In the nearly 150 interviews I've done for this site, one thing stands out: songwriters are voracious readers, much more so that the general public. They read all the time. They read novels, they read short stories, they read non-fiction. But curiously, not nearly as many read poetry as I would expect. That surprises me, given the similarities between song lyrics and poetry.
Amanda Shires is the exception. She reads poetry with a passion. But she's taken it one step further: Shires is pursuing her MFA in poetry from Sewanee, and she's almost finished. It's no surprise that her coursework has had a tremendous impact on her songwriting, since she's learning about the craft of poetry But it hasn't been without its challenges. While it's easy for Shires to share her songs with an audience, sharing her poetry is a different experience.
Amanda Shires is on tour now in support of her latest release Down Fell the Doves. Read my interview with Shires about her songwriting process and her poetry writing process after the video.
You’re the first songwriter I’ve interviewed who’s also pursuing an MFA. What made you decide to pursue this degree?
As a musician and songwriter, I wanted to be more precise with my words, to understand how the structure of language works. I want to have as many tools in the toolbox as possible so that I can be a better writer. A lot of songwriting, or really any kind of writing, only happens when people really think about the words on the page.
I think it’s so great that you're studying poetry. I’ve found songwriters to be voracious readers, but they don’t read as much poetry as I expect they would, given the obvious similarities to their own writing. Have you been a fan of poetry for a long time?
Definitely, but I haven’t been reading it with any kind of education or purpose necessarily. After all, my undergraduate degree was in city planning. I was young then and didn’t realize that a life of writing was achievable, even though it has always been a passion. I wanted to go to school to learn more about writing and about other writers. I wanted to be in a group of peers who could offer constructive criticism and who had no other motivation for doing so. They have no reason for liking or disliking something other than the fact that they want your writing to be better and their own work to be better.
Is there one poet more than any other who sparked your interest in that genre?
I’ve always adored Frost and Yeats. I fell in complete love, though, with Octavio Paz. I’m also a big fan of Mark Strand, Theodore Roethke, Mary Oliver, Charles Simic. I admire their precision with words and seeing the different structures at work. I’m so impressed with writers who can use blank verse so effectively.
My two favorite poets are Galway Kinnell and Li-Young Lee. It’s a shame that it’s so difficult to have a conversation about poetry anymore.
Well, people should! You know, it's sad that a blockbuster book of poetry is one that sells around 3,000 copies.
How does studying poetry make you a better songwriter?
It’s a good question, because both types of writing are so different. You can have poetic language in songs, but a song isn’t necessarily a poem and a poem isn’t necessarily a song. It comes down to precision. Studying poetry, I’m always impressed by the tightness of the writing. Every word means something, and changing any one word can break the poem.
With songwriting, I’ve learned to be a better editor. It’s much more clear to me know when words don’t fit. I pick up on things like that a lot faster, so I don’t have to struggle with it for an hour. It’s becoming instinct to me now. Things like why one adjective or adverb works better than another.
But here’s the flip side: has getting your MFA presented any obstacles to your songwriitng process?
I don’t think that education ever harms you. The more you know, the better off you’ll be. If you’re writing as an artist and you study your passion, and you trust in your art, everything is fine.
Let’s talk about your process. Are you a more disciplined writer now since you started your program?
I feel disciplined in that I always carry a notebook and pen around, and I write about things as I see them. Observation is key, and it’s my job to know whether something is an idea or not. If you see it, you have to recognize whether that observation is worth pursuing. I do practice writing when I have enough time, more than just jotting down ideas or seeing how words fit together. I like to write on a plane. I like to write in those times because I know it’s making me better.
Some writers see what they do as a job. They sit down to write for a certain number of hours a day, then they go out and experience the world so they have material to write about. It sounds like a lot of your daily writing has to do with observing your environment.
I try not to torture myself. I like to let the muse do its job, and I do my job by making sure I don’t ignore when it comes around. I don’t think you should sit around and wait for the muse. If you have an idea at 3am, you should get your ass out of bed and write about it. Otherwise, it disappears.
Is there an ideal writing environment for you?
I like to be alone. And I take a lot of notes. I write about my travels, and I write about the books I read. So much of songwriting is about trying to find the right melody, and that’s hard to do in front of other people. Laughs. But sometimes it comes and it doesn’t matter if other people are around because I can just write it down. And I like to write at night. Stephen King talks about this in his book On Writing. That’s a badass book.
You talked about the editing process earlier. How much editing do you do your lyrics?
When I get a whole song together all at once, it needs no editing. But that happens only about a quarter of the time. The rest of the time I’m refining phrases, changing chords. A lot of it is silly stuff, like dealing with a preposition for two hours. Laughs. Or trying to abandon a cliche, which can be really difficult. Or I might writing something in a hasty emotional state, only to realize later that it’s too abstract. Some songs take a few days to refine, while others require a new experience in order to get completed. I consider that editing too, because sometimes I’ll know a song is wrong but I won’t know how to fix it. I won’t get the solution until I’ve seen or experienced something else.
I love that you can spend two hours on a preposition. Spoken like a true poet.
Laughs. I try not to, but I guess I’m a nerdy poet. It always comes down to portraying the voice of the character. A little part of my brain is always thinking about how that character would talk. I think that’s fun. You have to know the difference and how to use that poetic license. So if someone says, “That syntax is waaay off,” you can just say, “Yep, I know.” I trust that my audience knows the difference, but I want to be able to make the choice. I don’t really care if no one else knows what I mean. As long as I know what I mean, it doesn’t matter if others know because you don’t write for the express purpose of others hearing it. Like they say, “You don’t get everything sorted out, then find peace. You find peace then things get sorted out."
Do you start with the words or the lyrics first?
The best time is when everything comes all at once, but that rarely happens. Otherwise, I usually write a few words then find music to go with it. Music is a setting, and you have to find a setting for the words.
Do you ever get writer’s block?
I don’t think writer’s block exists. What people might think is writer’s block is a lack of experience. You have to be able to put stuff in the well be able to take stuff out. Observation and patience is the key to good writing. I don’t know that people really have nothing to write about; I think many times it’s external pressure that stops people from writing. I think the phrase "writer’s block" is whiny.
One of my favorite short story writers, Anthony Doerr, told me once that writer’s block is a failure of courage. It sounds like that’s what you mean.
Exactly. Sometimes it sounds bratty and whiny and a little bit self-involved to act like you really have nothing to say. Cindy Walker once said that you have to write a hundred bad songs to get to one good song. If you’re having a bad day, write a bunch of bad songs then come back and try again the next day.
Is there one song out of all that you’ve written that was easier to write than all the others?
“Bulletproof" and “Kudzu" were the easiest songs I’ve written. With “Kudzu," I was taking a shower and the whole thing came to me all at once. That’s my favorite: when it all comes at once, I don’t have to do any work, and I can be a lazy-ass girl. It’s also the closest to a happy song that I’ve ever made.
“Bulletproof" came out of a real life event. I was playing a show and a guy, a stranger, brought me a brown paper bag of tiger claws and whiskers. He told me that it would make me bulletproof. I got up the next morning and wrote the song.
Is songwriting cyclical for you? Do you deliberately stop writing sometimes so you can fill the well with experience?
I do, but there always comes a time when I feel it in my bones that I should start writing again. But even when I’m not writing and I’m just observing, I still think it’s important to take notes. I have a journal and a pen, and it goes with me everywhere. I save them all, no matter how embarrassing they are to read later.
Is there an ideal emotion when you get your best writing done? Do you write well when you’re happy, for example?
Heck no! When I’m happy I’d rather be doing all kinds of something else! I’d rather be outside going to the lake. A good writing session involves being moved by a personal experience or by someone else’s experience. I think I’m drawn to painful or darker things. I’ve never been a happy songwriter. I’m a happy person, but I’ve never written happy songs. I guess maybe I should try.
You’ve got that Flannery O’Connor streak.
You know, I guess part of it is culture. I’m from the south. We southerners tend to think that nothing every works out and that you shouldn’t be happy for too long. Laughs.
What writers have had the greatest impact on you as a writer?
Jimmy Webb, for one, because he’s wild and he knows a lot about chord structure and melody. And Billy Joe Shaver. His writing is so tight. I like Leonard Cohen because he was a poet first. And a lot of modern writers.
I want to get back to your MFA program. One of the components of any writing program is peer review, where you share your writing with others. When I was a professor, that was always a big part of any writing assignment. Was sharing your words in class easy for you, since you already do it as a songwriter when you perform?
Because I had no formal training in poetry before, it’s been very difficult in my classes. I’ve been around songwriters for 20 years, so I’m confident in that area. But poetry is so different since there’s no musical atmosphere involved. You know, my poems are pretty shitty, but that doesn’t make me give up. Like anything, I have to practice.
I may never make a good poet, but I don’t care because I really like it. It’s just such a different experience. I spend part of my life traveling around the country, then the other part I spend going to school and accepting that I’m not great at it. And even if I’m terrible, I know I’m getting a lot out of the experience, and it helps me in so many areas of my life. I don’t see anything wrong with writing terrible poetry as long as you get something out of it. Laughs.