Interview: The Kiss of Light – Anthony Toner on Working With Poet Frank Ormsby

A Fermanagh man, an honest Ulster man*, Frank Ormsby spent years teaching English, while simultaneously editing journals, anthologies and reviews, introducing his audiences to an array of literary talent. However, overarching all of this was his life as a poet – an award-winning poet, a homegrown, relatable, quiet giant of a writer whose instinctive grasp of language and sense of place steadfastly guided his students and his readers through myriad talents to dive into.

Over the winter that joined 2017 with 2018, the now retired teacher began working with Belfast based singer-songwriter Anthony Toner on The Kiss of Light, an album that is revolved around Ormsby reading selected poems from his decade-spanning career, followed by instrumentals composed by Toner as his response to these poems.

It was a labour of love for Anthony Toner, himself a respected musician and wordsmith. He knew what he wanted to craft from this album, he knew where his place was in all of this. “I had no interest in setting the poems to music – that kind of thing can bring me out in hives,” he told me candidly, speaking through the lens of a songwriter and devoted reader of poetry. “People see a poem on the page, and it looks the same as a song lyric, but the poem was not written to be expressed in that way at all. So, it’s like… wearing an umbrella for a hat – it looks like it might just be workable, but it ends up being clumsy and awkward. There was something about the Frank poems that made me think of short musical pieces. It lived in my head as an intellectual kind of fog, before I came up with anything. And as soon as I started thinking of the poems as short movies, and the music as a soundtrack to those movies, then it began to feel workable to me – and that’s where it really started. “

With this template set up, Toner and Ormsby proceeded to work on the project in an atmosphere of trust and collaboration, while pointedly maintaining an agreed distance. “We never shared a moment together on the process,” Toner explained. “From the start, my intention was to RESPOND to the work, and not to create anything that would combine the two. And Frank told me he had no intention of commenting on the musical pieces. Neither of us was interested in making comments on each other’s work – so there was a lot of trust there. Frank really had no idea what I was doing until the whole thing was almost finished.”

​Frank gave me a list of about twenty-five poems that he thought would be appropriate. I chose eleven from that list – and discussed this with Frank. As I say, he was completely open to whatever suggestions I wanted to make. I made the decisions based on which of the poems ‘spoke’ to me in some way. Which I know sounds kind of airy-fairy. But I remember going through the book and scribbling notes in pencil about what I imagined would work. ‘Cleo Oklahoma’ was about a young man heading off to the Normandy landings, leaving his small dusty town, and I immediately heard sad horns and a swooning, waltzy kind of thing in my head. It happened a lot like that with each of the poems.”

The poem “Under The Stairs” is a salute to the cubby-hole of every home that houses our items rarely used, but must be stored. The paint and the nails, candles and jars. “​I think I imagined a short film of what that little cupboard would look like,” Toner recalled. “Almost a little museum of discarded, useful things waiting to be discovered again for emergencies, and thought about what kind of music​ ​would accompany those images. It’s interesting – after the music had been composed and recorded, Frank revealed that he had written the poem in 1974, at the height of the Ulster Workers Council strikes, the powercuts and so on. And so the last line: ‘A store of candles, for when the light fails’ now has extra resonance for me. If I’d known that, I might have gone in another direction with that piece​.”

The creation of The Kiss of Light, with the consequent performance and touring, has taken place within the context of health issues that Frank Ormsby is living with. It is an element that adds to the depth of this collection. The effort and determination put into bringing this project to fruition, to bring it out to audiences at home and abroad, as Toner explained. “​Frank is living with Parkinsons Disease, and it’s a factor in everything, I suppose. He himself has spoken – and written – very eloquently on the subject, and it just becomes something you think about in all arrangements. You make sure there’s a lectern on stage, so Frank can hold on, in case he gets a tremor. He needs to make sure he has his medication, and so on. But he remains incredibly active, positive – and is writing some of the best poems of his life.​”

Within all of this it makes sense that there was further musical input on the album, to ensure that the voice, the tenor, the sound on The Kiss of Light was exactly as Toner wanted it to be. So, while his instrumentals were scored for his acoustic guitar, he was also accompanied by Linley Hamilton on trumpet and Neil Martin on cello. As he penned the music he found that these instruments became the obvious vehicles for the atmosphere and imagery that he wanted to create. “​The poems are often rural in their setting, and many of them deal with childhood,” he explained. Some of them are regretful, some look back fondly and with great humour. I think I heard the sound of elegy in some of them, and I immediately thought of cello, and of flugelhorn or trumpet. The sound of nobility and nostalgia in the trumpet and melancholy in the cello. And the two finest people on those instruments that I know are Linley and Neil – I’m lucky to count them as friends, and I was also fortunate that they were available and wanted to be part of it.”

That being said though, working with a composer such as Neil Martin was new territory for Anthony Toner, who has been writing and arranging his own brand of subtle, intuitive, songs and music for long years. “​Writing a simple short line in music notation to save time in the studio is one thing – ‘here’s how the introduction works’. But putting 64 bars of cello notation in front of someone like Neil Martin was deeply daunting for me. But of course, he’s a gentleman. I discussed my anxiety with him beforehand, and his advice was absolutely sound – for the kind of atmosphere you want to create, keep your lines very simple. And also – we’re not going to record anything we’re not proud of, so however long it takes, we’ll work at it until it’s right. It’s one of the proud moments of my life that both the musicians liked the work and enjoyed playing it.”

As an admirer of Frank Ormsby’s work, and indeed as a friend of the man, it could have been tricky for Toner to choose a favourite among the specially selected poems on offer on the album. But there are a couple of tracks that do stand out for him. “I love “Winter Offerings” – the poem has a particular pull on my heart, and the cello part is just essence of Neil Martin – elegant, precise and full of feeling, all at the same time … [and] ​I love”‘Cleo Oklahoma” because of how it builds and recedes, and I thought the trumpet and cello weaved in and out of each other beautifully – we got two great takes of each instrument and double-tracked them, so it sounds kind of silvery and lush. It was one of the last things I wrote, and it felt like a late blessing of some kind.”

There are a few rare chances to see this unique pairing of words and music in a live setting over the coming months, including dates in Enniskillen and Bangor this September. However, before that Toner and Ormsby will be performing in Belfast’s Strand Arts Centre this Friday 29th June. The Strand event will be “an evening of just Frank and I, so we will read and perform maybe half a dozen of these pieces from the album – the poem followed by the music in each case. They still work without cello and trumpet – they were all written on guitar, so the melody and harmonies still stand up without the other instruments. And in addition, Frank will read some new work and some old favourites not included on the album. And I will do likewise, playing old favourites like ‘Sailortown’ and ‘Well Well Well’ in between these pieces. And we usually have some banter in between, discussing the background to the poems and songs as we go.”

*Frank Ormsby edited the literary journal Honest Ulsterman from 1969 to 1989.