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Kansas City’s Erin McGrane adds poet to her diverse list of professions

Erin McGrane is part of the duo Victor & Penny. She is releasing a book, “Overtones,” of her poems and song lyrics.
Erin McGrane is part of the duo Victor & Penny. She is releasing a book, “Overtones,” of her poems and song lyrics. File photo

Erin McGrane has been a long-time performer in Kansas City, as an actress in commercials, live theater and film, a TV host and a musician, including her current music project, the guitar/ukulele duet Victor & Penny. This weekend, she will step into the literary world.

Saturday night at Prospero’s Books, McGrane will celebrate the release of “Overtones,” a collection of original poems and lyrics. The event is part of the monthly 2016 Pop Poetry series in which 12 poets release a book of poems. Pop Poetry is a publishing venture by Spartan Press and Prospero’s Books. Additional support is provided by a grant from ArtsKC.

McGrane on Tuesday answered some questions about the book and writing.

Q: Is “Overtones” all poems or is it a mix of poems and lyrics?

A: “Overtones” contains both poems and lyrics, with a spoken-word theatrical piece in the mix. There are a few more lyrics than poems, but it’s a good balance. The book contains formal, structured poems presented alongside free verse, spoken word and lyric poetry. They range from work created earlier in my career to brand new pieces I wrote specifically for this book.

Last year, when Jeanette Powers from Pop Poetry encouraged me to submit for the 2016 series, she said that they specifically wanted to feature more lyricists to highlight that poetry is all around us. … The idea of poetry can be off-putting to some people, seeming stiff or formal. But pop music is all around us, and lyric poets like Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan and Paul Simon have proven that poetry combined with pop music can be incredibly powerful.

Q: What’s the difference between song lyrics and poems?

A: The difference between lyrics and poetry to me lies in the structure. Lyric poetry that I write generally rhymes, is emotional, written in the first person and is rhythmic. When I read it, I can imagine it being sung.

Poems that I write can be highly structured or free verse, and the topics can be more wide-ranging or observational. In all forms, I sometimes write as a character telling a story. I suppose that’s the actress in me.

In “Overtones,” I’ve included a piece I wrote as a theatrical spoken-word duet. I’m very excited to have actor Forrest Attaway and Jeanette, a spoken-word poet, perform it in front of an audience for the first time.

Also joining me for the night is Jeff Freling, my partner in Victor & Penny. We will perform an improvisational piece where Jeff will create music to one of the new pieces I wrote specifically for the book.

Q: How often do you write?

A: I’m a full-time performing artist who travels a great deal, so it’s sometimes difficult to balance finding quiet time to create with the time needed to perform and to run our business. Jeff and I just completed a weeklong artist-in-residency that we created called #VPsongLab, an interactive live songwriting laboratory that took place in the lobby of Missouri Bank.

For the second year in a row, we worked to carve out time in our busy schedules specifically dedicated to writing new work. Four of the songs on our new album, “Electricity,” were written during last year’s #VPsongLab, and we were able to write six more this year. The lyrics to those four songs appear in “Overtones,” so there is a lot of coalescence between the new album and poetry book.

Timothy Finn: 816-234-4781, @phinnagain

▪ The third edition of 2016 Pop Poetry will be Saturday night at Prospero’s, 1800 W. 39th St. An open-mic reading begins at 7 p.m. Sign ups for the open mic begin at 6:30 p.m. Starting at 8:30 p.m., Erin McGrane will read selections from “Overtones,” a collection of poems and lyrics. Her performance will include guest readers Jeanette Powers, Forrest Attaway and Jeff Freling. Admission is $10, which includes a copy of “Overtones.” A book signing and reception will follow the reading.

Here is an excerpt from “Overtones,” the title poem of the book of poetry and lyrics by Erin McGrane. “Overtones” is also a track on the new Victor & Penny album, “Electricity.”


She hums a low hymn slow

can’t remember how it goes

slim hopes and low blows

whip or will and hips slung low

she runs into the soft grass

with her high heels on

he paints himself a corner

unaware he’s overdrawn

fall in, fallin’, fallen, fall in

She knows that she chose

nothing that she’s known before

he’ll choose and he’ll lose

after all those years of keeping score

Sorrow sleeps upon her doorstep

fear lies waiting in his bed

with overtones and broken bones

and power lines overhead

— Erin McGrane