In October, the Swedish Academy awarded Bob Dylan the Nobel Prize in Literature, writing that the legendary songwriter "created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition." While some lauded the decision to formally recognize Dylan's oft-praised lyricism, others weren't as enthused (especially when Dylan was a no-show for the Nobel ceremony).
"Poets are up in arms about that," said Columbus poet Ruth Awad of the Dylan controversy, adding that the question of where a poem ends and a song begins is a hot topic among poets. "Can song lyrics without the music behind them be considered a poem on their own? A lot of poets are against that idea. But I think that [song lyrics] can be [poetry]."
"That doesn't mean I think Bob Dylan should have got the Nobel prize," Awad continued, chuckling. "He doesn't need another award."
Rather than focus on the sometimes contentious relationship between music and poetry, local musician Philip Kim is interested in the shared connections between the two art forms. To highlight that symbiosis, Kim booked four songwriters - Athens-based Adam Remnant and locals Counterfeit Madison, Field Sleeper and Teenage Aviation - to perform alongside readings from Awad and newly local poet Keith Leonard at Kafe Kerouac on Thursday, Jan. 5.
"There are things people take for granted in both poetry and music," said Kim, seated next to Awad, Leonard and Counterfeit Madison's Sharon Udoh at Kerouac in late December. "The musicality of poetry is taken for granted, and in terms of lyricism in music, people focus more on what's pleasing to their musical sensibilities. I think by juxtaposing a poet and then the music, it'll force people to just naturally see the connections."
For Udoh, poetry is on a higher plane than music - so much so that for her, listening to a poet is akin to watching a magician. "I don't understand how people put words together in a way that is musical without music. That, to me, is literally magic," she said. "When I make art, I make music and then add words. I take thoughts and feelings, then I attach them to my musical self. So the fact that people do that without a musical instrument is baffling to me."
Kim also emphasized that part of the reason for the show is to take poetry off the page and onto the stage. "[Poetry] is connected to the oral tradition," he said, "so I think having poets read, and people seeing poetry read out loud and performed, is incredibly important."
"Historically, it wasn't until recently that poems were even printed on the page," Leonard added. "They existed well before we ever wrote anything down. So it's really recent that it has become so academic. … People take poetry way too seriously. It's play. It should be play."
Awad similarly balked at the idea of poetry as an art form relegated to the ivory tower of academia. "People think poetry is hard to grasp or that you have to have all this education and know all this craft before you begin writing poetry," she said. "But if you just start writing with intention and focus on meaning-making, that's the foundation of making poetry."
Part of the invisible wall between poetry and songwriting, these poets and musicians said, stems from the lack of overlap between their artistic communities. Most of Awad's readings happen in a room full of other writers. And while Kafe Kerouac is the rare venue that probably caters equally to poets and musicians, it's not often that music audiences hear poetry read aloud in a bar.
"Performing is a crucial part of why I wanted to do this show," said Kim, who will host a second event featuring poet (and Alive contributor) Hanif Willis-Abdurraqib alongside musicians Dominique Larue, Jacoti Sommes and others at Kerouac on Feb. 25. "I don't think poets get many chances to perform readings that aren't within the ivory tower or at a bookstore."
For a night of songs and readings to work, the onus is on the listener as much as the performer. "In a really good conversation," Leonard said, "someone is listening intently and asking questions. [In the same way], poetry requires the reader to be a good listener and to be open to hearing without putting their own opinion into it."
"I really like the exercise of listening to words without music. That's an exercise that I don't think musicians get enough of," Udoh said. "There's no frills, no cool jackets, no dyed hair, no guitars hung low, no cool amp - you feel me? There's just the beauty of the English language, and that's powerful."
Kim said most of the crowd at Thursday's show will likely be there for the bands, and that's OK. It's part of his plan. People will come for the music, "and then I kind of force them to watch some poetry," he said, laughing.
"Most people like poetry," Leonard said. "They just don't know it yet."