Tania: When and why did you starting writing songs and poetry?
SETH: First of all, I don’t write songs per se. I have written lyrics for songs. There are three approaches to doing this. One is to write the lyrics, then have someone put it to music. Another is for someone to compose the melody, then come up with lyrics that fit. And the third is for composer and lyricist to sit down together, at a piano or guitar, and hammer out the melody and words at the same time. I’ve done it all three ways. But rarely do I intentionally write lyrics. I have, however, written a number of poems that easily lend themselves to being put to music – and there is a reason these poems work so well.
As to when and why I started; the when is about 30 years ago. The why is a little harder to explain. I began writing fiction years before that, and one thing led to another. I will say this though: it was not reading poetry that led me to becoming a poet; it was the poetry I heard in song lyrics that provided the initial spark.
Tania: At the 2015 Castle Rock Writers conference you’ll be teaching a class on The Poetry of Writing Song Lyrics. What can attendees expect?
SETH: The poems I’ve written that can most easily be turned into songs were all composed using a similar technique. I call it “extended metaphor.” You start with a metaphor, say a zoo to describe what your heart is going through. Think of all the things you associate with a zoo: the various animals, the zoo keeper, cages, the ‘Do Not Feed’ signs. As you build your verses and chorus, incorporate as many of those associations as you can make fit. It’s a simple technique, but once you’ve mastered the concept, you’re well on the road to writing great lyrics.
Tania: How do your strategies differ when working with teens as opposed to adults?
SETH: My strategy wouldn’t differ that much. Teens differ from adults in that they are more open, more adventurous, more willing to take chances. Adults are often hung-up on the notion that there is a right way and a wrong way to write something. Teens—and youth in general—are willing to just jump in and try things. That makes them more fun to work with. But adults have certain qualities teens lack. So working with adults offer other rewards.
Tania: What is your favorite part of teaching children and teens?
SETH: There is a quote by Albert Einstein: “Genius is the ability to play.” As soon I read that, I knew exactly what Einstein was getting at. By that stage in my own writing, I could look back and recognize that my best, most original, innovative stories and poems came about when I was just playing around—tinkering with either words or form. . .not taking myself or what I was writing too seriously. Just having fun. It’s in that state of exploratory fun that the most amazing things come out. My favorite part of teaching children is getting them to understand that.
One of my teaching mantras is: the best way to do anything well is to enjoy doing it. The more you enjoy something, the more willing you are to keep doing it. The more you do it, the better you will become at it. That’s automatic. Putting pen to paper isn’t something to fear; it, in fact, can be fun. Once I get them to grasp that, their writing takes off.
Tania: Why do you think songwriting resonates in today’s youth?
SETH: Songwriting has always resonated with youth. Not just with today’s youth. This became especially true in the 60’s after The Beatles met Bob Dylan. After that, songs became more than just about falling love and/or getting hurt in the process. What might differ between today’s youth and when I was growing up, is the advent of rap. Rap has shown the last few generations that rhyming lyrics, and spoken word in general, are viable vehicles to express our thoughts, our feelings, frustrations and outrages.
Being a teenager is one of the most confusing times in a person’s life. Songwriting and poetry are ways to start making sense of what’s going on inside them by putting it down on paper. Adding melody, and singing about it, makes it that much more powerful a form of self-expression.
Tania: What advice do you have for a young adult who is struggling to find the creative words or struggling with inspiration?
SETH: Relax. Eventually it will come. Recognize that each failure puts you one step closer to success.
Say, for instance, you decide you want to write sonnets. The first time you try one, chances are it will fall below par. Don’t give up. Next time you try one, it will probably be a little a bit better; the third try a little better still. Then at some point, when you least expect it, something will click. You’ll write a sonnet that jumps out at you. And after that, writing sonnets will feel like clockwork. You’ll still write a few below-par ones, but those will be the exception rather than the rule.
Every time I start a poem or a story and it falls flat within the first few pages, I think Okay, that’s not the way to begin. Let’s try something else. Usually within two to three tries, it comes to me.
Tania: In an interview with the Colorado Poet Center during the release of your poetry book, Black Odyssey (2013), you indicated that you’d been writing the book for over 10 years. You explain the changes of your style and diction over that time span and between chapters as being different islands and if you were “traveling from island to island, each island would be different, and somewhat unique, offering its own local color.” Beautiful! You expressed fears of being thought of as naïve or unacceptable because of your unconventional use of different poetry styles in one story. Many times young writers haven’t had their creativeness impeded by the conventional rules we learn later in life. What would you say to first time poets and how could your workshop help them?
SETH: All the greats—your Shakespeares, your Kafkas, your Eliots—either defied convention or took what was commonly done and expanded or tried something new with it. And it came about not by discovering some new revolutionary approach or technique, but from following their own creative impulses. Follow your own intuitions and something uniquely you will emerge. Innovation doesn’t come to you, but through you. Relax and trust. If it’s there, when it’s there, it will come out. You don’t have to do anything but be yourself.
Tania: Will you have any of your CDs or poetry books available for sale at the conference? What audience do you feel would enjoy them the most and why?
SETH: Yes, I will have CDs and books available. I like to think any audience would enjoy the CD. The musicianship is superb; the poetry is accessible and varied. Plus the poetry and music are well matched.
As for my book, A Black Odyssey, the people who will enjoy it most are those familiar with Homer’s Odyssey. Also any former English majors and literary aficionados—anyone who has a deep appreciation for literary craft. I take great pride in my craftsmanship. I pay a lot of attention to sound devices and the rhythm of speech, the flow of language; things readers with a literary background will especially appreciate.
Baby boomers also respond favorably to my work. I myself am a baby boomer. We were shaped by what we experienced in the 60’s. Thus we share a common frame of reference and a similar perspective.
That’s not to say people outside these two groups won’t enjoy the collection. The poems and styles are varied, as is the subject matter: everything from love, to death, to soul searching, to trying make sense of this psychotic sea called existence. Most people will find poems and whole sections that resonate with them—if not the entire book.
Tania: How do you feel when performing at Mercury Café? When can we find you performing there?
SETH: I host the “Jam before the Slam” every Sunday night from 7-8pm. My band, Art Compost & the Word Mechanics, improv behind my poetry and the poetry of anyone who wants to join in. I find it exhilarating and empowering. There is a communication between the poet and the musicians that goes beyond language. It has to do with feel. When the musicians begin, I feel the music and adapt my delivery accordingly. I don’t think; I feel. When I begin, they feel my intonation and adapt to me. Again, they don’t think; they just feel. It’s almost magical.
The Merc, of course, is in Denver, almost in the heart of downtown. Those living in Castle Rock or Parker have the option of going to my website. Click on “events” and find other places we are appearing.