Arts and Entertainment

Keir GoGwilt and the Art of Daily Writing, with Feeling

Arts & Entertainment writer Jacqueline Thom considers the benefits of writing every day and how Stuyvesant alumnus Keir GoGwilt (‘09) uses it as a creative...

Reading Time: 6 minutes

When one spends most of one’s school career being taught that a “good” essay should always have an introduction, three analytical paragraphs, and a conclusion, it can be baffling when confronted with a different type of essay, one that experiments and emphasizes passion and personality. Many of Stuyvesant’s English electives try to break the mold, encouraging everything from poetry to comics to short stories as a form of expression. Classically-trained musician and Stuyvesant alumnus Keir GoGwilt (‘09) takes things a step further, combining music and spoken word to produce emotional and unique works that give listeners insight into what makes him tick.

Noticeably tall and lanky, GoGwilt looked nervous, or at least mildly bewildered, as he clutched his violin and watched the students from English teachers Ms. Thoms’s Writing to Make Change and Dr. Moore’s Poetry Workshop classes file into the library during seventh period early this November. He towered over the SmartBoard behind him, which displayed one of his poems, or “starlings,'' as he calls them (more on that later). After a very brief introduction from Thoms, GoGwilt launched immediately into one of his pieces. Simply titled “Birdsong,” it’s based on an Irish folk song, but begins with some of GoGwilt’s signature elements: a series of notes akin to tuning one’s instrument, then a multitude of chords.

“Springtime / I see / saw lovers talking // Thrushes warbling / violets charming / it being time / sprung back into view // Thrushes warbling / violets charming / it being springtime.” Don’t mistake this for slam poetry. Instead of the cadence of almost-rap and the habit of slam poets to pick up tempo while speaking before abruptly slowing down to signal an emotional climax in their story, GoGwilt moves forward steadily without the monotone of practiced emotion. His violin slows to a single extended note that complements his voice which, every few minutes or so, punctuates the silence of forlorn strings and purposeful sharp intakes of breath. In an unbelievably quick 10 minutes, GoGwilt tells the story of a man and woman parting ways as the man leaves his home to seek a fortune elsewhere. What begins as a light-fingered tune reminiscent of springtime, becomes a weary dialogue between the couple in the story. The woman’s grieving is evident as the violin takes on a dramatic, dubious tone that sounds like snow falling in the winter. As she goes into a frenzy over her partner’s decision, GoGwilt at times doubles over and sways heavily when playing, as if he too feels the woman’s pain, which is depicted by furious, shrieking notes.

While his playing is lively, his speaking is livelier and yet plays out more slowly. A motif in the song—“he said / she said”—is spoken by GoGwilt in what can only be described as the verbal equivalent of italics. He breezes past these four words, but his emphasis on their pairing manages to root listeners to his every word. While he’s no actor, GoGwilt owns each word and becomes a vessel for the man and woman in his story as they deliberate, argue, reconcile, and separate, with Spring in their wake.

During the whole performance, GoGwilt never once opened his eyes. It was only when the piece was over that he finally looked out at his audience. In his Q&A, it became known that GoGwilt’s writings are as unique to him as is his style of music. On the SmartBoard, he showed us his “starlings,” three-by-three grids of 27 lines that house his stories. He describes starlings as circular poems, ones that are not read left to right but rather around the page according to the viewer’s whim. It thus creates multiple interpretations of one story, its ambiguity being something that GoGwilt cherishes for its prevalence in real life. The starlings’ flexible structure is so freeing that sometimes GoGwilt improvises the order in which he tells his stories, choosing to close his eyes so as to transcend the space occupied by him and his instrument.

As he evolved past classical music, GoGwilt turned to writing as a creative outlet, stressing the benefits of writing as a habit, though he didn’t fail to mention that Stuyvesant’s workload prevented him from exploring the kind of music that he does now, even citing his recurring nightmare about having to stay at Stuyvesant for another year. It’s only recently that GoGwilt has been able to show his more experimental work outside of being a career musician, though one wouldn’t have known that he is also a formidable performer who’s had his fair share of festivals and orchestral collaborations, and has taught courses in European art music, jazz, and hip-hop, all whilst pursuing a PhD in music.

It goes without saying that any kind of career entails a lot of obstacles, including bettering one’s craft, being present in one’s work, and keeping a clear head. GoGwilt touched on all of these, emphasizing that growth is “less about structure and showing off skills than it is about taking experiences and making them artful and inspiring to other people.” He pointed out that Stuyvesant’s notoriously competitive environment often doesn’t teach students how to tap into their passions and use them as a creative outlet. One of GoGwilt’s passions, apparently, is chickens, he joked, referencing an old piece, “Regarding Chickens, Death,” and said, “There’s just a lot of chicken death out there. You can’t have a chicken without thinking about death.”

Following the event, I spoke to Thoms, who also organized for stand-up comedian Nat Towsen (‘03) and bestselling author Mira Jacobs—her latest book, “Good Talk,” has been newly introduced to the Stuyvesant English curriculum—to talk to students in her Writing to Make Change class. Thoms enthusiastically discussed how she reconnected with GoGwilt, a former student in her Writers’ Workshop class, after reading a newsletter that mentioned his experimental work. In Writing to Make Change, students learn about hybrid forms, utilizing different literary mediums across genres, to convey a message that is close to them. “What attracted me to Keir’s work was that he works in collaborative forms and hybrid forms,” she said. “He’s a violinist, but he’s also a poet. Keir talked to the students about how the song spoke to him on a personal level, about issues of immigration and issues of leaving. It’s not an op-ed, but it’s a way of using art to invite audiences to see issues in a different light.”

Keir GoGwilt is an accomplished artist with the virtuosity of a classical musician and the mind of an emotionally-grounded creative writer. His numerous collaborations with dancers, composers, and other musicians denotes a devotion to his craft, regardless of medium or instrument. Something that Thoms practices with her Writing to Make Change students is the habit of daily writing. It teaches students how to hone their craft without worrying about sounding perfect. Both GoGwilt and fellow alumnus Towsen keep and promote this habit, with Towsen having just completed one thousand days of writing every day for an hour as a regimen meant to keep his comedy writing in shape, and evolving. “The layers of practice enable you to look at what you’re putting out and think, ‘here’s something that I can work with and expand,’” Thoms told me.

“There’s something about the freedom of allowing yourself to write or draw or play something that might not be perfect the first time. There’s something very creative and freeing about that that allows you to get to the point where you know that this is what you really wanted to say.” To write, draw, play, or practice art daily requires not only a certain kind of willpower, but also the ability to freely create. In this, Thoms says, the practice “makes you more present for moments of your life.”

This is something that everyone, not just English-oriented students, should take into consideration. When the greatest obstacle is often one’s internal editor, exploring freely should take precedence. The fact that GoGwilt closes his eyes so that he doesn’t have to see his audience’s reaction is funny, but underneath, it’s part of his process of ignoring his inner critic and his fear of being rejected. Instead, he lets the music overtake him because that’s his creative outlet. GoGwilt’s validation comes not from the audience, but from his successfully channeling himself through his violin and writing. It’s starting to seem like the heavy silence that follows a fulfilling, well-performed piece is a more respectable form of applause to congratulate artists on their impact on listeners than is the usual clapping.

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