Last night’s concert included two on-stage interviews with John K. Samson by novelist Keith Maillard, the current chair of UBC’s Creative Writing program. When Maillard asked about how he composes his songs, Samson remarked on his slowness, on the agon-like struggle he goes through writing and finishing songs. He said something close to: “The process of trying to remember how to write a song is how the song gets written.” Again, it’s the sometimes effortful reconstituting of failing memory that’s key in his conception. Samson’s songs both thematize and enact the approach of expression, of saying something, to the constantly retreating and collapsing edges of language, the unsayable. Part of his humility, I think, is a recognition of a pathos of the failure of meaning at the core of the lyrical. As one of his characters, a broken-hearted dot-com entrepreneur, puts it in a one-sided overheard plea to an former lover, “So what I’m trying to say, I mean what I’m asking is, I know we haven’t talked in a while, but could you come and get me?” (77). A lyricism of the colloquial emerges in these lines through missed connections, through tentatively expressing the desire to be heard and to make contact with someone else. Community, that is, starts to consist in desire rather than realization, in the mutual recognition of our absences, as both speaker – or singer – and listener. We start to empathize across, and because of, our mutual distances. When in another lyric Samson obliquely defines his poetics, his practice of making, in terms of utility and labour (“Make this something somebody can use” ), the insurmountable ambiguities of everyday language convert into common weakness, into lyric public address.
(I have left out specifically discussing the deftly crafted, mercurial imagery and evocatively kiltered phrasings that are hallmarks of his style. Most of what I’ve cited above are examples of moments of colloquial diffusion rather than of poeticism. But he’s great, trust me. Take a close look at any of his lyrics. You’ll see what I mean.)