Rhyme and Reason

Leaning House Records puts a new slant on poetry

Leaning House, though, is an anomaly around Dallas and, for that matter, the rest of the country: It's a jazz label. And there's no market for jazz in the 1990s, not unless it's Kenny G or John Tesh--and then, it's not jazz at all. It's unlikely saxophonist Marchel Ivery, who's well into his 50s, will ever sign to the sort of extended major-label deal a Young Turk like Joshua Redman has with Warner Bros. Records.

Elliott has been told more than once that no label needs one more middle-aged sax player, no matter how brilliant he might be. Ivery probably knew that after years of watching his good friend and colleague James Clay wither away in Oak Cliff and in anonymity. And if Earl Harvin makes the leap, he'll probably do so as a member of Seal's band, with whom he's been touring for more than a year.

So Elliott must continue to borrow money for his projects, since the albums barely break even, much less eke out a tiny profit. He estimates Ivery's album has sold 2,000 copies, while Harvin's has sold about half that--respectable enough for independent releases, though hardly the sort of quantity that turns red into black.

Now, Elliott is sinking money he does not have into a book of poetry that comes with its own CD, turning Leaning House the record label into Leaning House the publishing house. Elliott is like the actor who takes lousy film roles to finance his vanity projects: By day, he works at local recording studios, engineering and producing mediocre local musicians so he can scrape together the seed money for his noble and usually unprofitable projects.

"It's shitty doing that kind of stuff, because obviously music is something I love, so whenever I have to do something that sucks, it just pains me more," he shrugs. "If I didn't have any concern about it, it would be easier."

Elliott says Leaning House Poetry Volume One cost about $7,000 to produce, and even then, of the 2,000 books printed, only 1,000 were bound; and only 1,000 CDs were manufactured.

"Since we started the company two years ago, money has come from a variety of different places," he says. "Like with Marchel Ivery, some of the money came from people who had known him for years and had wanted to see something like this happen, and that's one thing that's fortunate about what we do. There are a certain number of people who have the same kind of ideals we have and help us out a lot.

"It's not like we're turning stuff out all the time. Over time, it's much easier to save money and collect money to do stuff. I'd love to do more, but we'd really have to have the money to do it."

Elliott conceived of the idea for a poetry CD a year ago, just after Earl Harvin Trio/Quartet was released. It began as a simple enough concept: Elliott wanted to assemble the best contemporary American poets and have them read a sample of their work. He believed if people heard the poems rather than just read them, they would better understand the art form. Poetry would then no longer seem a dated, abstract form; rather, it would come to life for the audience as an urgent and important art capable of communicating as much as short stories or even song lyrics.

Elliott contacted his old poetry professor at SMU, Jack Myers, hoping to secure his guidance--and his list of contacts. In 1991, Myers, who has taught at SMU for 20 years, and Roger Weingarten, a professor at the Vermont College of Norwich University, edited an anthology titled New American Poets of the '90s that's used as a textbook in English departments around the country, and Elliott knew Myers could lend the Leaning House project a measure of immediate credibility.

Myers, himself an award-winning poet and author of several collections, would in turn help several of his colleagues find yet another outlet for their work--rare enough in a publishing business that still treats poets as though they are fringe artists at best and bastard prose writers at worst. Though he and Elliott had not remained close after Elliott graduated SMU in 1992--"All I knew was Mark went to work as a clerk in a tobacco shop," Myers says, "so we'd trade cigars and shoot pool"--he was quick to work on the project.

If nothing else, Myers was attracted to the originality of the idea, and he was intrigued by the notion of allowing the reader to hear the poets present their work as they meant it to be understood. Though Elliott and Myers had originally conceived of the project as just an audio release, they discovered it would be impossible to include all the poems in a small CD booklet; they were forced by necessity to expand the idea to the larger book, thus giving the reader a way to test the writer's interpretation of the words against his own.

"I think something like this is going to happen down the road a lot because it's a perfect medium," Myers says of the CD. "When a poet reads, you get inflections, intonations, and styles of presentation that make the meanings more available. Otherwise, you hear your own voice talking. With something like this, you get a certain kind of presence with the physical voice. And with the text, you can go inward, the more intellectual analysis. You get an inward-outward thing going on. It's a complete presentation."

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