On Saturday night, the Stanford Storytelling Project brought Aimee Mann and Billy Collins to Dinkelspiel Auditorium for an event that showcased Collins’ poetry and Mann’s songwriting.
Collins served as Poet Laureate of the United States from 2001 to 2003 and has published 15 books of poetry in his career as a writer, which began around age 30. In 1999, the New York Times called Collins “the most popular poet in America.”
Mann is an indie rock artist best known for her songwriting and eight solo albums that she has released since leaving the band ’Til Tuesday in 1988. She has also made soundtracks for films such as Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Magnolia.”
Saturday’s event was focused on performance, with Collins reading a small sets of his poems and Mann performing a variety of songs. Mann and Collins worked together to weave similar themes and topics – from adolescence to dogs – into their poetry and music.
Their collaboration also showed the difference that musical accompaniment can make in the interpretation of a poem.
Collins presented a short love poem that he had written called “France,” saying that he intended it to be received humorously. Mann then sung the poem’s words to music she had written to accompany it, explaining her own take on the piece: “Instead of this couple having fun in Paris … the narration [is] of someone who realizes this relationship is doomed,” she said.
The novelty of the collaboration between Collins and Mann was a highlight for the the audience.
“Their chemistry was natural and genuine which made the audience really comfortable with their collaborations,” said Lilian Kong ’18. “The way their words and melodies weaved into each other was stunning and so unique. It made me really believe art is a dialogue rather than a monologue.”
Collins and Mann also briefly discussed sources of inspiration and how they view their creative output in the terms of their influences.
“A writer’s voice lies out there, not in here,” Collins said. “Read other writers and pick up stuff and don’t tell anyone … Originality comes from being able to hide the sources of your influence.”
Mann agreed with Collins’ emphasis on building on the work of others.
“If you’re good your work will be all yours,” she said. “These influences will get mixed up in a way only you can do.”
In addition, Collins and Mann agreed that a unique style develops over time and is best attained with a basic understanding of the underlying mechanisms essential to creativity.
Collins described these underlying mechanisms as the writer’s ability to pick the influences that they let show in their own work. Mann was more explicit in saying that there were foundational concepts she needed to master before she could begin to write songs well.
“Mastering the structure of music allows you to be more creative and put more of yourself in it,” Mann said. “When I understood the music theory and the ideas that go with certain other chords, that’s when I could start to write songs.”
Contact Regan Pecjak at [email protected]