fit (a kind of improvisation)—music you hear and discard, the music you merge with what the audience is already hearing. Both of these processes have fed my ear and made me comfortable with the process required to make poems. It takes a lot of work, requiring many decisions about what you don’t include in order to arrive at what you do, and those decisions are best made quickly, for me. The goal of the process being for one idea to grow out of another, reformulate and lead to another new idea while also achieving an inner cohesion; a balancing of recognition, rhythm, and association that can lead to “aha” moments for the audience. The sound must be true before anything else can be.

For those of you pondering Craig's title—The White House—our interlocutors clear that up too:

SDS: At first I made a political association to The White House but as I read, different meanings occurred to me –– for instance, a white house that reflects wavelengths of visible light. I noticed your diction and metaphor: “instructions for building a paper house”, “consciousness that leaks like a house”, and “the house of dread”, as well as the many references to floors and doors and windows inside rooms where all kinds of people enter, live, love, and leave. What are the ways this title influenced and shaped the book?

JC: The title fell into my lap as I was visiting with a friend recently returned from spending a month in New Zealand. He capped an hour-long description of the trip, his impressions, with bewilderment at the fact of brothels, legal brothels, existing in Auckland—and how they are not diminutive places. The most famous is called The White House and it was a replica the White House. I was reminded of a record I loved also called The White House by The Dead C, a New Zealand noise outfit. The album cover was a creepy photo of (I assumed) the White House, but it seemed more like it belonged on a cheap postcard. I’m still not sure which one is actually represented on the cover. No matter, the coincidence and the layers around it seemed a good sum for the poetry I was making—I’d already written the poem. It became my working title and it stuck. I became more conscious certainly of my description of interior spaces, or landings as I came to think of them.

It's a long conversation, so please head over Studio One Reading Series and read it in full. Because it's Friday afternoon, we're dedicating this one to you, Joel Craig!!