On “Lineage” & Lyric

In July I received exciting news in the form of an mp3.

Earlier in the summer, Kendall Moore, a talented composer, trombonist, and educator, contacted me and asked if he could put a poem of mine to music for a poetry suite project. The poem would be performed live, and featured alongside Frank O’Hara’s “The Day Lady Died,” Walt Whitman’s “Midnight,” Countee Cullen’s “Simon the Cyrenian Speaks,” and William Carlos Williams’ “Between Walls.” I was thrilled to say the least.

The poem Kendall chose is called “Lineage,” which was published by LOCUSPOINT in November 2011. It was published as I was completing my manuscript, Anyjar (a manuscript that is still unplaced, still looking for a home with a publisher) when I decided that “Lineage” would be the first poem in the book.

Both Kendall and I agreed that the the visual representation and form of the poem could lend itself to some interesting possibilities. I loved working with long stretches of silence between short phrases that simultaneously act as isolated lines and couplets. I feel like Kendall’s arrangement reflects the poem’s dualities. It’s a slow and speedy dream, an ebbing shoreline, an in-between space that sets the tone for the spaces the Anyjar must negotiate (and renegotiate) throughout the poems.

There is of course a long historical relationship between poetry and music. The lyric poem, which goes back to ancient Greece, was meant to be accompanied by music, especially a small harp-like instrument called the lyre. The female lyric, best known as beginning with Sappho, has been distinguished, since antiquity, as a first-person narrative that usually centers around themes of love and heartbreak, and are marked as personal by way of feeling through the “I.”

However, I am mostly interested in how the women’s poetry muddies the waters of the traditional lyric. While poets like Emily Dickinson, H.D., Elizabeth Bishop, Ruth Stone, Louise Glück, and others have kept a tradition of lyric poetry that is described by its traditional characteristics, there are plenty of female poets who embrace the lyric as a site of disruption from the lyric’s patriarchal definitions and lineage. I am thinking of my poetry mothers Gertrude Stein, Anne Waldmann, Bernadette Meyer, Mei-mei Berssenbrugge, Lyn Hejinian and Alice Notley.

When I wrote “Lineage” I was thinking of the relationship between two poetic lines: the ones we write and the ones composed in our blood. I was thinking about mothers–my own and the ones I’ve adopted as literary practice. I was thinking of being a runaway–literal and genealogical. I was thinking of the ocean’s forever-lines, the lines I’ve crossed or double-crossed, the blurring that is an inevitable part of human experience.

Of course, this thinking, and the poem itself, belongs to the personal. The poem is an inquiry into love: who we love, how we love, where we love. And conjures heartbreak: how the line breaks, how the “I” breaks. “Lineage” is a lyric poem, but not only because takes shape with music, but because, as I can hear in Kendall’s imagining of “Lineage,” it also breaks inside the song.