You mentioned earlier that you like "screwing around" with punctuation. What do you mean by that?
Well, who made those rules of punctuation anyway!? Even as a child, I recognized that laws are made by men with their own agendas, and our lives are shaped by those agendas. I mean, you can read Strunk and White and recognize what they are saying and how those rules should apply, but those rules don't conform to what's in my head and how those words flow from my mouth, so I'm gonna do it the way I want, the way that makes sense with what I'm trying to say.
Think of people like ee cummings. His use of punctuation fits perfectly with the themes in his writing. Sometimes ideas are expressed in a way that are ideal for the situation but that may not fit neatly into the "rules" of grammar or punctuation.
I assume you're an ee cummings fan.
Oh yes. I just read one of his biographies and a book of his letters. The letters he wrote as a young child were the same style he used as an older man. I also collect writers reading their own works; I have several ee cummings readings on vinyl, and I love hearing him read the poem "[In Just-]." His delivery is amazing, and the way he follows the lines as he reads them. I still screw around and put other people's poems to music, but I got to a cliff's edge when I tried to put "i sing of Olaf glad and big" to music! That was a roller coaster ride. I couldn't finish it because I was trying to place words in certain places and it was im-possible!
Have you ever heard Dylan Thomas read "Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night"? With his Welsh accent and booming voice, no one should read Dylan Thomas except Dylan Thomas.
Yeah, that's excellent. And with a lot of the stuff from the 50s and 60s, where the poets read against the jazz behind them, the one person who did the best job with the music and the poetry is Kenneth Patchen. His words are arranged with the music, as opposed to the other poets of that time where the music was more like background music.
I've discussed the idea of songwriting as poetry with other songwriters, and some claim that songwriting can never be as high an art form as poetry since it requires music to convey its meaning. What do you think of that?
Well, why eat turkey meat? It's leaner and it's better for you. As far as music and words, they do manipulate each other. When I wrote that film score a few years ago, I realized how much music can manipulate what's on the screen as well. If I change one or two instruments around, it changes the tone of how I approach the vocals later on if I redo them. Or that tone from the music might force me to take a few words in a different direction or even change tenses or change an adverb to make it a little less aggressive.
I think the world should read more poetry, don't you?
I have my iPod on when I'm cooking, and I always keep it on random. It's mostly instrumental music and all these poets reading their works. Strange moments happen from that combination. A few months ago, a Robinson Jeffers poem about suicide came on, and the next song was a Vic Chesnutt song. That song was about suicide, and he had just killed himself. It floored me.
I used to have two stereos, and I would pick minimalist music from the early 60s like John Cale. Pallet cleansing, droning, atonal music, something without a lot of drama or aggression. I'd put that on one stereo, and on the other I'd put a writer reading their own work. It was amazing to hear how the music affected the perception of the words. And if I did it again, with the same writer and the same music, the timing wouldn't be the same, and even slight variations would change the tone of what I was hearing from the writer and how the music would manipulate it. It was a really fun experiment. And it's also a sign that I wasn't leaving the house as much as I should. Laughs.
I read somewhere that you're a huge Henry Miller fan, so I'm curious about your favorite authors.
Miller shaped me early on. Maybe not as a writer, but as a man. You read Miller one way, then ten years later you read the same book again and it hits you a whole different way. Then maybe you shouldn't read Miller anymore, and you should read D.H. Lawrence to come down a bit and smooth the edges. Laughs.
My favorite writers come and go, depending on what I'm going through. But I like to read biographies and poetry, then focus on an artist chronologically. I just finished rereading all of J.D. Salinger's works in the order he wrote them, to see if I could figure out how his thinking changed with his life. I did that with Bukowski too, all the poetry and fiction, to see how the literature changed with his life. When you read a biography as you read the body of work, you get such a good sense of what was going on in an author's personal life and how it shaped his writing.
But as far as authors, it really depends on what I need at that moment in my life. I have stacks of books around the house, and each stack is something I hope will take me in a different direction. Of course, I rarely end up getting to those stacks, and I have to put them back on the bookshelves after about a year or so. I get this idea in my head that "here's a thread I want to journey through," but something always distracts me.
What about Edgar Lee Masters appealed to you when you decided to put Spoon River Anthology to music? Why him over any other poet?
Years ago, I was a street musician in San Francisco. I was just out of college and living in residential hotels, moving on the Muni trains and buses every few weeks to different locations. I had one of those early Philips word processors, the kind that was all one machine that had a cord like an old phone. I was also working at a bookstore and giving myself little assignments to keep writing.
One of the assignments I gave myself was to take a list of names and use each name as a title, and describe that character and their situation in one sentence. I knew a little bit about Masters, and one day when I was in the bookstore I came across Spoon River Anthology. He had the same thing: a list of characters with descriptions. And that drew me into the book because it was something I had already started to think about.
When I read the whole thing and studied it, I was blown away by the fact that the stories aren't ordered chronologically and that you have to go through and put the stories and the characters together. I didn't work on that record until ten years later but that book really taught me to keep my writing lean.
Speaking of lean, I couldn't help noticing that the song titles on Our Blood are each only one word. At what point in the process do you come up with the titles?
They come out of the outcome of the overall body of work. Sometimes I use catch phrases as placeholders for the titles until I finish the songs. Then I can realize what the song is about, and the title appears. Sometimes I've used the first three or four words of the song as the title.
This time, there were a lot of things going on in the outside world that shaped the thread of the writing, but I didn't realize that thread until the end. When I got to the end of the body of work, the titles became apparent. It's weird, because when I looked at the titles, I thought, "What is this, a prison record?" I mean, there are titles like "Escape," "Thief," and "Collusion." Laughs. What is this about? Am I trapped? I had an idea for how to order the songs on the album to complete the thread, and the song titles seem appropriate for the order of the songs as a whole record. So these titles were based on the thread I discovered at the end of the process. That's never happened before.
My whole process changed after I made that film score. When I made it, I was focused on being strict with melodies early in the process so that I could go back and create variations of those melodies. Before that I would have words and music and just kind of veer through melodies a bit more. But in making that film score, I was much more strict. It shaped how I made this record. On all the previous records, I felt like I was coming through the front door, but with this record I felt like I was coming through the side door. And this album was the first time that the songs were written as I was recording them, as opposed to writing them, taking them on the road, working them, then recording them.
What do you mean by "side door" and "front door"?
I used to create songs mostly by sitting down with the words and a guitar and working through them. This time, I focused more on the music and tried to keep the words as an after effect because I wanted them not to be manipulated at first thought by the music, but more as last thought. I love writing both words and music, but I wanted to keep them separate in the process. I held back on finalizing the words until I got specific things done within the music. I was counting on the music to shape the way I wrote the words, which I've never done before. I want to keep growing as a writer, with the words and images I use, and I wanted to use the music as a way to fire that up more and make things happen.
You've lived in a lot of places, so how does environment affect your process?
When I did the film score, I did most of the music before I saw the film. I wrote it based on the aural imagery I got while reading the script. The film takes place in the 1970s in Louisiana and is about two teenagers who discover they're gay and fall in love. Certain sounds I heard from Louisiana--the bugs, the wind, the water, the roads--I translated into the sounds I made with my instruments.
But as far as my process, moving around a lot has helped keep the battery charged. Heck, even taking a different route home every day from work keeps you creative. You'll see things that you never imagined. I have a friend in Texas, and he and his father are both artists. When my friend was struggling once, both in his personal and creative life, his father told him something that has always stuck with me. He said, "Go into your workspace, lay on the floor, look underneath your desk, bang things around, open things up, move things around, hit it, kick it, sit on it, walk around the room." It took him out of his place, and all of the sudden he was free.
Read part one of my Richard Buckner interview here.
Common Ground: also read my interviews with