To start with, I have to feel an emotional connection to the poem.
If the piece is not commissioned, I choose the poem. If it is a present for someone’s birthday, for example, I try to choose a poem with an appropriate text.
For a commissioned work, I will generally discuss the poetry or poem or theme with the “commissioner.” For a cycle, I like to keep a variety of poems available, and often do not choose the exact sequence of poems until I have composed the first song…and then proceed to figure out what poems will work for a dramatic sequence. Sometimes I guess wrong, and have to adjust the order of songs, or even remove a song from its intended cycle. (Case in point: “Money” was originally slated to be part of the “Becoming a Redwood” cycle!)
If the poetry is not in the public domain, I must secure the rights before proceeding. Sometimes this is an easy process, sometimes it is quite arduous.
Once permission is granted, there are certain factors I consider when choosing a text. It’s easier when a poem isn’t too long or too short, although I have obviously set very short and very long poems. It’s good if the poem is not too complex, because the audience has to be able to grasp of the meaning of the poem through the song. I have found that poems that tell a story work very well — as it is easy for the audience to follow along (particularly if the text is not printed in the program). I try to avoid poems with a lot of homonyms or complex words (potentially difficult to understand aurally). Most importantly, it is good if the poem has some emotional “breathing space” — so that the music can take over what is left unsaid.
I have also created a body of work commemorating the Holocaust. This poetry is SO important, so deep, so touching and so beautiful.
It has also been very gratifying for me to work with living poets. Their excitement fuels my creative process. I am particularly proud that many times, poets have told me that I revealed things to them about their poetry that they didn’t know. Similarly, sometimes my performers reveal things to me about my own music.