Alaska Spring: Lorelei Costa Interviews Tom Sexton

On April 21 and 22, the Alaska Chamber Singers will premiere Alaska Spring, a brand new choral work by Grammy-winning composer Libby Larsen. Scored for four-part choir and string quartet, Alaska Spring is Larsen’s setting of five poems by Tom Sexton, drawn from his 2009 collection, For the Sake of the Light (University of Alaska Press, 2009). Sexton was Alaska’s Poet Laureate from 1995 to 2000, and he founded the creative writing program at the University of Alaska Anchorage in 1970.
Alaska Spring premieres on Saturday, April 21, 2012 at 8 p.m. at Our Lady of Guadalupe Church, 3900 Wisconsin Street, Anchorage. The performance repeats on Sunday, April 22 at 4 p.m. at Saint Andrew Church, 16300 Domain Lane, Eagle River. Tickets are available at the door and through CenterTix.

Sexton will read his poetry at both performances, and Larsen will be attending. A reception with Sexton and Larsen will follow the Saturday performance.

You’ve written both imagistic, free-verse poetry, but also formal verse, like sonnets, syllabic poems, and word count poems. Tell me about the five poems of Alaska Spring: “Juncos,” “April”, “Extending the Range,” “Fiddlehead,” and “Walking the Marsh.” Are these imagistic poems?

Yes. These poems are all lyrical, emotional responses to the natural world… When we had a cabin near Hurricane, I’d just go walk in the woods. That’s where many of my nature poems are from… You must have had the same experience, when you’re walking along, and you feel just awestruck… You get this overwhelming feeling, and then it’s over, and you trudge along. You go back to the cabin…
Can I connect it to some sense of god or spirit? I think I can, but I don’t know how to articulate it… They’re direct responses to a moment.
About the fiddlehead ferns in “Fiddlehead”, now I think I should’ve boiled them before I sautéed them. They were still pretty good, but I guess they are better boiled.
“April” is the only poem I’ve ever written that I can’t explain.
I’ve noticed that “April” is all one sentence. The only period is at the end. There are many commas, but they don’t correspond with the line breaks. Libby Larsen chose to break the music at some of your commas instead of your line breaks.
I do that all the time, use a comma instead of a period. If you have a period, you really stop. But a comma, you go over it, but you still have the sense of a pause. I use commas to try to pause the reader.
“Juncos” was from a walk at Kincaid Park. There were juncos just all over the place. We were just walking along, and I heard “dit… dit… dit.” Zoom, there was the connection. The juncos’ song reminded me of a telegraph key.
 “Juncos” is another example of where Libby used your commas instead of your line breaks to group the melodic lines.
And I think she was right, except I was working in threes. William Carlos Williams and many others do it. It’s called a triadic line. Part of it is visual.
 “Walking the Marsh” is the one poem in which Libby Larsen uses a consistent and obvious meter in the music. Perhaps that’s why the poetic meter jumped out to me, because I’ve been rehearsing it and singing it.
You’re right. That is the rhythm. And the other thing, these poems come to me while I’m walking. It’s sort of the rhythm of the walking… I was thinking of all the things I’ve found in the woods, and one thing just expanded into another. I knew where I was going to end up: “I have fallen in love with the world.” And what I needed was visual images that would take the reader there, creating that feeling for the reader… The last lines are always the most important. And sometimes I work backwards. I suddenly have the end. With “Walking the Marsh,” the end just fell in my head.

What is your musical background?
None. I can’t carry a tune… I listen to classical music. There’s a Canadian soprano, Suzie LeBlanc, whose music I just love. I love Gershwin, and the Goldberg Variations by Bach. I listen to Mozart, and I listen to Ives, but I have no musical background.
How much did you collaborate with the composer, Libby Larsen, on setting your poems to music for Alaska Spring?
Not at all. She was very kind. She contacted me and told me she was doing it. She said she loved my poetry, and told me which poems she was using, and we corresponded a few times.
When she approached you about this project, did you have any misgivings or trepidations at all about giving your poetry to someone else to translate?
Goodness, no!  It’s an honor… I’m going to be delighted by the whole thing. I am so honored by this.
In a separate interview with Libby Larsen, Lorelei asked the composer about their collaboration—or lack thereof—in the musical setting of the poetry. Larsen said, , “What I try to do, rather than ask [a poet] what their interpretation is, I try to find the music that comes out of their words, almost as if I’m making a portrait of their poems… I guess my approach is that of the reader of the poem. I read it with music, if that makes sense… Tom’s poetry allows you to gently move from the surface metaphor into the deeper meanings of the poem. And this particular group of poems present a multifaceted approach to the moment we open. It could be the moment we decide to truly forgive, the moment when anger gives way, the moment of discovery of faith, whatever that is… These are all the metaphors that can be found in his poetry; whether he intends it or not, these are metaphors that I found.”
 I try to make my poems clear on first reading as a sheet of glass or ice, but I hope the reader will discover a deeper meaning on subsequent readings. The poems I love reveal something new every time I read them. Libby is doing exactly what I hope my readers will do.

For a full transcript of Lorelei Costa’s conversation with Libby Larsen and more information about Alaska Spring go to
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