In 2006, musician Michael Zapruder boarded the Wave Books Poetry Bus in North Carolina and spent a week riding through the South. Among the poets with whom he traveled were his brother, Matthew, an editor at Wave (a leading poetry publisher, based in Seattle), as well as D.A. Powell, Bob Hicok, Dorothea Lasky and Mary Ruefle.
The idea behind the bus tour was to bring poetry to its readers by making it accessible in the most public way. Poetry, after all, remains on a fundamental level aural, a form in which meaning is as much a matter of sound, of music and rhythm, as it is of the content of the words.
As a musician, Zapruder understood this, and when he left the tour, he took a sheaf of poems with the intention of using them as the basis for a suite of songs. Six years later, the result is “Pink Thunder” (Black Ocean: 64 pages, $24.95), an artist book featuring the work of 23 poets, along with illustrations by Arrington de Dionyso and a CD of Zapruder’s musical adaptations of the poems.
I’m a sucker for this kind of project, I’ll admit; back in college, I was even known to put Jim Morrison’s poetry album “An American Prayer” on the turntable, although it’s been a long time since I queued that up. Still, I’ve listened to a lot of other poetry/music collaborations, going back to Allen Ginsberg’s “The Lion for Real” and William Burroughs’ work with Bill Laswell and Material — experiments that speak to a different strategy for interacting with language, in which we bypass the intellect for a more direct emotional approach.
This is what “Pink Thunder” achieves too, although in issuing the CD as part of a book, Zapruder gives a nod to the primacy of the text. His music is delightfully eclectic, reminiscent of everything from Kurt Weill to Elliot Smith, and he builds space around the language, taking his lead from the words.
Some songs — “Word,” based on a poem by Joe Wenderoth, or “Florida,” built around a piece by Travis Nichols — almost seem to operate in verse/chorus format, despite the fact that none of the poetry here was produced with music in mind.
And yet, if “Pink Thunder” has a message, it’s that the relationship between poetry and music is more elusive, more conditional, than that of traditional lyrics in a song. This is the best thing about the project, the way Zapruder uses his music to mirror, or echo, his own reading of the material, and its emotional effect.
When at the end of “Pennsylvania” (a collaboration by Nichols, Joshua Beckman, Anthony McCann and Matthew Zapruder), he sings, “like technology you are like technology / Everything you do other people want to do it too,” his voice goes up quizzically as if commenting on the image, which is both absurd and precisely accurate. (That’s where its beauty resides.)
“I started out wondering if a song can be as specific, as particular as a poem,” Zapruder writes at the beginning of “Pink Thunder.” “After doing this, I think the answer is yes, but not in the way I thought it would be. Nothing can equal silence as a background for communications. Silence is the full spectrum. It’s power lies in its potential, which is infinite. Within that silence, these poets can achieve the ultimate, most accurate communication.”