Many months ago, Chad Clark (front man for Beauty Pill and producer of so many of your favorite records) stood in my office excitedly telling me about this idea he had about putting together two friends that he thought would get along wonderfully – but not for romance mind you – rather to see how two of his favorite local writers from different disciplines would interact and what could be gained from the process. The culmination would be a concert where words would be both read and sung where the audience could appreciate the power of each syllable and hopefully the crowd gathered for each discipline would leave with an appreciation for the other.

(photo: Joel Didriksen)

The two friends are Michael Kentoff of DC’s smartest pop band, The Caribbean, and acclaimed poet and publisher of 32 Poems magazine, Deborah Ager. In the end, a great deal of putting the event together would bond them in many ways long before the actual performance. As the time draws near, I thought it might be nice to allow the participants to interact in a more casual manner before the house lights are lowered. I knew neither could stand to provide a one word answer so I kept the questions to a minimum and let the thoughtful responses flow. Michael and Deborah chatting away:

Michael: If you could write poetry for a living – do nothing else but be a poet, mother, wife, friend — would you?

Deborah: What a good question. For a long time, I thought that work and life kept me from writing more. I’d agonize about time not spent writing. I’d go away to artist colonies to “have time to write.” I do think colonies are useful and will visit one again when my daughter is older. However, what I learned after having a child was fairly darned obvious in retrospect. I had to make time for writing and no one cared if I did not.

I laughed at myself for thinking I did not have time before my daughter was born, because I really did not have time afterwards. Yet, I carved out time and got creative about when I’d write. I’ve written poems in the back seat of a moving car while a happy toddler squealed in my ear. I’ve written while nursing. I’ve written in airports and on airplanes.

Poetry only takes so much time, so I’m happy with my “day job” in addition to all of my other roles. I certainly would not write poems for the standard 8-hour work day. The creative process doesn’t work like that for me. I go look at a flower or read a book and the ideas start to come. In some cases, the work is being done while I’m doing something else.

Michael: I feel the same way, at least at this point in my life and career, even though I don’t have any kids. It’s a question I get asked quite often and my answer has probably mutated from interview to interview, but my pithy, less eloquent analog to your
answer is that I’d rather be over-extended than under-extended. I know people who clear the decks for their art and have too much idle time to make good art. Generally, I think interaction with ideas and people is fuel for good art.

Do you ever think that having poetry as a sole occupation could have a negative impact on the quality of your work?

Deborah: Do I “ever” think having poetry as a sole occupation could have a negative impact on the quality of your work?

Whether poetry as a sole occupation could have a negative impact depends a bit on when in my life it would happen and what else I’m doing at the time. I had a time when I lived in Iowa and did not have much to do. With all of that time, I read a lot, wrote some and learned to make intricate Indian and Japanese dinners. I did not find the extra time all that useful for my writing. You mentioned that you’d rather be over-extended that under-extended. I feel the same way. I thrive on having lots of activities. People often say to me, “you do so much” as though I’m an odd specimen.

I’ve never been one who had (or wanted) to focus on only one project at a time. I’m kept interested by having multiple projects. In Iowa, I was less certain as a writer, so the time was not useful. If poetry were my sole occupation now, I’d not have much to feed my creativity. I get ideas from yoga, friends, nature, book, meditative walks and so on. If I sat in a room all day every day and wrote poetry, I’d not be out in the world getting filled with ideas.

Michael: I think I could probably pull it off now because I’m pretty disciplined, but that doesn’t mean I’d spend my every spare moment writing, recording, and performing. Hopefully, I would still engage with the rest of the world if I didn’t work. Still, I like work-enforced human interactions for the most part.

Deborah: Could you explain for non-musicians what you derive from a live performance?

Michael: It often depends on the events leading up to the performance. Am I in Minneapolis performing to 5 people? That can impact what I derive. It probably shouldn’t, but it does sometimes. There’s a little part of me though that believes if you don’t perform for people, you’re not really a band. A little like the tree falling in a forest. I waffle on that.

Suzanne Vega said that one of the great things about writing songs is that once you’re finished writing you have a song to play. Getting out there and meeting people, performing those songs, kind of completes the process. The Caribbean largely exists to communicate with people we don’t know, so performing live and touring is a big part of that.

Deborah: What do you say to artists who think they can’t pursue art while holding down an unrelated day job?

Michael: I’m pretty consistent in what I say: if music/art/poetry/photography/film is something you truly love and feel compelled to do, you really don’t risk anything by getting a more serious job or going to medical school or law school because you’ll make the time to do it. For me, my job frees me creatively because I don’t have to rely on it to pay a mortgage or buy food. I can write songs that have no chorus or go on for 3 minutes about the behavior and vision of bees and if no one gets it, I don’t starve.

The collected performers will take that to heart as the show on Friday is FREE!!!! So don’t miss out!

A Scheme to Rock the Writer’s Center
Featuring The Caribbean and 32 Poems
DATE: Friday, May 9
Time: 8 PM
Costs: Nothing
Location: The Writer’s Center, 4508 Walsh Street, Bethesda, MD