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.
CP: 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.