A songwriting contest on Feb. 16 will give Boston College students an opportunity to explore newly rediscovered poetry, win prize money, and perform at a book launch event. The contest was arranged by BC English professor Paul Lewis, and is sponsored by University Press of New England and BC’s Institute for the Liberal Arts.
The event is part of an effort to publicize the release of an anthology titled The Citizen Poets of Boston: A Collection of Forgotten Poems, 1789-1820, to be published by the University Press of New England in March of 2016.
Utilizing the liveliness of song is a way of bringing energy to the anthology’s release, Lewis said.
“Many of the poems [in the collection] have strong voices and tell compelling stories one can almost hear being sung,” Lewis said. “Having a couple of these works set to music and sung today is a delightful way of breathing new life back into them.”
The guidelines for the competition ask students to select one or two of the poems and align them with their own, original music. While remaining true to the text is essential, students are free to cut or repeat lines from the poetry to create a song of any style. Their songwriting work will be judged on aspects of their musical compositions as well as their song’s ability to capture the essence of the selected poems.
The competition, which will be held on campus, has attracted attention from other nearby universities. Ten students from Berklee College of Music have already entered the contest. These entries will be judged alongside potential BC student entries by a panel comprised of Lewis, a member of the Berklee School of Music’s songwriting faculty, and BC Director of Undergraduate Music Studies, professor Jeremiah McGrann.
In an email, McGrann advised songwriting students to be passionate and creative in their work. “Write from the heart, express the text as you feel it, [and] make the text come alive,” he suggested
Those seeking to submit an entry to the contest must request a copy of the poem by Dec. 15. One month later, contestants will be asked to request a competition time and indicate which poem or poems they will perform. Their creative work will culminate in a presentation of their songs at the competition, during which two pieces will each be awarded $250. In addition, the victorious musicians will be invited to perform their pieces at Boston-based book launch events in the spring of 2016.
The poems that are part of the contest were selected over a three-year period ending in 2014, when Lewis worked closely with 17 BC English majors to review over 4,500 poems found in 59 Boston magazines published in the late 1700s and early 1800s. This effort began as a part of a spring 2011 seminar on Forgotten Chapters of Boston’s Literary History. During this time, students assisted Lewis in creating an exhibition sharing the title of their course. The exhibit was on display at the Boston Public Library and Massachusetts Historical Society in 2012.
Until the creation of online archives, Lewis said, it was difficult to access and read American poems published in the years directly after the ratification of the U.S. Constitution. In addition, most poems published in the U.S. during these decades were copied from prior publications in England.
Due to this inaccessibility and political bias, literary historians have generally held poetic work from this period in low esteem. Assisted primarily by the American Periodical Series online, Lewis and his students selected 160 poems that they feel are reflective of Boston during this time.
Social movements central to Bostonians at the time, as well as themes of life, death, love, and family are all present in the recovered works.
Dedicated to the students who worked on the project, the anthology will be released this spring. Some of these students have worked with Lewis since their time in his seminar continuing on the project after graduating from BC. The back cover text invites potential readers to travel back in time.
“We searched for poems that captured the texture of life—what people were doing, thinking, and feeling—here during the early national period. We chose poems that called out to us by providing access to the shops, streets, taverns, schools, and homes of Old Boston” Lewis said.
Featured Image Courtesy of boston.com