I just got the news that prepublication sales for my first traditionally-published chapbook, Breast Cancer: A Poem in Five Acts, will begin on February 20 through Finishing Line Press. I’m pretty excited about this, because I’ve waited a long time for my first book contract. I have four other book-length manuscripts in the wings, and I’m hoping this modest milestone will help me move forward with all of these projects.
Breast Cancer: A Poem in Five Acts isn’t really my first book. My first book is Voice Break, a longer poem about singing and writing. I self-published it through CreateSpace after one of my MFA program advisors at Pacific University suggested I come up with a musical cover and publish it. Voice Break is the reason this blog exists at all. The decision to take the project into my own hands, in lieu of waiting for a press to accept it, may be viewed as jumping the gun. But I was almost 50 at the time, really ready to bring attention to my writing efforts.
The thing is, I’m still living Voice Break, an outcome I wouldn’t have anticipated in 2012, when the book came out. Back then, I saw this long poem as being an exploration of an earlier failure I never fully came to terms with: my haphazard attempt to become a singer. I didn’t necessarily expect to continue singing as an aging adult. Yet a late-bloomer, “lifelong learning,” exploration of voice has taken on a life of its own, even through the trials of cancer treatment. I work at my singing these days—not with any big goal in mind—but because it has been truly fulfilling.
Voice Break ends as the narrator is performing as a soprano choir singer for the very first time at the age of 48 (before this, the only choir she ever sang in was Fifth/Sixth Grade Chorus at Valley Oak Elementary School in Davis, California). This soprano singing opportunity came about after a long break from her earlier tango with voice training that ended badly when she was 26. Not only did she wipe out as a singer, she walked away convinced she wasn’t really a soprano, because she can sing low. Yet when she returns to the art form some twenty years later, “just for fun,” to work with a new voice teacher, she learns how to sing soprano well enough to hang in there with the Cuyamaca College Choir, not to mention the chorus of a production of Amahl and the Night Visitors.
Here’s how this singing story has played out from there (details not found in Voice Break):
The following year, the narrator notices the other college in her community college district has a choir that is going to perform in The Nutcracker, accompanying the San Diego Ballet. She’s curious to learn if she can join this choir, known as the Grossmont Master Chorale. She auditions and gets in, but not a soprano—as an alto one. She knows she cans still sing soprano if she stays with the Cuyamaca College Choir (where she is also on the faculty), so she asks her voice teacher, Esther Jordan, which way she should go. Esther suggests that since the Grossmont Master Chorale is a more advanced choir, the narrator’s musicianship would most likely take several leaps—if she can survive the GMC performance schedule. The narrator ends up taking Esther’s advice. She gets through more than three years with the Grossmont Master Chorale, singing as an alto one, before she is sidelined by breast cancer.
The narrator takes time off from studying voice (and everything else) as she undergoes breast cancer treatment. She wonders if she is done with singing, especially during the misery of chemotherapy. She does continue to work on her writing, particularly a long poem about her experiences with breast cancer. But once her life is back in order, she resumes voice lessons with Esther for a few more months, before retiring from the Grossmont-Cuyamaca Community College District (in El Cajon, California). She plans to take a break on the Oregon Coast to work on her health, write, and regroup.
Shortly after arriving in Oregon, she is pleased to note the Central Coast Chorale is holding auditions. She shows up and offers herself as either an alto one or a soprano two. The Central Coast Chorale lets her in—they place her in the soprano two section (remember, the narrator hasn’t performed as a soprano since 2011). Instead of dealing with the break altos face, the one that plagued her in her 20s (as detailed in Voice Break), the narrator is encountering the passaggio that flips singers off the treble clef. As an aside, the narrator no longer cares about voice type—she just enjoys the thrill of performing with an ensemble. As she practices with her new choir, she works hard to remember what Esther has taught her about the passaggio, particularly how she needs lighten her sound across this break, so that it doesn’t pop out at the conductor. She hasn’t noticed many frowns—so far so good!
The Central Coast Chorale will be performing its annual Wishes and Candles Holiday Concert on December 8, 14, and 15 in Lincoln City, Newport, and Yachats. For more information, see the flyer below.