The Argotist Online
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.
you think of your lyrics as poetry?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
© Kate Fagan