Fishing for Compliments, Unsolicited Advice, when we should stop tweaking our songs, and my weird relationship with Poetry

Well, tonight was that montly open mic I do.  Even if the general atmosphere is one that’s very welcoming and inviting, playing in front of people (even when you know most of them) and interacting with other performers always leaves my head full of thoughts.

I usually bring my uke, and a folder containing both songs and poetry. I give myself the option of changing course at the last minute, but the last few months I’ve been doing music. I guess I feel a bit like I make more sense as part of that world.  That’s not to say I don’t plan to still work on poems or that I’ll never perform them again – nothing of the sort. But, I’ve always had a weird relationship with poetry. Something was always slightly askew. It’s the reason I go through these binges where I write gobs of the stuff, and then don’t write any at all for months, or sometimes years on end.

I guess I’m thinking about that because tonight we had a very poetry heavy mix. Normally it’s a pretty even mash up of poetry/writing, music, and comedy. It’s just the way things fell this month, and there was some interesting stuff there.  A friend of mine happened to also attend, and she chose to ’embrace rejection’ by reading a few poems that had just been rejected by a journal (she opened by reading the rejection letter she received.).  And, they were pretty badass, all said and done.  Sometimes, I think we just have to realize that the fault isn’t with us, but with a publication that is zoning in on a very narrow audience and too timid to take chances with styles that might be ever so slightly out of that narrow audience.  (So says the girl who’s too lazy to ever submit poetry to journals, but also so says the girl who, with only a few exceptions, doesn’t actually care for poetry in print.  I am organizing with the plan of assembling digital poetry albums that I will self-release for purchase at some time in the theoretically not too distant future, but more on that at another time. It’s a project still in the baby stages.)

So, there was my friend, who’s poetry got rejected as being ‘avant garde’. …hmm.

There was a kid who’s style makes me think he really loves some of the classics – his writing had a subtly Victorian style that I can’t put my finger on.

Another girl who I haven’t seen before did some ‘big word poetry’ with excellent delivery (I use the term ‘big word poetry’ a bit tongue in cheek.  It’s sort of a style you come across once in a while that’s sort of a love affair with vocabulary itself, where yeah, there’s a message, but you have to be listening closely, because if you zone out for a second, you can get lost in the 10 point words).

Which likely describes my weird relationship with poetry in a nutshell.  To be honest, I’m not crazy about much of the classic stuff (well, unless we’re including the likes of Rumi and Hafiz, but I think when we reference “classic poetry” what comes to mind for the average person is the likes of Shakespeare, et al). I’ve read it, and some of it’s good, but most days the “classics” just aren’t my cup of tea. I fell in love with poetry through more modern writers – Li Young Lee, Naomi Shihab Nye, Jimmy Santiago Baca…and it’s a pure coincidence all of those people have three names.   So, I guess there’s always been a disconnect between me and other poets for the most part; I just don’t understand them. I don’t get how they think, and as a result I’m on this weird cycle of poetry binges followed by poetry fasts, and I’ve never been able to bridge that gap.  I realized at some point in the past few years that that a big part of it was that I look at poetry like music; for me, it’s got to hit the ears just right to connect, whether I’m listening to it, or reading it. (When we read, we hear what we’re reading, just inside of our head.)

It was only when I started learning music that I felt confident saying that I read poetry through a musical lens, which makes it sometimes difficult to communicate effectively with other poets, and which eventually exhausts me to the point that I need a break.

That may work both ways, though. Having written poetry and stories since I was a kid, maybe I’ll find that I look at music through that lens. Maybe I’ll eventually notice a vague disconnect on both sides. Who knows?

But, that disconnect is very real and very present in some situations. The people who are drawn to us aren’t always the people we’re drawn to. And, sometimes people are just so desperate to connect with someone, that they’ll latch onto anyone to try and get affirmation. That’s happened to me a few times, too.  It’s weird every time. I’ve gone through life with the good ol’ resting bitch face. Most people tend to assume I’m scary, or mean, and move right along. But, put a musical instrument in my hands, and somehow that makes me “safe”.  I crack a joke or two in front of the mic. (“So, I can’t play guitar, really, but my muse, who needs therapy and medication, said to my brain “hey, brain, let’s write a guitar song!” And my brain, for reasons that can not be explained by Earth logic, said “sure! What’s the worst that can happen?…we’re about to find out.”) I’m great about the self-effacing humor. It lightens up the mood, and it helps me sort of give myself permission to bomb. Like ‘even if I fuck up horribly, it won’t matter, because I warned them, so then it will just be kind of a funny learning experience’.  I guess that’s more or less how I approach it. Like, yeah, I might sink like a stone, but that’s literally the absolute worst thing that can possibly happen, and really, what are the odds of doing THAT badly on a song that I’ve been practicing every day for weeks? I guess I come off as pretty laissez faire about it all, which makes people more comfortable around me, bitch resting face or not.

And, I like being approachable for the first time EVER. Really, I do! But it has some down sides, too.  I keep getting stuck in these dead end conversations with people who don’t really have anything to say. They always pretty much start the same. Someone greets you, confirms your name. (Today, I got called Claire. Even though everyone gets introduced before they perform, so there’s really no excuse to be THAT far off. Supposedly, I look like a Claire. Maybe that should be my new stage name? Shelby Claire. haha. Actually, that has sort of a good ring to it.) Then they ask you for your opinion on how they did. …fuck. Here we go again. So, if they say they’re worried about their mistakes, you can’t really confirm that yeah you heard them.  You just have to say something kind of canned to try to sidestep it. Something about how everyone makes mistakes, or how making mistakes doesn’t matter, that as long as you cover them well, most people aren’t going to notice. My approach in awkward situations is often to crack a joke and try to change the subject, but this sometimes makes matters worse.

In this case, I think I laughed it off with something to the general effect of “yeah, because my opinion is the one that matters. I don’t even know any cover songs.” (a slight fib. I know one on the uke, and a mish mash of bits and pieces of others that I haven’t bothered to memorize or that I’ve already forgotten.) But, playing the ‘laugh it off, I don’t know much of anything’ card sometimes backfires and turns the coversation around to that person who was initially asking for your confirmation, trying to ‘teach you’ how to do things (see: how to do things you don’t particularly care about in their way.).  An example of this is when she mentioned that she was trying to memorize a song to do each month. I thought I could use that as a ‘see, you’re doing fine’ tactic, because I’m still using the security blanket of having my chord sheet up there with m, so I said “something I haven’t done yet.” (see: something I haven’t been motivated enough to do in a timely manner.)

This turned into her trying to teach me how to memorize songs (as if the method to how to memorize a song is not fucking obvious).  The conversation got pretty circular from here, where she’s trying to ‘teach me’ how to memorize. (I wouldn’t have graduated high school without having learned this basic life skill, but that doesn’t mean I’m necessarily going to have a song down cold when I’m composing it AND trying to remember it in a month or less.) Now, in retrospect, I should have said “you’ve got to remember though, that I only started writing the song I performed this month, so I’ve had a limited amount of time with which to memorize it”.  What I actually said was something more like “yeah, I’m just not very focused.”   Now she’s trying to teach me how to focus, and motivate me to do so. Are you KIDDING me?  I managed to laugh my way through the conversation with some grace, but I’ve got to admit that I was really, really glad when the intermission of the evening was over. I just haven’t managed, in the course of my life, to figure out how to navigate this type of person yet, and the way I should have replied always seems to come to me only after the conversation is over.

(For the record, I do have ‘Hurricanes’ mostly memorized at the moment. I’m going to say 2/3 memorized, because there are two or three places where I pause, trying to remember the next verse, but there are also points where, in trying to remember the lyrics, I forget to move my fingers. I can play through it all, if with a few stops and starts, without looking at my cheat sheet, which I think is perfectly respectable progress for a song that’s existed in the world less than a month. Then again, I do tend to hold onto that security blanket probably longer than I ought to. I should probably take it away sooner in the process and try playing through without it earlier, but really, that’s the least of my concerns for the moment.)

Although, in retrospect, the fact is that people are approaching me for affirmation at all, which I have to look at with a different spin: I’m apparently ‘faking it’ well enough that, to some people, it makes me appear to be someone who’s opinion matters. (The reality is more that I know my own skill level, and so intentionally make choices that are within, or only slightly outside of, that skill level, when composing.) And, that’s kind of unspoken flattery, to a fashion, because I must have performed well enough to give them that impression. I’m pretty horrible at reading the room (I still can’t tell the difference between polite applause and genuine enjoyment), so sometimes it’s things like that that end up being the only way I can tell how I did.

Something else that happened today was that one of my friends posted about Kanye West constantly re-releasing edited versions of his streaming only album. Now, I’ll preface by saying, I know fuck all about Kanye West. But, the interest in the article wasn’t directly about Kanye; it was about deciding when a song is ‘done’, when to stop adjusting it. One might suggest that when it’s released to the general public, that’s when it’s time to say ‘okay, it is what it is, now’.  But, from someone who’s recorded songs, posted them here, and then tweaked them, I do understand the temptation for finished to never be quite finished.  There’s always some small adjustment you can make. Since I last spoke of it, ‘Hurricanes’ has undergone a few edits.  The line ‘then in the light the carnage is still here’ has been changed.  There are some tweaks in the strumming, including (but not limited to) a silence added about 2/3 of the way through. So, when is a song done, at which point any adjustments have to be a “remix”? My best estimation would probably be “once you can put a monetary value on it and it has an observable audience.”  For me, that means I can tweak things almost indefinitely. For Kanye, well, that shelf life is much more immediate,  I would think.

Until Next Time, have a lot to sleep on, but I played my guitar in front of people for the first time, and no one was traumatized, so that’s got to be worth something.

4 thoughts on “Fishing for Compliments, Unsolicited Advice, when we should stop tweaking our songs, and my weird relationship with Poetry

  1. I think the songwriter decides when a song is “finished” – and some never truly are. I watched some of a video from Roger Glover earlier this week. He’s the bassist for Deep Purple. He was talking about how there are some songs that he doesn’t play the same way twice, just to keep things interesting for himself. Its also something I’ve read about as a backbone of jazz – probably jazz improvisation, actually. They pride themselves on knowing the “structure” of a piece really well (this could be the chord changes, but its probably more than that, its probably about relationships between different instruments coupled with chords and other stuff). They basically don’t play any given song the same way twice. Its all interpreted on the fly.

    Also, congrats on playing guitar in front of a crowd for the first time. You know, they’ve seen you play uke & guitar now. That’s going to leave an impression in their heads. (There’s also still one instrument left!)


    1. Well, yeah, with jazz, that’s the way to roll. Frank Zappa has made similar comments, but that’s more specifically about instrumental bits, where you’ve got some leeway if you know the basic form of the song. That said, I do think there’s a point in more mainstream music (I exclude jazz only because that is very explicitly the culture of jazz, always has been.)where you have to admit the lyrics, at least, are set in stone. If you’re looking at a pop or rock song for example, and you have fans who know it a certain way, and then change the words. Well, they’re attached to that version. It’s bigger than the songwriter then; that version of the song exists-tweaks and rewrites won’t make it go away because it already found an audience to keep it alive. Now, that doesn’t really apply to me, because I don’t really have much of an audience to speak of, but, who you are in the world of music may, to some extent, determine how much, and for how long, your song remains wholly yours, and at what point your audience determines whether or not you can safely keep making changes to the words. The instrumentation is a bit different, because nobody is singing along to it, I guess.


    2. And, it’ll be a long while before I can imagine how to work that instrument into an open mic situation. I’ve got to wrap my head around playing before I can figure out how to solo with it in a way that’s interesting enough to do at an open mic.


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