Thursday, October 11, 2012

Jim Vrabel: Putting Berryman's The Dream Songs on Stage

Jim Vrabel is a local historian and the author of When In Boston: A Timeline & Almanac (Northeastern University Press). He is co-author of John Paul II: A Personal Portrait of the Pope and the Man (St. Martin’s Press).

A long-time neighborhood activist and former city official in Boston, he now lives in Brookline, Massachusetts.

Jim attended the Graduate School of English at the University of Iowa, which is where he first encountered John Berryman’s Dream Songs. After expecting others to do it, he composed Homage to Henry: A Dramatization of John Berryman’s The Dream Songs, an 80-minute one-man play by taking some 90 of the most brilliant and autobiographical of the songs - in whole or in part - re-ordering them and adding a very few lines of connecting text.

The play received a staged reading at the Charlestown Working Theater, and has been performed for the Association of Literary Scholars, Critics and Writers at Boston University and at the Oberon Theater as a benefit for the Grolier Poetry Book Shop in Cambridge.

Paul Mariani, Berryman’s biographer and a poet himself, calls Homage to Henry “a sad and very human story, as stark in its way as anything in Samuel Beckett.”

I talked with Vrabel on my Somerville Community Access TV show: Poet to Poet: Writer to Writer.


Doug Holder: You are not a poet--yet you wrote play based on the character of Henry from John Berryman's poetic work The Dream Songs. And you made this play accessible. Do you think that is a problem with poetry--that it is not accessible for the non-poet?

Jim Vrabel: Well I think so. A lot of modern poetry, like modern art, is very inaccessible to the layperson. And this is a problem. It cuts your audience down.

DH: Does it have to be inaccessible to be good?

JV: No, Billy Collins and Sharon Olds, two very celebrated poets, are very accessible. And again the problem may be the academic business. The way to make a living as a writer is through teaching and the academy, and then you before you know it you are down that path.

DH: How did you decide what to keep and what not to keep from The Dream Songs in your play Homage to Harry?

JV: I wanted it to work as a play. Originally I had another character from The Dream Songs but I couldn't make it work. So I put all the poems on the wall and started to arrange things and saw what worked and what didn't.

And this is what I came up with.

DH: Was Henry Berryman's alter ego?

JV: I can't figure it out--but I don't think you need to figure it out. I think you should first appreciate Henry and the character just for what they are. It's the words---it is the way he uses words that is important.

DH: Well if Henry was an alter ego for Berryman--then like Berryman he might be in his early 40's, the age in which Berryman wrote this work. Henry talked as if it was all over--although he was a relatively young man. Do you think Berryman depression came into play?

JV: I think it was his depression. He could have had many more years ahead of him. There were many references to suicide in the poems.

DH: Why do you think so many poets and writers are afflicted by this?

JV: I think they see more and feel more than the rest of the world. And sometimes that is too hard to take. The gift is if they can write about it well.

DH: Henry like Berryman seemed to be very competitive with other poets.

JV: Yes. He mentions other poets in the poems. Take Dylan Thomas, he describes him as: " The doomed bard roaming down the thirsty West." And Eliot: " The subtle American banker man." And Pound: " The lunatic." Robert Lowell: " The Bostonian, rugged, grand, and sorrowful." And of course Frost: "The sage." I think Berryman would like to put himself among these guys.

DH: Jim you are a historian as well. In fact the abridged version of your historical timeline of the City of Boston When in Boston is coming out soon. What was one of the more interesting events you covered in the book?

JV: Yes it is a timeline from before Boston was founded to the present. One of my favorite events was when Whitman came to Boston and Emerson tried to convince him to take all the explicit references out of Leaves of Grass. They walked around for hours but of course Whitman was not convinced.

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