When I was in college I took a poetry class with Charles Wright. I wasn’t overly interested in poetry at the time, but it was the closest thing to songwriting—my real passion—that was offered at the University of Virginia. Unlike my serious-poet classmates, I didn’t know much about our professor except that he was well respected as a teacher and lauded for his work (he won the Pulitzer Prize for Black Zodiac in 1998, and is now the U.S. poet laureate).
One day, running low on inspiration for my weekly assignment, I wrote a short poem about being bored in class. Instead of typing the poem and printing copies for my classmates, I ripped the page out of my spiral notebook and photocopied it, but not before decorating it with doodles and a spattering of notes from my government class.
I didn’t think much about this, fully expecting the poem to be torn apart on its slim poetic merits. Instead, it inspired a surprisingly angry debate among my classmates as to whether the format of the poem—with its childish drawings and photocopied spiral chaff—was legitimate. I was gratified to be the subject of so much hot artistic indignation (this, I thought, was what college was about), but was also pleased that the debate kept people from focusing on how crummy the poem was.
The following week Wright stopped the class in the middle of our gladiator-style nerdery to read a critical piece he’d written in response to the debate. We were all surprised—until then he had mostly limited his input to a few words regarding a given poem’s quality.
In essence, Wright’s piece was about why the ephemera surrounding my poem was not poetry. It might be art, but it wasn’t poetry. I don’t remember his reasoning, but only my sense of bewilderment. While it was fine, even semi-badass, to be damned by twentysomething poetry purists, it was another thing to be artfully dressed down by my now-beloved professor.
But it was all the more bewildering when a friend from that class stopped me on the street a few years later to say that Wright had used a line from that very poem in his newest collection. I hurried to the library—I was both poor and cheap—and quickly scanned the book.
My classmate had exaggerated. While Wright’s poem had certainly taken momentary inspiration from mine, this was not, by even the most paranoid standard, quotation. Still, it seemed strange to me that it was this poem that had inspired him. I was fairly certain that, whatever his definition of poetry, he had not liked my poem. I toyed briefly with feeling aggrieved, but decided that, on the whole, this was pretty awesome.
A few weeks later, as I was waiting tables at a restaurant in downtown Charlottesville, the professor himself was seated in my section. Unable to contain my curiosity (not to mention my secretly smug sense of validation), I asked him about the line.
“Ah!” he said, “I owe you an apology!”
He turned to his tablemates and smiled. “When you steal from your students, you’re supposed to tell them before publication.”
My seventh album, Call and Response, will be released this spring. It’s a collection of “answer songs,” each responding to another artist’s work. Some respond to songs—for instance, the Rolling Stones’ “Sympathy for the Devil” or Bruce Springsteen’s “Atlantic City”—while others answer short stories.
In many ways all art answers other art, and as I start to tour with these songs I’ve been surprised by how much of my back catalogue could be considered answer songs. Certainly I’m not the first songwriter to respond to another musician’s work. Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Sweet Home Alabama” famously calls out both Neil Young and his “Southern Man” by name. (You can actually hear the line “Southern Man” being sung quietly on one channel at around the fifty-five-second mark of “Sweet Home Alabama.”) And Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land” was originally titled “God Blessed America for Me” in answer to Irving Berlin’s standard.
Taking inspiration from short stories or novels is nothing new, either. Springsteen’s “The Ghost of Tom Joad” wears its influence on its sleeve, as does Kate Bush’s “Wuthering Heights.” But the reader can be forgiven for not knowing that Devo’s “Whip It” was inspired by Gravity’s Rainbow, or that Pink Floyd’s signature props—the flying pigs—are a reference to George Orwell, or that U2’s “Breathe” was inspired by fellow Irishman James Joyce’s Ulysses.
When I respond to a short story, the process is always more or less the same. I read the story without taking notes. I can sometimes get ahead of myself, so it’s important to slow down, to let my mind’s eye go a little soft-focus. Then I take a break. This may be for a short walk in my Harlem neighborhood, or just to pace around the kitchen while I make coffee. At this point in the process I want to get my conscious mind, with its fretful unease and self-doubt, out of the way of the deeper mind, which does the best fundamental artistic work. (Don’t get me wrong: You need both. The deeper mind knows zilch about editing. But here at the beginning, nothing beats it for core creativity.)
By now I may already have an idea for a focus. In any case, I come back to the story and read it again, taking notes this time. I’m looking for “sticky phrases,” lines that pull my eye back and make me read them again. I jot these down in a list, like a disheveled poem.
Then it’s back to pacing, and humming to myself. The question of what the song will be usually comes down to the angle of the narrative. And the answer isn’t always obvious. When Jonathan Lethem and I wrote a response to his “Pending Vegan,” one of the first things he suggested was that we could use the perspective not of the narrator, but of the narrator’s dog. When that idea came into focus, the rest of the song almost assembled itself.
Another question is how to frame the main theme of the story (or at least the theme I’m focusing on) in the song. Songwriting is all about compression. Perhaps because of this, repetition is a mainstay strategy, usually in a chorus. A well-written chorus voices the central ache of a song, but doesn’t limit the arc. (You can write choruses that are oblique, or avoid a chorus altogether…but these songs can feel unsatisfactory.)
Sometimes a chorus can even express muted, near-hidden frequencies in a story. When I worked on the response to “The Semplica-Girl Diaries” by George Saunders, I used a pop standard: “Please, please, come back to me” for the chorus. Though the narrator never says this in the story, the ache seemed right—he would naturally hope that the Semplica Girls (who, in the crushingly mild-mannered dystopian tale, are human lawn ornaments) would return to him after they escape his suburban front yard. When I sent Saunders a rough recording, he wrote that in early drafts of the story the SGs did return. He described it beautifully in an e-mail, and I used some of these ideas (“Still trailing the wire / Filthy, starving, freezing / Feverish, on fire”) in the second verse.
I started working on these songs because it was fun and interesting, and because it feels both easy and frightening (often a sign that I’m on a fruitful path). But it’s worth admitting that this project is also fun because I’ve been able to talk with, and sometimes even work with, writers whom I admire so deeply.
Still, it’s also worth saying that one not need admire a piece of art to feel its effect on one’s work. Sometimes art done just the way you think it shouldn’t be is inspiring in its own way. I’ve written countless songs after hearing a good idea, to me, that ultimately went the wrong way.
These days, among the several hats I wear, I am the director of a music and songwriting school in Manhattan. My students are wildly talented, worlds better than I was at their age, and I have often been inspired by their ideas. I tell them that if they are not taking pieces of their classmates’ work and incorporating it into their own, they are not listening. (Sometimes they don’t listen.)
I began teaching only recently—I am still finding my way. And as with parenting, there are things that only become clear once you’ve changed sides.
Thinking back, I recognize now that Wright was doing me a great honor in taking my work so seriously. This is no small gesture. And it’s something that, as a teacher, I could learn to do better.
He took the art seriously and judged it on its merits, and fundamentally disagreed with it. Not because it was rotten and lazy (it was), but because the format struck him as wrong-headed.
And yet there was part of the poem that stuck with him, part of it that, when he was sitting in front of his own blank page a few weeks or months later, came back to him.
We don’t have to love a piece of art to respond to it. In fact, sometimes it’s the work that we dislike, the work that bothers us, that makes us react most fiercely.
Before the publication of this piece, I spoke with Charles Wright. He didn’t remember my poem, or any conversations about it. Still, he laughed and said it didn’t surprise him.
“We all steal from each other,” he said.
All art responds to other art—it’s just the process of inspiration at work.
Ben Arthur has released six albums and two novels, and is the host of the songwriting web series SongCraft Presents. His upcoming album, Call and Response, is a collection of “answer songs.”