WORDS MOVE MOUNTAINS: An interview with musician and spoken word artist CD Collins
After being in Boston four years, I tracked down a friend and artist from early days in central Kentucky. CD Collins who’s lived in Somerville since the mid-1980s is credited as one of the progenitors of the spoken-word with music in the New England area. She's an award winning poet and performer. Getting re-acquainted was much like doing a documentary interview so I decided to write it up for the first publication of OpenMedia Boston. Collins has just issued a new cd. “Carousel Lounge chronicles events that occur at night, undercover, unobserved. It focuses on the fragile and endangered among us—our children, our wildlife, our planet. These poems and stories are accompanied by the soulful, bluesy band, Rockabetty."
JD You're clearly not from here (Boston). Where are you from?
CD I was born in Kentucky. Sometimes I am from Mt. Sterling, the Gateway to the Appalachian Mountains. Other times, I am from the fictional town of Vance, which exists in my stories and in my mind’s eye.
JD When and why did you come to Boston?
CD I had been teaching high school English and one of my students said to me Go be a writer like you’re supposed to...
So I packed up my cats and my ruby red goblets and left the farm. I arrived in Boston on my birthday, July 22, 1986. There was a party outside our building and these big ol’ guys just watched us women carry all our belongings upstairs. That night my friend’s car was stolen; the next week my girlfriend and I were mugged with all her ID, cash, and the keys to our apartment. That was our introduction to the “police lock.” Maybe Governor Patrick will overhaul Boston’s Welcome Wagon.
On the other hand, I walked over to Northeastern and met a woman who networked on my behalf. She found a teaching job for me that afternoon. The Boston arts scene was out of sight and there was all this exciting food to eat. I’d never eaten an eggplant sub, let alone dived into the glories of a New England Clam Bake.
JD I notice that you refer to yourself as a “Southerner.” How is that different from being from the mountain culture at the Kentucky foothills of the Appalachians?
CD I only feel like a Southerner because in Boston I am intensely defined as such. When I lived in Kentucky, I didn’t feel southern, or even especially Kentuckian. In Europe, I’m an American. In Mexico, a Yanqui.
We humans tend to gather ourselves into tribes, or define each other by contrasts. There’s great comfort in the similarities and flavor and hue in the differences. My job as a writer and as a human being is to explore with an open heart, educating myself about the context and history of these differences, not to use them as a basis for prejudice.
Mountain culture is a fine tuning of my southern identity. In my home state we have mountains, foothills, knobs, glades, cypress swamps, sandstone cliffs, limestone palisades and bluegrass savanna. Contrary to rumor, we do have winter. It lasts three months, as do spring, summer and autumn, just like in Camelot.
In my hometown, I was a Collins, which implied working class people who were farmers and construction workers. On my mother’s side, we were Tiptons, blacksmiths and artists descended from Norwegian Viking stock. There are 120 counties in Kentucky. A good ear can tell you which one you’re from.
Growing up, I was defined this way.
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JD What's it been like for you to live and work in Boston as an artist?
CD Every day I thank the good Lord, the laughing Buddha, the Blarney Stone and my good fortune that I live up here in Yankeetown. Back home, writers struggle mightily for their slice of literary pie, and, in my opinion, they are reluctant to share it. At the University of Kentucky where I studied literature, only a few of my professors, notably Wendell Berry and Guy Davenport and Bill Gordon, encouraged me to think creatively. At Harvard, I felt intellectually freed and artistically accepted. Harvard has the security of an institution with nothing to prove.
JD How have you been received here in Boston as a “Southerner” or “Appalachian person?”
CD In my Boston community of writers, both the underground performance poets and the academically based writers, I feel embraced. I’ve made my peace on the fringes, but being included does feel good. Their warm response has made me so happy.
On the other hand, when I moved to New England, I thought everyone would be liberal, not racist or sexist, totally evolved. In some ways the state is astonishingly progressive—witness Massachusetts’ recent legislation on gay marriage. But I’ve also heard some pathetic, unexamined stereotypes, particularly about the south, from the lips of perfectly intelligent people.
What I didn’t expect was how outer-directed Bostonians are, due I suppose to how much stimulation there is, intellectual and otherwise. City folks are less conversational than people back home. In Kentucky, we still sit on the back porch and talk while we string beans and shuck corn or play Cornhole.
In winter, we meet at each other’s houses and socialize. Everyone is a storyteller. It’s not a self-conscious now I’m going to tell you a story, but anecdotes full of rich language, metaphor, wit and humor. You don’t have to be book smart to be expert in the art of conversation. As a writer, my stories don’t compare to what I hear every day out of the mouths of the old folks back home.
There is a myth about Southerners being friendly to your face and then gossiping behind your back. They also say that in New England it might take twenty years to get to know someone but then they are a true friend. This implies that Southerners are less sincere than Northerners, and provides a rationalization for the chilly New England style. I say it ain’t so. In the South we actually are friendly. Of course we talk about people, to their faces and otherwise, but in general these conversations are not malicious. We’re just talking, sharing stories that are too hilarious not to repeat. Southern literature is known for this. Unfortunately, we also excel in terrible ways. Kentucky leads the country in diabetes, bad dentistry and Oxycontin use.
Besides the challenge of forming friendships in New England, relocating was also complicated by the weather and lack of light in winter. My first year, I got a case of Seasonal Affective Disorder and I found myself walking in circles in the Fens on a frigid February day. Then I heard about the effects of light starvation and all the SAD clinics up here filled with Southerners and people from California.
Boston has beautiful, pale sapphire light in December, while Kentucky light is lemony, and dusks linger until around 7 p.m. When I go home for Christmas, I try to stay through January. You’re all invited down to the farmstead for bonfires and hot toddies made with Kentucky bourbon.
JD Why are you, as a Boston artist, writing songs and producing music about mountaintop removal? What is mountaintop removal?
CD Well, I’m an artist who lives in Boston, but you can’t take the country out of the girl, and, honey, you wouldn’t want to.
There are three primary methods of extracting coal: strip mining, deep mining, where the miners work underground, and mountaintop removal. With MTR, the top of the mountain is blasted off and pushed into the valley. This industry does little to employ people in the community, because the process uses a combination of dynamite and a gigantic machine called a dragline, which is operated by one person. Mountaintop removal is illegal because it violates the Clean Water Act and the Environmental Protection Act. However, legal considerations typically do not obstruct the policies of the current administration. Coal companies contributed millions of dollars to the Bush campaign. There is a direct connection.
My state is literally being carried away, my culture being systematically destroyed. As a performer and writer, I am in a position to speak about this. Not doing so would be a great wrong.
JD Why should Bostonians be concerned with this “regional issue”?
CD I’m so glad you asked me that. I needed something to make my blood boil on this snowy New England day. Our Appalachian Mountains and their rich once-thriving culture are a national sacrifice. Appalachian coal provides over half of the electricity you are using right now-- your lamplight, your computer screen, your washing machine, your radio, your DVD player.
People and animals sicken and die every day because of it. They breathe toxic smoke from the blasting and refineries, drink poisoned water from slurry-contaminated streams, drive on treacherous roads wrecked by the continual traffic of overloaded trucks. They are subject to noise and floodlights 24 hours a day. The coal company ruins your $100,000 home and property, then buys it from you at market value for $15,000.
This man-made environmental catastrophe takes its place alongside the rainforest, the Congo, melting ice caps, and oil spills into the ocean. One of the sick paradoxes of MTR is that some of these profiteers believe that the earth is only a few thousand years old, then proceed to dig out a coal seam that took 300 million years to create.
There is the double-think phrase “Clean Coal.” Like the bloated corn industry exposed in the movie King Corn, mountaintop removal is unsustainable, unnecessary and unconscionable.
Lately, a few news features have brought some national attention to this issue—Bill Moyers and the New Yorker, for example. It is also noteworthy that some of the most active opponents of mountaintop removal are fundamentalist Christians living in Kentucky and West Virginia. Right on.
A few weeks ago the Sierra Club succeeded in suspending mining licenses in Leslie County, Kentucky, based on its illegality. I am so proud of them.
Who was it that said... “When we know better, we do better.”
JD How do you describe your artistic self?
CD Well, I wrote an artist statement and I still think it stands:
Can the fallout from WWII be neutralized, the racial wounds of America ever be healed? How does an atomic explosion work? Why do we see the moon in its phases? Can you go home again?
I write to confront moral complexity, to discover my best self, to dig deeper than the first impulses of jealousy, rage or revenge. I write to discover beauty in the grotesque and the ordinary.
I use science, politics, intuition and my own internal landscape as avenues of exploration. Good literature is like good medicine. Like the tiny homeopathic dose that stimulates the body to heal itself, so does the subtle shift of character, the understated phrase, move a reader to her own startling epiphany.
We cannot heal the world by criticism or condemnation, but by understanding it on its own terms, beginning with the world within.
JD What's the latest thing you've done?
CD My current album, Carousel Lounge, chronicles events that occur at night, undercover, unobserved. It focuses on the fragile and endangered among us—our children, our wildlife, our planet. These poems and stories are accompanied by my soulful, bluesy band, Rockabetty.
I put together two little movies based on songs from the new CD, my first attempts at music videos. The first I made with the help of my friend Kenn Johnson. It is a lyric mini-documentary on MTR entitled Understory. You can see it at my website or athttp://www.youtube.com/billymarshmallow.
The second is based on a love poem, translated into several languages. This video, which I am making with the help of my friend Libbie Sherman, is a montage of images and women’s voices. It aims to weave a tapestry of peace and hope and is a tribute to one of the album’s sponsors—Women Waging Peace (www.womenwagingpeace.net), a network of women peacemakers from conflict areas around the world. I’ll have it up on my website in the next couple of weeks (fortnights, months, etc.).
JD How is this different from your previous work?
CD My first disc, Kentucky Stories, examined the concept of home, juxtaposing certain elements of the urban experience with my rural background. It was an all-female band and our musical style was something we called “chamber rock.”
My second disc, Subtracting Down, I call my “uprooting my roots” album. I employed traditional musical styles and tropes, but wrote non-traditional, updated lyrics. I wrote about the Madonna, but I wanted to include the Black Madonna. I wrote about terrorism and sexual politics.
I wanted to say, “This music is my heritage and my love, but I want to re-examine its underlying themes and moral structure.” I wanted to say, “Jesus is welcome in my artistic landscape, but so is Mohammed, so are Yahweh and Buddha, and so are my gay brothers and sisters.”
JD How do you describe the musicians and band you work with and why?
CD I started out with just one musician, Chris Burleson. I would go into his studio and speak impromptu into his microphone, then he would add musical tracks to the narrative. He played harmonica, percussion, guitar and bass. When we performed publicly, he would bring all kinds of instruments and create soundscapes in response to my stories. The guy was a genius. We put together a cassette called Slow Burn.
My second band, Pincurl, was an all-female ensemble. These were very talented musicians, and I am really happy with the work we did on Kentucky Stories. These women went on to careers as dentists, concert directors, and professional drummers. And, like good lesbians, had a slew of children. I call them my once and future band because their children are now old enough to allow their mothers to go out and perform again. Of course, their kids will be adding their own spice to the music.
My latest group, Rockabetty, and I recorded both Subtracting Down and my current album Carousel Lounge. Rockabetty had a core of John Minkle, Yani Batteau and myself. We also included people who were passing through: Noor O’Neill Borbeiva, a classically trained violinist, who had the nerve to finish her doctorate at Harvard, then leave to do a post-doc at Notre Dame. Also, Teddy Ansbacher-Hunt, an innovative guitarist and percussionist who worked with us while he was in high school; Zach Nyman and John Wilde, wonderful guitarists who helped us write and arrange our songs. I like incorporating new people and opening ourselves to their particular influences.
I give a lot of credit to my Rock of Rockabetty, John Minkle, who is always searching out good people. John and I are re-grouping for our next ensemble, I hope with some former Pincurl members. We want to experiment—dance music, electronica. We’ll see what unfolds.
JD Why work with musicians?
CD Working with musicians is a way to create something bigger than ourselves. Collaboration increases the voltage.
JD Is your work grounded in poetry or rooted in music?
CD I am primarily a writer who accidentally ended up in front of a band. I know almost nothing about music, except what my cells picked up through osmosis and the collective unconscious. I am the writer and vocalist of the group, doing spoken word with music. Here are a few selections from Subtracting Down and Carousel Lounge.
JD How important is sexual identity to your work? Why?
CD It has been important to me because my physical and psychological survival were both threatened. Therefore it affects my work.
I have ended up speaking and writing about gay issues because I have been willing to take on the subject during a time when that was very dangerous. I am not a spokesperson, but because I discuss controversial subjects, I am frequently asked about them.
It is a great contrast to live in Massachusetts, where gays can legally marry, and also to live in Kentucky, where gays can still be denied housing or fired from their jobs, where people still say, the bible says, then make judgments, something the bible says not to do. Jesus says to love everyone, even the least sparrow. I think of Matthew Shepherd beaten and killed for his sexuality as one of these sparrows.
I operate from a framework of determined, hope-fueled action, but profound bigotry and ignorance abound. I think equality for homosexuals is the great civil rights issue of our time.
All that said, these concerns used to be more important to me personally than they are now. It is encouraging to me that in my hometown some young people have come out and that it is safer for them to do so. In the past, they had a much higher suicide rate. I also love it that these gay kids are the stars of their classes, the merit scholars, the junior misses. I’m ready to pass the baton to them.
Currently, I’m more concerned about the environment, our treatment of animals, the declining habitat of wildlife and the fact that, as Americans, our hair is made out of corn.
JD Who is Billy Marshmallow?
CD Billy Marshmallow is my feline son, a lynx lilac Himalayan, who converted to Islam. He was born in London, Kentucky, in a trailer with the roof nailed on. He has talked to a cat psychic, who said that at first he was reluctant to talk, but that once she got him going he was a blabbermouth. He has a blog on my website, but as a champion napper, he rarely updates it.
His sister is Lily Rubin Malzman Collins, a lynx chocolate Himalayan, who notoriously ate George W. Bush and remarked that he tasted like chicken. http://www.cafepress.com/cdcollins
Lily and Billy’s sister is a seal-point Himalayan named Savannah May. She is a fundamentalist Christian gospel singer who will be releasing her greatest hits later this year.
A Muslim, a Jew and a Christian, sharing the same litter box, grooming, playing, wallowing in catnip together, getting along brilliantly— they are an inspiration to all.
Consider buying CD’s new CD CAROUSEL LOUNGE through her website at www.cdcollins.com.
One critic described the album this way: After a few rounds at the “Carousel Lounge,” the fortunate listener will come to feel that they are spending quality time with someone who is a naturally funny and gifted storyteller. The musical territory is as varied as a really good jukebox and ranges from straight ahead Rock and Blues, back to traditional Old Time and forward to innovative soundscapes of deconstructed Bluegrass.
Twenty-five percent of the profits from sales of this disc will be donated to OHVEC to stop mountaintop removal. Listen to great music and help save the environment at the same time.