A ‘Wild’ season for singer and poet Diane Jarvi/Jarvenpa


To release either a CD or a collection of poetry is a major accomplishment, but Diane Jarvenpa, who sings under the name Diane Jarvi, has the unusual distinction of having released both a second book of poems, _The Tender Wild Things_, and a new CD – her fourth – _The Wild Gardens_, all within the past two months.

Jarvenpa, whose grandparents were all born in Finland, grew up in the Twin Cities, but has performed extensively abroad where she is known as “Minnesota’s Nightingale.” Her CD’s are an eclectic blend of original material, Finnish folk tunes, blues, and world music, including songs from Spain, Provence, Russia, Sweden, France, and elsewhere. She has also studied music in Finland and, besides playing the guitar, is a master of the 5, 8, 10, 15 and 36-string kantele, a folk harp native to Finland. Of her singing voice, Ron Hubbard of _The Pioneer Press_ has written that it is “marvelously versatile, alternatively soothing or scintillating, but always soulful,” while poet Thomas R. Smith praises her newest collection of verse as “wonderful poems, musical to their core…” In anticipation of her joint CD release/publication party at St. Paul’s Black Dog Café this Saturday at 8:00 p.m., _Twin Cities Daily Planet_ sat down with Jarvi/Jarvenpa to ask her a few questions about work.

TCDP: Okay, let’s begin by asking you to explain why you go by two names. Is that just to confuse people?

Diane Jarvenpa: It works, doesn’t it? But really, no one can pronounce my real name, so I use Jarvi to ease the way for disc jockeys, because no one can say “Jarvenpa.”

TCDP: Your new book is called _The Tender Wild Things_ and your new CD is called _The Wild Gardens_. So, what’s with the “wild” motif, anyway?

DJ: I’m not a very creative person – can’t you tell?

Actually, it was a fluke. The book came first, before the CD or the title song, which is a poem I wrote – the only time, by the way, I ever took a poem of my own and set it to music. Still, it’s been an odd experience having both come out at the same time, especially since they have similar themes and structures.

TCDP: How would you describe the relationship between your singing/songwriting and poetry? Do they complement each other? Do they ever conflict?

DJ: You think they’d be symbiotic, and sometimes they are. But the world of a writer and the world of a musician are not really compatible, though there is a kind of yin yang connection between them. Poetry requires an inflow, a contemplative state, and performance is certainly not those things. For the kind of person I am, pretty shy and introverted, when I am on the road with a lot of people, it certainly isn’t conducive to writing – so those are lost moments, though I know that the experience of performing and traveling is all input that is being stored for later. Even so, one can aid the other. If I need quiet time after being on the road and performing, which for an introvert is an exhausting thing, poetry is a world I can enter that offers a completely different spirit and tone.

TCDP: One thing that’s striking is the similarity in the sequencing and rhythmic structure of your book and you CD. Was that conscious?

DJ: Ten years ago, I got a grant to work on the book and I had an idea that it might consist of love poems, but it morphed into something different. It begins that way, then moves into a section about relationships and family and my relationship with nature – I was raised by a wildlife biologist, who worked for the DNR, and a poet. Nature was very important to both my parents – who were also Finnish, which as a culture is very attuned to the natural world. So the arc of the book became more about how nature impacts and influences our relationships with the people and the things we care about. That’s followed by a section about going to Finland, and how that country relates to my ethnicity, then to my mother who was in a nursing home for seven years, dying of Alzheimer’s, and then it ends with me trying to start a family myself and then finding my daughter, Lili, who came to us from China.

TCDP: Your CD includes backup from some great local musicians like Clint Hoover on harmonica, Dan Newton on accordion and Brian Barnes on mandolin and at the same time you’re part of two different writers groups, so in a way both your CD and your book are collaborative in nature. What was it like working with so many people to create this work?

DJ: It’s was great.

TCDP: Your mother, Aili Jarvenpa, was herself a poet and writer who produced seven books during her lifetime. Your new book also contains a heartbreaking sequence of poems elegizing her last years, her death and its effect on you. Over all, how did she influence your own development as an artist?

DJ: She was very influential in my decision to become a writer in several ways. First, her personal story has been very inspirational for me. She had this very rigid immigrant father who had money so she could go to the University but, instead of allowing her to major in English as she wanted, insisted on her taking business courses so she could get a job. So she wrote on her own, in private, writing poems on scraps of paper until her 50s. She was 60 when her first book came out and, as you mentioned, she worked on a total of seven published books by the time she was 75. It was wonderful to see this middle aged woman finding herself. She also started taking me to poetry readings when I was 15 or 16 and she also brought home all these wonderful books to our house, which I’d read and try to figure out what was going on in them, how did this work? It was an incredible gift to lean that you could do anything you wanted at any time in your life. She was also a gifted violinist who bought me my first guitar, so without her I wouldn’t be performing, either. I never even asked for it, she just said, “You’re 12, it’s time.”
TCDP: What are some of the qualities of Finnish culture – and by extension, Finnish-American culture – that set it apart from the culture of Scandinavia or of Russia – and how does it inform your work?

DJ: One of the primary things that sets it apart is its language, which is not related to any Scandinavian or Slavic tongue, only Saami, Estonian, a number of very isolated languages in Russia, and, very distantly, Hungarian. That means Finland is a large linguistic island that has experienced powerful cultural influences from Sweden and Russia. Fortunately, during Russian rule, the Czar was pretty lenient about allowing the Finns to develop their own language. Because of this there is a very strong sense of Finnish identity. For some reason that culture has been intrepid. It’s a woodland culture. Finns are very shy but close to nature – something about the culture reminds me of Native American culture but with outside influences from powerful neighbors.

TCDP: Tell us about your progression as a vocalist and a songwriter. How have your successive CDs changed and grown?

DJ: My first CD was originally intended to be a primarily singer/songwriter album, but then when I was in the studio I decided to sing a lot of Finnish folk songs just to see how they would sound. I was persuaded to include them by the engineer and editor. The result was that I got pegged right away as Finnish-American singer, though I originally intended to be much more eclectic.

The next CD I decided would consist of all Finnish music because I wanted to pay homage to my grandmothers, both of whom died before I was born. My third CD, which was recorded before I had children, I wanted to be my version of a lullaby album, but with a non-traditional approach, so I did things I really liked at the time like poems set to music by Keats and Emily Dickinson and Poe and some world music – the CD contains a Yiddish song, a Saami yoick, and Finnish songs, among other things. With the next CD I didn’t really know what I wanted to do; I just wanted to go to the studio and record some things I’d been working on. At first I hated what I heard, but then the tape sat at the studio for a year, and when I listened to it again I liked it.

Recording is a wonderful experience for me. I don’t come in with set ideas. It’s a process of discovery and then there are other people involved who are real collaborators, so there is a kind of alchemy. Often times they take my work in entirely different directions from what I had in mind, which is just thrilling.

TCDP: What are you working on now?

DJ: I’m working on a poetry manuscript, which is still in its formative stages. It includes a lot of poems about music – it’s an excruciatingly hard thing to write about, which is why it’s good for me. I also have a little novel I’ve been working on for a while and I’ll probably go back into the studio again to work on a couple of ideas bouncing around in my head. We’ll just see what happens.

_This Saturday, December 1, Diane Jarvi/Jarvenpa will give a reading and performance at “Wild Night at the Black Dog” a celebration of the publication of _The Tender Wild Things_, her latest collection of poems, and _Wild Gardens_, her new CD, at the Black Dog Café, 308 Prince St., St Paul, right across from the St. Paul Farmers Market. Admission is free. For information and directions to the café, call 651/228-9274._

To sample Diane Jarvi/Jarvenpa’s music and poetry, go to www.dianejarvi.com.