Barrelhouse Presents: Bob Dylan, Nobel Laureate (!?)

Last week, the world woke up to the news that American songwriter, Bob Dylan, has been awarded the 2016 Nobel Prize for Literature, and people are having all sorts of feels. We asked some of them to hold forth here.


Our Guests

Jeannine Hall Gailey served as the second Poet Laureate of Redmond, Washington. She’s the author of five books of poetry: Becoming the Villainess, She Returns to the Floating World, Unexplained Fevers, The Robot Scientist’s Daughter, and winner of the Moon City Press Book Prize, Field Guide to the End of the World. Her website is

Kelly Davio is the Senior Editor of Eyewear Publishing (London/New York) and she is the Poetry Editor of Tahoma Literary Review. Her first collection of poetry, Burn This House, was published by Red Hen Press in 2013, and her nonfiction appears in venues including The Rumpus, Ravishly, and The Nervous Breakdown. Her column, “The Waiting Room,” is a monthly feature at Change Seven Magazine.

Meg Tuite is author of two short story collections, Bound By Blue (2013) Sententia Books and Domestic Apparition (2011) San Francisco Bay Press, and four chapbooks. She won the Twin Antlers Collaborative Poetry award from Artistically Declined Press for her poetry collection, Bare Bulbs Swinging (2014) written with Heather Fowler and Michelle Reale. She teaches at Santa Fe Community College, and is a columnist at Connotation Press and JMWW. Her blog:

Bud Smith is the author of F250, Tollbooth, Calm Face, Dust Bunny City, and other things. He works heavy construction, and lives in Jersey City, NJ.

Rion Amilcar Scott’s work has been published in journals such as The Kenyon Review, Crab Orchard Review, PANK, The Rumpus, Fiction International and Confrontation, among others. He was raised in Silver Spring, Maryland and earned an MFA from George Mason University. He is a Kimbilio fellow. His short story collection, Insurrections (University Press of Kentucky) was published in August, 2016. Presently, he teaches English at Bowie State University.

Jessie Rothwell is a writer, musician, and music teacher from Washington, D.C. She likes to tell true, personal stories in front of live audiences (as long as those audiences don’t include any of her family), and she sings with the Balkan vocal ensemble “Orfeia.”

Barrelhouse: So? What do you think about this Dylan Nobel Business?

Bud Smith: I’m happy he won because of four things:

1) “I think it can be tremendously refreshing if a creator of literature has something on his mind other than the history of literature so far. Literature should not disappear up its own asshole, so to speak.” ― Kurt Vonnegut

2) Me myself and I, loves the idea of literature being wild and loose, and literature not being wrangled into a cage as ‘This doorstop novel that you might have read, but everyone else is watching Game of Thrones with a stolen streaming wifi password from their Aunt Elaine, so whatev.’ Prizes in general are silly business; but imagine a world where you could be awarded a million dollars for something as simple as changing the entire world for the better. I like that world. And I’ll gladly give you my aunt Elaine’s HBO Go password if you’re chill.

3) “A lot of writers find Bob Dylan undeserving of a Nobel Prize for Literature because they feel he isn't one of them, which is true because Dylan doesn't have a blog or a Submittable account or a weekly poetry slam.” - Brian Alan Ellis, author of A Series of Pained Facial Expressions Made While Shredding Air Guitar

4) It’s fun to give people awards who have freaked out when receiving even lukewarm notoriety, let alone somebody like Dylan, who freaked out on a meltdown-like-level, basically spitting on the reporters who interviewed him for the documentary Don’t Look Back in 1964. It’s fun to give these spazzes prizes because maybe, just maybe lightning will strike twice and we’ll get to see him lose his shit again, which is why we pay attention to any artist on this beautiful earth anyway: the beauty and the inevitable shitshow, we’ll all go through it, just on a more mortal level. You’ll see.

Jeannine Hall Gailey: I’m a fan of Bob Dylan’s music, especially his older work, if not the racist and/or misogynist stuff he says sometimes. I do not think his work belongs in the same category as, say, Margaret Atwood or Haruki Murakami (not to mention lots of less well-recognized but terrific fiction writers and poets). The Nobel Prize in Literature should be for books - novels, books of creative nonfiction, poetry, plays -  but not for popular music. I love popular music. But I don’t think musicians should be in the same category; to be fair, I do think they should have their own category, and my pick for Nobel winner would be Aimee Mann. Clearly the Nobel committee and I I have different tastes.

Barrelhouse: Aimee Mann! Yes! Let's start a petition.

JH: One of the biggest problems with this is that it boosts someone who hasn’t really made a significant contribution in literature, even if he did write some very interesting and memorable songs. And it also boosts someone who already has plenty of recognition, prizes, money, etc. The Nobel Prize is a great boon to a writer’s career - and often great writers, yes, just like the cliche, are toiling in obscurity, living off very little money in royalties or struggling to survive off of the money from teaching or editing jobs. It would be great if the Nobel Prize were given to writers who are talented AND could use the boost in sales, recognition, etc.

Full disclosure: I’m a poet who also writes poetry book reviews, because I believe poetry and poets deserve more readership and recognition than they get. Just because you might have to work a little harder to get into the work of say, Cate Marvin or C. Dale Young or Jericho Brown than the songs of Bob Dylan doesn’t mean they’re not worth the work. I’m an advocate of people working a little harder, reading more deeply and more widely.

Kelly Davio: My issue with the Dylan selection is that I can’t see that he’s made a major contribution to literature and society as a whole. Our greatest writers--like Toni Morrison, our last American Nobel laureate in literature--have not only produced outstanding creative work throughout their careers, but have also challenged us to make our world a more decent place. Morrison’s body of work asks us to confront America’s history of racist brutality and social injustice. Do Dylan’s lyrics carry that same weight? Have they been a force for real social change?

Throughout the day, I’ve seen many people suggest that Dylan is a worthy laureate because he’s served as an entry point for listeners to become readers. While that’s lovely—that someone might begin to read work in print through listening to great lyrics—we probably won’t be giving TV presenter Bill Nye the Science Guy the Nobel for physics, even though he’s a beloved science communicator who’s inspired a lot of people over the years.

None of that is not to bash Bob Dylan; I enjoy his music and think he stands as a major talent in American songwriting. Yet I agree with Jeannine Hall Gailey above—it would be great to see him recognized in a category for popular culture or for music. Pop songs and written works simply don’t function the same way in our culture, and I think it’s disingenuous to pretend otherwise. I don’t mean to say that a poem is greater than a TV show, or that a song is less worthy than a short story; how does a person possibly compare the merits of fundamentally unique cultural productions? Why not have categories for contributions to song or film or dance or other important aspects of culture that aren’t the written word?

Meg Tuite: Very thankful someone has opened the box and Dylan, who has been a poet of the powerful kind: an activist and brilliant mind, has given so much for so long through his words, his actions, his music! He never stops writing. He is a poet and speaks his truth! That is as daring and necessary as it gets! I was elated to hear that he had won the Nobel Prize for Literature. The box is open. No boundaries on how transformative language is offered up. I toast to you tonight, Bob Dylan! Cheers!

I will let Dylan speak for himself:

“It’s a restless hungry feeling that don’t mean no one no good,
When everything I’m a-sayin’ you can say it just as good.
You’re right from your side, I’m right from mine.
We’re both just one too many mornings an’ a thousand miles behind”

Don’t tell me those words don’t bite into our lives! Don’t tell me that Dylan is nothing but naked and unleashed. That is what I look for in work that matters because it changes my life, my blood. Dylan’s work speaks of the human condition, ALWAYS, without playing into the hands of the neutral, who utilize so many obscure metaphors that fear speaking the truth straight.

Rion Amilcar Scott: The major difference between song lyrics and poetry is that song lyrics are dependent on music to enhance the meaning of the words and to help deliver the emotion (and I include the voice here as a musical instrument). Poetry must create its own music. Even in musical forms like rap where the lyrics create their own music (and even some of Dylan’s own lyrics), the lyrics are still dependent on and reacting to the music. You can sometimes get away with clichés and slack language and stale ideas in song because the music is there to save the day, to create a greater meaning for the words. You can’t get away with that stuff in poetry. Thus poetry and song lyrics are two different but related things that share a common ancestor. Don’t speak to me of the troubadour or of Homer with his lyre, both popular music and modern poetry have evolved away from that.

None of this is to say that one is better than the other—that would be the snobbery those of us who disagree with the Dylan Nobel are accused of. I read poetry everyday. I listen to music everyday. I’m more likely to miss my morning poetry than I am to not listen to a song for the day. I love Bob Dylan and his music has been transformative to me. “Rainy Day Women #12 & #35” heavily influenced my story, “A Friendly Game.” In a flight of pretension I even named the story after the Dylan song for a time. It feels hollow though that an award set aside for literature to be given to someone who is doing something other than (but not less than) literature.

Here is a phrase you will never hear: And the Grammy goes to…Claudia Rankine! (well, if she ever writes liner notes, we better damn well hear those words, but you get my point). We have many venues to support popular music in our culture. Dylan has already been feted by many of those venues, as he should be. Since the music helped to create the meaning in his popular songs, then the collaborators who helped to write and perform that music are equally deserving of this award. But really and truly, there are a lot of people who have spent careers doing magic on the page and this is less an award than a pointed snub toward American literature. The last time the Nobel committee looked toward the United States was twenty years ago and when they look back the award is given to a singer, rather than writer? There has been no one in these fifty states in the last twenty years performing excellence in poetry, drama and prose? I’m not sure how it is possible to read this award as anything other than mockery, trolling, pointed and misguided commentary in the form of an esteemed prize.

This is also a good reminder that we don’t write for the prizes. Or we shouldn’t. It’s great to win one, I am sure, but life goes on even when Nobel, Pulitzer and National Book Award committees act strangely. This is the same prize that let Achebe die without an award, let Joyce die without an award. They’ve been, well, off frequently. And look, no woman won a Nobel in any category this year. Not one. If they were unable to find a single woman doing excellent work in any of their fields of endeavor then the Nobel is illegitimate this year anyway.

Jessie Rothwell: I’m very happy he won. It’s a very personal thing for me, and I realize lots of writers don’t feel this way.

My parents raised me on Dylan’s music. A big part of being raised on his music was about learning and understanding history, politics, civil engagement. I learned a lot about my country from Dylan. My parents met in New York City in 1969 while they were both working for the Moratorium to End the War in Vietnam. Dylan was like a mouthpiece for so many people working for peace. I know some people say Dylan hasn’t changed the world the way some writers have, because pop music can’t do what writing does. I disagree. He helped me understand bits and pieces of history that were a little over my head at the time I first heard those songs. Any great songwriter has to be a great lyricist and a great lyricist has to affect people, I think, on multiple levels.

As a kid who wrote poems and songs from an early age, I grew up knowing that writing lyrics like Dylan’s was the (probably unattainable) goal. I used to look at Dylan’s lyrics printed on a page, fascinated by the effect they had standing alone there vs. when sung with accompaniment. I remember feeling like I wanted to eat the pages of lyrics, just to be able to internalize that beauty.And I think partly thanks to Dylan, I’ve always felt that being a musician and being a writer are inextricably linked for me. I have always been the opposite of a purist when it comes to the arts. I love collage and mashups. For me, it’s important to study the world through the arts - the way I learned American history partly through Dylan’s songs. When I lived in New York for several years after college, I used to have coffee with older musicians and composers on a regular basis, in order to pick their brains about the writing process. I remember once talking with a composer about the idea of studying composition with him, and he said he thought it would be better for me to study music composition from a visual art, or a dancer, or a poet – that I would learn more if I didn’t study music so directly.

A couple years after that conversation with that composer, I went to the California Institute of the Arts to study music. That’s a school where music and dance and theater and film and creative writing and art all live under one huge roof and get fused every day. I collaborated with artists in all genres. I wrote and performed pieces that spoke to social issues. Writing politically inspired work is in my blood. For me it doesn’t completely matter what form it takes - whether it’s a song, an essay, a poem, a performance art piece.

I’m excited that the Nobel committee awarded a prize in literature to someone whose words (not only melodies and harmonies), have changed the world – and more specifically changed my parents’ lives and therefore my life. I would surely be a writer and a musician if Bob Dylan didn’t exist, but I also surely wouldn’t have quite as much to use for inspiration.

And finally… one of my favorite poems ever and it happens to be Dylan's:

Love Minus Zero/No Limit

My love she speaks like silence,
Without ideals or violence,
She doesn't have to say she's faithful,
Yet she's true, like ice, like fire.
People carry roses,
Make promises by the hours,
My love she laughs like the flowers,
Valentines can't buy her.

Barrelhouse: Who, if not Dylan, would you have given the Nobel to this year?

JHG: (I know I said obscure poets…) but I probably would have gone with Margaret Atwood or Haruki Murakami.

KD: There are a number of people I’m always rooting for each year (Atwood, Ishiguro, McCarthy, and Murakami among them). Yet considering the historical moment, I think it would have been an appropriate year to recognize Adonis (Ali Ahmad Said Esber). As the world stands by and watches Syrians be brutalized and their cities bombarded, awarding Adonis’s contributions to literature could have been a powerful endorsement of the importance of Syrian culture in a world that doesn’t seem to care.

BS: I’m a bad student. I’ve only read some Delillo and none of any of the other authors that were ‘front runners’. But I will say, that the controversy and the WHAT ABOUT MURAKAMI what about ATWOOD?! made me walk over to my local used book store and buy some MURAKAMI and ATWOOD. I am happy this life is flooded with art and the opportunity to find new and beautiful expressions of it. I am humbled and sorry that I am not as pissed off and as much of a raw nerve as some people in my Facebook feed, my Facebook feed wins the Gold Medal in the Raw Nerve Olympics for being super mega mad about everything. I am lucky to be able to take Bronze. Thank you. *bows* This world is a constant kick right in the gut, but art has zilch to do with it. Swear to my life. For me, somebody could win a Nobel Prize in Literature for writing a very beautiful note saying they couldn’t make it into work today. I hope all y’all on this globe call out sick tomorrow and write a staggeringly poignant note about it, twenty words or less and I hope that call’d out sick note makes ya one millions bucks in cold hard smackeroonies.   

MT: Can we say that Dylan has changed the world in many ways? YES! I love all of the writers you speak of, yes! But, Dylan has paved a path through his words that changed many generations! He is more than worthy of this prize.

Header image by Meg Tuite's Magnanimous Portraits