by Leni Leanne Phillips
My friend Linnette and I stopped in at a local brewing company for lunch a while back. While we waited to be seated, we perused a wall of live music posters from the venue’s earlier days. One of the posters was from Siko’s Paint the Town tour a dozen years ago—the first and last national tour of a popular local band featuring frontman Ephraim Scott Sommers.
“Whatever happened to them?” Linnette asked me. “They were really good. I always thought they’d make it big.”
“The lead singer got a Ph.D. in English,” I told her. “He’s a writer and a professor at a university.”
“Hunh,” Linnette said. “I guess that’s another way to go.”
Today, Ephraim Scott Sommers is not only a creative writing professor, but a poet, a singer-songwriter, and the author of two books of poetry, The Night We Set the Dead Kid on Fire (Tebot Bach Press 2017), winner of the Patricia Bibby First Book Award, and Someone You Love is Still Alive (Jacar Press 2019), winner of the 2019 Jacar Press Full-Length Poetry Book Contest. He’s also written a memoir, We Kneel at the Church of Each Other, which he is currently submitting for publication.
I recently had the opportunity to catch up with Ephraim Scott Sommers and to get his thoughts about life after Siko, the differences between writing poetry and writing music, and creating a life in the arts.
The Coachella Review: You have a new book of poetry out, Someone You Love is Still Alive. Your first book, The Night We Set the Dead Kid on Fire, has strong themes of growing up, the places we grow up, the disillusionment of growing up. How is this new book the same or different?
Ephraim Scott Sommers: In the first book, the poem “Shotgun Christmas” begins with the line, “If you don’t believe in heaven, / what then is holy?” I think that first book felt almost like a catalogue of damages that I’d been through growing up in a small, violent farm town in California. And many of those poems are trying to search for something to hold onto and make meaning out of despite all of that wreckage. The first book explores the meaning of that question but never really answers it definitively. The second book, in my opinion, is more hopeful because I land on this ultimate discovery: no matter how shitty the world is or has been or will be, someone you love is still alive (your lover), and you better lean into that love because that’s the ultimate source of meaning and joy in your life. I also like to think of the first book as looking at the past and the second book as looking at the present.
TCR: Describe a typical day for you. Do you have a daily or regular writing practice?
ESS: I’m currently teaching fully online at my university, so this means that I work from home all day, and though I’m grateful for the opportunity to remain out of the reach of COVID-19, this does present challenges. Most of those challenges, for me, are mental, so I have to get out of the house and exercise (biking or jogging) for at least ninety minutes every day, or I’ll go insane. I wake fairly early, work on grading/teaching until about 2 p.m. Then I try to play guitar and write for about two hours. Then I get my exercise, come home, cook dinner, and try to turn off my mind. I consider myself lucky in that my occupation feeds into my art. The students in my classes influence me with new ideas all of the time.
TCR: That segues into my next question. How do the people you surround yourself with make you a better writer?
ESS: As a musician and a writer, it’s always helped me to try and get in a room with people who are vastly better than me, because they can teach me so much more than I’m capable of teaching myself. That’s why a writing workshop and an MFA program is such a hot commodity, because you get a professional writer facilitating the group, and you get to bounce your work off of several other sets of eyes and ears. During my own education, I usually found one or two people in every workshop that I felt were really good critically. And that is something that is so hard to find. In a classroom full of opinions, I’d always try to pay attention to those few people who I could tell weren’t trying to make the poem I’d given them into their own but were instead trying to help me achieve my own vision.
TCR: Now that you’re no longer a student, how do you replicate that?
ESS: Obviously, after graduation, you can’t always take those people with you because life happens. The place I tried to get to is where the voices of your best editors are having a workshop in your head when you set out to edit. You can hear them making those critiques. You might have one focused more on the level of line and language. You might have another who is really great with narrative. The more experts you can work with, the more you can kind of eat their critical style and use it for your own. Now, though, in 2020, the thing is, I don’t really hang out with other writers, and I’ve always felt a bit ambivalent about that. Of course, it helps to be able to talk with other people about writing, but I’m also a rugged individual when it comes to art making. I don’t want to do what everyone else is doing. I don’t want ever to be in a place where I feel like I’m falling prey to any kind of group think or writing about some subject in a certain way because it’s in fashion or being published. I grew up around musicians and blue-collar people, so I’ve always felt a bit like a fish out of water in academia. No artist gets to decide where they come from, but I’m grateful for all of the people who aren’t artists that are my friends, because each of them has an interesting story to tell and each of them can make me laugh. I’m grateful for academia, but it can get insular and snobby when it’s at its worst, and that’s always made me uncomfortable. I say I don’t hang out with other writers, but the thing is, I hang out with writers all the time through their work, and at the end of the day, what you need is a really good library, time to write, and the drive to continue to make art even if you know it’s not going to make you a bunch of money. Community is great and much needed, but you also have to get your ass in the chair and write and write and write. That’s the hardest part.
ESS: The best advice I can give is to treat every single other artist (in every single genre and medium) in the world as a part of your community. Find something to learn about every single piece of art you come into contact with, every performance. Support other artists. If you love their work, praise them. Build a community of artists in your hometown and cultivate it. It’s much more fun to celebrate the successes of your contemporaries than it is to get angry. I like to view art as a party where everyone is invited. It’s a waste of time to get jealous or to covet someone else’s artistic achievements. The true artist is only ever in competition with themself.
TCR: You’re a musician, too, and a singer-songwriter. How is writing a poem different from writing a song, and how is it the same?
ESS: The major difference between songwriting and poem writing is that there are many more aspects at play in a song than there are in a poem. I have to think about feel, rhythm, chord changes, and structure before I ever even think about lyrics. Then I have to think about the vocal melody over the basic song structure I’ve begun to whittle out, and it’s then that I begin to think about the lyrics. If it were a poem, I could just sit down and begin to write, but a song requires me to navigate much more information at the same time. There are just more balls in the air by nature of that medium.
TCR: When you get an idea, how do you know whether it will be a poem or a song?
ESS: I’m a writer of momentum, so I like to give myself absolutely day after day to whatever larger project I’m working on. Any stray ideas, any stray thoughts, any reading, any craft books or interviews or videos, all of my creative thinking on my long walks and bike rides is working toward the completion of this larger project. I’m currently working on my second solo album, so that means I’m working at the craft of songwriting five days a week. This is a monumentally difficult process, but what I love about throwing yourself absolutely and totally toward a larger project is that you start to butt up against your own limitations, your own tendencies, and it can allow you to take corrective measures to begin to fix your weaknesses (as a writer we might call these tics), because when you’re at it day after day, you become better able to recognize them.
TCR: Favorite dead poet?
ESS: It would be a tossup between Whitman, Larry Levis, and Philip Levine.
TCR: I’ve wanted to ask a songwriter this question for a long time, and to be able to ask a songwriter who is also a poet and a literature professor is even better. In 2016, Bob Dylan was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature for his songwriting, “for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition.” Some writers, like Joyce Carol Oates, thought it was appropriate. Oates said Dylan was an “inspired [and] original choice. [H]is haunting music [and] lyrics have always seemed, in the deepest sense, ‘literary.’” Others weren’t feeling it. Novelist Jodi Picoult asked whether this meant she could win a Grammy now. Do you have any thoughts about this?
ESS: To those who were upset with Dylan as the choice for the Nobel, I would say this: I dare you to find a living contemporary writer whose influence is more wide-reaching than Dylan’s on American and International Culture. I love literature, and I love to protect good art, but people getting upset about Dylan sounded kind of petty and jealous to me. Dylan is such a titan and so inculcated into our everyday lives that it would be nearly impossible for you to be an adult and to never have heard one of his songs or his lyrics (even if covered or recited by someone else). His work in traditional forms is astounding. His ability to change stylistically over decades is never before seen. His complete body of work is voluminous. His understanding of how literature and music have intertwined historically is brilliant. And he is still making new music! I think Dylan knows, too, that as creators, we should always be leery of awards and prizes anyway. Instead, we should all just keep throwing ourselves more deeply into art making. Again, in my opinion, getting upset or jealous about prizes and awards is a waste of time and effort that could be better spent making better art.
TCR: You were the lead singer for Siko, one of the most popular bands on California’s Central Coast, when you were still in high school and throughout your undergraduate years. You’re a talented musician and singer. Your band toured nationally. What was that like creatively?
ESS: Thanks so much for your kind words about Siko! Playing original music in a band is one of the most unique creative experiences I’ve ever been a part of. As a writer, imagine how hard it is to just to finish a story you’re working on, or a poem, or an essay all by yourself. Then imagine that you’re writing that story or poem or essay with three other people collaboratively, each with equal say but with a little bit different taste and tendency. It’s difficult, of course, but it’s also much more rewarding to create something new with your friends, to see people dancing and having a good time to that new thing, and then to take that on the road to new places and new cities. We were together for eight years, and to see that thing we’d built grow over time, to watch it improve each of us as musicians and as recording artists, was awesome. I learned so much about art-making, about the value of community in artistic communities, and about the business side of art-making from that experience.
TCR: You could have gone a different way, a way that some might consider more tempting insofar as fame and fortune. But at some point, although music is still a huge part of your life, you decided to pursue an education and a career focused on writing. How did you come to the decision to pursue writing as a career versus pursuing music as a career?
ESS: I’ve noticed that, sooner or later, if you’re trying to make art into a living or into a business, you will run up against what I call “the gap.” In music, there is this absolutely gigantic gap between the types of bands who play regionally and who might do some occasional touring and the bands who are actually making a living out of playing music (and do not have to work other jobs). You might also call it a recording contract or major label support, but that gap in music for me seemed insurmountable at the time, in 2008, and I realized that I needed a backup plan. I’d always loved writing, and I thought that if I got my MFA degree in poetry at San Diego State University, it would allow me the ability to teach when I got out, and it would also help me get better at songwriting. While at grad school, I continued to play shows with Siko, I recorded a solo album, and I moved back to San Luis Obispo in 2011 after graduation, but for all sorts of life reasons, the band didn’t play much after that. I felt that I could work hard enough to be successful in the field of poetry if I was willing to sacrifice comfort, so I moved to Kalamazoo in 2012 to get my Ph.D., not knowing a single person in all of Michigan. At the end of the day, I don’t think fame and fortune in music was ever on the table for me, and when I thought about it realistically, I wanted to find a career that would allow me some financial security while still allowing me the time and space and support to pursue my creative interests. Being a creative writing professor offered me that opportunity, and it’s only now, after all this time, after having published two books of poems and gotten a job that I love doing, that I’m trying to put enough songs together for another solo album and starting to put together a band. I’m excited to begin that process again. I like the process. I like throwing myself into the work.
TCR: What are you listening to these days?
ESS: I’ll list a few musicians who’ve had a really profound influence on me recently: Tyler Childers, Lake Street Dive, Morgan Wade, the Marcus King Band, Phoebe Bridgers, Jason Isbell, and Sturgill Simpson.
TCR: What are you working on now?
ESS: I finished a memoir (We Kneel at the Church of Each Other) and have been submitting that for publication to presses and prizes with no word back yet. Also, I hope to have a new album written and hopefully recorded by next summer.
TCR: Any last words you’d like to share with our readers?
ESS: I’ve gone the last four weeks without social media of any kind (other than Facebook Messenger for music booking), and I recommend a social media cleanse, especially if you’re into making art. I’m surprised at the way [social media] had kind of altered my thinking about things, how it found its way into my dreams, and the ways in which it could deeply affect my personal emotional life. I feel much better so far without it. I hope you will too! Other than that, thanks so much for reading!
You can keep up with Ephraim Scott Sommers at his website: ephraimscottsommers.com.
Leni Leanne Phillips is a writer based in San Luis Obispo, California. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in the Los Angeles Review of Books, The Rumpus, The Coachella Review, and elsewhere. You can find her at lenileanne.com.