Just before this year’s Philadelphia Writers’ Conference, I was reminded of experiences from my youth that helped to shape the poetry I have been writing most of my life. Having grown up in a family of musicians, much of my creative process is related in one way or another to music. The episodes I began thinking about happened on a couple of family trips to the music festival at Tanglewood, Massachusetts and during three summers spent at the “American” school for music, art and architecture in Fontainebleau, France. All involved the convening of people actively involved in the arts – as performers, composers, conductors, visual artists, architects, art historians and critics.
During these summers, when I was between 10 and 15 years old, I heard performances and audited master classes by world-renowned musicians like violinists Itzhak Perlman and Régis Pasquier; the great, blind organist and teacher, André Marchal; and pianist Beveridge Webster, who was best known for his performances of works by Ravel and Debussy. I met, and in some cases dined with, a great a cast of characters including Aaron Copland, Yehudi Menhuin, Jean Casadesus and most memorably, Nadia Boulanger – composer, conductor, organist, teacher – who headed the music program at Fontainebleau. Classrooms, practice rooms and concert venues were literally housed within the palace, which encompassed a sprawling juxtaposition of architectural styles, formal and “English” gardens, a large carp pond, and many fountains. It was a magical place to explore, and we did so almost daily.
Both my father and brother studied composition with Boulanger at Fontainebleau as my brother later did in Paris, where I visited him for a week during my senior year of high school. Since the 1920s she’d taught composition to American greats like Copland, Elliot Carter, Walter Piston and Virgil Thomson. Apparently, when George Gershwin requested composition lessons in 1927, they met for a brief interview, at the end of which Boulanger reportedly said, “I can teach you nothing.” Gershwin took this as a compliment, which it may very well have been, in the sense that he was already making a fine living as a composer. Leave it to Boulanger to offer an observation that could be interpreted in more than one way.
She was a trailblazer – the first woman to conduct the Boston Symphony, New York Philharmonic and the Philadelphia Orchestra, which was revolutionary in the 1940s. Orchestra men didn’t let ladies wave batons at them very often, or lecture at colleges, as she did in 1938 at Radcliffe, Harvard, Wellesley and the Longy School of Music in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Although not enrolled at the music school, I was nevertheless able to audit some of Boulanger’s classes on the nine Beethoven Symphonies. There were two pianos and a phonograph in the classroom, and during some sessions we listened to long stretches of a movement from one of the symphonies, while at others we heard only a few minutes or a few bars at a time. Students were then either summoned to one of pianos or volunteered for this hazardous duty. I refer to it that way because of the unpredictable nature of what came next. The student might be required to sight-read from a piano reduction of the symphony’s orchestral score, to answer questions about specific bars of music, or to provide more general analysis about the symphony movement or the whole work. Boulanger’s method of teaching has been the subject of articles and books, so I will not attempt to describe it here.
Suffice it to note that students were grilled appropriately to their gifts. All were challenged and in some cases, subtly, politely cut down to size. There were more than a few generously proportioned egos in the room and a few may have suffered a wound or two, but everyone learned something. More than once, I observed the great teacher, unsatisfied with a student’s answer, reach over to the nearest keyboard and, although blind, produce a demonstration of the point she wanted understood. Her gnarled hand hammered precisely through a harmonic cadence or struck a series of chords. Boulanger was in her early 80s and time was limited. She would not waste that of her students or her own.
The point of all this name-dropping is that without fully appreciating it, I was experiencing what it was like to live in a world of artists. I began writing some appropriately awful poetry and prose fiction during those summers, but I wrote it frequently and prolifically, so I was practicing all through my teenage years and into my 20s. I’d been making visual art since early childhood and, starting in ninth grade, had a series of excellent teachers. Later, I moved to Philadelphia and tried to make a living in a variety of ways. I was mostly uninvolved with artists of any kind at this time and I wrote less and created little visual art.
When I met my wife-to-be, Patti, we were both living in Philly. We took a trip to Atlantic City to support a mutual friend’s promotion of Duraspun Socks through a basketball “one-on-one” tournament, headlined by Julius “Dr. J.” Erving and Kareem-Abdul Jabbar. It was truly strange, almost surreal serendipity. I fell in love with Patti on that peculiar trip and it was through her that I found the Mad Poets Society. With its series of monthly poetry readings and special events, I found myself not only writing more but, for the first time, daring to read my words in front of people.
Rather than being the stuff of nightmares, I found reading my poems aloud to mostly other poets, and in turn listening to their work, to be stimulating and enjoyable. As I have repeated to several poets who were reluctant to stand up and perform, audiences at poetry readings almost uniformly want you to do well. This is in part because there truly is a sense of community among poets, but also because, to put it bluntly, it’s much less boring if it goes well, and might be very interesting, even inspiring..
There are a few, remarkable examples of geniuses who produced great art in a near-vacuum: Emily Dickinson comes to mind. Most of us, though, need to get out there and meet, and engage in friendly competition with, others who are similarly inclined to write, paint, compose, perform. That brings me, finally, back to the 2014 Philadelphia Writers’ Conference.
I am not a screenwriter (as yet) but I found the sessions of Mark Lapadula’s Screenwriting workshop I was able to audit to be unlike any classroom experience I’ve ever had. The man knows his stuff and speaks bluntly, concisely, and at times, hilariously. His synopsis of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho was dynamic and nearly as gripping as the film. Paul Martin’s poetry workshop – “Authenticating Rhythm in Free Verse Poetry” was exhilarating and informative, as was watching the Belmont Stakes with him in the bar Saturday afternoon. I hadn’t met Paul previously, so becoming acquainted with a man who is a marvelous poet, teacher, raconteur, and likes the ponies (as do I) was nothing but pleasure.
For a poet, few things are quite as inspiring to creativity as attending workshops and rubbing elbows with teachers, agents, editors, and fellow writers – seeing them all in action and interaction, getting to know them, and possibly making mutually beneficial connections. It doesn’t get much better than three days of that in early June.