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How to Go On, the secular requiem that Choral Arts Initiative will premiere July 16 & 17, takes its title from a line by contemporary poet Barbara Crooker: “How can we go on, knowing the end of the story?” This is the question at the heart of composer Dale Trumbore's new piece. Recognizing the fragile mortality of our loved ones and ourselves, how do we go on to live a meaningful life?
Let us go, let go with the few roots
you have left clinging to this earth,
pull free, like the clean snap of a carrot
or radish, let us go, shake off this dirt,
let go, let go of your family, their story
hasn't been told, yours is already written,
let go of the world, its sweetness and sorrow,
let go of your friends, we will cry, yes,
but we will not forget you, let go,
let go your fierce will and stubbornness,
it served you well, now let it go,
your courage will remain, let your daughters
become women, your husband lie in his bed of pain,
your long journey is over, theirs is beginning,
let us go, become spirit and light, spring rain,
fly away from this prison of bone, let go,
wait for us, we'll talk again later,
I am here by the phone, waiting for the call,
for this long suffering to be over,
let it go, your work is done,
soon we will bring you to the river,
bring your ashes to the current, let them flow free,
earth, fire, cinders, rain, wait for us
on the other side of the river, let us go.
(Text of "Requiescat," by Barbara Crooker, poetry from How to Go On)
The following is an interview between composer Dale Trumbore and Crooker about spirituality, processing grief through art, and Crooker's approach to writing.
Dale Trumbore: I've been calling How to Go On both a secular requiem and a meditation on mortality. That word “meditation” is largely because of what I've found in your poems (and Laura Foley's, too): there's a zen quality to them, a recognition of impermanence and the inevitable passing of time. Can you speak about that a little bit? Is that something you consciously put into your poems? Something that creeps in organically?
Barbara Crooker: I hope it creeps in organically; I try to not use my conscious mind when I'm writing. I'm glad you noticed this quality in my work; I consider myself a "Zen Lutheran," and I'm not trying to be funny when I say this. I'm a communing member of a small Lutheran congregation, but am very drawn to Buddhism and thinking about the impermanence of things. I try to focus what Mary Oliver calls " the rich lens of attention" when I'm writing (or going about my day). It's so easy to sleepwalk through our "one wild and precious life," (again, Mary Oliver), so I'm always fighting with myself to be present in the moment.
DT: Your poems always feel so personal. I know your book Gold addresses the loss of your mother; it's a stunning, powerful book. Can you speak about how you view the relationship between art and loss? Do you believe the act of writing, or of experiencing another's description of loss in words or music, can actually help with grief, or enact a sort of healing process?
BC: Thank you for your kind words about Gold. I'm of two minds on poetry as healing. On the one hand, I think therapy is therapy and art is art, and that the two are radically different. On the other hand, by deeply engaging in grief, by trying to make art out of grief, I think it becomes part of the healing process.
We, as Americans, tend, I think, to not treat death as part of life, to not think about our own mortality. And when we lose someone, there's huge pressure for "closure" (whatever that is) and to encourage those in mourning to "move on." But for me, I needed to "dive into the wreck," as Adrienne Rich says, to fully mourn, recognizing that loss is a large part of human existence, something we can't sweep under the carpet, but rather, something we need to learn to live with.
DT: The two poems of yours set in How to Go On, "Requiescat" and an excerpt from “Some Fine Day,” are something like the ninth and tenth poems of yours I've set! What's the experience like of having your words set to music? Hopefully you're never completely horrified, although I'd imagine you prefer some settings to others.
BC: Let me preface this by saying that I'm not musically knowledgeable. So I step into a different room when I hear my words set to music, and let it simply wash over me. I don't have the critical acumen to say that I prefer one setting over another; they simply register with me as "different."
The biggest thing that I notice is that the rhythm has changed, often dramatically, when it's in a composer's hands. But that's just it, it IS in someone else's hands now, and so I let go. And I'm enormously grateful that through this different medium, new listeners, ones that might not come to poetry on their own, find me. Also, I dislike "our" (the arts) world, where each of us are separate, in our little boxes. So I do a lot of ekphrastic work, which is poetry that has a conversation with art, usually painting. I'm also extremely pleased by this dance, my words and your music. Let it play on!
DT: What's your everyday process like? Do you have a writing routine? Is there a time of day when you most like to write? I know we both share a fondness for working at artist residencies, but the way that your poems so often capture glimmers of something spiritual among the banalities of ordinary life make me think that you must have an effective everyday writing practice, too. I'd love to hear more about your writing process.
BC: "Writing process" sounds way too organized for the way I go about things. . . . I think you know that I'm the mother of a son (now 32) with autism, yes? So my daily practice is writing in the interstices (as Maxine Kumin says), fitting it in between, say, trips to the grocery store, meal preparation, etc. Which is why writing at a residency is so terrific, because it's uninterrupted. I'm writing about the spiritual in the ordinary when I'm there, too, because that, above everything, is what engages me.
I do believe that writing is a spiritual practice, and so I try and intersperse what I'm working on with meditation (of various sorts, including walking meditation), non-fiction reading (including, but not limited to, essays on spirituality), literary journal reading , and poetry reading (individual collections). And fiction at night. I'd say 75% of my "work time" is reading time. Plus some of the writing is actual writing, but most of it is revising. I work in layers, accreting material like an oyster building a pearl, but then I also work like a sculptor, hacking away at the parts that aren't the poem. . . . Oh, and then there's research, too; I want the details that are part of the natural world, for example, to be right.
DT: Thank you so much for your insight, Barbara. It's always a joy working with your poems.
Crooker is the author of six books of poetry, including Small Rain and Gold, and her work has appeared in The Bedford Introduction to Literature, Ted Kooser's "American Life in Poetry," and has been featured as part of The Writer’s Almanac with Garrison Keillor.
Order tickets for the July 16 & 17 concerts of How to Go On here and pre-order forthcoming album How to Go On: The Choral Works of Dale Trumbore, to be released in January 2017, which will include several settings of Barbara Crooker's poetry.
Lorraine Joy Welling