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  Kate Fagan


Kate Fagan is a poet, songwriter and editor whose publications include The Long Moment (Salt Publishing), Thought’s Kilometre (Tolling Elves) and return to a new physics (Vagabond).  She is currently completing a new book entitled Observations on Time, Cargo for which she received a grant from the Australia Council for the Arts, and her work appears in numerous local and international journals and anthologies including Calyx: 30 Contemporary Australian Poets (Paper Bark).  In 2002 she completed a doctoral thesis on the poetry of Lyn Hejinian and from 2003 to 2006 was editor-in-chief of the US based online poetry journal How2.  Kate is from one of Australia’s leading folk music families, The Fagans, and her solo album Diamond Wheel won the 2006 National Film & Sound Archive Award for ‘Best Folk Album’.  During a recent tour of Europe she appeared on BBC4 TV live from the Cambridge Festival and was a guest at the SoundEye International Poetry Festival in Cork.




Q: Do you think of your lyrics as poetry?


A: They are really.  But I don’t name them like that.  Whether writing songs or poems, I experience the same desire to respond to the world by creating something lyrical.  The process is urgent and absorbing and obsessive.  Time melts away while sense becomes sharper, which is an odd kind of paradox.  The same situations that move me as a songwriter shape my poetry but the finished work usually looks quite different, depending on which medium I am in.


Maybe the differences are easier to recognise than the similarities.  Poetry can be an exploration of language, an encounter with the grit and muscle of words themselves and their wild relation to thinking.  I’m in awe of the way language can switch abruptly from one point to another, or drop meanings here and pick up others over there, or create chance resonances.  The process is expansive and driven by associations as much as sense. 


Songs can convey the same extraordinary things and many more, but for me they have different guiding aims, if that’s the way to describe it.  I usually want a much more raw emotion or feeling.  A song lyric can condense and distil words or carry an entire story in three short verses.  One of my most-played songs has a three word chorus: ‘Love me now, love me now, love me now.’  My poems are rarely that pared back.  They look to different horizons.


Melody is such a central part of songwriting and it brings a key dimension to the writing process.  When I write lyrics I’m trying to find ways of moving everything forward for the song as a whole — its melodic direction, its meaning and mood, its palette of images.  So there has to be a deep link between language and melody.  My first lyrics for a song always arrive together with a melodic hook or anchor.  It’s organic and somehow inseparable.  Melody is a really strong element in my poems but it’s often working at a more subconscious level.  It acts as a kind of internal balancing beam for the poem overall, rather than leading or constraining the lyric in more obvious ways.


It’s interesting that if you read the bare lyrics of many songs they can be just as abstract as poems.  They are full of missing words, unfinished lines, disjunctive ideas, broken phrases… all tools that would be familiar to many poets.  I’m always intrigued by the way a song looks on a page but it’s the last thing I think about.  I write lyrics in my head while hunching over a piano or repeatedly strumming my guitar.  I only scribble them down after they’ve landed somewhere in the song.  Poems rarely exist whole in my head before I start writing or typing: I write poems to discover them within the act of writing.  I begin with a loose set of ideas or images and feel my way through the connections as language enables them.  I’d like my songwriting to get closer to that.


I’ve been collaborating lately with a group of musicians and artists to make some new poetry, based on ten instrumental works by an Edinburgh-based Australian composer.  My first approach has been to play the music on endless repeat while writing drafts for the poems.  I partly want to see if that fierce, relentless experience of sound can unlock different spaces in the poetry — open things up and make the writing less insular, less hermetic.  I’m surrounding myself with other words too, other books, and diving in and out of them, the way you might roll the dial on a radio and get cacophony.  Some of that static is polished out during editing and I probably need to let more of it back in.  In a way, what I am creating for this project is a set of lyrics to accompany the music.


Which leads me to one last thought.  To shuffle your question around, I definitely think of my poems as lyrics.  They are sonic architectures, responses in language to the world’s materials, and they fall somewhere on the broad map of lyrical poetry.  The word lyric carries traces of its Greek root lyrikos, from the song of the mythical lyre played by Apollo.  So lyrical poets are writing in the bright shadow of music every time they begin.  To me, lyricism is a sense of heightened awareness to the music of relations between things — whether words, ideas, places, objects, people, or states of mind.  Lyricism is born of music but also creates it.  I always have some kind of musical riff playing in my inner ear when writing poetry and hope this opens my work to the acoustic promise of words.  Words are alive in the way we speak or sing or sound them, so music is always a huge part of their orbit of meaning.

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


A: A good lyric is a good lyric whether it rhymes or not.  I think a song’s measure and interior space can be equally important as its rhyme.  Timing is everything, and a rhyme of intentions can be created just by phrasing a line a certain way or by letting the music lead the lyrics.  If a beat or pulse is followed throughout a song, or lines of a similar length are repeated, then the lyrics will hold together under that arch.  The measure becomes the rhyme.


One of the great things about songs is the way they can free up a listener to hear rhyming in so many places.  In English-speaking cultures, conventional lyrical rhymes tend to stress certain kinds of syllables and words such as those at the ends of lines.  When lines of language take on the form of sound, rather than the other way around, infinitely more rhyme possibilities become available to our ears.  New song rhymes can be released by the complex plane of sound in which they float.  Why shouldn’t the word ‘sing’ rhyme with ‘hand’?  Or ‘lost’ with ‘ask’? I think hip-hop artists are some of the best contemporary experimentalists when it comes to rhyme.


Maybe rhyme gives endurance to songs, rather than importance, since our minds seem geared toward learning things in patterns.  Rhyming words often hold for longer in our inner ears and that can help with recognising and remembering songs.  Some lyrics feel almost timeless or archetypal.  There’s a good chance many songs known as ‘traditional’ have survived because their rhythms and rhymes are highly memorable.

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


A: Definitely, I was lucky.  A lot of those connections came early on through my family.  My family are well-known folk singers so my brother and I grew up hearing and meeting a lot of different musicians and songwriters.  We were immersed in a gothic world of traditional ballads that I still draw upon in my songwriting.  Like a lot of their friends and contemporaries, my parents were listening to songs from the folk revivals of the UK, Ireland and America, which were becoming important to the social protest movements happening in those places.  My Dad is a huge fan of blues — one of the most lyrical story-telling forms of last century.  He played us Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf alongside Fred Neil and Davy Graham.  Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell were always on the turntable, or the McGarrigles or Crosby Stills Nash & Young, so we were aware of a group of formidable songwriters and poets who were starting to move folk sounds into the landscape of North American and Canadian rock.  There were big connections in the Irish and English traditional music we heard too, and poems were an ongoing part of our childhood.  Mum has a passionate love for poetry and read Heaney, Yeats, Tennyson and Chaucer to us when we were kids.  That kaleidoscope of influences has followed me into my adult life, or maybe I followed it.  It never occurred to me not to experiment with words and sounds and it never seemed a strange or special thing.  It was just what we did at home.


A lot of the poets I now love are influenced hugely by music, or play music, or have worked in collaboration with musicians.  I’ve spent a lot of time reading twentieth century American poetry and it’s full of intense collisions between musical and poetical worlds.  Jazz was crucial to the Last Poets and Amiri Baraka.  Celia Zukofsky set a lot of her husband Louis Zukofsky’s epic poetry to music, and he drew heavily from J.S. Bach.  Bob Dylan continues to be one of the greatest living poets, Lou Reed cites Edgar Allen Poe as a major inspiration, and Harry Smith hung out briefly with Allen Ginsberg while compiling his fabulously eccentric Anthology of American Folk Music, one of my favourite musical collections.  There’s no doubt what I heard as a child has driven my search for these kinds of crossings, and not just in the field of American culture — much of which has been borrowed, adapted and stolen from other cultures as a result of colonial histories.  The same can be said of Australian poetical and musical cultures.

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


A: I’ve already mentioned a few links between artists and art forms I love.  There are probably dozens of others but it’s virtually impossible to trace neat lines of influence.  Songwriters do the same work as poets I think — observing masses of detail about the way things are, and filtering out some kind of material response.  I’m certain the poetry I read makes its way into my musical consciousness.  It’s a big part of the fabric of my life, part of the detail, so inevitably it is going to affect my songwriting ear and eye.


When I first wanted to write songs that were longer than a few lines, which was in my early teens, I began by setting other people’s poems to music.  Yeats’ lyrics in ‘Words For Music Perhaps’ are one case I remember.  Some poems are so aware of melody, and so attuned to the music of places, that they already carry a song inside them.  Songwriting can be a matter of teasing out that implied melody.


I’m sure the poetry I heard as a kid helped to build a lyrical space inside my head and taught me to listen to my imagination.  One of my favourite books when growing up was a volume of ballad lyrics gathered together with shorter poems.  I used to read the words to ‘Little Musgrave’ over and over again.  It was so beautiful and tragic.  Along with ill-fated lovers, there were minstrels and musicians in the ballads and story poems we knew and read.  They always seemed to be getting into crazy scrapes or being run out of town penniless.  It’s hard to say how influential those lessons were… but somewhere down the line, that sense of utter romance still drives my idea of what I’m actually doing, when I seek out reasons why ‘songwriter and poet’ has become my most likely answer when asked for a job description.  They feel like two halves of the same necessary adventure.






copyright © Kate Fagan