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Studying The Poetics of American Song Lyrics: An Interview with Charlotte Pence

The Poetics of American Song Lyrics, edited by Charlotte Pence

A few days after Johnny Cash‘s death in 2003, Lamar Alexander, U.S. Senator from my home state of Tennessee and former U.S. education secretary, delivered an impassioned eulogy on the Senate floor. He called Johnny Cash a poet and then proceeded to ask why schools weren’t teaching students to revere songwriters as poets and to analyze songs as poems. Alexander, who also served as president of the University of Tennessee system, called out one school in particular: Belmont University, a small liberal arts college and professional school in Nashville, where nearly a third of entering  freshman enroll in the College of Entertainment and Music Business.

Charlotte Pence, a poet who was teaching at Belmont at the time, took Alexander’s speech seriously. She created a course at Belmont called “The Poetics of Country Music.” The class filled up immediately and eventually became the launchpad for a much bigger assignment, a collection of critical essays that analyze songs as literature, entitled The Poetics of American Song Lyrics.

I first discovered The Poetics of American Song Lyrics at the 2012 Decatur Book Festival where Charlotte and a panel of the book’s contributors discussed treating song lyrics as poems. The timing was significant to me because I had just started my first year as a master’s student studying literature in Atlanta. As a part-time student who’d been out of the academic environment for nearly 17 years, I was intimidated when advisors and peers began asking me at orientation, “What is your thesis topic?” I remember turning to my husband at the Decatur Book Festival session and saying, “Maybe this is what I can do my thesis on?” I took copious notes and left the presentation early to buy a copy of the book.

Flash forward to almost seven months later. It’s Spring 2013 and I’m in a professor’s office, still struggling to answer the question, “What is your thesis topic?” I run through my list of ideas and my professor gets excited when I mention the one about song lyrics, but warns, “You’re going to have to make the argument that we can analyze song lyrics as literature to make this work.” I’m excited too because I know Charlotte and a veritable “who’s who” of writers and academics have already argued this for me. In fact, I emailed Charlotte (who is wonderful and has generously endured so many of my emails about this topic) to tell her, “Your book may just save my life.”

Flash forward to today and I’m working on my thesis proposal, which includes The Poetics of American Song Lyrics as a source. And Charlotte has again donated her time to answer some of my questions about the book for Southern Spines.

SS: I’m interested in what happened between “The Day Johnny Cash Died” and when you taught your first songwriting as poetry class at Belmont. I remember you saying that you learned through creating the class.

charlottepenceCP: All great questions! The behind-the-scenes portion was a mix of exciting, frightening, stupefying, and enlightening moments. And usually I would run through all those emotions within an hour. One thing that I encountered was how much the music industry was hurting academics’ ability to analyze songs. It’s standard—and a requirement—when we discuss work to quote it. But I found that BMG and ASCAP were wanting money, yes, cash, for quoting even a single line. That’s just not possible for academics. Many argue “fair use” for educational purposes, but the music companies do not look at it this way. I talked to a lawyer because I was honestly thinking about going to court. (I had received a threatening letter asking for about 1.5 million to quote from songs—three lines or less, mind you.) I was willing to become “the precedent.” Clearly, I thought I would win the case. My lawyer, however, said I probably wouldn’t be able to beat the charge, so I substantially reduced all the quotes in the book unless I had begged my way into a free permission situation.

SS: With so few resources, how did you build your syllabus for that first semester?

CP: Nashville became my resource. I invited songwriters to our classes; I interviewed publishing and label presidents; I even created a Saturday event where our senator from Tennessee came to talk about the importance of songwriting in Tennessee and where two songwriters who currently had #1 country hits performed their work. I even had a small crew (cameraman and another interviewer) running around town with me. What was interesting was how eager folks were to talk to us. Not a single interview actually made the book, but the interviews educated me. Gretchen Peters, Alice Randall, Drew Alexander, Ralph Murphy, David Lee, Tony Lane…. Those were some of the folks whom we talked to—all of which are songwriting and publishing giants.

SS: What did you learn through that process and from your students? From your introduction to the book, it sounds like they were so engaged and interested in the topic.

CP: The students were engaged, but I do think I wore them out a bit. We had to read some dry material as background. And I have a tendency to over-assign. What they appreciated, though, was being taken seriously. The students introduced me to new acts—but more importantly they reminded me how students do like to talk about form and technique. They just don’t want to talk about it an abstract way such as “a sonnet is fourteen lines.” Instead, if we talked about how their own songwriting could be improved through form, they were engaged.

SS: How did you piece together the essays in the book? Did you find the work that one of the contributors had done? Did you know the contributors beforehand?

CP: When poets take a look at who is in the book—Claudia Emerson, Beth Ann Fennelly, David Kirby, Tony Tost, Kevin Young, just to name a few—they are blown away. Plus, we have some excellent critics in here like Adam Bradley, David Caplan, Stephen M. Deusner, Peter Guralnick, and Ben Yagoda. How did all these fancy-pants people come together, they want to know? To be honest, I knew no one. Instead, I read like crazy, looking for poets who had published on both poetry and music. And then I would approach them and ask for an essay. Sometimes people had a topic in mind; sometimes I suggested a topic. Honestly, very few told me no. That was the surprising thing. And that’s not because I asked well or whatever. Everyone was honestly just interested in the topic.

Wait. That’s not quite right. There was one pivotal moment that made the book happen. It was early on when I wasn’t even thinking about the book as a book. I was presenting a paper at a conference (SAMLA)—a paper that later became my essay in the collection. Typically, these conference papers don’t go anywhere but afford the presenter a way into the conference. So, yeah, I had just finished my talk—and thought it went horribly—when this lovely lady came up afterward and said how she shared my interests in songs and poems, but didn’t feel like her interest was respected by academia. We hit it off—and then I asked for her name. There was an awkward pause, and then she pointed to the HUGE poster beside me; it was her face as she had just won the Pulitzer and she was the keynote speaker at the conference. Anyway, that was Claudia Emerson. When I decided I wanted this to become a book, she was the first one “in.” And I’m sure her interest allowed others to feel comfortable joining in. So, thank you, Claudia.

And heartfelt thanks again to Charlotte. Charlotte Pence earned a Ph.D. in creative writing from the University of Tennessee. She is the author of two chapbooks, Weaves a Clear Night (Winner of the Flying Trout Chapbook Award, 2011) and The Branches, the Axe, the Missing (Winner of the Black River Chapbook Award, 2012). Charlotte’s full-length poetry collection, Spike, will be released by Black Lawrence Press in 2014.

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Southern Spines Podcast: Collin Kelley, Author of Kiss Shot

Kiss Shot by Collin Kelley

For a limited time–Friday, October 5 through Sunday, October 7–Amazon will be offering a free copy of Kiss Shot, a book of short stories by poet and author Collin Kelley. Here’s the book description:

Award-winning author Collin Kelley (Conquering Venus and Remain In Light) explores his Southern roots with this collection of four short stories set in the town of Cottonwood, Georgia. In “How Fanny Got Her House,” a devoted maid recalls the hijinks surrounding her employer’s death from a brain tumor, while a teenage boy comes to terms with his sexuality during an unexpected game of pool in the title story, “Kiss Shot.” A woman escaping an abusive relationship arrives in New Orleans during a rain storm and wanders into the famed “Clover Grill” on Bourbon Street, and “I Got A Name” follows the trials and tribulations of an overweight woman looking for love at a community theater company.

Southern Spines contributor Stacie Boschma sat down for an interview with Collin at Thinking Man Tavern in Atlanta, Ga. They discussed everything from self-publishing to Margaret Atwood and her love for the “modern telegraph” of Twitter.

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Silence Won’t Change the World: Poet Dustin Brookshire Speaks Out

Southern Spines: To the One Who Raped Me by Dustin BrookshireWhen asked, Dustin Brookshire describes himself as an activist, poet, and Dolly Parton fanatic enjoying his life in Atlanta, Georgia. But there’s another piece to his life, one that’s a little harder to come to terms with. When Dustin was 23, he was raped by a former boyfriend.

Now 29, Brookshire’s debut chapbook To The One Who Raped Me has just been released by Sibling Rivalry Press, with one dollar of each purchase donated to the Dekalb Rape Crisis Center. Dustin sat down to talk about the book, healing, and poetry worth reading.

SS: You’ve just released a chapbook, To The One Who Raped Me. Can you talk about using writing to heal after trauma?

DB: “There is no agony like bearing an untold story inside of you.”  Zora Neale Hurston said it best in her in 1942 autography Dust Tracks on a Road.  Writing about the rape, in a way, forced me to talk about the rape. I was able to talk about it in the context of the poem instead of the context of what had happened to me. Poetry helped transition me into a comfort zone where I could talk about the rape with other people.

SS: This is really challenging material, as male rape is such a taboo in our culture. Can you share a little bit about your experience, and whether, through writing on these themes, you hear from other men with their own stories of being assaulted?

DB:  Victims of rape need to understand that they control the boundaries of conversation in regards to the topic of their rape. With that being said, I will say this: I invited an ex boyfriend into my apartment to have a conversation about our recent breakup. He ignored the word no. I’ve been haunted by the memory ever since.

I have heard from numerous victims of sexual assault, and all but two who’ve reached out to me were male. This is a mixed bag of emotions for me. I hate to hear that anyone has been raped, but I think it is a good thing to speak out about it. I don’t mean that every rape victim has to go on a stage and tell an audience that they were raped. However, I think healing comes from communication, which can be with one other person. That one person can be your best friend or therapist — it just needs to be someone you trust. Some of these men who have reached out to me have confided they have never told anyone that they had been raped, and that makes me very emotional. It gives me hope that they are on a healing path. It also hurts to hear these stories, but I’ll always listen. Someone has to listen because people need to feel like they can talk. Silence won’t change the world.

SS: The book weaves pop culture representations of sexual violence into the broader theme. Tell us a little about how film and television impacted your exploration of your experience as a rape survivor.

DB: The Hills Have Eyes came out in March 2006. I was raped in March 2006. I tried my damnest to live my life like nothing happened after the rape, and since I’ve loved the horror genre since I was a kid I went to see The Hills Have Eyes. I didn’t know there was a rape scene in the movie, but even if I had known I would have seen the movie anyway because I wouldn’t have admitted to myself that it to have an impact on me. In the minutes before the movie’s rape scene, I kept thinking to myself, Please don’t rape her. Hit her. Beat her. Anything but rape. Then the scene takes place. I thought I was going to vomit. My stomach cramped. I was sweating. It would be much later that I would realize that rape scenes in movies are triggers for me. They take me back to my own experience — even if it isn’t replaying in my head my body remembers and reacts. I learned to stay away from movies that would cause this stress.

There is also a flip side to this.  For me, watching a show like Law & Order: SVU provides a certain level of comfort. There’s comfort in seeing the bad guy being caught for his crimes.

SS: How did your partnership with Dekalb Rape Crisis Center come about?

DB: I wanted to do something good through poetry, and since the chapbook was being published, I thought it would be great to offer some financial goodness. I checked with my publisher, Bryan Borland of Sibling Rivalry Press, to see if he would object to donating $1 from each chapbook sold through his website to a charity of my choice, and I made it clear it would be a rape crisis center. I was ready with an argument in case Bryan said no, but he jumped at the chance. He was genuinely thrilled to help do some good. Then I called up executive director Phyllis Miller of the Dekalb Rape Crisis Center. I gave her the details about my forthcoming chapbook, and I asked her to read it and let me know if she would have any problems being associated with me and my chapbook. Phyllis was delighted, and even spoke at the launch celebration. The Dekalb Rape Crisis Center is lucky to have her.

SS: Who are you reading right now?

DB:  I’m reading Jane Kenyon’s Otherwise:  New & Selected Poems. Today, I went back to a poem I found online a few months ago titled “My Grandmother Washes Her Feet in the Sink of the Bathroom at Sears” by Mohja Kahf. I read the poem this morning twice before I could go on with my day.  I guess my body was craving the honesty and beauty contained in this poem.

SS: What living poet should a Southern Spines reader check out and why?

DB:  Southern Spines readers should check out Beth Gylys. A poetry lover must have her Bodies That Hum. She is fierce. She is talented. She is an all around lovely person to know, and it is an honor for me to call her my mentor and friend.  Beth is also known on the literary streets as the villanelle queen. True story! I once heard a very distinguished poet call her that.

Thanks Dustin, and congratulations on the launch! To learn more about Dustin and stay up to date on his writing and events, visit

Below is “Law & Order: SVU,” from Dustin’s chapbook To The One Who Raped Me.


I do not watch for open endings.


I watch to see the rapist slammed

against the interrogation room wall,

to stand before the judge

and receive a hefty sentence.


I envision what isn’t:

The rapist victimized in prison.

His breakdown.  A suicide attempt.

A life without redemption.


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