My earlier years of writing were fueled by classic rock and jug wine, hours spent lying in front of the stereo gazing at the ceiling fan and ruminating. I listened to my walkman on the bus and stared out at piles of dirty snow, jotting down lines to add to a poem later. Ted Nugent, or sometimes Janis Joplin. If I really needed inspiration, I called upon the ultimate tonic: Pet Sounds by the Beach Boys.
Now I am a single parent and the last thing I want when I’m writing is background noise. I want a quiet room, perhaps the irregular click of a zipper against the side of the dryer, or the swoosh of the ancient furnace coming to life in the basement. However, I find it incredibly hard to formulate ideas if I am doing nothing but thinking.
The remedy? Loud shoegaze rock and plastic dishwashing gloves, a broiler pan that never loses its grease tattoos at the edges, but that won’t stop the Brillo. My Bloody Valentine, or Ride, or anything with a guitar that sounds like a frizzy wig on fire, and suddenly there are lines in my head where there once were none.
the music is an ocean of tongues i am baptized from. the paper a shore i arrive onto. i am drenched with the notes as i head to the mainland, the place where i filter my voice through the astatic mic of #2 pencil, a voice full of bent notes delivered unto me, the music that has schooled me afloat. when i am in the white desert of empty paper, i hear the oceanscape of sound behind me, from coltrane waves to the slow lightning of little walter. i hold those tides in my mouth, spit graphite notes into the silent scratch of lead on paper. the Atlantic gramaphones within me, and i long for the safety of the water all the time i am on the dry land of words. i want the words to swoop hungry and thundered, all hendrixed up, nina leaning in the door, asking my true name, askin me to name all the animals in the pit of rahsaan’s soloing horn. in the saltwater cool of motown, there is a salve called doo wop. it has found a believer in the prophecy of al green’s falsetto, and i carry this burden. this beautiful wound.
I had a creative writing teacher years ago who insisted that if you were going to write to music it had to be music without lyrics. He preferred Bach. “Writing poetry while listening to music with lyrics,” he said “is like trying to do math in your head while someone yells a random assortment of numbers in your ear.” I took his advice for years. But then, in grad school, I started spending a lot of time writing in coffee shops, where I was forced to write poems while listening to Fugazi or Nick Drake or Gang of Four or Bjork. The work was often influenced by what I was listening to, yes, but what’s wrong with that? I think writing in coffee shops helped me to experiment with variations in diction, rhythm and tone. I learned that I could use music to help shape the mood and movement of a piece of writing. In that way, writing poetry to music is fairly ekphrastic. It influences the writing process in the same way that meditating on a Rothko painting might.
My current project, Victorialand, is a book-length poem that was composed almost entirely while viewing surrealist film and art, but it was typed/edited exclusively while listening to—and excuse me if this sounds a little overdramatic; the project is overdramatic—the Legendary Pink Dots, the Creatures, and Cocteau Twins (from whose album, Victorialand, the project takes its name). There are times when silence (or at least the absence of music) provides a more generative space for writing, but for this particular project I needed a collage of tonally-linked influences. Bach wasn’t going to cut it. I needed music with lyrics that were strange and disruptive.