Sunday, August 29, 2010


Yes, before everyone asks, I did see the Emmy Awards opening number tonight - Jimmy Fallon, Tina Fey, the cast of "Glee," et al. doing "Born to Run." Video is posted over at Blogness on the Edge of Town, if your life won't be complete without seeing it... it was, well, weird.

In other linkage:

Nice interview with Catherine Bowman over at the IU News Room, about her creative process (always a favorite topic of mine).

Shameless self-promotion: the Winter 2010 issue of the Tipton Poetry Journal is now online, including a poem of mine.

How to make the Bruce Springsteen fan community collectively squeal like little girls - announce a huge, lavish, amazing-sounding "Darkness on the Edge of Town" box set, coming out in November. The documentary and the accompanying 80-page book (!) look like they will reveal a lot about Springsteen's creative process (see? we have a theme going on here!) around the album. Even if you're only a casual Bruce fan, check out the trailer for the documentary. "Words all over the place." Hee!

Bruce Springsteen - "The Promise: The Making of 'Darkness on the Edge of Town'" Sneak Peek from Columbia Records on Vimeo.

Finally, something I saw on a light pole downtown today. If this doesn't break your heart a little bit, maybe you don't have one.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Notes from the Rock Hall 2: Music and Lyrics

So, you don't have to know me very long to learn that I love music. Whether it's a lovely cello recital by Yo-Yo Ma, an evening with a legitimate guitar god, or a road trip across the Midwest to experience the glorious roar that is a Bruce Springsteen/E Street Band concert, there is pretty much nothing I love more than music - preferably live.

My recent trip to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame was such a feast of memories for me. Everything from the Beatles memorabilia (the Beatles being the first rock band I really fell in love with) to the audio stations where you could listen to little snippets from various influential radio DJ's of past decades (and I remembered secretly listening to my little transistor radio late into the night when I was supposed to be asleep, sometimes pulling in stations from far-off mysterious cities like Chicago) to the extensive artifact-driven exhibit tracing Bruce Springsteen's history, I was reminded over and over of the hours I spent immersed in music as a teenager. Bruce sings "We learned more from a three-minute record than we ever learned in school..." and it's true, you learn so much from anything you immerse yourself in like that, it marks you forever. Some of the guitar licks I've listened to a million times have probably managed to sink into my bones and change the actual way that I walk. (My poem in the new issue of New Madrid, "The Roar the Day After," is about being in high school and the way that music just doesn't leave your head and you walk around in it all day.)

But I realized more than anything, especially as I pored over the handwritten lyrics of a bunch of different artists, how that immersion in music is what made a poet out of me. I say that instinctively, but what does it mean? Well, rock & roll gives you permission to obsess, for one thing - to listen over and over, to pick apart the little nuances, to explore the same damn theme over and over (how many love songs are there anyway?) - and I don't think you can be a poet without understanding obsession on some level. At least I can't.

And, the songs gave me little templates to follow. Yeah, a lot of what I wrote in high school was intended as song lyrics, but even when I moved past that, the music had taught me something about sound and rhythm that I would never have understood had I spent the same amount of time strictly counting iambs or whatever. The sound and rhythm gave me a template, but they also gave me enough freedom to deviate where necessary; instead of slavishly sticking to "da-DUM da-DUM da-DUM da-DUM" I had something more fluid to work with, something that felt alive. And even when I moved past writing verse-chorus-verse songs and started writing poems, music gave me a sense of structure: understanding how you move from the beginning of something to the end, how you can tell a story even while you loop back and repeat yourself now and then, and how the same words and lines repeated can carry different intent and resonance depending on where they fall in the structure of the thing - look at how the last chorus of a song can have an entirely different feeling from the first instance of the chorus, depending on where the song has gone in between times.

The music gave me, too, an instinctive understanding of how different sounds convey different kinds of meaning. How a staccato line of short syllables and lots of consonants has an entirely different emotional weight and resonance than a slow line with vowel sounds that are crooned and sustained. That's equally true in music and in poetry.

Now, I'm not going to make a case for song lyrics being poetry. Maybe sometimes they are, but I think 99% of the time they are different beasts entirely (which is why I think a lot of "poems set to music" fail). Bruce Springsteen, Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan - all of them write wonderful images and tell great stories, and the lyrics are often worth studying and thinking about and considering possible interpretations. And a few of the musicians I love are legitimate poets and/or writers; Patti Smith was a published poet before she became a musician, and Rosanne Cash was writing well before she took up music (though she didn't publish extensively until she'd become known as a musician - her collection of short stories Bodies of Water is worth picking up, and I've just started reading her brand-new memoir, Composed, which is beautifully written).

But songs are not poems. To say this is not to take anything away from them; the lyrics aren't any less masterful for being songs and not poems. You can read the lyrics on paper, but that's like viewing a painting in black and white. You can appreciate it, and you may even gain a new understanding and appreciation of it because taking away certain dimensions of the work lets you see things you might have missed otherwise. But you're not experiencing the whole work of art if you separate the music and the lyrics. No matter how great the lyrics are, they are meant to be a part of the larger whole.

At the Rock Hall, I spent hours studying handwritten lyrics (I looked at a lot of people's; it may not surprise you to know that Steven Tyler couldn't spell for crap when he wrote "Walk This Way" or that Jimi Hendrix had large, somewhat self-consciously ornate, very distinctive handwriting). As I stared at the pages of the actual spiral notebook in which Bruce Springsteen drafted "Born to Run" - pages upon pages of the thing; that song did not come easily for him and he wrote and revised and wrote and revised for what must have been months - the thing that struck me the most, and startled me the most, was how familiar those pages felt. I looked at Bruce's notebooks from his early twenties, and thought about my notebooks from my early twenties, and realized how very similar they really were. For just a few moments, I thought, "wow, Bruce Springsteen and I are, at the heart of it, in the same line of work."

And after all these years, I liked that a lot.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Notes from the Rock Hall, 1

More substantial posts coming, but I want to sustain whatever small momentum I've found here.

So, last week I spent two full days in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, and it was fantastic. Yes, you can quibble about the induction criteria and about who's in versus who's not (the fact that Abba got inducted this year and Darlene Love, who was on the ballot, did not is just a crying shame) - but for anyone who's grown up with this music it is an absolute treasure trove of memory and revelation. So many times I found myself standing in front of an album cover I'd spent hours upon hours staring at in high school while playing the album over and over, and next to that album cover, the actual thing that was on the cover. John Lennon's costume from the cover of Sgt. Pepper. Stevie Nicks' pointe shoes from the cover of Rumours. And, of course, Bruce Springsteen's guitar and leather jacket from the cover of Born to Run. (That jacket is tiny, too. He was a scrawny little dude. So many dreams packed into that small, beat-to-hell-and-back leather jacket.)

Other than the Springsteen stuff (which I'll get to later), probably the thing that made the biggest impression on me was John Lennon's first passport, issued in 1960. When he first got the passport, he filled out all the blanks dutifully, writing "Student" in the space marked for Profession. Later on - and oh, how I wish there were some way of knowing exactly when - he came back and, with a considerably bolder and firmer pen, lined through the word "Student" and wrote "Musician."

The power of naming oneself. Just intense.

* * * * *

Also, I've pretty much decided I am going to do my damnedest to get to AWP next year. More later about why (I'm not on any panels); for now, I just want to throw out there that I will read at the drop of a hat, or a poem, so if any editors or other reading organizers would like a middle-aged Midwestern poet on their bill, you know where to find me. :)

Monday, August 09, 2010

Testing the waters

So, yeah, I've been even more absent from here than usual. On the one hand, nothing momentous has happened that I feel I must blog about. On the other hand, there's a level of connectedness in the (yucky word) blogosphere, one that I do actually treasure, and which takes a certain amount of care and feeding to maintain. And I find myself, often, with words on the tip of my tongue.
I haven't been reading y'all for a while and I haven't been writing here either. I guess I've been on an unannounced hiatus. I'm back, I think, in a quiet sort of way. Starting to catch up with the blog-reading to see what everyone's been up to. Dipping my toes back in.
I've been active on Facebook and on Twitter. Those feel like very different venues of communication than a blog. Impermanent - Twitter especially, even though the Library of Congress is archiving tweets now. It's like a stream that moves on, and if you don't catch it for a while there are no repercussions. Unlike blogs, where I feel a certain responsibility to try and catch up, at least with some of y'all bloggers with whom I feel a sense of shared history. Lately I've felt more of an affinity for shallow, rapidly moving water than for the depths, I guess.
Boy, that all sounds kind of pompous.
Anyway, I am missing discursiveness and writing whole sentences. I can tell because essay ideas and blog post ideas are starting to bubble up for me. I am thinking that I will make a spreadsheet of them (because I'm that kind of a nerd) and set aside time each day for thoughtful writing. (Because, much as I love Twitter, it's not "thoughtful writing.") Some of that will, I hope, be for this blog.
So my thanks to those of y'all who haven't yet given up on me. I'm here. :)

As for the poetry part of my life. Haven't been writing that many poems - those are from the deep end too, and I've been in the wading pool soaking up some sun - but I've been sending out like crazy. (Well, relatively speaking, for me anyway.) I've had some good results, including a poem in the just-released new issue of New Madrid, and a very encouraging rejection from a very good journal I've been trying to get into since 1988. (I don't name names on rejections, sorry! Superstition, I suppose.) Meanwhile, a far newer and far less prestigious journal asked for some poems, then rejected them with a form email - just to keep me humble, I suppose, as if there were some danger of me becoming a diva at this late date! You gotta laugh. It's a silly game we play, isn't it?
Still no nibbles on the book manuscript, which I intend to pull apart and try to revise it with a fresh eye. I think it's a relatively solid manuscript, but it hasn't been catching attention, and I suspect it could be made better.

I took a little summer vacation last week and made a road trip to Cleveland to visit the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. Oddly enough, I learned some things about writing there. Stay tuned. :)