Interview & Conversation with Literati and Interestingati
From previous issues:
Winter 2022 Issue #20:
“I was following my pull to ‘art song’ and getting so deeply involved in the underlying poems.”
The Verse & Voice of Lisa Delan
by Jeff Kaliss
I’ve testified in this virtual space about a particular creative and social pleasure initiated unintentionally (do viruses have intention?) by COVID. It’s the weekly gathering, via Zoom, of a poetry group based in the west of Ireland, originally dubbed “Not the Time to Be Silent” and now called “Lime Square Poets”. I advise our readers to check them out on Facebook as last year I had advised Lisa Delan. Lisa became my friend in her role as director of Rork Music, and in my role as a music journalist interested in writing about Gordon Getty, founder of Rork Music— in his role as a composer of classical music. Over lattes in Civic Center coffeehouses, Lisa discovered my more recently established role as a poet, and I discovered that she also writes poetry (as does her employer Getty, who also fashions his own libretti for his operatic compositions).
Lisa and I have in common a helical relationship between poetry and music. In my poetry, as in my journalism, I write a lot about music, sometimes incorporating lyrics in my poems. Music is not so much a source of subject matter for Lisa as a sensibility, linked to her training as a professional singer gifted with a sweet, clear soprano voice. And all this figures back as far as her childhood in New Jersey.
“According to my mom, from the time I could talk, I was singing,” Lisa relates. “And when I was in grade school, she talked to my music teacher about voice lessons, who advised I wait till I was 13, which I did. My dad studied piano growing up, as the child of immigrant Jewish parents. When I was 15, my dad had a friend who introduced me to a voice teacher at Juilliard, so I worked with her once a week. But I also started writing poetry around third grade. I had a babysitter, and we would sit together at the table and write poetry.”
At Oberlin College and Conservatory, Lisa pursued a double major in voice and creative writing, and at the University of Colorado at Boulder she doubled in voice and composition, in the process finding out that, more than opera, she favored what are termed ‘art songs’ sourced in poetry over the arias of opera, bound to drama and story. In the former genre, “I felt like I was singing with my actual voice, even though the words were not mine. It was like I was moving from performing in a role to having a conversation.”
To most classical singers, though, opera looked more like a career. From 1986 to 1989, Lisa completed a bachelor’s degree at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. “I was living with my boyfriend [in SF] and I assumed that when I finished at the Conservatory, I would go back home to New Jersey, so I could do all of the auditions out of New York, which was much closer to the opera center of the world. . . but opera wasn’t looking towards me, apparently.” More significantly, “I was following my pull to art song and getting so deeply involved in the underlying poems, and it became very clear to me that this was the music that allowed me to get myself out of the way.”
Early in 1990, Lisa got a call from a representative of Gordon Getty, but “I didn’t even know who he was. The only thing that rang a bell was, back in New Jersey we have all these Getty oil stations. . . When I came here to meet him for the first time, he was absolutely not what I expected. We had a great conversation, we talked about his passion for singers and about composing.” Getty engaged Lisa for the Marin Opera’s premiere of his first opera, Plump Jack, based on Shakespeare’s Falstaff. She came to know more about the composer’s backstory as the fourth son of oil tycoon J, Paul Getty. Gordon had assumed control of his father’s $2 billion trust upon the elder Getty’s death in 1976. Lisa also learned that her employer was a fellow alumnus of the San Francisco Conservatory and the composer of a settings of poems by Emily Dickinson, The White Election, which became a staple part of her vocal repertoire and the program for one of her five solo albums for the Pentatone record label.
Lisa’s collaboration with Getty evolved into her directorship of both his Rork Music (named for his mother Ann Rork, J. Paul’s fourth wife) and of the Ann & Gordon Getty Foundation, co-founded by Gordon and his wife, who passed in 2020. Lisa continued to perform and record as a vocalist, and began commissioning more works for soprano, based in poetry. She says, “It’s actually hard for me to read poetry without part of my brain listening for prosody,” the patterns of rhythm and sound. “When I came upon The Book of Nightmares [by poet Galway Kinnell], it resonated”for both Lisa and for San Francisco-based composer Jake Heggie. “And I commissioned David Garner [another local composer] to write on Yiddish poetry, which is deeply meaningful to me. The lyrics are from Avrom Sutskever who was called ‘The Poet of the Vilna Ghetto’, which is where my paternal grandparents are from. In the Neruda poem that Luna Pearl Woolf set for me, I loved finding language used in a way that forced me to identify with a different feeling than I would expect from a particular combination of words.
“Opera is an extroverted art form, and I can behave in an extroverted manner,” she continues, “but at heart I’m an introvert.” She says the same could be said of Getty, who she counts as a kindred spirit, both in art song and in opera, “because you can tell that his ear is already tuned to the prosody. Mr. G [as Lisa calls him] wrote this gorgeous poem after Mrs. Getty passed, which he’s planning to set to music. When I read it with my eyes, I found it deeply moving, but when I read it out loud, I was weeping.”
It follows that Lisa’s own poetry is suffused with both feeling and musical flow. “As a person who’s quite profoundly affected by the people in my life, and someone who’s on the autism spectrum, for me part of writing is making sense of what I see and feel. I’m very much rooted and grounded in this whole really beautiful and challenging experience of being human and living in a temporal world with a limited existence. It’s blessed and it’s brutal, and making words out of that dichotomy can also create cohesion.”
Further exploring that process, Lisa reveals that she’s suffered from migraines since her son’s infancy, “and I’m finding that years later going back to those migraine poems, I am viscerally put back in that place. If I look at the struggles my son Gabe has had with mental health, and at the times I thought I would lose him to mental illness, the emotion itself is so diffuse and overwhelming, so amorphous and unknowable, that being able to put that into the narrow confines of [poetic] language creates more space to be with the experience without being overwhelmed by it.”
On a career-related trip in the spring of 2020, Lisa contracted COVID, which temporarily stopped her singing. At about the same time, her marriage also ended and she left their home, with her writing serving to help her process these losses and changes. More recently she’s been living in San Francisco with her daughter, Bella, and her dad Arthur, who is now struggling with aggressive lymphoma. Family togetherness is an abiding theme in her writing. “Bella wandered into the kitchen the other night at some late hour, finding me once again toodling with my poetry on my laptop,” she relates. “And she’s like, ‘This is getting to be be your regular poetry time, isn’t it?’ And I realized I feel more actively engaged with my writing process than ever before.”
Lisa credits my introducing her to my poetry and to the online Lime Square Poets as encouraging this engagement over the last year-and-a-half. “It’s been a constant since I was a kid, but you’ve opened up this space for me as a conduit to other people.” She admits, though, that “I get much more nervous reading poetry online than I do singing for thousands of people. I think it’s my most vulnerable voice, to tell you the truth, when there’s no music in between me and anybody else.”
Lisa has also made a new habit of submitting her work, scoring several offers before her appearance here, which she counts as “really exciting”. Take a look elsewhere in this issue at what she’s given us, and share that excitement.
— Jeff Kaliss, Mill Valley Literary Review Poetry Editor
A Certain Slant of Light
with soprano Lisa Delan
Twenty two Emily Dickinson poems set by composers Aaron Copland, Gordon Getty, Jake Heggie and Michael Tilson Thomas. Lisa Delan (soprano), Orchestre Philharmonique de Marseille, Lawrence Foster (conductor).
A Personal Note from Lisa Delan
Emily Dickinson has been a presence in my life from the age of 11, when my Uncle Dan gave me the Johnson edition of The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson, newly reprinted that year (1976). Without being aware of her poetry’s innate connection to music, I began setting Emily’s verses, creating simple tunes I sang while accompanying myself on guitar. Emily invited me into the world of poetry and inspired my enduring passion for singing the words of the great poets.
I discovered Aaron Copland’s wondrous settings of Dickinson as a conservatory student, but did not perform any composer’s settings of her poems until I was introduced to Gordon Getty’s magnificent cycle The White Election.
I have been honored to both perform and record this cycle, living deeply within the 31 poems that comprise its text. I found that Emily’s words bloomed inside me in ways both startling and intoxicating. While recording this album, I felt Emily’s words blossoming in me again, through the voices of Copland, Getty, Jake Heggie and Michael Tilson Thomas.
I approached their songs with the same sense of awe I felt when first cracking the spine of the volume my uncle gave to me a lifetime ago… though it feels like yesterday. As Emily wrote:
Forever – is composed of Nows –
‘Tis not a different time –
Except for Infiniteness –
And Latitude of Home –
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From previous Issue #19
Poet Matt Mooney
by Jeff Kaliss, Poetry Editor
“In this country, we’re very, very lucky. Our president is a poet!”
We know these words are not being spoken in the United States, both because we haven’t experienced Joe Biden as particularly lyrical and because the speaker, Matt Mooney, speaks in the lilting accents of County Galway, where he was born and raised, near the west coast of Ireland, in 1943.
“President Michael D. Higgins went to college with me,” Mooney continues, over Zoom, through which I first encountered him in an online poetry open mic last year. “In my estimation, I love the honest-to-God approach he has, it’s very crafted.” In addition to his two collections published this year — Steering By the Stars (Revival Press) and Éalú (translates as ‘Escape’ and entirely in the Irish language, published by Coiscéim), both available from mattmooneypoetry.com, Mooney also reviews poetry for the Galway Review Literary Magazine, so he knows about craft.
“I started to write poetry in bits and pieces in the sitting room in Galway, in the house where I was born, where I would be studying for exams, away from everybody,” Mooney recalls, his voice in high ‘Irish tenor’ range. “I would say I was sixteen to eighteen, maybe.” His more recent poem, “Besotted”, included in Steering By the Stars, recalls the “mixed farm” he grew up on. “My father was a sean-nós singer, in English,” he says, referring to a traditional song form favored in the Gaeltacht, the Irish-speaking region of his nation.
“Our secondary school teacher inculcated a love of poetry and of prose, too. I remember buying a paperbound copy of Yeats, and reading and reading it on the bus. I was desperately fond of Wordsworth, too. And it does pay off.”
But poetry had to await his longtime duties of raising a family and serving in the school system of Listowel in County Kerry, near his current home in Tanavalla. “I was too occupied with teaching, and once I retired,” in 2002, “there was something released in me.” His first collection, Droving, titled for his early farm life, was published a year later, followed by three other books before this year’s.
Ireland may be currently the most benign environment to grow as a poet, regardless of your age, with local, regional, and national competitions and festivals year-round, and, in this poet’s experience and opinion, the world’s best online open mic, in terms of craft, sociability, and abundance and quality of feedback. It’s called Lime Square Poets (https://www.facebook.com/groups/437558500682820), it’s hosted in County Limerick, and Matt’s there every Thursday, at 8 pm his time, Noon Pacific time. “I took to Zoom like a fish to water,” he says, “and it’s worked wonders for me, because of the regularity. I’m interested in progression myself, as a poet, but I’ve also become deeply interested in other people’s lives and work.”
Mooney occasionally cultivates alternate forms such as shape poetry and five-word prompts, but his approach is mostly closer to his beloved countryman Yeats, in structure and sentiment, even when he’s dealing with contemporary geopolitics or the pandemic. He’s very much a devoted and proud family man, and he has read original elegies at funerals of relatives and friends. Alluring photos by his daughter, Siobhán, adorn the pages of Éalú and the cover of Steering by the Stars, and his 15-year-old grandson, who lives on one of the Aran Islands off Galway, has won awards for sean-nós singing, in the original Irish language, suggesting that his country’s past has a future.
“I´m at a stage of life where I´m on top of the hill,¨ states Mooney softly. “Many of my poems were written on the hills above the woods here. The metaphor is that streams flowing past the place where I am reflect the blood flowing through my heart, and that all these things are convoluting together, the outer and the inner. You have a writer’s spectrum of life when you get to the top of those hills.”
From previous Issues:
Bay Area Beats, Hippies, Music and War: Conversation with Scotty DeWolf by J.Macon King
Scotty DeWolf is a musician, writer, story-teller, philanthropist, web host, and more. Despite his rough and near-fatal early life, DeWolf soon gained a knack to be in the right place at the right time. DeWolf grew up in the Bay Area and is currently residing in historic Jacksonville, Illinois. He is near completion of the restoration of two turn-of-the-century mansions. This project and his fund-raising drive for community performing arts was produced as a documentary by PBS. Link and info on donating follow.
Scotty, tell us about your wild ride in the early Fantasy Record days.
DeWolf: I was in my late teens, when I worked for the Weiss brothers. Max and Sol Weiss were the very eccentric but very rich owners of the old Fantasy Records. I came to know Max Weiss very well. Fantasy was then in the Mission District of San Francisco.
This was all pre-Saul-Zaentz ownership?
DeWolf: Yes. At Fantasy I had a chance to meet the band known as the Golliwogs. Their original name had been changed to the Golliwogs to sound more like the hugely successful British invasion bands.
The Beatles, The Animals, The Yardbirds…
DeWolf: Right. Max finally figured out what a golliwog doll really was in England, and encouraged them to change their name to Creedence Clearwater Revival. Later, Max and his brother sold Fantasy to their employee, Saul Zaentz. This was a big mistake because soon Creedence hit the charts with “Susie Q” and “Proud Mary” and started to outsell the Beatles. Saul became richer than Max could have imagined.
But in your time there, the Weiss brothers had gathered for Fantasy quite the stable of recording stars. You met some of the others?
DeWolf: A perk of my job included going to lunch with Max at the very popular Original Joe’s on Taylor Street. The actual, original Joe’s restaurant. There were more “Joe’s” later. The tourist-favored Hilton Hotel was on one side and the seedy Tenderloin District was on the other side. Kind of a culture clash and the neighborhood still is. Joe’s was Max’s favorite place. He never paid cash there, all he would have to do is sign the tab. He paid them once a month. I would accompany Max and the people he would be entertaining, often from his group of amazing artists. These included Cal Tjader, Big Mama Thornton, Dave Brubeck, and Vince Guaraldi. Also, Bola Sete, and many others. Pig Pen, the organist from the Grateful Dead would join us. The most notorious person on the label was potty-mouthed comedian Lenny Bruce.
Lenny Bruce! What happened? This should be good.
DeWolf: When we went to lunch there, Lenny would always tip me $20 and say, “You stand by the men’s room door, and you tell people that it’s temporarily closed for cleaning.”
I thought he was prepping for his “act” —acting crazy in the dining room. One time, dancing from table to table, to the alarm, but ultimately the entertainment of the lunch guests. I eventually realized why he wanted me to keep the restroom free —so he could sit on the toilet in peace and give himself a heroin fix. He was a zany character without a doubt. Lenny finally died sitting on the toilet. giving himself a fix that turned out to be a lethal overdose.
Sad. Such a talent. But a classic ending for junkies. Despite that, young users think, “I’m gonna’ be the one that doesn’t get hooked.” How about one more Fantasy Records story?
DeWolf: One of the most thrilling encounters I had with the old Fantasy and Max Weiss, was helping with the recording of Duke Ellington at Grace Cathedral. Max called it “Jazz Mass” although the official name was “Concert of Sacred Music.”
For readers who are not familiar, Duke Ellington was one of the most important figures in the history of jazz. Grace Cathedral is a San Francisco landmark. (BTW, I was married there!) The gorgeous cathedral, atop Nob Hill, is French Gothic style, spectacular really as a facsimile of Notre Dame.
DeWolf: Yes. This was in ’65, right after Grace was constructed, and not long after Martin Luther King Jr. gave a sermon there, fresh from his Selma march. You have to realize in those days, jazz in a major city Episcopal cathedral was pretty ground-breaking stuff, controversial. One critic described these concerts as “Ellington bringing the Cotton Club revue to the church.” I knew Duke Ellington was already an immortal in his lifetime, and I really wanted to see and meet him. The day before rehearsal Fantasy was sending in a crew to string mics and lines high up in those arches of the Cathedral.
That’s how I got to meet the great Duke Ellington. I’ll give you a quick anecdote. During rehearsal at Grace, some of us were chatting with Duke, when this beautiful, leggy lady walked in. The Duke said, “Boys, I don’t want this cooing pigeon to fly away. Excuse me, this is going to be a long lunch break.” He returned about two hours later!
That’s show biz. Ha. And how was the show?
DeWolf: Amazing. The live performance and sound at Grace were amazing. The festival also featured Fantasy Records pianist star Vince Guaraldi.
Wonderful jazz musician. Perhaps now more widely remembered for his Peanuts “Schroeder” piano music, like “A Charlie Brown Christmas.” He lived in Mill Valley.
DeWolf: The Bishop, Bishop James Pike, the eccentric and iconic character, was why this was able to happen at all. He was WAY ahead of his time, and a true Renaissance man for his leadership in San Francisco. Seems most things he did were controversial. He was the one who invited King to give a sermon at Grace, and was a political advocate for workers’ rights, and also gay rights, civil rights, and women’s rights, particularly in the church. I was also able to meet Bishop Pike, and found him full of life, ebullient, and intellectually gifted.
Great stories. You always seemed to be in the right place at the right time. Tell us about the characters you met in North Beach.
DeWolf: I knew Enrico Banducci, but everybody did. He was the unofficial “Squire of North Beach.” Enrico’s North Beach café was a hangout of mine. For a lot of famous characters, too. I casually met Jack Kerouac, Kenny Rexroth, Alan Ginsberg, the late Ferlinghetti of course, since his bookstore was just down the way, and other Beats, poets, musicians, and friends.
What a scene. I missed it in the 60s, but frequented there, and other Beat favorites like Tosca and Vesuvio’s later. A couple of friends of mine worked at Enrico’s in the seventies. A very hip spot, with Greco-Roman columns, the first sidewalk cafe in San Francisco, felt like you were in Italy.
DeWolf: Enrico also owned the live music club down the street, the hungry i. The nightclub was huge in starting stand-up comedy, particularly on the West Coast.
The hungry i. A lot of future stars got their start or career boosts there, including Woody Allen, Mort Sahl. And singers like Barbara Streisand, Dinah Shore, Ike and Tina Turner, Kingston Trio, and a bunch more. You see any of these?
DeWolf: I couldn’t afford to see a lot of shows, but as a musician myself, I kind of kept track of who was performing there. The Limelighters folk group got their start at the hungry i. Glen Yarbrough was perhaps the best-known musician in the group, but co-founder Lou Gottlieb also became known in a different way.
Lou and his wife bought a ranch in Occidental, up in Sonoma County. I was invited to visit. It was a nice quiet rural place. Before it got some notoriety in the press. Gottlieb soon opened up the place to literally everyone. Really, anyone could come, stay for free, do drugs, run around naked, whatever they wanted. People came by the dozens and over-ran the facilities, and the authority’s and city’s patience. This was Morning Star Ranch.*
That place is legendary. You went there?
DeWolf: Morning Star was formerly a big chicken and egg ranch owned by poet John Beecher. To round out the literary angle, he was the great-grandson of Harriet Beecher Stowe.
Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Interesting. Harriet probably wouldn’t have liked The Golliwogs. (laughs)
DeWolf: Lou, and his wife Lee Hart, turned the ranch into a Beat hangout in the early sixties. Then the Diggers got involved…
The “Free stuff for everybody” Diggers. Co-founded by Peter Coyote.
DeWolf: Right. The Diggers used it as a space to grow food to give away for the Haight Ashbury runaway scene. The ranch turned from artsy Beat into a hippie hangout. It became better known to many as the “Digger Ranch.” In ’67, the ranch was featured on the cover of Time magazine. Time called it a place to “do your own thing.”
Novelist T.C. Boyle, whom I’ve interviewed, pretty much based his excellent Drop City novel on the communal Morning Star, and the neighboring Wheeler Ranch. Both had a similar mindset, and outcome.
DeWolf: When I visited again—what a difference! There was maybe a hundred people there, and a lot of funky makeshift housing and trailers and buses and everything. It was filthy by then and everybody was effed up. A lot of them were dropping acid in those days and behaved in a bizarre way. It was a real mess as a health hazard as there wasn’t proper sanitation there and often well-over a hundred people and hanger-oners were kind of living there. The health department of Sonoma eventually shut the ranch down.
Tell us another story of the 60s.
DeWolf: 1964 was when I first started doing the North Beach and Berkeley scenes. In the late 60s, I was eligible for the Viet Nam draft. I thought I was going into the army until my medical exam and they 4 F’d me.
I’ll tell you one of my most indelible memories of so many events in the in that era. I will never forget the sight of Sherman tanks rolling down Shattuck Avenue in Berkeley with hippie protesters walking in front of the tanks. The protestors were taunting the soldiers, holding peace signs, yelling anti-war chants.
At that time, I was working at the music store in Berkeley called Tupper and Reed. It had been in business since the Great Quake. The owners of the music store were conservative and in favor of the Viet Nam War. The day before this big protest I warned them that they needed to do something to save their building. So, I talked them into putting a big sign in both of our windows that said “MAKE MUSIC! NOT WAR!”
Right next-door to us were the Sutro brokerage house and the corner Wells Fargo Bank. During the protest, both of those buildings were mercilessly thrashed and broken into. Broken plate glass everywhere. Our building was the only one for three blocks that didn’t have a broken window. My suggestion earned me $100 bonus the next day from the conservative businessmen at the store.
*Heirs to Morning Star Ranch, famed 1960’s Occidental commune, selling for $2.5 million. Lou Gottlieb (Limelighters) ranch.
‘Drop City’ : 2003 The Bohemian article on TC Boyle’s novel based on ranch. https://bohemian.com/drop-city-1/
Scotty DeWolf, interviewed in Jacksonville, Illinois for PBS “Illinois Stories.” Illinois Stories DeWolf B&B WSEC TV PBS Springfield
Note from Scotty DeWolf (from 2020): I am raising a final $150,000 to finish out the house so we can open up the bed and breakfast business which will become an economic engine to sustain the “Esprit de Corps Academy.” Our mission is providing FREE music and performing arts education here in Jacksonville and many of the surrounding small farming communities who lost their program funding when the State of Illinois’ budget was in recent crisis. This non-profit will also outreach to seniors here to keep them engaged in learning new things and staying mentally active. Make a PayPal online donation https://theespritdecorps.com/donate
See Scotty’s FaceBook page. At the FB search bar or GOOGLE, enter: “Facebook Villa DeWolf B & B.”