Interview with Ernest Hilbert - Part II

Ernest Hilbert's Biography

This is a continuation of our long-form essay with Hilbert.
Read Part I

EH [...]  I love the verse music of Tennyson, what Willard Spiegelman calls “the mouth-filling vowels,” even if the diction and themes can come off as cloying to our postmodern sensibilities. Also, the heavily stressed Anglo-Saxon verse and its occasional modern applications by poets like Geoffrey Hill and Seamus Heaney. 

Jonathan Creasy: What does this mean for your process of composition?

EAH: The question that confronts the poet as artist is simple. How far can one go in changing a pattern before losing the identity of that pattern altogether? Forms are freighted with historical meaning. For instance, a symphony consists of a known, historically changing form, and composers are expected to work within it while working, to some degree, against it, to make it original, make it their own. This is no less true of the sonnet. I find a lot of the poems claimed as “sonnets” by postwar writers to simply be wilted free-verse poems. The allegation that they are sonnets seems more like special pleading. I like to believe I’ve kept enough of the original intent, sound, and structure of sonnets, as they have been read since the Renaissance, that I may lay sufficiently convincing claim to the form. Still, there are those who insist that what I write are not sonnets. If it doesn’t sound like Shakespeare, it’s not a sonnet, so far as they’re concerned. It’s okay. I’m not really trying to reach those readers.

Finally, to get back at the essence of your question, I wrote in an Allen Ginsberg-inspired type of long free-verse line for many years, and I now feel that I was always seeking some way to make the poems cohere more completely. I am left with the gloomy feeling that the hundreds of poems written over the course of a decade and a half are pretty much unserviceable because I never got the “sound” or the angle I wanted out of them. They represent a drastically overextended phase of juvenilia. It was just random reaching in different directions. These little sonnet-type poems allow me to write the equivalent of “songs,” which is what sonnets originally were. Sonnet means “little song” in Italian. I put the books together like albums. I’ve always been more influenced by music and musicians than by other writers. That said, I’ve written two complete collections in manuscript since All of You on the Good Earth, titled Last One Out and Caligulan, and they are written in a mixture of styles and forms. That is also true of the limited-edition chapbook Aim Your Arrows at the Sun, issued by LATR Editions in New York City in 2009, which contains no fourteen-liners at all. All this aside, I know I am most commonly associated with the sonnet form. Two Penguin anthologies, Literature (2011) and Poetry (2011), maintain that I have “been credited as one of several contemporary poets who have led a revitalization of the sonnet.” The New Criterion headed its review of All of You on the Good Earth “Reviving the Sonnet.” If I manage to publish Last One Out in the next few years, that perception may alter.

JC: 'Sonnet' means 'little song,' but you have worked on much larger musical collaborations

EH: I write opera librettos. It is an intense collaborative process, at least in my case. I teach a course in the art of the opera libretto, and I stress the three big S’s that the librettist must code directly into the very DNA of the libretto. When inventing or shaping characters, working up a plot, forming the settings, it is important to account for singing, spectacle, and story. I believe that those are the three reasons audiences attend an opera. This is not to say one should write retrograde “numbers” opera. This is all through-composed and very modern on the musical end. The librettist should write songs, or arias, unfashionable as that may be in the minds of some composers. Those are the moments on which a singer’s career is built. Also, don’t set it in a dreary room, unless you’re trying to grasp at some larger Beckett-like situation. Set something up for the stagecraft professionals. They’ll want some room to create a stunning set. And, of course, the story. There are operas by major composers that are largely forgotten simply because the story is so dry, or simply implausible, which takes a lot in opera. The most important lesson is that the writer’s ego must make room for the composer. Librettists have complained for time immemorial about composers throwing out their meter and rhymes. It’s no less true today. Give up control. Collaborate. Mozart said “in Opera, the Poetry must always be the obedient daughter of Music.” I can usually make a strong case to keep or discard something, persuade the composer that certain passages are necessary to the larger purpose of the opera, that they carry the philosophical implications forward even if they seem a momentary dullness. The other big thing is that one must keep things as simple as possible. J.D. McClatchy says “opera is a kind of poster art. It deals in big emotion. You have a singer belting out these words over a 100-piece orchestra to people who have had two drinks and are wearing tight-fitting clothes. How subtle can you be?” Poet and librettist David Mason likes to remind me that “the music takes up a lot of space.” I extrapolated the three elements from work I had already done and observation of what most pleased me in known works. I am Aristotelian by inclination. I was more of a Platonist when young, as many are, I suspect, but I gradually grew out of it. I only deliver formulations drawn from examination of what has already worked, though I believe one must use these to imagine something that has not yet come into being. It is somewhat akin to bricolage in the plastic arts. 

JC: Has the role of the poet as lyricist changed significantly since the Elizabethan sonneteers?

Just today, I acquired from a British bookseller a pristine copy of E.H. Fellowe’s classic 1920 anthology English Madrigal Verse for my very modest personal collection of rare books. Critics suggest that not much of value was written in the form in English before 1588 and precious little after 1632. Tastes suddenly changed, as they will. If we compare madrigals to the lyrics of a master from the last century, like Cole Porter, what we notice most is an enormous shift in tone, not verse form. In fact, popular music is not only a refuge for measured and rhymed verse to the present day but actually a place in which it positively thrives. But back to madrigals. Playful as they may be, madrigals strike us as more proper than would have been fitting even in the 1920s of Cole Porter. For instance, Thomas Campion, in his “Third Book of Ayres,” gives us “Truth a rare flower now is grown, / Few men wear it in their hearts. / Lovers are more easily known / By their follies than their deserts.” In the golden era of the American song book, lyrics still came in measures and resembled written verse, but they tended toward the slangy and smart-assed: “When grandma, whose age is eighty, / In night clubs is getting matey / With gigolos, / Anything goes.” After the Beatles, popular music shot out in a million different directions, so it’s anyone’s guess what the role of a good lyricist is today. In our current moment, songwriters like Colin Meloy of The Decembrists are praised for reviving rhymed storytelling in indie rock, something that owes much to the folk tradition. Storytelling aside, when bands perform songs like “The Legionnaire’s Lament,” we get frisky lyrics that would not be out of place in the Jazz Age: “I’m a legionnaire, / Camel in disrepair, / Hoping for a Frigidaire / to come passing by. / I am on reprieve, / Lacking my joie de vive, / Missing my gay Paris / In this desert dry.” What at first seems an archaic inversion for the sake of rhyme turns out, on inspection, to be a most subtle nod to French syntax. With The Decembrists and bands like them we’re meant to take this “old fashioned” approach with a wink. If we stop to think about it, their lyrics more closely resemble classic madrigals than do the lyrics to old jazz standards. Even Jack White, whose lyrics can be less inspired than his singing and songwriting overall, delivers quatrains like this: “Well, I ain’t saying I’m innocent / In fact, the reverse / But if you’re heading to the grave / You don’t blame the hearse.” The rhyme words are not surprising, but the joke-quality of the verse would not cohere without the clear use of rhyme.

One of the most common use of rhymed measures today probably appears in hip hop. The rhymes can be as stale as what one encounters in any other type of popular music, but they sometimes rise to the truly Byronic in their cleverness as well as their wickedness. Here is one from Kanye West’s “Gold Digger,” about unwary men who are taken financially by manipulative women, a stanza made up of rhymed couplet fourteeners, which hark back to English poetry of the sixteenth century: “I know somebody paying child support for one of his kids. / His baby-mamma’s car and crib is bigger than his. / You will see him on TV any given Sunday / Win the Super Bowl and drive off in a Hyundai.” It’s hard to suppress a chuckle at that one. One really must hear the lines performed, as their syncopation against the beat is what makes them interesting. Of course I’m getting off topic here, as rap is spoken and not sung. I believe it is closer to popular literary art than music in most ways.

To sum, I am possessed by music. I listen to it all the time. It drowns out the terrifying silence of the universe and warms me. Even in the absence of music there is almost always a song in my head or a poem or something to make me feel. When song departs me, mentally, so to speak, I am left barren and become irritable, distracted, broken up, sad, angry, even given to rages. Music soothes me. It draws me out of myself and improves me. I have terribly eclectic and broad tastes in music. When people ask me what kind of music I like, I simply answer “good music.”

JC: Where do you start with this type of collaborative musical work?

EH: When I lived in New York City, I worked at a dreary temp job at American Express in the World Financial Center with a friend who worked on the side as a curator and host of various events at night. She’s now the director of Lincoln Center Festival. In early 2002, she tapped me for inclusion in a series called Non Sequitor, run by CCi, the Composers Collaborative. The series paired five composers with five writers. We were given some studio space on the upper west side of Manhattan, and we were expected to come up with some sort of project to be performed downtown at the Bowery Poetry Club over three nights. The composers and writers tended to be very hip and cool and avant-garde. The two least cool guys in the room were clearly Daniel Felsenfeld and me. We stood around a grand piano in a big apartment over the Hudson River and talked about ourselves, our artistic expectations and goals, and then the curators of the series would decide how to pair us up based on our extempore talks. I immediately took to Danny. He talked about a night he spent talking until dawn with Timothy Leary, how that influenced him as an artist. I thought “this guy is smart and cool. He’s equal parts Lou Reed and Arnold Schoenberg.” We became friends and collaborators. He’s incredibly generous, and a great talker. He’s just a wonderful person to talk to because he’s read so much and thought so deeply on so many subjects. We worked together on a piece called “Summer and All it Brings,” which is scored for harpsichord, cello, soprano, and spoken male voice. It’s a small chamber opera, about half an hour. For the first performances over several nights on the Bowery, the room was packed. I created a series of text fragments that I projected on the bare wall above the performers with a digital projector. These light fragments worked against or undermined or sometimes extended the words being sung by the soprano. We later had the piece performed with a full orchestra at Symphony Space by the New York City Opera as part of their VOX: Showcasing American Composers series. The PEN American Center also staged it with the spoken voice by novelist Wesley Stace, who performed as a musician under the moniker John Wesley Harding. Danny and I worked on some other pieces, including what was planned as a full-length opera called Last of Manhattan. The first three of five acts were performed to sold-out audiences at the large performance space The Kitchen in Chelsea. After that, we gradually drifted apart as collaborators, though our pieces continued to be performed occasionally. He started working with the likes of David Bowie and also with his own wife, who is a writer. We’re still friends, but we don’t work together. Still, that’s how I got into the music world again. I supplied some lyrics for heavy metal bands I played in when I was younger. I hung around record studios and with musicians when I lived in New York. I’d find myself talking to Moby at a strip club or reaching for the same cookie as Lou Reed at the craft service table backstage at St. Mark’s in the Bowery. In that last instance, I stood my ground and refused to surrender the cookie. Laurie Anderson shot me a look. It was a good cookie.

I lived in a huge loft with four other guys, illegally sublet from the minimalist sculptor John Duff, who first hit it big in 1969 at age 26 when he was included in a big Whitney Museum show. He lived in the front third facing onto Canal, and we had the back two thirds. Twenty foot high tin ceilings. You could throw a football down the loft it was so long. Our end was 47 Howard Street, one block north of Canal, between Broadway and Mercer. It used to be a grungy street, though my last visit showed it to be pretty gentrified at this point. One day I walked out to go to work and stepped onto a set where David Bowie and Trent Reznor were making a video, probably for the remix of “I’m Afraid of Americans.” One day I was reading late at night when suddenly I noticed strange light in the window and looked down to see a sports car completely engulfed in a column of flame. Not a soul on the street. I went back to reading and forgot about it. We lived across from the landscape artists Christo and Jeanne-Claude. Sometimes we’d be drinking beer out on the fire escape and he’d emerge to get into a limousine, and we’d shout “Christooooooo” and he’d duck in as if he were about to be overwhelmed by fans like a member of the Beatles. It was the new Gilded Age 90s, and New York was at capacity, overflowing in fact, because there was so much new money, geek money, with Silicon Alley.

But back to the music. Young composer Christopher LaRosa wrote some excellent music for the last quarter of my spoken word album Elegies & Laments from Pub Can Records. The rock musicians Marc Hildenberger and Dave Young supplied most of the music on the album. The music for that album was written as a soundtrack, if you will, to the spoken poems, which were arranged in order to suggest stories and embody various themes, so it owes something to the eighteenth-century practice of melodrama, a genre of opera in which all words are spoken over suggestive, programmatic musical episodes. Georg Benda’s Medea and Ariadne auf Naxos are pure examples. The closest modern analogue would be film soundtracks. We quickly learned, in live performance, that the problem with this approach is that it’s hard to get the spoken lines across, over the music, and the result is often a rather unpleasant shouting. In the studio, however, we were able to overcome this as easily as filmmakers do. It’s very much a studio album. Most spoken word albums consist simply of words spoken casually over a repeated musical figure, think of the posthumous Jim Morrison album American Prayer. We wanted to get well beyond that. LaRosa also set some of my poems to music for classical concert performance.

I now work largely with the composer Stella Sung. We wrote the evening-length epic opera The Red Silk Thread: An Epic Tale of Marco Polo together. It’s set in the court of Kublai Khan, a love story that also takes place along the route of Marco Polo’s last journey back to Venice. I wanted to create something along the lines of a 19th-century opera, but without a lot of the sexist crap that comes with those sorts of operas so much of the time. We wanted to go big. There’s a pirate battle, for instance. And why not? Opera needs a shot in the arm. Enough shoe gazing! Let’s get the glamour back in, I say. Red Silk Thread received two performances the Michigan Opera Studio at the Walgreens Drama Center and premiered at the Phillips Center for the Performing Arts in Florida with a full orchestra, 60-voice choir, and professional leads, directed by Beth Greenberg. We’ve also been given a large commission as part of New Music USA to write a companion opera for Orff’s Carmina Burana for the Dayton, Ohio Performing Arts Alliance, which combines ballet, orchestra, and opera. We’re only just started working on the précis, but it may prove to be an engrossing project.

JC: Where do you see it going?

EH: More large operas. I’d like to write an oratorio at some stage. Hopefully more work with bands. I appeared in a film that the rockabilly-punk band Mercury Radio Theater screened between songs at one of their sold-out shows at Johnny Brenda’s in Philadelphia. I was in LA at the time, so I missed it, but my wife was at the concert and tells me it went over weirdly and well. I wrote the script based on their trilogy of monster albums. Widget Studios, where the music for Elegies & Laments was recorded, still has hours of experimental effects created by bassist Marc Hildenberger using analog effects pedals. These sessions failed to yield anything that wound up on the album, but we’ve joked that we might haul some of those sounds out of the vault, add some textures and drum beats, and maybe record some more. I imagine I will be working with musicians and composers for the rest of my life, in many different ways. 

Ernest Hilbert is one of the finest poets writing in the formal traditions of U.S. and European poetry. He is a master of craft, measure and music. Beside two remarkable collections of poetry - Sixty Sonnets (2009) and All of  You on the Good Earth (2013) - Hilbert is a writer of opera libretti and an antiquarian book dealer.  His poetry and criticism have appeared in publications around the world, and his poem, 'Domestic Situation,' has taken on the status of cult classic, widely performed and anthologized.

This is the second part of a long interview conducted with Hilbert over the course of a year in 2013 - 2014.