Maybe poetry will save us. It's a thought that occurs to many people who've fallen in love with the ancient form, in all its mysteriousness and immediacy. It doesn't matter whether the road into poems was a childhood encounter with "The Road Not Taken" by Robert Frost or a college seminar that offered up the joy and shock of Ntozake Shange's for colored girls.... It might have been a thumb-through of a decaying volume of Keats or a page-flip that revealed that incredible Philip Levine late work published just a couple of months ago in The New Yorker. Whatever brings a reader into poetry, making time for it allows for interior experiences that often don't come that easily: the chance to ruminate, to vividly identify, to wonder. These days, the thought maybe poetry will save us also reflects our exhaustion with clicking and linking and liking and all the other semi-literate activities that leaves us hopped up, unsatisfied and screen-blind.
Iris DeMent makes music that celebrates humanity's efforts toward salvation, while acknowledging that most of our time on Earth is spent reconciling with the fact that we don't feel so redeemed. Grounded in hymns, early country songs, gospel and folk, DeMent's work is treasured by those who know it for its insight and unabashed beauty. Now the singer-songwriter, who has taken her time between releases, is announcing a new album: The Trackless Woods, a collaboration of sorts with the Russian poet Anna Akhmatova, who was born in 1889 and lived through her homeland's tumultuous 20th century before dying in 1966. DeMent came upon Akhmatova's work through a friend's casual recommendation, but became possessed with the great modernist's vision. She went so far as to construct a home recording studio in rural southeast Iowa so she could make The Trackless Woods where she's first discovered Akhmatova's words.
Iowa, where DeMent has long lived with her husband and fellow singer-songwriter, Greg Brown, is a long way from St. Petersburg. The desire to build a symbolic bridge to the homeland of her teenaged daughter, Dasha, whom DeMent and Brown adopted from Russia when she was six, was one motivation for The Trackless Woods. But anyone listening to DeMent's compositions, laced through with elements of American song as it's traveled from home to church to the farmed fields and the honky-tonks, will quickly realize that in the kindred spirit of a Russian rebel aristocrat, she found a new view of her own artistic and emotional life.
The Trackless Woods will be out August 7 on FlariElla Records, but we've got one song from the album, "Listening to Singing," for you right now. DeMent recently answered some questions about the album via email, before embarking on an Australian tour.
The Trackless Woods emerges from the act of reading. You fell into the Akhmatova poems somewhat unexpectedly, and clearly sat with them for a while as you were composing the music. The album's intimate, domestic feel evokes a similar response from the listener. How can music be like reading? What did you get from reading Akhmatova's poems that you most hope will come across in your versions?
Some of them I sat with a long time; with others, the melody came as I was reading them for the first or second time. My experience with and connection to poetry has primarily been through songs, so it probably shouldn't be surprising to me that most, if not all, of these poems weren't fully known to me, or understood on that deeper emotional level, until the melodies arrived. It was like the melody served as a doorway, a means by which I was able to enter the poem and that was the criteria I used when determining whether or not a particular melody stood up or not: It either allowed me entrance into the poem or it didn't. And that's something I never had to wonder about. It's like any other door, it either opens up and let's you into the room or it doesn't. It's very basic. I could feel that every time.
Akhmatova is one of Russia's greatest poets — as a matter of fact, a friend of mine who is a Russian scholar has a line from her "Requiem" tattooed on her back! Yet few Americans have read her. How do you hope your listeners receive these lyrics, which are in some ways very much grounded in Akhmatova's experiences living through the particular political revolutions of her homeland?
I certainly hope that these poems/songs will be received. How they are received is not my concern. That's for the listener to decide. Or not! I mean, I didn't get to "decide" how I would receive them. That was determined by the natural qualities that existed within Anna and her work and the way they met my natural qualities. It's like any other relationship — it's always completely unique and unpredictable. Some of these poems I interpreted one way and later would read an account, sometimes by a friend who actually knew the context in which Anna had written the poem, and I'd realize I'd gotten it all wrong. Sometimes that would worry me, even make me feel bad, like I'd let Anna down or misrepresented her. But I soon let go of that and realized how ridiculous that kind of thinking is. That's part of the beauty of putting anything out into the world, that it has the potential to grow, to take on new dimensions and meanings when others hear, view it, take it in and experience it as their own. It keeps it alive.
Anna's life, at least in its historical context, was vastly different from my own. Her entire adult life was a battle. A battle to survive, literally, and creatively. During the 30 years Stalin was in power, it was often too risky for her to even write her poems down. I've heard that she would usually memorize them and then recite them to friends who'd get them out through some kind of underground network. She lived in a constant state of anxiety on all of the most fundamental levels. On the surface, my life couldn't be more different than hers, and yet she speaks to me, and to so, so many other people, now as much so as she did then. Her spirit somehow held up, stayed in tact, through tremendous suffering and inhumanity. Her poems aren't rosy, by any means, but she doesn't succumb to despair or bitterness either. She's in the fight and yet manages to hold fast to love and truth. That's what we're all trying to do. Anna shows us how. That is reason enough to have made this record. I feel like it's given me the opportunity to put a beautiful, much needed example of victory over inhumanity out in to the world. We need to see that and be reminded that we can do that, too.
You have said that writing this work was one way to build a bridge for your daughter back to her homeland of Russia. Can you talk a little about that? One thing that resonates with me, as an adoptive mother myself, is that the fierce loyalty Akhmatova expresses has a certain maternal spirit. The ways she speaks of grace within painful times, and of the beauty in survival, applies to parenting as well as to those particular political realities she endured.
Some people have a quality about them, a way they move through the world, that expresses an understanding of their being part of something bigger than themselves and a sense of responsibility to this greater"ness." It's not something unique to artists. Whatever you "do" in life can be done in that spirit. My preacher friend, Sam Mann, has that. Mothers usually have that. My mom did. Gardeners have that. I meet people everyday who have that. Anna Akhmatova had that. She also had a belief in fate, which I think can come in pretty handy when your battling the kind of suffering and hardship and impossible circumstances she was living in.
You made this album at home, and the settings invoke domestic music, from parlor songs to old hymns to the kind of intimate, fun country music that family bands have made in their living rooms. (That's how I hear the song we are debuting, "Listening to Singing.") Can you tell me a bit about the recording process? Was it important to make this record in an intimate setting?
I couldn't imagine recording this record anywhere other than my living room. I tried to talk myself out of that for many reasons. One being it was quite expensive to convert my home in the middle of Iowa into a studio .... It meant flying in musicians, an engineer and a fair amount of equipment and then of course all of the complications that go with recording in a uncontrolled environment with dogs, cats, garbage trucks and delivery people knocking on the door. It made no logical sense, and yet, I don't know that I could have sung them the way I did anywhere else. Besides, my meeting with Anna took place in that setting, most these songs were written at the same piano I recorded them on. I felt like Anna was there and I didn't want to leave her behind. I don't think she'd have been comfortable in a studio. And neither would I. Plus, I think pianos are happiest when in close proximity to a kitchen. Music and food just go together.
What translation did you use for the lyrics? Setting poems to music is itself a kind of translation. I wonder how you think of that process of transforming the work of a woman with whom you clearly feel strong kinship, but who didn't write in your language.
Most of the translations were done by Babette Deutsch and hers were the first ones I read. It was only after I'd exhausted that supply that I went searching for other translations — Babette only translated something like 15 or 16 of Anna's poems and I used 13 of them — I felt strongly that there was a unique marriage going on there. I've read a lot of other translations since and I still feel that way. Although Anna was in Russia, Babette in NYC, and to my knowledge they never met one another, there was something magical about what happened there between those two gals! Anna wrote in rhyme and Babette stayed true to that form, which lends itself to song far better than literal translation and made my job much easier. Both those ladies had the song in them and all I had to do was tune in to it and bring it on out all the way. And, yes, that too is a form of translation. I definitely felt a kinship with these ladies, that defies logic. The other five poems were translated by Lyn Coffin, who, although her style was very different and much more modern, somehow they all fit together. Lyn, like Babette, stayed true to the rhyme form, which I found to be surprisingly rare. I know there's a lot of concern among translators about altering the "true" meaning of the original poem, but, there's also something to be said for helping a poem remain a poem. Babette Deutsch and Lyn Coffin both did a beautiful job of that. Not an easy task!