On the Convergence of Songs, Images, and “The Orchid Thief”


When Kevin Larimer, the editor of Poets and Writers Magazine, emailed and asked if I’d be up to take part in another “inspiration experiment” I instantly knew just who I wanted to invite. The first time we had tried this, two years prior, we worked with author Joyce Carol Oates. Oates kindly agreed to read her poem Too Young to Marry, But Not Too Young to Die, and then listen as a number of artists read and performed pieces written in response.

I am a songwriter, so had written a song that dramatized what I felt was the key moment, when the narrator admits considering suicide. The song hadn’t entirely worked. When she was asked what she thought about the song, Ms. Oates smiled kindly and suggested that I had missed some of the self-mockery and humor in the poem. Later that night I asked my wife if she understood what the author meant, as I did not. My wife didn’t answer, but wondered aloud if maybe it was a feminine thing.

This time I was bound and determined to do better, and I wrote a quick Facebook note to someone I had never met, but whose work I have loved forever, Susan Orlean. Kevin explained to Susan and I that this year he wanted to create a game of inspirational “telephone,” where each artist would create a new work inspired only by the work of the previous artist, and without knowing the work that initiated the game. Since I particularly love her book, The Orchid Thief, I asked if we could use a passage from that to start the game and Susan readily agreed.

The video linked below was made by digital artist Ric Carrasquillo. Ric did not know that the song (which is synched with the video he made) was written in response to The Orchid Thief, and as you can hear, the lyrics don’t mention orchids, or even plants. Even the title of the song was even hidden from Ric. And yet, all through the video you will see plants, often very much resembling orchids.

I don’t have a credible theory about how this happened, other than a vague sense that artists are generally intuitive. Or maybe Kevin cheated? (He swears he did not.) Whatever the case, I hope you enjoy the video, and the song.

Ben Arthur’s eighth album is American Castles. He appears live with Gary Shteyngart at the Union Square Barnes and Noble in Manhattan on September 4th, performing an “answer song” written in response to Gary’s new novel, Lake Success. Susan Orleans’ newest, The Library Book, is out in October.


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