No More Zombie Poets, Part 2:
Finding Writers Who Aren't Dead
Read Part 1: Choosing Better Public Domain Texts here.
Let’s say you’re ready to stop setting poems by “zombie poets” — writers like Sara Teasdale and Emily Dickinson, whose poems have been set to music over and over again. You’re ready to explore working with living writers now, choosing texts that haven’t been set to death.
How do you go about finding living, breathing authors?
In most searches for public domain poems, you start by looking for the perfect poem first.
In starting working with texts by living authors, though, I’d recommend that you go about the process another way. Many composers have horror stories about falling in love with a text under copyright only to discover that the author or estate won’t grant them permission to set it.
You’re going to do it differently. You’re not going to start by looking up contemporary poems. Instead, you’re going to find a writer whose work you adore and establish a working relationship with them. You’re going to start by first considering the people you already know.
Where are the writers?
You probably have at least one acquaintance — a childhood friend, a relative, a former teacher — who writes prose or poetry. If you don’t directly know any writers, you very likely have friends and family who do; ask them if they know anyone who writes. You are no more than two degrees of separation away from a writer. We’re not necessarily looking for someone who writes for a full-time, professional living, here; we’re looking for words that you personally feel could be a great fit for music.
If you’re at a university, or even if you’re an alum, this process can be particularly easy. Ask an administrator in the English department if they would email their undergraduates and grad students your request for poems to consider setting to music. You can also post a call for poems on a list of contemporary writers or poets such as the Creative Writers Opportunities List or a Facebook group for writers (or even just on your personal Facebook page: again, you know someone who knows a writer).
A call for poems may be more successful if you have a specific theme in mind; this will limit the poems you receive initially, but again, your ultimate goal is to find a writer that you love. After you’ve established initial contact with someone, you can ask to see more of their work.
How should you reach out?
Don’t be afraid to reach out to writers directly to ask if they’d like to work with you. Many will be delighted at the prospect of having their work set to music; if they decline, you’ll find someone else. Explain that you’re a composer who is looking for new texts to work with. Send two or three recordings of your best work as links, not attachments. Ask if they have any poems they’d like you to consider setting to music.
How do you get permission?
If a writer responds to you with work samples, they’ve implied that they’re open to working with you. However, once you know you want to work with them, you’re still going to get a letter stating that they hold the copyright for this poem and grant you permission to set it. You’ll need this for any competition or publisher that wants proof of permission. You’ll want to get this more formal letter of permission before you start composing, just in case. A reminder: if you don’t yet have permission to set a text, do not set it. Wait to start composing until permission has been explicitly established in writing.
If the writer is published, the easiest way to obtain written permission is to have the author deal with their publisher. They already have an established relationship with the publisher; you don’t.
Should you pay your collaborators?
Yes, you should. If you’re a student writing works for friends, it’s perfectly fine to explain that right now, most of your works are written for free. Generally speaking, though, I’d strongly recommend that you pay your poets something, especially when you’re writing a commissioned piece and being paid for it. That may be a set amount ($50, $100, $150) or a percentage of the commission (5%, 10%). It doesn’t have to be a large sum, but you like to be paid; your writer likes to be paid; everyone likes and deserves to be paid for their creative work.
If you’re registered with a performing rights organization (PRO) like ASCAP or BMI — and you should be — your poet will receive performance royalties, too. (They will also have to register with a PRO, if they aren’t already.) Do make it clear to them that these royalties can — and usually will — be much more lucrative long-term than any initial payment you give them, especially if the piece has a life after the premiere performance.
How do you find more writers?
Finding one author you enjoy and can collaborate with more often than not leads to another, especially if you ask for suggestions. Just like composers, writers have often gone to school with other people in their field or have worked with colleagues whose writing they admire and would be happy to recommend. Once you’ve established a relationship with an author, ask politely if they have suggestions for other writers who might also be interested in having their work set to music.
Sometimes you’ll know you want to work with a text, but it will take time to find an opportunity to set it. Explain this to your collaborators: it may take a while to find the exact right fit for this particular poem, but that you’re eager to set it and keeping it in mind for the future. Keep a folder of the poems that you know you want to set in the future, and their right moment will come. You may not love the work of every writer who comes your way, but do keep a record of everyone you connect with; the right opportunity to set their work may yet come up in the future.
Is it worth it?
It does take some effort to find living authors, but the process is extremely worthwhile. Cultivate a roster of poets you adore, and these will become Your Writers; you’ll feel oddly protective of them, fiercely proud of their successes and eager to continue collaborating with them.
The next time you have the chance to write music for voice, consider reaching beyond the most set-to-death public domain poems for words that have never been set before. If you start searching for new collaborators now, then the next time you need a text to set, you can email your roster of living writers. These relationships are particularly valuable when you need a poem for a themed pieces: a single stanza on the theme of “America,” for example, or a poem about light and darkness. Your roster of writers may have already written something that is just the right fit.
The best contemporary writing will stretch you and your composition toward innovative harmonies and unexpected rhythms. It will lead you to create music that eschews stale traditions and is rooted actively in the present.
There’s nothing scary about working with living authors, but there is a tremendous reward in working with texts that feel fresh and wholly yours. If you put a little time and care into finding writers you admire now, you will be rewarded with new collaborators to work with for your entire career.
. . . . .
This post was originally published on the MusicSpoke blog, April 2016.