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‘Last Poem’ asks how we measure our lives

Soloist Barbara Hume rehearses one of the choral-based poems from “Last Poem on Earth: A Jazz Requiem.”  - Brad Camp/Staff Photo
Soloist Barbara Hume rehearses one of the choral-based poems from “Last Poem on Earth: A Jazz Requiem.”
— image credit: Brad Camp/Staff Photo

Local poets join Bainbridge Chorale in an epic performance.

The composer calls it “the Creation Myth.” The poet calls it “Genesis.”

Both refer to the story of a day two years ago when Paul Lewis looked up as he strolled the ferry terminal walkway and saw a line of Bonnie Wallace’s poetry staring at him.

It asked: “How do we measure our lives?”

The full poem, “Blue Island, Green Morning,” hung with numerous others as part of the Island Portrait poetry exhibit, which is still on display at the terminal. Lewis went home, looked up the complete poem on the Internet, and then called Wallace.

“You said that that line in particular sounded like a line someone might write if they were writing the last poem on earth,” Wallace recalled to Lewis.

Thus, a small slice of inspiration formed the basis for what has become “Last Poem on Earth: A Jazz Requiem,” a grand poetic, choral and instrumental endeavor that Wallace calls “a true community effort.”

Wallace and Lewis began their project with a call for submissions based on Lewis’s idea: What poem would you write if it were to be the last poem on earth?

“We were worried about getting really maudlin responses,” Wallace said.

But the inspiring, contemplative nature of the submissions by local poets such as Bob McAllister, John Willson, Linda Owens and Abra Bennett surprised them.

“I really do think people are going to walk out of this feeling very uplifted,” Wallace said.

Wallace assigned herself the task of writing a piece to “wrap” the concert, which she knew would be large in scale. She went to the beach for a week and emerged with “Last Poem: An Invocation.”

“I don’t normally write such big poetry,” she said. “It felt like a spiritual coming out of the closet. This poem comes closest to speaking about my relationship with God.”

Novelist Mary Guterson’s work, “Last Poem on Earth,” was one of 19 other poems included.

“I took it really, really seriously,” Guterson said. “I thought, if you’re really going to write the last poem on this earth, what would you write? To really sit and think about doing that, it makes your mind go to all sorts of places.”

Guterson wrote her poem in a single night shortly after the death of close friend Toby Schneider, to whom the concert’s printed compilation of poems is dedicated.

With finished poems in hand, Lewis – known for his work as a jazz composer – began to craft each one’s core musical motif, later using software to layer on the instrumentation and vocals.

He envisioned setting the works to choral music accompanied by an eight-piece jazz ensemble.

It took him anywhere from an hour to a couple of weeks to complete the music for each poem. He thinks the end result is some of the best work he’s ever written.

“I knew I would have to write well to match the beauty of the poetry,” he said.

Jennifer Jett Cunningham was enlisted to conduct. In addition to the Bainbridge Chorale, “Last Poem” will pull in a children’s chorus and two smaller ensembles and numerous soloists.

After the work reached a certain size, Cunningham, Lewis and Wallace realized they needed an overseer to bring the entire piece to fruition. They thought of veteran island theater director Kate Carruthers.

“She has a certain aesthetic, a certain elegance,” Lewis said.

Just as composing for a chorale was new for Lewis, Carruthers said this type of directing effort was unfamiliar territory for her.

“I’m a channel for what they want to accomplish,” she said. “Rather than me having the vision, I’m trying to honor their vision.”

Wallace credits the Bainbridge Chorale for making time in its already scheduled season; she’s also grateful to Bainbridge Performing Arts for taking a creative and financial risk on this new work.

“The BPA Community Series, in which Last Poem is placed, is all about creating a space where different voices from our island can be heard,” Wallace said. “‘Last Poem’ of course epitomizes that possibility, and that spirit of collaboration.”

“This is really the essence of what I love about community and how you create a community in the theater,” Carruthers said. “It’s about Bainbridge. It draws on all the wonderful beauty and talent right here on Bainbridge. It’s really exciting.”

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Final verse

“Last Poem on Earth: A Jazz Requiem” runs at 7:30 p.m. April 20 and 21 and at 3 p.m. April 22 at the Playhouse.

For tickets and information, call 842-8569 or visit www.theplayhouse.org.

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