Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Poetry on Record Interview - Rebekah Presson Mosby

(As promised, here is the feature and interview from my Emerging Music site with Rebekah Presson Mosby, producer of Poetry on Record!)
P.S. Talk about a Mother's Day gift! This is the bomb!

As you might think, with a title like Poetry on Record: 98 Poets Read Their Work 1888-2006, (Shout!Factory), my initial anticipation was not a musical one. Particularly not an 'emerging musical' one. But I assure you that nothing has ever been more musical or emerging within my spirit then what flowed from the lips of these 98. I was awakened this morning from a sound sleep with the relentless beat and driving rhythm of one poem in particular. That of Carl Hancock Rux singing, telling, and etching on the innermost walls of my psyche "Eleven More Days."

Another unforgettable offering comes from poet Anne Waldman as she creates a poetic melody with icy irony entitled "Uh Oh Plutonium". As I listened to Anne, and I sought to put what she said and what Carl said in some kind of sync with the enduring messages also included in the work by the likes of Alfred, Lord Tennyson ("The Charge of the Light Brigade"), the haunting words of Sylvia Plath ("Daddy"), the mind-boggling position of Marge Piercy ("Right to Life"), the craft of Langston Hughes, Robert Frost, Gertrude Stein, Dyland Thomas, and dozens more, I needed to know what connected them all. What made this project such a resounding success, because it is a success, an experience I cannot urge you enough to embark upon. I needed to know, so I asked.

I interviewed the producer of this project for us, Rebekah Presson Mosby, and I'd like to share that wonderful interview with you now:

Please introduce yourself to our audience.

I am Rebekah Presson Mosby. I was formerly a free-lance cultural reporter for NPR, for which I filed about 140 features and documentaries. I was also producer and host of the syndicated literature program, New Letters on the Air from 1983-1995. Since 1996, I have lived in Hamilton, New York and worked mostly on audio anthologies of poets reading their work. Poetry on Record: 98 Poets Read Their Work (1888-2006) is the most recent of these projects.

Tell us about the first time you realized poetry was going to be an integral part of your life.

I studied theater as an undergraduate and stumbled into poetry as a graduate student. While taking a fiction writing class with the poet David Ray, I volunteered to help out with the syndicated public radio program David founded, New Letters on the Air. Two weeks later, the producer quit and Judy Ray and I became co-producers and hosts of the ½ hour weekly show (until 1984, when I became sole producer/host).

My first interview was with Denise Levertov. Although I was not knowledgeable about contemporary poetry (I was working largely with questions David and Judy helped me with), Ms. Levertov was very kind. The experience of having a private poetry reading in the studio was quite thrilling, a thrill that was to be duplicated hundreds of times after that.

The audio anthologies I edit and produce are, in some sense, a duplication of that experience—and, I hope, that thrill.

Some people write poetry, others teach, and still others are committed to the tireless promotion of the art form. You do all of this. Why?

I don’t write or teach poetry. I am a primarily a journalist who loves poetry and feels that the best way to experience it is in its most ancient and venerable form: aurally. Starting next year, I will teach radio writing at Colgate University.

What inspired the ‘Poetry on Record’ project? What time frame does it cover?

Poetry on Record: 98 Poets Read Their Work (1888-2006) spans the entire history of recording technology (1888-2006). Because Alfred, Lord Tennyson, Robert Browning and Walt Whitman were all old men when they were recorded, the poems themselves date from 1845 (Browning’s “How They Brought the Good News from Ghent to Aix”), meaning that the collection spans one and a half centuries!

This collection is an expanded and revised version of a 4 CD box I edited for Rhino Records that was published in 1996 and has since gone out of print. That collection included 80 poets, rather than the current 98. Many, though not all of the changes are in the much-expanded first CD which adds Tennyson, Browning, Edgar Lee Masters, James Weldon Johnson, Carl Sandburg, H.D., T.S. Eliot, Dorothy Parker, Sterling Brown and Elizabeth Bishop to the mix. The fourth CD, which previously ended with Li-Young Lee, now contains ten poets younger than he. There are many other additions and changes in this collection.

The poets represented on the recordings are a very diverse group. Who determined who would be included? Is there one common thread that made each rise to the top of your list? If so, what was it?

I determined who would be included and it was always my intention that poets would be as diverse as America (although many of the poets are not American). My guiding principal was to create as full a picture as possible of what has gone on in poetry in English since Edison’s invention of the phonograph in 1888.

Many of the poems were chosen because they are so beloved, such as Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken” and Langston Hughes’ “The Negro Speaks of Rivers.” However, this is not intended to be a collection of the greatest poems by the greatest poets. Yes, the great poets are here, but the overall effect is to cover the movements and ideas that have taken hold in the poetry world. Thus, there are poems about nearly every war (including one about 9/11), love poems, death poems, family poems, odes, ars poetica (poems about poetry), jazz poems, poems set to music, poems about growing up Black, Latino, Native American and/or Asian in America and lots of funny poems as well. The major poetry movements are also covered: romanticism, modernism, neo-formalism, the Harlem Renaissance, Black Arts Movement, surrealism, etc.

Did hearing a poet’s own voice reading a poem change your thoughts about that work? About that poet?

Absolutely yes on both counts. A great example of the first is Allen Ginsberg’s recording of “America.” As a student, I read that poem as heavy social commentary. Yet Ginsberg’s performance milks the poem for comic double entendre and brings an entirely new dimension to the work I hadn’t recognized in reading it.

Also, hearing poet’s voice tells us other things about the poet and the poem. First, we hear how the poet thinks the poem should be read. Second, we feel closer to the poet for hearing his or her voice. In some cases, such as hearing Tennyson recite “The Charge of the Light Brigade,” this can be a thrilling encounter with history. Other times, as in Sylvia Plath’s reading of “Daddy,” her pain is so palpable as to make listening almost painful.

What do you want the lasting impact of this project to be on those who hear all, or a part, of this collection? Do you think it will inspire more to read poetry? To write it? To want to listen to poetry being read?

My hope is that Poetry on Record will inspire both profound emotions and great pleasure on the part of the listener. When one connects with the oral roots of poetry (keep in mind that poems were spoken for thousands of years before writing existed) it can trigger something primal and visceral as well provoke thoughts and ideas that might otherwise have remained buried in one’s unconscious mind. Poetry can provide insight and comfort to those of us frightened and/or confused about the state of the world and our lives. I want people to listen for ideas, comfort and music. Poetry on Record is really just a taste of what is out there and yes, I hope that if a particular poet moves a listener, he or she will go out and find more work by the poet.

While I don’t write poetry, I know that doing so can be really helpful also. Making poetry, like all the arts, can serve as therapy and pleasure.

What are some of the other projects you have edited? What books have you written?

In addition to editing Poetry on Record: 98 Poets Read Their Work (1888-2006), I also co-edited (with Elise Paschen) Poetry Speaks (Sourcebooks, 2001), a book with three audio CDs tucked inside. Poetry Speaks was on The New York Times extended best seller list.

Our Souls Have Grown Deep Like the Rivers: Black Poets Read Their Work (Rhino Entertainment, 2000) is a two CD collection of just Black poets.

In Their Own Voices: A Century of Recorded Poetry (Rhino Entertainment, 1996), mentioned earlier, is four CDs of 80 poets reading their work.

Will you tell us about your current activities and recent honors?

Currently, I am devising a radio writing course to be offered at Colgate University next year. My awards include an Audie for Our Souls Have Grown Deep Like the Rivers: Black Poets Read Their Work, four “Earphones” awards from AudioFile magazine, first place from the President’s Council for People With Disabilities for a NPR documentary on Veteran wheelchair athletes and first prize from the Kansas Broadcasters’ Association for a feature on artist Elizabeth Layton.

I am listed in Contemporary Authors and Who’s Who in America.

What are your plans for the near future?

My husband, Dewey F. Mosby, an art historian, and I will spend three months in the fall in Paris, as we did last year.

I’m hoping Poetry on Record: 98 Poets Read Their Work (1888-2006) will do well because I’d love to edit a sequel and put in about 50 more of the really fine poets I had to leave out of this one!

In closing, do you feel the poetry being created by the urban and grassroots poets of the last decade or two will endure the test of time? What about that of the 21st century poets who are traveling a more traditional road through channels of higher education? Have you seen any particularly radiant new talents?

I can’t possibly know what will endure. In the last CD of Poetry on Record for example, I picked works that I know are good and feel are representative of the world we live in and the world of contemporary poetry. But would I pick the same poets to read alongside W.B. Yeats and Muriel Rukeyser 50 years from now? I don’t know!

There are lots of fine young poets. I think the one who just knocks me out though is Carl Hancock Rux. I strongly recommend his CDs, especially Rux Revue.

How can one learn more about this project, your books or get in contact with you?

I’m easy to find. Everything you might want to know about me is on my Authors Guild website,

Thank you so much for spending this time with us. We wish you the very best!

Thank you! Good questions!!

There's not much more I can possibly add. It is an awesome project!

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