contributing editors

William Wallis, Ph.D.
Los Angeles Valley College

wallis

Bill Wallis was born in the American South and educated at Hendrix College, Southern Illinois University, the University of Nebraska (Ph.D.in Literary Criticism and Creative Writing, 1972), and the Hanover Conservatory (Opera Performance). In 1973, while a member of the faculty in Lincoln, he performed a supporting role in Napoleon, a grand opera that he co-authored. His opera The Vision, based on Lakota myth, story, and song, was set to music and performed as part of the American Bi-Centennial Celebration in the Great Plains.

Between 1978 and 1985, he worked as a stage director, then as a tenor singing operetta and opera in the European theater. After returning to the United States permanently in 1983, he began teaching and writing in Lincoln, Nebraska; and then Santa Barbara, California. He now lives in Los Angeles, where he is Professor and Vice-Chair of the Department of English at Los Angeles Valley College. In 1992, he performed the World Premier of Robert Chauls’s Song Cycle “Songs of Great Men and Death” at the founding convention of the Emily Dickinson International Society in Washington, D.C. He is a contributing editor for Shofar Magazine at Purdue University Press.

He has published twenty volumes of poetry and prose. His volumes Joshua (1994), Twins (1996), and Selected Poems 1969-99 (2000) were nominated for the Pulitzer Prize, Poetry Division. In 2006, his novel Hawk won the Benjamin Franklin Award in Popular Fiction of the Independent Publishers of America. His latest publication is a biography, Prairie Symphony, the Story of Charles Leonard Thiessen, which appeared in 2010. (His works are available on Amazon.com.)

He lives with his wife Leslie and their four children just off the Miracle Mile in Los Angeles, where he is a cycling enthusiast.

Other Works:


Poet's Corner – In the Spirit of Collaboration

Collaboration is inherent in the creative process of the dominant art forms of the 20th century: theater, television, and film. (The latter forms involve machinery extensively—and, increasingly, electronic—and they may, through a quasi-collaborative process, imitate the machines through which they are formulated and transmitted; e.g., Chaplin’s Modern Times and the Wachowski Brothers’ Matrix Trilogy.) Collaboration may touch the novel form in the case of heavy-handed editing; but poetry is usually pretty lonely work. The hours spent on a quatrain are an act of devotion and, in some ways, piety that is rare these days—things move so quickly now, and there are so many more of them. Yet song literature flourishes everywhere, including the electronic media. Pure poetry—ars gratia artis—strides on in the world. Quite apart from the dedicated verse of libretti or song lyric created to serve music form—most often melody—the pure poem set by a gifted composer may offer unimagined riches.

My case in point is Robert Chauls’ “Songs of Great Men and Death” (1991), a setting for tenor and piano of eleven poems by Emily Dickinson. This song cycle was commissioned by the Emily Dickinson International Society in 1990, and premiered at the society’s first annual meeting in Washington, D.C., the following year. This composition was not simply a collaboration between an iconic 19th century American poet and a gifted 20th century composer, but was from its inception the subject of a documentary film, which unobtrusively traces the cycle’s genesis, from choice of the poems to be set to the initial performances and the critical reaction to them. Included in the collaboration were Ms. Dickinson’s ouvre and celebrated historic personality, Dickinson scholar Margaret Freeman’s commentary, Composer Chauls’ visionary settings, and myself as documentarian. Dr. Chauls and I shared performance duties in the premier performance.

I offer here two excerpts from that song cycle: “My life closed twice” and “I felt a fun’ral,” whose settings I consider masterworks. Dickinson’s unique treatment of the standard hymn’s quatrain provides a solid formal base for the composer, but Chauls’ melodies blossom in the voice—“My life”—and the accompaniment—“I felt”—and lead to intimate knowledge of the emotion center of each poem. West Magazine offers you taped recording of these songs (William Wallis, tenor, and Robert Chauls, piano), as well as visual scores for those interested in musical composition and performance. West also offers the shorter version of the documentary film, which was filmed largely at Los Angeles Valley College.

“My life closed twice” compares the parting of a loved one with death. Chauls’ insistent accompaniment suggests the irresistible, expectant search for meaning in existence, while its demanding vocal line lifts us to the heights of ecstasy before returning the chill of everyday needs.

>> "My Life Closed Twice Before Its Closed" Composition

"I felt a fun'ral" sketches the infinite loneliness of "the extension of consciousness after death." (This phrase was common in Dickinson's intellectual circles. I do not know of a single source.) Chauls' use of 5/4 rhythm and open intervals  create a mood both somber in tone and unmoored in time. The voice floats in descending patterns. And then, the composer builds tension with dynamic patterns of accompaniment, rhythm changes, and vocal declaration till poetic/musical release on "As all the Heavens were a Bell,/ And Being but an Ear," leads us to the realization that we all adhere to "some strange Race" whose end is silence after the glory, silence after song.

>> I Felt A Funeral, In My Brain

In the future, I hope to present other examples of collaboration in the form of new songs. In the meantime, please enjoy Dr. Chauls’ memorable work and, finally, a tiny instrumental piece composed and performed by Asher Wallis, guitar, and Sarah O’Brien, cello, which graces the auditory version of my first novel Hawk.

Listen:

Hawk End Song no Dia

 


On Lark Tongues, Dreaming

Medieval referent for ineffable grace,
Somehow both source and instrument of song
Suggesting the solitary presence of divinity—
As if it were possible to explain the transcendence
Of natural beauty with an unseen, translucent source
Deep within the flesh’s pain, sinew’s stain, bones’ descent.

Your silver swerve of song haunted Emily’s dream,
Splitting Amherst’s evening into quatrains fraught
With freedom’s frantic search; and, mad beyond thought,
She flayed ecstasy into flight. A century later, the Peregrine
Sketched my boyhood horizon, as I now caress
Its cry, its swift, inborn motion in me, secret as love
In my mother’s, wife’s, daughters’ glance of fine stitched fire.

In that place where flesh is shadow, where no reckoning matters,
And the four powers somehow irreconcilably exist
In equilibrium and quiet, the pure energy of souls
Enters a cyclotron of nature, a whirling of countless spots
In constant circling ascent toward that point of light
Where the invisible universe forms itself in solitary song,
seeks to be discovered.

On Lark Tongues, Dreaming

Medieval referent for the ineffable, representing
Somehow both source and instrument of articulation
Of song, suggesting the solitary presence of divinity,
As if it were possible to explain the transcendence
Of natural beauty flooding with an unseen, ineffable source,
Deep beneath the flesh’s pain, sinew’s catch, bones’ ancient
rub of ecstasy.

Your curve of silver song haunted Emily’s dream,
Splitting Amherst’s evening into quatrains fraught
With seeming freedom of soul; and, mad beyond thought,
She flayed ecstasy of song. And all alone, the Peregrin’s cry
Sketched the horizon of my boyhood, as I now caress
The idea of your swift motion in me, inborn, secret as love
And my mother’s, my daughters’ glancing fire of caress
in my soul’s history.

In that place where flesh is shadow, where no reckoning can exist
And the four powers somehow irreconcilably exist
In equilibrium and quiet, the pure energy of souls
Enters a cyclotron of nature, a whirling of countless spots
Of energy in constant circling ascent toward that point of light
Where the invisible universe forms itself in solitary song
And seeks to be discovered.

Editor: LinckeN@WLAC.edu | West Los Angeles College | 9000 Overland Ave, Culver City CA 90230 | www.wlac.edu
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