In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Stacy Szymaszek’s poetry collection Famous Hermits is a smart and lyrical exploration of independence, creativity, and integrity.
In her own words, here is Stacy Szymaszek’s Book Notes music playlist for her poetry collection Famous Hermits:
1. “22nd Century” by Nina Simone
I listened to this song often when I started the poems in Famous Hermits. It was an anthem for the “institutional fatigue” I was experiencing as well as for summoning the creativity and internal resources to become more autonomous. It was early 2019, pre-pandemic, yet the vision of this song accounts for a diseased future, systemic breakdown, and an understanding of time that is in the realm of poets. The lyrics are by Exuma and I love the way he sings it too. “There is no oxygen in the air / Men and women have lost their hair…”. It’s probably my favorite song ever, Exuma or Simone, but the Simone makes me ecstatic. I wanted that wide historical/multi-directional view and fierce delivery vibe to permeate Famous Hermits.
2. “War Pigs” by Black Sabbath
When I was in junior high at Catholic school, I tried to get into to heavy metal. I can only guess that perhaps a friend of mine was or it seemed like a outlet to try to express my difference. I even drew band names/insignias on the cover of my notebooks, including Black Sabbath. It wasn’t an authentic or lasting genre of interest, a blip, (except I was legit obsessed with Def Leppard). When I was the Director of The Poetry Project, Nicole and Laura used to play Black Sabbath live concert videos when we needed some catharsis and I really connected with the music and continued to listen to it. As far as the song’s role in writing Famous Hermits, the poem “Fun Meter” documents that my friend Prageeta had a dream that Ozzy Osbourne was my real dad which I like to think is true. “War Pigs” basically says if you are uncritical, you will be made a pawn because we are at the mercy of the war pigs.
3. “Bluebeard” by Cocteau Twins
I think Elizabeth Fraser is a genius. This is one of my favorite Cocteau Twins songs and it makes its way into “Fun Meter” as admiration for her efforts to both gain an audience by going on US television for the first time (on Leno which I mis-attributed to Letterman in the book!) and to be uncompromising in her interpretation of the song. In fact, she made it the song even more impossible to sing along with and wore a monastic-like garment. One of the lyrics is “Are you safe? Are you my friend?” and that is a question I ask of everyone old and new in my book as I was discovering who I was without any official titles after my name.
4. “Car Wheels on a Gravel Road” & “Passionate Kisses” by Lucinda Williams
During the writing of this book, I seemed to gravitate to songs with lyrics that are at least as interesting as poems or are powerfully melody driven. I listened to Lucinda Williams often when I lived in Tucson. These two songs kind of mark leaving Missoula for the desert to live and write with my love, also a poet, Kimberly. There are couple of moments in “Famous Hermits” that quote Williams’s lyrics. “Shouldn’t I have this?” is a pivotal question for people who are living in deficit mode. Like, maybe it’s not too much to ask for cool quiet time to think and a rock and roll band. We were the only tenants in a wonderful, old four-plex that had a gravel parking lot in the back of the house, off of my studio, so I could hear Kimberly come home while working at my desk and I would always be happy to hear this sound, and then get the song stuck in my head. One of the threads in the poem “Famous Hermits” is documenting the conversations Kimberly and I had about poetry, community, and institutional corruption.
5. “The Day the World Turned Day-Glo” by X-Ray Spex
I needed to create a new space called “famous hermit space” as some kind of other option to community or solitude. I feel like it’s a punk/DIY impulse. This song is just fun as a rubber bun. Everything is artificial and being experienced kind of without judgement. It’s not a condemnation but a surreal fantasy. I wanted to let in some of that spirit. I think there is some good humor in Famous Hermits.
6. “Ghost Town” by The Specials
I swear I saw The Specials once in Milwaukee in the 80s but it doesn’t quite add up with the years they were active as a band. All of my memories of seeing live music in the 80s feels surreal now. Like I’m not totally sure it happened or I imagined it. I don’t know why but I guess the experiences took me out of time and space as we understand it to survive under capitalism. Moving from NYC to the West was a culture shock. I didn’t live in Tucson for very long before the quarantine in 2020. I wrote two books but I didn’t make any friends or organizational connections that would ever draw me back there. Just with the lizards and Saguaros and the mountains. I like how the desert warped my sense of time, helped by the fact that I didn’t have a job and was living off of grant money. I feel like I dreamed that I lived there. In a ghost town.
7. “La Cigarra” by Linda Ronstadt
I have always liked Linda Ronstadt and living in her hometown of Tucson made me more keen to get to know her music. The documentary on her life was released while I lived there so it felt like a big Linda moment. I discovered her first Spanish album Canciones de Mi Padre – traditional Mexican Mariachi music. “La Cigarra” is a cicada. There aren’t cicadas in Famous Hermits but there are a lot of other bugs and lizards and a tomato-loving mouse we called Maple. The house we lived in seemed permeable – like small creatures could come and go as they please. We had a lot of small lizards in the house. Anyway, my understanding is that the hot climate means that homes aren’t insulated so the delineation of inside and outside isn’t as formal. Living near the US-Mexico border and hearing all the “the wall” rhetoric is something that low key influenced the poem “Famous Hermits” so this song honors that. “La Cigarra” ends with the line “And I want to die singing like the cicada dies” which is a statement that resonates with a Famous Hermit.
Famous Hermits is Stacy Szymaszek’s seventh book of poetry. Her book Pasolini Poems and chapbook Three Novenas were published in 2022. She is the recipient of a 2014 New York Foundation for the Arts Fellowship in Poetry and a 2019 Foundation for Contemporary Arts grant in poetry. From 2007 to 2018, she was the director of The Poetry Project at St. Mark’s Church in New York City. She currently lives in the Hudson Valley.