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June 26, 2015

Book Notes - Christian McEwen "Sparks from the Anvil: The Smith College Poetry Interviews"

Sparks from the Anvil: The Smith College Poetry Interviews

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.

Previous contributors include Bret Easton Ellis, Kate Christensen, Kevin Brockmeier, T.C. Boyle, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, Aimee Bender, Jesmyn Ward, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.

Sparks from the Anvil: The Smith College Poetry Interviews is an inspiring collection of thoughtful interviews with sixteen poets, including Maxine Kumin, W.S. Merwin, and Rita Dove.

Stream a playlist of these songs at Spotify.


In her own words, here is Christian McEwen's Book Notes music playlist for her book Sparks from the Anvil: The Smith College Poetry Interviews:


1. Sarah Bauhan: My publisher, Sarah Bauhan, plays both the whistle and the flute, and I would like to begin with a track from her CD, Lathrop's Waltz. The piece itself is called "Calum's Road" and was written by Donald Shaw. It's about a man called Calum MacLeod, who lived on the Isle of Raasay in the Hebrides. When the County Council refused to build a road to his house, Calum built it himself, though it took him a full ten years.

Clearly there are some parallels here with what it means to write -- or indeed, to publish -- any substantial piece of work. It can be a long hard road...

This piece also pays tribute to Annie Boutelle, who founded the Smith College Poetry Center, and who herself grew up in Oban, on the west coast of Scotland. Her interview is the first one in my book.

2.The second piece I'd like to play is from a CD called Wings & Shadows, in which Steve Gorn plays the bamboo flute and the clarinet. I'm especially drawn to a short piece called "Invisible World," which reminds me obliquely, of the poet, Jean Valentine. Last fall, Jean and I spent some time together at the Rubin Museum in New York City. It was a chilly November afternoon, with the rain pelting down. We sat and talked over tea for a couple of hours, and then made our way to the shrine-room, where we sat in silence, looking at the big gold Buddha. "Invisible World" reminds me of that day, and of Jean's poems, which so often draw on worlds beyond our own.

3. The next piece I'd like to play is from a CD called Chant, sung by the Benedictine monks of Santo Domingo of Silos. Its title, in Latin, is "Media vita in morte sumus," which is to say, "In the midst of life we are in death," and I associate it with the poet and translator, Patrick Donnelly, who himself lives with AIDS, and who has written so beautifully about his mother's death, and the deaths of so many of his friends. It is perhaps not accidental that Patrick intended at one point to be a priest, and at another, to be an opera singer. He knows both the depths and the heights out of which the monks are singing.

4. My fourth choice is from Nina Simone's CD Baltimore: it's called "Balm in Gilead." Paul Robeson has sung this too, in his deep basso profundo, but I particularly like Nina Simone's rendition, which I associate it with the African-American poet Nikky Finney. In the course of our interview, Finney spoke to me at length about the kind of deep, attentive listening she used to practice as a child, and also about her father's magnificent jazz collection, which ranged from Nina Simone to Billie Holliday to James Brown and on to what she called "the arresting intonations of Sarah Vaughan." So, this one is for Nikky Finney.

5. My next piece is from Frank London's marvelous CD Invocations. I'd like to play the first track, "Hod:T'kias Shofar" which is a trumpet solo, "blown to signal the end of exile." When I interviewed the poet, Edward Hirsch, he spoke of how it felt to grow up as a Jewish child in the United States, "constantly othered," and how much it meant to connect with the poetry of Eastern Europe as an adult. "I'm not a Russian-Jewish poet," he told me. "I'm not a Hebrew poet. I'm an American-Jewish poet. So that means I try to be in touch with something very deep and resonant in Judaism, which has a long history, and also in touch with what it means to be American." My sense is that Frank London is doing very much the same thing here, braiding together his Jewish and American selves, "to signal the end of exile."

6. Next I would like to play an excerpt from Meredith Monk's impermanence: an astonishing piece of work which faces mortality head on, as every one of us will have to do some day. Maxine Kumin died in March 2014, just three years after we spoke together. So this one is for Maxine Kumin.

7. I would like to end with a piece by the Tibetan flute-player, Nawang Khechog. His CD is called Music as Medicine, and this is the very first track. It's called "Healing through Kindness."

Talking to these many poets, and editing their interviews, as I did over the last six years, I came to see how much healing could be found in the act of listening, in the act of conversation, and in the practice of a very simple, unpretentious kindness. So this piece is my thank you to the poets themselves, and to all of you who are listening here today.


Christian McEwen and Sparks from the Anvil: The Smith College Poetry Interviews links:

the author's website

Grecourt Gate interview with the author
Story Circle Book Reviews interview with the author


also at Largehearted Boy:

Book Notes (2015 - ) (authors create music playlists for their book)
Book Notes (2012 - 2014) (authors create music playlists for their book)
Book Notes (2005 - 2011) (authors create music playlists for their book)
my 11 favorite Book Notes playlist essays

100 Online Sources for Free and Legal Music Downloads
Antiheroines (interviews with up and coming female comics artists)
Atomic Books Comics Preview (weekly comics highlights)
Daily Downloads (free and legal daily mp3 downloads)
guest book reviews
Librairie Drawn & Quarterly Books of the Week (recommended new books, magazines, and comics)
musician/author interviews
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
Short Cuts (writers pair a song with their short story or essay)
Shorties (daily music, literature, and pop culture links)
Soundtracked (composers and directors discuss their film's soundtracks)
weekly music release lists
Word Bookstores Books of the Week (weekly new book highlights)


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