What in the Heck is a Poem-Play?

Just recently, two of Virginia’s most noted poets, Carolyn Kreiter-Foronda and Robert P. Arthur have combined talents to produce a work for the stage, River Country.

Kreiter-Foronda is a former Poet-Laureate of Virginia and an award-winning poetry advocate who tirelessly brings poetry to the community in the form of workshops and readings. Arthur, also a playwright, is the former 4-year president of the Poetry Society of Virginia and twice a runner-up for Poet-Laureate of Virginia.

River Country is a work that Arthur has come to define as a “poem-play.” To Arthur, a poem play is created by combining related poems in a dramatic manner that conveys a story.

In Foronda’s poetry about her own life and marriage, he found a dramatic story to tell. The love story of a man and woman of two different backgrounds and languages who discover bonds that transcend words. In a sense, Arthur “re-mixed” the words of Foronda’s poems and added music to create a poem-play about transformative human bonds. 

MOTHER: The miracle came in an old-fashioned
courtesy call from the family doctor,
life being simple and honest.
SUZANNE and AMBER: Always, my luck has startled me.
AMBER: This morning, for example, the cat,
sensing sadness, jumps into my lap
and kneads his paws so I will
praise him.
ANN: “A little gift,”
CANDY: Her mother called it whenever the habitual turned
AMBER: I pat the cat’s sleek fur,
the purring so close to what I am feeling,
his lick cleansing my forearm
and in the distance, the doctor’s
careful hold as he lifts me from the bed.

River Country by Carolyn Kreiter Foronda & Robert P. Arthur

Arthur has created a number of his own poem-plays, most notably the popular Hymn to the Chesapeake, a drama of the watermen and women of the Eastern Shore of Virginia. In Hymn to the Chesapeake, Arthur re-mixed his own Eastern Shore poems with original lyrics to standard folk songs for a touching love story of life, love, and loss on the barrier islands of the Chesapeake:

Next day we went out for shark
My brother and I held on for pride
and jerked our lines
from the undertow.
We caught dog shark
Bill’s to port, mine to the right
and my father took them by their throats
Because he’d forgotten the butcher knife
(and sharks are dangerous in rocking boats)
he stood upright and didn’t curse us
for pulling them in
But cursed the man and the morning
light that made him span
a boat of children
with a snapping shark in either hand . . .
Why couldn’t he have been God?
He squeezed Bill’s shark until its
guts came busting out
Then smacked my shark against the
boat to break its back
Why couldn’t he have been God?
I’d give the job to anyone
who could handle sharks like that

Hymn to the Chesapeake, Robert P. Arthur

Born, himself, on the Eastern Shore of Virginia, Arthur understands the poetry in the language of those watermen and women, understands the power of simple words that find a tidal flow of meaning and experience.  

photo of wild ponies

While writing this, it strikes me as fortunate that he has illuminated these shores and dunes and tides for us.

So many of these islands are sinking now—Smith Island, Deal Island, Tangier, and even Chincoteague—home to the wild ponies and “ersters” that may soon live only in memory.

The reality of the intrusion of poetry onto the contemporary stage is not only that playwrights and poets are starting to borrow each other’s pens but that new forms of poetry/drama are emerging and finding some success.

June Prager, the director of Mirage Theatre, has recently completed what is essentially a poem-play, Distant Survivors. This play is a remix or compilation of the Holocaust poetry written by William Heyen, a National Book Award finalist for Shoah Train.

Heyen is the son of German immigrants whose uncle was a Nazi soldier. As such, he questions, in many of his poems, the source and manifestation of the evil of Hitler and the 3rd Reich and the suffering imposed on the Jews. Prager, herself, is a Jewish Holocaust survivor, coming to this country as a baby in her mother’s arms.

Prose cannot do this experience justice:

woman carrying a bear

WOMAN: Was alone, was carrying her bear with her.
Was alone, was carrying her bear with her,
Was alone, was carrying her bear with her,
bear to counsel, comfort & protect her,

Arrived with a thousand other children
given toys to keep them quiet,
Was alone, was carrying her bear with her.
Was alone, was carrying her bear with her.

In the gas, her bear clawed free of her.
In the gas, the bear clawed free of her.
She held the bear as tightly as she could,
But in the gas, the bear clawed free of her.

Distant Survivors, June Prager

Distant Survivors premiered at Zeider’s American Dream Theatre in Virginia in 2018 to rapt audiences.

hip hop poster

In another vein, long before Hamilton, a musical work, Hip-Hopera was created at The Venue on 35th at The Venue by remixing poetry from the popular Open Mic at that arena and adding original songs from the performing artists.

In musicals, songs come at the point where words will no longer suffice. In operas, arias express an intensity of emotion unreachable by recitative. For plays, poetry takes over when the language of prose reaches its limits.

It may take the form of iambic pentameter when the writer desires the illusion of speech but needs the intensity of balanced sentences and rhythm. Or it may run free-wheeling and unfettered across the page–and the stage.

Contrary to popular opinion, poetry is not just for the page, It is alive and well—ready to take center stage.

Poets Fight Back and
… Poetic Drama in the 20th Century

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