Consciousness in Verse: An Interview with Poet Cleveland Wall

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What do science, consciousness, and classical guitar music have in common? For local poet Cleveland Wall, all are a source of inspiration for her latest works. A West Bethlehem resident and poet-performer, Wall has been creating provocative verses since she was a child. She recalls growing up in a household where her parents recited poetry fairly often, inspiring the young Wall to start creating her own pieces. A multi-talented artist, Wall has worked with Selkie Theater, Allentown Public Theater, and Basement Poetry in the past.

Photo Courtesy of Cleveland Wall.

Although it’s hard for Wall to name just one favorite work of poetry, Rainer Maria Rilke’s “Duino Elegies” are at the top of her list. For Wall, all ten poems found in Rilke’s “Duino Elegies” feel like “one cohesive work. So much to love in those poems–the dreamscape with angels, lovers, and acrobats, subversive ideas about existence, musical language rendered in a very interior voice. If I had to pick just one, maybe it would be the Fourth–O Bäume Lebens, o wann winterlich?–with the speaker in the poem stubbornly sitting before the puppet stage demanding a show. Very psychologically revealing!”

In terms of the poet’s own work, Wall has dedicated this past year to performances, including a theater piece that she wrote with her husband, classical guitarist Michael Wall. As Wall reveals, “We’d been doing mashups with my poems and his classical repertoire for a while and wanted to make a show incorporating these different pieces, so we constructed it the way you might put together a chapbook manuscript, and then I wrote the interludes that tie the story together. Basically, it’s the story of an individual consciousness moving through existence. That sounds really esoteric, but it’s pretty accessible. We debuted our show, “Odeon,” at the Ice House back in January, and of course as soon as it was done I decided to rewrite the interludes as verse, so I’ve been kind of working on that.”

She has also been doing improv poetry readings with the performance group No River Twice, the brainchild of Hayden Saunier. The name of the group is play off of a quote by Heraclitus, who wrote: “No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.” True to the spirit of this quote, Saunier describes the group as “a multi-vocal, improvisational poetry reading collaboration in which audience and poets interact to determine the direction of the performance from beginning to end, poem by poem, co-creating a reading.”

Wall adds: “There are about 10 poets involved so far and not everybody makes it to every performance, but whoever can will show up with a book or two of their poems and depending on the themes the audience wants to pursue, we have to find poems that address them. So it’s a completely different reading every time.”

She has also performed in the Experimento Shows, which are organized by local poet Matt Wolf and musician/ visual artist Jared Balogh. Wall describes the shows as “multidisciplinary improv extravaganzas with live painting, dance, free jazz, and poetry. Nobody in the room knows what is going to happen next. I love it.” Cleveland also recently performed with Basement Poetry in Her: The Female Experience from Birth to Death.

“It’s devised theater, so the process for building the show was really intense–long sessions three days a week for about six weeks. Most of the poetry in it was written expressly for that show. All of the songs and choreography were collaborations of the cast members. Our director, Torez Mosley, had to come up with creative strategies to elicit all of that and shape it into a narrative.”

The experience proved fruitful for her in multiple ways, as it provided inspiration for her collaborative piece with her husband. The two performers had a chance to test out their work together at the Ice House. Wall recalls, “Doug Roysdon of Mock Turtle Marionettes was super generous with his time and advice on pacing, blocking, storytelling.”

What’s next for our resident poet? Cleveland will be one of 16 featured artists contributing to this year’s Perspectives Exhibit at the Nurture Nature Center in Easton. Along with collaborating poets Lynn Alexander, Ann Burke, and Matt Wolf, Cleveland will be adopting data sets from the Science on a Sphere exhibit, meeting with scientists, and creating works of art that “illuminate those data sets so that people can absorb them in a visceral way.”

For readers who are interested in including more poetry in their everyday lives, Cleveland recommends following Lehigh Valley Poetry on social media, which provides an extensive listing of local poetry readings. She also recommends Wisteria Dawn’s Wednesday workshops at Coffeehouse Without Limits, in Allentown. “You can get some feedback on new work, do a writing prompt, meet a fine crew of poets.”

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