When the award-winning flutist and composer Katherine Hoover starts writing a new piece of music, she’s never sure where it’s going to go. And she’s okay with that.
“You never know where it’s going to take you,” Hoover said in a recent phone interview. “You just have to work and express it and let it be and let it take you there.”
As Hoover launches a career as a poet, she says working with words is much the same way. And she's okay with that, too.
Embracing the mystery and uncertainty of the creative life has come to define Hoover as an artist. Her first collection of poems, This Way About (2015) gives voice to the mysteries of creativity – and of life in general – in its first poem, “Vaguely Philosophical.” That poem tells of life twisting, turning and looping back on itself with no clear outcome in sight – “Who is to say/that backward is not/where forward will go?/Let someone else decide;/ I abstain,/knowing simply myself/that this way about/is only (or also) mine.”
The poem could stand as a thesis statement as much for This Way About as for Hoover’s life.
Although Hoover’s poetry might be new to us, Hoover is not new to poetry. She started writing poems when she was a teenager, but she kept them to herself. Through the years, she continued writing, and about eight years ago started sharing some of her poetry with family and friends, who encouraged her.
“So I decided, finally, that I’d go ahead and do something with it,” Hoover said. “But before that, it was just between me and the words.”
Hoover says the distance between composer and poet isn’t such a big one. The almost chaotic freedom inherent in creative work is just one of many things that, Hoover says, composing music and writing poems share. There’s also sound – the process of gathering the sounds of words into poems is not unlike creating music by gathering notes into musical soundscapes.
“Sound is such a part of what I do, and it’s certainly true when I’m working with words, and not just music,” Hoover said.
Then there’s the endless variety in what people say about her music and, now, also her poems.
“As a composer so often people who come to me about a piece, and each person who comes says something different, or likes a different movement of a piece, or whatever. And it’s true about the book. I don’t think I’ve had two people tell me the same poem that was their favorite,” Hoover said.
And there are the reasons for writing music or poetry in the first place. Writing poetry, Hoover says, is a way of answering questions for herself.
“I think when I write a poem, I’m trying to make sense out of some idea or some happening, and that’s why I write it. If this group of words called a poem changes the way you look at something, or brings you to a new conclusion about something, or brings you to understand some kind of revelation about what the poem is about, that that’s really what the poem does. And basically that’s what it has always done for me. It’s a new understanding of what I’m writing about,” Hoover said.
Hoover’s poems in This Way About encompass some of the deep questions of human existence – ephemerality and loss, mortality, how the pain of childhood haunts us as adults, family and other types of relationships, our human connection with nature. Some of Hoover’s poems are striking studies in imagery and metaphor. “Prism” casts a spider web in the glistening language of refracted light. In “Sentinel” the poetic speaker is transformed into a tree that stands guard over those she loves. Other poems are more personal expressions of heartache, love and joy. “Strange Tears,” for instance, is a poignant remembrance of lost love. Hoover lays bare her soul in “There Was No Love,” a lament on the heartbreaking emotional dynamic in her family of origin.
It’s not surprising that some of the poems in This Way About draw upon Hoover’s rich experience in with music and musicians. “Kathy,” a poem about Kathy Morris, who was a student in one of Hoover’s music theory classes at the Manhattan School of Music and also the subject of the 1980 made-for-TV movie Seizure: The Story of Kathy Morris. Hoover’s poem reflects on what she witnessed as Morris struggled with the ultimately deadly after-effects of brain surgery following a seizure.
“Every word in here is true, this is straight from reality,” Hoover said of the poem. “And I have to say, I thought about Kathy for so very long, and I knew her pretty well by the time she died. I think I was able to express my tremendous admiration for this young woman and her attitude and what kept her going through all of this.”
In “Bach: Prelude in C,” Hoover invites us to savor with her a performance by her friend the cellist Sharon Robinson of the Prelude of J.S. Bach’s Suite No. 1 for solo cello. The poem traces the resonant swoops and arcs of Bach’s musical lines as they echo in the open space of a stone cathedral.
“The experience was just sort of incredible,” Hoover said of the performance that inspired the poem. “I wrote (the poem) specifically so that you can hear any instrument you want playing it, and I’d almost prefer that you listen to it as if it were the cello, because the cello’s so rich and big, and so is the piece.”
Poems informed by Hoover’s life as a professional flutist also made their way into This Way About. “Studying Syrinx” is a recollection of interpreting Debussy’s solo flute work, Syrinx, inspired by the myth of Syrinx and Pan. In “Master Teacher,” Hoover takes us to her days as a student of the noted flutist William Kincaid. “Music, My Love” is what its title suggests – a love poem to the art form to which Hoover has devoted her professional life up.
Now, as Hoover steps into the future, she’s stepping forth with twin art forms, each a means – different, but at the same time, similar– of making sense of the world, of telling stories.
“Just like a piece of music, (poems) have to fit from beginning to end. And that’s a little mysterious, and I think that’s really very much like when I write music,” Hoover said. “It has to fit from beginning to end. A piece of music has to tell its own story also.”