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Gathered Light: The Poetry of Joni Mitchell's Songs

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JONI MITCHELL
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"Staying the same is boring", said a young Joni Mitchell in a 1979 interview. "I'd rather be crucified for changing".

For over forty years, the singer songwriter has fused a burning urge for originality with a once in a lifetime writing mastery, creating songs that take you on a spellbinding journey.

Poetic insights into personal feelings, observations and muse; glimpses that are somehow both intimate and openly inviting at the same time. 

From Both Sides Now to Big Yellow Taxi, River to Coyote, Blue to Sex Kills, lyrical impressions which longtime Mitchell producer and ex-husband Larry Klein calls "mysterious and charged amulets that never lose their power".

"As a songwriter and poet", Klein explains, "Joni works at a level that very few writers have accessed... her songs were the soundtrack to a big part of my life".

Reflecting on Joni's 1982 Chinese Cafe Klein notes that "some art stays with you for your whole life, every time you see the movie, look at the painting, or hear the song, it has the same evocative power that it did the first time that you were introduced to it. Chinese Cafe/ Unchained Melody has it too".

As Gathered Light, a collection of Joni Mitchell's poetry is about to hit the book shelves, I speak with writers Lisa and John Sornberger about their long time kinship with the songwriter's work and compiling the Joni endorsed collection. 

This is an unusual poetry book where besides the striking Joni lyrics are insights from fifty six contributors talking about the Mitchell songs that have affected them. These include David Geffen on Free Man in Paris, Sharon Bell Veer of Song For Sharon, Trina Robbins (one of the Ladies of the Canyon), Kim Addonizio, Cornelius Eady, Bessy Reyna, Patricia Smith, Susan Deer Cloud, Wally Lamb, Sean Murphy, Paul Lisicky, Fred Wah and Larry Klein among others. 

"Each contributor was asked to writes about his/her favorite poem," says Lisa, "but only if it had been selected by no more than one other contributor. An exception was made for Cherokee Louise which was reflected upon by three different writers with very different perspectives".

Q What was Joni's reaction to the idea of a compilation?
 
A It clicked with her right from the get go, the idea of our project was refreshing to her because it is about her work as a poet, not about her personal life and she liked our list of contributors too. Some of her dear friends felt it too, that this was a worthy project and shared their feelings about it with her. 
 
Q Tell us about the poems selected for the book?
 
A These are poems from different periods of Joni's work, from Song To A Seagull through Shine. Some of the pieces that were written about are Free Man In Paris by David Geffen, Song For Sharon by Joni's childhood friend Sharon Bell Veer, Ladies of the Canyon by Trina Robbins, The Last Time I Saw Richard by Kim Addonizio, The Magdalene Laundries by Wally Lamb and also by Brooke Axtell and God Must Be A Boogie Man by Fred Wah, Poet Laureate of Canada.

Q Larry Klein has told me that Chinese Cafe, his selected Joni song for the book, "has always been in my blood, ever since she wrote it on a trip that she took to Saskatoon".

A Larry wrote a beautiful piece for the book. This song was also chosen by writer Jill McAllister. We love the instances where two writers chose the same song. That juxtaposition of voices and viewpoints.

Q The honesty beaming through these lyrics is captivating.
 
A Authentic, and poignant, whether she's writing from a persona or personal experience. She tells it true and is a master of her craft, that's why it resonates with so many of us.

Q How did the format of the book shape up? 

A The idea arrived that way, format and all. I (Lisa) bounced it off writer friends most of whom are fellow members of a writers group called Thread City Poets - Willa Correnti, Kathleen McElroy and Patricia Wilson, my husband John, Edmond Chibeau and Elena Schreiber, Joni's friends Sharon Bell Veer, Betsy Asher, Pam Runkle and Sue 'Sioux' Wurzel have helped at various stages..Les Irvin who manages Joni's website has been great as were our publishers at sumach Press (an imprint of Three O'Clock Press) who had the vision to recognize a gem in the making and dared take it on..truthfully, there may need to be a second volume, because there are people we would've invited had we known their connection to Joni and of their wish to be included. There are some very prominent poets who wanted to participate too...

Q What would you say is the most expressed sentiment towards Joni's work by contributors to the book?
 
A You will read this over and over in the contributions how Joni has enriched people's lives and art and gave voice to their feelings.

This is true as well for non contributors and people who don't define themselves as artists. Joni's genuine voice helped us each find our own. Her clarity, intelligence and emotion, combined with exquisite craft meter, rhythm, rhyme, metaphor, sound and meaning, word pictures, her creativity sparks creativity, we are not talking about copycatting but about the way a spark can set a wildfire!

Gathered Light The Poetry of Joni Mitchell's Songs published by Three O'Clock Press. Available from Amazon

Around the Web

Bob Dylan is 'a plagiarist', claims Joni Mitchell | Music | guardian.co.uk

The Official Website of Joni Mitchell

BBC - Music - Joni Mitchell

Joni Mitchell discography - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

The Studio Albums 1968-1979 by Joni Mitchell, review - Telegraph