David Yezzi – Expanding Verse Drama Performance in Baltimore


David Yezzi is a Writing Seminars Professor at the Johns Hopkins University. A playwright, scholar, and poet, he is one of the co-founders of the recently established Baltimore Poets Theater, whose mission statement reads, “a group of actors, dramatists, filmmakers, and poets – many of them associated with the Writing Seminars and the Theatre Arts and Studies Program at Johns Hopkins – committed to presenting verse drama, in both its classic and modern forms.” It is combination of faculty, undergraduates, and recent graduates. The reading of his play “Schnauzer” through the Baltimore Poets Theater a few months ago was reviewed on Brine.

He is an expert on the poet Anthony Hecht and has a book coming out about him soon. I spoke with him in his office in Gilman Hall about his work in poetry and theater, how they mix, and why Baltimore is an exciting place for the performing arts.

What is your background in theater and how did you wind up in Baltimore?

DY: I just moved to Baltimore from New York City. I was living in New York for 27 years. I moved to New York to become an actor. I had gotten a degree at Carnegie Mellon and had my equity card from doing work in Pittsburgh where I was studying and came to New York . I also founded a theatre company called Thick Description. I was a co-founder with Tony Kelly and some other dramatists. This was in 1988 or 1989. Tony could see right away even back then that starting a theater company in New York was almost impossible, so he moved the company to San Francisco. I stayed in New York to pursue acting and wound up reconnecting with them. If anything, New York is much more expensive; the real estate prices in Manhattan in particular have made it almost impossible for arts spaces to exist in a way that they used to. It’s really hard to do new work. Whereas, in Baltimore there is a lot of space and lots of time. It’s less expensive. Not everyone has three jobs. So it’s a very exciting place right now. It’s good. Here was this community of poets and I quickly met groups of actors who were performing in both Baltimore and D.C. and because they are so close there is a lot of overlap, a lot of poets who were also playwrights, and it all kind of naturally fit together.

Right. Real estate is high in Manhattan and it is generally hard for artists to perform there. Has your perspective on art changed as you moved from New York to Baltimore? Or was it just the way that the city worked that you knew New York wasn’t going to work out?

DY: My perspective is the same but it was first of all meeting a group of artists that were interested in similar things and realizing that if we wanted to we could actually do work in Baltimore and collaborate with the various art spaces that have popped up recently in Station North and Hampden. Those venues make it possible for performers to work.

How does poetry and theater combine in your eyes?

DY: My experience is in some way similar to Hecht’s experience in that one of our first memories of poetry is reading and performing the plays of Shakespeare. As an actor, I was memorizing a lot of Shakespeare and carrying those lines in my head. They became almost internalized. It was a music I could carry around with me. That was very true of Hecht as well. A lot of Hecht’s work is dramatic – a lot of dramatic monologues, voices speaking, and that’s something I’m interested in as well. There is a way in which for me poetry is fundamentally dramatic. Even lyric poetry is dramatic because there is a lyric eye that’s like the poet but not exactly the poet speaking. It’s always somehow through the guise of character to a greater or lesser extent. My experience with poetry is that I feel a strong connection to the oral presentation of poetry. It exists as spoken, which isn’t to say that the page doesn’t tell you important things about the poem and give you a certain aesthetic experience. But this is very true of ancient poetry – it’s connected to the voice. Through ritual and ceremony, poetry was a spoken art form and I feel very connected to that tradition. Characters speaking in verse I find very powerful and I feel it’s very essential, in a way that keeps me coming back to it. In poetry and music, everything was sung.

Do you play music?

DY: I do. In fact I just put my guitar away. I’m not a particularly good musician but I play a number of stringed instruments. Poetry and music are so closely allied that I find music a part of the work. That’s another aspect of verse drama I have done, which is write words for opera. That is very much driven by the composer. All opera is the composer’s medium. But I have had the good fortune to work with composers who get a lot out of the words so it becomes a real collaboration.

Your play, “Schnazuer,” was first a poem.

DY: It was. In fact, all of my plays have started out as poems and then expanded into plays. Somehow those voices start chattering away and then all of a sudden they are in situations that begin to expand.

Do you ever go into poem thinking you will turn it into a play? Or do you think that it is what it is now and that it will be good on the stage? Because the story comes more into play.

DY: I think that for me they happen almost simultaneously. The dramatic situations begin to coalesce through the speaker of the poem. Once that situation is in play, it’s just a matter of expanding on it. So they start as monologues and grow from there.

How do you write? Do you write about your daily life? What inspires you?

DY: Some of the poems I write tend to come out of experiences that I have just going through my normal day that become somehow more resonant emotionally for whatever reason. And then I think there are poems that are further away from my daily life either because they are taken from memory or they are made up. And those I think don’t have to do so much with my immediate experience on the surface. But something about the emotional tenor of the poems is related to my life somehow. The ones that I make up are still connected to me emotionally. Not in a surface way, in more a subterranean way.

Image source: JHU Creative Writing Seminars

Elizabeth Sherwood is a Baltimore-based writer and exuberant pursuer of adventure and travel.


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