One Art? Or Not So Much?

Over the past two years, I've been teaching myself how to play acoustic guitar in my "spare" time. It's something I've really come to enjoy about my day—making a space for music. I've been pretty musical my whole life—I used to tinker around with a keyboard when I was little, then I started playing the trumpet and later took piano lessons. I was also in my high school choir and the musicals each year.

Now I pull out the guitar whenever I'm in the office and I need a break, or if I'm about to spend some time writing but am having trouble with whatever I'm working on. I strum for a while, warble along, and then get down to the task of writing (or grading).

Do many of you have a "second" or even "third" art that you're involved in? Do you paint on the side? Take photographs? Etc.? I'll admit that for many of my teenage years, my dreams were not to be a poet—I wanted, on the surface, to be a filmmaker and, secretly, to be the lead singer of a rock band.

I stuck with poetry because I figured no matter what else I was doing, I could always find a way or reason to write without giving it "special" attention in my life.

So how about it? Any graphic designers out there? Sculptors? Etc? Let's hear about the other arts.


  1. Naturally I can relate to your tale of needing a second focus. Between, say, 22 and 34, I defined myself (artistically at least) as a poet; from about 26 on, I took up fingerstyle guitar as a kind of a hobby and got pretty damned good at it, playing people like John Renbourne, Mississippi John Hurt, and Bert Jansch. Then, after a long period of poetic "blockage" songs came out, about 50 or so. Later a cassette and a fully orchestrated CD. After running up against typical (as well as atypical) roadblocks facing independent musicians these days, I've turned back to poetry in a major way. I love the pure creativity of the act, the lack of production time and costs, the intelligence of the audience, "worthy but few". It suits my intellectual nature, my actually (as it turns out) not-so-outgoing temperament. Lit mags -- even the stuffiest ones -- are far more interesting than your typically abhorrent music publications. And the promotion of poetry, compared to music, is child's play -- that is, still monstrous by any standard, but actually doable by one person.
    I still play the guitar, do the very occasional show, and am thankful for the emotional release and personal enrichment it brings. Proud though I am of my album (I wouldn't change a single note of it, and it's even gotten a couple of good but belated reviews)too bad some in the poetry establishment will see me as a flake for having engaged in an art as "low brow" as songwriting. (See that recent quote in Victoria Chang's blog of advice to "young poet" against revealing ancillary artistic activites like performing music) As a poet, I realize I have some catching up -- derusting -- to do... but I'm catching up pretty darned fast. All the arts relate and inform each other. Said Goethe: "Architecture is frozen music. Symmetry is rhythm standing still." Cheers, and keep riffing in the office! (still trying to limit internet time... but couldn't resist commenting)

  2. Actually, I've posted the above (with some editing for style/typos)+ your post on my blog... having trouble keeping my addiction in check! If you're interested in learning fingerstyle (or other types of acoustic guitar, for that matter), go to Stephan Grossman's site... lots of lessons on cassette, probably now on CD or even video... that's how I learned...

  3. Cool! Thanks so much for the comments on this. I could see how some folks might look down their nose at you being a musician-poet (um...Jewel?), but naturally, there's room for everyone, especially people willing to get involved in the current conversation going on in poetry, you know? I think the problem with people like Jewel is that they try be involved in poetry from another room--like answering questions in a conversation you hear through a closed door.

    I'm not sure what style of guitar playing you're talking about--it is more classical? I play rock songs right now, and I think I've finally found a song that's going to help me learn how to play Bm (I struggle with all the B chords).

  4. I only hesitantly consider myself a poet, (and am a computer programmer by "profession"), but I've tried my hands at quite a number of other arts over the years. I think art is alike enough at some base level that most people are attracted to different types in similar ways. (For the same reason you see a lot of geek-artist crossover.)

    Anyway, I've owned a guitar since 10th grade, and went so far as to purchase a $800 midi keyboard when I was "serious" about it, but haven't strummed a lick for at least a couple of years. (Sold the keyboard and the guitar lives at my brother's place.)

    I also used to sketch quite a bit back in high school, and got an A in my one architectural drawing course in college.

    As for creative process, it used to be quite common that if I didn't feel much like writing I would sketch instead. Now that I write mostly on the computer, I can't actually remember the last time I did that. If I don't feel much like writing, I usually pick up a book and read for awhile. Not quite the same, I know, but it's what I do. If I'm online, and lazy, I read blogs. There is usually some poetry to be found there if you look long enough.

  5. B chords are Bugger chords. Well, basically, Bar chords of all kinds -- but they can be extremely helpful in they enable you ultimately to play along with anything.
    Fingerstyle is definitely "classical", and has roots in England at least in the adaptation of lute music to the steel-string guitar. "Folk Baroque", as John Renbourne put it.... but then there is the development of "alternating bass" fingerstyle of John Hurt, Reverend Gary Davis & their ilk, and you hear that everywhere... i.e. Kansas' Dust in the Wind or the Eagle's Hotel California are famous examples that spring to mind... Jewel is a fairly competant practitioner... Bruce Cockburn & Stephen Fearing are both fantastic guitarists of this type in the singer-songwriter field, way beyond me ... anyway, could go on and on...

  6. C.R.,
    I too play a bit of guitar. I am with Brian in recommending the bar chord Bm. Just as a warning, that fingerstyle stuff is tricky. I've learned a few songs in that fashion, but they took me some serious time. Of course, I'm like you: I just picked it up and taught myself. Maybe with lessons it gets easier. Who knows? I am pretty much a strummer and warbler myself. But, I do also tinker with the mandolin, which can be lovely or heinous, contingent upon the fingers at work on it. And I've taught myself to play a few songs on piano. Also, the bass guitar is a breeze once you've got the six-string down.
    On a side note, have you ever heard David Lehman's band? I've heard rumors of their existence, but I'm doubtful. Best, Ryan