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Melodies for Mansfield: How Kiwi musicians set the author’s words to music

Illustration/Weef

She may be our pre-eminent short-story writer, but it's Katherine Mansfield's poetry that has inspired a star-studded musical project.

Five years ago, Northampton-based academic and Katherine Mansfield scholar Gerri Kimber discovered 26 poems by Mansfield in the Newberry Library in Chicago, of which only nine had been published previously.

Written when Mansfield was in her early twenties, around the time of an affair, a pregnancy, an unconsummated marriage and a miscarriage, the poems made up The Earth Child cycle.

In the subsequently published The Collected Poems of Katherine Mansfield, editors Kimber and Sorbonne professor Claire Davison noted the author – this country’s most internationally acclaimed short-story writer – had been overlooked as a poet, but, in 1916, had written, “I feel always trembling on the brink of poetry.”

Mansfield’s poems reach from anxious juvenilia to her moving The Wounded Bird, written six months before her death in January 1923, at 34.

It is a vast body of work – almost 200 poems, not including the 28-part Earth Child – and a valuable archive for academics, researchers and, now, musicians.

Charlotte Yates: no interpretation was rejected. Photo/Supplied

The new Mansfield album offers 12 complete poems or major extracts set to music by local artists and is another project helmed by Wellington singer-songwriter Charlotte Yates, after similar explorations using the words of James K Baxter, Hone Tuwhare and Witi Ihimaera.

Yates first had the Mansfield idea a decade ago, but then came the Christchurch earthquakes, the possibility of presenting the poems to music in a theatrical production (“That didn’t happen because they discovered musicians are more expensive than actors – we’ve got more gear”), as well as her own career, including 2017 album Then the Stars Start Singing, for which she recorded Mansfield’s poem The Awakening River.

Then there was the discovery of the unpublished poems.

“This time last year I was in Camp Katherine up to my eyeballs, reading the five volumes of her letters [edited by Vincent O’Sullivan and Margaret Scott] and picking out great chunks that are completely riveting,” she says, laughing. “It was electrifying.”

What Yates sought was script material to place the poems in context as musicians were setting up because, as with previous projects, Mansfield will also be presented in concert.

Mansfield came with a particular set of problems, because “most people didn’t really know there was poetry; they immediately think of the short stories”.

“Previously, the musicians selected the poems themselves and I just adjudicated. People had grown up with [those poets and their work], but these were new to them, so I curated and matched poems to the people.”

Lawrence Arabia. Photo/Amelia Handscomb/Supplied
On Yates’ own label (“a label and labour of love”), Mansfield opens with Anna Coddington interpreting the poet’s letter-to-self, To K.M. It is a striking piece of autobiography-cum-personal mythology and when Yates received it, she knew immediately it would open the album and concerts.

“It made me cry, because Anna’s such a thoughtful person and songwriter. I love how it is delicate and delicate … and then she’s screaming on the edge of the wind.”

At the end is Mansfield’s final piece, The Wounded Bird, sung by folk band French For Rabbits. In between, Lawrence Arabia (James Milne) delivers an archetypal dream-pop treatment of Malade, Lontalius offers a languidly yearning Secret Flowers and Mel Parsons makes over There was a child once (XX) from The Earth Child into a mysterious piece of folk-pop.

Elsewhere are more striking interpretations.

Delaney Davidson finds an electro-beat darkness in his distinctively distorted setting of Mansfield’s words in Pic-Nic. Night-Scented Stock by arranger Godfrey de Grut with Christchurch performance poet Tusiata Avia is a swirling, dramatic interpretation of a complex poem that explores the synesthetic relationship between music, sound and tactile sensations, and has a mocking tone.

“I wanted it because it’s Katherine at her bitchiest and taking the absolute piss out of the Bloomsburys,” says Yates, who wasn’t surprised by the intensity of de Grut’s music for jazz horns and strings.

“Well, it’s Godfrey and there’s a big brain going on. And I very much wanted to have a performance poet because I’d enjoyed working with Sam Hunt and David Eggleton previously.

“Some poems set to music can be a bit earnest and inward. But when I started doing music, there were performance poets who would do slams, so I wanted some of that energy to jack it up a notch.”

Also included is a widescreen remix by Mark Tierney (Strawpeople) of Yates’ earlier Mansfield interpretation. She recalls LA-based Tierney – whom she hadn’t met until last year – thoughtfully critiquing her songwriting and production 20 years ago, and here was the opportunity to work together.

No interpretation was rejected (“because they were so good”), although she midwifed Sunset by Will Ricketts and Toby Laing, because they’d used only one verse. She liked the texture, but felt it needed more, so they expanded it and Ricketts called on singer Louis Baker, who did his part in two days before going on tour.

Despite the diverse artists and interpretations, Mansfield holds together well, enhanced by the relative unfamiliarity of its source material.

Of pieces she’d like people to hear, and perhaps surprise Mansfield readers, Yates picks two.

Tusiata Avia. Photo/Getty Images

The New Husband by Lorina Harding [mother of Aldous]. She’s been out of the loop for too long. I recorded her in her little cottage and she had a very clear vision of how she wanted it to sound, and played all the instruments.

“She imagined an old lady on her porch in a rocking chair. There’s a menace in that poem, because it was a turning point in Mansfield’s life. She’d sent it to [editor/husband] John Middleton Murry and he got extremely hurt; it provoked a crisis in their relationship. Lorina knows what [Mansfield’s] talking about.

“Also, Sanary, by The Bats. It sounds simple but there are twists in the songwriting and you can hear every word.

“That could really surprise people.”

MANSFIELD: IN HER OWN WORDS, presented live with readings from Katherine Mansfield’s letters: Wellington Opera House, June 13; Bruce Mason Centre, Takapuna, Auckland, June 20; MANSFIELD (Charlotte Yates Productions/Rhythmethod) on CD and digital platforms, February 20. REMEMBERING MANSFIELD, at the Auckland Writers Festival, Aotea Square, May 15.

This article was first published in the February 1, 2020 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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