Ani DiFranco In Conversation
Do you feel uneasy about being labelled a poet? ‘Poet’ traditionally indicates a higher cultural status than ‘song writer’…
Though I’ve been writing longer without a guitar than with it, I hesitate to call myself a ‘poet’ for fear of sounding pompous. This is unfortunate because, with more humble connotations, ‘poet’ serves as a pretty accurate description of how I think and what I do. The line between songs and poems has always been blurry to me. If I had to describe a relationship between the two, I would say song writing is one poetic form or one genre in the vast endeavour of poetry. But really for me, it is more like they really one thing: a way of seeing. Involving endless meditations on the connections between things, a lot of squinting like a painter of the world’s basic structure in order to distil and convey its most resonant nature…and always, always a googly-eyed lecherous love of language. Always that.
Do you write lyrics because you feel words are a necessary companion to your music? Or do you do it out of a specific interest in the crafting of words, speech, verse? Would you still write poems if you could no longer play music alongside them?
Art has always been my ticket to joy. Growing up in a family whose mouths were closed against their own struggles (where hidden wounds festered and flared without light or air), left me with a burning desire to express myself. I learned that to give voice to a feeling is to set it free from your mind. I explored many art forms along the way, from dancing in ballet and modern dance troupes as a teenager, to attending art school and painting as a young adult. But I parked here at the intersection of music and poetry simply because it is the most precise and effective way I have found to communicate. So, I suppose, If I could not write or play guitar or sing or dance or paint, I would just find some other way to let the spirit out of its cage.
And assuming that Ani the singer turned into Ani the poet, would you be more interested in publishing books for people to read, or in ‘performing’ your poetry in front of a live audience?
I am a person who lives in the moment, so live performance has my heart, and I imagine it always will. The page is my workshop. There is a lot I write in my poems, rhythmically and melodically, that is meant to be performed, which I fear is rendered inert on paper. I don’t know. Maybe these are poems in my Self Evident book, or maybe they are merely transcripts of a show that is happening elsewhere.
You were eighteen when you released your first album. Do you think your song writing has changed much since then? Do you find writing easier or more difficult? Are you interested in some particular themes? Do you feel that the girl who wrote ‘The Slant’ is the same woman who has just written ‘Serpentine‘?
The eighteen-year-old who wrote The Slant is long gone, but that poem has aged on my tongue like wine, becoming deeper and more complex. It is strange to say, but I think even more than my work has grown, I have grown within it, so that now when I perform an old poem like ‘The Slant’, I can say more with it than I could when I first wrote it.
Both your music and poetry are introspective and intimate; about love, relationships etc; others are political, and very explicitly so. Do you perceive this difference as a deep and significant one, and do you deliberately choose one subject over the other each time? Or do you feel that writing about love or about politics are basically just two ways of talking about yourself and the stuff you’re passionate about?
I write about that which captivates my heart and my imagination. My focus has always been partly on my female identity and the struggle to survive love and everyday gender dynamics, and partly on the big ‘P’ politics of the society at large. In one sense I am a woman trying to hammer out a space in the world to exist in, and in another sense I am a citizen, assimilated into a society that, because of my citizenship, is my responsibility. My ongoing narrative about my relationships with other people (my ‘personal’ songs), is part of the femininity of my work. Like many women, my attention is often focused on the emotional landscape of the people around me, and our interactions. These ‘personal’ songs are also ‘political’, however, as simply speaking from one’s experience as a woman in a man’s world is a political act. For a woman to speak up about even the most simple and intimate circumstances of her life is in some way an act of inclusion in a culture which does not often affirm or respect the sensibilities of women.
How is an Ani text born? Do words come before or after the music? Do you write on paper or on a computer? Do you need to be alone and in silence? Can you write anywhere? And once you have the words down, do you show them to others and ask for suggestions? Do your lyrics change much from the very first creation to their ultimate form?
My favourite place to write is in a dressing room after a show, or at home at my kitchen table. Backstage in my dressing room, still pumped up from a performance, ideas often come to me. And later, in the solitude of my kitchen, I can rework and develop ideas for many uninterrupted hours. Incessant interruptions are part of a life of constant motion, however, and out of necessity I have learned to write in any circumstances, even surrounded by people socialising on a tour bus. Sometimes I bow out of a conversation to jot down an idea I know will be lost to me later. I work with pen and paper and usually have many pages of illegible, half scribbled-out chaos in my journals before a song or poem begins to take shape. All the editing and reworking I generally do alone, without consulting anyone or asking for suggestions. Writing is such a personal and subjective process that I approach it on my own, sometimes creating a bubble of aloneness in the company of others.
Do you like reading, and do you have time to read, what with rehearsing, touring and stuff? Have you writing influences and musical influences?
I love reading. I love having a book to escape into, or to keep me company in times of loneliness. Mostly I read novels, but sometimes books of poetry, and these influence my work, as does everything I come into contact with. My favourite poets lately are two Americans, Tony Hoagland and Carolyn Forche. I find them both inspirational in their bravery, and graceful in their marriage of the personal and political. Conversely, the novelists I find most inspiring seem to be those that are very poetic. Recently I have been enamoured with Amy Tan, Arundhati Roy, and Ann Patchett, though there have been many writers over the years who have inspired me.
Do prose interest you? What attracts you to poetry?
Prose is very difficult for me to write. After years of writing poetry in long skinny columns, complete sentences elude me. Besides which I like my language distilled. Words can be illuminating, but too many words can be blinding. I am attracted to poetry rather than prose not just for its potential musicality, but because every word has weight, and the process of distillation brings me closer to the essence of the truth.
Is there such a thing as ‘female writing’ as opposed to ‘male writing’? I’m not just talking about literature or poetry which deals with women issues, or feminist works.
I think there are absolutely such things as female writing and male writing, but I think it would be a mistake to assume that only women are capable of the former, and men the latter. In everything is a paradox, and I for instance am possessed of both feminine and masculine qualities. More important to the poem is the individual voice. Could a man have written ‘My IQ‘? What man? How old is he? What is his race? His nationality? His class status? His education? All these factors may be intrinsically different from my own, and would contribute to a different perspective.
You have become a real icon of indie musicship. But my question is: how often are you tempted by corporate power and profit? Do you miss them?
I do not dwell on the path I have chosen; the theoretical path of fame and fortune I may have forfeited in order to be independent. Instead I focus on my actual purpose on the planet, which is to do my art in a socially conscious and ethical way. I have met many people on this path who share my ideals, and I don’t regret a thing.