Tom Waits is to publish his first book of poetry, in collaboration with photographer Michael O’Brien. Hard Ground is described as a portrait of homelessness, combining Waits’s words with images of people who “live on the hard ground”.
This is the publishing debut for Waits, a songwriter who, after 40 years, dozens of film appearances and about 20 albums, has noticeably avoided committing himself to print. As he remarked in a 1975 interview, according to TwentyFourBit, “poetry is a very dangerous word”. “I don’t like the stigma that comes with being called a poet,” he said. “So I call what I’m doing an improvisational adventure or an inebriational travelogue.”
But Hard Ground seems much more serious and sincere. O’Brien has spent 30 years as a photojournalist, winning prizes for his portraits and returning several times to the theme of homelessness. For the new book, he and Waits sought to communicate the “common humanity” of people who live on the streets, letting words and images “communicate on their own terms, rather than merely illustrate each other”. Hard Ground is modelled on the 1941 classic, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, which combined James Agee’s poetry and Walker Evans’s photographs of Depression-era farmers.
Although this is Waits’s first collaboration with O’Brien, the photographer has frequently taken pictures of the singer. He also shot the cover of Waits’s recent album, Glitter and Doom Live.
Hard Ground will be published by University of Texas Press in March 2011.