Songs of the Poets – Poetic New Literacies by the artist, Kate Chadbourne
The literacy practice that I have selected for this case study is the work of the artist, Kate Chadbourne. Specifically, it is her work that culminated in the creation of a poetry and music CD entitled Songs of the Poets. Songs of the Poets was released in February of 2016, and is a collection of 13 English and Irish poems that are set to music for voice, harp and piano. Kate is
the composer and performer of this music and her choice of poetry ranges from 18 th century Irish folk poems to the poetic stylings of ee cummings and Sara Teasdale. A strong set of literacy events led to the production of this beautiful collection of songs, plus the instructional resources
she provides, through print, digital and social means, are a compelling example of a literacy practice that attains wider social and cultural goals.
Transactional Theory, As it Applies to Poetry
At the heart of Songs of the Poets is the varied selection of poems that Kate chose to explore. They are, in order:
1. In Just-Spring by ee cummings
2. Moonlit Apples by John Drinkwater
3. Na Cait a Bhi ag Fionn Mac Cumhaill – Irish folk poem
4. On the Sussex Downs by Sara Teasdale
5. Red-Haired Lady by Reilly Platt
6. Recuerdo by Edna St. Vincent Millay
7. She Walks in Beauty by George Gordon Byron
8. She’s the Blackberry Flower – Anonymous/Irish
9. The Witch Wife by Edna St. Vincent Millay
10. The Songs of Wandering Aengus by W.B. Yeats
11. Valentine by Elinor Wylie
12. Something told the wild geese by Rachel Field
13. Across the Door by Padraig Colum
Kate’s own description of this CD on her website includes a welcoming request for the listener to move closer to the subject matter and experience the transcendent qualities of poetry and music more deeply. She writes:
I’m in love with poetry and with the delight and depth it brings to our lives. Setting poems to music has occupied me happily for the last 20 years or so and this collection is the fruit of that labor. The poems themselves stand alone – magnificent and complete just as they are. Songs of the Poets is in essence my passionate response to several poems that I love. I hope it will help you connect with these poems with deeper appreciation and enjoyment – and perhaps spur you to a passionate response of your own! (Chadbourne, 2016)
It is clear from this quote that Kate understands her CD to be a potential catalyst toward a richer experience with multiple literacies. Her suggestion that the listener can be motivated to their own passionate response brings to mind the reader response transactions Louise Rosenblatt included in The Reader, the Text, the Poem: Transactional Theory of the Literary Work (1978). In an essay published by April Sanders entitled, Rosenblatt’s Presence in the New Literacies Research, Sanders quotes Rosenblatt as stating “a novel or poem or play remains merely
inkspots on paper until a reader transforms them into a set of meaningful symbols” (Rosenblatt, 1983, p. 24). Sanders continues the quote by writing “text does not contain a single meaning; the text and the reader combine to create meaning and a unique transaction.”
Rosenblatt’s transactional theory was written before the advent of current digital technology and the emergence of new multimodal literacies, but the experience that the reader creates with a literacy event can still be connected to the unique transactional reader response that Rosenblatt described. Sanders writes “Literacy, which has historically only included
traditional reading and writing, is morphing to include the Internet, email, instant messaging, avatars, virtual worlds, wikispaces, web page design, multimedia applications, and gaming”(Sanders, 2012, p.2).
Social Media Tools as a Literacy Event
The reader response that Kate Chadbourne has encouraged through her print literacy also extends to the writings on her website and blog. She has made available a resource book for Songs of the Poets that can be downloaded freely from a link on her website. It is an e-book, in
.pdf format, and contains the texts of the poems, biographies of the poets, discussion questions and suggested activities for each poem, all with the intent to spark imagination.
a page from Songs of the Poets Resource e-Book
When I interviewed Kate, the first question I asked her centered on her use of social media as a tool to create the CD and to connect with her audience. She reminded me that the first social media event she created was a Go Fund Me page! I had forgotten that she needed to raise
funds to begin the process of producing Songs of the Poets. Her Go Fund Me page was a great success. It raised more money than she had requested and it gave her a great deal of encouragement. She used multiple media events to support the page. She created videos where she sang and talked to her listeners. She wrote messages and posted photos on a Facebook page that linked to the Go Fund Me page. She created her own channels on YouTube and Vimeo and uploaded additional videos, always talking, playing an instrument or singing to the audience.
She used GarageBand to create digital recordings, then uploaded songs to SoundCloud and used SoundCloud as a place to test her recordings, as if it was a digital rehearsal space.
Embracing a multimodal approach allowed Kate to experience what Kirsten Perry refers to as a socially-contextualized practice in her essay, What is Literacy? – A Critical Overview of Sociocultural Perspectives (2012). Perry writes “Multimodality implies that meaning-making occurs through a variety of communicative channels in which written linguistic modes of meaning are part and parcel of visual, audio, and spatial patterns of meaning” (Cope & Kalantzis, 2000, p. 5). Perry suggests that the practice of social literacies is “dynamic and malleable,” and
that practices can “vary across diverse communities” (Perry, 2012).
One of Kate’s great strengths lies in her ability to connect with diverse communities and share her art in ways that support communication on a deeper level. An interesting aspect, and assumption, of a multimodal process is the participatory nature of the social and cultural exchange. With an abundance of social media tools that Kate had at her disposal, there was an implied understanding that her audience would understand these digital tools, and could participate in the online events she was preparing to share. A similar comparison could be made for the literacy events that are attached to her performance of poetry in song form.
During our interview, she discussed her thoughts on poetry’s accessibility through different forms and structures. She felt that her music changed the audience’s perception of poetry. People told her they didn’t feel intimidated when the poetry was set to music, and could listen without fear of not “getting” the poetry. This similarity in form and structure points to shared attributes between her social media and social literacy events, where flexibility and “malleability” are needed to support
participants with vastly different abilities.
Social Literacy Events
Kate mentioned in her interview how much she appreciates the time she spends with people. Her social literacy events have been attended by the youngest and the oldest of people.
In Digital Texts and the New Literacies (A. Webb, 2007), we are reminded that “ As literature goes from print to digital formats, rich possibilities are opening up to deepen and extend teaching and learning. In this sense, teaching digital texts as part of the new literacies offers us not so much a revolution as an evolution.”
The evolution of poetry, one of our oldest spoken art forms, into a shared social literacy event that can reach people across the globe in a matter of seconds, is a remarkable acknowledgment of the sociocultural context in which new literacies are being used. Songs of the Poets exemplifies an art form in transition, and in the capable hands of Kate Chadbourne, it is an
art form that will continue to be shared and cherished by people for many years to come.
Interview with Kate Chadbourne
I asked Kate two long, detailed questions, keeping the focus on her literacy events and practices with the creation of Songs of the Poets. She answered both questions with equally detailed and wonderfully thoughtful answers.
Social Media tools have become valuable mediums for online communication. Programs like Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Google+, Pinterest and Instagram allow people to share ideas and artistic content. Did you use these tools during the process of creating an online identity for Songs of the Poets? If so, which tools were valuable and successful to use, and which ones were not? Are there social media tools that aren’t listed above that you found valuable in your efforts to create an online presence for Songs of the Poets?
Kate: Facebook was the social media tool I used most throughout the project, and especially in conjunction with the Go Fund Me campaign that I ran to raise funds to print and press the CD. Go Fund Me shares campaign posts to Facebook and that was hugely effective in getting the
word out and receiving support. I used YouTube to create videos of me talking about the poems or performing some of the compositions and then shared those with Facebook or through the Go Fund Me campaign. I also sometimes used SoundCloud as a host for simple audio recordings I
made using GarageBand. These were preliminary to having an engineer come to my house for a live recording of the songs on my own freshly-tuned piano.
I was stunned at the effectiveness of the Go Fund Me / Facebook combination. My patrons’ generosity paid for the cost of manufacturing and also allowed me to hire help in formatting the cover and inner panels – a task which would have taken me AGES! Receiving such support, both
financial and emotional, meant and continues to mean the world to me. It’s easy to feel as an artist that you’re whistling into the wind, having these wonderful, private experiences of creation but that no one else really cares. What the Go Fund Me taught me is that other people value the
chance to be part of an artistic creation. Not all of them are poetry lovers – but they see the value of sharing poetry in fresh ways. That experience made a deep impression on me. I felt that my work was seen, understood, and valued – and it truly wouldn’t have been possible without these
The other tool, of course, was my own ever-evolving website and blog. I wrote about the process of creating the songs and later about what I learned from running the Go Fund Me campaign. I linked those posts to Facebook and that helped grow awareness of the project, too.
And finally, though this may fit under the next question, I also connected with people through a series of house concerts at friends’ homes. These concerts featured a program of songs from the CD and stories drawn from Irish tradition. I took pre-sale orders at the concerts and made new
friends. I loved these concerts and the chance to share live these songs, stories, and ideas that I find so inspiring and empowering.
A number of literacy events can be used to form a new literacy practice . For instance:
● Digital literacies – using a website to form an online presence
● Print literacies – creation of brochures and other forms of printed material
● Social literacies – Gathering with people (either online or in person) to discuss and share new creations or information
These are examples of literacy events. They are tangible objects or actions that can be pointed to and are clearly seen by others. A grouping of these events will often indicate a literacy practice. Practices , in contrast, “are inferred because they connect to unobservable elements like beliefs,
values, attitudes, and power structures” (Perry, 2012, p.54).
I can see right away that new literacy events were part of the creation process for the Songs of the Poets CD. I also know that when looked upon in a larger context, you have formed a literacy practice . There is a distinct style and belief system that is expressed in the English and Irish
language poetry and music on this CD. Looking through an even larger lens, are you able to see where your own literacy practices evolved from?
Kate: I have been shaped by a lifetime of great teachers, exposure to wonderful poets and musicians, and by the shared idea that we are here to express what we love and share it with others. Words and music are my home; I believe that we are empowered and enlightened by access to language and through it, to our emotions and ideas. I want to live in a world of people who can touch their feelings and thoughts through words and through the musical aspects of language.
When I was a child, my mother used to take me to the library for programs by musicians and occasionally by poets. Looking at my life now, I’m amazed at how influential that was because 90% of my concerts take place in public libraries! To me, that intersection of books, learning,
ideas, people, and arts is thrilling – was then, and still is now. I think that led me to my interest in inter-textualities of all kinds. (And even in the songs I compose, I am always wanting to weave in other voices and experiences, references, environments and atmospheres. All those
musical interludes in Songs of the Poets are intended to underscore and amplify the experience or narrative of the poem itself).
I’ve always read poetry and I’ve been blessed to meet and get to know some truly wonderful poets – both well-known and not well-known. One of the most important ideas at the heart of Songs of the Poets is a kind of democracy and accessibility, and I think that grows out of my
experience of poetry as a friendly enterprise that is open to all. That is the way I’ve chosen to experience poetry, and I’ve created and participated in groups and structures that revolve around that idea. However, I’ve also stumbled into my share of exclusive, excluding poetry environments that scared the dickens out of me and took the pleasure out of writing until I
shrugged them off. (Negative, critical, perfectionistic, excluding: yuck. I like to think of this as “artistic constipation.”)
Because of that, I feel passionately that poetry is for everyone who wants it, in whatever way they want it, and I want to do what I can to foster that philosophy with people of all ages. As I wrote in the Songs of the Poets resource book, I’m not advocating that young writers (or anyone)
love THESE poems or write poems like them, but that they fully own the right and opportunity to create THEIR poems and to interact with poetry in THEIR way. I’m attaching to this note an essay I wrote about friendship and poetry, in case it’s helpful. It was published some years ago in a wonderful book called Women on Poetry (a collection of essays
by a couple dozen poets). My ideas and feelings about poetry and good company are there.
A related idea is that of accessibility through different forms and structures. I put these poems to music because I couldn’t NOT do it; I fell in love with each of them and simply needed to do it. But at the same time, as I began to share them with audiences, many people told me that they were able to receive the poem without fear (a fear grown out of that need to “translate” a poem as we all had to do in school – like the Billy Collins poem we read at the workshop) and with greater pleasure. This spurred me on and gave me hope that my compositions could serve as a
“door” into poetry for listeners who might otherwise shy away from poems.
One of the aims of the resource book is to show that we can think about poems in ways that feel natural and fun – another form of accessibility. You don’t need an MFA to have your own perspective on a poem! We can ask questions about poems, we can dare to not have answers, we can feel the mystery of a poem, and we can still enjoy the poem. I wanted to shift that old idea that thinking about poetry is solely an academic enterprise and show instead that thinking about poems can be another way of considering your own life, and that it can be fun, natural, and
meaningful. Spending a fair bit of time in academe has made me sensitive to anything that feels like a shutting down or shutting out, and doubly grateful when thinking and expressing are honest, playful, and open.
Other important groups that have influenced me: the wonderful open-mike community around Boston, Cambridge, and Concord. A lot of home-made art, a sense of can-do, and a beautiful level of mutual support and cheering-on: truly inspiring. Also, certain poetry communities – the
Salt Coast Sages and their annual poetry workshop at Roque Bluffs, ME; my mini-community with two dear poetry friends, Cheryl Perrault and Trisha Knudsen; the Worcester County Poetry Association; local poets here in Lunenburg and the Louise Bogan chapter of the MA Poetry Association. All of these – just their existence and often their encouragement – have been important in developing the ideas at the heart of Songs of the Poets.
Finally, over these last couple of years, I’ve had the opportunity to create with school kids and to witness their creative sparks – and this is THRILLING. As I get older (I’m 48), I’m more and more excited about supporting the next poets, writers, and artists who are coming along. I see
myself and all of us as part of a truly beautiful tradition, and this whole project is both my own contribution to that tradition and my attempt to encourage others to make their own contribution.
In J. Gregory McVerry’s essay, Power of Posting Poetry: Teaching New Literacies (2007), he writes “the nature of poetry as a genre, with its reliance on imagery, offers a wonderful opportunity to develop awareness in students about the role of multimedia in meaning making” (p.52). The multimodal nature that new literacies embrace does require the inclusion of visual, aural, and literary communication, something that Songs of the Poets and its supporting resources accomplishes with generosity and spirit.
Poetry represents one of our oldest literacy efforts, wielding historical significance as an instrument of mean-making, one that has embraced social character and mores throughout the ages. Whether the realm of literacy expands from an ancient hymn, the oral tradition of epic and lyrical poems, or the modern day poetry slam, the use of verse to transmit cultural information continues to influence and enthrall people. Kate Chadbourne has taken this well-loved literary art form, infused it with music and employed digital literacies to share a multi-textured tapestry of poetic song with the world. Without a doubt, she has created a new literacy practice.
Chadbourne, K. (2016). Songs of the Poets Resource Book. Retrieved from
McVerry, J.G. (2007). Power of Posting Poetry: Teaching New Literacies . Language Arts Journal of Michigan, Volume 23, Issue 1, Article 10. Available at: http://dx.doi.org/10.9707/2168-149X.1139
Perry, K. (2012). What is Literacy? – A Critical Overview of Sociocultural Perspectives. Journal of Language and Literacy Education. JOLLE at University of Georgia. Retrieved from http://jolle.coe.uga.edu/wp-content/uploads/2012/06/What-is-Literacy_KPerry.pdf
Rosenblatt, L. (1978). The Reader, the Text, the Poem: Transactional Theory of the Literary Work. 1994 paperback print edition by Southern Illinois University Press.
Sanders, A. (2012). Rosenblatt’s Presence in the New Literacies Research. Talking Points, Vol. 24, No. 1. The National Council of Teachers of English.
Webb, A. (2007). Digital Texts and the New Literacies. The English Journal, Vol. 97, No. 1, p. 83-88. The National Council of Teachers of English