For a few years now I've been following Robert Frost's Banjo, a blog run by John Hayes, and it's my great pleasure to bring you this interview with him. His blog has introduced me to a lot of beautiful poetry and music (including his own), and I've bookmarked many of the posts for repeated reading and listening. I also have copies of two of his poetry collections, the excellent Spring Ghazals (which I reviewed here back in 2010) and The Days of Wine and Roses.
John Hayes is a musician & poet who lives in Portland, Oregon in the company of several guitars, banjo & ukuleles. As a musician, he has performed with various bands in Idaho & Oregon, including the Alice in Wonder Band, the Bijou Orchestrette, Five & Dime Jazz, Bonnie Glenshee & others. As a solo performer, Hayes plays old-time blues, focusing particularly on music from the Mississippi Delta region from the 1920s & 30s. As a poet, Hayes obtained an MFA from the University of Virginia, where he studied with Charles Wright & Greg Orr. He has self-published four collections of poetry.
On to the interview...
HK: Do you identify more as a poet or as a musician? Has this self-definition changed over time?
JH: The answer to this question is both straightforward & complex: the straightforward answer is that my identity these days is almost entirely that of a musician. Most of my creative energy is put into music, & most people know me that way. In fact, at least in terms of public identity, this has been true for a number of years.
The more complicated underlay involves my shifting perspectives on which art form has been more nourishing to my soul or spirit — however one wants to term that ineffable thing. In all honesty, if I “had it all to do again,” I believe I would have pursued music more diligently & seriously in my younger adulthood, & had I done this, it probably would have come at the expense of poetry, since that was my main creative outlet from ages 20 to 40, & one that I pursued in a serious manner. During that time, music was at most a recreation. Still, I believe I always held music in a higher regard; quite simply I lacked the confidence to pursue it more seriously until I reached middle age.
HK: Over the years, have your poetry and music intersected?
JH: No, not really. The music I’ve composed myself is all instrumental; writing song lyrics just seems very unnatural to the poetic part of my brain, & I’d have to say that my few attempts at it have been unsuccessful. In an odd way, it’s almost as if neither the music side nor the poetry side “want” to intersect, because as I think about it, I’d have to say that my inability to write songs with words doesn’t come solely from my poetic self, but from the musical self as well. It is true that musical imagery does appear frequently in my poems.
Interestingly, I am currently working on a project of setting another poet’s poems to music, & this is interesting to me because her poems—while highly musical in the sense of language music—are not the kind of poems one would generally set to music; they don’t rhyme & the line lengths aren’t regular. It’s challenging, but an intriguing project.
HK: What are your strengths as a poet? And as a musician? What would you want to improve in each area?
JH: As a poet, I have a good ear, a good sense of line & motion. These days—& this has been true for some time—I tend to write improvisationally; in other words, I come across a line or image & let that take me where it may. During the act of composing the poem I may revise extensively, but once a poem is done, it’s finished. I don’t go back to revise very often at all. I see poems as imperfect artifacts of a creative act, & unless I could return to the state of mind I found while creating the poem, it would make little sense to revise or edit it in hindsight. What would I like to improve? One can never be too simple.
As a musician, I believe my greatest strength is my ability to interact either as a member of a combo or while accompanying myself on guitar as a blues singer. The most wonderful part about playing music with others is the conversational aspect of music. That said, I would like particularly to improve as a melody player & I’m quite dedicated to that, both in the band I currently play with & also as a soloist.
HK: What are sources of creative inspiration for you? And what do you think kills creativity?
JH: There’s an old adage about comparisons being odious, & I believe comparison to some subjectively generated standard is the biggest stumbling block to creativity. No matter how good a guitarist or poet may be, there will always be someone better in some respects. When we focus on our creative shortcomings, we stifle creativity. In many ways, our consumer-driven culture reinforces this stifling, because consumerism is driven by lack. This doesn’t mean that one shouldn’t enjoy listening to good music or reading books or admiring paintings—simply that one should try diligently to avoid beating one’s own creativity with the stick of other artist’s proficiency.
Inspiration? In many respects, inspiration comes from doing, or at least a certain type of focused & concentrated doing. If I work on music with a particular focus & concentration, I’m much more apt to be inspired. The same is true for poetry I suspect, though the techniques used to measure proficiency in poetry are more subjective than those used for music.
HK: Of the many songs you love, which are your favorites to perform and why?
JH: This changes so much over time! If I were to have a show tonight,I’d say the pieces I’d look forward to playing most would be Elizabeth Cotton’s “Spanish Flang Dang” & Ry Cooder’s”Paris, Texas” theme—both instrumentals. While I’ve spent the last few years playing & singing the blues, of late I’ve become increasingly drawn to instrumental music, & more recently to music in very different genres. In terms of one of my old standbys, I’d have to say Charlie Patton’s Banty Rooster Blues,” just because it’s a really fun guitar part to accompany the singing.
HK: If you could pick any three musicians and/or poets, dead or alive, to jam with or talk to, who would they be and why?
JH: Two musicians immediately come to mind, & they would be cellist Zoë Keating & guitarist Kaki King. I love the creative energy, imagination & general “can do” attitude both of these performers bring to their music, & I’m so taken with their compositions. Perhaps banjoist Danny Barnes would be a third. All three of these musicians have taken some strain of traditional music & made it their own—Keating coming out of a classical tradition, King coming from “American fingerstyle” guitar & Barnes coming from old-time banjo playing. I’d love to learn even a fraction of what Barnes & Keating know about integrating technology & music, & King’s playing style & compositional ideas are all very attractive to me. Note: all living musicians!
HK: Please share with us some of your plans for the future.
JH: Poetry? It comes & goes. I have no specifically formulated plans. But I am in the midst of a significant reconfiguration of my musical identity. In the past, I played more original music & also in various groups played “Great American Songbook” material,as well as Bossa Nova & some other Latin styles. I love all that music a lot, but hadn’t explored it in a serious way as a solo musician. However that’s changed! I just recently bought a new guitar, a nylon string model that will lend itselfto a softer &more melodic playing style,& I’m taking this winter to come up with a new set of songs. I’ll still play the blues, but I feel a deep need for this other sound as well. I’m really excited by this! It also fits with my project of doing more composing, including working on settings for my friend’s poems.
Thank you, John!