One of the things I am privileged to do is interview up and coming singer/songwriters. I started doing this when my partner David Dodds and I created songwritersmarketplace.com. an international site and San Diego Acoustic.com a local site. Our original intention was somewhat different from what now exists, but there is no complaint from us. Originally we wanted to post articles about songwriting and reviews on equipment. We still have the articles,from very talented folks who generously contribute to the site, on all things of interest to singer/songwriters (hopefully) the interviews was something I did because I knew so many talented people and it was just a natural outcome to chat and give promotional help to these people I cared so much about.
What came of it, as a true blessing, was the gift I got within each and every conversation with such creative people. As my site so ‘modestly’ asserts I am a poet, artist, author and a singer/songwriter. Most of my life I have plied those crafts on the side, while I labored as a contractor in the construction biz. That decision was made early in my life because it would give me the opportunities to gig, do art shows and write, particularly when the building market was slow. It certainly was difficult at times for my family, but all my creative endeavors have on those occasions contributed financially in difficult times.
My point being that when I look back through all those years it wasn’t my 6:00 to 6:00 job that kept me sane it was the fruit of my creative self. Every creative person I chat with says the same thing, “I write songs (paint, sculpt, write, dance, act etc.) because I have to.” The story is always a bit different as to what happen to start the process and every story is unique and remarkable.
The hardest thing any artist faces is whether to make their efforts into a full time endeavor, whether that effort will provide enough income to live at least modestly well.. Today’s economy is not at all helpful. And discourse among artists as to whether their work is devalued is a conversation artists have had since there have been artists. The word ‘Selah’ in Kind David’s Psalms is said to be a note to accompanying musicians to present a musical interlude – one wonders if they complained about the low wages King David offered for their services.
The gift of creativity is apparent and needed by a society that seems, more and more, to devalue the work of, heart, mind and soul –synthisized into one dull grey phrase ‘intellectual property’. I don’t think that any artist will deny that technology has been a help, but can also point to where it has been a hinderence. In a recent interview with a remarkable singer/songwriter the current condition of the music bussiness is a result of the Internet – the ‘Gate’ is open. The simple truth that everything both good and awful is put up on the web, the screening process of the old business has been removed. What the music business, the publishing business, the business of art will turn into when the cultural and technological dust settles no one knows.
What I know for myself and all those fantastic creative people I chat with is that there is no dampening of creative output in the world or the appreciation by society for the exceptional. Whatever the world becomes, the manifestations of creativity; art, music, and literature, will be a part of it, because it is what it is to be human, a spirit or a muse built in and permanent. If you are a person that expresses their creative side continue and work hard to develop your craft joyfully, even if the world now seems indifferent. Do it because you must.
Here I am rambling again, walking down a dusty road, with musty bits and clever things floating in my much too crowded head. Crickets are cricketing and birds are birding and all is well in the world. All of those annoying emotional chinks and tragedies are all in the past and now I can reflect, changing memories into myth with the use of elaborate word choices and perfected lies. It is a world where I am the hero in the story and the bad is forever vanquished. Every couple hundred steps I stop and sit down on a convenient rock, next to a verdant field, and play a few lines from the lyrics in my head. My old guitar seems to already know the chords and magically places my fingers perfectly -and I, with my beautiful Bocelli vocal chords conte par tiro-ing up into the too-blue Tuscan sky.
Oh man! Wouldn’t that be the ideal way to do what it is we do? What if writing prose, poetry, and lyrics was just as easy as waiting for Br’er Rabbit to pop out da blackberry patch and add a few dippity-do-das to a near perfect song, finishing it for posterity? Or maybe some little cute singing bluebirds, or sing-sewing mice, could help with the perfect Disneyfying ‘o dat last stanza. Oh well. It dippity-do-not work dat way wit me. Getting it down on paper or computer screen is a slightly more mysterious, lonelier, rougher, and grittier process for me.
When I was a younger man, and the need for creative out letting was a near mental disorder in me, I would go to seminars and read all the books on how to write poetry, lyrics, and prose. It was all, so very, helpful, as far as the nuts and bolts were concerned, but every exercise failed me in the end.
Let me give you some examples of techniques I have tried over the years:
!. Have a journal by your bed and when you think of something, as you tip over into dreamland, wake up, get up, and write down that brilliant thing. When I read them in the morning I thought most of it was incomprehensible and I didn’t write the context for the thoughts. Even attempting to be more descriptive made it even worse. This technique was terminated. My scratchings started to take on the tone of a true schizophrenic and sleep deprivation made social interaction almost impossible.
2. Keep a pad in your car and jot down those snippets that come as you drive. I once noted a toothpaste billboard and the light bulb went on. The brilliant song hook was ‘I only see her smile’ – it never became a song, because I rear-ended a late model primer gray Volvo, just as I finished the unintelligible word ‘smile’.
3. Warning: This next technique should never be used – unless you are Edger Allen Poe, Hemmingway, Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, or Hunter S Thompson. I have to admit that in my earlier years I may have used this technique, on rare occasion, to no real benefit. It was the worst stuff I have ever penned. I keep it still, to remind me of my foolish ways. The use of any mind altering substance (Yes, that was what I was alluding to.) is said to assist in the creative process – but in truth what sounded good last night, when you wrote it -, probably was not all that impressive in the morning. A wise friend of mine once told me ‘The problem with any mind altering drug induced insight is that you can’t be responsible for that insight in the morning.’ Since this does not apply to any of my readers, or any of the folks I know, I wonder why I even bothered to list it. (Warning: If you are drinking Absinthe, thinking you will somehow be Oscar Wilde – stop it, you won’t write any better, the green fairy will just have you feeling like crap in the morning.)
4. Try riffing. A technique where you just let your mind go and see what comes out. Actually this isn’t a bad thing, but what comes is usually garbage and it can go terribly wrong. I had a gig at Tehachapi Prison years ago. My brother and I were supposed to do three songs. Then the producer said that we had a half hour to fill up, because the other act hadn’t shown up. In those days I did suffer stage fright and I retreated pretty far into my head. My brother whispered for me to calm down and to just make up a blues song. I didn’t have any other material ready, so that was all there was to do. The song was a big hit – ‘melted some faces’ as the saying is today. I even ended the song with an impromptu comic monologue. We were the hit of the evening, just after the first Stripper to be allowed to perform in a state prison. (She was, indeed, more memorable than me.) Okay, so what was the disaster? When I got down off the stage I couldn’t remember a single word I had sang – or said. (Either did the inmates; the Stripper was simply more ‘poetic’.) If you use this technique please record it, something may be useable.
5. Flip through a dictionary or a thesaurus. This never worked, for me, but my vocabulary improved for when, and if, I did actually write any poems, stories, or lyrics.
6. Use Creative Subliminal tapes. These NEVER worked for me, but I did use them right after the failed ‘Journal by the bed’ technique – the tape put me, immediately, into a deep sleep and I would awaken refreshed and ready to arrange flowers and pick out fabrics. (A warning: Since you can’t hear any words on these tape/CDs make absolutely sure that you know what’s on them. To this day my color-palette sense is just sensational.)
Halloween is over, Thanksgiving is upon us, and I hope your spectral entanglements were manageable. And if not then I am sure the line and verse forthcoming will be dark and brilliant. So now just weeks way from Christmas and the New Year we are at that place where we either sigh and sulk in further ennui, or look forward with expectant hearts to the possibilities brewing in the New Year. Sadly one can also expect more of the same. And if the talking heads and the mad hatter cultural mechanics have their way that is what we will get. And once again that worry, and concern, be the makings of this article.
Are your ready for a connective leap from the opening paragraph to my subject that will seem like a quantum entanglement? I am going to write about the power of words. No, I am not pointing to the failed grammar and spelling tests you had in Grammar School. Was it the stout and artificially happy Mrs. Theona Wentwhistle, or the bespectacled and stern Miss Agnus Dumwaters, or in my case the steely-eyed, garrison belt wearing and black robed task master Sister Mary Elizabeth (Who believed I would learn my lessons better being locked in my locker out in the hall, that discipline required for my transforming pages of poetry into spitballs) that told you that words are very powerful things and it would behoove you to be diligent in your studies? You know that grand Lady you pretty much ignored while humming ‘Teacher Teacher leave those kids alone!’ They were right you know, but I am not writing about your mastery of the language, I can assume if you are a poet you have attained some prowess there, even if sprinkled with unimaginative execration and cluelessly mundane inditements, both I would have you re-examine for a brick in the wall you shouldn’t have torn down. We are going to explore the power of word choice at a number of levels, to create the ability, for a poet, to make word choices that perhaps reach the listener at a deeper and more profound level.
Mother F**ker, back off
see he’s with me,
I’ll hand you misery,
‘cause I can see
like the stars at sea,
don’t mess with me,
‘cause I’m your mother f**king tragedy,
I got me a modus operandi,
for you being a foolhardy,
higgledy on your piggledy,
lowdown, raggedy ass
man heisting fool.
Not: my heart is broken
how could you have left me
threw my heart out the window
like it was garbage
after I gave you everything
and you just disregard me
just dust in the wind
I’m broken you win
your so vain
I bet you think this poem
is about you
Am I saying the above doesn’t have value? It most certainly does – as entertainment and as a journal entry. And there is an audience. If we are to be poets, should we not make the disdistinction that we have a responsibility to create ‘high’ work, work with an honest effort to lift, enlighten, reveal, to open a door to another possibility, or reality, to say it in a new and fresh way. It would seem that I am snarky and mean spirited, that I’m setting a high bar, and I may even seem arrogant. I am not passing myself as some master of the language, some grammatical alchemist, or a lingual magician; I am none of those things, but I am a student and a hard working practitioner of all those arts. We will explore together and if I, as the tour guide, fall short…oh well. It was still worth the effort. Language is fluid and fixed at the same time. It changes over time for good or ill. Modern language is the language you use at the time that form of the language is being used. Seems obvious…Right?
For instance: going to gonna. As a poet we communicate with words. The choice of words and word chains are the color and texture of what we write. If the poet is limited to the words in the common lexicon then the work has the danger of being mundane. That being said it doesn’t mean that mundane work will not get some degree of popular approval. In fact many folks make a good living delivering consistently mundane product to a hungry fan base, and more power to them. I myself , without any shame at all, have produced such work for a buck or two. But that isn’t the point I am making, it is about seeing differences between types of work, creating the ability to make distinctions in your own work. If we can’t see it we can’t fix, or change, it. If you would, it is learning to write in levels and recognizing what makes each level as distinct from another.
The common lexicon is a tool of the poet, but not the only tool! There are different ways to use the language. Lewis Carroll wrote ‘Jabberwocky’ as a poem within a work ‘Alice Through The Looking Glass’
`Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe:
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.
I tried the same exercise:
Priddle and passel
Perning on a peer
Saddle up a seaner
Brigged and get
Tattle in a tangle
Teater and tear
Better a bounder
Than a booring bet
If there is meaning it is only with the writer. The brain ‘matrix-es’, which means it, seeks meaning in all input from the senses. You get a sense that the poems mean something, but it is just outside the grasp. Combining uncommon words in unusual groupings has the same effect. Another valuable tool is metaphor.
Here is an excerpt from Dylan Thomas’ ‘Holy Spring’
Out of a bed of love
When that immortal hospital made one more moove to soothe
The curless counted body,
And ruin and his causes
Over the barbed and shooting sea assumed an army
And swept into our wounds and houses,
I climb to greet the war in which I have no heart but only
That one dark I owe my light,
Call for confessor and wiser mirror but there is none
To glow after the god stoning night
And I am struck as lonely as a holy marker by the sun.
Types of metaphor:
Simile is also a tool to enrich prose and verse.
Here is one of mine own. From “I Need More Than This’
I saw you like liquid in the sunlight dancing
A dancer from a world where answers come before the asking
I’m asking to hold you not like a bitter pill
Swallowed with a lithe hand promised of a sweeter sweeter night
Lies like poetry moved and held me bound
Your body held me till my breath was still
Hey baby I need more than this
Friends are shadows just marionettes and empty talking
They are an empty well you drink from shines on you
Your beauty is empty and time keeps stealing
Without worry the choir and the cadence rolls on and on
But baby I need more than this
Word choices can also be powerful. I’ll use an excerpt from one of my poems for the example.
From ‘A Living Ghost Town’ Hot white work to do
dusty ghosts toil
lamp lit underground holes collocated
world tossed sanctorum Golconda
digging gritty earth
The last tool for this article, and we return to the top of the page, is to go back in history and look at the common language then. I have noted in new Western movies the dialogue is in the vernacular of that time. The lexicon of two hundred years ago is quite different and a rich mine of poetic gold.
strong>Here are pieces from the 1800s
From ‘The Figure Head’ by Herman Melville
But iron-rust and alum-spray
And chafing gear, and sun and dew
Vexed this lad and lassie gay,
Tears in their eyes, salt tears nor few;
And the hug relaxed with the failing glue.
From ‘One Day’ by Rupert Brooke
Today I have been happy.
All the day I held the memory of you, and wove
Its laughter with the dancing light o’ the spray,
And sowed the sky with tiny clouds of love,
And sent you following the white waves of sea,
And crowned your head with fancies, nothing worth,
Stray buds from that old dust of misery,
Being glad with a new foolish quiet mirth.
And the last excerpt – one you know but have not of late visited. ‘Ode to a Nightingale’ by John Keats
My heart aches, and a drowsy numbness pains
My sense, as though of hemlock I had drunk,
Or emptied some dull opiate to the drains
One minute past, and Lethe-wards had sunk:
‘Tis not through envy of thy happy lot,
But being too happy in thine happiness,—
That thou, light-winged Dryad of the trees,
In some melodious plot
Of beechen green, and shadows numberless,
Singest of summer in full-throated ease.
There is always something to be gained by studying what has come before, street poet or learned grad. The Internet has brought about the possibility of a golden age of poetry just by the fact that we have so much that is now accessible to everyone.
Best to you!
Originally posted On ‘Majestic’ the newsletter for http://lit.org