By Bridgette M. Redman
Pasadena Weekly Contributing Writer
Before getting married and landing in Pasadena, musician Joseph Vranas spent two years in the Pacific Northwest pursuing an advanced music degree. After a year in Oregon focusing on music composition, he felt like he could no longer compose music.
“You start to learn how much you don’t know and it’s a lot,” Vranas said. “At the end of that year, I had spent so much time composing that it felt like a chore. How could I be creative and get the creative juices out of my body without a lot of judgment?”
The answer came in poetry.
Poetry relates to music in the form, stanza and syllable counts.
“A thousand years ago, they sang and told stories,” Vranas said. “Poetry was always sung. Song and poetry came out of the same seed.”
His 136-page collection of experimental poetry, “63 Poems of the Pacific Northwest,” will hit shelves June 30, by Apollon Musagete.
Turning to words to find sleep
As a musician, Vranas has composed concert pieces, film, ballet and music for the theater. He is also a trumpet player and a teacher who works with youth orchestras, bands and after-school programs. This book is his debut poetry collection, though he is already working on another.
Writing poetry became a sleep aid during his graduate program. When he was up late at night and the Sandman eluded him, he would start to write poetry. The form his poetry took was based on a late-night Google search that he misread. He wanted to do haikus, but he couldn’t remember the form. He looked it up and misread the structure (which is supposed to be three lines with five syllables, seven syllables and then five syllables), thinking it was supposed to be three lines of five syllables, then a seven and then five.
It wasn’t until much later that his friend and collaborator told him he wasn’t writing haikus. He decided to stick with the form he had created anyway.
Collaborating with designer
He texted the poems to Peter Ton, who encouraged him to publish. Ton became the designer of the poems and the book’s cover, deciding how to lay them out on the page and adding graphic elements that underscored the themes of each poem.
After they agreed to do a book of poetry together, Vranas spent the second year of his master’s program writing poetry that captured the natural elements of the Pacific Northwest. He typed them into the notes program on his phone and then shared them with Ton.
When the lockdown of the pandemic happened, they began working on the poetry in earnest.
“We’re both very creative and were pulled out of our element,” Vranas said. “We decided to get this book done. He would Zoom with me. He would pull up Adobe Illustrator and would type in the poem and say, ‘this sounds like this…I’m going to line it up to look like a bed.’ Sometimes it would surprise me.”
Once all the poems were designed, Vranas decided how to organize them and what order they would take, making groupings such as having four on the right or four in the middle, or four that used graphic tricks.
“It worked on a nice flow,” Vranas said. “You can feel the climate going from the east to the west, right in the middle we have (the title page) switching sides.”
A year in Oregon
Vranas started writing the poems in the summer of 2018 and continued throughout the year — or as he references in the subtitle: from when it was hot to when it got cold to when it got hot again. He finished them and put them on a shelf to focus on his wedding and his move to Pasadena, bringing them out again only once they were in quarantine.
“Every single poem I wrote in that year is in the book,” Vranas said. “Aside from little copy edits from my 1 a.m. brain to correct spellings, there were no real edits to any of the poems.”
He did write a prologue to introduce the book with three new poems, bringing the actual total to 66.
Writing the poetry helped him to think about nature and observe it in new ways. When he saw or experienced something, he pondered how to give it human elements, to find the metaphors that depict elements of nature.
“The trees are now armor and the snow on the mountain is now a helmet and the mountains are standing tall and defending against the storm that is coming,” Vranas said. “Now I could tell people Oregon is beautiful with green mountains with snow on top and lots of storms, but now it comes as something else, it becomes imaginative and I’m sharing that imagination with other people.”
The poetry he is working on now continues to use the 55575 model, but he is creating more narratives, this time with Pasadena influencing what he writes even though the new poetry is not specific to the city.
A transplant from Texas and then Oregon, he said he loves living in Pasadena — which he refers to as bungalow heaven with a really good view of the mountains.
He is working with a bookstore in Portland to create tourist events based on his poetry. He said he would love for people to tour the Pacific Northwest using his book as a guide.
Meanwhile, he will continue to write poetry as he pursues his career as a composer in Pasadena.