Welcome to our new column, “Think Music,” conceived of by Adam Day, in which writers tell us about the role music plays in their writing process. We’ve adopted the title from Aaron Belz’s piece below. We hope you’ll find this as fascinating as we do, and that you’ll come back for next week’s edition featuring the think music of Mary Biddinger, Tyehimba Jess. and Karyna McGlynn. -RMF
I don’t have a preferred play list to help me write poems. When I need to think about something complicated or study a difficult book, I listen to Chopin’s nocturnes or Beethoven’s piano sonatas. If the work is really thorny I put in Bach’s toccatas and fugues. Often I write while listening to something from that trio of options. Then, it could go Hindemith—or Rachmaninoff or Sir William Walton or even Joe Hisaishi—but never Mozart. Think music for me is organized, thematic, and moody; not bouncy and vibrant like most Mozart. It is also generally wordless. Music with words interferes with my thinking.
I’ve written quite a few poems while listening to music that has audible words. They tend to come out frenetic, scattered, alluding to the words in the music. If I have to listen to anything that might fall under the general category of “rock,” it is usually noisier stuff which either has no lyrics or has lyrics buried in the production—such as Godspeed You Black Emperor, Sonic Youth, certain Neil Young, Jimi Hendrix (“Jimi Blues” is a special favorite). I like the Red House Painters version of “Silly Love Songs.”
Let me supplement my testimony with a negative: I loathe Coldplay and any music that sounds like Coldplay. All of Coldplay’s lyrics are rot for the imagination. They leave no place to say a new thing, and they’re so maudlin and self-consumed they ought to be banned. Nothing ought to be banned, really, but I have banned Coldplay from my personal writing space. On the other hand, I dig old Smiths songs. Morrissey is deeply ironic and, though he makes a show of being self-interesting, strikes me as anything but that. He’s a lyrical artist from whom we (poets) can all learn something.
Writing Please allowed me to use poetry to meditate on the impact I believe some of my favorite singers and bands have made on American history. The reception of the book has meant that I am now invited to write liner notes and music reviews, to attend concerts, and to create playlists. The word fun is an understatement.
When I think of all this, of how much I really do love to hear Teddy Pendergrass groan, I feel almost embarrassed to say that it is absolutely impossible for me to write a poem while music is playing. Songs require from me a kind of attention that will not allow poems to be written in their presence. The act of trying to write a poem while listening to Solomon Burke cry is akin to trying to recite “The Day Lady Died” while attempting to look really cool, calm and attractive on a Friday night at Secret Lounge on West 29th in New York. Poems must make their own music, and it must be new each time I write.
I will say, though, that I listened to Prince’s album Purple Rain like it had been released yesterday while I was ordering and sectioning the poems in Please. I devoured every inch of each song and read the information in the CD cover daily.
I’m the sort of writer who needs if not absolute silence then something as close as I can get to it. Living in the literal middle of nowhere helps, though sometimes, in the spring say, the racket of the birds is both distracting and comforting. Bird poems then. Can’t be avoided, it seems.
But music? Not while I’m writing, never. But while I’m gearing up to, absolutely. While I’m staring at the blank page, which looks back at me somehow virginal and thug-like with impatience. Then I listen to jazz. Something instrumental. Lyrics can get in the way then. But I want something with depth, something with technical facility but not necessarily an abundance of . . . well, notes. Not Oscar Peterson, usually; not Art Tatum. Though I love both of those pianists. Usually Bill Evans. Something about Evans’ ability to take a melody the tiniest fraction beyond or outside itself takes a song I know very well–“But Beautiful,” say–and makes it something I’ve never heard before. Archie Shepp and Horace Parlan too; their album “Goin’ Home” makes sadness something with a body, something a body can apprehend. It’s an old truism about poetry: defamiliarize; make it new, and we all know what “it” is. It’s everything.
Do I need this? No, I don’t. But it seems to me a matter of efficiency. Music like this takes me into the neighborhood of what art should be, onto the streets of deeper feeling, along the boulevards of what might, somehow, be imagined. I can get there on my own, and often I do. But jazz takes me there much more quickly. And eventually, I know it’s time to turn off that music and get down to making my own.