BY SELENA FRAGASSI
For Sun-Times Media
If like Shakespeare once said, all the world is a stage, there should be no problem with musicians and poets sharing it. Still, “it was a little ballsy of me to approach the Poetry Foundation about hosting this event,” admits Damian Rogers of the “literary cabaret” she brings to town Thursday night. The program combines readings by respected poets such as Robyn Schiff and Philip Jenks and performances by Chicago musicians.
The intersection of the two art forms first collided with Rogers when she was living in Chicago in the ’90s. By day, she was working as an assistant editor at Poetry Magazine and by night, she was hanging out at venues like Lounge Ax and Empty Bottle.
POETRY OFF THE SHELF: A LITERARY CABARET
When: 7 p.m., Nov. 13
Where: Poetry Foundation, 61 W. Superior
“It was such an incredibly important period in my artistic development,” recalls Rogers who has since relocated to Toronto and is preparing to release her second volume of work next spring. “Even though I never performed with anyone on stage, just watching people, being in an audience and spending my time with musicians was helpful as I figured out what I wanted to do.”
It was in this circle that she met her future husband, Mike Belitsky (drummer of Bloodshot Records artists The Sadies), developed kinship with Drag City Records where she found work editing the label’s book releases by musicians John Fahey, Neil Haggerty and Bill Callahan, and had relationships with figures like Azita Youssefi of The Scissor Girls and Bride of No No and The Mekons’ Sally Timms. Both women join Rogers at the event, which aims to reclaim some of the original collaborative magic that kickstarted her career.
The evening is somewhat of an extension of a successful series in Toronto called The Basement Revue that Rogers has curated with Broken Social Scene’s Jason Collett; in the past five years, they have paired Margaret Atwood with The Sadies, Michael Ondaatje and Feist and Anne Waldman with AroarA.
“It’s great to get out of the segregation of those two communities,” says Rogers, noting that an event like this does a great service for one artist in particular. “The whole enterprise of trying to perform poetry is already so often doomed because it’s created in a private space. Poets have such a limited audience to speak to, so combining performers like this gives them a larger audience. And it’s gratifying to see music audiences respond positively to hearing poets read their work.”
For Timms, who found similar thematic tones in planning her collaboration with Schiff, the spoken word has had a long thread in her own work. “I was a competitive poetry reader as a child,” she admits, “and I’ve used it to generate lyrics in the past.”
But the art form is something even more sacred for Youssefi, a frequent hybridist (see her collaborations with Redmoon Theatre) who scoffs at the idea that as a lyricist she is also a poet. “I really have a problem with people confusing those two things,” she says. “How the word is communicated is different. It’s almost insulting to poets when a songwriter says that because the requirement for what the word needs to do is so much less. There is an intangible element of sound when words are performed by a person.”
Rogers agrees. “It’s the reason I do these events. Hearing a poem read aloud is so much different than reading it on the page,” she says. “Once I began to accept that, I wanted to push it farther. I hope doing this together gives us all permission to step out further on a tightrope more than we might otherwise.”
Selena Fragassi is a local freelance writer.