Wednesday, February 23, 2022

‘Complicated, but it’s alright’

Frank Orrall (photo by Rob Myers)
     There is no First Amendment when it comes to poetry. You can print almost any sentiment that originates in the smithy of your own soul. But if you want to adorn your work with, say, a few lines of Mary Oliver’s about wild geese, you have to track her down — or her estate, now — get permission, and pay.
     I knew this intellectually, the way you know that falling down a rocky embankment would hurt. But I didn’t really grasp the reality until I found myself tumbling along, working on my last book, which uses literature to explain addiction and recovery. Securing the rights from nearly 80 poets and novelists took over two years — longer than writing the book itself.
     Song lyrics were the worst. I found myself conducting negotiations in French, tracking down three different people who got together and wrote a song 30 years ago.
     Some cut a hard bargain — I haggled with the John Lennon estate over 13 lines of “Cold Turkey.” Poi Dog Pondering, a sprawling multi-ethnic party band, is rooted in Chicago, and so at first seemed getting rights from them might be easy. I called Frank Orrall, who wrote “Complicated,” and asked for permission to quote from it, beginning “Sorrow is an angel, that comes to you in blue light, and shows you what is wrong, just to see if you’ll set it right...”
     “Sure,” he said, or words to that effect.
     But oral permission from Orrall (sorry, couldn’t resist) wasn’t enough. “He said I could, your honor, over the phone...” wouldn’t cut it in court.
     “Frank,” I said, “I need written permission.”
     “Sure,” he said, or words to that effect.
     Musicians are not famous for their attention to legal detail. Though I stalked him via letter and email, written confirmation was not forthcoming. The book’s due date neared.
     Then I noticed that a few members of Poi Dog were providing musical backing to Tony Fitzpatrick reading at the Poetry Foundation. I typed up a letter, and hurried over. At intermission, I made a beeline to Orrall.

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1 comment:

  1. You learn something new every day. I get that you have to use some ones music in a commercial or film or anywhere else music might be played. It never occurred to me that you would have to at least get permission if you include the words in a book.

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