Jonathan Byrd on Learning to Be Human through Stories
Jonathan Byrd knows how to tell a story, and the songs on his new album, Jonathan Byrd & the Pickup Cowboys, are miniature portraits of people trying to make sense of their lives and the communities in which they find themselves. Byrd is never far from books, and his writing life grows out of his reading life. Byrd and I chatted by phone recently about the power of stories, the books he keeps close, and the influence of Søren Kierkegaard.
What’s the power of story? How do stories make us human?
People are interested in stories; there’s something about the way our brains work that keeps us interested in hearing them and telling them. Stories put us in a place where we can entertain ideas that we would never talk about or actions we’d never do or lives we’d never live. That’s why Gatsby’s so fascinating; we see the limitations of his lifestyle, but we get to live like him in the story. Getting together as a community and telling stories is a way for us to be human and to learn how to be human.
What’s the power of poetry?
What’s different about poetry from fiction is that poems can bring together disparate concepts under one umbrella, and you can connect things in poetry in different ways. Poetry is about style, and it’s stylistically driven. It gives you just enough to think about. Mary Oliver makes me feel like I belong in the world. Billy Collins uses very plain language; he’s not putting up verbal challenges to the reader. There’s a poet up in Toronto, Eva HD, whose poetry I’ve been reading a lot. Her poetry seems abstract at first, but if you read it a few times, you see how she’s digging into humanity, removing the veil draped over humanity. I have been writing poetry, and my book of poetry, You’ve Changed, came out last year. I’ve been reading poetry at the Kraken — a roadhouse [in Chapel Hill, North Carolina] where I have a residency — every week, and it’s been fun to read poetry at a place where people have never read poetry. They love it. I am working on a new collection of erotic poetry now; the poems are numbered and not titled, so it’s fun to yell out a number and have people yell and applaud when they hear the number of a poem they recognize.
How did you end up writing about Kierkegaard and Dylan?
This Danish band the Sentimentals came to Folk Alliance, and they had a grant from the Danish government to bring back bands to Denmark. When I’m writing it’s helpful for me to have some direction and limitations. They were fascinated with Dylan, and I was fascinated by Kierkegaard. We recorded an album called Mother Tongue. One of the songs on there is “Love is the Law.” I started playing the melody for “Lay Lady Lay” and wrote different words to that melody; soon I had a new melody for the song, but the ideas for the lyrics came from Kierkegaard’s book Works of Love. On another song, “On the Edge,” I worked with the story of Kierkegaard’s breakup with Regina. I was kind of disappointed with Kierkegaard. He could write about love, but he couldn’t live it.
What’s the one book you won’t leave home without?
Right now, I have four books in my overnight bag. Sound and Sense, An Introduction to Poetry, by Laurence Perrine; A Brief History of Time, by Stephen Hawking; and two self-published books of prose poetry by my friend Thomas Cory Meyers. I’m not sure that answers your intent, as it sounds almost like a “desert island” question. In that case, I’d make a raft of books from the ship’s library as it went down, then dry them out when I got to shore. Okay, okay, one book? Moby-Dick. I discover something new every time I go back to it. And it’s big enough to float on.
If you had the chance to have lunch with three authors, living or dead, who would they be, and why?
I probably wouldn’t have lunch with writers at all. We’re usually pretty boring from the outside, and we definitely don’t want to have lunch with a stranger. This gets into the whole issue of how we conflate an artist’s work with the artist. I probably think too hard about these things, but I can’t help it. It’s the way my brain works. I want to have lunch with my girlfriend. That’s hard enough to coordinate. Elizabeth Gilbert might be a good lunch date. Isaac Asimov. Or maybe skip lunch and sit quietly in a meadow with Mary Oliver.
Do you have to read books until you’re finished with them, or can you walk away from a book without finishing it?
I walk away from books all the time. I walk away from shitty people in midsentence. I’m 47. I don’t have time. The DaVinci Code is the worst book I ever finished. The Great Gatsby was one I stuck with that I hated at first. Now I have three copies so I can give one away if someone says they’ve never read it.
Who’s your favorite hero/heroine? Favorite villain? Do you find evil characters more attractive than good characters?
My favorite hero is probably Momo, from Momo, by Michael Ende. Roy Batty from Blade Runner comes to mind as a great villain. I like villains with realistic motivations. I like heroes with realistic abilities. Both Momo and Blade Runner are fantasy, but the characters are deeply human, even the ones who aren’t human.
What books are on your nightstand right now?
Braiding Sweetgrass: botanical and philosophical essays by Robin Wall Kimmerer
What Is Life?: scientific lectures by Erwin Schrödinger
Halfbreed: memoir by Maria Campbell
Feeding Your Demons: philosophy/spirituality by Tsultrim Allione
A collection of Rumi poetry
Make A Scene: a book about writing by Jordan E. Rosenfeld
Are there any authors whose books you must buy right away when they release a new book?
No. I’m a reluctant consumer at best. The Great Gatsby is an incredible example of all that literature can be, and I haven’t been able to finish another Fitzgerald book.
Are there one or two books that have shaped — and continue to shape — your life and work?
The Bible. It’s the keystone of Western literature. It’s weirder than anything on the internet. The least important thing about the Bible is whether any of it ever happened or not. People waste so much time arguing about how accurate the Bible is. First, it’s completely inaccurate. Second, it doesn’t matter. Scientists have pretty much figured out how old the Earth is, but they can’t heal your broken heart, and hardly any of them know how to tell a good story. That’s what sets Stephen Hawking apart. That’s why I go back to the Bible. Stories are how we recognize each other. Stories are how we learn to be human. Stories are the word of any God you can name, and the Bible is the story of the God that I grew up with. I suppose I could go out and meet other gods for lunch, but who has time?