Poet, musician, and adjunct professor Chet Weise is the founder of Poetry Sucks!, Nashville’s “Best New Literary Event.” A first-timer to this hybrid reading slash live music event this month at the Southern Festival of Books, I had difficulty imagining how multiple bands and poets could share a single stage in an organized, timely, and enjoyable manner. Poetry Sucks! manages them all with a celebratory, inclusive ease.
SW: Poetry Sucks! was named the Writers’ Choice Best New Literary Event by the Nashville Scene and calls out the series’ “drunken poetic realism.” What were your expectations/goals for the series? Have they been met or have you encountered any problems with constructing this reality?
CW: Before every Poetry Sucks! I go through a litany promising myself to avoid cocktails, cigarettes, etc. Nevertheless, the morning-after-soul-crushing hangover always reminds of my weaknesses. Still, that’s part of what I hope for with the series. Attendees should be able to come and have a good time enjoying the experience of language just as they would a rock n roll show, or a friend’s cookout, or a movie night with pizza and beer.
The bar–Dino’s– where we usually hold the event certainly helps convey the message with its yellow tar stained walls, domestics only beer list, its long history of local punk rock and country shows, and all the rats– figuratively and literally — that pass through its doors. (RIP “Little Ricky”: they finally offed the big rat.)
SW: Every event breaks from the poetry with live music, which I found as a high-quality enhancement. What was the motivation behind this? Although it’s common for poets to present 5-10 minutes, this is rare for musicians (understandably so, considering the time necessary to manage equipment). Has there been any hesitation from bands to participate?
CW: Mixing music and language serves several purposes. First, it’s the ginger (aka gari) to cleanse the palate between sushi rolls. Readings are about listening. At a good reading, a sort of hypnosis occurs. However, that hypnosis, if too long, could turn into negative-droning a la Charlie Brown’s teacher in the Peanuts’ cartoons. Having music breaks up the night. It’s variety for the ears and also allows a few minutes for people to speak to one another. And, having music brings more people to the reading. Many nights this results in music lovers being exposed to poetry for the first time and getting turned on to it and vice versa.
As far as the music performers themselves and Poetry Sucks!, there’s been a very interesting subplot to the series regarding musicians and their “side-projects” or “solo stuff” and/or “experimental sets.” Many of the musicians participate because the event is a great opportunity to try something new or different.
SW: As a musician (The Ultras S/C), poet, and teacher, you can relate to the situation of many cross-genre artists in NYC and nationwide. Do you see a central focus in your efforts or do you watch yourself switching between each, more monocularly? Do you think there’s something about Nashville that’s contributed to your success?
CW: Many are surprised to hear I was also a former economics teacher at Auburn University! But, that’s something I’ve always been bewildered by. This sort of cultural specialization or typecasting or division of labor that seems to pervade modern society irks me. Leonardo da Vinci learned the human form that he painted so well via his medical experiments performing autopsies. Also, William Carlos Williams was a doctor. T.S. Eliot a banker. . . and Mick Jagger attended the London School of Economics. The list goes on. Too many of America’s fathers, mothers, and teachers tell us: you’re inclined to be an engineer, you’re the type to be a businessman, or you have the mind of an artist. That’s crap. We’re all businessmen and artists. It’s just a matter on which we want to spend more time and effort.
Nowadays I spend more time on poetry, but I do play in a band called The Ultras S/C. In the past, I played in The Quadrajets and The Immortal Lee County Killers. If anyone is familiar with these groups, then they know these groups toured in used vans, rented U-Hauls, and slept on strangers’ floors next to their kitty litter boxes all over the world (NYC was a regular stop).
I model the Poetry Sucks! night after my experiences in punk rock. I don’t know any other way, really. Each poet and/or musician gets a slot to perform a short set, then the next performer comes on, then the next, etc. I always make sure, too, to mix it up between travelling, published readers (ie touring, signed bands) and local, unpublished readers (unsigned, neighborhood band). This helps draw more of a crowd and provides a spark of spontaneity to the night. Everyone knows the inexperienced reader/band can often times blow-away the “bigger” name or, in some cases, completely fall apart on stage. More importantly, keeping the local, unpublished writers involved builds community and excitement around reading, listening and language. That’s what Poetry Sucks! has really been about. Almost any crappy punk rock band can find a venue to perform their first gig. Poets, at least in the areas I’ve lived, many times only have a chance read to themselves. I hope a DIY/house party culture will continue to grow for language. ‘Zines et al started the on the right path a few years ago.
Okay. I might have digressed from your question(s). Regarding crossover, I consider poetry to be a form of music. The reason many times song lyrics starve on the page alone by themselves is because they’ve been divorced from the other voices in their poem: songs are poems with multiple, simultaneous voices. Take away the voice of the guitar, then you’ve taken away alot of the tone and metaphor from the poem. On the other hand, a poem is song for a single, more detailed voice. It’s closer to a capella renditions by Son House or Leadbelly. When I write a poem, many times I put myself in the mind of a musician. Many times when I write a song, I put myself in the mind of a poet.
Being in Nashville really brings this all home– the mixing, blending, co-dependence, morphing, ying-yanging, of personalities, arts, and professions. It’s cool to see it all come together in a charming dive bar. Everyone loves partying with rats.
–Stephanie Ann Whited