the pleasures and dangers of poetry readings

One of the opportunities that has arisen during the pandemic is the easy availability of poetry readings, as many institutions have re-imagined their live readings as online events.

I admit that I wasn’t in the habit of going to a lot of readings in-person before the pandemic. They are usually in the evenings and I try to keep as much evening time reserved for family as possible, so it was difficult for me to commit to the transport time plus the reading time. That is less of a factor now that I can attend and still be at home, in case something comes up that needs my immediate attention.

I’ve had the opportunity to attend a virtual book launch for fellow Boiler House Poets Collective member Erica Bodwell’s Crown of Wild. I heard one of my Smith College poetry godmothers Anne Harding Woodworth read from her new book Trouble, as well as her previous books. I’ve tuned into readings sponsored by the Smith College Boutelle-Day Poetry Center and the Binghamton University Center for Writers. I have even participated in an online reading with the Binghamton Poetry Project.

It’s been wonderful to hear poets reading their work and I’ve also appreciated the opportunity to hear poets speak about their lives and work in interviews or question and answer sessions.

I admit, though, that these discussions, particularly when they take place in academic settings, can shake my sense of myself as a poet.

I consider myself to be a community poet, meaning that my work is informed by my experiences much more so than by my academic background. While I have been blessed with learning about craft through the Binghamton Poetry Project, the Broome County Arts Council, Sappho’s Circle, and my poet-friends of the Grapevine Group and Boiler House Poets Collective, the last time that poetry was a significant part of my academic work was in grammar school, many decades ago. I’ve also learned a lot by reading different poets.

In comments in their readings, poets that I admire talk about the wonders of writing in forms like sonnets or villanelles and how this focuses their writing.

I’ve tried variously to write in form. I’ve never managed to write a traditional sonnet or villanelle that was worth making it out of my notebook.

The thought of trying to write a decent sestina is enough to make me break out in hives.

I do a bit better with forms that have made their way into English from Japan. I have written some successful haiku, tanka, and haibun. I am especially fond of tanka and have included several in my chapbook manuscript, which is still in circulation with publishers and amassing an impressive list of rejections. (Note to self: send more submissions.)

When I am feeling shaken about not having formal training, an English major, or an MFA with all their attendant skills and expertise, I try to remember the times that my poet-friends have reassured me that, although my poetry is different, it is still worthwhile – and that I am indeed a poet.

Now if I can just find those presses and publishers that agree…

anniversary reflections

Earlier this month, I wrote about June birthdays and mentioned B and my 38th wedding anniversary while writing for Stream of Consciousness Saturday here.

Our celebration of our anniversary was different this year. We usually try to go away for a couple of days, usually to a small inn in an historic, picturesque location where there are nice places to stroll and good restaurants.

This year, B did get to take most of the day off from his now-working-from-home job. We did go out briefly for a couple of socially distanced errands and an afternoon visit to the walk-up window at a favorite local ice cream shop, but we made dinner at home with T and had a quiet evening in. All of which seemed right for this somber time.

Thirty-eight years is a respectable amount of time for a marriage and gives me hope that, if we can keep life-threatening disease at bay, we will be able to celebrate our fiftieth anniversary, as we were able to do with our own parents.

Perhaps because we are hearing so much about people changing the date or plans for their weddings, I find myself thinking about B and my wedding, the changes in plan that it entailed, and how it was perceived.

Because B and I were planning to marry shortly after I graduated from Smith College, my mother and I did most of the planning the summer before my senior year. Those were still the days where the tradition of the bride and her family doing most of the wedding arrangements (and paying the costs) was still observed, especially when the bride was young and not established in a career. I chose to be married at Helen Hills Hills chapel on the Smith campus. I had been involved in the life of the chapel throughout my years at Smth, as an organist, choir member, and accompanist and was close to Sister Judith, the Catholic chaplain. The reception would be at the Alumnae House, a short walk down Elm Street from the chapel.

There was no resident priest on campus, so an associate from one of the Northampton parishes presided at mass on Saturdays. I asked him to preside at our wedding ceremony and he agreed. In January, he was re-assigned to a nearby city and decided that he would not come to the wedding. A young priest who was assigned to the University of Massachusetts-Amherst was filling in at Smith for the spring semester became the default priest for our wedding.

This turned out to be very problematic.

He didn’t know me – that I had been serving as a Catholic church musician for over seven years, that I took my faith seriously, and that I had also studied the history of Christianity in the United States and around the world. He also didn’t trust me, which was hurtful. When I met with him to do the questionnaire that is required, he made me swear on a bible to tell him the truth, as though I was going to lie to a priest.

In May, during the reading period before my last-ever final exams, the priest and I were taking a walk on the Smith campus to finalize some of the details. Because B is not Catholic, we were having a ceremony, not a mass, which should have made things more flexible. The priest, however, would not allow any changes in wording, would not allow Sister Judith to read the gospel or offer a reflection, which should have been allowed outside a mass. As we were finishing the walk, he said to me that he thought I would be more comfortable being married in a non-Catholic ceremony.

I was devastated. It was six weeks before the wedding and I didn’t have a member of clergy to preside. I went to the chapel offices in tears. Sister Judith wasn’t there, but Rev. John, the ecumenical Protestant chaplain was. He immediately offered to preside and gave me some different prayer books to look through to find a new ceremony to follow. We had to file dispensations of place and form so that the Catholic church would recognize the marriage and the priest would still read the vows, although they would be from the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer. The best outcome was that Sister Judith delivered a beautiful reflection.

People often say that their wedding days are perfect and they wouldn’t change a thing, but there are some things I would change if I could. I would have made a recording of the ceremony because Sister Judith spoke without notes, so I have only memories and not a record of what she said. I also would have ignored the advice of the wedding gown shop and not worn heels and a headpiece that stood up on my head. Because B is about ten inches (25cm) taller than I, they were trying to make me look taller, which seemed silly at the time and even sillier now. Most of all, I would change the trauma and drama of the clericalism that led to my not having a Catholic wedding, the clericalism that still infects the church and causes so much damage.

Our wedding and reception were designed to be an adult affair, so we didn’t invite children. This wasn’t unusual at the time, but didn’t set well with a family member who wanted their grandchildren to be invited. I’m still sorry that those young cousins had a very boring day.

Some of the adults were bored and upset, too, although I, thankfully, was not aware of it at the time. The Alumnae House could serve wine but not liquor, which upset some people who somehow thought they were owed an open bar. We also did not have dancing; neither B nor I enjoy dancing and Alumnae House is not set up for it. After dinner and our delicious spice cake with buttercream icing, a break from the super-sweet white cake with white frosting that was traditional at the time, B and I went from table to table, visiting with our guests. Strangely, after we talked to people at a table, most left, so that, by the time, I changed to leave for our honeymoon, only immediate family and a few close friends were left to wave good-bye.

I don’t regret our reception choices, which reflected our personal style and preferences. I was sad that some guests gave my mother grief, although I didn’t realize that was happening at the time; it was very rude. I was also sad that people were putting their expectations over our true-to-ourselves choices.

My biggest take-away in looking back on the not-entirely-perfect wedding day that B and I had 38 years ago and in hearing so many stories of couples re-defining their own weddings due to the pandemic is that, while weddings are important days in our lives, they are just one day in a marriage. The accumulation of those days, each presenting joys and challenges, is what is most important.

Love is always most important.

Smith commencement

On this weekend in an ordinary year, the Smith College campus and Northampton, Massachusetts would have been awash in graduating students, their families, and returning alumnae, participating in the traditional activities of commencement and reunion. (While all reunions used to be held simultaneously, now only landmark years, such as the 25th and 50th hold reunions in conjunction with commencement weekend. The other classes meet on the following weekend.)

This year, though, because of the pandemic, the festivities moved online. Saturday evening, the campus would have been illuminated with hundreds of lanterns. Instead, there was a global illumination event, with alumnae and friends of Smith lighting their own lanterns or candles in honor of the class of 2020.  Commencement was livestreamed on Facebook, with a special Zoom experience for graduates, family, and friends.

As a proud member of the class of ’82, I watched the first part of the ceremony. (I admit that I didn’t watch the conferral of degrees, which included the name and photo of each graduate.) I was surprised by how often the alumnae were invoked in the addresses. It’s comforting to know that the strong connections among alumnae and to the institution persist, despite the efforts to divide people that have been so worrisome in the United States in recent years. I add my sincere good wishes to the new alumnae as we all try to find a positive path in the face of these troubled times.

Here are some of the things about the ceremony that I found especially striking:

  • The acknowledgement of the indigenous peoples of the region where the Smith campus now is by Director of Religious & Spiritual Life and College Chaplain Matilda Rose Cantwell ’96
  • The strong bond that President Kathleen McCartney has with the students, the alumnae, and the entire campus community and the sensitivity with which she treated the disruption of the pandemic
  • That 2020 Senior and Alumnae Class President Dimitra Konstantinos Sierros chose to attend Smith for much the same reason I had – because the students she met as a high schooler were so engaged and interesting that she wanted to be a part of such a vibrant community
  • That Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi drew together the accomplishments of notable alumnae and the activism of the class of 2020 in her commencement address, while looking forward to the future endeavors of the graduates

This is not a reunion year for my class. When we meet for our 40th in 2022, I expect that there will be a vaccine and/or effective treatment for COVID-19 widely available so that we will be allowed to travel and gather on campus, although masks and less physical contact may still be a feature of post-pandemic life. I sense, though, that this experience of nurturing community at a distance will make our bonds even stronger.

The class of 2020 may prove to have the strongest bonds of all.

Why we went to Slovenia

I have done a couple of posts on Slovenia here and here, but am hoping to do a series of posts on different things that we did and saw there. I thought I’d start on the reason we travelled to Slovenia.

I am a member of the Smith College Alumnae Chorus. We sing at occasional events on campus in Northampton, Massachusetts, and every other year or so, go on an international tour. This year, we spent a week in Slovenia. We sang the Haydn Missa in Angustiis, also known as the Lord Nelson Mass, and the Duruflé Requiem, in conjunction with orchestra, tenors, and basses from Slovenia. We did have a few tenors and basses of our own along, mostly spouses of alumnae, but, as a women’s college, the vast majority of our chorus is sopranos and altos.

We performed two concerts under the direction of our conductor Jonathan Hirsh on our last two evenings in Slovenia. Our Friday night performance was at the cathedral in Koper.
Koper cathedral performance

On Saturday night, we performed at Saint James’ Church in Ljubljana. To our surprise, a representative from the United States Embassy came to greet us and the performance was recorded by the Slovenian public broadcasting service.
St. James Ljubljana performance

To the delight of the audience, Maestro Hirsh addressed them in Slovene before each concert. He told them a bit about our chorus’s mission to collaborate with local musicians when we toured and a bit about each piece. Both were written in times of strife and uncertainty. The Haydn, which was the first half of the concert, ends with a forceful plea for peace. The Duruflé, however, is much more meditative and ends very quietly with the “In Paradisum” as the soul enters into paradise. Mr. Hirsh asked the audience to take a few moments to reflect before applauding.

Those moments of silence, after the last chord had finished reverberating in those magnificent spaces, were incredibly moving, illustrating the power of music to reach across language, social differences, and time to touch hearts and minds.

SoCS: art from friends

back in Northampton

In my second year at Smith College, a new voice teacher arrived on campus. Her name was Karen and my dear roommate Mary became one of her first students. Through Mary and her friendship with Karen that continued over the decades since we graduated, I felt a personal connection with Karen and had had a chance to reconnect with her a few times over the years when I was back in Northampton.

On March 23rd, a retirement recital was being held in her honor. Mary, who now lives in Colorado, had been planning for months to attend and marshaled me and two of our classmates, both sopranos who studied in the department with other teachers, to join her for the concert weekend.

The recital was given by one of Karen’s more recent students, Victoria Fraser ’10. It was a lovely mix of compositions, including a rarely-heard Buxtehude psalm setting. I was especially touched by “i carry your heart”, a setting of the e.e. cummings poem by Smith professor John Duke (1899-1984).  I have sung a choral arrangement of the piece and loved hearing Victoria’s sensitive interpretation of Duke’s original art song setting. It also reminded me of a board book of the poem, illustrated by Matti Rose McDonough, which daughter E bought for granddaughter ABC, which brings me to tears every time I look at it.

The only thing that could have improved the concert would have been the opportunity to hear Karen sing. I have many fond memories of hearing her expressive soprano voice when I was a student. She went on to sing in many recitals and concerts over the years, including singing premieres of works by Smith faculty composers Donald Wheelock and Ronald Perera, who was the Elsie Irwin Sweeney professor at Smith, an honor which Karen now holds.

The post-recital reception was fun! Many of Karen’s colleagues, most now emeriti, gave little speeches about her and told stories about her with warmth and humor. It was nice to see some of the faculty members with whom I had studied. At the same time, it was sobering to realize how much smaller the music department is now, both in number of faculty and number of students involved. It reinforced the discussions we alumnae had had three weeks earlier when we had gathered to sing Brahms Requiem to bolster the current Smith choral ensembles.

The next day, our class of ’82 quartet spent most of the afternoon visiting with Karen in her office. It was enlightening to hear about how things have changed over the years on campus and within the department. We told Karen what has been going on in our lives and listened to her plans for her retirement. We are happy to know that she will be staying in the area, so that when we return to campus we will still be able to connect with her, now without the time constraints of teaching, committees, and all the other obligations that come with being a professor.

The rest of the time, we four talked and ate and talked and shopped and talked and ate ice cream from Herrell’s. I admit that I also snuck in a solo run to Herrell’s, so I enjoyed not one, but two, samplers on Saturday!

After Palm Sunday services on Sunday morning and the scrumptious brunch buffet at Wiggins Tavern, I had to say good-bye to head for home. I am hoping there will be more mini-reunions in the future. We realized that we can arrange a weekend together even without a special event, so I hope that we will get together again later in the year when Mary comes east to visit her family in New England.

after the concert

Singing the Brahms Requiem was draining, but afterward, instead of feeling tired, I was having a bit of an adrenaline rush. I said some thank yous and goodbyes and headed back to my friend CK’s home.

When CK invited me to stay with her, she had graciously offered to have a few friends from our Smith years over after the concert. As it happened, a couple of guests grew to three, then five, then seven, until finally we were a group of ten alums from ’81-’83 with two spouses, one of them CK’s husband who was our co-host.

CK handled everything with aplomb, starting with cheeses, dips, and deviled eggs, moving on to three delicious homemade soups with bread and three salads, and ending with a make-your-own sundae bar featuring four pints of gourmet ice cream from Bart’s, a local company. And there was malted vanilla!

Whenever Smithies get together, there is an instant connection and always lively conversation. Each of us knew someone else there well, but each also was getting know someone for the first time. We talked about music, of course, as we were all choral singers, about Smith, about generations of family, about technology, and more, in various constellations, for hours.

It was a wonderful way to cap an amazing day!

Singing Brahms at Smith

So, I did do a last-minute score review at the piano before heading to John M. Greene Hall on the Smith College campus. I arrived, registered, and settled into the seats to wait for the rest of the chorus to gather.

Unlike many of the campus buildings, John M. Greene Hall, the traditional site for convocation, all-college meetings, and large public lectures and concerts, has not had an extensive interior renovation since my arrival on campus almost forty years ago; because it houses the largest organ on campus and I both practiced and rehearsed there with Glee Club, I spent more time there than most students. I hope it is on the list to be renovated soon, as it is looking worn.

I was surprised to hear some people complain about the building’s acoustics, though. I remembered being told that John M. Greene was the site of major symphony concerts in the first half of the twentieth century and was a favorite of Serge Koussevitzky’s when he was director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra because the acoustics were so good.

There has been an extension built on the front of the stage, but, even with that, we had such a large chorus and orchestra that we were cramped. Unlike all the other times I have performed Brahms Requiem, we had to rehearse and perform without chairs for the chorus. It was tiring, but we persevered and were strong!

I was shocked to find that the Smith Alumnae Chorus members outnumbered the current students, even though College Choir and Glee Club were combined.  That is less than 20% of the number of choral singers in the combined choirs than during my student years, when there were four large choral groups. Various alumnae speculated on why there are so many fewer student singers now than when we were students ourselves. Some of the possible reasons offered were the decline in music programs in US schools, the increase in the number of international students who may not have been exposed to the Western choral music tradition, the increased prominence of jazz/pop collegiate a cappella groups, the decline in youth church or community choirs, and the emphasis on school/recreational sports whose practices and games tend to conflict with choral rehearsal times.

I had steeled myself for the rush of putting together a major choral work in only a few hours. Because Smith is a women’s college, we often partner with men’s glee clubs to present major choral works for mixed voices. It is always a challenge to sound like a cohesive ensemble when the singers and orchestra have only a couple of days to rehearse and present a concert. Our schedule was a two-hour Friday afternoon rehearsal, a three-hour evening rehearsal, and an early afternoon two-hour warm-up/touch-up rehearsal before our four o’clock concert. A daunting enterprise in the best of circumstances.

And then the nor’easter blew in.

The Penn State Men’s Glee Club was so delayed by the storm that they only caught about fifteen minutes of the afternoon rehearsal. Some of the alumnae were not able to make it to campus at all. Still, we all put our heads down – figuratively, of course, as choral singers ought always to have their heads up – and persevered.

We needed to accomplish the bulk of our preparation on Friday night. One of our biggest challenges was balance. The Penn State men were very well-prepared and strong and we had plenty of altos. We sopranos were outnumbered and had to be careful to open up without pushing and sounding harsh. The chorus was trying to sing at about 70% of performance volume so that we didn’t blow out our voices before the performance, but it was hard to resist the temptation to sing full voice in the loud and exciting parts with the full orchestra in front of us.

There was a wonderful surprise for me at the evening rehearsal. MC, the junior choral director during my last three years at Smith for whom I had accompanied for two years and who then went on to be a long-time choral director and music faculty member at nearby Amherst College, came to rehearsal to take notes for Jonathan Hirsh and Amanda Huntleigh, current Smith conductors. I was thrilled to be able to re-connect with her and try to catch up on 35 years of our lives. We visited after rehearsal until they needed to turn out the lights and lock up the hall and I’m happy to say we are now connected via social media so we won’t lose track of each other.

We re-assembled on campus for lunch on Saturday. The Smith choir officers had thoughtfully paired alums with Alumnae Chorus members so we could share our thoughts and experiences. It was interesting to hear about life on campus now.

We assembled in John M. Greene Hall after lunch for an hour of warm-up and work with the chorus, followed by another hour including the orchestra. We sang full voice at some points to check balance, but were careful not to tire ourselves out. We had an hour to rest, do wardrobe checks, etc. before the concert. Penn State wore tuxes with tails, which made me a bit jealous. I got to wear tails once when I was playing the piano and it was lots of fun to flip them out of the way to sit on the bench! They looked very sharp in their tuxes. Smithies wore all black, either slacks or skirts, which has been standard in recent decades, although alumnae of my vintage and earlier wore all white when we were in Glee Club.

The chorus sat in the house as the Smith College Orchestra opened the program with Brahms’ Tragic Overture. I admit that I closed my eyes and collected my thoughts as I listened, so that I was calm and ready to sing when we filed onstage.

The performance was amazing! I have sung the Brahms Requiem a number of times over the last forty years and this performance, while not the best on a purely technical level, was one of the two best I have ever sung in terms of interpretative and emotional  impact. Jonathan Hirsh used shadings of tempo and dynamics more dramatically than some of the other conductors with whom I have worked on this piece and the choir was able to respond well, which amazed me given how little time we had to come together as an ensemble.

You could definitely feel the emotion on stage as we performed. I had to collect myself especially in the fourth and fifth movements, which were conducted by Amanda Huntleigh, because they have particular resonance for me. The fourth, translated in English as “How Lovely is Thy Dwelling Place”, is most familiar to people as it is frequently used on its own as an anthem or concert piece. We were, of course, singing in the original German; I hope that this piece will be sung at my funeral, as it is both beautiful and hope-filled. The fifth movement, set for soprano solo and chorus which Brahms added to the score after the death of his mother, meditatively compares the consolation of God to the consolation of a mother for her child. As a mother and new grandmother with my own mom under hospice care, it was difficult to not be overwhelmed, but I managed to pull myself together so I could still sing well.

Although one can feel the emotion of a performance on stage, it can be difficult to gauge how much of that is reaching the audience. The Requiem ends very quietly. We musicians stayed very still until the conductor lowered his hands. There were a few moments of profound silence – and then, an immediate standing ovation. We were so grateful that the message of this glorious music reached our audience through us.

The concert was a memorial to Iva Dee Hiatt, who was a renowned choral director at Smith for decades. The alumnae from the class of 1980 and earlier sang for Iva Dee. When I arrived on campus in fall of 1978, she was conducting from a wheelchair as she struggled against ALS. I remember watching her conduct the Glee Club on stage from my seat with choir Alpha in the gallery of John M. Greene for Christmas Vespers. By fall of 1979, she was living in Smith’s infirmary and we sang songs from our strolling concert outside her window. She died early in 1980 and we sang at the first memorial concert in her memory later that winter.

It felt right that this Brahms Requiem was performed in her memory with some alumnae who sang for her and toured with her back on the stage in John M. Greene, dressed in black rather than the white they had worn all those years ago.

back in Northampton

I shared previously that I would be singing Brahms’ Requiem at Smith this weekend. The plans were all in place – and then the weather forecast took a drastic turn for my planned Friday car trip to get to Northampton. Fortunately, I was able to re-arrange my schedule to travel a day earlier to avoid a long drive in the storm.

This also meant that I had some unexpected free time in Northampton, a welcome bonus. I went to Thorne’s Market when I arrived, buying local maple syrup at Cornucopia and locally made soap at Cedar Chest. I indulged in a chair massage to loosen up my back and shoulders in preparation for a lot of standing, score-holding, and singing over these next two days.

I also visited Herrell’s Ice Cream, which opened around the time I began at Smith, and enjoyed a sampler, because getting a bit of four flavors is so much more fun than a larger serving of just one! They still make malted vanilla, which was always a favorite of mine, so, of course, that made it into my dish.

Next, I walked around campus. My first stop was Helen Hills Hills chapel, where, as an organist, choral singer, and accompanist, I spent many hours in my student days. Sadly, there are no longer regularly scheduled services held there and it still looks strange to me to see chairs instead of the pews. As I climbed the stairs to the gallery, I noticed that the red carpet that had begun to bleach near the stairwell window is now almost entirely golden on those few stairs from the years of sunlight streaming on them.

I sat on the organ bench briefly, touched each of the three manuals, and looked over the once-familiar stop knobs. It’s been so long since I have been able to play that I sometimes have to remind myself that I ever could. I wonder how many organ students there are now; I think, perhaps, there are three, judging from the organ shoes on the rack in the corner of the gallery.

I noticed a few cracks in the panes of glass in the gallery windows and some dust in the corners, which makes me sad.

I went down to the basement to visit the Bodman Lounge, which has not changed very much. I had memories of being there dressing for my wedding, which took place a few weeks after my commencement. I called my mom, who was awake and alert. My sister had arrived safely and will be there for the weekend while I am gone.

Next, I went to Wright Hall to visit the Poetry Center, which is celebrating its 20th anniversary. There is a case with poetry books written by alumnae. I made a point to find the books by Anne Harding Woodworth, whom I met through the Alumnae Chorus. She will be returning to campus to sing Brahms and I’m looking forward to seeing her.

Central campus is sort of a pit right now – literally. The main library is being mostly demolished and the foundation being constructed for the new building. There is a large area cut off by construction fencing with some lookout posts carved out to view the progress.

Some of the bulbs on the hillside between Chapin House and Wright Hall are already starting to come up.

There are some fantastic large rocks on display near the science center. I want there to be signs near them as there are with the trees and plantings, telling what they are and where they came from.

I wandered around in Sage Hall, which is the music building. There have been extensive renovations since I was there, including in the concert hall. I found the office of a professor who taught me music history by the Berlioz postings near his door. I actually got to see one of the soon-to-retire members of the voice faculty who started teaching at Smith the first year I was a student. My roommate studied with her and they still keep in touch.

I walked up the hill by Paradise Pond and through the relatively newly opened President’s garden on the way back to my car.

A friend from Smith who lives in the area graciously offered to house me for the weekend – and even more graciously offered to accommodate my arrival a day early. She made a lovely risotto for supper and we had some time to chat and catch up.

The storm blew in here overnight, mostly rain, but with a bit of snow mixed in, and very windy. I hope everyone will be able to get here in time for our first rehearsal at 4:00.

I’m very grateful to be tucked in here at my friend’s home, cozy and warm, rather than trying to drive in the snow and wind to the west.

Next on the agenda, some time seated at her piano, spot checking a few places in the Requiem before rehearsal…