Home Base

On my way home from the Charlotte airport I passed a van with a bumper sticker that read: “Support your local musician.” Initially I thought that was pretty clever. But after giving it some more thought, I realized how true of a statement that is. Local musicians and local scenes are incredibly important and not just for the performers and bands in the area, but for community as a whole.

Having spent so much of my time in Boston and now New York City, I’ve forgotten what it feels like to truly be a part of a tight local music and poetry scene. That’s not to say that performers and artists in these cities aren’t close with one another, but in both NYC and Boston there are so many poets and so many musicians that it would be impossible for me to know all of them. I might be able to narrow down some scenes, for example the Boston Poetry Slam community is very tight, and know a good number of people, but cities are too vast to know everyone, even by name, like I could around Lake Norman.

And sometimes I’m nostalgic for the scene in the Lake Norman area. Thursday night I went to Bella Love in Cornelius to watch my friends play music and Friday night I went back for a poetry specific open mic. It’s inspiring to see, especially since I started reading my poetry and playing music here around. It feels very homey.

While it’s a younger generation that gets to reap the benefits, the people I was performing with when I was younger made a point to open up the area. They tried to write, paint, draw, and perform in a place that remains largely unreceptive to anything but music on the radio. I remember driving around the city with demos of an old high school band, dropping them off everywhere and anywhere with our contact info and never receiving a single reply. Not even a NO.

Now there are open mics that go for four hours with full bands and attentive crowds the whole night. There are art crawls and street festivals like Music on the Main in Mooresville and The 2nd Friday Art Crawl in Cornelius. There is a growing and vibrant scene.

Remember: Support your Local Musician. And all those other artists too.


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Distance Makes the Heart

Many bands spend time apart. Old high school bands go their separate ways for college and college bands go their separate ways for the real world. Often times this leads break-ups, but this doesn’t have to be the case. Welch & Penn has managed to be a group that always functioned with distance. Penn and I founded the duo while we were both in college and our respective locales were Davidson/Greensboro, North Carolina and Boston, Massachusetts.

Despite this distance we’ve managed two tours, two EPs, one home recorded and one recorded in Nashville, and to play close to fifty shows in counting. So as the holidays grow near and I plan my trip back to North Carolina, the unofficial home base for Welch & Penn, I thought I’d share what I consider some of the ways to make a long distance musical relationship work:

Set reasonable goals- Welch & Penn only tours in the summer and gigs when I was visit my family in North Carolina. We don’t criss-cross the east coast in an attempt to make shows, instead we give ourselves plenty of scheduling time and set up shows and recording sessions when we’re both in town. We also understand that we’re a small venue and coffee shop act, which is an important realization to make as a band. Since we can only meet up a few times a year we don’t have the ability to practice every day and really gig around to land huge venues.

Use Technology to your advantage, but don’t rely on it- Don’t use Skype to practice. It can be a useful tool for meetings since it replicates the sensation of a face to face interaction, but the delays and just general strangeness of video stream practicing makes it difficult to accomplish much. We tried this and it didn’t work. However, this blog is an invaluable asset to us. It gives us the opportunity to post updates, videos, photos, from both the band and our personal lives and is something we can contribute to together while in our separate homes. Social Media (as I’ve mentioned in my facebook and twitter blogs) is a great tool for bands today so use that to your advantage!

Make most of your time together- People want to see a band live. When Penn and I are both around we’ll perform as often as possible, whether it’s a paid gig or an open mic, to have a strong presence and make it known that we’re in town. When we play a show we’d also make sure to film at least a song or two from it so that when we’re split again people will still have something to watch. Penn is incredibly good about keeping up with this and that’s why there are so many Welch & Penn live videos on Youtube.

Use the time apart to promote- When we’re apart we send our music off to radio shows and reviews and post the videos not just to personal sites, but around to music blogs or wherever takes submissions. We also use that time to plan our tours, divvying up the areas between us to find venues and local support. These things can and should be time consuming, making it more efficient to do on our own when there are shows, recording, and touring to do together.

Use the distance to your advantage- There’s something very unique about bands that manage to work despite distance. In live performances this detail always catches people’s attention and makes us that much more interesting or worth listening to. Furthermore, it opens up more resources since technically our ‘local’ presses, venues, and fan bases are in two completely different regions. This broad range of an audience base made our Green Sundress Tour possible since we had more resources to pull from and work with during an extensive tour.

Patience- Have patience with one another. Things are going to move more slowly because of the space. But that’s the nature of it. And like the saying goes: distance makes the heart grow fonder. And the difficulty of navigating distance as a band will make actually performing, recording, and working together all the sweeter.


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Washing Dishes

I remember reading in a collection of Haiku that one of the old Masters of the form once said, “All poets should sweep in the morning” and as silly as it might seem that advice has stuck with me. I’m not much of a sweeper so I’ve re-adapted this quote to mean washing the dishes, especially since most affordable apartments in cities don’t come with dish washers.

I’ve made it a point to wash whatever dishes there are in the sink when I wake up in the morning. It’s become a meditative practice for me: the sensation of hot water stinging the feeling into my hands, slow clock-work rotations of a sponge on plates, and the satisfaction of an empty sink that gives the illusion of a greater amount of space in my small apartment. When I was growing up I never really washed the dishes, my chores were of the yard work variety, but once I started living on my own I realized how quickly a sink piles up, especially living in places with four or five other people.

The fact remains though that every dish I clean makes something else dirty. The gunk that I wash off a plate goes down the drain and into a sewer and once a part of the sewage it’s going to a processing plant where someone else will transform it again. So even when I make my personal world clean I make someone’s more filthy. This was an important realization for me to make as a poet and writer. Whenever I write about someone I know, my friends or family, I’m writing to gain a greater understanding of our relationship, but my understanding can come at the cost of complications for and/or with that person.

I spent most of my youth giving my mother a lot of grief for how much cleaning she would always do, but she spent over forty years working in nursing and a good amount of those years were spent in hospitals. The first school I worked in was attached to a hospital because of the needs of the student body and after spending just 6 months working in a medical environment, I have a much better understanding of her motivations. Once I grew accustomed to a hospital’s standard, it was hard to readjust. And it’s not just a desire to sterilize things, it’s a general state of mind, a desire to order and organize things in an efficient manner. Hospitals reinforce a relationship between efficiency and health. Which makes sense: our bodies are a kind of machine made more efficient through health.

Chores are a grounding practice. In poetry so much of what I do is heady, symbolic, and based in theory, but chores are something that exist very much in the real world and contain real world consequences if left undone. For example, in city apartments letting dishes pile up invite not only fruit flies and other bugs, but mice and rats attracted by the scraps of food. Once again, the relationship between efficiency and health is apparent. I have to work or else suffer the risks of laziness. This rationality clears my head and allows me to be mindless for the few sudsy minutes spent cleaning a pile of dishes. That bit of clarity isn’t only nice at the start of the day, it also puts me in a good head space before I begin writing.

An important component of Haiku is the ability to find something poetic in the everyday. This sensibility isn’t just something I want in my work, it’s something I want in my life. I think of Kung-fu movies like Drunken Master or Karate Kid and the training sequences that were disguised as chores to both test the patience of the pupil and unknowingly practice the technique’s form. This kind of training is what I aspire to during my mornings in front of the sink. Poetry isn’t a part of some other world that I can step into and out of, poetry is a part of this world. The world of chores, full-time jobs, complex relationships, and daily grinds. I want to train myself to write in every moment of this world, even the soapy ones.


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Letters from Editors

This weekend I received two emails from literary journals, one was a rejection and the other was an acceptance for publication. The two emails sent back to back got me thinking about my submission process and the way it’s changed over the year I’ve been consistently querying. When I started out my submitting process was random and sporadic, I was sending work off anywhere that caught my attention. But, as one might expect, that strategy didn’t really pay off.

Many writers like to hold onto their rejection letters as motivation, but if I did this I would be able to wallpaper my room. So instead I delete those emails, recycle those letters, and hang onto my acceptances because the truth is submitting sucks. The vast majority of mail that I get are rejection letters. This isn’t a unique experience, any writer out there with a blog could say the same thing, so rather than harp on that point I’d like to take a moment and say that while I’ve had to receive a lot of disappointing emails and letters, the pieces that are accepted make me feel accomplished. And while the cynic in me believes that most publications are about as meaningful as a gold star, I still find it worth wading through all the losses for that one win.

While I’m sure my process will continue to change as I develop more as a poet and writer I thought I’d share my process here in the hopes that it might provide some help to people beginning to submit their work and be open for critique from any wily veterans out there:

You’re going to get rejected-

Don’t take it too hard and don’t take it personally. This is easier said then done of course. When I spend so much time and effort with a poem and then have it turned away, it definitely feels disheartening. But I know I’m going to get rejected. I’m going to get rejected politely, with edits, with an automated response, any number of ways that all same the say thing: No. And that’s alright, in fact it’s better than alright, it’s necessary. It’s a part of the process and it allows me to test myself, and my work, when challenged.

Submit what you read and read before you submit-

When I was in Emerson I asked Peter Jay Shippy, a poet and professor I admire, for advice on submitting and he told me, “Submit where you read” which, as obvious as it seems, is an invaluable tip. If I read a journal I know what they look for stylistically which is a huge part of it. The fate of so many submissions are ultimately left up to the personal taste of the editors, so getting accustomed to what they look for helps my odds. A lot of journals and sites will also have a list of other journals they like, so if a journal I read has that I’ll check it out and see if their friends have a similar aesthetic. If they don’t have that kind of list, I’ll check out a place’s social media presence, as a lot of journals have started making accounts on Twitter and Facebook, to see who they follow. Also, when I come across a piece I really enjoy, I check out that writer’s bio or give their name a Google search to see where they’ve been published and if those magazines would fit my style as well.


I’ve heard and read it a thousand times, but it remains true that submitting is a number’s game. The more I submit the better my odds. I wouldn’t say this means blindly submitting to a bunch of different places or pulling names out of hat; I take the time to read some pieces, do the research and send as many quality submissions as possible. When I started out I was timid about simultaneously submitting certain pieces, feeling I should reserve them, but this resulted in those pieces not getting published until recently because of the waiting periods in between. So now I make an effort to submit with confidence to any journal I feel will be a good fit. Also, when I began I wouldn’t resubmit to magazines that had rejected me, but now I realize that was a petty feeling. A rejection once isn’t a permanent denial and an important trait of this craft is humility, and once I grow enough to have better or more fitting poems I’ll send my work to those places again!

Submit online and to local print-

It’s important to me that my friends and family can read my work. While obviously I want to grow a readership, I don’t want to do so at their expense. For that reason I only submit to journals that publish their issues online or print magazines in areas where I have friends or family. Another benefit of this is that it narrows the search, with so many publications existing today it can be hard to pick and choose and this self-imposed standard helps me thin the list down.

You will get published-

There are so many literary journals, magazines, zines, and small presses out there, from fancy publications funded by universities to one-person managed wordpress sites, that someone, somewhere is going to like your style. It’s inevitable. It might take a while, and it might not be the most renowned or critically acclaimed journals in the beginning, but there are definitely enough places publishing in the country and in the world for everyone’s work to find a home.

Have Fun-

This is the piece of advice my brother gave to me and I consider it paramount to all others. Have fun with it, have fun doing it, if you’re not then stop. I don’t mean stop permanently, but take a break. Between a full time job and long list of rejection letters it’s easy for me to get burnt out on submitting unless I keep it enjoyable. Even though it’s a number’s game, I find it an engaging numbers game, like walking into a casino every time I log onto Submittable. I’ve also found alternating between writing intensive and submission intensive months is incredibly helpful. Putting unwarranted pressure on myself to write and publish along with keeping up with my other projects and commitments can be a lot, so I like to give myself working vacations.


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We’ll Do It Live

Listening to music today, especially popular tunes, it seems that there are always chants in the song, moments where the audience or listener is encouraged to participate with a simple Oh, Ah, Hey or some other single syllable phrase. While this has always been a technique of bands and musicians for live shows, it seems more prevalent than ever before in recorded tracks. A great example of this is The Lumineers song: Ho, Hey. The Lumineers embody a style called “Hey Folk” (as my friend Dane Page informed me), but this technique is in more than folk music as every genre has taken to creating songs with these sections in them.

I’m not suggesting this is wholly a bad thing, I like The Lumineers a lot and I really like Ho, Hey. Also, when I saw the Lumineer’s live at FlodyFest last year, you better believe I sang along. I’m more curious about this trend in the music industry, and specifically the recording industry, right now. More and more often songs are written to be easily replicated live and, when performed live, to involve as much crowd interaction as possible. The benefit of this is that it turns concerts into unique experiences  for the audience members, making it something potentially more memorable because of their participation. While giving an audience a unique and compelling memory has been the goal of live music for a while, perhaps this contemporary trend is, in part, a response to the rise of downloading and the access to free music the internet provides. Artists aren’t making as much money off of album sales so drawing crowds to live performances and selling tickets for tours has become more important for survival and longevity in a competitive industry. While I acknowledge that many artists are finding creative ways around the necessity of record sales, but those methods could be a post all their own and I’m more interested in exploring this stylistic choice.

Along with altering Pop music this trend has had an impact on the indie scene. Even if a musician’s not selling out stadiums, there’s a strange pressure and expectation on an act to try and replicate the sensation that popular bands with large followings have. But trying to make a crowd of people in a coffee shop, or bar interact with you by clapping or singing is often difficult and awkward unless they become invested, which is rarely the case. But it’s important to remember, that these listeners are not necessarily there for a typical concert experience. If they wanted they could pay for a venue ticket and go watch bands in a music hall or stadium setting, but they didn’t. They’re in that venue to meet up with friends, have a drink, relax, or just do their own thing in a space where if there happens to be entertainment then that’s all the better. It’s important for indie and beginning bands to not create expectations that don’t really exist. Obviously it’s important to play a good show, but there’s no set definition for what a good show is supposed to look like. There’s this perception that a genuinely good show has to have a group of people chanting with you and that isn’t true. There’s success, albeit a humble success, in playing music for people and just letting them listen.


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Splitting the Bill

On the Green Sundress Tour, Penn and I traveled with Earl of Evenings who played as our opening act. And while it was great to tour with another musician, by the Indiana flat lands the monotony of shows took a toll on all of us. Though seemingly irrelevant, consistently having one opener and one headliner for multiple shows in a row can get frustratingly repetitive for everyone. As both a performer and audience member, I think split bills can be a way to create more engaging shows on the road. The split bill creates diversity for the musicians as acts can switch off who goes first and who goes second, third, etc. at every show. This little bit of variation helps keep every set fresh and when a group is on the road for a while every little thing is helpful.

As an audience member I consider the potential to see two indie acts of equal repute a more tempting ticket to buy or show to attend than one with a headliner and a band that I know isn’t going to be the same quality or, if they end up blowing the headliner away, have a full set. This could admittedly just be because I’m stingy and like trying to get the most out of what I spend, but unless I’m seeing a band with national or regional pull the differences in quality and preparation between the opening and main acts tend to be vast. Obviously, as with everything, there are exceptions to the rule, and I acknowledge that I’m speaking here in generalizations. Also, while  it’s traditional for someone to warm up a crowd and build up the anticipation for the main event, the access to music and music media now generates hype for shows and high expectations for fans before they even get in the door.

As a touring musician, split bills are easier to market and book for indie acts. When I’m traveling out of town people who have never heard of me are more attracted to a full night of music and performances, than a concert with one or two unknown performers. Venues understand this too and want to what will draw in the most business for them, so if I reach out to booking agents with a full bill, preferably including some local support, the likelihood of getting the gig goes up exponentially.

Split bills also breed a healthy competition that keep shows interesting for the audience. Music, like anything, can be competitive and when acts are swapping their slots it’s up to each act to play their best. There’s a story about Wu-Tang battling each other in practices to see who’d get to perform their feature songs, and I think something like this can be replicated by indie bands on their tours. Especially if bands are from different areas (this might be more specific to instate or localized tours like Mountain to Sea since getting bands from different states together to tour is out of most indie budgets) then the band without local draw has more incentive to put on a show that will hold the attention of people who have never heard their music.

There are obviously a lot of difficulties in creating split bills. Anyone who has ever tried to do anything involving multiple people, let alone booking, knows that the more people you add to the equation the more complicated it becomes. It’s much easier to coordinate things with one or two people. Another practical issue is that indie bands need money and creating a big bill means less of a payout per performer because there’s a larger split. For this, I admittedly can offer no suggestions or solutions. Money can be a point of contention, so my only advice is that when you negotiate the deal make sure everyone understands, there are a lot of people involved so assuming can quickly lead to conflict.

Then of course there’s always the perennial problem of split bills: keeping the crowd for the whole set. Audience retention is one of the most difficult aspects of this show arrangement since people will leave once they see the specific band they came to see. One solution to this problem, which really only functions smoothly with acoustic or lo-fi acts, is to have a round robin style performance where musicians switch off every two or three songs. Having done this a few times I think it has both advantages and disadvantages. While it’s nice to switch things up and keep the audience’s attention with fresh faces and fresh sounds, the determent is that no performer has the ability to create a set with a full arch. I know that whenever I make set lists I move through very specific themes and tones, but in round robins, I have to stitch together three pieces that fit as a package. While there’s still a small arch that can be made, and also a disjointed overall one, the grandiose is sacrificed.

But like anything in the indie scene, do it yourself. I want to advocate for a different way of doing things, especially if a band starts to feel they’re hitting a plateau in the performances. Don’t be afraid to switch up the way shows are organized, because sometimes little fixes like that can make the big picture so much more complete.


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Please Read Responsibly

One of the biggest arguments in contemporary literature is that author intent is irrelevant. No matter what meaning an author believes their text to have, once it’s out in the world the only thing that matters is the meaning the reader extracts from it because the reader is the one truly engaging with the text. I find this argument compelling, especially in regards to my on-going project @SocialLit because the potential exists, through retweets and shares, for a person in a different country and/or culture to read a poem I’ve tweeted and therefore approach the piece in a completely different context than I could anticipate.

If I take this idea to be true, that author intent isn’t as important as the reader’s interpretation, then I think it’s only fair to ask an audience to read responsibly. On social media sites, especially Facebook it seems, people are more apt to share and comment on articles or pieces that bother them than the ones they actually enjoy. And don’t misinterpret this, I believe this is important. Critique is evidence of a healthy literary culture, which is why when people lament the loss of literature or literary thinking in America my news feed, in a strange way, reassures me that it is alive and well. But critique is only one aspect. The potential exists for a news feed to be used as a kind of literary, and blogerary if you will, salon. It’s a space where people can promote the writings and ideas they feel deserve a platform for display. In saying this, I don’t mean to suggest that a person shouldn’t read and comment on writing that challenges their own opinions or biases, because that would be ignorance, what I’m arguing for is balance.

It’s important that we, as an educated society, are talking both about what we like (pun somewhat intended) and dislike. It’s easy to take for granted how effectively emotions are expressed and shared through a social media presence. All those spiritual quotes about the energy you put out being what you get back have never been more pertinent to an age than ours. For example, if I tweet something out of anger or sorrow, I am literally putting that emotion and information out into the public for anyone, anywhere, to read. And that tweet, when read, can influence someone’s thoughts, even if only for a second or two. I make every attempt to be conscious in the way I use sites like Twitter and Facebook because even though what I write or say can be taken a number of ways, I want to do my best to keep my presence positive and productive.


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