Molly Tenenbaum on poetry and musicby Anna Lena Phillips • 06.13.2011
Waking up in a tent, bumming hot water for coffee from someone who brought a two-burner propane stove, drinking it down and immediately setting about playing tunes—if you’re an old-time musician, this is likely how you spend lots of your weekend mornings in the summer, at fiddler’s conventions in fields and ball parks across the southern United States.
I’ve missed every convention thus far this summer. I’m hoping to remedy that soon. (And maybe this year I’ll get my own stove.) Happily, in the meantime, we’re featuring three poems by poet and old-time banjo player and fiddler Molly Tenenbaum. I don’t know a lot of other poet old-time musicians, but it’s not unusual to have more than one artistic love. So I asked Molly about poetry and old-time—how these two presences act in her life. She writes:
I suspect that my creative self, back in infanthood, originated in music and poetry together: lullabies, nursery rhymes, songs, parents’ voices, singing, being read to—ballads, Dr. Seuss, Shakespeare, Margaret Wise Brown. But later, as I got more involved in old-time music, the two lives began to separate: it might be almost accurate to say that music is my social world and poetry my private one, but that’s not quite true. Still, the two don’t overlap much. When I go camp in a field with friends and play music all day and all night for a week, I sure don’t write any poetry. But I think all the tune-names floating through my head affect my poetry. And the way I think about what poetry is and does (not that I know what I think) is probably affected by way tunes pass through generations and change or don’t change, they way they come both from specific individuals—who each add their knobs and twists—and also from no one in particular, from Anonymous, from whateveritis, the big human soul-source.
Still, it’s a heart-wrench to have two lives. I always want more time for each. I’ll never be a great fiddler because, well, I choose to spend possible fiddling time on poetry. I’m lucky I had my obsessive banjo period early, or I might not have been able to get good at that either.
It’s wonderful to be involved in two things that are huge, deep, rich, and can never, ever be mastered. Too bad neither of them make any money, but never mind. They do make my life matter to me.
I do occasionally do shows where I blend music and poetry. I try to find a theme, and pick songs and poems that interact with it. The last one I did was “Question and Answer.”
Molly also has some thoughts about the music of meter:
Say you’ve got a steady metered line. The ear expects it to proceed in a certain way. But toward the end maybe something happens—a glut of consonants, a spondee; or there’s a linebreak and all of sudden the meter’s doing something different. Maybe that’s sort of like cutting off the end of a measure and adding those beats to the beginning of the next as pick-up notes. Fiddlers add all kinds of bumps and curls to tunes; poets do the same with the line, I think.