July 21, 2009
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Best of the Web 2009 collects fiction, creative nonfiction and poetry published in online journals. Edited by Nathan Leslie and guest editor Lee K. Abbott, this compilation gathers works from both established writers and newcomers, and is a worthy successor to its 2008 edition. If you are looking for quality writing online, Best of the Web 2009 is a wonderful place to start.
Kate Petersen, author of "To Those Who Say Write What You Know":
I wrote much of this essay in that funny space between when you tell him you love him and when he says it back. I grew up in a family where I Love You was an antiphonal act. I love you I love you too. It didn't occur to me that "thanks" was even an accepted answer. And though I think that period went on for two full months (when I finally asked if he planned on loving me), it's all distilled by memory into one morning a few Mays ago when the only thing I could do was to stand in the center of my room in Porter St., listening to that Regina Spektor song "Samson" over and over again, heavy and washed in the sad claim: I loved you first. I was suddenly embarrassed by the fact of my bicycle in the closet, and I began then to think of the relationship, though he was staying over most nights, in the past tense--the aftermath of want.
But in writing the list, I was returned over and over to my seven months in England after college, and the strange long lonesome of days there. I'd arrived knowing one person via email, a neighbor, and with nothing before me but to write a collection of stories I didn't really have in me yet. Each morning came with the same unscheduled mandate: Write this all down. I woke looking at my range, my bathtub, my writing desk and the door to the garden, the whole day laid out before me like that – meal, bath, work, distraction. The other place to sit when I wasn't in my desk chair was my twin bed, pillow propped against the wall, and this is how I started each morning. I'd put the kettle on and turn on my landlords' little TV, which had BBC 1 and 2, SkyTV and Channel 4, and though I didn't set an alarm, I could never sleep past 7.30, when an hour of "Cheers" reruns came on. So a good number of this essay's early drafts were probably composed to the closing bars of the "Cheers" theme, which were my cue to begin work in earnest.
There are a lot of churches in this essay, probably too many, and I can't quite separate the light from the song in them. I was listening, then and now, to 13th century French motets from the Montpellier Codex, some of them based on early chants from Notre Dame, voices that are so thin and plaintive. And then there's the song in the last line, when all that music turns finally to want. I spent February in Oxford that year: Walking the city alone, new in my winter clothes and without purpose, and passing beneath the piano practice rooms in Holywell Street, the sweet accident of overheard notes from an open window. I was halted first by the music and then by the realization that even if I stayed till the end I wouldn't know what song was being played. So I moved on, reluctant still, past how many other windows and doors that were closed, under which I'd be safe.
Matt Getty, author of "When My Girlfriend Lost the Weight":
I had just discovered Bon Iver's For Emma Forever Ago when I was revising this story after setting aside an early draft for a long time. I played that album nonstop for months, and just fell into Justin Vernon's haunting falsetto. In a sense, that voice really finished the story for me. The mood of those songs, which I'll clumsily describe as a combination of wonder and despair, just seemed to be the perfect fit the story.
I usually don't pay attention to lyrics until I've listened to a song five or six times, and because I listen mostly to MP3s on the computer, it takes me much longer to get a sense of song names on an album than in the days of LPs, tapes, or CDs. So it wasn't until I was almost done with the story that I hit on the connection between what I was writing and the third song on the album, "Skinny Love." Here I am writing a story about dating a girl who stops eating and goes from 143 to 0 pounds, I finally stop to pay attention to the lyrics, and I hear:
"Come on skinny love just last the year
Pour a little salt we were never here"
That was a pretty neat moment for me. I really felt this connection, like I was listening to the soundtrack before the story was even finished. Like it was all bigger than just me sitting at my computer typing. For me, it sometimes takes moments of delusion like that to get a story finished.
Tricia Louvar, author of "Bounty":
Writing fiction is a cinematic experience for me. I create a storyboard for the characters. They each have a color, a song, and a landscape akin to their personality. These character collages are within arm's length when crafting the story. In the case of "Bounty," the father was emotionally isolated combed with moments of tenderness. He embodied a tableau of languished dissolves that blurred action, man, and memory. For him, the song "The End" by The Doors played over the images. Jim Morrison's weary tone offered a beautiful ethereal quality to an untouchable man. When Morrison's voice drifted, pronounced drumbeats and dramatic guitar riffs filled the space. I imagined the daughter in "Bounty" filling those shimmering musical moments in the song, where there was an edge or feeling of possibility. So, her theme song became "For What It's Worth" by Buffalo Springfield. That song had a cadence of hope and fear, which I thought mirrored the young narrator. By the end of "Bounty," their disparate energies equalized each other into a harmonious portrait of a father-daughter relationship.
Sam Rasnake, author of "Chamber Music":
Films and music are two indispensable backdrops for me as I write or allow my writing take form. It seems quite natural, then, to allow the two a fusion. In May of 2008, I was overwhelmed - that is the best description for it - by Ingmar Bergman's trilogy of films: Through a Glass Darkly, Winter Light, and The Silence. I watched each film several times, knowing that some poems of my own were beginning to reveal themselves. The visuals were stunning, and the storylines with their characters were very probing. In all three films, Bergman was, in many ways, examining his own life, his own hidden places. Music is conspicuously absent, with a limited use in The Silence. Even in the trilogy's final piece, the music is spare, almost non-existent, but when it is present - and Bergman utilizes Bach's Goldberg Variations in a radio broadcast - the film moves altogether to a different plain, and the impact is quite devastating.
When I actually began drafting "Chamber Music," a suite of three poems based on the trilogy, I put the films aside, or tried to, and allowed Bach's music to create an atmosphere for my own use of rhythm and tone in the poetry. Glenn Gould's work on the Goldberg pieces - in particular the recordings he made not long before he died - played over and over on my stereo and computer. On YouTube, I watched Gould, hunched over the piano, playing from an absolutely impossible physical position of body and hands in relation to the piano keys, and listened as his own voice, quite haunted, followed the melodies. The music was astounding and perfect. I listened, and the words came.
Amber Cook, author of "Little Mother":
Songs have always been linked with fiction for me. When I sit down to write, usually at night, I like to keep a steady flow of music in the background and sometimes I go through albums at a time. "Little Mother," however, was written on a Sunday afternoon while watching Ghost Hunters re-reruns and listening to my toy poodle bark in the other room. Figures. Since then, I've found that K.T. Tunstall's "False Alarm" really seems to work with the story. The lyrics mirror the internal and external issues that the narrator is working through. Both are stuck, stressed and unsure of where to go from the place they're currently at. Other selections would be The Fray's "Little House" and Callahan's "When Morning Comes".
Matthew Derby, author of "January in December":
"January in December" is a retelling of the assassination of John Lennon from the perspective of a second would-be gunman who arrives at the Dakota on the same desolate December night in 1980 when Mark David Chapman took Lennon's life. I was just seven years old when Lennon was murdered, but I'm still haunted by the shadow Chapman cast over the world when he pulled the trigger. I remember a palpable clouding of the air around the time of his death, like ink in a pool of water, which pervaded my childhood. I suppose in writing ‘January in December' I wanted to revisit that time and try to understand what would motivate Chapman to carry out such a wild and evil plan in the open air of the streets, gunning down a man who moved about without bodyguards or armored limousines, who embraced the city that was his home, despite the danger. I read a great deal about Chapman before writing the story and found that, although he had a deep and complicated relationship with the figure of Lennon, he was significantly more interested in the music of Todd Rundgren. His adoration of Rundgren was so intense that one of the talismanic artifacts he left on the bed in his hotel room on the night he carried out the assassination was a vinyl copy of The Ballad of Todd Rundgren.
So if any single piece of music had an influence on the writing of "January in December," it would have to be the song "Zen Archer," which closes out the first side of Rundgren's crazed and uneven double album from 1973, A Wizard: A True Star. I don't share the opinion, held by Rundgren's fan base, that AWATS is the greatest record ever made, or even that it's Rundgren's best. Half of the album is unlistenable to me. But "Zen Archer" appears out of the spastic wash of Rundgren's excessive overtures as a lean, staggering polka. At the end of the first verse he sings the following line, which chills me to the bone:
"…the moment that you realize
As a dark figure slips from out of the shadow…"
When this line is sung, the song changes course, almost recklessly. A field of trembling cymbals accompanies Rundgren as he sings the following chorus:
"Pretty bird closes its eyes, pretty bird dies
Another pretty thing dead on the end of the shaft
Of the zen archer"
Later on in the song, Rundgren sings about "A man in parts forgotten/with an outlook that is rotten/has an attitude to match it/finds relief inside a hatchet." The song closes out the first side of AWATS in an extended coda that fades out over the sound of arrows striking a target. I can't help thinking that, as Mark David Chapman sat in his hotel room, deciding whether or not to carry out his mad plan, he looked to this song for validation. He likely saw himself as the dark figure, emerging from the shadow, the zen archer shooting down the bird. Does this make Rundgren an unwitting accomplice in Lennon's murder? Of course not. But I'm fascinated and terrified of the idea that, to Chapman, in his schizophrenic isolation, Rundgren was indeed transmitting messages through his songs, meant for Chapman alone to decode. And maybe, in "January in December," the main character is also tuned in to a set of codes. He, like Chapman, sees the objects of the world lined up along a single path with him at one end and Lennon at the other. Someone else simply makes it down the path before him.
Carmelinda Blagg, author of "Geographies":
I frequently listen to classical music whenever I'm writing, particularly when I'm revising. I especially like Bach and Mozart and sometimes a piece of their music might work its way into my writing, as it did in the case of "Geographies." This particular recording of "Exsultate Jubilate" comes from a CD by the Spanish soprano Maria Bayo and it's one of my favorites.
"Exsultate Jubilate K. 165" is a motet (a sacred Latin song usually sung solo) written in 1773 during Mozart's final trip to Italy. In my story, it became a kind of starting point for rendering the aging father and his daughter, Eva. They share a love of opera, and Eva has grown to become a singer, like her mother. I love Mozart's song because it strikes notes of joy, tenderness and some sorrow too. Eva sings its joyous parts, hoping to cheer her father. But hearing her sing awakens in him bittersweet memories of his ex-wife Sonya and of post-war Vienna; and from there he is carried back into deeper wartime memories of loss and trauma – particularly his painful recovery in a Naples hospital from battlefield wounds. There is a sweet irony too in Eva's singing, for as much as they share a love for music, and as much as she loves her father she cannot really fathom the depths of his sorrow for the son lost to a freak accident amid the more deadly strategic horrors of war itself. She can't, in part, because her father is unable to communicate his sorrow. There is also the notion of distance at work here. Despite the proximity of father and daughter, he is carried away by memories that make her seem far removed from him; and within his memories is the haunting notion of his being so far away from his little son at the time of his tragic death. Finally, there is the song itself, how it has traveled over time, how it survives to this day, still stirring and interesting and beautiful to listen to.
Jordan Zinovich, author of "Theodolite's Survey":
"If muzak bees the food tough love dat lubes green fuzz to flower, targeting Theodolite's fem-power muse blasts, dark warm world she was (and is still, at last I've grasped), how can-can her adventurousness in sound? Wood she wave a 35,000-year-old bone flute while listening to windy birdsong? Is she a pounder? A crooner? A warbler? Nix! Nix! And Nix again! You'd hear her rueful LOL-itry if you read her story. She's a character, as one of the multi-hued characters in my life says about everyone but me, so she's beyond listening. But through me she's managed to channel some propensities.
My brazenly exuberant adopted children got her started, demanding she Kiss My Brass (Bindlestiff Family Cirkus, Bindlestiff Family Variety Arts, Inc.). And recently, in Amsterdam, Carrie Clark and the Lonesome Lovers commented: she Seems So Civilized (Carrie Clark, 2006). The Mz Jens, Miller and Romaine, passed her Williamsburg's best-kept secret: Free Parking Every Day (Circus Amok! Band, Circus Amok!); they passed her gas, too, but that's best forgotten. When she fumbled down the yellow-shit idiot road to NYC, Rachelle Garbiez & The Fortunate Few helped her sleep around Serenade City (real cool records, 1997). Further, fortunately, the coolly elegant Marta Topferova helped refine her artless seduction by la marea (harmonia mundi/world village, 2005) ― thank the Goddess! Before that she was a "Macarena" kind of floozy. And finally, but by no means beastly, in "It's a Curse" (Apologies to the Queen Mary, Sub Pop Records, 2005) the Wolf Parade pack howled some lines that've kept her true: "We walked five more minutes / till the dark end of town / took a long look at nothing / and we turned back around."
Marcela Fuentes, author of "An Ugly Man":
I wrote this story during an ice storm my first winter in Iowa City, while holed up in my apartment wishing I could teleport back to my little patch of desert in south Texas. I did the next best thing—listened to a lot of vintage Tejano music, which for me, always evokes a vivid sense of home. I was fed up with the weather and feeling the conjunto, in particular "Ay te dejo en San Antonio" (I'm Leaving you in San Antonio) by Flaco Jimenez, which begins with a pretty definitive break up statement—"I don't want to kiss you anymore, or look at you, or even hear your voice."
M. Thomas Gammarino, author of "The Fridge":
iTunes informs me that my music collection could keep me occupied for just about a year if I let it—and yet if I had to, I could probably whittle that collection down to maybe a double CD of those songs that have really insinuated themselves behind my eyeballs. Tom Waits' 1973 ballad "Martha" would go on there somewhere and while I could probably find in Waits' oeuvre a closer analogue "plotwise" to "The Fridge," "Martha" sounds many of the same overtones I hope readers will hear in my story.
Aside from drawing—at least implicitly—on a blue-collar ethos of cars and cigarettes, loneliness and motels, both deal in some measure with the ineluctable gap between our romantic and pragmatic lives, between the incendiary magic of love and trembling, and the mundanity of bill-paying, caloric intake and such. Tom Frost, the bard of "Martha," croons, "I feel so much older now, and you're much older too. How's your husband? How's your kids? You know that I got married too. Lucky that you found someone to make you feel secure, ‘cause we were all so young and foolish, now we are mature." There's a hint of irony in that last line probably, as if to suggest that maturity is an illusion or a cop-out and the only truth really worth pursuing the one that Tom and Martha knew about in those salad days "of roses, poetry and proses" (much the same sentiment elicited in Charles Aznavour's classic chanson "La Bohème," which also goes on that double CD of mine).
But I think we also hear the validity of Frost's resignation. He and Martha have lasted the night, albeit at a cost—the cost of, well, lasting the night, living on terra firma, selling out, etc. I don't want to do a full-blown exegesis of my story here; suffice it to say that it participates in that same theme—which may after all be the literary theme par excellence, viz. transience, evanescence, mono no aware, Shakespeare's you're-getting-old-but-I'll-preserve-you-in-art, Keats' Grecian urn, Marvel's coy mistress, Fitzgerald's high points, Woolf's lighthouse, Miller's aging salesman, and the list goes on and will continue to, because as long as science doesn't undo old age and death, it will remain for many of us something that happens not in one fell swoop but over the course of many days and nights while we have, and lose, our lives.
And while we might suspect old Tom Frost of being a little tipsy while he professes his ongoing love for Martha forty years on, it warrants recognition that there's something poignant and characteristically human in the doomed, willfully naive project of trying to fend off the gathering dark with our memories and feelings. To some extent Shakespeare was right of course: long after the feeling dies, we've still got the song, the poem, the urn—and I add in all humility—the story.
Cassandra Garbus, author of "Colors":
"Colors," is, in some sense, an extended tone poem, much inspired by Debussy. "Colors" is impressionistic; there is no logical narrative, no logical cause and effect; each section, named after a color, suggests a different sensual mood, a variation on love and despair. All the sections together should work together to form an overall sense of meaning. In works such as La Mer and the three Nocturnes, Debussy creates musical evocations of the sea and the snow, sirens and celebrations. While music is usually the most abstract of the arts, ruined by description with words, Debussy manages to translate experiences we can recognize and name into sound.
When I wrote "Colors," I was imagining Debussy's shimmering textures, the vivid sense of atmosphere in his music. I wanted to capture colors with words, without mentioning the colors themselves, just as Debussy captures a snowfall with the flute.
Donna Vitucci, author of "Mandible":
I had a boyfriend who played guitar-- James Gang, Stones, the Who, Zep. When I broke up with him he etched my guilt with, "But every time I played the lead on "Stairway to Heaven," I was playing it for you."
Mandible is such an operator, cut from similar cloth as my old boyfriend, would try to touch the wound of your soul the way he knew he could, and pretending it could heal you, and you'd let him because you were too weak not to. Whit, in this story, is trying as much to recapture his mama and his childhood as to get from under Mandible's thumb -- equal parts emergence and recalcitrance. Another song my boyfriend played: the Stones, "Under My Thumb." Don't suppose that escaped my notice. But the coda of this Mandible story is that Whit will not get fooled again, that despite being shuffled from deadbeat mother to surrogate-shabby father, he's gonna be the man he's always envisioned he's supposed to be, the man to rescue Jennie and love Jennie as he believes she deserves to be loved. Thus the undercurrent of incest married to survival, this pursuit of saving his sister and saving himself...saving her for himself. It's a story of nature's aberrations, accidents of birth, law outside the law, the seamy side of nurture no one dares speaks, of desperation. Whatever awaits Whit at the end of the hallway, he 's determined he won't get fooled again. I wanted the reader touching the hairs of paintbrush in the wall right beside Whit, experiencing the churning in the gut, poised to meet the truth of his sister and himself, the hand forever on the doorknob, the prayer not to play the fool.
Corey Mesler, author of "Rock Paste":
In Bob Dylan's "Clothesline Saga," written apparently in response to "Ode to Billy Joe," there is a mundane family life limned in seemingly insignificant detail. Yet, as with a lot of Dylan, there is also an undercurrent of strangeness, of mystery, of absurdity. This is a family life I recognize. Growing up in white suburbia in the 1960s absurdity came with my Captain Crunch. It was the prize in my cracker jacks. Even at 10, a wispy, frightened child, I understood that the world could not be understood. The world mumbled. I tried to listen, to take in the kinds of detail Dylan delivers in his laconic voice, "just some old wild shirts and a couple pairs of pants," but I was also hearing the inside of my head which told me to experiment, which told me to pound rocks into sand. Hence, I became an experimenter, in my backyard and then later in my poetics. If Camus is right and absurdity is the first truth, then I have lived closer to truth than I realized. Why didn't I take over a baked pie or casserole dish? Anyway, that's the world I never left, that half-crazed suburban Eden in the shadow of the mushroom cloud, lit by the glow of "Honey West," in a land where the vice-president's gone mad.
Tom Sheenan, author of "Knickers":
"Knickers" had a ton of material supporting its coming (back from a childhood incident), but the most important of all being the music my parents listened to on the homeliest of radios or often ugly stray Victrolas obtained from various sources. My parents were long gone when I wrote the story but the "kind" of music they loved always finds ways to surround me while I write. I remember hours with thick Caruso records, so my tastes dote on comparative/contemporary music I know they'd love … Andrea Bocelli and Sarah Brightman duets, The Three Tenors, Josh Groban, Jeff Buckley handing me hours of solace with "Halleluiah." Some of my stories come directly from the music, such as "Night Song Singer of Broken Halleluiahs," "V for Victor," and the just completed "The Inept Imitator." The first two published and the third will be submitted shortly. I am aware of the relationship and the vague idea of dependence.
Lynn Strongin, author of "Hidden Child #9":
I listened to Mozart's requiem "Kyrie" constantly (when I didn't have it in mind) while composing the piece, "Hidden Child #9." I was both a war-child and a hidden child, although in invisible ways. Six years after Second World War ended in Europe, while the ground was still smoking, I caught polio. I was a child of the ward in an upstate New York hospital. I have chosen #9 because 9 is a mystical number for me: we are all nine months in the wom, I was born in 1939, and on February 27. When I caught polio I was 12 years of age, my even dozen. The magnetism and mystery to what is lost is that it must be found. In 1951, I was a hidden child, child of a vanished world akin to the hidden boys and girls in Europe during the war. Always self-contained, brooding over the egg of mysticism, in this piece I re-covered, discovered, uncovered that child long ago in a ward and felt somehow thru the music and meaning of the piece I had won.
Best of the Web 2009 links:
also at Largehearted Boy: