I wrote the poems in Diary mostly on lunch breaks from work, in the notes app on my phone, sometimes in tiny fragments on breaks from my day jobs over the last several years. The poems move in time from the hyper-present everyday, to the past, to the deeper past and generations of family that walked around in New York City before me. My playlist is made up of songs that appear in the book, and songs that inspire or inform different moments in these poems.
- 9 To 5 – Dolly Parton
“9 to 5,” and the equally iconic movie by the same name that it was written for, is a scathing takedown of sexist, capitalist workplace culture, though couched in ’80s pop feminist apologia that is still, perhaps, more radical than the pop feminist apologia of our current era. Dolly is so infectiously upbeat that you could almost miss the resistance in her lyrics: “There’s a better life / and you think about it don’t you / it’s a rich man’s game / no matter what they call it / and you spend your life putting money in his wallet.” (Also, the awesomeness of the fact that the song features a typewriter sound made by Dolly’s clacking her acrylic nails together cannot be understated.) When I was younger—and less immersed in a life dictated by capitalism and having a job, I took pleasure in crafting and recrafting the language in my poems sometimes for hours at a time. But the deeper I got into a life of working 9 to 5 every day, often in an office and commuting to and from work, figuring out how to sleep and eat and exercise and be a writer and occasionally experience joy on my off hours, the more I gravitated toward writing in fragments, short bursts, long lines that feel more open and inclusive and less tightly wound, which is reflected in Diary.
- Jenny From the Block – Jennifer Lopez
This song is about work, money, New York family history, class mobility, survivor’s guilt, myths of meritocracy, all themes that Diary touches on. “Don’t be fooled by the rocks that I got / I’m still / I’m still Jenny from the block,” Lopez sings in the chorus. This song is iconic and very danceable, but also feels twinged with an unshakeable guilt around growing up and being successful. I once performed this song karaoke, and mention it in a poem in Diary.
- In Bloom – Nirvana
When I was in middle school, I used to write the words “Spring Is Here Again” in bubbly block letters all over my notebooks. It’s a line from “In Bloom,” and the name of the second poem in Diary. I like how it evokes the passage of time with an equal mix of fanfare, trepidation, and boredom. Our workaholic culture is always like, “TGIF!”, but when you think about it the TGIF ethos is one of counting down the days and weeks of your life instead of enjoying them. Sometimes it’s like, “Spring is here again!” (insert daisy emojis) and sometimes it’s like “Spring is here again,” with a heavy sigh and awareness of impending death.
- That I Would Be Good – Alanis Morissette
Can a song feel like you opened up someone’s diary, and still be good? This one insists on it. Alanis is my birthday twin and my spiritual sister, and she may be the patron saint of this book. In 1995 when she ascended the billboard charts I was 14 years old with long greasy brown hair, and everywhere I went people told me I looked like her. But at the time I didn’t want to admit that I liked Alanis, because the raw, personal energy of her music made our culture so uncomfortable. I remember hearing a radio DJ saying that someone should tell Alanis not everything she writes in her diary needs to be turned into a song, something nobody would ever say about a male artist. I love that this song is a kind of incantation or spell. It’s about artistic reception, giving gatekeepers the middle finger, and honoring yourself on your own terms.
- 96 Tears – ? and the Mysterians
The title of this song used to be my work computer password, but I put it in a poem so I probably shouldn’t use it anymore. It’s an epic song about how much the speaker wants to make the love object who left him cry, and the organ sounds like neverending teardrops being passed frantically back and forth between broken-hearted people.
- Galileo – The Indigo Girls
I have a poem in Diary about my longstanding fantasy of performing “Galileo” karaoke, and a whole array of fantasies unfurling in my mind as I listen to an algorithm-generated Indigo Girls playlist while home alone in my kitchen late at night. When I was a kid I used to fantasize about being an actual rock star or pop singer. I think it’s funny, and sort of tragic, how as we get older, our fantasies—or at least mine—get more realistic and therefore more boring. This song has a kind of complicated narrative unfolding about inherited trauma and reincarnation and nuclear annihilation and I don’t totally get it, but I love singing along to it.
- Let The Music Play – Shannon
This song is about desperation but also faith: in music, in healing, in oneself, in love. Dancing is a metaphor for love and vice versa—it feels like one millisecond is being stretched out in slo-mo to fit the length of the song, the way that, when we are fixated on someone or something, that person or thing can obscure everything else. But also maybe it’s an entire relationship shrunken down to what happens in one night, on one particular dance floor. Either way, the anxiety of obsession comes through so clearly. We know that this narrator might not be reliable, but also we would trust her with our lives.
- “Free Fallin’” – Tom Petty
There’s a poem in Diary about “Free Fallin’” playing in the grocery store while the speaker shops for cookies and milk, overcome with a quotidian sense of ennui and longing that she hopes sugar might help with. “Free Fallin’” tells the story of a boy and a girl who are both in pain, and the song’s speaker craves freedom to the point of self-destruction. There’s a sort of splitting that happens when you’re a woman listening to songs or reading books about men thinking about women, where you identify with the subject as well as its object, which can imbue a love for art by men with a kind of bittersweet, lonely feeling. “The Free Fallin’” music video stars a young woman protagonist, wandering through various decades as a teenager while the eras and cars and hairstyles change around her, and culminates with her skateboarding triumphantly in a bitchin’ half-pipe montage.
- Alison – Elvis Costello
Our culture has a long history of naming things after women in a way that is vaguely romanticizing, patronizing, and sometimes violent: songs, boats, hurricanes. In high school, my friends and I were into Elvis Costello, and two of my best friends were named Allison. We would try to figure out what this song was about, but we weren’t really sure. Is “Alison” pregnant? Is she marrying someone else? Why is the speaker so sure that the world is killing her? It sounds like she’s having a pretty good time without him. Sometime in the last ten years, I came across some graffiti in Brooklyn that said “Fuck You Allison” like a hundred times all over a wall—I sent a picture of it to one of the Allisons, and wrote a poem about it. At least the graffiti was honest, meeting whichever Allison it addressed with rage rather than horny paternalism.
- I Need Love – LL Cool J
Another song that feels like peering into someone’s diary. I can’t think of a piece of art that speaks to human longing more candidly than this one. It expresses the speaker’s deep and naked need for connection with someone who may or may not exist, along with open honesty about the speaker’s own guilt, mistakes and complexity. The term “confessional” is a label that’s most often attributed to women artists in a way that is vaguely dismissive, with personal, raw writing by men being more often seen as commenting on worldly issues or the human condition.
When LL croons, “I need love,” it shows us exactly how powerful confessional writing can be, regardless of the author’s gender.
This song reminds me of Bernadette Mayer’s epigram poems in her book The Formal Field of Kissing where she inhabits the voices of children’s toys and other objects (“I the broken plastic Snoopy swing sit / in the garbage”). Also I love a sweet love song that is simultaneously about outdated technology. I named a poem in my book “You Turn Me On I’m a Sony Yellow Walkman” after this song, because the Sony yellow sports Walkman was how I often experienced music in the 90s, when I was first becoming a teenager and a romantic and sexual being.
- Damn I Wish I Was Your Lover – Sophie B Hawkins
For some reason I used to have a regular ritual of listening to this song on Fridays when I was submitting the hours for my timecard at work. I like how totally opposite this mundane task the song is. The last poem in Diary borrows a line from this song, “standing on the street corner, waiting for my life to change.” So many of these poems were written on lunch breaks from work as I walked around Midtown, and that line captures the essence of the everydayness and also the sort of helpless feeling of being stuck in a job loop or a relationship loop or any other loop in life where you know you need something to change but you’re too exhausted to even move one foot in front of the other on the sidewalk. And yet, this song still fills me with hope.