Monday, September 26, 2016

Starship Sofas, Voice, and Song with Diane Severson Mori

Diane Severson Mori has been one of the amazing volunteers who's kept the Science Fiction Poetry Association a really positive organization for members around the world. Currently the membership chair of the Science Fiction Poetry Association, she's is a lyric soprano specializing in Early Music, especially Baroque and medieval music. I've appreciated her perspective, energy and professionalism when we work together. I think she's been a great role model for how we perform and blog about speculative poetry. Her reviews have always been insightful and thought provoking.

Diane is a dedicated teacher of singing, and has been an active blogger and podcaster in the science fiction poetry scene. She is the mother of a young multi-linguist and married to her very own Rocket Scientist. Over the last year we've been having a conversation about her approach to the arts and differences between life in the US and abroad. 

How did you begin to get started as a writer?

LOL, well, I was encouraged to write "Orbit" (by Chris Vera) after my mother moved out of the house I grew up in and he gently critiqued it and gave me tips on what readers might want to read in it. He then offered to publish it on his website "Mystic Nebula." It was the scariest experience of my life really. And one of the most satisfying. I would love to have more time and the discipline to write more. I also feel like I lack ideas, but I expect that comes with a writing practice.

The arts have been a very big part of your life. Can you tell us a little about your earliest encounters that you feel set you on this path?

My artistic side comes from my mother and her Irish heritage. She played the organ at church and has a lovely singing voice and an innate musical ability which she passed on to me. I sang in public (at school) from a relatively young age (I sang at the school assembly when I was 5). I was encouraged to pursue musical expression by my parents and my teachers, but never pushed. I learned how to play the piano, cello and the tuba as well, but singing was always what I excelled at. Sometimes I wish I'd been given more structure and discipline, but my voice, at least, was allowed to develop naturally.

My mother was also the reader and as soon as I could read myself, I always had a book with me and we made many trips to the library. It was a sacred place for me, a refuge. I even volunteered at our local library in middle school.

Life abroad has figured significantly into your journey. What are some of the ways this has changed your approach and perspective on the arts? What was one of the biggest changes for you to adapt to when making the transition to Europe?

Yes, I left the USA in 1992 never to return for any significant period of time. I’ve been home for holidays and other trips, for work and vacation, but I haven’t lived in the US in nearly 25 years. I still consider it home, however. That’s where my cultural orientation remains, regardless of how long I’ve lived in another culture.

It has, as you suggest, changed my perspective on many things, including the arts. When I first arrived in Germany I was astonished at how broad and deeply the arts, and music in particular are appreciated in Germany. They don’t have Separation of Church and State and people pay a Church Tax to support both the Protestant and the Catholic Churches (but no others). That money to quite a large extent goes toward music programs. Nearly every church has a paid organist/music director (or several) and there is enough money to pay for soloists for larger performances such as The St. John Passion by Bach, for instance. And people actually go to concerts, the opera, cabaret, the theater and such!

The Germans also love to learn and nearly everyone takes some sort of class or lessons of some sort be it to learn a foreign language or learn an instrument or singing. It is relatively easy to earn a living as a freelance musician and private voice teacher in this country.

And the Germans love to read! There are still many brick and mortar book stores in Germany and you can order just about any book you want and have it arrive within a day or so, even from England (for books in English)! It helps that the country is geographically relatively small and densely populated, so it’s not really fair to compare it to the USA, but still…

So, while there are many things that I appreciate about the arts in the USA, there is much to be said about a culture that appreciates and supports it to the extent they do in Germany (and to a certain extent in Europe as a whole).

The biggest change for me in moving to Europe was first and foremost the language. I have a certain facility with languages, I have always been fascinated by them and attracted to them. I now speak 4 European languages reasonably well. But, that said, learning to function in a foreign language means adopting the mind-set of the culture to a certain extent. And sometimes I feel not quite like myself, or like I live a dual (or triple) personality. Otherwise, I’m a pretty resilient person and just kind of go with the flow.

You were mentored by Cornelius Reid, who was a specialist in the bel canto technique. What's a lingering memory you have of him?

I suppose the most important lesson I learned from him is to remain objective when it comes to my own singing ability and to my students. That as the function of the voice improves so will also my (or their) ability to express the music improve and the ease with which that takes place increases. I am often my own worst enemy and the more I can rely on my voice working properly the easier it is for me to let go of judgement and live the music (or the text, if I’m reciting a poem or narrating a story). His precept that if we hold our attention to producing pure vowel, pitch and intensity and stay away from subjective judgement, the voice will produce and the music will happen by itself.

You also were mentored by Carol Baggott-Forte, who's known for her belief that there's an organic natural response innate to all voices. What have been some of the key take-aways you've found from her approach?

Well, Carol got that from Cornelius! She has a phenomenal ear and the most astounding instinct when it comes to figuring out a voice and what it needs to improve. She doesn’t shy away from requiring the singer to make “ugly” sounds, if it means it will lead them toward better function and therefore improved vocal response. Her approach is really the epitome of "no nonsense.” And therefore it is really pretty easy to just do what she asked to the best of your ability and let go of the idea of beautiful sounds. Often what we think of as beautiful is delusional and we are just hanging on to familiarity. Her ability to “make it ok” is one of the most comforting things in the world.

Coffee or tea?

Oh, COFFEE!!!! We are kind of coffee snobs in our household. We prefer Italian style roasts - not a surprise since my husband is from Italy - and we have a manual espresso machine. We usually buy our beans in Italy and we grind them fresh every morning. Making coffee is very much a process. It took me a long time to learn to make our morning coffee consistently good, because well, I needed coffee to be able to do it! Now, I go on auto-pilot and it’s fine.

How did you first get involved with StarShipSofa?

I got my first iPod Shuffle when we lived in London in 2006 in order to listen to audiobooks. I had a lot of time on my hands there and did a lot of walking around and putzing around at home. It was then that I discovered podcasts and StarShipSofa was the second (after EscapePod) that I discovered. It took me several shows to parse Tony Smith and Ciaran O’Connell’s accents, but they were so funny and personable and I loved those early shows that focused on an SF writer.

I also joined their listener forum and Tony personally vetted everyone in those days. He followed links to my My Space space (which I’d also just discovered then and which still exists!) and heard some of my music. He claimed to have been blown away by one song in particular (I Wanna Die Easy) and asked if he could play it on the show - even though it has nothing to do with Science Fiction. That’s how our friendship began. Later in 2008, just after my husband and I had moved back to Germany, and Tony had been running fiction on the show for a few months he discovered that I read out loud to my husband every night before sleeping. He asked me if I could narrate a story for him. That first one (SSS No. 10 - Infinity Syrup) was a story by Laurel Winter, who is also a Rhysling award winning poet.

At some point we both noticed that I had an affinity to reciting poetry and I was his go-to girl when he had poetry submissions. Much later, when my son was about 15 months old, I decided it was time to get back into narrating. Tony had, in the meantime, unfortunately abandoned putting poetry on the show. It’s a lot of work splicing a show together and poetry is very work intensive. I thought that was a huge shame, because, let’s face it, most people don’t even know SF poetry is a thing. And so, I made it my mission to prevent it from falling by the wayside. I started producing a segment for StarShipSofa called Poetry Planet in which I showcase poetry on a particular theme.

I also started producing the Rhysling, Dwarf Stars and Elgin Awards showcases for the SFPA, which also run on SSS as part of Poetry Planet. Unfortunately, since it is a labor of love, done in my copious spare time and is quite work intensive, I haven’t been able to do it very regularly. In 6 years I’ve produced 17 of them.

You've done some amazing readings of poems by other authors over the years. What are some of the things you take into consideration as you prepare to record a piece?

Well, naturally, I read it several times. I try to make sure I understand it (although that’s not always possible!) and know how to pronounce all the words - that’s an important aspect for me! I read it aloud a few times before recording it, paying attention to meter and rhyme. If the sentence structure and line breaks don’t jive I try to find the best way to deliver the poetry to maximize understanding for the listener without sacrificing structure and meter. This is sometimes surprisingly difficult, but always a rewarding challenge!

This is really the crux of my association with poetry. I came to poetry as a singer - a lot of classical song is poetry set to music and I’ve always thought it important to understand the poetry as well as the music. Since I started reciting poetry for podcasts, I’ve discovered how much “Music” is inherent in poetry, in and of itself. I don’t write much poetry myself, and I’m a performer myself. I understand that sometimes it’s hard for poets to imagine their own poetry being recited by someone else, but I have also received many complements from poets who were pleasantly surprised to hear their own poems with new ears. Some have said it became a new poem for them.

What are some of your projects coming up in 2016 that you're looking forward to?

I’m very much looking forward to a few singing projects coming up in the 2nd half of 2016. I’ll be singing the music (and poetry - in Latin) of Hildegard of Bingen, an 11th century mystic, abbess, herbalist, cardinal and pope chastiser, and general Wonder Woman. I guess you can consider me an expert on her music and it is always a pleasure to have the opportunity to bring it to more people.

I’m also singing in a small vocal ensemble and we’ll be singing in Berlin soon, as well as a more concerts in Northern Germany later on this year.

As for poetry, I have a backlog of podcasts I’d like to produce for Poetry Planet and the SFPA award showcases. We’ll see if I can find the time to do them! Since becoming membership chair for the SFPA and producing their Newsletter, I’ve had much less time for podcasting. Sigh.

I’m still reviewing collections and chapbooks for Star*Line and Amazing Stories and have quite a backlog there as well.

Be sure to visit Diane online at

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