What: A Speck of Light
When: 7:30 p.m. Monday, March 21
Where: First-Centenary United Methodist Church, 418 Oak St.
Poet Jane Kenyon wasn’t depressed 100 percent of the time, but she wrote some stunning poetry when she was. Which was most of the time.
Her “Having It Out with Melancholy” addresses many experiences of a person with chronic depression, which she says began to affect her in infancy.
Jonathan McNair, the Ruth S. Holmberg professor of American music at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, finds beauty in Kenyon’s bleakness and was inspired to compose a musical piece to accompany her emotions and thoughts in the nine-part poem.
“I’m not trying to describe so much as reflect,” he said.
The five-movement composition will debut Monday, March 21, in a program titled “A Speck of Light.” It will include a performance of the piece—which McNair calls “contemporary concert music”—by New York’s Unheard-Of Ensemble. Parts of Kenyon’s “Having It Out with Melancholy” will be read prior to each section of the piece, which has the same title as Kenyon’s work.
“I will have the parts of poems that relate to the music,” McNair says.
The UTC Women’s Chorale also will perform as well as spoken-word artists. The Women’s Chorale will perform “Never One Thing,” a song by May Erlewine meant to acknowledge that it’s OK and normal for humans to have emotions and thoughts that seem at odds with each other.
Each performance in “A Speck of Light” is intended to show how creative arts can be part of the treatment for mental disabilities, reducing the shame and reluctance some feel when dealing with the stigma of those issues, said Chyela Rowe, coordinator for Arts Therapies and Well-Being at CHI Memorial Hospital in Chattanooga and a participant in the event.
“We may feel stuff, and we may feel like there are no options, but often there are,” she said. “I think that engagement with the creative process, with the music, with art, with all of those things, help people see and exercise that flexible part of our brains that might be able to find other options.”
Mental health issues in society have increased during the COVID-19 pandemic, but the pandemic also has made people more willing to talk about their own situations, Rowe said.
“We’re really seeing how so many more people are opening up and talking about their mental health struggles because we’ve been left with so many people not having the resources they need to maintain a healthy mental space,” she said.
The “A Speck of Light” program will be presented at First-Centenary United Methodist Church, at McCallie Avenue and Houston Street adjacent to the UTC campus.
Representatives of mental health provider and advocacy organizations will staff tables in the church lobby after the performance to offer information and answer questions. McNair and the other performers also will be available for discussions following the concert.
The title “A Speck of Light” is taken from the final section of “Having it Out with Melancholy,” in which Kenyon, after finally finding an antidepressant that works for her, is “overwhelmed with ordinary contentment.” She said the feeling is evoked by the song of a wood thrush.
“If you really let that sink in, that’s a powerful statement, particularly for someone in her situation,” McNair said.