Regionally recognized singer/songwriter Mike Turner is being honored next week as the University of South Alabama Art Gallery’s first poet of the week.
Turner has earned multiple musical accolades such as Male Gospel Entertainer of the Year for the Alabama Music Association in 2016, was a featured performer in the “200 Years of Alabama Music,” part of the state’s Bicentennial program and showcased on the “15 Minute of Fame Stage” at the 2020 Monroeville Literary Festival.
Next week audiences will be treated to one of Turner’s poems each day and have an opportunity to meet and speak with him during a live online event on Tuesday, April 27.
Turner said songwriting and poetry are artforms that often feed off of each other. While many of the stories he tells fit neatly into the packaging of a song with verse, chorus and repetition, that style doesn’t always translate well for some topics.
“There were issues I wanted to talk about that I didn’t think leant themselves to that type of repetition,” he said. “That’s when I started branching into poetry. It’s a little bit more of a freer form and conversational form.”
His piece, “Old Doors” reflects that type of creative posturing. Turner said he exited Saenger Theatre in Mobile out a side entrance one night and later learned that had been the entrance for African Americans during the Jim Crow era. He wrote the poem after he happened upon a photo of a mother and daughter using the door during that era to visit the theatre.
“I started thinking about that. Here’s a special door to go through but it wasn’t special in the sense that it was better. It was special because we forced you to go through that door. If you go around Mobile you can see all sorts of signs of that,” he said.
“That just stuck with me and I wrote the poem about these old doors and about these signs and symbols of our history and our oppression and how we need to close those doors and open new doors that are open to everyone,” Turner said.
He fiddled with the piece for a while to work it into the song, but it never lent itself to the rhyming or repetition that song structure demands.
“I wanted to take people on a journey - seeing all those old doors and recognizing what they represent and how we need to change that,” he said.
On the other hand, the story of Mobile’s Boyington Oak played as a song in his mind early on.
He heard the tale on walking tour of Mobile. In 1834, Charles Boyington was hanged for a murder he claimed he didn’t commit. On the gallows he said an oak tree would grow from his heart, proving his innocence.
Indeed, an oak grew over his buried body and remains there today.
“It’s a great story. There’s murder, mystery and magic. It reminded me of an old folk song constructed to raise the question, is he guilty or innocent?” Turner said.
In any creative medium Turner said the goal is the same: the artist is trying to express themselves or convey a message.
How the listener responds and interprets the message is separate from anything the artist does.
“There is no guarantee my poem is going to be perceived in the way I portrayed it. The listener or the reader hears it in terms of their own experience and what it means to them,” he said.
“Old Doors,” he said, is an example. He said a reader took offense to the topic and complained that it made him uncomfortable. That, however, was part of the poem’s goal.
“There’s an old Woodie Guthrie quote, that it’s the folk singer’s job to comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable. That has stuck with me,” he said. “When I write from my experience, I hope the reader or listener will experience emotions based on their own experience. We are trying to make that connection based on our common experience of love, loss or whatever it may be.”
You can listen to Turner’s music online at www.miketurnersongwriter.com. Turner has a book of poem’s due out July 1 entitled “Visions and Memories,” published by Sweetycat Press in Virginia.