Brian Laidlaw on songwriting versus poetry

Are song lyrics poetry? And if not, what’s the difference between the words that make up a song and words that stand alone as a poem? Tonight, a group of poets who moonlight as musicians and musicians who moonlight as poets will get together at the Southern Theater to share their work, discuss the ins and outs of poetry and songwriting, and explore how the two find commonality yet have distinct differences.

Brian Laidlaw, who is presenting this evening, just released a book of poetry, called The Stuntman, which includes a companion download of songs. While his academic career has been focused on poetry, he also regularly writes music as a solo artist, as well as with his band, the Family Trade.
“It seems to go in phases where my primary output will swing back and forth between poems and songs,” Laidlaw says. “I think of myself primarily as a writer; sometimes what I write is songs, and sometimes what I write is poems.”

When he sits down to write, he usually has a sense of whether the impulse is going to end up as a song or as a poem. “I do think the poems often come more from the head, and the songs come more often from the heart,” he says. “If I have an intellectual idea, it’s more likely to get funneled into the poem world.”

It wasn’t always so easy. “When I first got into it, I had no idea what the difference was,” he says. “The poems I was writing were rhyming also.” While studying creative writing in his undergraduate program at Stanford, he started writing music by adapting his poems into song lyrics. Then partway through college he started writing songs that were intended only to be performed, never to be printed.

These days, Laidlaw says his poems and songs are very different. “Essentially, the poems are weird and experimental and fairly postmodern… while the songs are pretty traditional. They’re rhyming, metered, and tidy.”

That might be because all of his formal background is in poetry. “I think that the lyrics are what make songs exceptional, certainly not my voice or melody,” he says. Plus, his musical upbringing was all folk music. “My musical ear is fairly simple, which limits what I can do compositionally.”

Recently, Laidlaw has embarked on a few collaborations with contemporary composers, resulting in a more postmodern aesthetic. He’s just started to work with Paul Rudoi, a composer with Cantus, as well as Jay Allen, a local composer who is working on an experimental opera about F. Scott Fitzgerald and Zelda.

Laidlaw’s book, The Stuntman, which came out a couple of months ago, explores the story of Bob Dylan and the history of iron mining. Like much of his writing, it takes on environmental themes.

“Those environmental themes are at the heart of both my poems and my songs,” he says. That’s the most useful thing for poems and songs to be addressing. I think that is why Dylan is a hero of mine.”

Currently, Laidlaw is working on another environmental project, called The Water Baron’s Manifesto, an epic narrative rhyming poem that’s 200 pages long. “It’s a post-apocalyptic vision of a guy who has militarized the perimeter of Lake Tahoe,” he says. 

For tonight’s event, Laidlaw will be joined by Allison Labonne and Brian Tigue (The Starfolk, The Owls), rapper Chris Martin, and rapper, fiction writer, and essayist Joe Horton.

“It will be sort of a songwriters in the round,” Laidlaw says. “It won’t only be songs; it will be poems as well, recitations and a couple of raps, I believe.” Each of the artists will share a couple of pieces, followed by a conversation about the relationship between poetry and music.


Presented by Milkweed Editions
7 p.m.
Southern Theater

Brian Laidlaw - Seventh Street from Jed Anderson on Vimeo.