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   Andy Gricevich  

 

Poet, guitarist, singer and actor Andy Gricevich hasn’t written a complete song in a long time, but makes occasional contributions to the songs of the Prince Myshkins (a satirical cabaret duo consisting of Gricevich and main songwriter Rick Burkhardt); years of intensive conversation about songwriting in that context (as well as with many other songwriters) are the most important source of the thoughts in this interview.  Some of Andy’s poems have been published in CanWeHaveOurBallBack?, Disaster, Luzmag, Mirage, Moria, Shadow Train, Unlikely Stories and other lovely publications. He also performs with the Nonsense Company, an ensemble specializing in new works of theatre and notated music by exciting younger composers. More can be found at http://ndgwriting.blogspot.com, http://princemyshkins.com, and http://princemyshkins.com/nonsensecompany.html.   

 

 

 

Q: Do you think of your lyrics as poetry?

 

A: No. I see the two as distinct projects, with different aims and ways of treating language. The two genres have separate histories; poetry hasn’t been identifiable with song, at least in an unproblematic way, for centuries. By now, the possibilities open to each are radically different. I can’t think of any recent or contemporary song lyrics that really stand alone; even the most “poetic” still seem incomplete without music. One can, of course, come up with new ways of thinking about one genre as a result of thinking about the other. In general, I do want song lyrics to involve a precise attention to language, an inventiveness and an avoidance of cliché, all of which I also expect from good poetry. 

 

Q: Do you think it is important that songs rhyme and if so why?

 

A: I can’t think of any good songs that abandon rhyme entirely, though I’m sure it can be done. I don’t see any reason to abandon rhyme in songwriting. Rhyme now tends to take over the character of poetry, obfuscating other parameters (even when it’s good, contemporary rhymed verse tends to seem light or intentionally archaic). The field of possibilities open to rhyme in song, on the other hand, is still vast. Only a handful of songwriters have focused on internal rhyme, with its potential for building layers of different rhythmic patterns and phrase lengths, to a sufficient extent. The same goes for complex rhyme schemes. Even the simple end-rhyme hasn’t been exhausted; one can vary the length of lines widely, using the rhyme as a marker for the end of a unit. This happens in a simple way in some of Bob Dylan’s songs, and in a more complex way in good hip-hop, where the recurrence of a rhymed sound can be so irregular that end-rhyme and internal rhyme blur together.

 

In addition to these sonic possibilities, there’s also rhyme’s range of cognitive functions. Rhyme can function as a way of sculpting thought in a song. For example: When two rhymed words come from very different fields of language or areas of subject matter (their only intuitive connection being sonic), the rhyme can suggest surprising connections between the terms, making a statement by means of friction or mismatch. A variation on this is the conspicuous absence of a rhyme, as in this lyric by Roy Zimmerman:

 

Suzie could not keep the job that we got her

so we cut her ration of gruel

Jimmy was jailed ‘cause the school system failed him

so we built a shiny new juvenile facility

 

                                                                                             (from ‘Punish the People’, on Comic Sutra)

 

The absence of the obvious rhyming word parallels the absence of the obvious solution to the social problem. In a song made up of what seem to be initially disparate parts (say, a series of humorous one-liners), rhyme can hold the whole thing together as a “glue” until, later in the song, the accumulated juxtapositions suddenly cohere, and the song seems to be about something built from counterintuitive connections between the parts (perhaps about something gravely serious). (I like songs that change their meaning, tone, scale over the course of the piece).

 

Q: Do you think song lyrics must conform to recognised song structures such as clear rhyming schemes, choruses, refrains, hooks and bridges or that songs can also be like free verse?

 

A: Again, I don’t think it’s a matter of “must,” but I still see countless possibilities for these kinds of structures, and don’t see why anyone would want to abandon them entirely unless they lack any love of formal innovation and formal meaning (or have a new formal idea that would really be blocked or overshadowed by these categories). Good “free” verse (which, as Eliot said, isn’t so “free”) hasn’t been motivated by a desire to escape traditional patterns, but by a sense that those patterns weren’t appropriate to contemporary subject matter, or that they blocked desirable new poetic effects. I don’t think songwriting is in this situation, partly because there’s been so much less radical formal innovation in the field (perhaps because songwriters tend to be less methodical and analytical than poets in their work?). Few songwriters have explored the realm of multiple distinct bridges with different structures, long and/or complex verse structures, choruses that repeat verbatim but change their meaning radically due to shifting context, verse or chorus structures that repeat over the “wrong” music (of a bridge, etc.), and so on.

 

At the same time, I certainly see connections between some of my favorite songs (and the bits of songs I write) and some fine non-traditional verse (for instance, the incomparable lyrics of Peter Berryman often employ rigid formal constraints reminiscent of the Oulipo, and Paul Kotheimer’s early songs sometimes sound like a rhyming Whitman).      

 

 

Q:  When you read poetry in school or elsewhere did you recognize any connection to the music you enjoyed?

 

A: Sure. My introduction to Rimbaud (in the 8th grade), one of the truly transformative literary discoveries of my life, came through an obsession with Bob Dylan and Jim Morrison. Reading the Illuminations pretty much spelled the doom of my fascination with the Doors, and made me think of Dylan’s prose poetry as pretty poor, but I still loved many of his songs (and still do), and could see the resonances with Rimbaud. In high school I saw a connection between songwriting that tried to express epiphanic or transcendent experiences (I’m too embarrassed to list names here) and the writing of Ginsberg, Whitman and others. A focus on the fantastic and the mythological was common to some of Poe’s poetry and the early King Crimson albums. It took me a lot longer to discover poetry that was stranger than Captain Beefheart’s Trout Mask Replica, which is probably an exception to most of what I’ve written in this interview.  

 

Q:  Was there anything about poetry in books that influenced your songwriting?

 

A: Yes. In high school and early college I wanted to write lyrics with a “visionary” or ecstatic character, and this had more to do with the poetry of Cummings, Eliot, Shelley, Rimbaud and Merwin than with any of the music I was listening to at the time. At the same time, I was also writing hundreds of disjunct, ridiculous (and intentionally juvenile) songs with friends, and these took some inspiration from Lewis Carroll (whose complexity they didn’t come near), as well as Dada poetry and children’s rhymes.

 

The way I think about songwriting now certainly owes a lot to years of thought about the work of the so-called “Language poets,” particularly as regards their varied use of parataxis. Thinking of parataxis in a non-literal way (i.e., as applying to the juxtaposition, without subordinating connections, of any parts, whether they’re sentences or not) has been extremely valuable in thinking about all art. As far as songwriting is concerned, I’m extremely interested in the juxtaposition of topics or “content areas” that don’t seem to go together. When it comes to political subject matter, this can be especially interesting, suggesting connections between issues or scales of experience that are kept separate and compartmentalized in even the best news media, and (by not stating the connections) avoiding the pitfalls of the authorial voice with its political “message”. There are plenty of other ways in which “parataxis” as a category can be deployed in writing songs (I stretch the definition of the term so that it covers melodies in a different key than their accompaniments, for instance).     

 

Q: Why do you think songs are more popular with people than poetry is?

 

A: Music, for a lot of people, is something you put on in the background. This probably has something to do with the marketing of music as an accompaniment to one’s life, or something that just makes you feel a certain way. I think it’s definitely related to the social division between “work” (one’s paid labor) and “free time” (when one is off the clock). You’re not supposed to work in your free time, if you can avoid it. Listening to music actively is work, as is reading poetry, but music has the potential to be treated as a component of “leisure activities” in a way poetry doesn’t (you can’t just “put poetry on in the background”).

 

Then there’s the image of poetry as written for highbrows, cultured people, intellectuals or “soft” romantics. Despite the problems with this image, there’s some truth to it; music is more accessible than poetry. There’s a sensuous immediacy to music, a directness and a presence that poetry doesn’t have (even when it tries to, as in certain performative modes). Music can also have a collective aspect that reading, mostly solitary, rarely does, and could therefore be described as intrinsically more “popular” (though we live in the age of the IPod, the age of computerized references to “my music” and “my songs,” a personalization of music that reduces it to a commodified expression of personal style, the material of a portable protective environment). 

 

I don’t find this difference in popularity troubling. I don’t think putting music on in the background is utterly dreadful (I do it myself on occasion). It is amazing—and very troubling—that the idea of actively listening to music has never even occurred to many people; that signifies a situation that’s been pretty bad for music. The major problem is (ta-da!) oppression, the division of labor, the draining of pleasure from work and the ban on complex experience in pleasure. I didn’t expect to end the interview that way.      

 

 

 

 

 

copyright © Andy Gricevich