Nowhere Else Could This Happen

In which I'm invited to read a poem at a music festival hosted by one of my favorite bands

Dear Friend,

I’m writing this in the sky. I’m on an airplane, headed to a music festival in southwestern Ohio, where I’ll be performing some of my poetry and facilitating a poetry workshop at the invitation of the folk-rock band Over the Rhine, who I have followed for over 30 years, and for whom I have the greatest respect for their writing and musicianship and for being incredibly kind and generous human beings. The festival is hosted by the band, on the property of their farm. It’s called the Nowhere Else Festival, and it happens every Labor Day weekend.

I picked up Over the Rhine’s second album at a Coconut Records in Raleigh, North Carolina in the early 1990s, shortly after my nineteenth birthday, because someone had given me a gift certificate to that shop. It was far out from where I lived, and I rode my bicycle. Once there I couldn’t find anything I’d been wanting to buy, and I didn’t want to have ride home with nothing, and then ride back, later, to check again for something I did want. So I resolved to buy something, which sent me browsing unfamiliar bands with an eye for the cover art. Over the Rhine’s second album, called Patience, features a beautiful black and white photo of an old bearded man. I wonder what kind of music that guy makes, I remember thinking, and I gambled.

The old man did not make any of the music, but I fell in love, as only a teenager can, with the band, their music, their lyrics, the whole idea of them. A few albums later, their record label having folded, Over the Rhine self-released an album called Good Dog Bad Dog that was probably The Most Important Record For John Paul Davis in the 1990s. it wasn’t merely the soundtrack of certain events in my life; it itself was an event, the first time I heard it, and every time after. Even today, twenty-seven years after its release, I find it difficult to do other things while it is playing. I know better than to put it on if I need to focus on anything else.

If you had told young me that, in my middle age, these artists whose life’s work has meant so much to me, would one day invite me to participate as a writer, in the annual music festival they run, well, I wouldn’t have believed you.

(If you are curious about their music, I highly recommend their entire catalog, and I’ll make your entry into it easier by listing my top 3 records by them: Good Dog Bad Dog, Ohio, and Meet Me At The Edge Of The World. They’re on all the horrid streaming sites, and they sell vinyl and compact discs, and you can digitally purchase their albums as well. I’ve also put together a little playlist with a couple of songs from each of their studio albums - you can listen on Apple Music here or Spotify here. The songs are added in chronological order but I recommend shuffle.)


It is now clearly no longer Labor Day Weekend, and I am no longer in the sky, or anywhere near the sky, depending, I guess on where the sky starts. I am at home in my little New York City apartment, a week later, with no sky even visible.

The festival was lovely, a beautiful experience, a sort of portal into another world where everyone is neighborly and life’s rhythms center around musicians making music. Festivals like this might seem like a primarily capitalist endeavor (and they definitely must engage with capitalism) but I find them to be a sort of radical experience: what if life wasn’t centered around earning money? What if working wasn’t what adult life was “about,” and it could be “about” something else, like making and experiencing art? Or making friends? I think a lot of people end up feeling that way after a good arts festival, and this was a very good one. Part of its goodness rests in its smallness; there were less than a thousand people attending. I imagine the sense of community wouldn’t even be possible at a truly large festival. But also the band took care to structure things so that community might be possible. There was, for example, a dining tent, a community incubator if ever there was one).

Of course, it goes without saying that in order to be at the festival, and experience this alternative to corporate, computerized time, captialist time, everyone had to be able to afford to purchase tickets, travel and stay there for a weekend. An experience like this should be accessible to everyone, and might be healthier than our current arrangement, but currently requires the economic means to opt-out, even if temporarily. That doesn’t mean it can’t function as a window into what is possible, though.

The workshop I ran went serendipitously well. Almost forty people who’d come to hear folk, country and Americana music took an hour out of their morning to do a writing workshop with me, Poet They’d Never Heard Of Before. We read and discussed Yusef Komunyakaa’s “Anodyne,” one of my favorite poems and I gave them all a writing prompt, and in the humid Ohio morning, under a big white tent, forty people wrote some really beautiful lines.

After that I quickly ate lunch and then headed to the big tent where all the music would happen. Linford, one half of Over the Rhine, had asked me earlier in the week if I would write a poem to inaugurate the festival - to bless it, as it were. I spent the intervening time wrestling with the poem, writing about ten drafts I did not like at all, and was on the verge of emailing Linford to admit defeat when my very wise wife suggested we take a walk, and then spend some time writing together (she is also working on a very interesting writing project the details of which I am not at liberty to disclose, but it is very cool and I feel lucky to have been in the room sometimes while she writes it).

“I’ve never actually been to this festival,” I said to her as we walked, “and I’ve never written anything inaugural.”

“Don’t focus on that,” she said. “Just write what you wish would happen.”

That turned out to be the exact right thing to say to me, and once we were sitting down writing I began to feel that feeling I get when a poem is going to surprise me, like I’ve sat on a horse that is about to gallop off and go wheresoever it pleases, which is what happened. Twenty minutes later I had a draft. I read it out loud and it felt good to read out loud, so I let it sit a day or so then fiddled with and revised until pretty much right up to when it was time to board the plane.

So, at the festival, after lunch, on the big stage, in front of a crowd gathered to hear music, I read the poem, and then dozens of amazing musicians graced us with their songs. As often happens when I read poems, the actual reading itself was a sort of blur. People seemed to connect with it, and many folks said nice things to me when they’d run into me during the rest of the festival.

And the festival itself was lovely. Almost every artist performing except Over the Rhine was new to me, and I came away really enjoying almost all of it. Performances by Carolina Story, Vance Gilbert and David Wax Museum especially resonated with me. (I’ve also made a playlist featuring my favorite songs from the festival, Apple Music here and Spotify here, but also please, please go buy these artists’s music because streaming is a huge grift and musicians deserve to be paid for their work. Again, the playlist is designed to be played on shuffle.)

If you are interested in the poem, a friend videoed my reading and it’s posted to YouTube; you can hear both my reading of it and the very kind things Over the Rhine had to say about both it and my poetry in general. You can follow the link or watch the video embedded at the end of this post.



As mentioned above, here are two playlists, one with favorite songs of mine by Over The Rhine from across their career, and one with favorite songs of mine by the folks who performed at the Nowhere Else Festival this year.

There’s No Such Thing As Cool - Over the Rhine favorites - Apple Music

There’s No Such Thing As Cool - Over the Rhine favorites - Spotify

Nowhere Else Festival 2023 - Apple Music

Nowhere Else Festival 2023 - Spotify



The poem “Taffeta” by Terrance Hayes is just magnificent.

Ted Gioia writes about how the phenomenon that began a few years back of Wall Street firms buying entire catalogs by older rock musicians has turned out to not be a good deal for them - they’re having to sell those off now, at an average loss of 17.5%. And we get to watch beautiful music get plastered into the background of commercials.

Dougald Hine takes himself to the “edge of vulnerability and bewilderment” writing about living and thinking and writing in the “borderlands” of faith.



Here’s the text of the poem I wrote for the festival, along with a few others I’ve written about or in response to Over the Rhine and their music over the years.

Owed To An Outdoor Music Festival

- a poem for the Nowhere Else Festival, 2023

I like to name things, which is my inheritance
going back to the first people in the oldest stories
naming every animal, children of whoever was present
at the beginning of the universe deciding stars are stars
& light light but in this world’s latter days
everything is already named so I rename
the ordinary things of the world
which is a way of making things sacred
for example the Holy Grail was once just a cup
so let this tent be a tabernacle, let these angels be birds.
That one is a tanager, red with the kind of hope
one wears when things have continued to go wrong
& the one there is bobwhite hiding like my shy faith
in the taller grasses but listening all the same
& this one here is a vulture here to remind us
all about the trickiness of beauty.
This buffalograss is a galaxy & those wood anemones
& that buckwheat are the crown jewels
of the local spirits commissioned to guard this place
& that dog is the moon — see how many shapes
she takes as if a month passes in an afternoon?
Say this stage is bridge & that barn is a portal
out of the underworld into the real. Say both our lies
& wishes are prayers. Say these cottontails collect
them in their big ears & courier them down into some warren
where they eventually take root & sprout
though it could take seasons or decades
— maybe you will be long gone & some old unspoken
request of yours will get mistaken for a maple or beech
& someone’s daughters will luxuriate in their shade.
Say our hearts are worker bees & this is the last wink
of summer when we plunge ourselves into song after song
coming away coated with the pollen of every note.
Say these drums are the footsteps of a love
so big it can’t be seen all at once. Say the piano
is a library & the bass is a reckoning & the microphone
is a question mark & these guitars? They are guitars
& this band is a band, & me? Say I came here with a soul that limps
& my hopes all have a slow leak, say the year has kicked
me around, say I’ve been used by capital
& bruised by politics, burning on this burning planet.
Say there is music that needs me much as I need it. Say
I could find it here, now, nowhere or it could find me
which are the same thing because say I am a song,
say I’m chords & lyrics & a stubborn melody,
verses, a chorus, a middle eight, a breakdown.
Say you are a singer. Say thank you, say my name,
& sing it, sing me, yes, sing.

For Linford, Who Was Told He Writes Too Many Songs With Angels In Them

Of course there are so many songs with angels
in them; the air used to be clotted
with their wispy translucent bodies,
they were everywhere, you had to shoo
them out between window sash and sill
before closing up for the night,
check if one was curled up in the basin
of your cup before pouring coffee.
People hung nets around their beds
to prevent breathing one in while snoring
& many old elevators skip the thirteenth floor
because that’s where the overflow
of angels were stashed. You needed to wash
them from your vegetables & be certain
to get behind your ears when bathing
lest one grow accustomed to wrapping
itself behind the helix preventing
rock & roll or the best swear words
from crashing against your eardrum.
Some time ago, scientists & theologians
don’t know when, they disappeared,
not overnight, but slow & steady
like climate change or the dinosaurs
dying out. Did they leave, a mass exodus
to some other planet where it rains
prisms on diamond beaches?
Or have they died? Famine? Disease? Holy
war? Maybe they all gave up their wings
for love of some human
& we’re all one sixteenth angel. One theory
supposes every prayer consumes
up an angel for fuel & we’ve long since burned
through the billions which explains
why praying feels like scratching
a lotto ticket or trying to find
a station on an old radio, the kind
with a dial & a little plastic orange
marker shuddering between numbers
but all you can harvest is static
& sometimes just a scrap
of a song that quickly fades
but was just enough of a taste
to keep you searching
through the long drive
that only goes deeper & deeper
into night.

Alone at Night, I Hear Music by Over The Rhine

I cut myself on a song
that wasn’t a knife
but a window broken
that sliced my palm

when it caressed
a crescent shard
shattered to the perfect
shape to split light

into colors. I bled
an Ohio of humid
nights & lonesome days,
chords woven

into a tune gospel
-adjacent, & prayers
either answered encrypted
or returned unopened,

I can never tell which.
A woman’s singing
swelled blue in my sky
as twilight until I was tipsy

as a vicar
alone after service
except for the cup of Christ
& until I heal

I’ve bandaged my hand
with these river hymns
& train songs played
on a secondhand piano

& I’m wandering the wild
of a country footpath
remembering every bewildered
sunrise I ever witnessed

from the low side of a drainage
ditch with newborn colors
matched by frog song
& bird flight. Yes, I’ve earned

my trick knee, my second
guesses & every grey bramble
kinking apostate
in my beard, I’ve lost

& lived & loved & lied & left
but as the song
broiling from this old
analog stereo blurry

& bewitching
has been suggesting
all along, not necessarily
in that order.

“Owed To An Outdoor Music Festival” -live at Nowhere Else Festival 2023

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