Iowa Writers’ Workshop students put words to music at Mill

BY HANNA ROSMAN | MARCH 05, 2010 7:30 AM

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Elaine Kahn thinks writing poetry is often like collecting stamps — an obscure and isolated hobby.

She would rather perform her poetry with keyboard plunks and a hand drum in front of an audience.

The writer will take the stage in an event titled “Rock Art” at the Mill, 120 E. Burlington St., at 9 p.m. today. Admission is $6. The show will also include UI graduate student and folk singer Marisa Handler as well as live karaoke by the band the Dads.

Kahn, a second-year student in poetry in the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, thinks performing her written works in a more rhythmic fashion opens up many possibilities for expressing herself. As a compulsive sharer, the idea of reading words off a page is less striking and appealing than verbalizing them in a live performance.

“I wanted to do something less private,” she said. “There is certain distance between the person reading that doesn’t exist when you play music.”

The 27-year-old began playing the piano at a very young age with enthusiasm, but without complete dedication to practice.

“I remember saying, ‘Mom, more than anything in the world, I just want to play piano,” she said.

That week, her mother purchased a used piano, but Kahn immediately refused to practice. Years later, she was surrounded by many friends who were musicians and renewed her interest.

While performing, she commonly uses musical loops to create a backing for her songs. Doing so allows her to give more to the audience than she would in a regular show. This method can also cause Kahn stress because of the high pressure it takes for song construction. She approaches creating tracks with an attitude of doing her best — or at least when mistakes happen she pretends they were on purpose.

“My friend told me that no one knows when you mess up, just make the feeling it face,” Kahn said. “People look to you for a sense of how things are going.”

David Gorin, UI graduate student and Rock Art organizer, has listened to both of the scheduled artists. He thinks they’re a very complementary pairing because of Handler’s use of old-modeled folk music and Kahn’s DIY style of new recording technology.

“Elaine is an avant-garde live composer,” Gorin said. “It is like [she] is making a recording in front of everyone.”

The 27-year-old hopes to extend Rock Art into a series that many can participate in. Because music is outside of what those in the Writers’ Workshop are studying, Gorin thinks the series can give more potential to what writers can do.

“This is something that will be more accessible to people outside of the writers’ community,” he said.

Kahn finds music makes her poetry more accessible because of the release it provides, creating steady rhythms she can react against and use as an outlet to share herself with an audience.

“I make things for people a lot; I tell horrible stories about myself,” she said. “I like to feel connected to other human beings. That’s something I get a lot of satisfaction from.”

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