Ham Kicker: An Interview with Joe Robinson


Joe Robinson lives in Chicago. He works as a preschool teacher by day. By night, he is the founder and director of Ham Kicker, a site that facilitates collaborative song craft. Ham Kicker features one of our Escape Into Life poets, Robert McDonald! Robert’s EIL solo feature is here, and he also had a poem in our Poems That Scare You mini-anthology this past Halloween, here. Robert’s Ham Kicker contribution is “Does the Pope Wear Prada?” and you can read and listen to it here. I wanted to know more about Ham Kicker, so I talked to founder Joe Robinson. Read on for an opportunity to submit your own poems and maybe have them set to music. I know I’m going to send some! (In fact, I did!)

Kathleen Kirk (Poetry Editor for Escape Into Life): Joe, would you tell us about Ham Kicker. For instance, the name? Is it a football joke? Something to do with a canned ham (out of the can)? Related to Ham radio? Ham actors? Or is this a music phrase of which I am totally ignorant…?

Joe Robinson: I should have known that this question would haunt me. The name is just a name. I wish I had a good story behind it, but I don’t. The full title is “Ham Kicker: Collaboration and Transparency in Music.” The goal is to promote a more collaborative model for creating music by helping to connect poets, songwriters, and performers.

KK: I love your ideas about collaboration (from the About Ham Kicker section of your website). Do you find there is generally more collaboration than competitiveness in the music world? Or would be, if people knew they could do this?

Joe Robinson: Those are great questions. It’s tough to speak for the musical community at large. It’s such a diverse group. There are certainly musicians who I would describe as competitive, and there are also many who are very possessive of their work, or take pride in the independent way in which they create. Those are feelings that folks will have to overcome, or at least suspend, before they’ll be willing to open up to a project like Ham Kicker. But I also think musicians naturally know how to collaborate to some extent. Playing in a band is a collaborative experience. And I think there are many musicians who know their limitations, and would be glad to team up with poets, songwriters, and performers. They just don’t know where to find them.

KK: How do you put poets together with composers? Do you get first pick, as a composer yourself, on the poems that come in?

Joe Robinson: Right now, we’re having musicians read through poetry and select poems they would like to turn into songs. We then start a conversation about whether it’s a good match. But there are many different ways to go about it. It could start with a musician’s melody. Or there could be more of a back-and-forth between artists. As Ham Kicker continues to grow, we’re going to explore more of these options. Quite frankly, we don’t know what’s going to work best. That’s part of the experiment.

I try not to steal all of my favorites of the poems that are submitted, though I admit the temptation is there. If no one else jumps on a good one, I certainly will—especially when it means getting a new contributor’s work developed. I am involved in a lot of Ham Kicker projects right now, but as our pool of artists grows, I hope to be a more occasional contributor.

KK: Do you (or your fellow composers) sometimes change, condense, rearrange poems to make them work better as lyrics? If so, are the poets OK with this? Do they see it as part of the collaboration? Or is such change a sort of “no no”? I don’t know, and really want to know! (I would be OK with adjustments of my poems into songs, by the way. I adjust life to fit it into poems, so…!)

Joe Robinson: When artists first start a dialogue about potentially working together, that’s something I encourage them to address. I edited my friend Kevin’s poem once to fit in into my song, and I felt guilty for doing it. I felt I had thrown out some good poetry. Since then, I’ve considered editing other poems, but I haven’t done it. For me, the result is that my songs sometimes are not very song-like—there isn’t much repetition and there aren’t many hooks. That’s a style that might not appeal to other musicians like it does to me. Perhaps certain musical forms are more difficult to mold to the shape of a poem. The real challenge here is in finding a good match, and that’s why we need a bigger group of artists. But even with the best match, there will of course be some give-and-take.

It’s worth noting that we can do some things with the website to help acknowledge the contributions of different artists, even if those contributions don’t end up entirely represented in the finished work. If a musician edits a poem in the songwriting process, we might choose to post both the original poem and the edited version.

KK: What is your advice to poets who want to submit their work as possible lyrics to your collaborative music project at Ham Kicker?

Joe Robinson: Write what you want to write, or what you want your audience to read. Don’t get too caught up with trying to write or find poetry that might make a good song. Don’t let the poetry suffer for the song. What’s missing from so many songs today is a poet’s voice, so put forth yours.

I will also note that so far musicians have avoided longer poems. Long poems can be intimidating, especially considering that most musicians have never done this kind of work. So I expect that shorter poems will continue to draw more interest from musicians. Longer poems I think will require a lot more patience.

Get involved! We are currently expanding our group of contributing artists. Poets are encouraged to submit work. Old poems, new poems, previously published poems—all will be welcomed.

So check out Ham Kicker! Read the poems, listen to the music, and check out the submission guidelines! Make it a New Year’s resolution to “Get Involved”!

And you can find this art, and more, by Scott Kahn, in the EIL Store.