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Chris Stroffolino


Chris Stroffolino has published seven books of poetry (including Stealer’s Wheel, 1999 and Light As A Fetter, 1997) and two books of essays. He also released two albums as the frontman of San Francisco Bay Area band, Continuous Peasant (Exile In Babyville, 2003 and Intentional Grounding, 2005).




Q: Do you think of your lyrics as poetry?


A: Yes and no. It depends how one defines poetry. I certainly don't think my lyrics are as good on the page as my poems, at least not yet. But the definition of poetry as primarily for the 'page' doesn't hold the same almost exclusive sway it did for me while I was writing the poems that appeared in my first four books. My page poetry hardly ever utilized end-rhymes, but, as one critic put it, had more of an "Ashberian 'music;" (a short-hand 'ballpark phrase'); by contrast, part of the challenge of my song lyrics is the 3 (or 4 or 5)-dimensionality of combing words with non-verbal music that I had been leaving largely wordless. There's so many fascinating (even sometimes maddening) variables in trying to combine them, but it challenges alot of the assumptions of sophisticated, modern (page-based) poetry I was beginning to feel trapped by. Ultimately, it doesn't matter to me if my song lyrics are called poetry, or even if my books of poetry are called poetry (though, strangely, some have told me that my songs are more poetic than my poems, maybe for the same reason some of the ‘dumbest’ song lyrics have lodged themselves in me more deeply than some attempts at lyric profundity).


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


A:  Not in general (I love, for instance, Mark E. Smith, who often does not use end-rhyme); but for me, personally, right now, yes (though that could change if I can get the right band!). I want to be clear that I'm not saying this out of any dogma, if anything it was the modern dogma against rhyme that turned me away from rhyming poetry when I was 18; I was willing to give up rhyme because the page afforded other discoveries, but in so doing I found that what I was writing, even if it allowed me to articulate things that needed to be said, now couldn't be set to the melodies I sang, composed, and recorded. This is just because the melodies I most often write (or that come through me) tend to be simple (blues, punk, folk, gospel, country), and that even though I was able (as a poet and intellectual) to get into a lot of the most 'out there' difficult sophisticated poetry there is, when it came to music, at least the music I needed to do, as a singer/songwriter, the voice and the simple melody, became like the gospel rock of ages or Blakian 'grain of sand' that, I could feel the world in.


That doesn't mean that those particular kind of songs have to rhyme, and I struggle immensely with rhyming, and sometimes I feel I should experiment more with doing it less—but maybe because I resisted rhyme for so long in my poetry (like an abstract painter who, later in life, decides she wants to paint figures), I feel I need to do more within the confines of rhyme for awhile.


That being said, if I can find a great, and committed rhythm section, that is into jamming, and we can work on more communal songwriting, in which I can improvise verbally and vocally and compose a different kind of song (I'm thinking a little of Mark E. Smith again), I would love to work within that form as well—but it does depend on finding the right musicians I feel (and in the meantime I got these songs I can perform myself)


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:  I think I address this question in my answer to the last. I'll just add that I feel a strong need for both, to put both in intense dialogue with each other. Only writing 'free verse' would be as boring for me as only writing 'songs.' I love the straddlers, whether Amiri Baraka, Jello Biafra, Patti Smith, Leonard Cohen, Gil Scott Heron, etc. Recently a friend told me that Stevie Wonder's recent concerts are more talk than music, and that Stevie Wonder's talks are often very engaging and intense. I didn't know about this. I have to hear some of this; are these talks like free verse? I know I can only do so much, and for all my talk about wanting to break down false barriers, 4th walls, alienation effect, that I still cherish the solitary space of art as fetishizable object, but even John Cage sometimes worked in recognizable structures, like a rock and roll heart, Tristan Tzara’s writing of one’s personal ‘boom boom’ of ‘that swing’ which may confer something like ‘meaning.’


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


A: Yes, as for many I suspect, the music came first, and the concept of poetry happened first in school. The institutional setting of high-school, over-serious teachers force-feeding one Frost (even in the late 20th century), was a turn-off, and could only inspire, if anything, Mad Magazine-like parodies. But in college, I found teachers and friends (who had gone to private high schools and thus had more freedom in their education) into what used to be called “the new American poetry,” as well as Dada, Surrealism, and tuned me in even to what was wild in the English canon. I saw connections everywhere—in lines mostly, that had ethical as well as aesthetic weight, aphorisms, bumper-stickers, koans. Sometimes Ashbery had affinities with early David Byrne; William Blake with, among others, Elvis Costello, Joni Mitchell. Bertolt Brecht with Billy Bragg and The Clash, etc. etc (this name game is a can of worms and it might be better to not name any for now, since it’s a reductive distortion). I was hooked enough to choose poetry as primary specialization for years. A lot of these cooler teacher/friends loved song lyrics too, but were careful to remind me ‘it doesn’t stand up on the page.’ I’m ultimately skeptical of that assertion, but for a decade or so I accepted it as a challenge.


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


A: Yes, but not directly, though I like that Langston Hughes and The Fugs, for instance, set poetry to music, and I think there’s more possibilities there (the recent collaborations between David Grubbs and Susan Howe, for me, seem a tepid compromise by comparison). Since I tend to write better songs when the melody comes first (on rare occasions they might happen simultaneously), for years my melodic structures languished as unfinished because my ‘poet-conscience’ made me too self-conscious to put words to them. I remember when I finally crossed the line and could call myself a songwriter in 2001. I sat at the piano with a notebook and my own books of poetry and tried to see if I could fit any of those words I had already published in books to my own melodies. It wasn’t writer’s block so much as trying to combine words I had written in, say, 1992 with a melody I had recorded around the same time, as if somehow I’d achieve some re-integration of aspects of my creativity that had been separated by accepting the adult specialization. I had mixed success with this, but it helped break the ice.


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


A:  Does most poetry want to be popular with people?  Do most people who write poetry hope it will reach a mass audience? Do most poets like performing their poetry? Do they want to be on TV? Do they need to dress up and make themselves  ‘a motley to the view?” Are Shakespeare’s plays poetry? Is any particular Tom Waits song as popular as the image of Tom Waits? Is the media to blame for not giving poetry a chance? Is it a form of ‘market censorship?’ Was Allen Ginsberg’s Howl really, as a recent anthology claimed, the poem that changed America? Are most songs really that popular? Or are they only sonic wallpaper for many these days? Are songs more popular in England than they are in America? Why are sports and “reality TV shows” more popular in America than either songs or poetry? Are these questions your readers would sincerely address (or try to answer)? If I put them to music, or made a book of nothing but such questions, could it be called art (and would that get in the way of people taking the questions as sincere?).