Why We Chose The Monster I Am Today by Kevin Simmonds for The Rumpus Poetry Book Club
I have to admit, I approached this book with some uncertainty; I know very little about opera generally or Leontyne Price specifically. Now I get to thank Kevin Simmonds for not only opening those worlds up to me, but also for sharing so much of himself in his truly extraordinary new collection.
Leontyne Price, for those who aren’t aware, is one of the most revered opera singers of the twentieth century. She was the first African American to be a leading performer at the Metropolitan Opera in New York, and she performed at major opera houses around the world. And, for young Kevin Simmonds, she is a figure of adoration.
Before I tell you more, a quick reminder that in order to receive your early copy of The Monster I Am Today, read along with the Poetry Book Club, and participate in our exclusive chat with Kevin Simmonds, you’ll need to subscribe by May 15!
This book is a glorious combination of biography and lyric, memoir and musicology primer, and it’s structured like an opera: divided into an overture, acts, and a postlude. The overture takes us through Simmonds’s youth in New Orleans, his recognition of his sexuality, and the impact both had on his own singing. It’s also here that we see Simmonds side-by-side, in a sense, with Leontyne Price, who was also from the deep South, namely Laurel, Mississippi.
Trapped in the terror of Mississippi segregation, Price’s family and community nurtured her voice (and pianistic talents) as both a calling and means to a stable life as a teacher. Making family and community proud was indistinguishable from uplifting the race.
Neither family nor community saw my talent as a divine calling. It held promise—that was it. Absent their enthusiasm and certainty about my future, in classical music, my self-edict was to epitomize excellence, which seemed to require disavowing and overcoming Blackness to achieve it.
Kevin, you’re sick because you’re so hungry.
Simmonds gets into this subject throughout this book—the tension that comes out of racism and white supremacy invading all aspects of life. I felt this grief for Simmonds as he described the ways his music teachers at Vanderbilt University basically damaged his voice and thus took away this important part of him.
One of the interesting formal moves Simmonds uses in this book is the inclusion of what look like FBI file statements. They’re in a different typeface from the rest of the book, and look like official reports written during the COINTELPRO period, where J. Edgar Hoover directed agents to spy on prominent Black Americans in search of links to communism, in an attempt to undermine the civil rights movement and maintain the white supremacist power structure. For example, the first to appear is a report about Leontyne Price’s performance of Virgil Thomson’s opera “Four Saints in Three Acts,” which was presented at the “International Exposition of ‘Masterpieces of the Twentieth Century,’ given under the auspices of the Conference for Cultural Freedom,” according to a contemporaneous report from the New York Times. The CIA was identified as the main sponsor for the Conference for Cultural Freedom in 1966. The report itself is much more concerned with the political affiliations and sexual preferences of the people it’s reporting on, and this served to drive home for me the point that power always seeks to reduce people—and art—to commodities that can be manipulated or discarded at will, depending on what serves the power structure most at that time.
I’ve only scratched the barest surface of this nearly two-hundred-page book, and I look forward to reading and discussing this collection through the month of June with our members. If you subscribe to the Rumpus Poetry Book Club by May 15, you’ll receive your early copy of The Monster I Am Today, and will be invited to take part in our exclusive online chat with Kevin Simmonds in early July. I hope you’ll join us!