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Patricia Smith, Sage String Quartet, and the Art of an Afternoon

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An artist works alone in a garret, her solitary room the site of revelation. Or not.

PSSageRehearsal1Patricia Smith, who recited and read her poetry detailing the wrath of Hurricane Katrina last week, labored on the afternoon of the performance for four hours with four musicians.

The five of them collaborated on a performance that brought tears to the eyes of the audience. Smith even wrote extra lines – just a few moments before the performance – to make her poem better fit the musical score.

In four hours, having never met before, the poet and the musicians meshed their work into a tightly woven performance for HoCoPoLitSo and the Columbia Festival of the Arts called “The Sound and Fury of New Orleans.”

Audience member Mike Clark said he emerged from the reading feeling “flayed,” he had been so moved by the show.

First performed in October 2012, the synthesis of music and poetry was the brainchild of Martin Farawell, director of the Geraldine R, Dodge Poetry Festival, and had not been performed since. Board member Tim Singleton saw Smith at Dodge, and decided HoCoPoLitSo just had to host her.

Smith performed work from her book, Blood Dazzler, a National Book Award finalist, as the Sage String Quartet played Wynton Marsalis’ “At the Octoroon Balls” for an audience that grew deeply silent.

StormViolinists Arminé Graham and Laura Chang reached deep into the heart of the poems, Maggie Hummel on cello drew out the voice of Katrina during “Blue Lights on the Bayou,” and Sarah Hart and her viola flirted with the ragtime. Each note, whether quavering or raucous, seemed to speak intimately with Smith’s poems about New Orleans as lascivious flirt and nursing home residents left to drown in their beds, about a dog howling at the looming sky, about a woman with three babies and two arms, who drops her littlest one with a tiny splash.

But before it became art, there was the devil in the details. The musicians knew the music, the poet knew the poems, but in one short rehearsal on the afternoon of the performance, they had to make those two types of art speak as one.

The rehearsal started on a good note. Smith walked into the Monteabaro Recital Hall, saw the four musicians warming up onstage and chortled: “Girl party!”

The quartet laughed, the tension broken. Then, in their shorts and sundresses, the five women settled into the rehearsal.

PSSageBravoUseSmith began by explaining each poem, and reading it, as the musicians looked at the score. They talked about the silences that punctuated the piece, the times when the musicians would play “Hellbound Highball” and would have to tone down the frenzy so Smith’s words about running just ahead of Katrina’s winds could be heard.

The cellist, Maggie Hummel, took on the voice of Katrina, as Smith read poems in the hurricane’s hungry voice: “Every woman begins as weather.” Hummel’s fingers plucked insistently at the beginning of every poem in Katrina’s voice, lending an urgency to the hurricane’s approach.

Just at the end, when everyone was tired and the snacks of nuts and cherries had run out, Smith said she needed to say something about the ending.

“I’m hearing something,” she said. “Katrina’s voice.”

So Smith read the last few lines, and Hummel plucked those strings again.

“That’s it,” Smith said.

Throughout the rehearsal, if they weren’t sure how the piece would go, they just tried it.

“Let’s just do it and see what happens,” Smith said more than once. They did, then tried again. And art happened.

Susan Thornton Hobby
board member

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2 Comments

  1. […] ← Patricia Smith, Sage String Quartet, and the Art of an Afternoon […]

  2. […] They interview each other like they do for HoCoPoLitSo’s The Writing Life series: E. Ethelbert Miller interviewing Amiri Baraka, Roland Flint interviewing Lucille Clifton, or Naomi Ayala interviewing Martin Espada. And they also collaborate with other artists like when Steven Levya performed his poetry with Josh Soto on drums, when Rita Dove shared the stage with violinist Joshua Coyne, and when Patricia Smith performed her poetry with a string quartet. […]

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