Photograph by Alexis Rhone Fancher

Tell us about Christopher Theofanidis’ musical composition Conference of the Birds and Aṭṭār’s long allegorical poem The Conference of the Birds, both of which are the inspiration for your new chapbook, Like a Bird with a Thousand Wings.

 The Conference of the Birds, the 12th Century Sufi allegorical poem, was written by Persian master poet Aṭṭār, and tells the story of the seeker’s journey towards God, and, therefore, towards the evolution of self through understanding and connection. In Aṭṭār’s Conference, all the birds of the world convene and determine that they need a ruler and that they will make a pilgrimage to the distant land of the mythic and divine bird, Simorgh. The journey to this faraway land leads the birds through seven valleys of understanding, the first of which requires the birds to cast off all the preconceived ideas and dogma in their thinking, and the final of which requires annihilation of the self in order to attain complete communion with the divine. Beginning with the discord and lack of purpose of the birds and culminating in the discovery that they are all individually and together Simorgh, The Conference of the Birds is a timeless model of transforming confusion and lack of unity into the realization of harmony.

Theofanidis’ piece, released in 2018, is inspired by Aṭṭār’s Conference and traces the metaphoric journey of the birds in seven short character pieces, each lasting between 1 and 3 minutes, and each focusing on a highly defined musical personality evoked by the corresponding valley. As he says in the introduction, “Much of the string writing is inspired by the flocking movement of birds; that is, there is a ‘group logic’—a kind of unity of movement and purpose in which all the parts are highly interdependent.”

 

How did you come to be involved in this project?

 The Argus Quartet was performing Theofanidis’ piece in various venues around the country and  contacted him to discuss the possibility of reciting poems in performance between the pieces. I’d recently met Chris at the Hermitage Artist Residency in Manasota Key, and we’d collaborated on another recent project, so he asked if I’d be interested in writing the poems.

 

Working with multiple sources of inspiration, how did you decide what to focus on?

I wanted to create poems that provided a lyric complement to the music, rather than retelling the story, so I decided that above all else I would focus on capturing the personality and spirit of each of the different movements in Theofanidis’ Conference. My goal was to provide language and images for ideas and moods already evoked by the music.

 

Did you consult a particular translation when studying Aṭṭār?

I read several translations and decided to use quotes from a new translation by Sholeh Wolpé. Because Sholeh is herself an excellent contemporary poet, the translation is vibrant and accessible.

 

You said before that the seven pieces of Theofanidis’ Conference of the Birds trace the metaphoric journey of Aṭṭār’s birds through the seven valleys, with each piece focusing on a musical personality evoked by the corresponding valley. How did these distinct musical personalities impact your creation of each of the poems?

The Valley of Quest: There’s an interdependence established with the birds moving towards the shape of the line but pulling at it in funny ways. I wanted to imitate the plucking sounds, the seeking nature, and the interdependence of the birds by repeating words, sounds, and images to create the feeling that they are pulling apart and coming back together again in different ways as they revolve around an idea that is also a question.

The Valley of Love: A warm harmonic environment warps into flight and lifts, returning to love, and blowing out like embers at the end of the piece. I wanted to convey this warmth through imagery, hence the dappled light, the honeyed images, the bird building a fire to keep the horse warm, the warmth flowing like embers from the tail of the poem.

The Valley of Knowledge: My goal was to evoke the harmony that comes up from below constantly and redefines itself, and I wanted respond also to the searching instability between the harmony and melodic line. So, I had the birds toss jewels around and drop them and pick different jewels back up—a bird might drop a diamond and then, in scooping, find not a diamond but a ruby. I also wanted to have the birds pass the jewels around in the same way the rising line is passed around among the different instruments, like a collective set of questions.

The Valley of Detachment: There are a lot of things going on with this piece—it’s abstract but feels leaden as the lengths of chords get slightly longer. Harmony steers towards something inward, and hovers around a single note. I wanted the poem to reflect all of this, so I conceptualized the self in a well, swirling down.

The Valley of Unity: Bird note is spatial and passed around among the birds. The grace notes create flutters that I wanted to honor with chirps coming from various places in the trees. It’s a feeling of echolocation within a smallish area and then the sounds coming together. For this, I brought in the idea of a second person human presence, a You inside of which the birds are singing. But the You is also inside the singing birds.

The Valley of Wonderment: This piece has a contour of sweeping and diving, like flying over a valley. I realized I already had a poem that had these same qualities. The poem felt like it was just waiting for the piece to come along, so I converted it to more closely match the feel of the piece.

The Valley of Poverty and Annihilation: I was responding to a soaring elegiac feeling and the shimmery breath in the background of the piece, as well as to the feeling at the end, of the sound being thrown out into the air, almost visually. I imagined the birds inside of an intense brightness, building a world out of fish bones, and then I overlapped the activity of the musicians with the activity of the birds by imagining them stopping dramatically and literally tossing their instruments through the air.

 

You said Argus was already performing Conference of the Birds when Theofanidis contacted you; what was the timeline for finishing the poems. 

The first version, turning the poems out to be read at performances, happened quickly—over about a week or two. I completely immersed myself in it because I was excited about the project, and I needed to move on soon to something else I was working on. The chapbook came a little later, but also happened very quickly—in about a month, start to finish, from the time my publisher, Ron Starbuck, began working on it. We’d come up with the idea of the chapbook as something for people to be able to buy at performances, as a memento of the experience, and there was a big performance coming up at the Kennedy Center that we wanted to have the chapbooks ready for.

Over time, I created several more performance versions, of varying lengths, so the quartet can be flexible about fitting the performance into concert programming.

 

Tell us a little about the cover and art. 

I’d seen an image of a bird that was made up of a lot of smaller birds. There’s a line in one of the poems, “thirty birds flying in the formation of a bird,” so once I saw this image, I was in love with it. I tried several times to contact the artist, who lives in Iran, and I was unable to track him down. Just when I was about to settle on slightly less than perfect artwork, Ron Starbuck found another image of many birds forming a larger bird. This one was by an Italian artist, Elisa Vendramin, who he was easily able to contact. Not only did she agree to let us use the image; she helped design the cover and made smaller details of the birds to flutter through the pages of the book. I couldn’t be more delighted. Ron Starbuck is already known in the book industry for creating visually beautiful books, but this is next level. It is actually perfect.

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MELISSA STUDDARD is the author of five books, including the poetry collection I Ate the Cosmos for Breakfast and the poetry chapbook Like a Bird with a Thousand Wings. Her work has been featured by PBS, NPR, The New York Times, The Guardian, and the Academy of American Poets’ Poem-a-Day series, and has also appeared in periodicals such as POETRY, Kenyon Review, Psychology Today, New Ohio Review, Harvard Review, Missouri Review, and New England Review. A short film of the title poem from Studdard's I Ate the Cosmos for Breakfast (by Dan Sickles of Moxie Pictures for Motionpoems) was an official selection for the Trinidad and Tobago Film Festival and the Minneapolis St. Paul International Film Festival, as well as winner of the REEL Poetry Festival Audience Choice Award. Her work has also won or placed in The Penn Review Poetry Prize, the Jeffrey E. Smith Editors' Prize, the Tom Howard Prize, The Gregory O'Donoghue International Poetry Prize, the Forward National Literature Award, and more.

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