Matt Svoboda's spring 2018 sabbatical project reviving the life and poems of an underappreciated Oregon poet first started to take form 10 years ago. As Lane Community College's Director of Choral Activities, Svoboda is accustomed to researching text for music, and when he stumbled across the poems of Hazel Hall quite by accident more than a decade ago, he was immediately taken with her keen observations and wanted to learn more.
I am sewing out my sorrow,
Like a thread, wearing it thin;
It will be old and frayed to-morrow.
Needle, turn out; needle, turn in.
Sorrow’s thread is a long thread
Needle, one stitch; needle, two.
And sorrow’s thread is a strong thread,
But I will wear it through.
Then not only will sorrow
Be old and thin and frayed;
But I shall have to-morrow
Something sorrow has made.
The Long Day, by Hazel Hall, from Curtains
Researching the life of a poet, though, took a backseat to his job and family requirements. In 2017, he revived his interest in Hazel Hall in his application for a sabbatical project, and in the process revived interest in the poet and her three volumes of poetic works.
"I was quite taken with her vision and the aspects of her life that I discovered," says Svoboda. "The house in Portland where she lived is on the National Register of Historic Places. She used a wheelchair, and barely ever left her house. She helped support her family by taking in sewing and didn’t receive recognition for her poetry until age 30. And yet her poems have a sense of sharp observation that are very much like Emily Dickinson. I'm hoping to bring the story of her work to life."
The Oregon Book Award for poetry is jointly named for Hazel Hall and fellow Oregon poet William Stafford, and yet even in Oregon she remains undiscovered. Hall was born in 1886 and died in Portland in 1924. In 1921 and 1923 she published two volumes: Curtains, about what she knew—her house and sewing—and Walkers, about the people she could see as she looked out her window. The third, Cry of Time, is a more transcendental book on the themes of death and mortality that was posthumously assembled by her sister Ruth in 1928. During her lifetime, Hall was celebrated and anthologized, but after her death she fell into obscurity.
In researching Hall's life, Svoboda visited her home in Portland, where he looked out of the same windows she did. He spoke with John Witte, the author of the collected works of Hazel Hall and immersed himself in her poetry. Svoboda used his sabbatical to compose "The Room Upstairs," a three-movement work for dance that echoes the themes of Hall's three books. Using cello, violin and piano, Svoboda captured the sense of longing in her work as well as the hand movements, both large and small, that characterized her work as a seamstress.
Each movement will open with a Hazel Hall poem read in darkness. The cast is made up of 10 dancers, several of whom are dance department collaborators, with the lead role danced by Karen Daly, a dancer who has used a wheelchair since the loss of her right leg to cancer at age 11. From Lane, costumer Mari DeWitt; lighting and set designer James McConkey and dance instructor Sarah Nemecek are helping bring the scenes to life. Eugene choreographer Jana Meszaros and Portland-based multimedia artist Laura Glazer got involved after learning of Svoboda's collaborative project.
Svoboda plans to work with Lane’s videographer Terry Holloway to develop a non-commercial program that can be shared online. He's also collaborating with artists who are creating pieces inspired by Hall that are suitable for gallery spaces, such as sewn thimbles displaying lines of poetry in them. "The work of Hazel Hall has inspired many people in different ways that continue to unfold," says Svoboda. “Everyone is so taken with her story that it’s become the perfect collaboration.”
"The Room Upstairs: Uncovering the Life and Poetry of Hazel Hall”
Thursday, March 14, 7 pm
Ragozzino Performance Hall on the main LCC campus