I've got a treat for you writerly/readerly folks today. Poet, professor, global speaker and down-right smart woman Ava Leavel Haymon dropped by to share a bit of her writing journey with us. I know you'll find it inspiring!
Ava heads Collaboration 672, shares her knowledge of the craft willingly with all interested persons, and is on the short list of State Poet Laureate nominees. Her newest book of poems is Why the House is Made of Gingerbread, which she speaks about below:
The old story Hansel and Gretel is a favorite of mine. They did not live happily ever after, and even as a kid, I knew I liked that ending better. I wrote a few poems about Gretel, the sister, a long time ago, and thought I'd like to know more about her. A couple of years went by. Then, at the New Orleans Jazz Festival, 1990ish, I heard Delfeayo Marsalis, and he played some pieces he was composing. This body of work ultimately became the CD "Pontius Pilate's Decision," but that would be several years in the future. No lyrics, all instrumentals. That day, he played one unfinished piece, "Mary Magdalene." Most of the parts in the piece were not scored; there was only him on trombone with another player on another instrument, maybe it was a clarinet. I remember the two parts twining upward like two vines, without support, somehow each holding the other up as they rose.
As the piece unfolded, I realized he'd done something new: He was writing about the crucifixion story, but instead of tracking the narrative from beginning to end, as I'd have expected, he instead wrote a completely separate composition on each character. You see immediately what I mean: a composition about Judas Iscariot, another composition about Pilate, etc., to be played in any order. The music was great, of course, the Festival joyously Dionysian, and in that odd and unexpected inspiration that artists -- maybe only writers, know -- my hair began to stand on end.
Once I'd heard Delfeayo play, I could write about Gretel. Now it could become the obsession it had to be to get words on pages. Instead of writing poems that told the story beginning to end, I could write poems that were jazz riffs. The Gingerbread House as poem topic or focus, Hansel another, the witch's kitchen another. Like traditional jazz: the foundation melody is taken for granted, all the separate jazzmen keep it in mind and improvise off that, and, as I heard Delfeayo say years later, then the performance becomes a conversation among musical voices.
It took years to get the poems down, but slowly the long poetic sequence improvised itself into being. It does not tell the story. The reader doesn't have to know the story. The story was running in my own head, the story let me forget myself, and the individual poems rooted in it. They twined their way out of the story into their own forms. The book is WHY THE HOUSE IS MADE OF GINGERBREAD, Gretel and Hansel still do not live happily ever after, and the poems were free to grow, funny sometimes, fateful always, and spooky as hell.