Open Door

The Man Behind the Piano Van: Chris Stroffolino in Conversation

By Harriet Staff

Photo by Christopher Funkhouser

Last month Chris Stroffolino wrote in to Harriet to follow up on the news story we ran in March about his music, poetry, and the recent difficult events in his life, including a stroke and job loss. Our post was largely based on an LA Weekly article that, although mentioning his poetry and academic work, focused primarily on music and the forthcoming "Piano Van Sessions." Stroffolino does indeed have music chops, but he wanted to give our readers a better sense of his recent work as a poet, scholar, and teacher.


Harriet: How did the LA Weekly article change or affect your life, and what happened to you after it was published?

CS: Almost immediately, the Harriet piece, which was 90% based on the LA Weekly article, appeared. After the Harriet post in March, I received a tremendous outpouring of sympathy from your national readership who have appreciated and published my writing, as well as former students, who didn’t know about how my concussion and stroke lead me to lose almost everything in 2012. The publicity’s been nice, but since then my situation has gotten worse. I’m still jobless, but looking!

Harriet: How has your experience as a musician been helpful while instructing students at community colleges?

CS: Since these classes include many students with a high degree of verbal intelligence, but who have never mastered Standard English skills beyond a 6th grade level, the use of song lyrics, for instance, has been very useful in creating a comfortable rapport with students. I’ve witnessed many students quickly learn comparison/contrast and other skills so crucial to critical thinking from close analysis of a song lyric or a poem.

Harriet: Before Los Angeles, you lived in the Bay Area. What did you learn from your experience as a teacher, writer, and researcher in the Bay before you relocated?

CS: As a college professor, I found that poetry comes much more alive in a well moderated seminar and workshop format than it does in the standard poetry reading, which is more isolating and less interactive.

As for writing, before I ended up in LA, I’d written more than enough for a new prose book that combined close readings of music and poetry (taking off where my previous book of literary criticism, Spin Cycle ended), with cultural criticism that was part media studies (the rise and fall of music radio and its parallels to the rise and fall of a middle class in the USA during the 20th century), and part ethnomusicology.

Some of the theoretical/historical chapters have recently been published on various websites, such as Radio Survivor and The Newark Review, but ideally the research will find a publisher who is committed to an interactive website with a multi-media dimension (like a podcast) and a website that will include “fieldwork,” a format that’s also more appealing to a general audience outside the academy.

Harriet: Wow, that sounds cool. Tell me more about your fieldwork!

CS: My fieldwork stems from close readings of particular songs, written by lyricists and musicians I’ve had the privilege of collaborating with.

For instance, my piece on a song by Beme The Rapper discusses the social context in which I discovered this Oakland native, and investigates a culture clash I witnessed in my attempt to help create a wider coalition between people who I hoped would be natural allies.

Since the lyrics to the song are actually about his struggles with an eating disorder (and in many ways our culture’s eating disorder), even the close reading becomes sociological and political.

While traditional sociological fieldwork attempts to remove the observer from analysis of its subjects, writing about other musicians I’ve collaborated with (Silver Jews, Greg Ashley’s cover of a Leonard Cohen Album, etc), and the complex of relationships between musicians, audience and subcultures, also become occasions for activism and self-analysis.

Steven Taylor’s book False Prophet applies ethnomusicology to a similar self-critique, and I’ve also been inspired by the genre of the 33 1/3 Book (for instance Kate Schatz’s book on PJ Harvey), except mine’s more like a 45RPM book, since I focus on individual songs.

Harriet: I like that your fieldwork involves traveling to many different head-spaces and observing other people's consciousnesses, as opposed to excavation of a physical space that the phrase “fieldwork” initially evokes.

CS: The fieldwork has certainly been complicated by becoming the subject of someone else’s recent field recordings (a la Alan Lomax), but observing the observers can get too heady without the music to balance it out (or excavate the head space!).

After all these blocks of prose, the music lets the air and light in, as a finely crafted minimalist poem utilizes white space! At this point, if we were in the same room, I’d probably say to you: Wanna hear a song? (I’ll say it anyway!).

Harriet: Too cool! In your current project, you are doing a lot of analysis of lyrics and the sociopolitical/cultural aspects that surround a given song. What’s changed? How are the song lyrics and poetry that you are writing different from what came before?

CS: What primarily changed is that I was teaching more critical thinking and composition classes, in addition to creative writing and literature classes. This affected the main focus of my writing, but that could change again depending on what I teach next.

It’s funny that you ask a question about “what came before,” after hearing a song called “Forget Yesterday!” Since I just performed it, it’s current. Its lyrics are more a vehicle for the voice. Its connotations (as opposed to denotations) are trying to tell me: Yield to the slow simplicity… an instrumental mostly….two need to strainto try to impress her with my words...Letting the fingers and the piano keys make love to each other...might be the best I can dofor now, and for others...

I wouldn't try to defend its lyrics as poetry, but I'm glad that my music has been turning people on to poetry who don't normally read it. I'm also very interested in working with other poets and writers in setting their poems to music, like I've done recently with the upcoming San Francisco writer, Delia Tramontina.

Harriet: What’s happening with your poetry?

CS: Ah, genre! I’m still writing; whether others call it “poetry” is up to them. It’s interesting that some writers associated with New Formalism, for instance, have appreciated a lyric like “Break Up Make Up,” and consider it to be “poetry” more than most of my work published as "poetry" (which hardly ever rhymes, and in many cases doesn't even scan)--but I have no intention of putting together a manuscript of song lyrics and getting them published as poetry any time soon.

Harriet: Are you working on any new poetry manuscripts?

CS: Assuming by poetry you don’t mean the other book of prose we’ve already discussed (which I don’t see as absolutely distinct from poetry in the general sense, as Shelley would put it), I’ve recently compiled a Selected And Uncollected Poems that may be of interest to those who championed the “signature style” I developed from 1990-2004, and would love that work back in print. Since most of the work isn’t all that topical, it’s not just what went before but a vital part of my cultural work in the present and, I hope, the future.

Harriet: What are your goals for the future?

CS:The one common immediate goal of each of these projects is to be useful again in an academic context. Since I was 23, there's always been a symbiotic relationship between my work in the classroom and the poetry, literary criticism, cultural criticism, activism, and even music. The diversity of classes I've taught has helped inspire, and ground, each of these projects.

While I’d love to be hired as a Distinguished Poet In Residence again, and have the luxury of teaching creative writing and upper level literature courses, I understand too well how much college MFA Programs and English Departments are in crisis in the 21st century economy.

There is a need within the academy for innovative thinking and writing to address this situation, and help make the expensive degrees a more practical value for students. I’d especially like to teach, or help devise, a course like Community Outreach for Creative Writers (CRTW 550) at Eastern Michigan State University’s MFA program, which is both a “practicum of public projects in the arts” and a “seminar that explores the significance of literary arts in community life.

It offers one visionary paradigm to ameliorate many of the structural limitations of MFA programs and could help resuscitate the profession and avocation of creative writing.

Can my work as a musician be of any use to this end? It all depends on which class I’m assigned to teach. I’ve always tried to keep my work as a musician and my work as an academic largely separate. But, given the current crisis in English Departments, it might be useful to consider proposals like more interdisciplinary classes involving faculty from the music department.

There are also other, non-academic, goals to each of these projects, and I find that when working on a poem, it's often good to edit-out the goal-oriented teleological thinking as much as possible (but we can discuss that another time!).

Originally Published: July 22nd, 2013