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Beat Poets

Writing program spawns a faculty-student band.


“This one’s for all the poets out there—it’s so miserable!”

With that tongue-in-cheek introduction, the Starry Mountain Sweetheart Band launches into its song “Memory Hole” during a late January gig at Felicia’s Atomic Lounge in Ithaca’s West End. Throughout the night, the quintet—whose members are all connected to Cornell’s creative writing MFA program in one way or another—exhibits a wry kind of humor. “If the Kinks wrote songs about antidepressants,” English professor J. Robert Lennon says of one of his original tunes, “it would sound like this.”


Rock and write: The Starry Mountain Sweetheart BandProvided

The members—Lennon; students Lauren Schenkman and Adam Price; lecturer Daniel Peña, MFA ’13; and Price’s wife, a civil rights lawyer—swap instruments and lead vocals, playing mostly rootsy original songs with a few covers thrown in. The show ends with Schenkman leading the band through a frantic version of the Ramones “I Love Her So.” “In any MFA program, it’s easy for our identities to get centered on one thing: writing,” Peña says later. “So it’s pretty healthy, I think, to decenter ourselves a bit from that identity and recognize publicly that we’re not just writers. We’re drummers, guitarists, poets, drinkers, dancers, and comedians. You play in front of people, and you’re all of that.”

Founded last year, the band—which is in the process of recording its debut album at Lennon’s home studio—originally dubbed itself Emeritus. But it quickly changed to its current name, taken from one of Price’s original songs. “It talks about the futility of basing your whole life around a rock band,” Lennon said with a laugh. “Then we decided we were that rock band.”

Price (whose Chapel Hill-based band, Mayflies USA, released four albums between 1997 and 2002) and Lennon (who has put out several CDs of his own under the name Inverse Room) compose the majority of the band’s songs, though all members contribute. Maybe surprisingly, they say there isn’t much of a connection between their fiction and their songwriting. “The difference comes down to the different goals,” Price says. “In songwriting you’re trying to create an immediate, visceral emotional response, whereas in fiction you’re usually trying to trigger a more complex cognitive response.” Still, given their backgrounds, they put a lot of effort into their lyrics. Says Lennon: “We’re attempting to make little literary vignettes in songs.”

Lennon notes that when the band was first getting together, he went out of his way to respect academic boundaries. He sent the MFA candidates a long e-mail, complete with a link to an article about the ethics of professors hanging out with their students. “I treat them as equals, but at the same time I have a certain power over them should I choose to abuse it,” he says. “So I let them know, ‘If you don’t like my song, I won’t give you an F.’ Or ‘If you tick me off in workshop, I’m not going to take it out on you in band practice.’ “