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Combining Poetry and Song as Indiana Poet Laureate

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As Indiana Poet Laureate 2008-10, I stressed collaborations and the relationship between song and poetry. In the spring of 2006, I took an adult education course through IUPUI on Jazz History and the Indy Jazz Scene taught by Monika Herzig in downtown Indy. Each weekly session concluded with a performance at the Chatterbox Jazz Tavern on Massachusetts Avenue by Monika and the local jazz musician who earlier told us his or her career story. I loved Monika’s natural and open teaching style, anecdotal method, and easy ability to scoot over to the piano to demonstrate a flatted fifth, bebop phrasing, or another jazz style. We exchanged many e-mails before the class began. Monika’s playing style appealed to me; she liked my poems. Midway through the course in April, she surprised me with an email in which she asked if I would like to do a recording project together combining poetry and jazz. I said yes immediately. That June we began recording Imagine – Indiana in Music and Words, which we completed a year later, with a release in late 2007. In the five or six years we worked together, beginning at the Chatterbox, we performed in Indianapolis and around the state of Indiana during and after my laureateship  probably a hundred times and put together a number of unique programs, such as “A Call for Peace,” which we presented with Americana singer-songwriter Tom Roznowski and The Living Daylights, his female band. The excellent swing violinist, Carolyn Dutton, who performed with us and is on half the tracks on Imagine, also plays fiddle in Tom’s band.

Monika and I like to think of what we did together as a form of Indiana chamber music. Our CD and performances include tributes to the Hampton Sisters and other Indiana Avenue jazz greats such as Wes Montgomery, J. J. Johnson, and Freddie Hubbard, Hoagy Carmichael and Cole Porter, poet Etheridge Knight and novelist Kurt Vonnegut, and takes on songs by Bob Dylan, Paul Simon, and John Lennon. We paired my poems with medleys created by Monika, arrangements of German folktales and tunes by Beethoven, and some of her originals. With Carolyn Hutton and Claudia Grossmann, we presented a program at Butler University in September, 2009, as part of the Mahler Project, titled “Buried Treasure: Recovering German Heritage through Poetry and Music.” We performed some of my poems and early Rilke poems that I had translated, presented in Claudia’s spoken German and my English translations. Monika paired German folktales, pieces by Bach, Beethoven, Schumann, and Brahms, as well as Hoagy Carmichael, and one Herzig original, with these poems.

Another stimulating development was actor and folksinger Tim Grimm’s invitation to participate in the Hoosier Dylan show performed in old Indiana theatres. In his introductions, Tim explained that he included me because in the Rolling Thunder Revue of the 1970s, Dylan included poet friend Allen Ginsberg as part of the troupe of musicians who toured New England by bus. Long a fan of Dylan’s work, I admire his command of musical traditions, brilliant songwriting skill, and transformation of the lyrics and music of American song, especially the blues, into the underpinnings of a vision of contemporary life. If you’re devoted to reuniting poetry and song and admire an artist who constantly reinvents himself and his style as part of an ongoing journey of discovery and rebirth, Dylan is major.  For two shows, I read poems related to Dylan songs, but then I realized that I should recite poems with musical backing. Tim backed me on two poems, and in five performances, bluesman Gordon Bonham backed me on two pairings and after that he became a regular poetry and blues collaborator with me in various venues. He also became my guitar teacher. During lessons, we had many enjoyable conversations about the great blues masters. Significantly, Tim returned home to Indiana from Hollywood, Gordon from Texas, and I from York. Ironically, in the 34 years I lived and taught in the culturally rich New York area, I never had a chance to collaborate with any musician.

Written by Norbert Krapf, Indiana's Poet Laureate from 2008-2010.

Learn more about Norbert here.