BWW Interviews: Peter Meinke and William Dawson Present Musical Poetry

BWW Interviews: Peter Meinke and William Dawson Present Musical Poetry

Naples various opera and music communities will intersect with the poetic literary community this week. On Tuesday, Florida Poet Laureate and long-time author Peter Meinke will recite stories of his life and poems over original arrangements of prized composer William Dawson Jr. The night will host two sopranos, Naples favorite Steffanie Pearce and up-and-comer Nadia Marshall, and baritone Christopher Holloway, with accompaniment by internationally experienced Richard Bosworth. If this seems like a lot of star power for a poetry reading, you'd be reading correctly- the roof of the Naples United Church of Christ will be hard pressed to stay on as talents explode.

Meinke is the first Poet Laureate since the 2014 statute was passed by the governor, and the fourth to hold the title in our state's history. His works have appeared in the most prestigious publications, he's received a Fulbright Scholarship, a long list of awards and fellowships, and a couple dozen published works. Dawson first got in contact with Meinke years ago, driving from Ft. Myers to St. Petersburg (where Meinke and his wife, Jeanne, live) to play some of his compositions and proposition the project. Now, finally, Naples will get to hear this powerful collaboration brought to life.

In advance of the project, I interviewed the creative team to gain some insight- what was to come, what audiences should know, and most importantly, who are these artists?

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BWW Interviews: Peter Meinke and William Dawson Present Musical Poetry
Peter Meinke, cred: Mark Wemple

Trevor Durham: The first honorary Poet Laureate of the state of Florida... A year into your post, you said it made you finally think of yourself as a Floridian. As Poet Laureate, what have you learned? What do you feel you've been able to accomplish that you couldn't before?

Peter Meinke: I learned I need to be more organized, and study the map of this huge state. Of course, I've been giving readings here since 1966 when I took the job at Florida Presbyterian College (now Eckerd). The major difference in my life is the number of readings, panels, and discussions I'm invited to (not to mention "interviews" like this one). I'm doing better now, spacing the events out so I have more time for writing and (especially) reading. I love novels almost as much as poetry-I think reading fiction helps keep my poems more accessible-but I didn't read a single one the first year of my appointment (right now I'm reading Anthony Doerr's "All the Light We Cannot See," a terrific book). As for accomplishments, as a lover of poetry I'm pleased to be able to read to so many people and convey my passion for it. I don't think you can talk people into liking poetry; you have to read it to them and hope it "catches." I get a fair amount of correspondence that makes me believe this effort is worth it. And as for Florida, as Robert Frost said about the world, I have a lover's quarrel with our state. Jeanne and I don't mind the heat, but we're upset with today's political climate.

TD: You've been publishing most of your life, and still put works out in 2017. What can your fan-base expect to see next: more of your celebrated poetry, or prose?

PM: My last collection of poems was "Lucky Bones" in 2014. In 2015 I published "The Elf Poem," a children's book about writing poetry; and 2016 "The Expert Witness," a collection of short stories. For 10 years I've written a biweekly column called "Poet's Notebook," covering art, poetry, politics, family, gardening-whatever comes to mind. I enjoy it, but that does take a lot of time too (it's resulted in two fat books, "Truth & Affection"(2013) and "To Start With, Feel Fortunate," which includes some poetry with each essay, and received the 2017 William Meredith Award (published a few months ago)). All of these books except "Lucky Bones" are beautifully illustrated by my wife, Jeanne (and she did the cover for that one), who's a celebrated artist whose drawings are best known for her decades publishing in The New Yorker. So I've (we've) been busy, but I haven't stopped (very slowly) writing poetry, and hope to have another collection in a year or so. NPR in Orlando asked me to commemorate the Pulse nightclub massacre in in Orlando, so I wrote a villanelle called "One Year Later" that was broadcast on NPR stations around Florida.

TD: What has the process of setting your verse into arias been like? Mr. Dawson seemed to have initiated the process without your knowledge, but as the years have progressed, what has your input been?

PM: Easy to answer this one: I've hardly any input in turning these poems into arias. When Bill came over with the music we were astounded and delighted; later Jeanne and I had lunch at a funky neighborhood tavern here in St Pete with Bill (the composer), Richard (the pianist), and Christopher (the singer). We talked about music, poetry, and art, covering all our bases (no biases I could detect)-and we said, basically, I'm a writer and Jeanne's an artist, and we'd leave the music to the musicians.

TD: Do you think the inherent music of your poetry will continue to create exciting new music events such as this?

PM: It's nice to think that my poems might inspire musicians and artists to produce more works of art. Years ago, a dance group did some lovely interpretations of a sonnet sequence I wrote. Jeanne and I work together, and we've always had friends who were musicians, artists, dancers, actors. Collaborating seems like an exciting and worthwhile adventure. Fun, too.

TD: It's time for the big one- Milton or Shakespeare?

PM: Another easy question (for me): I love Shakespeare's poems as well as his plays, and have memorized swatches of the songs and sonnets. As I've worked for over 50 years as a college prof, we've probably seen all of Shakespeare's plays, a fair number of them multiple times. Memorably, in Communist Warsaw-I had a Fulbright at the University-in 1978, we saw "Hamlet" in Polish, the actors dressed like motorcycle gangs (this apparently upset the Communist commissioners). I have a PhD in English Literature (back in my day there were no MFA's-I never took a Writing Workshop) and do appreciate Milton, but agree with what Samuel Johnson said about "Paradise Lost": "None would wish it longer than it is."

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After speaking with Mr. Meinke, I had the opportunity to get in touch with composer William Dawson Jr., who was happy to give a snapshot of his career up to now, and what's next to come.

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BWW Interviews: Peter Meinke and William Dawson Present Musical Poetry
William Dawson Jr., cred: Dorothy Edwards

TD: Naples audiences may or may not be familiar with your impressive oeuvre- a Mexican-government sponsored suite with the University of Yucatan, you're one of the founding members of the New World School of Music, and training Hamilton's musical director Alex Lacamoire. In your fifty-plus year career, what has made you the proudest? Either as an individual or an artist?

William Dawson: Alex wrote me recently and said "I think of you so often. I owe you so much for believing in me. I could never thank you enough". One make a pitiful salary as a teacher, but the true rewards come from passing on your knowledge and seeing a talented student like Alex grow up and become a great success as a professional musician. Needless to say, this is what brings me the most satisfaction and pride.

TD: Where do you get your inspiration from, in creating scores to celebrate Mayan ruins, aligning opera with Mexican poetry, or this night of Meinke's work?

PM: I've always thought of myself as a teacher (I was a professor at Miami Dade College, and University of Texas) and a concert pianist (minor league), but have lately come to realize that composing may be the milieu I find most enjoyable. I love setting songs and choral music to poetry - especially good poetry such as texts by Peter Meinke, Edgar Allen Poe, or passages from the Bible. I like to "text paint" - describing or picturing the text musically. With a good text, my songs seem to magically write themselves! My Chichen Itza Suite was a programmatic work in which I tried to "musicalize" the various sites at Chichen Itza (e.g. The Pyramid, Temple of the Warriors, Observatory, Sacred Well). This way of composing is similar to the background music track in motion pictures.

TD: How long have you been working with the night's vocalists? Ms. Pearce and you go further back, but Mr. Holloway and Ms. Marshall, are they new on your radar?

PM: The artists on Tuesday evening's concert are all fairly new acquaintances. I cannot overstate how much it means to me that artists of their world class caliber have acclaimed and even championed my songs, and gone on to give incredibly sensitive and astonishing performances of the music.

TD: Your CV is never-ending, but the future is always unclear. Where can avid music fans next go to get a taste of your inventive stylings?

PM: My website should be up soon! Save www.williamdawsonjr.com for later.

Mr. Meinke, Mr. Dawson, and the rest of the team will premiere their event Tuesday, August 15th at 7pm. Tickets can be purchased online or at the door.

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