EXCHANGE ON SANDY MCINTOSH’S ​OBSESSIONAL: POETRY FOR PERFORMANCE

by Daniel Lynch

Daniel Lynch: You included two pieces in ​Obsessional​ (Marsh Hawk Press, 2017):
“Ernesta” and “Obsessional.” [For more information, click here.] Before discussing each one individually, let me ask some broader questions: How did you come on the eleven canto dramatic narrative form?

Sandy McIntosh: Coincidence. I just wrote each, and each worked out to be eleven cantos. However, in “Ernesta” each canto is based, loosely, on a Flamenco poetic form. Flamenco is first poetry and second music, and there are many forms, such as Entrada Libre, Ayeo, and so on, each with its own meter. Because I didn’t want to commit the same tortured linguistic fraud as I accuse Nicholas Grimald of committing with English poetry (in “Obsessional”), I merely imitated the forms, using inverted syntax and line breaks where I thought they’d indicate the sound and feeling of the Flamenco form.

Lynch: Do you see a danger in emphasizing form, since you make clear Nicholas Grimald in Obsessional “​betrays” native English poetry to adapt it to continental forms?

McIntosh: In the earlier version of ”Ernesta,” which was published in a collection titled Ernesta, In the Style of the Flamenco, I name each canto with its proper form. In the present version, which is written for stage performance, I removed the Flamenco form names since I thought they’d only get in the way.

Lynch: Will you continue with it?

McIntosh: In both poems—or dramatic monologues—the cantos are roughly what chapters would be in prose, except that each has its own mood. It is a natural form for this kind of writing, I think, and I would utilize it in a similar project, should one materialize.

Lynch: Another word before we get to the pieces: you have dared something remarkable. You dramatize how the makers and interpreters of great art in music and poetry must do so knowing their own insecurities and “bastardies,” never being able to leave their humanness behind.

Let’s talk about “Ernesta” first. Very brief summaries of the cantos are included.

Lynch: In Canto 1 of 11 cantos, you begin with “Ay!” a cry repeated throughout the poem. Is this a marker for strong emotion taken from Flamenco?

McIntosh: Yes. Shouting “Ay!” and stomping the foot signal strong emotion—exclamation points.

Lynch: We are introduced to 16-year-old Ernesta. Right at the start, we learn she is studying classical piano in Frankfurt. Maestro Leschetitzky has pushed her out disdainfully. Now, dressed in a Flamenco costume, she listens to Clara Wieck, widow of the great Robert Schuman, and her new teacher, play Beethoven which brings tears to her eyes. Clara “took my tears for love of her” and jumps on her. She acquiesces “with enthusiasm, and at length.”

You have tossed many balls in the air here: a young outsider trying to break into the world of music performance, Flamenco and German high culture, rejection and eroticism. But while the Flamenco costume has a stimulating effect on Clara who insists that Ernesta henceforth wear it on stage, it will be a gimmick, confining her to a subordinate role in the German musical hierarchy.

Does the Flamenco costume mean to suggest Ernesta’s tenuous hold on her own identity?

McIntosh: In light of her subsequent episodes of dissociation, when she supposes herself to be concertizing on stage and discovers that she is actually sitting in the audience, observing, she always has to struggle with her grip on reality and moral integrity.

Lynch: Why have Clara play for Ernesta, and not Ernesta audition for Clara?

McIntosh: Clara means to seduce Ernesta. This is her way to establish control.

Lynch: Did you have an actress in mind when you created Ernesta?

McIntosh: No. But in 2017 I met an actress named Susan Bailey. On her first out-loud reading of the script I was amazed at how she naturally fit the role. She performed it that summer in Sag Harbor, at Canio’s books. We also have a film version of that performance in production.

Lynch: Canto 2. She tours with Brahms. He gets to meet kings, she plays Malaguenas and meets the ladies-in-waiting in her “backstage hole in the wall.”

Clara considers Ernesta more her assistant than her apprentice. She would rather the praise go to her lover, Brahms, leaving Ernesta to satisfy the lesser functionaries, sexually and musically.

Canto 3. She thinks about her life, contrasting herself with Beethoven,:

“I, too, made listeners quake,
But I loved them (unlike him)
And only wanted them
To witness what I saw– Those ecstatic things.
And naturally,
They did see,
And honored me with applause.”

She has succeeded in making contact with the inner emotions of her listeners. “Senora Ernesta pleases” write the critics.

“Those ecstatic things” ​ekstasis​, what literally brings one outside of oneself. ​Do you use the Flamenco motif to suggest the dangerous eroticism of the dance which always threatens to break its bonds?

McIntosh: Beethoven, as a young performer, found that his playing could evoke great emotion from his audience. He played on that emotion almost sadistically, enjoying his own power. Ernesta compares herself to Beethoven, except that she truly loved her audience, without the sadism. Unlike Beethoven, however, Ernesta cannot always contain her own distracting visions.

Lynch: Canto 4. All is going well, until she begins to enter a kind of reverie on stage, stops playing while thinking she has continued, and leaves the stage. She has “remained in the music” but has headed for the exit.

This reminded me of jazz pianist Thelonious Monk who would rise and nod and spin and dance while his group played on. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XjJYeCYO-hA) Did you have a model for Ernesta’s reverie?

McIntosh: It might even have been Monk himself. I saw him once, at the end of his life, at the Brooklyn Academy. Art Blakey was the opening act. Blakey had to continue to play as Monk was nowhere to be found. Finally, Monk appeared. He sat at the piano, played a few notes. Stopped. Looked straight ahead. Played two or three chords. Stood up and left the stage. Blakey finished the set for him. I can only imagine what was happening to Monk, what was going on inside his head.

Lynch: Canto 5. Clara tells her the same happened to Schumann “He wandering away/into his dream,/never returning.” He knew “It’s a conceit, affectation, indulgence/To pretend music has pictures,/ has a story to tell. Robert knew, in truth/That music is only music/Though that knowledge/Gained him nothing.”

“Music,” Clara tells her, ”Is a wild beast./She must be/controlled,/ caged,/Else she turn upon you/Destroying all.” Ernesta doesn’t believe her, so Clara takes her to Bayreuth where she listens to Wagner’s Ring with horror. Clara advises her to “avoid all music with programs,/With stories, damn pictures/Able to lead me to/Unknowable dungeons/Of darkness in dream.”

Are we meant to see here the danger of the artist not staying grounded in reality but wandering off as Keats phrased it to “fairy lands forlorn” never to return? Do you think that is the risk artists must run? The danger certainly seemed real to the poets Pound, Berryman and Lowell. Is what Clara says about music in your view applicable to poetry, especially since the triggering musical piece is “The Poet Speaks”?

McIntosh: Ernesta’s argument is that music is only music. It does not tell stories. It’s not “about” anything except itself. She says that Schumann drove himself crazy by insisting that his “Scenes from Childhood” and other pieces inspired by sentimental memories told stories. But, by the end of “The Poet Speaks” he can no longer hold on to the narrative structure, and his music becomes erratic, having nothing now to do with any picture we may conjure up about childhood. This is, of course, Ernesta’s interpretation, how she explains her personal performance dissociations.

Lynch: Canto 6. She muddles along in her career “playing tedious transcriptions/ of Spanish dance music.” Twice she dares to play Schuman’s “The Poet Speaks” but the second time she finds herself in the stalls applauding wildly “while the audience stared/At the empty stage.” She even has two imitative competitors, one with a burro.

The detail about the burro certainly nails her place in the musical hierarchy. Are you setting up a binary opposition between entertainment–the tedious transcriptions–and risk taking art–”The Poet Speaks” with its attendant dangers?

McIntosh: Yes. Clara recognizes Ernesta’s limitations, and Ernesta never rises higher than the 19th century European version of the vaudeville stage, where the risk-taking of high art has no place, or at least would be not be recognized.

Lynch: Canto 7. She plays the Spanish music of Enrique Granados who loves her. Internationally acclaimed, he asks her to go to the US with him for a concert tour during the First World War. He is afraid his ship will be torpedoed.

Canto 8. Clara advises her to go. “There is nothing for you here” says Clara “beloved of the powerful.” Whatever gatekeeper function Clara served is now over, along with Ernesta’s time approaching the giants of German high culture–Beethoven, Schuman, Wagner, and Brahms. In the first Canto, Clara had said “I knew you had a soul.”

Is this dismissal her way of saying Ernesta has lost her soul, her artistic spirit?

McIntosh: Granados loves Ernesta as an older sister, or an aunt, or even a mother. A terrible error! Ernesta sees Granados as her escape from a career going nowhere. She’s perfectly happy to go to the United States with Granados and be free of her mediocre standing about European musicians.

Lynch: Canto 9. Ernesta takes the Spanish ship and has no problems. Frightened by a dream, Granados takes a later, British ship which is torpedoed and he drowns, symbolism made explicit in the final canto.

Once again, do we see here an intentional contrast between the genuine artist–Granados–and the risk averse Ernesta?

McIntosh: Ernesta, if nothing else, is practical. She gives in to Clara at the beginning, and she’s going to manipulate Granados anyway she can to get a leg up the career ladder. Granados, who is a genuine artist and musical genius, has never had to make practical decisions concerning ships to take across the Atlantic in the middle of a war. Instead, he believes in his dream, his imagination, the well-springs of his music….

Lynch: Canto 10. Ernesta successfully appropriates his music and career.

Canto 11. Senora Ernesta continues to please, sometimes sitting at a player piano to entertain, afraid of what music can do to one. Her penultimate words, appropriated like Granados’ music, are taken from a poem by James Tate, “Music will watch us drown.” Finally, either pleased with herself or mocking her Flamenco persona, she says “Olé!”

Are we meant to conclude that the poem ends because Ernesta has made her decision to stick with the entertaining pieces and the piano rolls and so her life as an artist is effectively over?

Your stage directions are quite clear and explicit. Though I enjoyed the piece playing in my imagination, I look forward to a staged version.

McIntosh: Ernesta doesn’t have any choice, at the end, but to stick to the simplest, least narrative, least-mental picture-evoking music. She publicly performs scales, chords and arpeggios, which are the warm-up exercises pianists use before going to the real music. But she plays them with flourish! She is satisfied that she continues to please her audience, and satisfied that she’s made the best of her life, despite Granados and her murderous sin of omission.

Lynch: Let’s turn now to “Obsessional.”

Canto 1. The Narrator, the “I” of the poem, introduces through a projected shadow and a soundtrack his roommate of long ago: the poet Max. Max plays a rap song, “Move, bitch” by Ludicris.

Are you using rap to set up a deliberate contrast to Elizabethan poetry? The two forms coalesce in the Narrator’s dream in Canto 11. Is the Narrator the “bitch” that will have to move? to where?

McIntosh: Yes, a contrast, between Elizabethan poetry and rap, but one of admitting the power of each form. That is, both are poetic vehicles that can be used for high or low ends. There is the same raw power in “Move, bitch,” that we see in Grimald’s reshaping of Elizabethan poetry, and English meter itself, in 1559.

Lynch: Canto 2. Dorm party. Max and the Narrator, aloof in their superiority, bond over boorish comments about the other grad students. Called on it by Margarita: “Spanish/ aunts gossiping/ behind fans.”

As with Ernesta and Clara in the earlier piece, the Narrator seems to fall heavily under the influence of a mentor. Are we meant to see identity problems lasting past adolescence here? Or, is there a homoerotic element at play here?

McIntosh: There is a missing element in the relationship of Max and the Narrator, which is empathy. Because Max has none, the Narrator is always struggling to become his friend—which doesn’t happen, can’t happen. So, their relationship never matures. The model for Max once told me that he was compelled to be the smartest person in any room—thus, superior and isolated.

Lynch: Canto 3. Max tells the Narrator how he uses his poetry and “sincerity” to get girls to fall for him.

Does the bad faith Max indulges in and shares with the Narrator prefigure his later betrayal? While English departments are no place for the naive, do you see the Narrator as a true believer, representing the purity of scholarship?

McIntosh: It may be unfair to portray English departments as lesser iterations of the Borgia papacy, yet it takes skill to survive them. Max has that skill, the Narrator does not. Does that mean that a pure scholar can never survive the rigors of academia—as ironic as that question is? As you say, English departments are no place for the naïve despite John Barth’s command to “let there be no bullshit between English teachers.”

Lynch: Canto 4. Now the Narrator begins to talk about how English poetry was hijacked in 1559. “In London, printer/ Richard Tottel sees a market/ among the elite, educated public/ for the best new poetry/ England has lately produced.” He and Nicholas Grimald collect poems by Wyatt and Surrey.

The book is a smash, quickly going through eight editions. “Songs and Sonnets” is famous for 100 years. Even Shakespeare writes in ​A Midsummer Night’s Dream,​ “I had rather than forty shillings I had my book of ‘Songs and Sonnets’ here.” So what’s the problem. The Narrator explains what Tottel published is not in the form found in the poets’ own written texts.

Why did he do it? The Narrator asks rhetorically: “to suit the needs of a later generation.”

Max arises from the shadows and demands, “So what?”

The “what” the Narrator explains is a question: “Would English poetry/have evolved in
unexpected ways,/with more likeness/To its forbears–yes, Chaucer/ And Langland, and even/ Beowulf”?

Max isn’t buying it.

The Narrator pleads, “Don’t you see that Tottel snatched/real English poetry, replacing/it with counterfeit?/ Verse that sounds like nothing/anyone ever/spontaneously said?” Indeed the Narrator takes the issue so seriously, he silently screams, in capital letters, “TOTTEL AND HIS HENCHMEN MUST BE ARRESTED!/ MUST BE TAKEN TO THE PLACE OF DARKNESS/ TO BE HANGED UNTIL/T HEY ARE DEAD!

Clearly, the Narrator sees Tottel’s actions as a betrayal, and an egregious one at that, for it causes a wrong turn in the development of English poetry, one which leads to poets favoring form over the natural speech of the people. Does this explain the Narrator’s over the top reaction? Do you share the Narrator’s opinion?

McIntosh: There is an historical issue here, what Herbert Butterfield in his The Whig Interpretation of History describes as looking at history through the wrong end of the telescope. In this way, Martin Luther’s nailing of the ninety-five thesis to the cathedral door can be seen as his purposeful beginning of the Protestant Reformation. In fact, Luther’s purpose was to reform the Catholic Church, not to split from it. The reformation happened consequentially, but not intentionally. In like way, Tottel’s self-determined mission was to tidy up the English poetry of previous years, to show it in its best light. Looked at the other way, however, the wholesale rewriting of earlier English poetry could be taken as a fraud, erasing the intent of the poets whose language he manipulated.

Lynch: Canto 5. The Narrator argues bad poetry such as “Evangeline” or “Invictus” are the children of Tottel. A friend showed him a poem written by himself in the vernacular about important things, and it was “magic” Max suggests.

Surely, the battle to abandon artificial language for the demotic and contemporary was fought and won a century ago. Wouldn’t a grad student know this? What does this tell us about the Narrator.

McIntosh: Yes, fought and won, but not in the hearts and minds of the public. Ask anyone, not a scholar or poet, who has gone through our Public School system—ask any American you meet in the street—to quote a poem and my guess is they’ll give you Longfellow, or something of that ilk. Not Whitman, Pound nor Williams. This is different in Europe. For instance, a small press I worked for published a volume of Italian poetry with an English translation. It was commissioned by a bank in Florence, which gave copies to customers as incentives to open new bank accounts. Can you imagine such a thing happening in this country? The Narrator would claim that this non-plussed attitude towards poets in our culture is also the consequence of Tottel’s editing decisions.

Lynch: Canto 6. Max appears as a barker and announces “We’ll put on a talent show” and invites friends to participate (just like the old Andy Rooney and Judy Garland movie.) The Narrator suspects Max will perform Ludacris’s ‘Move, bitch, get/ out da way”.

Does the Narrator fear the subordination inherent in the word “bitch”? the assertively, aggressive tone? Is he frightened by the chant-like threats of violence in the song? Or is he prissily annoyed by the non-standard grammar?

McIntosh: Yes, to all three. The threat of grammar, to the Narrator, may not only be interpreted as prissy, but also as racist. To the Narrator, Grimald’s rewriting of Surrey and Wyatt as if they were Greek poets writing in dactylic hexameter, may be irrelevant. But Max’s quoting contemporary street talk, with its non-standard English or American syntax, might be frightening.

Lynch: Canto 7. The show goes on. Max surprises and charms the audience by taking the woman’s role and singing a classic torch song: “Someday he’ll come along the man I love” . The audience and the Narrator weep.

Is Max’s manipulation of the audience’s emotion meant to be seen as similar to the sentimental poetry of Tottel’s children the Narrator had criticized before?

It would make good theater, though, with us set up to expect “Move, bitch” and disarmed by the Gershwin classic, at least the Billie Holiday fans would be. The aching, yearning wish for a lover, so delicately put, is a long way from “Move, bitch”. So, why did you pick that song?

McIntosh: This is a testament to Max’s theatricality, doing something for the sake of the moment and history be damned. Ernesta might say, along with Lorca, “this has duende!”

Lynch: Canto 8. The Narrator is intrigued by Tottel’s associate, the poet (and betrayer) Nicholas Grimald, who had forty poems in Tottel’s first edition but only nine in the second, his name excised. The Narrator concludes that Grimald is responsible for rewriting the work of Wyatt and Surrey in more regular continental forms. He also concludes he himself must be insane to pursue this issue so doggedly.

Well, of course, poetry is either the most important thing, or of no importance at all. But, now that he has introduced the possibility of insanity, are we to think our Narrator is less than reliable?

Why doesn’t the Narrator try to find out or at least suggest why Grimald’s contribution was diminished and his name extinguished?

McIntosh: The Narrator is sincere and ardent, but I don’t think crazy. Isn’t it the nature of scholarly research that one can get into it so deeply that present realities are left behind and all that matters is success in the search? The Narrator wishes Grimald the death of Don Giovanni in Mozart’s opera: to be swallowed up by the fires of Hell and be made gone forever.

Lynch: Canto 9. Max successfully recreates a Casablanca-style cafe for his fellow grad students. Snarky to the end, he criticizes them as mere role players and compares them to the deluded Don Quixote. Our Narrator isn’t having it, and compares Max to the innkeeper who keeps Don Q around for laughs, and asks “Why is it you innkeepers, you reality-grounded cafe owners,/why is it you get so much pleasure from torturing us poor lunatics?” Max is momentarily stunned but congratulates him on his insight. The Narrator, despite everything, is pleased “flushed with gratitude.”

At this point, this reader felt that the Narrator is finally Max’s bitch, but even further humiliation is in store. Are we meant to infer that it is foolhardy to trust ANYBODY?

McIntosh: Yes, but don’t take my word for it. Even when attacked directly, Max proves he is untouched—untouchable—and the Narrator caves, tripping over his own sword.

Lynch: Canto 10. Max proposes himself to sit on the Narrator’s dissertation review panel but betrays him by voting it down. “Why/this bastardly/ betrayal?/ You are the competition, he answers./ What else did you expect?”

Canto 11. The Narrator has a dream in which he is confronted by Grimald/Max. He admits that the Narrator “got him” and yes, he is a bastard for betraying Bishop Ridley to the torturers. But, in justification, “It is from me/whence you derive/your English poetry.” No matter his betrayals, “it’s bastards still/that maketh/art.”

Max/Grimald pushes past the Narrator, “Move, Bitch”.

The Narrator ends his tale with a quotation from Wyatt “I lay broad awaking.” But this is Grimald’s version. Wyatt had written “waking.” Are we meant to believe the Narrator concedes Grimald/Max has won?

McIntosh: The Narrator is overwhelmed by Max/Grimald’s final thrust: that bastards may make martyrs but they also make art. This isn’t a statement of truth so much as an overwhelming revelation of Max’s character, which, since it is made in a dream, has a much more devastating effect than if Max had said it to the Narrator in waking life. But it does wake the Narrator. And he wakes having had no choice but to buy Max/Grimald’s assertion. Hence, he also buys Max/Grimald’s language. Max/Grimald’s art, perhaps, is the making of martyrs.

Lynch: Thanks, Sandy.

 

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s