Music conjures space—the manifestation of volume and weight. As when catching the eerie, noiseless sight of a jet lancing the night sky full moments before the audible scrape of its passage through air reaches the place you first spotted it, so the invisible weight of music slows the instant entry of a poem’s text into the reader’s mind.
Enter: Michael Zapruder’s Pink Thunder, a slim and booming anthology of poems, handwritten and illustrated by Arrington de Dionyso and recast into original poem-song hybrids composed and performed by Zapruder himself. The loud, fuchsia hardcover carries a CD tucked into its back sleeve pocket to listen to while reading the book’s featured poems. Scott Pinkmountain, who introduces the collection, mentions asking Zapruder about his hopes for the project, to which Zapruder replied: “I believe that art can help people, put people into contact with, I guess their green and growing edge […] that part of them that feels alive.” I know experiencing this collection greened me to mine.
Music is a weighty fabric of sound that needs room. Pink Thunder piques our awareness of how silence compresses the experiential space of a poem, a space that could spool out into new possibilities when grafted into song. The first poem in the book, “These Boobs are Real,” by Dorothea Lasky, is a list poem of just 20 lines that pairs actions a certain “They” committed as paired with different violent or invasive verbs. The song version takes just over two full minutes because each phrase is sung out and accompanied by breathy background vocals and bizarre electronic keyboard patterns that give the song a surreal and underwater feel. The poem ends with, “what is real but does not help / is lost forever and replaced by the unreal. / The difference is = these boobs are real.” While the potential variety of tone possible here in the poem seems vast, the musical version is in no rush, and it conveys an element of tedium perhaps sensed in the poem by its translator.
Like two languages, translation from poem to song does not directly transfer. Zapruder challenged himself as a songwriter in this project to leave the poems verbally in tact, writing songs around them without changing a word. The poem “Florida” for example, by Travis Nichols, becomes a song with the same progression and order of words as the poem, but reading the poem while listening to the song shows how the poem’s structure has to flex in order to become a song. The poem reads:
The silver trills that kept me up until
then every night weren’t spilling from
the legs of little black insects but brilliant
points of light in the sky.
With attention to line breaks as tiny pauses in the verse, the listener will note that in the song, pauses dictated by the musical rhythm change these line breaks. Were the song version to be translated from the audio back into poetry, the line breaks would shift:
The silver trills
that had kept me up until then every night
weren’t spilling from the legs
of little black insects
but brilliant points of light in the sky.
Like any translation, the translator must decide which elements of the original are most important to adhere to in order to remain faithful to the original, and also flexible enough to create a composition that works in the second “language.”
Reading the poems first and then re-reading them with the musical-song composition playing makes the reader aware of the voice we receive inside our heads when reading poems. This accentuates the importance of the poem’s title and first line and how the cues within them (vocabulary, syntax, punctuation, and line breaks) direct the reader to the poem’s tone. In Michael Zapruder’s brother Matthew Zapruder’s poem “Opera,” the title as a word incites a storage of memories and associations with “opera,” before starting in with the first line: “Opera pouring from the tenement.” The poet’s choice to break each subsequent line as he does allows for the mounting of curiosity from the reader. The resulting progression of discovery creates movement through distance and closeness unique to the writing.
Translating a poem into a song changes this progression, as the opening tone is premeditated. The title of a poem is like a tuning fork for the poem, whereas a song gives its overture to set the tone. In the poem-songs, instead of a title the listener receives first a pitch and pattern of sounds composed of instruments and vocals that accompany the words of the poem. This composition colors the words a particular and limited spectrum of emotions. “Opera” as a song does not speak its own title, but instead begins with high piano key chimes that quickly shift into a minor-scale of uncertain and ponderous notes as the voice joins. An unmistakable element of loneliness exists in the spectrum of minor notes and the slow drop of each note. Large pauses appear in the midst of lines to give the musical phrasing enough space to come around; for example, “gold sounds big clean amps” is the 13th line, but the song version inserts a long pause between “gold sounds” and “big clean amps” to work within the musical body orchestrated with it.
Just as these poems are versioned into song, the idea of a song is versioned into poem in that it cannot simply follow a normal song structure (verses, chorus, bridge, refrain, etc.). In this way the notion of a song has to come undone, and the poem-song hybrid has to fray and lift, escape before it settles too roundly into the cogs and whirlpools of song. A shorter poem like “[Calmly grass becomes a wave],” by Hoa Nguyen, seems to work better than other poems as a song, in that there is more space for the song to develop in its first lines (simple phrasing helps, too). Listening to it, I found I wanted this song to continue and develop with an expected song structure, but instead it had to turn abruptly the way the poem does, and end. The song swivels off the way a current fills the space a fish tail scissored through.
I can’t say I’ll remember any one of the songs by heart, although like reading good poetry, each subsequent listen to the CD itself elicits a new and fresh experience. While intriguing mannerisms Michael Zapruder adopted to create the songs (a lilting voice that carries a word through a several-note slur to convey depth and possibility from that word, or the jazz-like responsiveness and fluid transitions of musical patterns) linger after listening, the experience of hearing poems in song was not a discovery that could replace poem or song, nor was this the book’s intention.
Instead, I see Pink Thunder as a remarkable converging arts conversation piece. The friction between these two forms throws into relief the stark limitations we assign to poems and songs individually. Acknowledging these differences equips us to challenge them, to reach over into “known” territory as an invisible impostor and take something. What might happen if we take a handful of water and try to race back across the border with enough of it still on our hands to try in our own soil?
I was floored by the idea and fervor behind the project of Pink Thunder. As the book’s title suggests, there is a fierce and fiercely unique storm brewing here between poetry and song. Let it rain.
Michael Zapruder. Pink Thunder. Black Ocean, 2012.