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Michael Rothenberg

Michael Rothenberg is a poet, songwriter, and editor and publisher of Big Bridge magazine. His poems have been published widely in small press publications, including Berkeley Poetry Review, Exquisite Corpse, Milk, Golden Handcuffs Review, Jacket, Prague Literary Review, Tricycle, and Zen Monster. His poetry books include Man/Woman, a collaboration with Joanne Kyger, The Paris Journals (Fish Drum Press), Monk Daddy (Blue Press), Unhurried Vision (La Alameda/University of New Mexico Press), and most recently CHOOSE, Selected Poems (Big Bridge Press). He is also author of the novel Punk Rockwell (Tropical Press). Michael Rothenberg has edited the selected works of Philip Whalen, Joanne Kyger, David Meltzer and Ed Dorn (Penguin Books) and the Collected Poems of Philip Whalen (Wesleyan University Press). His newest book of poems, My Youth As A Train, will be published in Fall 2010 by Foothills Publishing.




Q: Do you think of your lyrics as poetry?


A: Yes


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


A: Rhyme can be important but I don't think it is necessary. Some melodies and stories are better for their rhyme scheme. Rhyme acting as a mnemonic device which moves a story through time, progressions, reinforces the melody and meaning, reminds us we have been somewhere and are going somewhere. But again I don’t think it is necessary to use rhyme.


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 structural devices are optional. It depends on what you are trying to do with the song and story. Some songs don't need a chorus, you can harmonize a line and place it at a dramatic moment in the song and it can act like a chorus, or hook but not a formal one. See ‘Pineola Cemetery’ by Lucinda Williams. Also music can create the sense of rhyme without the lyric doing that job.


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


A: I was into Bob Dylan when I was a teen and many of his songs reminded me of the poems I was reading at that time. I think there was a healthy proximity between contemporary subterranean "poetry" and “song" at that time. Also Leonard Cohen, Brenda Kahn, David Byrne, The Beatles, Cat Stevens, Ani Di Franco, Tom Waits, Marianne Faithful, The Doors, many others. I feel I learned as much from songwriters as I did from poets. How about Phil Och's ‘Crucifixion’? Many, many others.


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


A. Sure, poems in books that were strong on imagery influenced my songwriting. Even Eliot and Dylan Thomas. I have to say that Pound was less influential. Many written ballads lend themselves to song. Folk tales resonate with Edgar Lee Masters. Simon and Garfunkel. Though the most popular songs today don't care that much for imagery, there are still some great songwriters that see imagery as a way of hooking the listener.


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


 A: Songs are more popular I think because songs are more interactive. You know, you can dance and sing along to songs. And maybe there is a disconnect in today's song and poetry from story and image because of the interest in immediate gratification, a new music of mall culture has little interest it seems in poetry, or reflection, just a quick fix. Of course there is hip-hop which should not be underrated. And there are those poems that are so in the head and lack native speech, or so theoretical in purpose they can hardly be remembered or understood, let alone sung. This is not a judgment on that kind of poetry but it does explain how it functions different than the poetry of song. In more traditional songs the rhyme patterns, hooks, refrains, are all ways of getting the listener to remember the song, sing the song, carry the news, tell history, lineage, and follow the story.





copyright © Michael Rothenberg