Art that Moves is an occasional series where we ask artists and other creative workers to reflect on artworks, performances or events that were personally important to them.
Marc Nair, poet and photographer, is producer of Note for Note: #Skintones, an interdisciplinary performance by poets and musicians in collaboration, presented as part of Poetry with Music series by The Arts House. A tête-à-tête of sorts between forms, Note for Note highlights the natural harmony of the rhythms of poetry and music. It’s taking place on 23 June at the Arts House Playden. In this edition, the three poet-musician pairings are Singapore Literature Prize winning poet Joshua Ip with multi-faceted keyboardist Chok Kerong, award-winning slam poet Stephanie Dogfoot with singer-songwriter Zee Aura, and Australian spoken word artist Will Beale with Singaporean punk musician Hafiz Bastard.
In this interview, Marc shares with us more about Note for Note, interdisciplinary dialogue within his own manifold practices, and some of the most inspiring music, spoken word, poetry and photography that has moved him.
ArtsEquator (AE): Good afternoon Marc!
Marc Nair (MN): Hi Akanksha!
AE: A first iteration of Note for Note was staged on 25 March 2017 at the Arts House, and another edition took place on 9 March 2018 as part of Textures – A Weekend with Words.
Take us to the origins of this idea, to pair musicians and poets. What inspired you to start this project and how did it evolve?
MN: I was approached by the Arts House to see if I was interested in curating a performance that paired poets and musicians. So I worked with Lisa Lip to come up with a format, and a name that would work for the show. We settled on a 7-10 minute set (roughly two to three pieces) per poet/musician pairing. Because we had ten pairs, we couldn’t give each pair too much airtime. I came up with Note for Note as a title because this was meant to be a tête-à-tête of sorts, a dialogue between words and music, sometimes in tandem, sometimes as a call-and-response. There are musical notes as well as written notes as well. I think the Arts House approached me because I’ve been pairing words and music together for a long time. My first album, Chai: Travel Poems, was in 2012, but I’ve been working with music in my poetry since 2005 (or thereabouts).
AE: How do you gather the poets and musicians Note for Note, and how do you decided who to pair together?
MN: The premise of Note for Note – which holds true for the 2018 edition as well – is that I only choose the poets. The poets find their own musicians. I decided to do that because I would rather the poets choose someone whom they feel comfortable with in terms of musical style and even on a personal level. I may be familiar with each poet’s work, but I’m no expert when it comes to their musical proclivities! In terms of poets chosen, I opted, and still opt, for a mix of poets. Some are more dramatic, some less so, some are used to the stage with a spoken word background and others are naturally musical. Some are quieter, and others are louder. What’s important was to curate the flow from one performer to another. Of course, the content of the pieces and the musical instruments used was important too. I did not put two acoustic guitars back to back, and I split up the spoken word poets as best as I could.
AE: The performance on 23 June revolves around a central theme (#Skintones) – what was the inspiration for that theme? Did the idea for the theme come first, or the choice of poets?
MN: Theme comes first. I like the idea of the themes being broad, and not too prescriptive. They should contain sufficient ambiguity for the poets to interpret in a number of ways. Other than the obvious allusion to race, the idea of the poem as a skin that stretches over the persona is also implied – as well as musical tones. All three poets have quite different voices and inhabit different skins (spaces/voices/social strata), so the poems that emerge are delightfully diverse.
AE: Are the poems original pieces for this event or are they older works that have been adapted slightly to work with the musicians?
MN: Some poets have written an entirely new set for the show, and others adapt older pieces but also write some new ones. I don’t insist on new pieces; after all, performing with music automatically makes the poem new again. I generally give some initial direction in terms of the theme and ask for a draft of the poems about two months before (for licensing purposes) but also to have a first glance at the poems to see if they work for performance. I then clarify and work through the pieces with the poets, but the first real direction comes at the first combined rehearsal – about three weeks before the actual show – where I get to hear the music and words for the first time and have a much better sense of the order of performance, and if changes need to be made to each poet’s setlist. This includes musical direction as well: for example, perhaps there could be an extended introduction by the musician to a particular piece for a smoother/more intriguing segue from the previous piece.
AE: You work across various mediums of art yourself: do these practices dialogue with each other, or are they very different animals/sensibilities? Do you find that you work differently on a poetry project, as opposed to a photography project, as opposed to as a musician, or do they naturally bleed or feed into each other?
MN: Such a dense question!
Yes, I think there is a dialogue of sorts. Each medium has its own ‘rules’ and appropriate or generally-understood means of production and reception. But cross-disciplinary art is nothing new: it has been created for centuries. An early example would be ekphrasis: for example, Keats writing Ode to a Grecian Urn. I would contend that ekphrasis – one art form commenting on another – constitutes a large part of my work – for example, my photohaiku, where I write haiku in response to a photograph. There is no dialogue present, but I have tried a more ‘conversational’ project: Aproximity.
I think with my music, I tend to approach the poem with music as an integrated artwork. It becomes a new thing, and I don’t look at it with the concept of it being a dialogue. But to go back to the idea of a dialogue, it only becomes a dialogue if one can go back and forth between the two mediums and draw additional layers of meaning each time. That’s what I was after with Spomenik, and to a different extent with Auguries of Modern Innocence.
AE: Could you share with us one or more work(s) of art, across any genre, that left a significant impact on you? Take us through where were you when you first encountered it, and how it influenced your artistic practice or your personal worldview.
MN: This one is hard! I have a list!
In terms of spoken word and music, I am especially taken with Saul Williams, but his brand of performance wasn’t something I could replicate, nor was it aligned with my own subject matter. Someone who is a lot closer to my own way of working and thinking is probably Ian Keteku, a Canadian spoken word poet whom I met during the 2009 World Cup of Poetry in France.
When it comes to poetry and photography, I really admire husband-wife duo Alex Webb and Rebecca Norris Webb. Rebecca is a poet as well as a photographer, and it is fascinating to see how their work is both parallel and divergent when it comes to ways of seeing. Possibly the best example of that is in their book Slant Rhymes.
Another collaboration that blows me away is Lotería Cards and Fortune Poems: A Book of Lives by poet Juan Felipe Herrera and artist Artemio Rodriguez. Lotería, commonly known as Mexican bingo, is depicted here as linocuts and accompanied by poems as a commentary or reflection on the various images presented. The book is unique in how it fuses a number of things together: art forms, culture, politics and popular culture.
I don’t think I have a singular influence in my practice. It’s more like a constantly updated moodboard. I wouldn’t say that I write or photograph after a particular school or style. Even my spoken word doesn’t quite fall neatly into what people always assume spoken word to be. But from the above list, I would say that I’ve learned a lot from Alex Webb Rebecca Norris Webb, particularly in searching for colour, in finding multiple points of focus in a single frame, of winding words and images together and most of all, in capturing human emotion so effortlessly.
AE: How did you come to be an artist: was there a point in your life when you decided to be an artist, or did it just kind of happen?
MN: I started performing poetry at the monthly poetry slam [organised by Word Forward] in 2003. Back then I was still in university, and saw poetry as nothing more than something fun to do on the side. I think I started taking it seriously when I published my first book in 2007. I was just going into teaching, and didn’t think that poetry would be something sustainable. After my second book in 2010, I realised that teaching would be around, but I have a window to step out and do stuff like art, and other things you can’t do with a full-time job. I think quitting teaching in 2011 was the catalyst to get me started on this journey of being an artist. Of course, it’s not just poetry, I organised festivals, ran – and still run – creative writing workshops in schools, in addition to working on freelance writing jobs, photography, scripting and directing corporate jobs.
Over time, you find a kind of balance, and a kind of peace, where you don’t need to hustle all the time, and don’t always feel stressed about not making ends meet, but rather learn to make art meet, in other words, put art-making first and all that freelance hustle second. It’s hard, and I don’t always succeed, but I try.
Note for Note: #SkinTones takes place on 23 June 2018, 8pm, at the Arts House Playden. Tickets are $10 and may be purchased on Peatix.
The subsequent edition of Note for Note will take place on 4 August at 8pm.
This post is sponsored by The Arts House Ltd.