Michael Devine is an Associate Professor at SUNY Plattsburgh and the Poetry Editor for Saranac Review. However, he also fronts a band he formed called Famous Letter Writer. His wife, Julia, plays keyboards and sings; Zach Hirsch is the drummer. “Famous Letter Writer is not so much a band as it is a concept, a collective,” Devine says. “It's also a character, each song a different chapter.” Attempting to bridge the gap between pop culture and poetics with his music, Devine explains the concept of his band.
When did you form Famous Letter Writer? Did you ever think you would start a band?
We started playing a year ago in earnest. I’ve been writing music probably for 10-12 years now. It was kind of like the stars aligned.I started to write a lot of music [when] my close friend – he was a poet – died in 2013. I wrote a song on the piano. I didn't know how to play piano. It began:
"I wore my best suit to your funeral
They played Leonard Cohen's Casio Hallelujah
The refrain like a drug went right through you
And I knew, yes, I knew, I never knew you"
I thought I was channeling something beyond me and still do. I've been writing songs on the piano since then and still don't know how to play it. But that's good, it makes you humble before each song.
How did you come up with the name?
I mean, there are a lot of origin stories behind it. One of them is related to a Gabriel Garcia Marquez novel in which a kid lives in a brothel and has to write letters for the women… or at least that’s how I remember it. Who knows where a name comes from? Today, you see everybody walking around tapping their phones…maybe we’re all writing famous letters, right?
Who/what inspired you to start a band?
I’m always attracted to music because there’s something really public about it; it goes beyond poetry in a lot of ways. Music, to me, has a way of sharing in a deeper way. I think the music is about that: trying to share.
Every song responds to something else--a song, a poem, the culture. It's about people--all of us, on our phones--searching for a voice. Trying to connect, which is tragic, heroic, funny, all at once. This is "All I Do Is Win":
"Old folks walk around in rings
Baby boomers now they just bump into things
Sister, one day, teach me to sing
All I do is win"
That's funny, to me. And deeply sad. That's what music should give us. It's about carrying burdens. That's what refrains are--they're the burden of the poem.
We have a lot of different influences. In terms of poetry, I always pull from contemporary poets. So, I’ll write a song that quotes the poet Ocean Vuong, who has a book called Night Sky with Exit Wounds, and I’ll write with that book next to me. Frederick Seidel, Marie Howe, and Michael Robbins [are other] poets I read. I’ll use a line to help me start a song sometimes.
What was your favorite performance? What does a typical performance look like?
I really liked playing at the Unitarian Fellowship when we were more acoustic, but I loved playing on air at the University of Vermont Radio station.
We have projections sometimes. I like to use The 400 Blows, a French film about a kid who is entrapped, and sometimes I’ll intersperse some poetry.
What’s your songwriting process?
I usually have a sense of a melody or a line that I find interesting and I pursue where that leads me. Somehow the song teaches you what it’s about.
What are your goals for your band?
We’ll do an EP soon, but the idea of Famous Letter Writer is more like an art collective, so it has [a mixture of] film and music. My friend, Jean Ulysse, does film with us and he’s going to direct a film called Anywhere to Go, which is [also] a song. Look at our song, “Like Morrissey,” which he made from 400 Blows footage.
Do you have any tips for other startup bands?
My suggestion: write stuff that’s meaningful; music is about connecting with people. It’s not the easiest thing to do. Songs themselves are beautiful, rare things, and when they happen, you feel like they’re a gift from above.
Make sure to see Famous Letter Writer perform at The Monkey House in Winooski, VT, on September 28 at 8 pm. They will also perform at the Saranac Review Launch Party on Oct. 13.