Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Martin Willitts, Jr. Discusses Chopin's Music and Poetry (Vol. 6, No. 6)

A talented poet, musician, gardener, healer, and a Quaker, Martin Willitts, Jr., is also a retired librarian, a publisher and an artist, working on paper cutouts. He contributed to two of my anthologies, Chopin with Cherries (2010) and Meditations on Divine Names (2012). In June 2015, he and his wife, also a Quaker and a poet, Linda Griggs, welcomed me to their  home. They took me on a sight-seeing tour of Syracuse, New York, including a splendid rose garden in the rain, and organized a reading for me for the Palace Poetry Group at DeWitt Community Library.

Having spent all this time with these two fascinating individuals and poets, I decided to share Martin's poems about Chopin on this blog, and publish an interview I conducted with him by email, about poetry and Chopin's music.

Willitts Jr. and Griggs - by Maja Trochimczyk
Martin Willitts Jr. and Linda Griggs, Photo by Maja Trochimczyk



“The enemy is in the house (...) Oh God, do you exist? You do and yet you do not avenge. -  Have you not had enough of Moscow’s crimes - or - or are You Yourself a Muscovite (...) I here, useless! And I here empty-handed. At times I can only groan, suffer, and pour out my despair at my piano!”
                                                — Chopin, 1831, learning that Poland
                                                      had been defeated by Russian armies.

The piano cannot stop wars, nor lift the dead,
nor block the door. I am numb, empty handed,
wondering why you cannot stop this silence
deadly as bullets. There are no avenging angels crying.
The Russians are shooting notes of despair
and all I can do is huddle in the sheet music of snow.
Paris is the gathering place of defeated friends,
failed politicians, grieving mothers and wounded artists.
There are exiles everywhere speaking Polish sadness.
I cannot pound the keys on my piano loud enough.
I shall never return to my homeland.
I shall not give in to the Russian demands.
I shall not let one note from my fingers serve them.
The enemy is in the house.
It does not mean they can trample the rugs with mud.
We have a saying where I come from.
If a stranger stays uninvited, then call him a friend
and mistreat him like a friend, then he will go away
thinking your false friendship is real as butter on bread.
It is like playing with a piano one-handed. It can be done,
but not as well as with two hands.
It is like a gun without bullets.
It is like a person without a home.

Published in "Chopin with Cherries," 2010, p. 24

White rose snowfall - by Maja Trochimczyk


1.  Chopin to George Sand, 1847

The delicate touch you felt on your neck
is the same as on a piano, with the same lyrical rush,
the music of leaves in the resolute winds.
It is the same idiomatic language of geese leaving.
My heart has the same feeling, restless, yearning.
When I play a rondo, no one can hear the silence after.
I leave these early movements behind
like I must leave you.
Some things are finished when they are finished.

I thought of returning to you.
I hesitated at your window.
I knew if you saw me with that melodic look you have,
it would enrapture me.
Our bodies would become counterpoints.
But it would be fragmentary motifs. Textural nuances
of what used to be.

Our love was illicit, some say.
I say, it was melodic, rhythmic, and full of music.
Our love was repetitions of a single note.

You criticized me for my primitive sense of form
when we would lie in bed, soaked in harmonic intonations.
You were right about me as well as everything else.
I cannot help being in the soundscape of textures,
in the lightness of sound, in the last moment leaving you.
For life is opening one door and descending unknown stairs.

Sheltered in White - by Maja Trochimczyk

2. George Sand to “beloved little corpse”

You could not stand a woman who did not act like a woman
except in bed. Even then you were horrified
by the idea a woman could enjoy passion.
What were all those compositions of love-soaked music then?

You were not my first lover and you will not be my last.
A woman should pick and choose who will enter her bedroom.

You shake your head, expecting me to fall for your music like others.

A woman cannot be a slave to men.
You will not allow us to be equal.
So what choice do I have?
What choice does any woman have?

I changed my name so I could publish what scandalizes you.
Women have a right to sincere love and I will write about it.
I shall write about my desires and disappointments.
I will not miss you. I will only find another.

What have you done recently?

Note: “Beloved little corpse” was her name for Chopin due to his numerous sicknesses.

 Published in "Chopin with Cherries" p. 131-132.

Red and White in the Rain - by Maja Trochimczyk


Blackened corpses of stars are going nova.
All day, it has been crackling with heat insects.
I say, it is God’s voice telling us something important.
The heat grinds us for not listening.
We cannot seem to leave well enough alone.
Our futile attempts to improve or streamline life
only makes it worse.

Sheet music’s passages of wildness — briars
and milkweed sends music into trumpets of wind —
this melody heals stunted saplings, brings Light
to darkened air, finding cures for emptiness —

Light! — come fill us! Heal the forgotten!

Published online in the Black Poppy Review, with the Opus series.

Rainy Red Passion - by Maja Trochimczyk


Maja Trochimczyk's Question: What does Chopin mean for you? What do you like about his music?

Martin Willitts, Jr.'s Answer: I was playing piano at an early age. I am not sure when I started, but by the time I entered Kindergarten (about 5) I was already playing classical music: Beethoven, Mozart, Handel, Brahms, Chopin, and others. I eventually played with a full orchestra in Syracuse, New York. I was also playing chamber music. At one point, I played the Brandenburg Concertos by Bach on the harpsichord.

What I liked about Chopin was all the different styles of music: etudes; polonaises; waltzes; nocturnes, sonatas, and preludes. I think his most challenging piece was Prelude in D-flat Major, Opus 28, No, 15, often called “raindrop” for its sound. I never felt I could exactly get that sound right. I felt it was better plucked by bow on a violin, stretching the open E string.

I have written a series of poems based on the concept of the Opus; and I have titled a number of poems as “Nocturne” as I think of the Chopin and Nocturne in E-Flat Major, Opus 9, No. 2, and others. Although I have not played piano since I was about 12, I still recall the sounds, techniques, fingering, and exactness of pitch. When I lost my hearing, I lost pitch, then I quit playing; but I still hear the music in my head.

Q: What types of music have you studied, or played?

I was bored with classical as a child. I needed something to challenge me. I do not remember why I felt this way, but the structure was boring my creativity. I discovered Jazz, and switched from piano to mandolin. My grandfather had this mandolin from when he was a Union organizer. It has a metal plate resonator making high pitch sounds. My grandfather gave it to me when I tried the “raindrop” from the Preludes. Some people call this mandolin a dobro-mandolin, and I would bottle-neck it like a steel guitar player or a Blues slide guitar player.

I played on live radio some swing Jazz, fast tempo, improvisational fingering. Because a mandolin has double strings, I would trill notes (playing notes really fast), and because of the high scales, I was able to go extremely high compared to a piano. By this time, all I was interested in was individual notes and I abandoned all chord structures and sight reading.

For a while I played in coffeehouses with folk singers, and the people I played with became famous later. I decided I did not like the egos involved in band structures. Vietnam interrupted my playing, and I lost perfect-pitch.

When we met, I talked about the mathematics in music, and suggested there were two kinds of composers: the ones who stressed the math and tried to treat music as a mathematical formula; and those who wrote and/or played from the heart. There is an awareness of the metronome and the music signature at the top of the sheet music that tells you the measure and pace. The famous Jazz piece “Take-Five” performed by the Dave Brubeck Quartet is E-Flat Minor, quintuple (5/4) time.

Martin Willitts Jr. with his antique mandoline. 

Q: What is it about music that appeals to you?

A: I listen to all types of music, including contemporary. When I listen, I am focused on the notes, their technique, what they do differently, how they play solos or work with the group. If the band only knows three chords or repeat too often, I lose interest. It also helps if I hear the music without seeing the musicians, so I am not judging them by their “name” or appearance. A good example was the contemporary singer Lady Gaga singing Sound Of Music. I was surprised at her vocal range.

Q: Why do you write poetry?

I became interested in poetry accidentally. If someone had asked me about poetry when I was a teenager, I would have thought they were crazy. Schools do a lousy job at promoting poetry. I originally thought of writing drama. I took a creative writing course to find out if I was good at it. The first day, the teacher said they would only read and talk about poetry. I am the kind of person who hears that as a challenge. At first, I was better than the average beginner. Over time, I would like to think I have become better.

I tend to write like a Jazz musician in that I improvise while writing. I tend to write thematically. I write several poems in a short burst of energy. When you play live music, you learn to perform on one-take, and if you make a mistake, you must continue. I disliked multiple attempts at recording music. When I was a session musician, I had in my contract about the one-take concept. If they wanted to re-record, I was already packing up. I seldom revise for this same reason, because I am revising as I am writing.

Sometimes, the classical musician in me will set aside a poem for revision. I will become overly cautious about every word, the value of each word, the structure of the line, the way it appears on the page, the punctuation, the imagery, and the phrasing of a line.

I have opposite viewpoints about writing. Sometimes, I do not trust my poems and I wonder if I am good enough. Other times I trust whatever I write. There are times I want to destroy everything; and other times the urge to write is overwhelming. I range from the highly structure to the totally unstructured compositions. I think of Chopin: how he must have felt, looking at the blank sheet music, wanting to fill it all in faster than he could write.

I am a retired Librarian. Over thirty years of the same reference questions, I reached to the point I knew a lot of subjects. I tend to bring all that information into the poems: history, art, politics, social issues, plant identification, spirituality, and other subjects.

Martin Willitts Jr. with one of his papercuts. 


Martin Willitts Jr is a retired Librarian living in Syracuse, New York. He was nominated for 11 Pushcart and 11 Best of the Net awards. He provided his hands-on workshop “How to Make Origami Haiku Jumping Frogs” at the 2012 Massachusetts Poetry Festival. Winner of the 2012 Big River Poetry Review’s William K. Hathaway Award ; co-winner of the 2013 Bill Holm Witness Poetry Contest; winner of the 2013 “Trees” Poetry Contest; winner of the 2014 Broadsided award; winner of the 2014 Dylan Thomas International Poetry Contest.

He has over 20 chapbooks including "Swimming in the Ladle of Stars" (Kattywompus Press,2014),“City Of Tents” (Crisis Chronicles Press, 2014), “The Way Things Used To Be” (Writing Knights Press, 2014), and “Late All Night Sessions with Charlie “the Bird” Parker and the Members of Birdland, in Take-Three” (A Kind Of a Hurricane Press, 2015). He has 8 full length poetry books including ), national ecological award winner for “Searching for What You Cannot See” (Hiraeth Press, 2013), “Before Anything, There Was Mystery” (Flutter Press, 2014), and “Irises, the Lightning Conductor For Van Gogh's Illness” (Aldrich Press, 2014).

His forthcoming books include “Martin Willitts Jr, Greatest Hits” (Kattywompus Press), “How to Be Silent” (FutureCycle Press), “God Is Not Amused With What You Are Doing In Her Name” (Aldrich Press).

He wrote a collection of poems numbered “Opus” poems which have appeared in the following magazines (some under different titles): Big River Poetry Review, Blue Heron Review, Kentucky Review, Literature Today, Love Notes (anthology), Moon Magazine, Page & Spine, Black Poppy Review, Poppy Road Review, and Seven Circles Press. You can read the Black Poppy Review Opus Poems here.

Shaded Upside Down - by Maja Trochimczyk