Category Archives: Think Music

Think Music: SJ Sindu

Sindu-5-3-300x248When I talk about music I listen to during writing, I’m really talking about two things—the music I put on while I’m physically writing at my desk, and the music I listen to for the duration of a project. In other words, there’s the writing music, and then there’s the other music—the stuff I listen to while driving, cooking, exercising, and dancing with my partner. The first kind I call sustenance music; the second, inspirational. Both shape my writing process and voice.

My novel, Marriage of a Thousand Lies, began with a Coyote Grace number called “Forever’s Song.” I started with images produced by these lyrics:

This life ain’t going no one’s way

Sweet Goddess, she’s gonna do what she do

Miss fickle rolls with God in the hay

And leaves him sleeping under the moon

The harvest is done and she ain’t coming back till June

In these lyrics are images of autumn, and a strong woman who has little use for a man. These images turned into a short story about a young South Asian American woman who runs away from home. But the story grew and grew, and pretty soon I was writing about the woman’s sister, the kindred spirit she leaves behind, the one who dreams of escaping but is too bound to her family. This is how I met Lucky, the protagonist of Marriage of a Thousand Lies.

1497235All through the writing of this novel, I listened to Coyote Grace and Chris Pureka on repeat. Coyote Grace is an indie roots band made up of Joe Stevens (guitar and vocals), Ingrid Elizabeth (cello and vocals), and Michael Connolly. The band is trying to reinvent and bring a radical progressive perspective to roots music. In their work, Coyote Grace often explores queer sexuality and gender transition with nuance and insight. Chris Pureka is a guitarist and vocalist whose work is inspired by bluegrass and folk music. Like Coyote Grace, she also explores queerness and gender in her music.


Where Coyote Grace brought me inspiration with their poetic lyrics, Chris Pureka brought me sustenance. There’s a hypnotic quality to Pureka’s music and voice that helped me into the writer’s trance. I can’t help but think of her when I think about my protagonist Lucky’s internal mindspace—alternatively zen and energetic melodies that simmer over a painful, roiling interior.

But the actual rhythm of Lucky’s voice was inspired by Bharatanatyam beats. Lucky’s passion in the novel is dance—specifically, an Indian classical form called Bharatanatyam, which she and her lover Nisha have danced since they were little. Their whole relationship is based around this dancing, and Lucky muses on it often.

When I met Tony Amato, an author and writing coach in Boston, he offered to read the novel in its mid-stages. I remember meeting with him in his study in Somerville to discuss the manuscript. I sat curled in an armchair with Tony’s ancient cat on my lap and a cup of coffee (which I’d defiled, as Tony called it, with sugar and cream). We talked about a lot of things, but my most vivid memory of that afternoon was when Tony turned to me and asked why the voice wasn’t taking its cues from Bharatanatyam. It was one of those lightning-strikes moments.

I went home and started listening to Bharatanatyam songs. Bharatanatyam music is normally headlined by a miruthangam—a double-sided drum that produces a large variety of tones. The thaalam (rhythm) of the beat can be slow or fast, but may sound chaotic to an untrained ear. There is also a certain amount of improvisation. The central thaalam forms the foundation of the music (which often has accompaniment from vocalists, violins, and other instruments). And for my protagonist Lucky, who was trained in Bharatanatyam from the time she was little, it makes sense to me that part of her internal music would be formed by a foundation of this same thaalam.

sindu-white_1000-2I compiled a list of traditional melodies, and re-wrote every single line of the novel with those beats in the background. A lot of things fell into place—Lucky’s voice, her personality, her longing. All the things that seemed barely in my grasp before came into clear focus. If you read closely, you can hear the thaam thakka tham of a miruthangam in the cadence of the novel, but ultimately that’s not the point. The point is to infuse the book with the music that rules Lucky’s life. Without this music, Lucky’s interiority would’ve never fully developed.


Now, as I work on a new novel, I’m always thinking about inspirational and sustenance music. There’s a lot of jazz, Fleet Foxes, and Ravi Shankar in my life right now, and I can see those beats and codas working their way into the voice of my current novel project. Of course, the process of writing transforms this music, just as the music transforms the writing. It’s a beautiful, wild cycle.

SJ Sindu was born in Sri Lanka and raised in Massachusetts. She was a 2013 Lambda Literary Fellow. She holds a PhD in Creative Writing from Florida State University. Her work has be published in Brevity, the Los Angeles Review of Books, The Normal School, Fifth Wednesday Journal, and other journals and anthologies. She teaches and writes in Tallahassee. Marriage of a Thousand Lies, her first novel, is out now by Soho Press.

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Think Music: Robert Wilder on Foreigner

authorphoto-300x199In twenty years of teaching high school, I have seen more than a few students who were clearly born in the wrong decade. After the movie Swingers came out in 1996, for instance, kids started arriving to school in zoot suits and fedoras, twirling pocket watches on chains. I’ve witnessed boys slick back their hair into DAs and slip on leather jackets, and girls don aprons and bake like 1950s housewives. For me, these anachronistic students are always the most interesting; they don’t fit in with their generation so they claim a new one.

My main characters Coy and Monroe in my new novel NICKEL are outcasts, and I wanted them to connect with each other through a different era’s music and pop culture. These references and cultural touchstones would serve as their own coded language, a way to secretly communicate with each other and to protect themselves from those who insulted or ignored them. Even though theirs is a boy/girl friendship, I was reminded of two girls I taught who were obsessed with eighties music. Since I graduated from high school in 1984, I often made jokes in class about Culture Club, Repo Man, and Tom Cruise. These girls always understood my references and laughed at my meager attempts at humor. Even when I claimed that the eighties wasn’t a terrific time for rock music, they’d fiercely object and play the David Bowie or AC/DC Back in Black card. Like Coy and Monroe, these girls stood on the fringes of our school, but they had their own subculture that supported them when others did not.

As I was writing and revising NICKEL, I considered the bands Coy and Monroe would gravitate toward based on their shared sensibility and individual emotional states. I recalled my own soundtrack as a kid in suburban Connecticut, navigating between my downstairs bedroom at home and the Jem Amusement Center on the Boston Post Road where we would feed quarters into the jukebox while playing foosball and Captain Fantastic pinball. My personal soundtrack consisted of bands like Bad Company, The Police, Prince, and Talking Heads. Foreigner, however, seemed to be the one who fit Coy and Monroe best. Foreigner was the band that connected the ballads of the late seventies with early eighties rock and roll. Head Games was embarrassingly obvious and cloying, something this dirty white boy needed when I was Coy’s age because I didn’t have a legitimate way to express certain types of emotion. Foreigner 4, considered by some to be their best, still had the emo “Waiting for a Girl Like You” but offered the iconic “Juke Box Hero” and head-nodding “Urgent” as counterparts.

nickel-lsp-3dAs I remembered Foreigner I did some research (as Coy and Monroe would) and saw that lead singer Lou Gramm had been diagnosed with a brain tumor. The tumor was benign but the surgery and subsequent medication damaged his pituitary gland, forcing Gramm to gain significant weight, hurting his voice and stamina. In NICKEL, Monroe comes down with a mysterious illness that seriously irritates her skin, starting with the area around her mouth. Searching for clues to the source of Monroe’s deteriorating health, Coy sees the parallels between the suffering of both Monroe and Gramm. I’m sure many of us have found some sort of emotional or spiritual connection with the singers and songwriters we love, artists who put our own complex feelings into words and set them to music. Foreigner happened to be the right choice for my two main characters.

Postscript: In 2009, one of my students gave me tickets to see Foreigner at the Buffalo Thunder Resort and Casino. I had never been to a casino show before so I was surprised by the rowdy behavior of all of the sweaty middle-aged rockers in black concert shirts who came to relive their checkered pasts. Mick Jones was the only original member on stage. Some members of the band didn’t look as though they were alive when Foreigner released the hits everyone was singing along to. Even though the lead singer was more reminiscent of Steven Tyler than Lou Gramm, people still screamed and reached for him as if he were the real deal. The concert was somewhere in between a reunion show and a surprisingly excellent night of karaoke. I kept wondering, as I flashed back to junior high and high school, whether I was having a real good time.

Robert Wilder is the author of the YA novel, NICKEL, and two critically acclaimed books of essays: Tales From The Teachers’ Lounge and Daddy Needs a Drink, both optioned for television and film. He has published essays in Newsweek, Details, Salon, Parenting, Creative Nonfiction, Working Mother and elsewhere. Wilder’s column, also titled “Daddy Needs A Drink,” is printed monthly in the Santa Fe Reporter. He was awarded the 2009 Innovations in Reading Prize by the National Book Foundation. Wilder has lived in Santa Fe, New Mexico, for the past twenty years.

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Think Music: Elizabeth Cohen on Tom Waits

img_1797In a novel I am writing, teenagers create a David Bowie appreciation society in the early two-thousands. They get together in a dilapidated trailer outfitted with a battery operated CD player and blacklight and sit in the purple dark listening to “Space Oddity” and feeling the words rush through their blood while around them the grown-up world collapses in upon itself.

It has been terrific fun setting a novel to Bowie tracks, but my own life is most often set to the tracks of Tom Waits. It is in his world of down-and-outs and ne’er-do-wells, of back alley boozers and atomic strength love gone wrong, that I move and live. It is my primary soundtrack always, even if interstiched with Lou Reed, Edith Piaf, Johnny Cash, Patti Smith and punk rock. If I listen to classical music, it is the song cycles of Shubert or Berlioz or the strange little antic pieces of Eric Satie. In case you haven’t picked it up yet, I am a musical romantic and a romantic in every area of life. What this means is that I often make my teen daughter cringe by crying at the color of the evening clouds or sad news on the TV and that I am overcome by longing and inspiration easily.

This fall, this is evidenced by the poems in my new collection, BIRD LIGHT, a book dedicated to that very same teen, “my little bird, my light.” This book of poems is wrought with what I consider my “Waitsian” side, my inner derelict, my big, big broken heart full of wonder and ruin.

Indeed, I listened to my man Tom while writing so many of these poems that it should be dedicated to him. Spinning his CDs (especially Rain Dogs and Bone Machine) on my car player, I often pulled over to the side of the road and scribbled these poems over the years, much to the chagrin of those driving past me, who may find my sudden inspiration annoying on their commutes.

If I could pick a single song that ignites my poet brain, every single time, it is the song “Alice”:

It’s dreamy weather we’re on
You wave your crooked wand
Along an icy pond
With a frozen moon.
A murder of crows I saw
And the tears on my face
And the skates on the pond
They spell Alice.

In this song, a sad ass love song if ever there was one, a man is actually inscribing the name of a woman he loves with ice skates on a frozen pond. But it is the simple and pure poetry of the lyrics that moves me, the lyric similes and clever slant rhyming: “your hair is like meadow grass / on the tide And the raindrops in my window / and the ice in my drink / Baby all I can think of is Alice.”

front-cover-bird-light-generic-v9-0_3The poems in BIRD LIGHT are each about birds, singular or collective, and while written over the course of many years, they each reach for that same note that is hit in so many Waits songs, always in a minor key, always full of mystery, evoking scraps of narrative. Alice was the song I was listening to when I wrote the poem “Festival of the Cranes,” which is about a wildlife preserve in Southern New Mexico that is home seasonally to birds, but is also about the beautiful scrappiness of men who I have known and men I have loved—my first boyfriend who now “sells used cars on Fourth Street in Albuquerque” and “my best friend’s brother, who went to prison for a decade” and is now “a gardener for a university.”

“The world recovers,” goes this poem, “just look at this / The rise and rise of a species / like the ground itself has decided to fly. / Not far from heaven, really, if heaven is a place / where things lift up / by some internal power / and move on with their lives.”

I can summon and conjure up my poet brain with songs like “Rain Dogs,” “Christmas Card from a Hooker,” “Gun Street Girl,” or “Hang Down Your Head” at any given moment. This is the secret of music, I think. That when you find your soul, music will contain moments, like a phrase from Schubert, a refrain of Waits or Bowie—or for me, in Leonard Cohen’s desperate “I’m Your Man”—that will ever ignite you. Such songs are the spark plugs of your heart. They are your writer gasoline.

Some people, in fact many I have met, require total silence to write. They need to hear their own thoughts and music upends that somehow. Drowns out their own brainwork.

Others need music without lyrics, instrumental. A friend of mine writes to the preludes of Chopin. That would never work for me because those preludes are so beautiful and complicated and up-tempo, they are distracting. The music would eclipse my writer heart, cast it in shadow.

I need something not just beautiful, but tinged with the ominous, just weird enough to make me go and then recede into the background out of pure familiarity. I have listened to Rain Dogs so many times that it has become me. It is stitched onto me. And because it is me now, I can write from those clickety-clack rhythms (as in Bone Machine, an album almost all about metrics) as if they were my own heartbeat. Or my pulse. I hear them and they become non-sound after a time, as normal as air. And I have to breathe to live, I have to breathe to write.

Elizabeth Cohen is an associate professor of English at Plattsburgh State University, where she teaches creative writing. She is the author of a memoir, The Family on Beartown Road, a book of short stories, The Hypothetical Girl, and six books of poetry, most recently BIRD LIGHT (Saint Julian Press, 2016). She lives in Plattsburgh, NY, with her daughter Ava and way, way too many cats.

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Think Music: Alden Jones on PJ Harvey

Alden_Jones_APAlden Jones is the author of the memoir The Blind Masseuse: A Traveler’s Memoir from Costa Rica to Cambodia, and the story collection Unaccompanied Minors.


I went to the Vermont Studio Center to work on my novel. There, I fell in love with a painter named Jomar and the musician PJ Harvey in quick succession. It would seem that falling in love would be a great distraction during one’s concentrated work time. But there was something about breaking out of my small, quiet writer’s room and entering painters’ studios filled with their chemical smells and the racket of tools and music blaring from pigment-speckled CD players that motivated me with the force of a great, chaotic wind. When I think of that time, the soundtrack is always PJ Harvey.

I was late to PJ Harvey. That September, her 4th album, Is This Desire? was released, and the single “A Perfect Day Elise” cycled through the playlist of the local Vermont station. I had taken to sitting in Jomar’s studio for my reading time, inhaling aphrodisiac paint fumes.

“I like this song that keeps coming on the radio,” I told Jomar.

“The PJ Harvey song?” he asked. “Of course you do.” I told him I didn’t really know PJ Harvey. He led me out of the studio to his dented silver hatchback and drove me to the nearest CD shop, where he bought me a used copy of To Bring You My Love and I bought a new copy of Is This Desire? Later, when I got my hands on the four-track demos, I was a goner.

I arrived at the Vermont Studio Center to work on the aimless, meandering novel I’d started in graduate school. Part of me had convinced myself that hard work would yield success. Another part of me knew the novel was doomed to be aimless and meandering. I didn’t know what I was trying to say, or where my plot was headed. I wasn’t having any fun writing it anymore.

While I worried that the novel project was petering out, my desire to create something real and impactful blasted between my ribs. My attention was on this new person, his creations were visible, you could touch them, they left sticky color on your fingers, and we worked together spurred on by the witchy, shrieking, crooning voice of Polly Jean Harvey. Sometimes I had no idea what she was singing about. But I couldn’t help but shriek back “Lick my legs, I’m on fire,” or “I wish I was Yuri G! I’d let her walk all over me.” I was late to PJ Harvey for a reason; back when her first albums were released, I wasn’t into the raw noise of real instruments or a voice that lacked restraint. I liked synth-pop and singers who carried perfect tunes. Imperfection was an idea I had to grow into. Something similar was happening to my own work—the abandonment of the quest for perfect polish—and I couldn’t tell if it was a step forward or backward, but it was clear how PJ Harvey would have voted.

Halfway through my time at the colony I put the novel aside and started a new story. This new story came out in a flood, with almost no punctuation, save commas. I wanted to return to writing mysterious, passionate, vocal female characters; I wanted to know them in the raw. I wanted their rawest selves expressed at the core. I had always wanted that, my characters were already like that, but I had this new brand of permission. I enjoyed writing this new thing so much that I worried it couldn’t possibly be good. But I also knew that it was good.

I already had a few stories like this one, with female characters like this one, a girl who ruffled feathers by refusing to stifle who she was for the sake of others. In the years after I left the Vermont Studio Center, I took the raw words and the raw emotion of this initial impulse and buffed it all to a nice shine. I wrote new stories with other young, impulsive characters. These stories became my first collection, Unaccompanied Minors.

The novel didn’t last, the romance didn’t last (though a pleasant friendship came of it), and PJ Harvey’s albums became increasingly produced, the edges softening. But these stories with their loud-mouthed and open-hearted characters proceeded out into the world. My stories were different in 2014 than they were during their first years of life, but if the characters from Unaccompanied Minors were to get up and sing their lungs out to something, it would be to Polly Jean.

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Think Music: Hyejung Kook on Bach

Today’s Think Music guest is contributor Hyejung Kook, whose work has appeared in Denver Quarterly and Fugue. A 2009 Kundiman Fellow, she is currently working on Flight, a chamber opera libretto commissioned by composer Sarana Chou.

On Johann Sebastian Bach

When I was eleven, I was blessed with the chance to learn piano from Mrs. Allen, a rigorous, wonderful teacher.  She had studied at Julliard with James Friskin, who was known for his Bach editions and performances, and she passed on her received love of the composer to me.  If you learn to play Bach, she said, you can learn to play anything.  So we started with the two part invention in C major.  Before playing a single note, I had to study and annotate the piece—identifying subject and countersubject, marking where episodes began and ended, thinking about phrasing and how to bring out the shape of each part (also called voice).

I quickly became fascinated by the complexity of polyphonic music, particularly as I progressed to three, four, then five part fugues.  Each part had to be practiced separately, then in every possible combination, one measure at a time, with a full understanding of how the piece was constructed.   Otherwise, it would be near impossible to play all the voices with the necessary clarity, independence, and control.  I marveled at Bach’s ability to handle multiple parts and create works of such beauty and emotional weight, and I thrilled at my improving ability to play such music.

When I was twelve, I began writing poems.  My schoolteachers had required me to recite a poem monthly for two years—I once memorized Shakespeare’s Sonnet 5, unable to understand large portions but still responsive to the sound and meter in lines like “Then, were not summer’s distillation left/A liquid prisoner pent in walls of glass.”  At some point I thought, “Why not try writing and memorizing my own poem?”  I only remember “snow falling like feathers” from that first attempt, but all unknowing I had started down my own compositional path.  Poetry largely came to me—and through me—as sound in the mouth and ear, and in the context of studying piano.  Not surprisingly, I have always been acutely aware of the musical aspects of language.  Aside from employing the poetic essentials of rhythm and sound play, I can often detect that a line or section needs to be longer or shorter based purely on a sense of breath or cadence.  On some occasions, I know the number of syllables and stresses I want to add before I have a grasp of what content is missing from a poem.

More recently, I have been attempting to translate my love of polyphonic music into poems which I call “inventions.”  We can deal with multiple lines of music much more easily than multiple lines of overlapping poetry, so I have been composing inventions for two voices.  Perhaps I’ll attempt to write for more parts later, but right now, two parts are challenging and inspiring enough.  Although I do not strictly follow the musical structure of any specific Bach invention, I do strive to emulate counterpoint, to evoke a sense of subject and countersubject (thematic, aural, syntactic) weaving in and out of voices that work independently but also create something richer when read together.  Some couplets are mostly intelligible; others with extensive overlap undergo a greater loss of sense, becoming more music to hear than words to understand.  The pressure of the form has pushed me to explore varying tones, voices, diction, etc., as well as plumb a wider sense of myself and the world—in other words, to be more inventive.

Here is “Invention No. 1 in a minor”—which appears in issue 17 of Memorious—read by yours truly and Sophie Powell.  Recorded March 7, 2012 in Boston, Massachusetts :

Kook_Invention No. 1 in a minor

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Think Music: Jason Koo

Jason Koo, the author of Man on Extremely Small Island (C&R Press, 2009), joins us today to talk about his “Think Music.”

Crossing the Bridge from Music to Making

I don’t write while listening to music—at least not any more. I used to when I was younger, entranced by the myth of Hart Crane blasting his Victrola while getting drunk and squeezing out a few Marlovian stanzas. Then I got really into jazz while living in Houston and wrote a long poem influenced by the music—specifically Sonny Rollins, Thelonious Monk, Lester Young and Charlie Parker. I wasn’t trying to “capture the rhythms of jazz” or anything like that, an idea which I think is so stupid, as if any of the poems that supposedly do this move with the same highly sophisticated, non-verbal rhythm of a Rollins or Parker solo—or as if all jazz rhythms were the same! I was more interested in the space and freedom that long-form jazz improvisation opens up; I felt this same kind of space and freedom in the huge, multi-lane avenues that go east-west in Houston: Richmond (the street I lived on) and Westheimer. I moved to Houston, where you have to drive everywhere, from New York, where you don’t even need a car, so I was kind of rediscovering the American romance with the automobile while getting obsessed with jazz and starting out as an MFA student at the U of H. I drove back and forth on Richmond and Westheimer the summer after my first year in the program, listening to Sonny Rollins’s Way Out West and his collaborations with Monk and feeling like this music somehow explained the feeling of freedom I felt among the cars collaborating for space on the avenues. Particularly Monk’s idea of improvisation—which influenced Rollins—interested me, how he never got too far from a song’s melody, always touching base with it now and then during even the longest improvisatory flights. I liked this idea of stretching out within an overall governing framework, exploring the unknown by tethering yourself lightly to the known, even if just touching it with a toe.

Behind this was Crane’s idea of power in repose symbolized by the Brooklyn Bridge, how the greatest freedom was released by a physics of restraint—you had to “condense eternity,” as Crane says. Maybe some poets would like to fly down a freeway at breakneck speed; but I preferred the feeling of freedom within control and collaboration on these avenues, how at times I could go for long stretches speeding up and shifting lanes, getting all the green lights, but inevitably would have to rest at reds with the other questers in their cars. I was free and alone and listening to my own music but working within a lawful community. And I saw that, duh, jazz musicians experienced their creative freedom in the same way, even vanguard soloists like Rollins who at times broke away from all accompaniment. I began to see myself in my car as a musical note moving up and down a scale between the musical bars of the traffic lights. Yeah, I was getting obsessed. I was listening to a lot of jazz at this point, but I still wasn’t listening to it much while actually writing. I would work on my poem in the morning, usually with no music, then go for drives in the afternoon west on Richmond and Westheimer (usually ending up at Borders about half an hour away) listening to Rollins, Monk and Young primarily, trying to rev myself up with ideas. I had an early breakthrough in the poem when I saw I could divide it into short sections of two couplets each, then either stop at the end of a section as at a traffic light or “drive through” to the next in a longer, green-lighted improvisation. But as I went on with the poem I was having a harder time carrying the same feeling of freedom forward through the sections and feeling cramped within the short sections, so I wrote for a shorter amount of time and went for longer and longer drives, listening to Rollins repeatedly. The less I wrote, the more jazz I listened to. I was trying to inspire myself but ended up just dulling myself—to the music and my own poem. I eventually stopped work on the poem at the end of the summer and didn’t finish it—and then painfully—until the next.

I guess what I’m trying to get at is that even when working on a poem about or influenced by music, there is no real correlation for me between the music and the composition of the poem. This is why I get so exasperated when people talk about poems about jazz capturing “the rhythms of jazz”; a poem’s composition works very differently from a jazz solo. I did experience a feeling of improvisatory flight while writing the first few pages of “Open Sky,” but that was because I finally figured out the form of the poem after a couple of weeks of butting my head against the first-page wall—that freedom came from establishing the parameters of the form, not from any “rhythm” I tapped into by listening to jazz. I was a young poet then, still trying to figure out what I wanted to say and how I wanted to say it, still trying to develop the habit of writing—that first summer in Houston was the first time I had so much time to write and couldn’t make any more excuses, I felt, about not writing. I had to prove to myself that I could write poems when I had the time to do it. But doing this entailed shedding the idea of musical inspiration, this post-Romantic notion that in order to write a poem a poet has to tap into some Dionysian current and just let the poem “flow” onto the page. The myth of Hart Crane was still with me. Hell, who wouldn’t want to be able to write a poem by just blasting some awesome music, getting drunk and releasing your genius onto the page? But of course Crane didn’t really write his poems this way, and in my own experience, getting “music” into my poems meant attending to unmusical matters like narrative framework, syntactical pacing and details of place—things I associated with fiction-writing, not poetry.

I just wrote a new poem about jazz, this one about the great Stan Getz-Kenny Barron ballad “First Song”—the first I’ve tried since writing “Open Sky” over ten years ago, as if I’ve been repressing any impulses to write about jazz because of how difficult that poem became. And again I tried to get “inspired” to write the poem by listening to the song over and over again, in fact listening to all three versions that Getz recorded live in Copenhagen on three different nights at the Café Montmartre in March of 1991, just a few months before he died of liver cancer. I had some vague notion that detecting the different nuances in each version would help me access this poem, but I got nowhere listening to the recordings so many times. Only when I entered the poem narratively, through a third person male listener, was I able to access what this song meant to me. And once I got going in the composition I didn’t have to listen to the song anymore.

It’s as if music exists for us when we don’t have poetry in our own heads—which is most of the time. Perhaps music reminds us of that poetry, or prods us to it, but it is not the poetry. The poet still has to write that.

You can read the full text of Jason Koo’s poem “Open Sky” here: Open Sky

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Think Music: Marc McKee

Today’s Think Music guest is Marc Mckee, author of Fuse, forthcoming from Black Lawrence Press.
Post-Rock Poetics

I know the saying of it is virtually cliché (post-cliché?):  writing about music is like oh, you know the rest: tobogganing about painting, somersaulting about extraterrestrial neo-Platonism, dancing about, well, something. But two things:  1) I read an interview with John Hodgman recently in which he describes young people moving to New York City “like moths to a cliché,” and I am reminded how refreshing a cliché can be when you’re of a mind to kink it, massage the kink, and throw it off a beautiful bridge, and 2) why don’t more people dance about architecture? In that spirit, I’m going to say something inexpert about the blurry genre referred to by the music critics I read (primarily those over at the AV Club) as post-rock.

I will not try to define post-rock; you are looking at this on the internet, after all, and should you so choose, you’ll know as much as me in the time it takes to hit up your favorite search engine.  It’s enough to know that the genre employs the same musical instruments that rock songs do.  You know the ones: guitars, drums, bass, and castanets.  Organs and violas.  Loops of unintelligible public address system garble.  Maybe a flute here, a French horn there, and still further off, crickets.  Et cetera.  The primary marker that distinguishes the genre from just plain old “rock” (or any of rock’s other prefixed iterations) is the pronounced absence of a lead vocal.  This absence is why one of my favorite ways to write poems is sound-tracked by a number of bands who could safely be found by googling “post-rock” (save one).  The work of these bands helps me enter any number of spaces, moods, unadorned rooms, noisy satellites, wig storesCornell boxes or corridors.  They offer me a kind of cinematic “space off” that facilitates imagination and asks for words. There’s a vacuum created by the absence of a vocal.  After all, it provides the lyric, and that lyric the narrative (more or less), the part of any rock song that any of us can be more or less expected to grok, so long as we know the language in which it’s sung.  What’s exciting about this is into this vacuum may sweep any number of options for filling the void.  For me the sense of a void and the need for an expressed accretion that resists it, that insists on life, is one of the imperatives that drives me to write anything down in the first place.

Any number of my writer friends will tell you that they need absolute silence or some sort of isolation to write, the isolation I need is from silence.  Silence invites the mundane anxieties that enfeeble the imagination and make writing poems seem less than what it can be.   These bands lift me out of the day just enough to allow me to try to turn the day into (or at least toward) something else.  What follows are notes on seven of them:

1)     Explosions in the Sky, “Your Hand in Mine”: As any catharsis-addict knows, the television series Friday Night Lights is a rich vein of emotional tension and release, whether that release is in the most tragic or triumphant moments, or in any number of pristinely-realized little victories and defeats.  The first cue that this is the case is in the opening credits, which features work from the Austin band, Explosions in the Sky.  EITS’s music moves from simple parts around which they build more and more sound that feels increasingly like placing emphasis on what is before you, whether it’s a street sign, skyline, a face and/or gas station, a scoreboard in an empty field, or even a telephone pole, and imbuing it with galvanizing poignancy.  In a way, it is an invitation to attention, and that’s as good a guide to have as I can think of when beginning to write.

2)     Tortoise, “T.N.T.”:  Though it’s got the same thing going on as many of the other songs in this list, in which a melody’s established and then various instruments take turns making conversation (or even arguing) with that melody before returning to accord, I associate Tortoise much more with a kind of jazz sensibility.  It reminds me in its strategy, for example, of the opening track off of the Miles Davis classic, Kind of Blue, “So What,” (especially the album version).  It also cues up a different brain cinematography for me: it’s less anthemic, more low-key, appreciative without having to be terribly bombastic about it.  I don’t see oceans crashing and vaulting mountains so much as little urban moments that glue bigger moments together.  Much in the same way not every line in a poem can be epiphanic or final, songs like this pull me toward moments and detail that contribute to something larger.  At the same time, those details have to be precise and tough enough to withstand the bigger moves a song or poem wants to attempt.

3)     Mogwai, “Mogwai Fear Satan”:  What can be said about this song that hasn’t already been said about running for your life while whispering jokes to rubber bands you’re firing into the crystal vases decorating what you’ve left behind the whole time?  This track is not only moving, it moves.  And what’s more, it feels like it’s moving up, ascending—a kind of sad threat accompanies the opening that generally fades as the guitars try to fly towards wherever the flute is and shift the tone towards being more celebratory than lamenting, though the lamentation enriches the celebration in ways that must not be underestimated or abandoned.  As with some other songs on this list, these shifts in tone, and the energies and emotions which get evoked as a result, serve in both the initial making and subsequent re-makings of a poem.  This may seem obvious, but it seems to me that it is increasingly difficult to maintain a singular, consistent tone in any given poem, particularly if, like me, you subscribe to the notion that one of the more productive ways to proceed is by associative logic.  “Mogwai Fear Satan” recognizes this—or, if you rather, I recognize this as I listen to “Mogwai Fear Satan.”  Even as its tones shift, they never free themselves of the resonances and remainders of other tones and the wonderful result is much closer to the rich, strangeness of humans than a pure consistent tone.  Only the ebb and flow sensual apprehension is consistent here.

4)     Yo La Tengo, “Green Arrow”:  Why hadn’t anyone ever thought to use crickets as an instrument before?  This might not be post-rock canon (if there is, heavens forefend, such a thing), but I’m not really concerned.  Something about the song, and not just the judicious use of crickets, takes you from summer dusk to summer twilight, an hour or so that gins up the potential for magic.  Some of the other songs on this list seem to insist on more particular narratives to me, but this one suggests and doesn’t stop suggesting.   This is not to say that the song is aimless, but rather that its aim is pure evocation—I can’t help but start making out shapes, downtown lights, and faces as the song ends.  It feels like it opens and opens until all that’s left is what’s next for the listener.  I don’t know if I’ve ever written a poem exactly like that, but some part of me is always trying to get the poem to lead to life.  If “a poem is a small (or large) machine made of words,” I want some of my machines to get you to go out into the night, like YLT’s “Green Arrow” does for me.

5)     This Will Destroy You, “The Mighty Rio Grande”:  By this time, we must face it: much of the post-rock that I favor tends to operate by establishing a recognizable chunk of sound and repeating it while adding more instruments and increasing the intensity of the song until what is expected has turned into something new, often something that feels like it is going somewhere and that somewhere is up, out, transcendental.  At a certain point, things seem to crash into the sky, an oceanic upsurge, before descending more slowly, in the way that Romantic epiphany can.  The whole 11+ minutes feels like a sustained revelatory feeling, stretching an instant further and further, playing with time the way that the physical experience of epiphany might, whether you’re Wordsworth on a walk or Keats becoming a bird. We should all be so lucky.

6)     The Octopus Project, “Hypnopaedia”:  I stumbled upon The Octopus Project one night in Houston at a club called Mary Jane’s Fat Cat’s (thank you, Joshua Rivkin).  It took about a minute for the realization that a singer would not appear to turn into delight.  This song in particular reminds me of some things poetry can do: it begins with a weird loop of unintelligible origin, what sounds like a distorted human voice over a PA system and some bizarre sound following it, to very robotic (and somewhat menacing) effect. Under it, very softly at first, an organ establishes a very simple melody.  Over 498 seconds, the organ gets louder and louder as the robots slowly sink in mix, as if even busted automatons can give themselves over to an undercurrent of beautiful consolation that can hold every thing together and introduce us to a rich quieting, a salving soothing.  We enter in machinery and leave in velvet—perhaps an elegiac touch, but one that lines the elegiac disposition with undeniable gratitude.

7)     Godspeed You! Black Emperor, “Storm”:  Storm is the shortest possible version of this title, which actually is comprised of several different movements.  It’s kin to “Mogwai Fear Satan” in its determined ascent and soaring, the hopeful march of percussion letting a chorus of horns and a school of guitars effervesce towards some giddy zenith—and then everything turns quiet and slow.  The slow draws out, a reconsideration of the initial lofty soaring that turns into a soft treading of air, perhaps even descent before raising back up, albeit in a more reserved, hard-won way.  Then, it plunges into a nervous vertigo of strings, a sudden turn into barely-restrained harrowing that seems surprising given the buoyancy originally on display.  It’s hard for me to say just what this does for the making of poems—maybe it’s just my experience of the song that it suggests to me as I’m writing that even as I’m trying to assert beauty or joy that joy and beauty can never fully obscure subtractions both global and local.  And even as that awareness leavens what I’m writing, the song shifts into a P.A. system at a gas station, a repeated message addresses customers:

Welcome to Arco AM/PM Mini-market. We would like to advise our customers that any individual who offers to pump gas, wash windows, or solicit products is not employed by or affiliated with this facility. We discourage any contact with these individuals, and ask that you report any problems to uniformed personnel inside. Thank you for shopping at Arco AM/PM, and have a pleasant day. 

Behind this rather empathy-free message, a sad, plucky piano slowly goes on over a feedback-obscured voice that sounds as if it’s sermonizing, before both fade into silence.  Given more time, I might try to say something about how the song is mimetic in some ways of a life lived: the surging joy and excitement of youth tapering into an ebbing confidence in possibility, rising back into a hard-won sense of gratitude and joy, leavened by loss and struggle, with struggle and rueful cognizance of mortality finally getting the better of life, and all in the course of 22 ½ minutes.  But as a poet, this becomes a challenge: if one of the more powerful things about lyric poetry is its ability to absorb and compress, to make musical shapes from the chaotic surfeit of sensation, then how close can I make poems that even at their highest velocities still produce in a reader the rich, visceral sense of lives lived?  That’s when I make the only answer to that question I can:  I restart the song, and go back to work.

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