• Kathleen Cassen Mickelson

A Poet, a Composer, a Vocalist, and a Pianist Bring the Buzz

Updated: Jan 29

Last week, I had the pleasure of hearing one of my poems set to music and performed in public. This was not something I had sought; rather, this opportunity was plopped down in front of me on a table at a coffeehouse last summer.

Perhaps I should start there. My friend Pat’s husband Greg is a composer, among other things. I don’t know Greg well; I usually meet just Pat for coffee or a meal somewhere for girlfriend talk. When Greg asked if he could meet me to talk about a project for which he needed a poet, I said okay without having any idea what I was getting into.


Turned out Greg wanted a poem set to music and he wanted to enter that composition into something called Song Slam. I’d never heard of Song Slam. Greg explained to me (giddily, I might say) that Song Slam was a competition for an art song, and there was going to be a Song Slam in Minneapolis in January of 2020. He wanted to assemble a team to be part of that. He needed people based in Minnesota and he was starting with me. Did I have any poetry that he could use to create a fun classical composition that was short?


Since lyrics really aren’t my thing, and I see a big distinction between song lyrics and poetry that goes on the page without accompanying musicians, I wasn’t sure. I was, however, willing to try. Why not? This sounded like fun. So, home I went thinking about how excited Greg was at the whole idea, and how I simply must come up with something that could work. He didn’t want me to write something new; he just wanted me to look at what I had and give him some options.


And that’s how my poem, Spheksophobia, ended up in his hands. I wrote Spheksophobia about 10 years ago and it was published in an Every Day Poets anthology. I thought that was the end of the line for the poem, which is about the fear of wasps and how we don’t get to choose the form into which we are born. It was short enough and quirky enough to satisfy Greg’s wishes for the kind of poem he wanted to work with. This clearly wasn’t going to be a love song.

The text of Spheksophobia, along with our teams’ bios, from the Song Slam program.

Anyway, Greg knew a vocalist and a pianist who agreed to round out the team. He got to work, they got to practicing, and I didn’t know what the finished song sounded like until last Thursday when I heard Angie, the vocalist, and Bryon, the pianist, perform the piece at the Song Slam 2020 event at the Ice House in South Minneapolis. It was surprising and, yes, quirky, and an absolute blast. We even got team t-shirts. Not everyone who creates a piece gets into Song Slam. They limited the teams to 12. The other 11 teams who also performed were widely varied in topics, poems used (there were some dead poets in there – I liked being one of the living ones), and feel of the music, but absolutely everyone up on that stage was immensely talented. One team used lyrics composed of snippets swiped from spambots. My own team aside, I thought they should have won. Their piece was hilarious and about something with which we could all identify. The event was hosted by Chris Koza, a popular Minnesota-based musician and performer. 

Team Spheksophobia at Song Slam 2020, Minneapolis, Minnesota. L-R: Greg Schaffner, composer; Angie Paulson, vocalist; Bryon Wilson, pianist; Kathleen Cassen Mickelson, poet.

In the end, our team did not win the competition. Neither did the spambots team. But we certainly did take part in a celebration of local talent that was surprising and inspiring. And if Greg asks me again for next year, I’m in.


Want to see the performance of Spheksophobia? Here you go:

Spheksophobia – Song Slam 2020 – Minneapolis, Minnesota


#SourceSongFestival #SongSlam2020 #Minneapolis #Spheksophobia #IceHouse #artsong

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