Let’s start the month with the second half of the interview of our 2012 Poetry Contest Winner, Bill Lantry, and his wife, Kate Fitzpatrick, written by the blog’s former editor, Karolina Gajdeczka. The first part of the interview ran on May 22, 2012, and discussed their roles as writer and manager. Below, read about how the poem “Mendelsson” came about.
For this blog, I interviewed Bill Lantry and Kate Fitzpatrick. Bill Lantry’s poem, “Mendelssohn,” was the Potomac Review poetry contest winner this year. Bill works as a team with his wife: he writes, she submits his work. I thought it would be interesting to interview Bill about his winning entry, and the both of them about their unique collaboration. Here is the interview:
1) Your poem includes a lot of religious imagery—How has religion influenced your writing?
It helps to know the background. Mendelssohn wrote an Oratorio called Elijah. The basic story: there’s a drought. People are desperate, so they get their local priests (nature lovers- today we’d call them Wiccans or Shamans) to pray for rain. Nothing works. Then Elijah shows up, and they decide to have a contest: whoever can call down fire onto a pile of wood wins. The priests try all day and get nowhere. When it’s Elijah’s turn, he has water poured on the wood. Then he prays for fire, and the wood starts burning. Everyone decides Elijah has a direct line to heaven, and they’ll follow him. The first thing he does? He tells them to slaughter all the local priests. Four hundred of them are murdered along a riverbank. They just leave the bodies there for the ravens to pick their bones. It’s pretty savage stuff, and Mendelssohn seems to approve.
What’s even worse: all this happened very close to Mount Carmel. Later the Carmelites would become some of the most peace-loving and literate groups around: they live the message of the Sermon on the Mount: “Blessed are the peacemakers.” John of the Cross was one, so was Teresa of Avila. Kate is a Discalced Carmelite. The idea that a group dedicated to contemplation and peace could have its origins in such a brutal event seems incredible. Then Mendelssohn goes and writes beautiful music to glorify it. It’s one of his most popular pieces.
2) Why did you choose the title “Mendelssohn”?
Kate dragged me to a performance because some of her friends were singing. I’d never heard the piece before. It was sung in a church not far from here, but they’d taken down most of the religious symbols, really stripped the church bare so it looked more like a concert hall. The chorus was in black, and looked a little like ravens when they stretched out their arms.
I needed a title that would point readers directly to the piece. Just “Elijah” wouldn’t do it, and might confuse the issue. Everything else was too long. It worked: I showed the poem to an old friend, a retired soprano who’d sung the piece in concert, and she immediately recognized it. Here’s the strange thing: she said she’d never realized the brutality of it, but the poem changed the way she looked at this piece she’d sung so many times.
And the title helps highlight the composer, allowing more interesting connections and contradictions. Mendelssohn was Jewish, telling an Old Testament story to a largely Christian audience. He had a thing for Jenny Lind, and put a high F sharp into Elijah just for her, because he knew she was one of the few who could hit that note. After he died, she took all the profits she made singing the piece and created a scholarship fund. Its first recipient was Arthur Sullivan, who ended up scoring charming little love stories.
3) “Mendelssohn” is written in four six-line stanzas of iambic pentameter. Why did you choose this form for this poem?
There are some woods behind my house. I went walking in them yesterday, and got distracted by everything: strange shapes of mushrooms sprouting under a log, the first copperheads of the season, the last of the weeping cherries in flower, a hollow filled with skunk cabbage, an entire glade carpeted with escaped daylilies. If you’d seen me wandering from one sight to the next, you would have thought I’d lost it for good!
That’s my whole dilemma. I’m more comfortable in free verse. It comes more easily to me. But when I’m writing it, I’m like that guy wandering through the woods, leaping from one place to another, jumping back when I see a snake, clambering over a fallen tree. I’ve spent a lot of time in the mountains, so I’m used to it, but it wouldn’t be a comfortable walk for anyone else.
And that’s how I feel about poetry: you’re inviting a reader to go on a walk with you. You know the forest well, but she does not, and if the poem’s good, she can see the forest the way you do. She can live in your head for a little while. That’s the beauty of art: it offers us a different sight, a new vision, a harmonious communion outside our past experience. Using this method keeps me on track. It preserves the harmony that makes communion possible.
Kathleen Fitzpatrick, a coloratura soprano with an extensive sacred repertoire, performs regularly as a liturgical musician and soloist. She works as a church Director of Music & Choir Conductor in the Archdiocese of Washington. In her spare time, she manages her indolent mule’s literary career, and sings Weddings and Funerals.
W.F. Lantry, a native of San Diego, received his Maîtrise from L’Université de Nice, and PhD in Creative Writing from the University of Houston. Honors include the Hackney Literary Award in Poetry, CutBank Patricia Goedicke Prize, Lindberg Foundation International Poetry for Peace Prize (Israel) and the 2012 Old Red Kimono and Potomac Review Poetry Prizes. His publication credits encompass print and online journals in more than twenty countries on five continents, a chapbook, The Language of Birds (Finishing Line 2011), and a full-length collection, The Structure of Desire (Little Red Tree 2012). He currently works in Washington, DC. and is a contributing editor of Umbrella Journal.