Fit the action to the word

Composer Emily Doolittle has raised some interesting and important points about text-setting. Emily–an excellent, thoughtful composer and person–wrote: “Poets: how would you feel if a composer (thoughtfully) cut out a few words from your poem when setting it to music? (Let’s say you had been dead for 50 years, so no one could ask you?)”

I had to think about this for a while. Some of what I publish as poetry begins as lyrics for a composer or performer or project; sometimes my poems are poems first and then attract a composer to set them. When I’m creating new lyrics, I’m communicating frequently with the composer(s) and performer(s) about what they like and what works best for them. I’m thinking of words and mouth-shapes and vocal folds and consonants and vowels as I write. But during that process I am always, 100% open to suggestions and changes and critiques (this is why the word “roentgen” isn’t in the final libretto of Marie Curie Learns to Swim). I often substitute one word for another, or move phrases around to make the text fit a specific rhythmic pattern or musical gesture. With this process, there’s no need for a composer to need to cut anything. I suppose that once my works are in the public domain, someone might take a lyric that has already been set and re-set it, but I definitely wouldn’t want the text changed in that circumstance.

As for my poems that begin as poems but are (or might later be) set, hmm. Obviously if I’m dead when they’re set I won’t know and won’t care, but nonetheless, I hate to think of some very carefully chosen words or a line that took an entire day to craft being jettisoned. Some of my poems do have clear sections: for example, my Water Songs, texts set by Allyssa Jones, began as a vague idea to write about water rights and water in certain geographies and within geographical and political histories. So if Allyssa had only wanted to set one of the poems from that set, that would have been fine with me. I have a poem (as yet unpublished) called 16 Poems Inspired by Rebecca Solnit. If a composer wanted to set numbers 6, 9, 12, and 15 from the set, I’d probably be okay with that. But poems that are through-composed, so to speak–those I wouldn’t want edited if I was dead. For example, if you really liked my poem “Coyote Sits,” but  you wanted to take out the references to the Grand Tetons (lines 2-3), that would be changing my intent without my consent. If you want to set “Six Prickly Pears” but think that the last three words: “disappear despair dissolve” will be too hard for the singer  you’re writing for, that would also be changing the intent and integrity of the work.

TL;DR: want to set a poem by me and want to change it? Come ask me. Once I’m dead, though, no changes allowed.

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