And that, my friends, is the last you will hear of Klein's connection to the band. Because this interview is about Amy Klein the poet, the writer in her own right. We need not link Klein to another band to appreciate her talents. While you may know her for her work in the band, she's a tremendously gifted writer with a degree in English from Harvard. As you'll read, we spent most of the time talking about her experience as a poet, not as a songwriter. We had a fantastic discussion about poetry, from John Donne to the Japanese.
There was a sense, talking to Klein, that our discussion will be a mere footnote on the way to much bigger and greater things in her life. There is too much talent in her for me to think otherwise. And those bigger and greater things, at least from what she told me, do not necessarily involve music at all: when I asked about her legacy, her immediate response was that she'd like to write a few novels. Read more from Klein after the video:
Yeah, I studied literature with an emphasis on creative writing. I actually focused on poetry, and I wrote a book of poems for my senior thesis.
How did that prepare you for songwriting?
It’s interesting because I find songwriting and poetry writing to be very different, even though I do both. There’s a different person, a different voice, behind each. One thing in common is that poetry and song involve the creation of a voice, not a literal voice, but the idea of a perspective. Some of the great songwriters, particularly folk songwriters, are people who have that kind of voice, a character behind a song.
With poetry, there is an illusion of a speaker who is articulating a thought at a moment in time. It’s an illusion, because what goes into that thought is hours and hours of work and revision in order to create in the minds of the reader that impression of single moment. It’s not easy to make a voice consistent, to even exist. That’s what I go for in songwriting too. Hours and hours of tinkering. If anything, poetry taught me that sometimes writing and songwriting don't come easily, and it's those hours of practice and revision that go into creating that emotional response.
Poetry obviously gave me an idea of how words work together, things like assonance, consonance, and alliteration that create a melody and a rhythm. It gives me an idea of phrasing, and that’s what sets it apart from fiction: the abstract idea of a line.
When you start creating, do you have an idea that it will be one or the other, either a poem or a song?
It depends on what objects are near me. Laughs. If I have a guitar near me, it might become a song; if I have a computer near me, it might become a poem. Sometimes I'll work on taking the words of a poem and making them into a song by adding a melody. Other times there’s just an idea or image that I fixate on in the world, and sometimes it will turn it into both. There are times when I do start writing, and I am not sure which form it will take.
Tell me some of your favorite poets.
I like Elizabeth Bishop, a Greek poet named Yiannis Ritsos who wrote really long monologues, Tennyson, and John Donne, to name a few. I'm into metaphysical poetry. I like the strong focus on images, and the idea that if you look long enough at one thing and think about its relationship to its environment, you can figure some deeper philosophical idea just by focusing on that single image. I am a very visual person, and someone like Donne will think about the sun, and by focusing intently on the sun and writing a lot about it, he can draw some grand philosophical statement about where humans belong in the world. I am intrigued by the idea that by looking at something very small, you can get big ideas.
What about Bishop?
She is very precise and exacting. There’s a lot of parts of her that are hidden in the writing, a lot of denial of drama. She had a tough life, because she was gay in a society that was not very accepting, and there is a lot of pain behind her work. The tendency for someone like that is to be melodramatic, and when someone writes meaningfully and expressively through a denial of drama, it makes you feel the expression of the emotion even more.
I read that you tutor ESL students when you're home. Is that right?
After college I lived in Japan for a while and taught English to Japanese students. I enjoy teaching, and if I wasn’t in a band I would probably be a teacher.
How does knowing Japanese affect your writing style?
It totally has. Japanese poetry goes back so far. When Europe was in the Dark Ages, Japan has a flowering of the arts. A lot of the Japanese poets from the Edo period, their renaissance era, were women. They didn't reveal their names, but you knew it was a woman of the court. That’s pretty inspiring as a woman to find a long history of female writers.
Japanese poetry, like haiku and tanka, has very strict rules and constraints, similar to Japanese society. You have to adhere to certain rigid metrical patterns, but within those rules there’s a lot of freedom. I am into the idea of working within constraints, like in Haiku where you have a small space and yet what you want to do is recreate an entire moment within that small space. Haiku starts with something small like a specific image, and the idea is to have that image open out onto nature and then a broader view, either philosophical or existential. The more you read a haiku, the more you get out of it. Although on the surface it seems very simple and orderly, the more you look into it there is a lot of chaos and actually a lot of room for freedom.
Do you adhere to those rules, or at least to restraint, in your songwriting?
I really like writing songs with a verse strophic structure, where there is a repeated rhythm or subtle repeated phrases. It’s interesting to listen to 60s songwriters like Sandy Denny or contemporary folk singers who have something that appears simple in its musical structure, and yet there is so much room for expression in that. I am certainly attracted to that tension between order and chaos.
Do you find that that teaching English to ESL students in Japan helped you focus on your own writing technique?
Teaching is hard, and I have found that there are lots of things that I know I should know about good writing but I don’t even realize that I should pay attention to them until I explain it to someone else.
What's your favorite book about the craft of writing?
I'm reading a book now called Six Memos for the Next Millennium by Italo Calvino. Each memo takes a different idea that he views as essential to good writing. Some of the ideas are pretty abstract; the first chapter is called "Lightness," and you might look at that and wonder what it means—how do you write in a light way? But the essays explore ideas about writing in a way that you never would have imagined. By the end of the essay, you really understand what he means, about writing in a way to elevate people above the realm of lived experience, and you understand the way that writers can make that transcendental, and it happens in 25 pages. It’s pretty awesome, and he cites a lot of examples from classic literature.
You mentioned earlier about focusing on one image like the metaphysical poets do. When you do that, do you already have in mind what you are going to write about, or do you go out in the world and look for things to write about?
I just go out and look for things, or I just see what’s interesting or disturbing. Often it’s something I don’t understand; I’ll see something that is puzzling or confusing, then I have to go home and write about it to see what it means. I am a big believer in the surrealist method, where you don't plan too much what you’re going to do. You don’t go into the writing with a big idea of what you want to say. The surrealists said that a lot of creativity is unconscious, so you have to sit down with very little idea of what you want because if you think you know what you want, you are probably limiting yourself.
You write about confusing things, but do you ever write about beauty?
Sometimes I’ll try to find beautiful aspects of ugly things, but I am working on just being comfortable writing about ugly things and not trying to fix them. My goal is not to judge or be too critical. It’s getting a little abstract to say this, but there is enough judgment in this world. Poets aren't critics; they are involved in acts of praise, whether they like it or not. A poet is not there to judge right or wrong. The poet I am interested in being is someone who describes things as they are, to show people the world. I don’t want to come down too hard on moral issues.
How disciplined are you as a writer? Most songwriters I talk to don’t have much of a routine, but you also straddle the non-musical writing genre, obviously.
I tend to be really hard on myself, so any time I can make something fun, that’s great. I write when I am feeling inspired. I started a blog—my tour diary—and part of the idea with it is to write every day. And I do, no matter how small. Inspiration only comes to you when you are working every day to get it; it’s a myth to think that someday the muse will suddenly arise. The muse arises when you are working hard hours at it. I try to play music and do a little writing every day. It’s hard, though, and you can’t force it. Even if months go by and you haven’t written a song, that’s life.
Some writers say that writer’s block is a myth. It sounds like you aren't bothered when you don’t write for a long stretch of time.
Writer’s block to me is when you can’t write anything good, and I’ve totally had that. It’s very frustrating. But I always keep writing, even though I know it sucks. If you can just keep putting something out there, eventually you’ll create something good. That’s my advice.
What are some of your standby revision techniques?
First, I try to find what it’s about. I usually do stream of consciousness writing where I don’t have a theme in mind. For example, to go in there knowing exactly what you want to say about the rain, you must have, say, three good things to say about the rain. Then when you run out of things to say, that’s your poem. But if you go in there really not knowing what you are going to write about, you might start writing about the rain and end up writing about your sister. So when I revise I try to find the subject, even if it’s hidden at first, then I’ll reorganize so that the content relates to the theme. I take out extemporaneous details. That’s hard for me because I like to digress. I try to make details that are there to support the theme, and I make every image important.
But that’s funny you say that you tend to digress, because you are a poet and the essence of poetry is that every word counts. When do you know when something you have written is done?
Sometimes it just feels complete: everything is related to the theme and there is no extemporaneous detail. Sometimes it’s a matter of just getting a feeling out of my head, and once it’s out, I am done. It’s like closure. Other times I just feel frustrated and I want to get rid of it.
Is there anything you must have with you to have a productive writing session?
I need my laptop because I like the rhythm that I feel when I tap on the keys. It’s very musical—it reminds me of when I used to play the piano when I was a kid. One of the things about being on the road is that you have to get used to writing anywhere, whether it’s a gas station, rest stop, backstage, whatever.
Let’s assume there are great things ahead of you as a writer. What do you want your literary legacy to be years from now?
Oooh boy. Well, I’d like to write a novel, maybe more than one. Maybe three because I have never written fiction and would like to try it. I would like to be a positive influence for girls. That’s really important to me, because some of my biggest heroes growing up were children’s book writers. I always looked up to authors and found possible images of myself in the future in those books. I would like to be a feminist writer or someone who gives girls a wider idea of who they can be.
So do I see young adult literature in your future?
That would be really cool. It’s an expanding genre that people have started to take seriously. I like Francesca Lea Block; she writes magical realism, coming of age stories with weird LA magic. So I would like to bring a little bit of magic into the tortured world of adolescence.
We'e talked so much about poetry, I realized that I forgot to ask you about your songwriting process!
The most common thing I do is sit with a guitar and sing to myself, and a phrase will just come out. A simple phrase in my head, a simple melody, but from that I can build a whole song. It takes a long time. I usually write a lot of different parts and have to piece them all together. I haven’t been doing it for that long, and I enjoy the challenge. I usually have so many feelings going on, and it’s like a big mess, a big ball of trash, in my head. I don’t know how to untangle it or put it into words, and the guitar and my voice are tools unravel that ball of yarn. Usually my songs come from a strong feeling that I can’t just put into words. Music helps me put into words those feelings that I can’t define otherwise.
To read some of Amy Klein's work, download two of her of poems along with the lyrics to "Fireflies," the song I posted above.