Author Playlists

David van den Berg’s Playlist for His Poetry Collection “Imagine Your Life Like This”

“The songs in this playlist are ones that I think really embody Southern Gothic art, or ones that I listened to while I was writing or editing the poems, or songs that inspired me to be a better writer.”

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.

Previous contributors include Jesmyn Ward, Lauren Groff, Bret Easton Ellis, Celeste Ng, T.C. Boyle, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, Aimee Bender, Roxane Gay, and many others.

The poems in David van den Berg’s collection Love Letters from an Arsonist beautifully illustrate and encapsulate the darkness of the American south.

Kirkus wrote of the book:

A weird, wild, and beautiful wail of emotion that seems to emanate from the very heart of the American South.

In his own words, here is David van den Berg’s Book Notes music playlist for his poetry collection Love Letters from an Arsonist:

Love Letters is a collection of Southern Gothic poetry. It is broken into three chapters, or epistles, each centered on a specific theme. The first, ‘Salt River Blues,’ is unadulterated southern gothic, introducing a rogue’s gallery of outsiders who wander through a decrepit and decaying landscape, looking for answers to questions they can’t ask sober. The second epistle, ‘Midnight Gospel,’ struggles with religion and an absent god. The third epistle, ‘Pinecone Son,’ is more autobiographical – both intimate and confessional.

I figure I should explain what “Southern Gothic” means. Southern Gothic literature mixes the rich emotionality and symbolism of the Romantics with the gloomy, decaying sensibilities of Gothicism to create a rich and foreboding atmosphere, focusing on madness, decay, alienation, and the grotesque to dissect social and cultural issues in the South. Southern Gothic lit is haunted by the ghosts of the past who inhabit decrepit Southern landscapes, plaguing deeply flawed characters who struggle with poverty, addiction, and other social ills.
The songs in this playlist are ones that I think really embody Southern Gothic art, or ones that I listened to while I was writing or editing the poems, or songs that inspired me to be a better writer.

The Love Me or Die by C.W. Stoneking

Let the blaring of trumpets draw you in to see the world from that cramped nook three inches behind my eyes. The beat is infectious, driving you towards an inescapable fate. The rich brass transports you to a hot and humid place where beads of sweat cling like regrets to your temples and the line between the natural and supernatural is perforated. Stoneking (can you believe he’s Australian? I sure as hell can’t) tells the story of a selfish young man whose passing desire destroys a young woman and her family.

While I was settling on a title for my collection I thought a lot about desire — yearning for that thing we’re convinced, this time, will settle our soul and leave us whole. But there’s nothin’ and no one we can get that’ll fix what’s broken in us. The nature of desire is inherently mimetic and ephemeral, burning off like mist in the morning sun once our grubby hands have caught hold of what we’re chasing. Leaves us feelin’ hollow so we toss aside our prize and chase after what comes next, with no regard for the carnage we leave in our wake.

That’s what it means to be an arsonist.

The Angry River by Father John Misty and S.I. Istwa

You may recognize this song from True Detective S1. Every once in a while I’ll watch another detective show, and every time I’m reminded that True Detective S1 will probably be my favorite investigative show of all time. It helped me pitch the book too – since whenever folks asked what a Southern Gothic poetry collection was (which happened a lot), all I had to say was “It’s like True Detective, but with a few more ghosts,” and the light would go on in their eyes. I had to include an homage here.

Palmcorder Yanja by The Mountain Goats

You can’t talk about the South without talking about poverty addiction, and nobody sings about addiction like John Darnielle. He’s a hell of a storyteller. His songs are raw and honest, delivered with an energy that belies the heavy emotionality beneath. His lyrics, typically simple, are constructed in a way that packs a gut punch.

The bridge and chorus stuck with me long after I first heard the song. “If anybody comes to see me / tell them they just missed me by a minute / if anybody comes into our room while we’re asleep / I hope they incinerate everybody in it / …and the headstones climbed up the hill.”

The first death to really hit me was a suicide. We weren’t friends when he did it, but we had been close in the dawning of our teens. The kid got hooked on painkillers at 15. Spiraled down. Robbery. Stole a gun. Armed robbery. Then gone, the only child of an elderly couple. I still have the old polaroids of the two of us taken at the 8th grade ‘graduation’ pool party, although by now the images have almost faded to nothing. I’ve lost a few others to overdoses, but his always comes back to me. If you flip through the pages of Love Letters, you’ll find him there, along with those others who went along the way. And the headstones climbed up the hill.

What a terrible thing it is, to leave the party so soon.

And the headstones climbed up the hill.

House of the Rising Sun by The Ghost of Johnny Cash

It was hard to pick one version of this southern classic, but the version put out by The Ghost of Johnny Cash (David Radcliffe) is superb. The sound comes slow and mournful, with Radcliffe’s deep bass flowing like molasses as the understated vibrato shakes my soul in its boots. The deeply flawed narrator, who sees fate leading him to ruin in sin and misery, cries out for redemption. But he knows he’s destined to live the same desolate cycle that his father lived before, and can settle only for asking his kin to be spared. Classic Southern Gothic.

Broken Bones by KALEO

Both the social and physical landscape of the South are bloody palimpsests over which the writers of history have attempted to whitewash the sins of their forefathers and their own complicity in social injustice. It is haunted by the long shadow of discrimination, state sanctioned violence, and chattel slavery. There is a willful drive by the same folks who threw bricks at Black children to keep them out of desegregated schools to stop the next generation from learning about it all. I myself went to a religious private school in Florida (the explosion in popularity of religious private schools post Brown v. Board of Education, of course, was due to whites pulling their kids out of public schools and placing them into “segregation academies”). Our history classes usually stopped shortly before the 1860s, picking up again to cover the World Wars. This, of course, is by design.
Broken Bones triggers all this for me. The song opens like something from a chain gang – the clapping of hands or stomping of feet sounding like pickaxes against stone, the men’s voices in isolation, a cry that the devil will make the singer a free man – before launching into tinny electric strings and the story of a man gone to deep Texas. The song stays audibly simple, generally relying on the strength of the vocalist’s cries. When the instruments do come in, their otherwise reserved nature makes their presence that much more powerful, until the song builds to a climactic crescendo of a wail. Absolutely cathartic.

Haw River Ballad by Matt Heckler

Matt Heckler is a master on fiddle. I would have recommended “Blue Eyes Dancing,” but I think his live performance of that song on YouTube is much better than the version on Spotify (hint – you should check it out). Both songs have the bright energy and quick step of the fiddle. Heckler’s singing is like a joyous shout, and the upbeat tempo is infectious even when the songs turn dark (“Cicadas in the summertime and cider in the fall, if I can’t have the girl I love then I won’t love at all”). This is the kind of song to blare from the rusted stick shift jeep as you rumble through the thinning pines of a new growth forest and throw back your head to howl along with Heckler’s drawn out vowels.

Hold On by Tom Waits

I had to include Tom Waits in here. I’m really embarrassed, but in the spirit of complete honesty: my first exposure to Waits was “Little Drop of Poison” in Shrek 2. There. I finally said it. But to be fair, the soundtrack of Shrek 2 was incredible and I might just fight you if you say otherwise.

Waits’s songs are deeply intimate and conversational and profound, and “Hold On” is no exception. The best way to describe it may be in his own words: “I like beautiful melodies telling me terrible things.”
The sound of Waits’s delivery is similar to how I heard the poems bouncing around my head before I put pen to paper and pulled them out. It’s how my poems really should sound – deep and low, coming out the mouth of a man drawn to fatalistic ruin.

That’s my way of writing. I have aphantasia (or I’m an aphantasiac? It’s how my brain functions, which seems to be a more central part of my identity than simply ‘having’ aphantasia), which means that I have no or a very limited ability to visualize anything in my head. I didn’t realize that other folks ‘saw’ things in their heads until I was in my 20s. If I concentrate really hard then I think I can see something, but I’m also pretty sure that if I actually saw something I’d know it. When I write poetry, I fixate on a word or phrase, repeating it over and over in my head. I build out what sounds right in my head, and explore whatever seems interesting to me from there. I know I’m done with a poem when it sounds completed.

The Body Electric by Hurray For The Riff Raff

Alynda Lee Segara has a wild backstory. A teenage riot grrl, Segara was a train-hopping runaway from the Bronx who eventually settled in New Orleans. Her voice is warm and familiar with a lonesome twinge. Hearing this song brings me back someplace east where the air is thick with rain and the sun beats down in rhythmic waves like how the ribcage of my black-and-white pup trembled as she panted in the cool mud holes she’d dig. Segara’s plaintive lyrics pierce me good and stick down deep in my guts so I feel the weight of the sky and the stars pushing down on me. There’s one line in particular — “Oh and tell me what’s a man with a rifle in his hand gonna do for a world that’s just dyin’ slow…” that lives rent free in my head.

Slack Jaw by Sylvan Esso

Talk about beautiful melodies telling terrible truths. Amelia Meath’s voice is clear and wonderful, accompanied by some simple distortion and other beats. The song is beautifully reflective. It was and is a huge comfort to me when I get hit with a depressive episode. The lyrics resonate with me so strongly in those times – “I got all the parts I wish for / I got everything I need / Sometimes I’m above water / But mostly I’m at sea.” What do you do when there’s nothing wrong, and yet the overwhelming ache of everything shines through you?

I Was Young When I Left Home by Big Thief and Mason Jar Music

This is another of those “southern women singin’ sad songs” that hits me so hard. I come from a big family, and that big family was always a big part of my life. But right before I turned 25 I hopped in a U-Haul and drove across the country to the promising lights of Los Angeles. I go back as often as I can, but it’s still tough to be so far. This song is full of the yearning for home, the heartsickness, and the sinking feeling of lonesomeness that fills so many of my poems.

Someday We’ll Linger in the Sun by Gaelynn Lea

Holy shit am I envious of Gaelynn Lea’s songwriting talents. I first heard her perform in NPR’s Tiny Desk competition, and I’ve been obsessed ever since. She plays the fiddle like a cello, creating a unique sound which is then looped to play continuously as Lea builds the song from the inside out. Her voice is tremulous and earnest, and her lyrics –my god, her lyrics—are devastating and delicately crafted. “Our love’s a complex vintage wine / all rotted leaves and lemon rind / I’d spit you out but now you’re mine / … / we pulled the weeds out until the dawn / nearly too tired to carry on / someday we’ll linger in the sun / and I love you / and I love you.”

The song is pregnant with unarticulated hopes, dreams, fears, and a host of other insecurities. What I value most in art (perhaps other than efficiency) is honesty, and this song is raw.

Was I Just Another One by Gregory Alan Isakov

What I love most about Gregory Alan Isakov’s songs is the pure melancholy that he conjures. It’s rich and textured and complicated. The environment seems to be constructed of soft black velvet that at once is warm and comforting and yet at the same time is inextricably lonely. Isakov’s songs are a testament to the power of atmosphere and place in building a narrative.

I listened to an awful lot of Isakov’s works while I was writing the book, especially the more confessional third epistle: Pinecone Son. There’s something about his velvety texture that makes me introspective and Romantic, that makes me search for some sort of deeper connection or meaning to everything. And, like Lea, he has such a gift for songcraft that I would be inspired to search for something ever simpler and more beautiful to say than what I had written.

A Big Day for Grimley by AJJ

AJJ is a bit aggressive for the direction this playlist has gone, but I think this song works perfectly. AJJ’s songs dive headfirst into shyness, alienation, poverty, religion, addiction, and politics. This song was another big one that I listened to while writing the third epistle. I strongly relate to the sense of returning to a place of familiarity only to find that you have changed in such a way that you don’t recognize yourself, or to looking at yourself in the mirror and recognizing that you haven’t lived up to the idea of who you wished to be. Someone once told me that everyone is either bored or apathetic, and wanted to know which one I was. My answer then was that I was neither. But as the years went on, I eventually became both. I hated that. I changed my life around to get out of that funk, but I still come back to the thought to check in with myself.

Cold & Bitter Tars by Ted Hawkins

As a southern transplant to Los Angeles, I always think fondly of Ted Hawkins. He moved out to LA and became an anonymous busker along Venice Beach, and I like to imagine this raspy-voiced man out of Biloxi, Mississippi sitting on a milk crate along my path, strumming out the blues.

Good Luck Charm by CW Stoneking

That’s it folks. Thanks for sticking with me through the end here. I’ll let Stoneking’s rolling melody and catchy chorus play me out. (The title did inspire one of my poems, by the way. Titled just the same. Alright, now I’m off for good.) “Well the rain gon’ fall, the wind gon’ blow…but I got a good luck charm that I bring with me.”

If you appreciate the work that goes into Largehearted Boy, please consider supporting the site to keep it strong.