Songwriters are culture's poets

Songsmith Joel P. West will take the stage for a Q&A at PLNU.
  • Songsmith Joel P. West will take the stage for a Q&A at PLNU.

“On one day in particular,” Dean Nelson says, “we’ll focus on songwriting.” Nelson checks in by phone to talk about the annual Writer’s Symposium by the Sea he founded some years ago at Point Loma Nazarene University. “And, we’ll feature some local musicians who are also our alums.” I ask him to explain how indie songwriters fit in at a big literary conference.

“It’s actually not a different animal, in my mind. We operate from the premise that good writing is good writing, and if it’s good, we want to celebrate it.”

Years past have seen screenwriters, journalists, and bloggers as part of the conference. Visiting singer/songwriters have included PLNU alum Greg Laswell, Richie Furay, and ex–San Diegan Chris Hillman, who cofounded the Byrds. “If we wanna go lofty,” says Nelson, “songwriters are culture’s poets. They have a prophetic view of life. Bob Dylan would be an example of one of those people.”

Local players chosen to participate this year are Joel P. West (the Tree Ring), Bryan Bangerter (Family Wagon), and Ashley Reynolds (Katie Leigh & the Infantry). They will appear together in a question-answer session hosted by PLNU professor and pop-culture expert Karl Martin.

“[Martin’s] two areas of expertise,” says Nelson, “are Bruce Springsteen and Flannery O’Connor.”

Nelson is also the founder and director of the journalism program at PLNU. He’s an author and he writes occasionally for the New York Times, the Boston Globe, Christianity Today, and Sojourners. He describes a kind of town-hall meeting in February — with guitars. “That way, if Martin asks how a particular song came about, they can show us.” He says that each will then play a 20-minute solo set following the interviews and possibly participate in a group jam.

Some of this year’s musicians-select were also in Nelson’s classes as students. “They were great writers,” he recalls, “but the song form was more comfortable for them. It’s just a different form of creative writing.” Leigh, West, and Bangerter will appear on campus Wednesday evening, February 27. For more information, visit ptloma.edu/writers.

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Clarification on the writer's conference web site: go here for more info pointloma.edu/writers

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