A writer and a musician who has authored several books including the hybrid poetry and essay collection The Monster I am Today: Leontyne Price and a Life in Verse (2021).A As a composer and performer, Kevin Simmonds collaborated with the late poet and writer Carrie Allen McCray and with poet and writer Kwame Dawes on several projects.
The Interview : Kevin Simmonds
(Rachna Singh, Editor, The Wise Owl, in conversation with Kevin Simmonds)
The Wise Owl talks to Kevin Simmonds, a writer and musician originally from New Orleans. His books include the hybrid poetry and essay collection The Monster I am Today: Leontyne Price and a Life in Verse (2021), and the poetry collections the system must be tried (2020), Bend to it (2014) and Mad for Meat (2011). He also edited the anthology Collective Brightness: LGBTIQ Poets on Faith, Religion & Spirituality (2011). He lives in San Francisco.
As a composer and performer, Kevin Simmonds collaborated with the late poet and writer Carrie Allen McCray on a musical adaptation of Ota Benga Under My Mother's Roof and with poet and writer Kwame Dawes on several projects including Voices of Haiti: A Post-Quake Odyssey in Verse, I Saw Your Face, HOPE: Living and Loving with HIV in Jamaica and Wisteria: Twilight Songs of the Swamp Country. Wisteria was the subject of a 2007 BBC Radio documentary and HOPE received an Emmy Award in 2009.
Thank you Kevin for taking time out of a busy schedule to talk to The Wise Owl. It is indeed a pleasure to talk to you.
RS: You have a Masters degree in music and a Ph.D in music education. You have also been a composer for several projects. Our readers would be curious to know how you started on your musical journey. What influences in your life made you walk this creative path?
KS: The Monster I am Today tells this better than I could here. Short version: boy loves to sing, uses voice to shield from teasing; boy is isolated, queer, but one day sees soprano great Leontyne Price on TV, believes she and her voice are his reprieve; boy determines he’ll become an opera singer, studies in high school and wins awards, scholarships, the acceptance of peers; young man goes to college and encounters racist professors and classmates, is ill-prepared to cope, loses way, struggles to sing and, since then, ekes out alternative creations.
RS: You started the first-ever poetry workshop in Changi prison when on a Fulbright fellowship to Singapore. Tell us a little about what inspired you take on this laudable project?
KS: I arrived in Singapore the same day my mother returned to see what was left of our home after the levee breach during Hurricane Katrina. That was October 2005. More than anything, I wanted to find ways to be of service and wasn’t at all fulfilled by my academic appointment at National Institute of Education, where I found everyone to be terribly pretentious. I complained about this to everyone, unceasingly, hoping to find other opportunities, maybe something with underserved people.
One day at lunch, poet Alvin Pang told me that Changi Prison had recently launched a song-writing competition. Bingo. After a few months of discussions and bucking bureaucracy, I got permission to lead workshops for men. They were exceptional, curious, talented, funny. One wrote a poem about harvesting curry with his father. Tender, lucid, loving. I hope they’re all home with loved ones and flourishing.
Funny bit: I once brought in a Neti pot for a persona poetry lesson. I had to compel the confounded guards to call down the prison commander to grant me permission.
RS: You have collaborated with Kwame Dawes on several projects including HOPE: Living & Loving with HIV in Jamaica, which won the Emmy award 2009 and Wisteria: Twilight Songs of the swamp Country which was the subject of 2007 BBC Radio Documentary. Please tell us a little about these projects and how you became associated with these projects.
KS: Kwame and I met at Cave Canem, the poetry workshop for Black poets, and became friends when I was finishing my PhD at the University of South Carolina, where he was a distinguished professor of English. One day in his office, he handed me the Wisteria manuscript and said something like, “See if you can do anything with this.” That’s how it all began. I set some of the poems for a small ensemble of singers and musicians, featuring sopranos Valetta Brinson and Valerie Johnson. The audience really responded to that musical/poetic testament to the Black women Kwame interviewed for this project, their luminous stories of growing up in South Carolina during Jim Crow. After that, Kwame handed me more manuscripts with the same “See if you can anything with this.”
RS: Your book, The Monster I Am Today: Leontyne Price and a Life in Verse, is about Leontyne Price, an acclaimed opera singer of international acclaim. In fact, from whatever I gathered while reading extracts from the book and listening to extracts rendered by you, I feel it braids together elements of biography, history and music. As a musician, it is no surprise that you picked up an opera singer as the subject of your book. But I am curious to know why Leontyne. Also, I am intrigued that you have structured the book like an opera. What made you structure your book of poetry like an opera?
KS: I wanted to publicly praise the artistry of Price. It began as poems. Then a couple folks who’d read the early poems suggested I make it more personal. The prose emerged. From there, I added a structure that I thought would make my fragmented work cohere for a reader. It’s an odd book that I adore. I think it confounds most people. I think it must.
RS: You founded the Tono International Arts Association that went on to sponsor the Tono American Music festival with some great composers. It must have been a Herculean task to put such an event together. What challenges did you face in executing this project?
KS: You’ve really done some digging. No one ever asks about that. I was just in Tono a couple weeks ago. That small town in north-eastern Japan changed my life in every conceivable way. The festival, which happened to occur immediately after September 11, 2001, garnered more success and news coverage than anyone could have imagined. I mean, people came from as far away as Tokyo. The monthlong festival included concerts and masterclasses featuring gospel, dulcimer, art songs and musical theatre. Because I received the unwavering backing of three incredible local women—soprano and teacher Keiko Yamamoto, business owner Keiko Maekawa and Rev. Diane Weible, the principal of the local Christian preschool—we overcame little bureaucratic hurdles here and there. The people of Tono and surrounding towns came out in droves. What an exquisite, precious time. Thank you for asking!
RS: I have trained in Indian Classical music, and I always felt that poetry and music are like close siblings or bosom buddies. You are a poet as well as musician. Do you also believe that poetry and music are closely aligned, even inextricably enmeshed?
KS: With the little I know, I can’t begin to conceive of the sheer complexity of tabla, sitar and classical and vernacular Indian singing. Y’all have so many more tones and colors!
For me, poetry and music are the same. I hear them the exact same way. They do function differently. Right now, I think that the only difference/variation is that poetry needs words. I’m still young and inexperienced though. Perhaps later I’ll learn better.
RS: I read somewhere that you believe in ‘diagnoses’ of speaking voices. This really intrigued me. Could you elaborate on this for the benefit of our readers.
KS: Because I’ve spent many years studying the singing voice and teaching/coaching singers, I hear all voices—singing or not—through that training. People routinely misuse or abuse their vocal instruments. Without getting into too much detail, this includes intonation, upspeak, vocal frys, nasality, speaking too high or low. Sometimes it feels like an affliction, a bizarre case of misophonia. I write a little about this in The Monster I am today. I’m trying to expand this into a book, performance, workshops, film, something or some things.
RS: Do you have any favourite poets or composers? What is it about their poetry or music compositions that attracts you.
KS: Nina Simone, Samuel Barber, Lucille Clifton, Richard Ronan, Arvo Pärt, Joseph Jennings (former musical director of Chanticleer), Bill Withers. These artists harness brutal terrors and unleash only as much as we can bear. Their mercy is lyricism.
RS: Our readers would love to know if you are working on any musical or literary project now.
KS: I’m trying to write something legible about Black sound, how it’s made, how cultural, social, economic and other forces try to, at once, emulate, exploit, co-opt and destroy it. Though there are many, many casualties, it survives.
RS: You are an established poet and an acclaimed musician and composer. What quick advice would you like to give budding poets and composers.
KS: Do what you want. Be endlessly curious. About everything and everyone. Ask questions. Learn the rules so you can break them. Don’t compare yourself or your talents with others. Never ever do that.
Thank you so much Kevin for your insightful and patient responses to all our queries. We wish you the best in all your poetic and musical endeavours.