ELEVATED | In the Company of Writers
by Leslie Vreeland
Dec 24, 2013 | 1626 views | 0 0 comments | 68 68 recommendations | email to a friend | print
MICHAEL HEARST hosts a new PBS Digital Series entitled "Songs for Unusual Creatures," in which he composes music inspired by offbeat fauna such as the Jesus Christ Lizard, the elephant shrew and the glass frog. Then he recruits his favorite musicians to play the compositions. (Courtesy photo)
MICHAEL HEARST hosts a new PBS Digital Series entitled "Songs for Unusual Creatures," in which he composes music inspired by offbeat fauna such as the Jesus Christ Lizard, the elephant shrew and the glass frog. Then he recruits his favorite musicians to play the compositions. (Courtesy photo)

Author Laura Munson will offer a four-day writing retreat aimed at helping you find your “voice” at the Hotel Madeline next Wednesday, Jan. 8 to Sunday, January 12. The seminar is limited to just 10 participants, but members of the public are welcome.

Munson is the author of the New York Times Bestseller This is Not the Story You Think It is: A Season of Unlikely Happiness, whose work has been published in O Magazine, Redbook, Good Housekeeping, Ladies’ Home Journal and More. I know her from a remarkable essay she wrote for the New York Times’ Modern Love column four years ago, which has stayed with me ever since I read it. It begins:

Let’s say you have what you believe to be a healthy marriage. You’re still friends and lovers after spending more than half of your lives together. The dreams you set out to achieve in yours 20s – gazing into each other’s eyes in candlelit city bistros when you were single and skinny – have for the most part come true. Two decades later you have the 20 acres of land, the farmhouse, the children, the dogs and the horses. You’re the parents you said you would be, full of love and guidance. You’ve done it all: Disneyland, camping, Hawaii, Mexico, city living, stargazing. Sure, you have your marital issues, but on the whole you feel so self-satisfied about how things have worked out that you would never, in your wildest nightmares, think you would hear these words from your husband one fine summer day: 

“I don’t love you anymore. I’m not sure I ever did. I’m moving out. The kids will understand. They want me to be happy.” 

But wait. This isn’t the divorce story you think it is. Neither is it a begging-him-to-stay story. It’s a story about hearing your husband say ‘I don’t love you anymore’ and deciding not to believe him. And what can happen as a result.’”


Munson’s seminar is open to all ranges of writers; retreat participants spend their days in intensive group sessions exploring craft and voice and through private writing time. Afternoons include yoga and meditation sessions and small group meetings with Laura. For more on the retreat, visit lauramunson.com/retreat, call 802/362-0570 or email rmcgrath@om-consultants.com.

Talking Gourds Poetry Club

The next gathering welcomes David Rothman, director of the Poetry Concentration with an Emphasis on Versecraft at Western State. Rothman has written not only on mountains and mountain towns, but also Restoration satire, film and film theory, and music (he co-founded the Crested Butte Music Festival). His books of poetry include The Elephant’s Chiropractor.  In “Not My Leg,” it is the human body – not a pachyderm’s – which consumes him. The poem was published in The Atlantic Monthly. Colorado poet laureate David Mason has called Rothman’s work “By turns funny and deeply moving; its art affirms life.” 

Not my leg,

My lean, strong leg.

Choose any other part,

But please don’t start

With my lovely leg.

I’d look bad with a peg.


Not my hand,

My articulate hand.

Please don’t let it

Get torn or shredded.

Writing this book

Would be hard with a hook — 

You must understand

I need my hand.


Not my eyes,

Dear God, not my eyes.

Don’t poke them out,

So I grope about

Like Homer, Milton, Joyce.

If you have to be blind

To have such a voice,

I find

I want my eyes.


Not the urethra, not the anus,

The avenues that meekly drain us.

At least if they block, or get infected,

Please let it be quickly detected,

So a minimum of me gets cut.

Leave them alone,

My necessary thrones

Of pleasure and smut.


Not my body, my only body.

I know that the construction’s shoddy,

Not built to last — 

Someday it will lie in the past — 

Still, I cannot restrain myself

From praying for my own good health,

Which some denying part of me

Believes should last eternally,

Although that only could hold true

For something out of nature’s view,

And not my body, not my body.  

Talking Gourds convenes at Arroyo Tuesday, Jan. 7 at 6 p.m. 

On PBS Digital: Songs for Unusual Creatures

Michael Hearst got a big push from his composition teacher, Dika Newlin, when he was in music school. “She really encouraged me to do my own thing,” he said. She had certainly done hers. Newlin, one of the last living students of the composer Arnold Schoenberg and a professor at Virginia Commonwealth University, formed a punk rock band in her 70s in which she wore black leather and sang imitations of Elvis Presley and Nancy Sinatra songs. In a documentary about her life entitled Dika: Murder City, she performed an aria by the composer Gioachino Rossini – by meowing the entire number.

Hearst obliged his professor in his senior music recital, which included a “list of every grocery store across the U.S.” He also wrote a piece for the bass, naming “every animal I could think of.” As a member of the band One Ring Zero, he’s gone on to write and record nine whimsical albums, including the acclaimed collaboration As Smart As We Are, featuring songs with lyrics by novelists Margaret Atwood, Paul Auster and Dave Eggers, and The Recipe Project, in which recipes by famous chefs are set to the musical style of their choosing. John Besh’s word-for-word recipe for shrimp remoulade, for example, is accompanied by Cajun-inspired accordian; the hard-driving music for Michael Symon’s “Octopus Salad with Black-Eyed Peas” is inspired by the chef’s love for Metallica.  

The point of Recipe Project was to make cooking and food more fun and accessible, and now Hearst has done the same thing for unique animals and musical instruments in Songs for Unusual Creatures. The elephants, kangaroos and tortoises that populated composer Saint-Saens’ Carnival of the Animals’ – his inspiration for Unusual Creatures – “were usual animals,” he said. But what about earth’s strangest fauna, like the blue-footed booby or the elephant shrew? Or the Jesus Christ Lizard, which gets its name for its ability to run across the surface of water when it senses danger? In his new PBS Digital video series Songs for Unusual Creatures, Hearst travels across the U.S. to observe these creatures, and writes a song about each of them. He then teams up with a few of his favorite musicians to play what he’s written on some of the world’s most unusual instruments. You can watch the videos free online: so far there are five, including the series pilot, about a Madagascan lemur called an Aye Aye, as well ones on a glass frog, an elephant shrew, a giant anteater and the lime-green JC lizard, which I found particularly charming, as my first childhood pet was a chameleon from the Arizona State Fair. Hearst’s visit with the lizard is followed by a session with toy-piano virtuoso Margaret Leng Tan, who plays a song he wrote for the creature (her tinkling of the ivories captures the lizard’s graceful splish-splash as it zips across a pond quite perfectly). 

Future episodes will profile, and include songs for, among others, the honey badger, the blue-footed booby, sea pigs and the blobfish, a creature that lives at depths of 3,900 feet below sea level and has no muscles. Which doesn’t really matter, Hearst points out, because all it has to do is sit and wait with its mouth wide open for a feast of brine to float on in. Hearst first wrote a song about the blobfish on his Songs for Unusual Creatures CD, released in 2012. The fish has gone to achieve a measure of fame; in September, it was voted “world’s ugliest animal” and adopted as the mascot of the Ugly Animal Preservation Society (“dedicated to raising the profile of some of Mother Nature’s more aesthetically-challenged children”). Hearst is in search of blobfish imitations to use in his next video. If you or a child you know can do a mean blobfish-face, Hearst would like to see it: you could be headed for undersea stardom. To watch Hearst’s video on the Aye Aye with the Kronos Quartet, and for a link to his other videos, visit tinyurl.com/kresbd3. To submit an imitation of a blobfish, go to oneringzero.com/unusualcreatures/blobfish.html. For more on Hearst, see michaelhearst.com.

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