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Young composers create haiku inspired music during NIU's New Music Festival

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Yvonne Boose
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Greg Beyer and Regina Harris Baiocchi at NIU's New Music Festival.


Regina Harris Baiocchi credits many mentors for her success.

Haiku verses were sprinkled over melodies during a recent music festival in northern Illinois.

Regina Harris Baiocchi is a composer, author, and poet. She is also the founder of Haiku Festival. This festival is for children between the ages of 8 and 14. Baiocchi said that it was inspired by former Illinois poet laureate Gwendolyn Brooks.

“I met Miss Brooks when I was 7 years old. My mother took me to Chicago and the Museum of Science and Industry. I had written a poem,” she said. “And she saw where Miss Brooks was sponsoring a festival for children to come and read their poetry.”

Baiocchi received money for reading her works.

"So for Miss Brooks to open her pocketbook and give me some money — I thought, 'Oh my God,' because I was so shy," she said. "I couldn't read it in front of the other kids, so I just kind of whispered it in her ear."

Brooks became her mentor. When Brooks died, Baiocchi reached out to her daughter and cultural son, Haki Madhubuti, and asked who was going to take over her work with children. And that’s how the Haiku Festival began.

The evening of Nov. 4, an audience at Northern Illinois University was able to get a taste of some of this work. The crowd included a couple of poet laureates. They were among several artists who had shared their work for the performance.

“So, these guest poets wrote poems. I handed them off to Dr. Greg Beyer, who's in charge of the New Music Festival here at Northern Illinois University,” Baiocchi said. “And he and the head of the composition department and the head of the music department and I sat down, and we put together a program where NIU students are setting this poetry to music.”

Beyer said the students started working on the project in August, but they only met a half hour at a time.

“And so, we had about six or seven hours of rehearsal on all this music,” he said. “It was a lot of music and a really short time and because of that intensity -- that's the point of my pride -- the students just did an amazing job, and I couldn't be more grateful for their musicianship.”

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Yvonne Boose

Angie Trudell Vasquez is the poet laureate of Madison, Wisconsin. She said this is the first time she’s taken part in something like this. She believes there needs to be more collaboration of the arts.

“Because it's all related: the poetry, the music, the haiku, all of it to me. This is like the celebration of ourselves as humans,” Vasquez mentioned. “And art is one of those things that we do. And we need to celebrate more.”

She spent time speaking with two young students who she said are hungry for poetry. She explained what she means by that term.

“Poetry is like bread and wine and like, to me, it is everything about us,” Vasquez expressed. “Like you can, you can time travel in poems. You can go to different countries in poems; you can bring your ancestors in poems.”

James Morehead is the poet laureate of Dublin, California. He said that hearing his poetry set to music was rewarding and calls the evening “magical.”

“So, I've heard the music that my poem ‘Petals’ was set to for the very first time earlier today in the dress rehearsal and it's just... it's magic. It's beautiful.”

Daphne Gerling was in the audience. She said she’s attended a show that infused poetry and music, but not one devoted to Haiku.

“And then having such a variety of different poems, different subjects and so many different instruments and kinds of music,” she said, “ everything together and just all these different people putting their heart into collaborating like that. It's to me really incredible.”

The next Haiku Festival awards program is scheduled for April, 2022.

Baiocchi said it’s important for young people to see someone doing what they have the desire to do. She recalls again that meeting Gwendolyn Brooks was not only her inspiration for starting the Haiku Festival, but one of the reasons she pursues poetry to this day.

“But to have someone tell me in tacit, and in words... in tacit ways and orally, that it's okay to be a poet,” she explained. “You know, even if you don't earn a living at it, it's something that will feed your soul for the rest of your life. That meant a lot to me.”

And with the Haiku Festivals, she hopes to pay that feeling forward.

  • Yvonne Boose is a current corps member for Report for America, an initiative of the GroundTruth Project. It's a national service program that places talented journalists in local newsrooms like WNIJ. You can learn more about Report for America at wnij.org.