Ed & Edgar

my adventures in the cult of Poe

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Monday
Jan112010

Richmond: Home of the Arrogant Legacy of Edgar Allan Poe

For the past two years, I've been having a public discussion/argument about the Literary Legacy of Edgar Allan Poe.  First, Baltimore took me on.  Then Boston.  And we've had some very spirited and fun debates in both Philadelphia and Boston.  At these events, the participants are often asked why New York and Richmond, the other two Poe cities, have not chimed in on the Poe War.   We have never been able to give a satisfactory answer. 

My guess: New York just doesn't really care about Poe.  NYC barely notices anything that happens outside its border.  In fact, I think there was only one event honoring Poe's Bicentennial (and that one a hundred-dollar-a-plate fundraiser).  I could be wrong.  I may have missed announcements for events that were held last year.  But I don't think so.  No wonder the Poe Cottage in the Bronx has so much financial trouble; they keep such a low profile.  They ought to be out promoting Poe like the other Poe cities do.

And Richmond?  Well, I've always had the impression that Richmond doesn't care for the kind of spirited debate I've been promoting.  That this Poe War is beneath their dignity.  I've also heard from various Poeists that the Poe supporters in Virginia have always been rather humorless.  Well, now Richmond is finally weighing in on a public conversation that's been going on for over two years.  As part of their 24 Hour Poe Birthday celebration this Saturday:

 The "Great Poe Debate" Officially Settled by the Poe Family
Dr. Harry Lee Poe, President of the Poe Foundation, will make his ruling on the debate that has been waged all year between Baltimore, Philadelphia, and Boston over which city can claim Poe as their own.

Imagine my surprise when I heard that the debate I've been having in front of public audiences, in the public press, on the very public internet, will be officially settled by a member of the Poe family.  Now, I've met Harry Lee Poe and he's done loads to honor Poe throughout the world.  He even told me he was delighted with the very public Poe War I've been having for the past two years.  But what strikes me about this Richmond event is the sheer arrogance that they've demonstrated all along.  Not to mention the nerve they have to even use the moniker, Great Poe Debate, when they've steadfastedly refused to participate in any actual debates. 

So how will Harry Lee Poe officially settle the Great Poe Debate?  Well, he won't.  Because you can't settle a debate by talking to yourself.  You need to engage others in spirited discussion for that.  Richmond isn't interested in talking about the Literary Legacy of Poe with the world.  They're just interested in talking to themselves.  Whoop-de-doo. 

Just to be clear: I don't think Hal Poe is arrogant at all.  He is a Poe, so he can say whatever he wants, to whomever he wants.  My gripe is that the Richmond Poe Museum is claiming his speech is part of the Great Poe Debate.  It's not.  Because there's no debate. 

You can read about Richmond's pretense in yesterday's Baltimore Sun (always alert to rumblings in the Poe War), in which we find this very telling quote from Katarina M. Spears, the executive director of the Poe Museum in Richmond: "We kind of arrogantly feel like it's only if you're really insecure about your connection to him that you need to be actively competing."

A kind of arrogance really sums it all up, don't you think?  Richmond: Home of the Arrogant Legacy of Edgar Allan Poe.  I'd call you out, Richmond, but you'd probably just stick your nose in the air and sniff that I was some Yankee interloper.  However, if you'd ever like to engage in some PUBLIC discussion of Poe and his legacy and not just a speech to yourselves in a closed room, you know where to find me. 

Wednesday
Dec162009

Great Poe Debate II

You'd think Boston and Baltimore had enough of me last January when I trounced them in the first Great Poe Debate.  Well, here we go again.  I'm bringing the Philly Poe gospel on the road as I travel to Boston for the Great Poe Debate II. 

To help kick off a new exhibit at the Boston Public Library, "The Raven in the Frog Pond," the Philly Poe Guy will once again take on that cranky guy from Baltimore, Jeff Jerome, and that upstart from Boston, Paul Lewis.  The Debate will be tomorrow, Thursday Dec 17 at 7PM and moderated by Charles Pierce.  More info here.

Lewis gazing up at my Poe scholarly statureBoston College Prof Lewis, has been getting lots of press lately (in the Beantown papers) with his shameless jump onto my coat tails.  Let's set the record straight, my call for Poe's literary legacy to reside in Philadelphia is a matter of correcting literary history (as well as a call to acknowledge the literary tradition of Philadelphia Gothic).  That Poe had a relationship with Boston (he was born there) and feuds with Boston writers (he hated the transcendentalists) is not nearly enough to claim any kind of literary legacy.  I won't even bother with Baltimore's sham claims. 

Poe was a Philadelphia writer during the most productive years of his writing career, not just because he lived in Philly, but because the literary traditions and cultural environment of the city at the time had a PROFOUND effect on his works. 

So, I'll have to make my case again in Boston.  But don't worry, the Philly Poe Guy can not be intimidated (well, at least not by other Poe scholars).  In Philly we had over four hundred people show up to hear us slug it out (you can listen to it here or check out the photos from Reuters).  I wonder how many Frogpondians will care enough about Poe to show up and support their cause. 

For more on Paul Lewis and Boston's Poe claim (snigger, snigger), check out Lewis himself in the Boston Globe.  There was also a piece in the Boston College Chronicle and the Boston Herald

My entrance at the Great Poe Debate in Philadelphia:

Saturday
Oct242009

Devil's Trill

Gerald Elias, who composed and performed "The Raven: a Monodrama" to kick off the Edgar Allan Poe Conference last week (read my account here) has also written his first novel, Devil's Trill, which won the Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers Award this Fall.  Appropriately enough (at least for the Poeists) it is a mystery novel (the genre created by Poe) set in the classical music world.  A legendary three-quarter size "Piccolino Stradivarius" violin has been stolen.  The violin has a sordid history and seems to curse all those who come into contact with it.  Daniel Jacobus, a blind, reclusive, chain-smoking music teacher, is supected of the theft, so he sets out to find the violin.  Murder and musical mayhem ensue.  

Devil's Trill is a lively book with a finely worked plot, but Jacobus, is the real treat.  He's like a blind Sherlock, able to read the emotions and thoughts of other characters just by listening to them.  He's also caustic and mercilessly devoted to exposing the chicanery and abuse of the classical performing world where child prodigies are drained of everything they can give, then abandoned when they burn out as young adults. 

I asked Elias about the characters in the book.  Had he based them on people he knew from the musical world?

Elias: Lots of characters in that book have almost a one to one correlation with people I know in the real world, but Jacobus is more complex.  He’s really a combination of many different influences and people I know.  And more than fifty percent of him is totally from my own imagination. 

I also asked if Jacobus, a kind of deranged Mr Holland, yet pure at heart, is the kind of music teacher he wishes he had:

Elias: At the onset of the book, I think his bitterness overshadows even his integrity.  And it is only over the course of the story that he realizes there is something within himself that has been missing for a long time.  That transformation, even though it’s not overt or very plain, is for me the crucial process of the story.

You have deftly included in the novel a good amount of musical instruction or advice to young musicians as Jacobus teaches a student not only how to play, but why. 

Elias: Devil's Trill began as a fictional "how to" book for musicians, then over the years (it took me ten years to write) transformed into a mystery. 

Do you read mysteries?  Who are your favorite authors?

Elias: I do read mysteries.  I like John LeCarre, Lawrence Sanders, Walter Mosely.

What's next for you?

Elias: I've already finished my second book with Daniel Jacobus.  And it took me only two years to write this one.  It's called Danse Macabre and will be out next summer. 

Read more about musician and author Gerald Elias at his website.

Friday
Oct232009

Philly Poe Guy Goes to the Dogs

Last week's episode of the internet canine comedy It's Todd's Show featured yours truly, The Philly Poe Guy.  I met up with Todd at a bar where I was trying to relax one morning with a scotch (tastes better at 10AM), a pipe and Poe book.  Watch as things get out of hand and I go a little crazy. 

 

You know, I do like dogs.  But they should stay out of bars (especially in the morning).  And they really ought to get their Poe facts straight before talking to me. 

Check out more great Todd episodes at his website.  This is a very funny show and I was happy to be on it.  I think it might be my best Poe work ever.  What do you think? 

Thursday
Oct222009

Grover Allan Poe

I've updated the Philly Poe Events to include Grover Silcox's shows this month.  Grover was the hilarious emcee for the Great Poe Debate we had at the Free Library of Philadelphia last January (if you missed that one you can head to Boston on Dec 17 where I'll again be taking on all comers, alas, without Grover).  Grover has for years done shows about Poe.  I'm hoping to make it to the Mutter Museum on Oct 30.   

Oct 23

The Tell-Tale Heart with Grover Silcox at the FONTHILL MUSEUM  in Doylestown, PA.  Come and tour the Henry Mercer castle and enjoy an eeire night tour.  You'll learn about Mr. Mercer's interest in literature, especially, the works of Edgar Allan Poe.  The program concludes with a dramatic telling of Poe's THE TELL-TALE HEART by popular actor, Grover Silcox. Friday, October 23 at 6:30-7:30PM $15/$12  BCHS members.  Registration and prepayment required. To register, call 215-348-9461  Ext. 10 More info

Oct 30

Edgar and the Poe Boys: Closing Night at the Philadelphia College of Physicians, home of the Mutter Museum.  Starring Harry Anderson of NBC's "Night Court" fame and Philly's own, Grover Silcox for a night of POE's Poems, Tales and things Poe might've enjoyed watching himself.  Friday October 30 7-10 PM.  For information and reservations, contact the College of Physicians of Philadelphia at: 19 S 22ND St  Philadelphia, PA 19103-3001, (215) 563-3103 More info

Oct 31

Edgar Allan Poe and the Flip Side of Comedy with Grover Silcox at Karen Ann's Tea Room in Warminster, PA 1535 W. Street Road (215) 773-9300  Saturday, Oct. 31 Call or email for reservations. More info

Tuesday
Oct132009

Welcome to the Poe Conference: Bad-Ass Paintings and a Raven

So busy at the Poe Studies Conference that I couldn't find time to post about it while it was going on, so you'll have to settle for recaps all this week.  On Thurday the opening night performance of Gerald Elias' "The Raven: a Monodrama" was held at The Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts.  We hobnobbed and talked Poeish subjects among the spectacular paintings in their gallery, including Thomas Eakins' portrait of Uncle Walt, Edward Hicks' "Peaceable Kingdom," and Benjamin West's massive (15ft X 25ft) magnificently bad-ass "Death on a Pale Horse."actual painting a lot more bad-ass than this image (click to enlarge) 

After our welcome by conference co-chairs Barbara Cantalupo and Stephen Rachman, and a word from Janine Pollock, Head of the Rare Book Dept at the Free Library of Phila, we listened to Elias' wonderful composition played by Elias on viola, Ruby Chou on piano and mezzo-soprano Stina Eberhardt.  The performance was dramatic and brilliant in places.  You can download a live clip from a previous performance at Elias' website.  Here's Elias on how he came to write the piece:

     Appropriately enough, the relentlessly persistent melodic motive of "The Raven" came to me in a dream.  I actually hauled myself out of bed in the middle of the night to write it down in my notebook.  When the next morning in great anticipation I looked at it in the cold light of day I saw that rather than being the most sublime melody ever conceived, as I had initially thought, it was instead the most banal. 

     Years went by and I was invited to compose "The Raven for a Utah Symphony Halloween program.  I consulted my notebook and from all the bits and pieces of musical ideas I had jotted down decided it was that dream melody, because of its very childishness, that made it perfect for the piece.  After all, doesn’t every children’s fairy tale begin with “Once upon a....?”  And because in the poem Poe explores so many facets of a single shattered monomaniacal personality, I chose to use variations of this theme as the narrator moves from playfulness to pathos to savagery and to ultimate despair.   

Elias in actionBefore the performance I asked Gerald Elias a few questions:

How did your Raven composition come about? 

The Utah Symphony plays an annual Halloween concert, and for years the repertoire tended to become repetitious--Night on Bald Mountain, Phantom of the Opera, various John Williams pieces, etc.  I thought it would be good to do something different, perhaps a bit more serious, so I proposed The Raven project to the Symphony.  It also happened to be (if a remember correctly) approximately the 150th anniversary of the poem The Raven, so the timing seemed auspicious. The Symphony agreed and we performed the original version (Baritone and full orchestra) in October, 2000.  I wasn't overly pleased with the result as there was only one brief rehearsal for the piece, which, unknown to the musicians, would have benefitedfrom more familiarity.  Also, the piece was performed with the conductor wearing a gorilla costume, which made visual contact with the baritone soloist somewhat problematic.

Were you inspired by Poe’s poem?  Is your composition a response? an adaptation? Homage? 

I'm not a particularly literary person, especially in regard to poetry, so what attracted me to The Raven was much more pragmatic.  It is perhaps the most famous American poem of all time, and doubtlessly the most popular under the heading of the macabre.  On many levels it comes across wonderfully to audiences of all ages, and, with its relentless rhythm and incisive, colorative text, lends itself well to a musical adaptation.  

What is its performance history so far?  And has it been or will it be recorded? 

The Raven has received that one performance in its original version.  The performance at the Poe Conference will be the second in its revised version for Mezzo-soprano, Viola, and Piano.  There has been no commercial recording of it, but there is a live performance recording of both versions. 

Can you tell me a little about how (and by whom) it will be performed at the Poe Conference?  

One of the pluses of converting the piece to a chamber ensemble version is that it is performed in a chamber, bringing the performers and audience  into a setting not unlike the one in which the singer/narrator of The Raven finds him/herself.  This also enables the singer to interact with the audience, which Stina intends to do at the Poe Conference performance. Our incomparable Mezzo-soprano is Stina Eberhardt, the pianist is Ruby Chou, (both of Salt Lake City), and I will be playing the viola.  The decision to revise the vocal part to mezzo-soprano from baritone came about after further consideration of the text of the poem.  On the most superficial level it certainly seems like the poem is a story about a man with a lost love, Lenore.  As one digs deeper into the text, however, the psychological themes of betrayal, loss, revenge, and finally abject resignation emerge as a much more universal set of feelings.  Perhaps the "story" of The Raven is about the very nature of the human condition.  Hence, the decision for the more androgynous vocal range of mezzo-soprano which encompasses us all. 

In a letter to James Russell Lowell in 1844, Poe wrote, “I am profoundly excited by music, and by some poems, ­ those of Tennyson especially,­ whom, with Keats, Shelley, Coleridge (occasionally), and a few others of like thought and expression, I regard as the sole poets. Music is the perfection of the soul, or idea, of Poetry. The vagueness of exaltation aroused by a sweet air (which should be strictly indefinite and never too strongly suggestive) is precisely what we should aim at in poetry. Affectation, within bounds, is thus no blemish.” Music is the perfection of the soul, or idea, of Poetry.  In Poe’s conception, music perfects poetry.  How do you interpret this passage?  

That is a tough one!  I don't think Poe is talking of adapting a poem to music in order to make it better.  I think what he's saying is that the unique quality of music to arouse a certain emotional response precisely because it does not have words should be emulated by the poet.  In other words, the "musical" aspects of the poem--rhythm, rhyme, alliteration, inflection, choice of consonants and vowels in the aural sense--all should be used to enhance the meaning of the words themselves. 

Poe’s mother was a celebrated singer on the stage.  Poe’s young wife, Virginia first exhibited signs of her tuberculosis while singing before Edgar.  In several of his tales, music haunts the characters.  Poe’s poem, “The Bells,” is a frenetic, almost maddening song.  And “The Raven” itself begins with a kind of musical tapping (and the narrator eventually goes mad).  Do you think music came to represent something maddening or, at least melancholic, to Poe? 

This is hard for me to say, not knowing all that much about Poe.  Certainly the personality of a great writer or composer is reflected in his work.  How could it be otherwise?  At the same time, one thing that defines a great writer or composer is his ability to create a unique and complete world in every individual work.  As a result, Beethoven could compose his Second Symphony, a lyrical and almost jovial masterpiece at a time in his life when he was in the depths of despair over his looming deafness, because he pre-determined a set of musical parameters for that piece and drawing upon his genius, stuck to them.  Likewise, I would imagine Poe understood very well what images and associations from his own life experience evoked a powerful response, and combined with his skilled craftsmanship as a wordsmith was able to invest each of his great literary works with the feeling that it was almost autobiographical. 

How aware were you of Poe’s works before you began your composition?  Can you tell me a story about when you first read or discovered Poe?  

When I was a kid I especially enjoyed reading short stories--everything from O. Henry to Kipling to Maugham to Poe.  As opposed to reading a novel, which at my tender age seemed too monumental a challenge to undertake, a short story distills the author's vision with concise clarity.  For me at that time it was the perfect literary genre.  Some of the first short stories of Poe's that I read--"The Fall of the House of Usher", "The Cask of Amontillado", "The Telltale Heart"--in one of those fake leather heirloom editions, all left a very lasting impression.  One haunting image that has stayed with me all these years--of the jingling bells of the fool's cap as a brick wall is being erected around its wearer, entombing him in the "Cask of Amontillado"--continues to remind me what a genius Poe was in selecting imagery that goes directly to the depths of our souls.

Elias is also the winner of the Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers Award for 2009 with his new mystery novel, Devil's Trill.  I'll post about that a little later in the week.             

Thursday
Oct082009

Poe Conference

The Poe Studies Association's Third International Edgar Allan Poe Conference begins tonight in Philadelphia.  I'll try to blog updates of it over the next few days.  I'm very much looking forward to tonight's musical performance by The Gerald Elias Trio of Elias's own composition, "The Raven: a Monodrama."  Elias is also the author of a new mystery novel, Devil's Trill (which I haven't finished reading yet), about the theft of a notorious violin that seems to curse all those who play it. 

More on Elias at his website.

Come back tomorrow for an interview about his Raven adaptation.  For now, you can listen to Elias himself play Tartini's Devil Trill:

Part 1

Part 2

Thursday
Oct082009

Poe doings

Haunted Poe opened last night and I couldn't have been more impressed.  Absolutely loved the show.  You work with people on a production and you never know how it will turn out.  This one is just about everything I wanted in a show.  The Philadelphia Inquirer has a preview of the production in today's paper with a great slideshow of images.  Kudos to all the performers and creators and tech staff who put this together.  If you're looking for some scares and some ineresting interpretations of Edgar Allan Poe's work, see this show.  And after the show, check out the text I supplied about Poe in Philly and Philadelphia Gothic. 

Down in Baltimore, they've finished with their viewing of Poe and now they're gearing up for the funeral procession and service on Sunday.  Ben Nuckols reports on Bmore Poe doings for the Associated Press and includes a quote from me at the very end of  the piece.  Prepare yourself because I actually say something nice about Baltimore and Poe.  Of course, I gave him lots of quotes about how Baltimore is undeserving  of Poe's Legacy and Philadelphia really deserves it, etc.  And what quote gets used: the make nice one.  However, I really have to say, the Poe funeral is one of the coolest Poe events ever, so I'll be making the trek on Sunday to see it.  After all, what better time to steal the body?

Wednesday
Oct072009

“Lord help my poor soul” 

Today is the day Edgar Allan Poe died in 1849, aged 40, fevered, delirious and alone in a Baltimore hospital.  The attending physician, Dr Moran, wrote to Poe's mother-in-law, Maria Clemm, and told her that "Lord help my poor soul" were Edgar's last words.  Over the years, Moran would write further accounts of Poe's death, each time the death speech becoming more and more elaborate.  So, we really don't know what Edgar's last words may have been. 

But we do have his poetry, and as a fitting tribute to an author of such mad, exhilirating verse, here's his last stanza of "The Bells," published posthumously:

 Hear the tolling of the bells —
                     Iron bells!
What a world of solemn thought their monody compels!
        In the silence of the night,
        How we shiver with affright
    At the melancholy menace of their tone!
            For every sound that floats
            From the rust within their throats
                    Is a groan.
                And the people — ah, the people —
                They that dwell up in the steeple,
                    All alone,
            And who, tolling, tolling, tolling,
                In that muffled monotone,
            Feel a glory in so rolling
                On the human heart a stone —
        They are neither man nor woman —
        They are neither brute nor human —
                    They are Ghouls: —
            And their king it is who tolls: —
            And he rolls, rolls, rolls, rolls,
                     Rolls
                A pæan from the bells!
            And his merry bosom swells
                With the pæan of the bells!
            And he dances, and he yells;
        Keeping time, time, time,
        In a sort of Runic rhyme,
                To the pæan of the bells —
                     Of the bells: —
        Keeping time, time, time,
        In a sort of Runic rhyme,
                To the throbbing of the bells —
            Of the bells, bells, bells —
                To the sobbing of the bells: —
        Keeping time, time, time,
            As he knells, knells, knells,
        In a happy Runic rhyme,
                To the rolling of the bells —
            Of the bells, bells, bells: —
                To the tolling of the bells —
      Of the bells, bells, bells, bells,
                     Bells, bells, bells —
   To the moaning and the groaning of the bells.

And listen to Rachmaninoff's haunting choral versionof this last stanza:

Tuesday
Oct062009

Haunted Poe blog

All month I'll also be adding posts at Haunted Poe's official blog.  There are two up already:

Six reasons why Poe is Philadelphia writer

What is Philadelphia Gothic

More to come.

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