In the tradition of Langston Hughes, Gwendolyn Brooks, and other writers who surrender to the swinging rhythms of jazz with words, Emmett Wheatfall delivers poems to chant, to recite in time to drum, sax and guitar, to chalk onto the sidewalk so children and their parents may pause and consider what this country is, what our times require, and how me might speak with more invention and grace. His poems call on us to celebrate even as we challenge one another, to be festive with our speech even as we demand greater honesty. In a style that ranges from winsome jump-rope rhyme to lyrical love ballad to personal anthem of a citizen, this book will call you to a full spectrum of patriotisms—to country, to family, to romance, to music, to all the loyalties we need to make our stumbling world get the beat and sing as one. –Kim Stafford, Poet Laureate of Oregon
From time to time I interview creative people I admire for my blog and newsletter. This is my first article spotlighting one of my voice students.
I met professional poet, musician and speaker Emmett Wheatfall last year at the Clackamas County Community Festival, where I was given a free business booth. Emmett, who has since retired, was employed by Clackamas County as an Assistant County Administrator and in charge of the Community Festival.
I liked Emmett the minute he stuck out his hand, introduced himself, and welcomed me as a festival presenter. What I didn’t know at the time is Emmett had once undergone surgery to have nodules removed from his vocal folds (interchangeable term with vocal cords.)
I wonder if Emmett’s parents, who moved Emmett and his two sisters overseas and from state to state, because of the father’s military career, could ever have imagined their son would one day write books, the most recent of which, Our Scarlet Blue Wounds, is – at the time of this article – endorsed by Poet Laureate of Oregon, Kim Stafford.
Emmett’s childhood travels as a military dependent transversed states from Kentucky to Virginia, as well as two different residencies in Okinowa, the fifth largest island of Japan located in the Ryukya Islands. As a kid, Emmett played all over the island, which is about 70 miles long and 7 miles wide. He calls himself “The Original Karate Kid”, for he trained in karate in a dojo (martial arts training center) with the Okinawans.
When Emmett was 16, his father received orders to move to Oregon, where he would advise the Oregon National Guard on behalf of the US Army. Emmett swore he wasn’t moving with the family to Oregon, where he was sure people still traveled in covered wagons to forts as depicted in TV westerns. “Guess what? I’m still here!”, he says now.
Emmett attended Mt. Hood Community college and then Warner Pacific College in Portland. He will have been married to Karen Wheatfall for 40 years in June and has three grown children in their 30’s—two daughters and a son.
Growing up, Emmett loved acting and theatre. In the second grade, his teacher asked each student in the children’s circle to read aloud. Whether intentionally or not, Emmett doesn’t know, the teacher skipped him. Emmett says, “It crushed me. I still remember to this day how eager I was to read.”
“I’ve always had a tremendous love for words and imagery,” he continues. “At age 19, I became a person of faith. The Christian faith.” He was drawn to the Bible because it’s filled with metaphor, parable and illustrations…stories that touch the human imagination. Emmett says, “the combination of all these things captured and influenced me.”
A great source of Emmett’s consternation was the fact his father wanted him to take accounting in college. Emmett just wasn’t into crunching numbers, even in exchange for having his college tuition paid.
Emmett’s creativity and imagination also offered him a form of escapism. Why? There wasn’t much love in his family. He says, “No doubt, my parents loved and provided for me and my sisters, but home wasn’t a place of hugging or words offered as endearments or positive affirmations. There was a lot of negativity. My mother didn’t tell me she loved me until about ten years ago and she’s been dead for five years. The first time she said, ‘I love you, Emmett, Junior’…that was an earth-shattering moment. Most certainly a remarkable moment.”
Emmett says being a poet is like being a safecracker. “You put your ear against the safe, listen to the tumbler, turn to the left, then to the right and so forth, until you feel that final click. And then you open the door. It’s euphoric.”
“There’s a whole set of rules, rudiment and principles to writing poetry. Once I’ve cracked the safe’s numeric code sequence, there’s not a word, grammatical device, imagery, etc., I would change. There’s something about that feeling. It just rocks my world.”
When I asked how poetry and music came together for him, Emmett responded, “Most of us have forms of music (e.g., classical, jazz, blues, pop, county, etc.) that speak to us, that stir us, that move us.” Emmett emphasizes he is not a rap or hip-hop artist. He reminded me that poetry is one of the oldest art forms known to humanity, in all cultures and ethnicities. Historically, the written spoken word was often accompanied by a musical instrument: a lute, a lyre, a flute, for example. The troubadours, bards, would go from city to city, across the countryside, to where people gathered in the public square where words were recited to the music of instruments. Doesn’t this create the loveliest image in your mind’s eye? It does in mine!
I see Emmett’s point when he says the music in poetry died with the printing press, when those who could read started listening to the words only inside their own heads. “There’s something beautiful and magical about taking lines of poetry and placing them in the timing of music,” he says. “It takes a skill to do that. The audience loves it; people walk away feeling inspired. Clean words, spoken to music, dinner…a nice night out? There are people who hunger for this.”
I asked Emmett about what some call the grave-stone or epithet exercise. What would you want written there? What do you want your legacy to be? What would you tell young people with artistic leanings?
His response? Three simple words. “Study the craft.”
“That’s why I came to you, Laura,” Emmett said. “As much as people tell me I’m gifted vocally, I wasn’t using my voice well. I’ve learned so much about proper breathing. People often say, ‘sing from your diaphragm’, but 99% of them don’t know where it’s located; they couldn’t point to it on the human body.”
I mentioned earlier Emmett had to have a node removed. He says, “Here I was, a conference speaker, actively reading and performing poetry, as well as doing some singing…and I was destroying my vocal folds/cords. I said to myself, if you’re going to read and perform poetry, make sure to use your voice properly.”
“In the studio recently, I remembered your teaching, Laura. I remembered about breathing. I remembered about resonance. Somebody who heard me said, ‘Wow, man, you sound great!’”
Emmett gives a final example to demonstrate the need for studying your craft, for artistic and creative precision. Once, after he had submitted a poem to an on-line periodical, this line caught the periodical editor’s eye: “Let love love whomever love will love.” The editor queried Emmett regarding which of the words “love” were nouns and which were verbs.
How would you respond to that editor? Emmett responded thus: “Let Love love whomever Love will love.”
Whatever and whomever you love, whatever your passion may be…simply remember this: Study the Craft. And Breathe.
Find Emmett’s gospel song Somebody Told Me here: https://emmettwheatfall.hearnow.com/somebody-told-me?fbclid=IwAR0kX4PW0DTIgLO9QoaqFynrEfF9W27qvQmRhKueZcTUBBQINXrA5d8ci-M
Here’s his website: http://emmettwheatfall.com/
Please spread the love and pass this along to a friend!
Love Your Voice and Voice Your Love,
Lake Oswego’s Transformational Voice® Teacher (Transformational Voice® is a registered trademark of Transformational Voice® Training Institute, LLC, and Linda Brice.)