Choral Arts Initiative News
Join the discussion on our blog! Weekly posts on musical musings, updates on our events and performances, and much more! Want to stay in the loop? Subscribe to our e-Newsletter!
Poet Amy Fleury, a professor at McNeese State University and the author of books Sympathetic Magic and Beautiful Trouble, wrote the text for the final movement of How to Go On. The following is an interview about her inspiration for that poem, as well as her thoughts on how art accompanies us on our journey through life and grief.
When at Last I Join
When at last I join the democracy of dirt,
a tussock earthed over and grass healed,
I’ll gladly conspire in my own diminishment.
Let a pink peony bloom from my chest
and may it be visited by a charm of bees,
who will then carry the talcum of pollen
and nectar of clover to the grove where they hive.
Let the honey they make be broken
from its comb, and release from its golden hold,
onto some animal tongue, my soul.
Dale Trumbore: In a way, your poem prompted the entire requiem. My aunt [poet Julie Kane] had passed along this poem of yours four years ago, and I knew I desperately wanted to set it to music but wasn't ready for it yet. I'm so glad I waited to make it part of something larger; because it's intended to be the last movement, it incorporates melodic fragments of what's come before it.
I hear echoes of Christina Rossetti (“When I am dead, my dearest”), Mary Elizabeth Frye (“Do not stand at my grave and weep”), and even Purcell's aria “When I am laid in earth” in the words of “When at Last I Join,” but at the same time it feels wholly original. Did you have any particular influence or influences in mind when you wrote the poem? Can you speak a bit about the process of writing it?
Amy Fleury: The first line of the poem, "When at last I join the democracy of dirt," was haunting my thoughts for quite some time. As with so many poems, I had to wait for the rest of it to arrive. Returning to the earth is mostly depicted in our culture as grotesque--decomposition, becoming worm-food, but I wanted to exalt that bodily return to something necessary, natural, and transcendent. I suppose Rilke's "Duino Elegies" are an influence, but equally so are the melancholic peonies that bloom so profusely on graves every year around Memorial Day.
DT: “How to Go On" addresses how we confront the inevitability of our own mortality in the face of a loved one's death. It also, I hope, tries to offer solace and relief through music. Your poem does this so well, turning something we so often avoid thinking about into a beautiful act of reconnecting with the earth. Can you speak a little bit about how you see the relationship between grief and art? Do you think the act of creating or taking in art can help with the grieving and healing process?
AF: Once I believed whole-heartedly that art could be a salve that could help heal grief. Since writing this poem, I've experienced the devastating loss of my young son Graham. In the face of crushing grief I have gone daily to poems, music, paintings, films, novels, as well as the natural world, but not as anodyne. If anything, art probes those wounds, acknowledges the pain and accompanies you through it. I've gone back and back again to Anna Akhmatova's poems (and in the past year Iris Dement's beautiful settings of some of those poems in her album, "The Trackless Woods"). Akhmatova experienced such excruciating loss--her friends, her partner and son to the gulags, the destruction of her homeland.
I go to those poems for company, for the experience of empathy. Recently I saw Michelangelo's "Pieta'" at St. Peter's Cathedral, and though I'd seen it once before, I openly wept this time seeing the crucified Christ draped across Mary's lap and her mournful face. I too had held my lifeless son in my arms. The "Pieta'" was no comfort to me. It accompanied me in my loss.
I love the title "How to Go On" because it speaks to the struggle of living with loss. I ask myself every day, "How can I go on, how can I keep breathing, how do I justify my existence and make my life useful when I feel so broken?". Grief, like life, doesn't really end, but flows on in different forms. That's what I hope "When at last I join" approaches.
DT: Can you tell me a little bit about your writing process? Is there a time of day when you write best? Do you have a creative routine? I know you teach writing, too.
AF: I'm not as disciplined in my writing as I always hope to be. I am more productive when I show up to the page for at least a little while every day. The past few years have made that difficult for me though. I do best if I have long stretches of uninterrupted time, which is why summers and academic breaks have always been the most fruitful for writing new work. I like to start out in longhand. The visceral experience of ink and the page is a deeply felt part of writing for me. This approach is rapidly becoming quaint. It probably already is. I find it such a physical pleasure though.
Read interviews with other How to Go On poets Laura Foley and Barbara Crooker, preview the score and poetry, and get your tickets for the July 16 & 17 performances! Album pre-order options are also available at our store.
Lorraine Joy Welling