April Lynn James on Whimsical Poetry as a Healing Tool

Sep 21, 2016

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Guest: April Lynn James

April Lynn James is a writer, performer and designer of whimsical things. Her research interests include 18th-century music, baroque dance, and operas composed by women.

Madison Hatta is her alter ego who writes and declaims whimsical sonnets on such things as time, career, family dysFUNction, and the importance of drinking tea. Together, they have published a book called Madison Hatta’s Book of Unreasonable Rhymes and together host the show Twinkle Bat Variations.

As April and Madison explain, scholars and Hatters have something in common: an ability to become obsessed with an idea and take it all the way to its logical (or illogical) conclusion. As she explains in this episode, an obsession with the Mad Hatter lead April out of depression and down the rabbit hole. One obsession lead to another, as April met her alter ego, and found the keys that unlocked the door to the garden where her deep well of joy lay buried beneath piles of family drama.

Using playful poetry, precise prose, and tea, April and Madison’s work answers the question, “Why should this seemingly sensible African-American woman, and holder of a PhD from Harvard, need to follow Alice down the rabbit hole?”

April Lynn James wearing a dapper black tux with blue lapels and black top hat with pink sash and large hat pins. Text reads: The truer I am to what moves me, the truer my art is and the more I can help other people see that they too can create. They too are moved by this inspiring power.

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People and projects discussed

About Imagine Otherwise

Imagine Otherwise is a podcast about the people and projects bridging art, activism, and academia to build better worlds. Episodes offer in-depth interviews with creators who use culture for social justice, and explore the nitty-gritty work of imagining and creating more just worlds. Check out full podcast episodes and show notes at ideasonfire.net/imagine-otherwise-podcast. Imagine Otherwise is hosted by Cathy Hannabach and produced by Ideas on Fire, an academic editing and consulting agency helping progressive, interdisciplinary scholars write and publish awesome texts, enliven public conversations, and create more just worlds.


Cathy Hannabach (00:03):

Welcome to Imagine Otherwise, the podcast about the people and projects, bridging art, activism and academia to build better worlds. Episodes offer in depth interviews with creators who use culture for social justice and explore the nitty gritty work of imagining otherwise. I’m your host, Cathy Hannabach.

Cathy Hannabach (00:23):

Welcome to the Imagine Otherwise podcast, which is produced by ideas on fire and academic editing and consulting agency, helping progressive interdisciplinary scholars write awesome texts and liven public conversations and create more just worlds. This is episode 20 and my guest today is April Lynn. James. April is a writer, performer and designer of Whimsical Things. Her research interests include 18th century music, baroque dance and operas composed by women. Madison Hatta is her alter ego who writes and disclaims whimsical sonnets on things such as time, career and family dysfunction, as well as the importance of drinking tea. Together they’ve published a book called Madison Hatta’s Book of Unreasonable Rhymes and together they host the show Twinkle Bat Variations.

Cathy Hannabach (01:15):

As April and Madison explain, scholars and Hatters have something in common: an ability to become obsessed with an idea and take it all the way to its logical or illogical conclusion. An obsession with the Mad Hatter from Alice in Wonderland led April out of depression and down the rabbit hole. One obsession led to another as April met her alter ego and found the keys that unlock the door to the garden where her deep well of joy lay buried beneath piles of family drama.

Cathy Hannabach (01:47):

And she talks about this journey in this interview. Using playful poetry, precise prose, and of course tea April and Madison’s work answers the question “why should the seemingly sensible African American woman and holder of a PhD from Harvard need to follow Alice down the rabbit hole?”. So thank you so much for being with us April.

April Lynn James (02:09):

Oh my pleasure. Thank you for having me.

Cathy Hannabach (02:13):

Let’s just jump right in.

April Lynn James (02:15):


Cathy Hannabach (02:15):

Your alter ego as you put it is the delightfully dapper Madison Hatta, your fellow host of your solo slash duo slash combination thereof show called Twinkle Bat Variations. So I’d love for you to tell us a little bit about Madison and how this character or this alter ego developed.

April Lynn James (02:36):

Okay. Well it’s an interesting story. I have this feeling that actually Madison, the energy that manifests through me as Madison has been with me since I came into this world, right? I know that when I was nine years old and we had the opportunity in my fourth grade class to audition for roles in the class production of Oliver, that I wanted to play the Artful Dodger and for no other reason I think then that the Artful Dodger and had a top hat, this desire was thwarted. I have to say, I was told that the other students, when I expressed my desire to audition for this were like, “Oh girls can’t play boys”, that kind of thing. And the teacher, even though she let me audition, I was deflated by the time we actually could audition and I never got that role. And anyway the desire for a top hat just always kind of remained at the back of my consciousness somehow.

April Lynn James (03:55):

All right. Fast forward to 2010 and I’m going to the Tim Burton, Alice in Wonderland. The film had just opened and I hadn’t intended to see it actually, I only went because I had a friend who was a member of SAG and she got passes and she invited me and I mean I resisted going up until like we were in the theater. The only reason I went to the theater, I was like, okay, it’s on the way to the train and then I’m going to go home. I can use the bathroom before getting on the subway.

April Lynn James (04:35):

Well, I decided to stay and see the film and that film absolutely reawakened a sense of wonder and innocence and mystery in me that I had sort of lost touch with all the graduate, doing my PhD, that whole Ivy League experience with PhD trying to run my own opera company. The illness that I had to help my mother navigate. Just a whole lot of things had kind of quashed a sense of joy in me. And this film reawaken that, and it was in the middle of the film when Alice goes to the where the tea party scene, the mad tea party scene begins. She goes to the table and the hatters there at the far end and he wakes up right? As his face fills the screen and he sees her approaching and his face fills with joy and anticipation. Like this voice inside my head went, “That’s me”. And I was sort of in…I’m watching the movie and I’m hearing this and I’m like, what? Huh?

April Lynn James (05:59):

And no further comment in at that moment, but I just kind of said, okay, well that’s interesting. And didn’t think much of it until really over the course of that summer following seeing the film, I just gradually became obsessed with the Mad Hatter and with the works of Lewis Carroll, especially in the Alice books. And I found myself buying, Mad Hatter merchandise and seeing really, I had ignored the advertising because I’m really good at ignoring things. So I had ignored all the advertising leading up to the film. But now I was seeing it everywhere. And I bought the DVD when it came out of film and I watched that DVD every week for like something like a year, okay, I just couldn’t get enough of this film.

April Lynn James (07:04):

And so then the summer following, so now we’re talking June, 2011. I’m on my Mac and I’m looking on the web for wallpapers to download to put on there that are stills from the film because I want to have that on my computer. And I find one of them that I liked and it had a poem on it. And the poem was written in this sort of, I guess Mad Hatter, like voice. And I looked at it and I’m like, “Yeah that poems all right”. And then, again that little voice pipes up inside and my head and goes, “I could do better”.

April Lynn James (07:43):

And I’m going, and I’m looking around like, what? Huh? What do you mean? And the voice continues. “Well look, it’s not even in proper form. It needs to be a sonnet”. It’s ongoing. Well, okay, I haven’t written a sonnet since I was an undergraduate at Queens College the first time around. Let me look this up and see, what the form of a sonnet is, okay, we’ll give it a shot. Right? So I look up, I have a copy of the Oxford American dictionary there. I look it up, sonnet 14 lines, that’s basically all it says. I’m like, all right, I could do that. I guess. So I pick up a piece of paper and a pen and I’m like, so we start writing. I start rewriting that and before I know it we have ourself a sonnet which is If I Were Not Mad. And that’s basically how I got to know Madison. Cause the name Madison Hatta came right after the sonnet. And I’m going Madison Hatta sonneteer. Okay. And that’s really how it began.

Cathy Hannabach (08:59):

That’s incredible. And now you have a show Twinkle Bat Variations, right?

April Lynn James (09:06):

Yes. And the show kind of grows out of just, well I actually, I’ve done 20 minutes of it. I performed 20 minutes of it for the Lewis Carroll society of North America conference back in 2014 and the show grows out of my trying to understand Madison and my life and explain it to other people. So the title comes from the fact that Madison has written a variation on Twinkle Twinkle Little Bat. If you know your Alice in Wonderland, the poem twinkle, twinkle little bat how I wonder what you’re at, is part of the mad tea party scene and we have a set of variations on that. And the show is, the structure of it is sort of me. And then we take a trip to Madison Hatta’s peculiar tea shop where Madison introduces the audience to a great variety of peculiarities.

April Lynn James (10:22):

And because Madison does have this obsession with tea and then eventually transitions back to me talking about Madison. And right now we’re sort of in that limbo stage with the show where it’s like, okay, we’ve done parts of it a few times and now it’s resting and we’ll get to see what happens with it next.

Cathy Hannabach (10:52):


April Lynn James (10:53):

Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Cathy Hannabach (10:53):

So you also just have a book that just came out, called Madison Hatta’s Book of Unreasonable Rhymes. Does that come from the show? Is that different? What’s that book about?

April Lynn James (11:06):

And so that book is just the first 26 of over 200 sonnets that Madison and I have now. So the title of it is a play on a couple of different concepts. First of all it’s an homage to Lewis Carroll and his work Rhyme or Reason, he had a collection of poems under that title. And so it’s a little bit of a play on that. And it’s also it’s the sonnets while they are on such themes as madness, time, career, and family dysfunction, and the importance of drinking tea. They take the…I’ll say the ups and downs of my life and my emotional state, and they look at all these things through a wonderland-ish lens. And with great humor, they turned your Madison turns all these things around so that instead of crying about all this stuff I’ve been through, I can actually laugh about it.

April Lynn James (12:31):

And what I found is that and whenever I talk to people about Madison, they just immediately perk up. Everybody’s just like, wow, everyone just starts laughing. I’m like, okay, this is a sign that this is important for me to keep doing and keep allowing it to happen because we’re contributing to the lightning and enlightening of the world through the sonnets and through the show and through the whimsical things, the postcards and the art and stuff that I design, it’s all about bringing joy into what might otherwise appear to be very harrowing situations.

Cathy Hannabach (13:19):

So your work is so incredibly varied and it’s one of the reasons why I was so excited to have you on this podcast. In addition to being a writer, a performer, the artistic creator of Whimsical Things. As you just explained, you also founded an opera company, the Maria Antonia project, and I know you’ve done extensive work around the area of opera. What drew, what drew you to opera?

April Lynn James (13:47):

Well, I’ve always been a singer. I came into this world singing, I like to tell people because of, one of my earliest memories was sitting on the swing set in the backyard of my parents’ house and just singing at the top of my lungs. I think my favorite song as a child was Sing Sing a Song right by the Carpenters or by Karen Carpenter and I used to just sit on the swing set in the backyard and sing while swinging. And I primarily consider myself as a performer, a singer first cause that’s always been my primary form of expression.

April Lynn James (14:31):

I got into opera mainly because when I was returning to school with the goal of getting a PhD in music, so when I was returning to college, with a goal of getting a PhD in music, I was also very aware of the absence of women’s voices and women’s creativity across the media. Now this was a while ago. This was back in the 90s but it’s less true now, but it was definitely true then that, especially in the field of music, if you’re looking at like researching older music, I happen to be attracted to baroque music and, and classical music. So we’re talking 18th century stuff, Handel, Vivaldi, Bach, Mozart, so on. And while I love all those guys and they’re fantastic, I found myself wondering, hello, where are the women? Cause 50% of the population of the world is women. Why is it that 50% of the things that we know about aren’t by women?

April Lynn James (15:41):

And so I went back to school and then, and then to Harvard to do something about that. So opera, I figured that opera would be the way for me to do it because I would be researching music that I would then be able to perform. So that’s how I got into opera. It wasn’t really for a love of opera so much. It was more for I sing, I want works by women to get out there. And if I can do that with my own body and voice, that’s what I want to do.

Cathy Hannabach (16:20):

Wow, so from opera to Harvard to Alice in Wonderland and now you’re working on a librarian degree. Tell us a little bit about that journey.

April Lynn James (16:35):

That journey.

Cathy Hannabach (16:39):

The shortened version.

April Lynn James (16:40):

Oh the short version.

Cathy Hannabach (16:41):

The podcast link version.

April Lynn James (16:43):

The highlights’ version or the lowlights’ version depending on…I got my PhD from Harvard in 2002 and I didn’t really want to go into the professoriate right away cause I kind of, I didn’t like what I saw of it when I was in graduate school. And I kind of said, “well maybe it…”, When I went to graduate school I thought maybe I want to be a professor but I’m not really sure. And then by the time I got out I was like, I got to give that some even more thought. So I actually got a couple of performing jobs right away because I happen to also be a juggler. So I got some jobs that enabled me to perform and tour as a juggler for a couple of years.

Cathy Hannabach (17:35):

I love it that you throw that in there like Oh and by the way, I’m a juggler. Like everyone is.

April Lynn James (17:41):

You mean everyone is wait-

Cathy Hannabach (17:43):

You got singing, you got opera, you got juggling, you got performance art, you got poetry, you got sonnets. You are just incredibly talented.

April Lynn James (17:55):

Yeah. What do they call that? A polymath or something.

Cathy Hannabach (17:58):


April Lynn James (17:59):

Yeah. It’s kind of scary. But yeah, I’m not a triple threat. I am way beyond that by now. Yeah because I also do baroque dance and, okay we’ll get into that-

Cathy Hannabach (18:12):

Of course you do.

April Lynn James (18:18):

So I had these performance jobs that they weren’t floating my boat either. I moved back to New York after Harvard and wound up taking some administrative work in a nonprofit to support more to support my operatic ambitions because I left those juggling jobs to really focus on building the Maria Antonia project and found it incredibly hard in New York to try to found an opera company, one by myself and two without really understanding the lay of the, the operatic world. The modern classical music performing world is an entity to itself.

April Lynn James (19:05):

And then the opera world is part of that is even more of an entity to itself. And I just didn’t have the contacts to break into it. My voice really didn’t come together. My classical singing was…because I had only started training training my voice when I returned to college to study music. I’ve been singing in choirs and stuff my entire life. But I’d never actually taken singing lessons or really understood what the difference is between pop singing and classical singing or operatic singing. And so I know that that was a hindrance as well. And by the time I struggled through all this stuff and then won a couple of awards but nothing great. It was 2012 and I was just burned out because it was, it’s what, I won’t say it’s impossible to do what I wanted to do, but it’s very, very difficult.

April Lynn James (20:09):

And by 2012 I was realizing that I need to have a real income. My mother’s health had improved, she was back on track by then and so I had to start looking around and figuring out what I was going to do with my life. I found my PhD had expired, people out there, don’t realize this maybe, a PhD has a shelf life. You are a newly minted PhD for about five years. They give you about five years to find a professorial position or to get postdocs or whatever. And then after five years you can basically kiss any postdoc opportunity goodbye. And also the academia has changed. Academia has changed to the point where they don’t really bring in a lot of people into tenured positions. They bring in a lot of adjuncts now. And so I was just finding it impossible to get anything that paid decently.

April Lynn James (21:14):

Also in 2012 the what shall I say, the straw that broke the camel’s back or the real impetus for me to move on was that my brother moved back into the house with me and my mother and he didn’t come by himself. No, he came along with his anger management problems and his alcohol addiction problems and he started being abusive towards me. It’s not that we had ever had a close relationship. Mind you, he is 14 years older and we hadn’t spoken for a lot of that time And mostly because he decided not to speak to me,

April Lynn James (22:11):

But he moved back into the house and it wasn’t long before he started being disparaging to me and throwing his weight around. And then one night he literally tried to throw me down the basement stairs. And when I tried to call the police about this, my mother, our mother actually came into the room and put her finger down the receiver, don’t bring the police into this. So that was basically the beginning of the end of my living there. And actually I stuck it out about six more months before I was able to take a friend up on an offer of sanctuary and get out. So I moved from Queens to Manhattan and eventually I was able to come into some insurance money that allowed me to move from Manhattan to Philadelphia at the end of 2013 where I’ve been ever since. And much happier living situations.

Cathy Hannabach (23:21):

That’s an intense story.

April Lynn James (23:23):


Cathy Hannabach (23:25):

But it also, I mean it sounds like it’s part of the impetus behind the work that you do, right? Finding pleasure and humor and joy, right. In really hard shit.

April Lynn James (23:44):

Well yes.

Cathy Hannabach (23:46):

For lack of a more elegant term.

April Lynn James (23:49):

Yes. Well, Madison does have a couple of sonnets on this one. So I can let Madison read just one of these, which is actually our one of our favorites. It’s hard to choose a favorite because there are just so darn many, but I’ll let Madison read this. This one, it’s just…

Madison Hatta (24:17):

A mother insane. Who does disdains hearing reason? A brother inane. Who’s to blame, crying, treason and I am half mad. None the worse for it to tell you the truth, I do homely adore it. It gives me a real new to see and be seen through what was, what is and what hasn’t yet been. But don’t dare let led onto this I told you this for if they, find out. Sure they’ll scream and they’ll hiss. Since out loud I did utter truth to their lies and in truths rich light, the bleak dark fools who dies. A natural death though far too long delayed. I shall not and speak it. I’m far from dismayed of all the do everything as you’ve heard, there’s a season and every ride, you know, bad does have its reason.

Cathy Hannabach (25:31):

That was great. Is that from the new book?

April Lynn James (25:43):

That is from Madison Hatta’s Book of Unreasonable Rhymes. Yes.

Cathy Hannabach (25:48):

Oh wonderful. I’ll be sure to put links in that to the show notes. So folks can grab their copies.

April Lynn James (25:52):

Yes, they can get it through what we have an in demand site because we were able to publish this thanks to the generosity and support of many friends who were our sponsors for our Indiegogo campaign last year. So last year about this time I had an Indiegogo campaign to raise money to publish the first book and it was actually 140% successful. So we were able to-

Cathy Hannabach (26:23):

That’s fantastic.

April Lynn James (26:24):

Thank you. Yeah, it was great. It was so wonderful. So we were able to publish the first book through Moonstone Press right here in Philadelphia and it’s already, there are at least 40 copies already sold and out there, making their way around the universe is out of that first run. It’s still selling and we’re right now getting ready, getting the finishing touches on the manuscript for the second book, which I believe it’s going to be called Madison Hatta’s Book of Unrelenting Rhymes.

Cathy Hannabach (27:04):

Nice.So this brings me to my favorite question that I get to ask guests. Which is their version of a better world. That world that they’re working towards when they make their art, when they publish their books, when they get on a stage, when they do whatever it is that they do in the universe. So I’ll ask you, what’s the world that you’re working towards? What’s the world that you want? It’s a big question. I know.

April Lynn James (27:31):

No, wow. Yeah. Just to start with the big question, [crosstalk 00:27:36] but work your way up to the bigger ones. I really, I want my vision of the world is a freer, more just and more loving world. A healthier world and a more spiritually connected world. Because I know that I wouldn’t be doing this now if I didn’t have some really strong connection to spirit to source. You know what Madison is, is the inspiration. It’s the spark of inspiration moving through me and manifesting how source wants these things to manifest through me. I think in many ways I like to think my metaphysical view of the world is that we are all sort of facets of this great divine energy and it has an idea of how we are supposed to root ourselves and then blossom, and blossom forth as our individual selves in this world. Yet we are all connected because we are all connected to that source.

April Lynn James (29:11):

And the more honest I am with myself, the truer I am to what moves me. The truer my art is. And the more I can help other people see that they too can create, they too are moved by this inspiring power. It’s like I don’t like to view artists as separate. I don’t like to have art be up there on a pedestal somehow separate from our everyday lives. You know, we have our everyday life and over there is art. No, art is part in parcel of our lives. We are all creative and if I can be inspired and I saw a film and a film reawakened my dreams. Reawakened me now if that can happen to me, that can happen to others. And even what my research on operas composed by women and So I did this exhibit for Harvard, the year after I finished, called Opera as Composed by Women 1625 to 1913. We inherited a bunch of scores from a professor emeritus.

April Lynn James (30:33):

No one had curated these or looked at them in at least a century. So they asked me, the head of the library asked me if the music library at Harvard asked me if I would do that and I said “Sure”. And I curated this exhibit which stayed up for more than a year, it stayed up way longer than they’d expected to. I then turned that exhibit into a talk that I toured around New York state for many years and I’ve since turned it into a lip guide that I have been showing to various people in the library field. Like, hi, can we make this permanent somewhere? Because people still need to know that women wrote operas. They still need to get this stuff and perform it. This needs to be out there.

April Lynn James (31:19):

And I originally thought that I was doing my PhD and then the subsequent research to help these other women to get the voices of these other women out there. But the more I look at it, the more it, it seems to me that, yeah that was part of it, but it was also to just have all these examples of other women who believed in themselves, found the courage to believe in themselves and get their voices out there and that they had the courage to do it. That means that I have the courage to do it and I can do this too. So that’s what I want for my life is to help others find their voice.

Cathy Hannabach (32:10):

I think that’s a fantastic place to close on. Thank you so much for being with us.

April Lynn James (32:16):

Okay, well you’re most welcome. Thank you for having me and Madison here this morning.

Cathy Hannabach (32:27):

Thanks for listening to another episode of Imagine Otherwise. Be sure to check out our website at imagineotherwise.com. To listen to full episodes. Read show notes, and see links to the people, books and projects discussed on the show. You can also subscribe to us on iTunes.

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