Thursday, July 18, 2013

Muse in the Music: On the Poetry of Joni Mitchell

HALLIE EPHRON: It's hard to look at clouds without the lyrics from Joni Mitchell's "Both Sides Now" bubbling up, and with it the poetic images that are her trademark -- ice cream castles; feathered canyons; moons and Junes and Ferris wheels -- along with them the dark edginess that makes her lyrics as thought provoking as her music is inspirational. 



Now Lisa Sornberger and John Sornberger have put together "Gathered Light," an anthology of works by 56 contributors inspired by Joni's lyrics. We're delighted to welcome Lisa to Jungle Red. 



First I have to ask about the cover. It's a gorgeous watercolor of Joni, paddling away from a vivid, psychedelic sunset against horizon outlined by dark pines.

Lisa, tell us about that cover.



LISA SORNBERGER: I’m thrilled that you like Joni’s gorgeous painting that graces our cover. It fits in terms of the theme of our book, and the way we see Joni, a genuine explorer. Plus it's reflective of her First Nations heritage (Sami), which matters to her.

We hope readers like the way it ties in with the opening quote from Emily Carr, one of Joni’s favorite writers and painters, and our foreword. All of that came after the painting.

HALLIE: How did you connect personally to Joni Mitchell and her works?



LISA: Joni has had a profound influence on my life since I was fifteen years old. She opened my spirit to freedom, and helped validate the path of becoming a writer. She brought sustenance and joy, and, I think, taught by example, that (real) poetry serves an essential function in this world.

She writes her way through shadows and light, exploring the truth, about feelings and life, in ways that transcend the personal.

The idea of the project came to me on New Year’s Day, two and a half years ago, pretty much fully-formed: we needed to do this book, to honor Joni’s work as a poet.

HALLIE: What was Joni Mitchell's reaction to your project? 

LISA: She was happy, and gracious, and I think a bit surprised that we wanted to focus on her work as a poet. Also, that it wasn’t “mercenary”.



HALLIE: What do you think it is about her songs that have made them so iconic?



LISA:  Well, she is brilliant. She makes multi-level sensory connections. She has an incredible gift for translating visual images into artful, astute language.

Her poems are full of truth, and heart, and we believe anyone willing to take a look at themselves will find resonance in her words.

HALLIE: Who are some of your contributors, and can you give us a taste of what's in "Gathered Light "?

LISA: About half of our contributors are poets. Fred Wah is the Poet Laureate of Canada. Other prize-winning poets, including Cornelius Eady, Bessy Reyna, Patricia Smith, Colleen McElroy, Pit Pinegar, Beth Cuthand, Louise B. Halfe, Susan Deer Cloud.

We've got friends of Joni's, like her ex-husband Larry Klein, David Geffen, three of her female friends. Wally Lamb, the extraordinary novelist, is a contributor.

We love that our contributors are diverse -- age ranges from about 19-79; men, women; straight, LGB, T; Third Nations, Latina; white, black, red; Buddhist, Atheist, Jewish, Agnostic, Christian... The point being, Joni's poetry transcends artificial boundaries.

The “assignment” was to pick just one of Joni's poems (lyrics), and to write about how it sparked you, inspired you, spoke to you personally, politically, or from a societal viewpoint. Writers could respond in their genre, or another. Just write from your “heart and mind,” tell your truth.

HALLIE: Taking the cue from Joni herself. Thanks, Lisa.

Have Joni Mitchell's words and music touched your life? Of the artist whose music shaped you, whose poetry have responded to as much as much as the tunes? Joni Mitchell's on my list... along with Paul Simon and Bob Dylan and Carly Simon.


Lisa and John are offering a free book to one lucky commenter.

68 comments:

Joan Emerson said...

Ah, Joni Mitchell songs . . . “Both Sides Now” . . . “Favorite Colour” . . . “Gemini Twin” . . . it’s all good . . . .
Others? Bobby Troup . . . “Just the Way I Am” . . . “Their Hearts Were Full of Spring” . . . .

Edith Maxwell said...

Joni had a major influence on my life. Her voice, her lyrics, her attitude. I can hear one of her songs and be right back where I was when I listened to it non-stop. For example, Hissing of Summer Lawns? I was teaching English in the Tokyo area!

What a wonderful book you have put together.

Hallie Ephron said...

Edith, this does not surprise me!

Hissing of Summer Lawns - a favorite of mine, too. And what an image.

Anonymous said...

Hi Joan,

I am not familiar with "Favorite Colour" or "Gemini Twin"...will have to look for in her catalogue! Thanks!

Lisa Sornberger said...

That was me- not anonymous!

Lisa Sornberger said...

Hi Edith-

Thank you very much!

Lucy Burdette aka Roberta Isleib said...

Wonderful post--what a fascinating idea! and I love your early picture--I bet you guys still feel like that inside:).

I would love to hear more about the process of putting the book together...

Gram said...

What a wonderful idea. Joni still resonates. Dee

Lisa Sornberger said...

Hi Lucy aka Roberta,

Thank you! And YES, we do still feel like that, you are right! Getting to be on Hallie's Blog adds to the excitement, by the way. A great adventure, all of it. :)

Lisa Sornberger said...

Gram/Dee-

She's timeless, isn't she?

Lisa Sornberger said...

Lucy aka Roberta,

Just realized I didn't fully answer your question- sorry- first cup of coffee! A lot of putting the book together involved intuition, trusting my feelings about who to invite...this process has affirmed the importance of trusting that, in many ways. Then 2 i/2 years of full-time work. It was a luxury, to be able to take the time-

Reine said...

Oh yeah. Blue -- the Blue album. They were so big back then. The art. You held the art. You looked at it. You read the story. All the words. You slid the vinyl record out. Careful not to touch the grooves. Piece of art with a music surprise inside.

Hallie Ephron said...

Reine! THAT is poetry! Lovely.

Hallie Ephron said...

Lisa, the more I think about Joni's words the darker they seem. Or is that just me?

Lisa Sornberger said...

Reine,

I used to love to sit by the stereo, listen to the albums while I read the words...they were beautiful books with fantastic art covers, weren't they?

Reine said...

Thanks, Hallie. Love this blog. Night.

Kristopher said...

1F4 I've always been partial to Joni's "The Magdelene Laundries." Something about those lyrics and the subject matter seemed like a perfect match.

As for other artists who lyrics are poetry to my ears: Leonard Cohen, Rufus Wainwright and Tori Amos.

All of them (Joni included) tend to be artists whose words can be studied and at different times in ones life, different emotions will resonate.

Lisa Sornberger said...

Hallie, Was just writing you too- want to answer your question first-
it seems to me that Joni, like a lot of poets,writes her way through the dark- explores deep feelings, contradictions- resolves them via the poems. And in doing so, gives us a chance to follow. So it ends on a hopeful note, usually, for me.

Reine said...

Lisa, yes. You wouldn't buy an album if you didn't like the cover. Right?

Kristopher said...

oops. The 1F4 in my comment was part of the original captura. Explains why it didn't post the first time. ;-)

Lisa Sornberger said...

Kristopher, Two of our writers wrote about "The Magdalene Laundries"- Brooke Elise Axtell and Wally Lamb.I believe Joni was actually given an award for helping them to get closed.

Hank Phillippi Ryan said...

Oh I could never have made it through college..and beyond , without Joni Mitchell. I cannot even begin to tell you..although I bet, Lisa, you hear that all the time. I wish I had a river, I could sail away on..

And I even now, on days I am happy, I love to play "The wind is in from Africa, last night I couldn't sleep...."

You know?

Let's go down to the mermaid cafe, and I will buy you a bottle of wine..

oh, it makes me smile just to think of it.

Thank you, lIsa!

Lisa Sornberger said...

Hallie, Lisa again- You mentioned Carly Simon, Paul Simon, and I think Dylan? I love them all...

Reine- unless it was The Beatles "White ALbum", right- lol

Lisa Sornberger said...

Hank, Oh, Carey get out your cane!
Such joy in some of those songs- makes me think of "All I Want"!

Joni definitely explores the depths of joy too!

And I wouldn't have even gotten through high school without her- know what you mean!

Lisa Sornberger said...

All- Sorry if I'm slow at this- not techie- I have to keep proving to my computer that I'm not a robot.

Reine said...

Oh Lisa... Hahaha! Yeah. The White Album. Now that was ugly. But who could not look at it. The music worked great. Beat the hell out of "I got a brand-new pair of rollerskates…" I'll never get to sleep now.

Joan Emerson said...

Lisa:
This link will take you to a listing of songs Joni wrote and/or recorded. You'll find the lyrics for both "Favorite Colour" and "Gemini Twin" here . . . .

http://jonimitchell.com/music/songlist.cfm

Jill McAllister said...

Hi folks - Hope it's ok for me to join in. I was 15 years old with Lisa discovering Joni Mitchell (and Dylan and Neil Young). So I commented on Chinese Cafe, in the context of my friendship with Lisa over the years - like a sweet song from years ago that still makes me feel youthful today. I had more room for darkness when I was younger. Now I hear the sweeetness.

Lisa Sornberger said...

Reine, Oh I remember that Melanie song. Actually, I love some of her writing- some very powerful poems (not that ditty). Good dreams!

Joan- I'm excited I'll get to hear these songs- wow- thank you!

Lisa Sornberger said...

Jill McAllister- Good Morning! So glad you're here! Jill has been like a sister to me since we were in 4th grade. She's a fantastic writer, and her piece on "Chinese Cafe" is on a par with Larry Klein's- both fantastic! Jill was educated as a linguist...

Lisa Sornberger said...

Hallie- This is really fun! One thing I forgot to mention is that up to two writers cover the same song (ok- 3 in one case)- love that juxtaposition of voices!

Hallie Ephron said...

"I had more room for darkness when I was younger." - what an interesting observation, Jill McAllister. I find that's true for me with movies and books, too. And these days everything seems SO dark and why are they all yelling?

Jill, if you're still there, can you give us an idea what your essay (poem?) was about... beyond the Chinese Cafe inspiration?

Jill McAllister said...

Thank you Hallie - I find it intriguing the way Joni had a song within a song. The primary song does have a sorrow to it, lamenting the passage of time, while the "inside" song is happy and carefree. For many people, Joni herself pulls a sweet past into their present when they listen - or even remembering listening to her. So many comments here this morning reflect this.

Jill McAllister said...

Thank you Hallie - I find it intriguing the way Joni had a song within a song. The primary song does have a sorrow to it, lamenting the passage of time, while the "inside" song is happy and carefree. For many people, Joni herself pulls a sweet past into their present when they listen - or even remembering listening to her. So many comments here this morning reflect this.

Brenda Buchanan said...

I could drink a case of you darling
Still I'd be on my feet
oh I would still be on my feet

Joni Mitchell - she always makes you think.

Lisa Sornberger said...

She makes me think too, Brenda, and feel!:)

Jill McAllister said...

Lisa, you should tell them about your 8th grade thesis paper - the seed for this book?

Lisa Sornberger said...

Would people like to know more about how the book evolved? I touched on that a bit. So, imagine this- when I was 15 or 16, I wrote a really terrible high school paper, called "Joni Mitchell, Portrait of a Poet and a Painter". I think it was churning around in me, this idea- to honor her in this way. How often do you really get to publicly thank someone who has been there as a Muse most of your life? Anyway- two and a half years ago, as I said earlier, the idea arrived. I brought it to my poets group. They were into it! So great! Then I started contacting people- people mentioned in songs, poets I admire, writers who adore Joni- and the response was amazing!

Lisa Sornberger said...

Unfortunately, some very prominent poets were too weighted down with our projects at the time- but I've saved their names, should their be another. I'd include friends of Joni's who I didn't know about. And of course, more people who love her words just as much as we do- maybe via a lottery on her webpage? I'd pick certain poems I badly wish we'd cover. I'd ask for her input, though she is very modest and doesn't not like to "toot her own horn". Just for feedback, vision.

Lisa Sornberger said...

I meant with other projects- not our projects! I am not a morning person- can you tell? :)Coffee # 3 is on the way!

Lisa Sornberger said...

I want to mention Michelle Mercer's book- I have gained insight into "Jazz Joni" from Michelle, which was unfamiliar turf for me (Joni and Michelle share a deep love of Wayne Shorter and jazz),and into her profound connection with Emily Carr. Also connected with Alice Munro, since Michelle explained that Carr and Munro are two of Joni's favorite writers...Alice wrote a blurb for our book- "oh radiant happiness!". So many people to acknowledge...

Jill McAllister said...

Lisa's assignment was to write about how Joni's poetry has had an effect on you. The result was a very diverse range of interpretations of the assignment. So in some cases, a song might be viewed from an academic perspective, woven together with personal reflection. Others are purely emotional responses to one of her pieces.

richflynn17 said...

Lisa,
I find myself returning again and again to these essays and poems. The cumulative effect of all the contributions is a rewarding intellectual and emotional experience. I keep the book close at hand and dip into it frequently. I am honored to be a small part of it. Can you tell us more about the editorial process? For my part it was a joy working with you. You have truly honored Joni's artistry.

outlaw said...

Well, I've said this many times, but I'm honored to be part of this collection. I always liked Joni's music and felt that it truly was poety at its best, but I have to admit I was not a full-bore Joni freak until Blue, Court and Spark, Hegira, and on. Then when she collaborated with Mingus, I knew she was -- what -- a princess of the tribe, way up in the pantheon. "Trouble Child" was a revelation to me. I was living in LA, struggling to do music and writing and having enormous highs and lows on a daily basis. My friends and I made great music, but there was usually a price. When someone put "Court and Spark" on the turntable and up came "Trouble Child," it was as if Joni had drilled down into my deepest, darkest thoughts and exposed the lost souls who dwell there. But it was balm for me as well. I transferred her words and ideas, whatever and whoever she was talking about, to my own roster of the fallen and the crippled in spirit. She has that way about her, doesn't she????? My small part of "Gathered Light" was my purging, my epiphany, my remembrance of those who didn't reach the finish line. For that, Lisa, you will always have my friendship and gratitude. You too, Joni!

outlaw said...

BTW, on my post, I don't know who "outlaw" is. I'm Steve.

Lisa Sornberger said...

Jill- Thanks for explaining that- it's helpful.

Richard, I so enjoyed working with you too. And re: the editorial process- sure. To be honest, I had to ask a few contributors to leave early on. If I didn't feel that they fully appreciated Joni the poet- what was the point. If there was evolution in their process, fine. We tried not to edit too much- such astute writers- and didn't want to be the opinion police- Richard, I love that thanks to you and the others, we cover a huge range- the scope of the project was to give Joni credentials in literary circles, where I truthfully believe she already had them, but she, I think, felt dissed in some ways...rightly so... and to acknowledge her power to influence us all on a deeply personal level. I never wanted to come close to Joni's personal life- perhaps some of the pieces did, in retrospect, as the authors wrote from their own depths- but it was only because she inspires people to tell their truths! Not necessarily accurate- but impressions. I think and hope that overall, she got the heart and spirit of it. We were bleary-eyed at the end.

Lisa Sornberger said...

Steve (you Outlaw- just kidding!).
Your presence in the book is a gem.
Each piece made me look at things in a new light- open to new interpretations.
If it did those things for you, while it acknowledged Joni so beautifully, I am most grateful.You brought more than you know...and have been a great support. Ditto for Richard Flynn!

richflynn17 said...

I think that Joni is well loved in literary circles. Most of my fellow poets and critics were very excited to learn of the book.

For me Joni was a formative influence for my love of poetry as well as song, I really believe she is one of the big reasons I grew up to be a poet & critic!

Lisa Sornberger said...

See what great writers we have?
What a pleasure it's been- true collaboration- I have learned so much in the process. And, for my part, love all of the different voices...would anyone want to read 56 essays by moi on Joni- hardly think so- would be boring! I want to add that the more academic pieces, if you will, are full of heart, and the more personal pieces- very intelligent. I can brag about our writers, right? Can you tell I'm passionate about our subject? Any ???"s Keep 'em coming please- it's fun!

Lisa Sornberger said...

Rich, I am glad to hear that- I hope Joni will get to read this- I sensed she felt like some critics were all about Cohen and Dylan (who she truly respects), but treated her as less than. One in particular said she wasn't a poet, because she hadn't written a book. That just is...not so. Why would anyway say that?

Anonymous said...

Lisa: Thanks for mentioning my book! The essays in your book cover so many aspects of Joni's writing, with so many beautiful minds responding to her work. Is there anything in particular you're especially eager to hear about from Joni herself? (Since she's working on her memoir now, we've heard).

Thanks!
Michelle Mercer

Lisa Sornberger said...

Hi Michelle!

My pleasure! And won't it be a treat to read Joni's memoir- cannot wait! I Hmmm...anything I'd like to hear from Joni in particular- good question! I guess I'd like to hear that she feels acknowledged as one of our finest poets, by the fact that so many of us have been deeply affected by her words. That she is both Muse, and lifeline for so many of us. That her words have helped on many levels in the world- politically, in terms of raising other peoples' self-awareness, other ways. Am I being greedy or what? lol! What about you? :)L

Lisa Sornberger said...

Wsnt to let you all know about a couple of upcoming events you are invited to!

http://generalbooks.bookstore.uconn.edu/event/gathered-lightpoetry-joni-mitchells-songs

Anonymous said...

Yes, Lisa! I'd like to know J feels validated in all the ways you describe, that our appreciation has reached the deepest core of her being. I also have a fantasy of J laying bare her songwriting process, taking us through, oh, "Hejira," line by line, sharing why she paired that chord or rhythm with those words, etc. But this seems unlikely! And of course there's the visionary force of her storytelling. We're all looking forward to that, right? MM

Lisa Sornberger said...

Michelle, yes! I hope in my heart too that all of the appreciation has gone to her core- as you beautifully stated. It's not like she needs our approval- goodness knows- but still, to know she knows.I will say I most enjoyed discussing the creative process with her...to hear her say "yes, it's like that" not in so many words...about how poems come.
I could do that with her all day long...as I'll bet you could with music too!

Lisa Sornberger said...

http://www.bunchofgrapes.com/

We are doing an authors' night here- Sept. 11- I like to think of it as that date- see site for details later please! Lisa

Lisa Sornberger said...

http://generalbooks.bookstore.uconn.edu/event/gathered-lightpoetry-joni-mitchells-songs

All Are Invited!

p.s.- I'm here for 15 minutes more, but will be happy to comment on posts received after 12 p.m. EST later in the day!

Hallie- This has been really great- thank you for this opportunity! (p.s.- I've got a copy of your "Never Tell A Lie" waiting for me this week- excited!)Am I allowed to say that? Well, it's true!

:)L

Anonymous said...

Yes, Lisa! I've treasured those moments of rapport and understanding with Joni, too. We'll have to wait and see what she does with the memoir--and she'll surprise us. So fun to chat here. Thanks for the book!

richflynn17 said...

Michelle and Lisa,
I agree that I'd like to hear about that songwriting process, too. Though she spoke about it in general in those long interviews recently, I'd love to hear about specific songs as well.

Frankly, I'd also like her to wrestle with her ego enough that she would talk about her communities of fellow artists during various phases of her career--not gossip so much as an appreciation of her contexts.

She appears to be writing the memoir with Dragon dictation software. should be interesting in any event!

Lisa Sornberger said...

You too, Michelle, and Richard-

Let's savor those moments.

And interesting re: Dragon Speak. Curious about Malka Marom's project too!

Loved talking with you (all)!
Bye 'til later!

Julia said...

I so love Joni Mitchell. The thing that really stands out to me is how her music is standing the test of time. The Boy, a 19-year-old folk metal/EDM/jazz aficionado, likes her songs as much as I do.

Jody said...

Sounds like a fascinating book.

Hallie Ephron said...

I'd read her memoir in a heartbeat. Bet she has publishers lined up...

Steve said...

So, Lisa, where is Bunch of Grapes? Is it a bookstore? Wondering if it's possible I could make that Sept. 11 event. In any event, I'll be at UConn Sept. 26.

Lisa Sornberger said...

Julia- Curious about who the boy is- or did you mean the youngest contributor to our book? I can tell you about him- what a talented guy!

To Jody- Thank You very much!

To Hallie- What a read it will be- I wonder if she will focus on "process" a lot- she is so smart and quick, and very very funny!

To Steve- "Bunch of Grapes" is at Martha's Vineyard, in Vineyard Haven. Would love for you to come.
Such a beautiful place!

Deb said...

Hi Lisa! Sorry I'm so late to this fabulous discussion today!

One of my new series characters is a young female singer/songwriter/bass guitarist, so I think I can justify your lovely book as a research expense:-)

Every Joni song triggers a memory and an emotional response. What a remarkable talent, and disgrace if she is not considered in the same league as Simon/Dylan/Cohen.

That said, I'm a huge Paul Simon fan. I love his lyrics, maybe partly because my husband has played and sung those songs for me since we were teenagers...

Julia, I love it that your Boy loves Joni, too.

Lisa Sornberger said...

Hi Deb,

Thanks for joining the discussion.
And I do hope you like the book- and that it will be of value to you in your writing process. Or just a pleasure! Re: Joni and the other poets- Joni is in a league of her own, in my opinion. Yes- I love the others, but something about Joni's work makes it always pertinent, always new to me. I listen to her most days, and am still surprised that her words continue to reveal layers of meaning and nuance after hearing so many times. I never tire of her! Do you feel the same? Good luck with your novel, by the way! Lisa

Tab said...

I'm glad to see this book has been put together and would like to look it over in person sometime... I was recently talking with someone about how much Joni Mitchell has meant to me in the two to three years as I moved to a small town and just generally entered my forties and found myself seeking solitude and reflecting on life. And he said that everyone goes through a Joni Mitchell period, which made a lot of sense to me. Only in my case, I hope to savor her music bit by bit for the rest of my life and hope not to limit it to a period, as she is a prodigious writer/songstress with so many different shades and periods... I just plan to take my time. It's fun to relearn songs I heard and liked as a girl, and it's fun to hear songs sung by others in her own voice. And I love her early folky tunes and feel their timelessness especially. So I hope it's a long journey... but I hope someone collects her art as well. I like what I've seen on the website and want to see more. Best!