​Iris DeMent Channels Poetry on 'The Trackless Woods'

Photo: Pieta Brown

BY Sarah GreenePublished Jul 23, 2015

A powerful experience led Iris DeMent into The Trackless Woods, the songwriter's sixth album. Based on the work of celebrated modernist Russian poet Anna Akhmatova, the record is due out August 7 on her own FlariElla Records label. DeMent discovered Akhmatova accidentally when she opened an anthology of Russian verse lent to her by a friend. Instantaneously, DeMent felt directed.
"I read 'Like A White Stone.'" she tells Exclaim! "I'll tell you the truth — I felt like somebody tapped me on the shoulder and said, clear as day, 'Iris, set that to music.' It did not come out of some conscious desire on my part; I had no plan to do anything like that. I said, 'I don't know how to do that,' and I heard, clear as day, 'I will help you.' I know that's not a very modern story, but that's the story."
DeMent hasn't had prolific output in recent decades: fans waited eight years between 1996's The Way I Should and 2004's Lifeline (comprised of mostly traditional Protestant gospel songs); and another eight years for 2012's Sing The Delta, a soulful collection of originals deeply rooted in personal history and a strong sense of place. DeMent dove head first into Akhmatova and lingered there a while, spending four years on the project. "I got on such a roll that since then [the album was finished] there are a couple I've done that I really love, but it's time to let Anna rest."
Creating an album of songs adapted from poems was a new kind of undertaking for DeMent; despite her status as a beloved veteran songwriter, DeMent has never considered herself a poet ("I was scared to death of poetry when I was growing up," she says, "I'm going back to grammar school here, but the way it was presented was so rule based"), nor does she write lyrics first. "I've recently realized I have more melody in me, really, than lyrics," she says.
Though some of the melodies came easily, DeMent says she had to tinker with others until she got it. "The only way I know how to describe it is, I would feel like I walked inside of the poem," she says. "I would go from reading something and understanding it in my head to understanding it in that deeper level, in my heart. And that was when I knew that that was the melody that needed stay with that song, with that poem."
DeMent's life lies in stark contrast with Anna Akhmatova's: the Russian poet survived Stalin's reign of terror and the two world wars; her son, Lev, was imprisoned in the Gulag, and she lost many loved ones. She was also forced to write in secret while her books were banned by her government.
Because of these differences (and because it was too long for DeMent to make into a song), DeMent avoided Akhmatova's famous "Requiem," drawing instead from shorter poems that spanned the poet's life.
"I didn't feel like I had any business," says DeMent. "That's her standing outside the walls of these prisons, trying to visit her friend. Standing there with other women in the freezing cold, who are starving; standing there for hours and hours to deliver a piece of bread for a loved one. It's about people dropping dead on the streets… I felt that it would be dishonouring the story to even go there."
DeMent did, however, take a few lines from "Requiem" for a song called "The Souls Of All My Dears" based on lines from various Akhmatova's poems. "It's not an Akhmatova piece," says DeMent. "But I felt like the mood of it, the spirit of it, captured a lot of the quality of her life — which was a lot of sorrow, a lot of loss."
DeMent says that Akhmatova's verse has upped the ante in her own writing since. "There's more open space than there was before," she says of the influence. "I was enthralled with her ability to communicate, to get to the heart of something. I've always been drawn to the old country music that doesn't have a lot of words or a lot of chords, but yet delivers this vast message. Hymns have that; the really good hymns that have stood the test of time. And I feel like Anna has that, big time, in her poetry."

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