Yesterday’s poetry and songwriting session was magical and also very insightful for me into the inner workings of the creative process (at least, as I experience it). Several people from outside of the center joined us. One person who joined us was our friend Mahmoud, who had been a resident for eight months at the center in the not too distant past. Mahmoud brought with him Aless from Romania. I brought my friend Marysia from Poland, who had expressed an interest in seeing what we do at the asylum center.
Sarah posted a new piece of paper on the wall, and we talked about different ways to approach the writing of a song. Sarah explained that she would sometimes put a line or two from a poem at the top of the page to inspire ideas. She also mentioned we had been thinking about writing a song about how to end the cycle of violence in the world.
Mahmoud suggested the line, Enough with all the hate, which Sarah wrote at the top of the page.
So much momentum built from this first line that it is difficult to remember the exact turn of events and who came up with each different line.
The next line suggested was, Away with all the labels.
What if we used the word prejudice? I suggested. It might be easier to sing. I often explain that words that end with a consonant and with an s like “labels” can be difficult to sing and also don’t allow the note to be extended for any length of time to accentuate the melody and also the meaning in the lyrics. I generally recommend that we write all possible words and not cross anything out because until we sing it is impossible to know what will feel the best for the body.
So the next line because:
Away with all the labels
The presence of pigeons at the center is a regular reminder of the need to honor the right of all beings to thrive, as well as the natural human need for connection to other beings. Recently, large stickers were placed on the walls to try to deter residents from feeding the pigeons. The sticker shows a pigeon on the left, a human hand on the right, and bread crumbs in the center. There is a big red line through the image. Marysia pointed out that the meaning could just as easily be to not peck the hand that feeds you rather than refraining from feeding the birds.
I want to feed the birds, she said, and this became the next line.
She continued: I want to feed my soul, to bond with the world and see the world again.
How about anew? I suggested.
What does anew mean? Aless asked.
It means for the first time, I explained.
Sarah suggested the line,
Have a different point of view
And Mahmoud followed with:
It’s time to put our differences aside
In keeping with the reminder from the pigeons and the battle between the center’s wish for them to leave and the natural inclination for the residents to want to feed them.
Not all residents enjoy the presence of the birds, I will note. There was definitely one futboler who continually kicked the ball at the little group of pigeons, which scattered and then returned to the spot once more. I have seen kids throw things at them from time to time, but they continue to return because Petit-Château and the city of Brussels is also their home. I admire their tenacity.
I want to take a moment here to explain a little bit about the way I began to guide the songwriting process on this particular afternoon. I noticed a kind of pattern in the first stanza, which I thought we might repeat in the second:
Two lines expressing specific problems (hate and prejudice)
Several lines expressing a desire for an alternative (I want to feed the birds, see the world anew, different point of view, put difference aside)
I suggested that we try to repeat this pattern with the second stanza. I also posed the question to the group of what they thought the solution might be.
It was agreed that the solution was to find a way to see other people as real and to empathize with their pain.
These were the lines that people shared:
If we can feel your pain
If only we could feel each other’s pain
Another question I posed had to do with pronouns and what voice we were communicating: I vs. We
Are we communicating in the first a desire and then extending an invitation to another person?
Aless shared a method she had learned for helping people to experience empathy for another person. Her explained that if you describe someone as a vulnerable, helpless child in an abusive or painful situation, this can evoke profound feelings of empathy for them.
I asked her to repeat the description she shared, and I wrote down her words in the first person as an invitation to the listener of the song to empathize with the protagonist.
Picture me as an abandoned child
Unworthy of my mother’s love
Mahmoud suggested adding the word “feeling” before “unworthy” to show that we were not suggesting the child was unworthy but that this was what they had come to believe.
Hiding in a corner all alone
Can you see me huddled?
Will you come and find me
Put your arms around me
Take me with you from this hopeless place
So now the outline of the song had expanded:
Desire for change
Invitation/request for empathy and help
Our dialogue on direction of the song continued. We had discussed earlier that there were different meanings in the line, the hand that hurts can also heal, which we had originally discussed writing as, the hand that is hurting can also heal.
Sarah had mentioned that it was not clear if it is the hand was injured can heal or the hand that was inflicting pain on another person. We all enjoyed the double entendre, which Sarah said was a magical element in poetry.
Our discussion on this idea of the abandoned child, wanting someone to rescue them became a philosophical reflection on the different dimensions of the Self. Does the child need/want someone external to save them, or are they wondering if they might be the person to save themselves?
Per our discussion, the next lines came quickly:
You who come to find me
You are my light and my hope
Are you a stranger, someone else?
Or are you really my own self?
We had written a lot at this point and still did not have a formal chorus. I explained that not all songs had the traditional structure of verse chorus but that there should be a clear message that expresses a universal element from the human experience. This is how a person listening to the song can make a personal connection to the protagonist in the story the song is communicating.
Even if the listener is living halfway around the world, they can empathize with a stranger and begin to see them as a real person.
Here we returned to the line about the hand, trying to figure out if/how we could shape this into a chorus.
We looked back at the lines about how to create empathy and feel someone else’s pain. In response, we wrote a series of questions:
What makes you change?
But how to change?
How can I know that you are real?
How can I feel what you feel?
I had explained earlier that the more imagery we could create in the song, the more real it would become for the listener. So with the line about the hand, we kept returning to the desire to create a visual image of the hand to lead into the idea of how a hand can do good instead of bad.
We tossed around many different ideas, all of which would make the phrasing quite long. I have found that a shorter chorus can be very effective because it is easier for people to learn.
Sarah suggested that we really didn’t need more than these two lines:
Can I take you by the hand?
The hand that hurts can also heal
We agreed to give it a try. At this point, I suggested that we try singing through some of the words to see how it would feel to sing. Our minds had been hard at work composing intricate phrasing and nuanced ideas. It was time to see what kinds of changes our bodies might make and that the song itself might reveal.
I picked up my ukulele and tried finger picking a possible melody. I have found that it helps people feel more comfortable singing when there is an instrument being played. The sounds of chords (and in this case, finger picking) helps people hear possible melodies and feel safer sending into the creative space.
Mahmoud started humming. Then, he stopped and said he was hearing a particular rhythm, which he shared.
Ok, I said. Let me see if I can figure out how to strum my ukulele to match this rhythm.
I found a rhythm, and he sang the first line: Enough with all the hate.
I responded with a possible melody for the second line: Away with all the prejudice.
This was when something unexpected happened. It was an instantaneous mind-body connection, which I think only happened as we were singing through the words.
I saw the next lines on the paper and then, as if by reflex, sang two entirely different lines based on a feeling of intuition that these should go next.
It’s time for a change
I cannot explain what was happening in terms of communication between my mind and body, but I do think this fit with the structure of the song.
Desire for change
Uncertainty of how to effect that change
I felt like there needed to be a question posed to both the listener and the person sharing the story. I drew from other lines we had written for the second stanza:
Tired of living upside down
The choice is in our hands
We can turn the world around
Note the hands metaphor once more. The protagonist is communicating a sense of empowerment and that we have a choice in how we live our lives. Even with this knowledge, they still are not quite sure how to make that change.
I continued to strum the ukulele, playing chord after probable chord in the scale of Em, which was the key we were singing in. I could not figure out what chord might come next to help inspire a change in the melody. Finally, I stopped playing.
I think we need a really dramatic change in the melody here, I said to the group and Mahmoud in particular since he was very engaged in the development of the song and melody, so much so that he had asked two teenagers (who we had met the week before and who had come over and started banging on rhythm instruments) to be quiet so he could concentrate.
Mahmoud agreed, but neither of us could figure out what to sing.
Let’s just sing through what we have and play the rhythm instruments, I said. I felt overwhelmed by the need to come up with a melody so we could have a more finished song. At the same time I also wanted to honor the people writing the song and the song itself, so I didn’t want to just string together any cliché of notes for a mediocre melodic line. I think I instinctively knew that I was trying to do too much and I had to let something go in order for the melody to be free to come out. This meant that I needed to simplify the work I had set for my mind in order to allow my body to respond to the creative call.
I let me ukulele hang at my side and slapped my thigh in time to the rhythm.
When we got through the first two stanzas, I heard my voice ring out in a bluesy wail that came from somewhere primal deep inside of me:
I want to feed the birds
See the world anew
Put our differences aside
Have another point of view
I have to say it was a very magical moment for me. Where had this voice come from? Where had this melody come from? I realized that trying to play chords had been holding me back. I was trying too hard to follow an equation for constructing the song. What I needed was to set my instincts free to sing with the full force of my heart and body connection to the storyline.
Everyone listening responded viscerally to the melody as well. It took a lot of back and forth of all of us trying to sing out with different melodies before the “final” melody was derived. I use quotes around “final” because, as I mentioned to Mahmoud as we were writing the song, a folk song is never finished. It takes on a life of its own and can continue to change and evolve with each new person who makes it their own.
My favorite melodic part of the song came from Mahmoud, who sang out “Put your arms around me” with complete melodic abandon. It was a beautiful moment, and I repeated the melody back to him right away.
The tension and the rise in the melody reflected the deep desire for change and frustration and uncertainty for how to make that change.
The construction of the song never revealed a specific chorus. It became more a call and response for change and help to make that change with two possible interpretations of who was calling and being called to:
- The protagonist to the protagonist
- The protagonist to the listener
Sarah suggested a different word than “have” for “Have a different point of view.” We went back and forth trying different possibilities. until we came up with “try.” I love this option because it puts the power into the hands of the person sharing the story. It’s action-oriented.
Sarah posted a new piece of paper and wrote everything we had composed thus far. Two residents had joined us. Sarah and Mahmoud had already chosen rhythm instruments. Mahmoud was playing an African drum that Aless had brought with her. I passed around my bag of rhythm instruments a second time.
As she wrote, Mahmoud asked if we might change the word prejudice for something easier to sing. I try to always honor people’s wishes when it comes to songwriting. It is a practice in letting go of what I think is the best idea and allowing for collaboration, participation, and for the song itself to offer suggestions.
What about the word violence? I asked.
He tried it, and then he tried prejudice and decided it was ok to keep it.
We sang through the entire song. At the end, we chanted the phrasing that was closest to the heart of the song and thus closest to the chorus, repeating different lines for emphasis:
How can I know that you are real?
How can I feel what you feel?
Can I take you by the hand?
The hand that hurts can also heal.
Sing out any line, I called out to the group.
Enough with al the hate, Sarah called out.
Away with all the prejudice, I responded.
Then I sang the last time a bit more slowly, drawing the song toward a finish and extending the note on the last word:
The hand that hurts can also heal
Can also heal
(Credit for these photo goes to Sarah Van Hove and Aless Nyeleti Bandrabur)