April 16, 2010
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Starting with newspaper articles, Austin Kleon creates poems by subtracting text (by crossing out swaths of words with his trusty black Sharpie) to create pieces that work exceptionally well both as poetry and works of art. Newspaper Blackout collects these poems in one of the year's most striking (and often surprising) books.
The New Yorker wrote of the book:
"He borrows, but doesn’t steal. He’ll never have to face the terror of a blank page again. And his poems, created by blacking out pages of the newspaper with permanent marker, leaving only running puddles of text still visible, resurrect the newspaper when everyone else is declaring it dead. The poems themselves are like a cross between magnetic refrigerator poetry and enigmatic ransom notes, funny and zen-like, collages of found art."
When folks ask me to describe Newspaper Blackout, I say, "it's like William Burroughs' 'cut-up' method meets The Midwest."
I like to think that I use this weird avant-garde technique of redacting newspapers with the polite Midwestern goal of making poems that don't waste anyone's time. That's the idea, anyways: an artsy-fartsy process that yields poems that people actually want to read.
Of course, cut-ups and the Midwest aren't in any way opposites: Bill Burroughs, after all, was from St. Louis. "The Heart of It All!" is what it reads on the Ohio license plate, and that being-in-the-middle means you can take bits of culture from wherever you want and mash them together. I knew many a farm boy growing up in Ohio who wore a John Deere hat and listened to gangsta rap...
And so, here's a virtual mixtape, split up into two sides. Side A is full of songs I love that use sampling or remixing in some way. Side B is full of songs that evoke the landscape of the Midwest that I grew up in, the Midwest in my head.
SIDE A: CUT-UPS
Dirty Projectors - "What I See"
I want to live
I wish I was dead
Two lines that accurately describe the process of writing a book!
I made all the poems in this book on the #5 Capital Metro bus ride to and from work and on my lunch break in the basement of my office. The album that played most on my iPod was Rise Above.
The story goes that DP frontman Dave Longstreth was helping his parents move, and he found the cassette case for Black Flag's Damaged. It brought back all kinds of memories from his youth. Only trouble was, the tape was missing, so he thought, "What if I re-created the album from memory?" After a quick trip to Guitar Center to purchase a four-track tape deck, he set out re-recording the album.
Longstreth's results, of course, sound nothing at all like Black Flag, because something weird happens when we remix cultural artifacts to make art: the result has less to do with the artifacts, and more to do with us. And the past as we remember it is always a reflection of our present.
White Denim - "Don't Look That Way At It"
This song probably doesn't belong on this tape, but White Denim is my favorite live band, and I listened to them endlessly while making the book. I'll justify the song's spot here by pointing out that guitarist James Petralli is sampling himself on a loop pedal. So there.
Girl Talk - "Play Your Part (Pt. 1)"
Greg Gillis takes Elmore Leonard's writing advice and applies it to pop music: "Skip the boring parts."
Greg is from Pittsburgh, the rival city of Cleveland, where my wife is from, and where I lived with her for two years, and I like to think that Greg's mom and my mom made us listen to the same "Sunny 95" radio station in the car: playing the hits from the 70s, 80s, and today! And all those songs are now just jumbled in our brains, and that's where the Girl Talk mashups come from.
Public Enemy - "Welcome To The Terrordome"
The Bomb Squad sampled every noise imaginable. Sirens, squeals...you name it, they sampled it. The ultimate collage artists: taking mundane, everyday sounds and turning them into a wall of sublime music.
And Chuck D busts out a great line about writing:
when I get mad
i put it down on the pad
give you something that you never had
Beck - "Jack-Ass"
Beck and the Dust Brothers sampling Van Morrison & Them covering Bob Dylan's "It's All Over Now, Baby Blue." Meta-magic.
Jens Lekman - "Pocketful of Money"
Jens samples Calvin Johnson's baritone from a Beat Happening song, "Gravedigger Blues."
Mr. Lekman himself: "The beauty of the collage technique is that you’re using sounds that have never met and were never supposed to meet. You introduce them to each other, at first they’re a bit shy, clumsy, staring at their shoes. But you can sense there’s something there. So you cut and paste a little bit and by the end of the song you can spot them in the corner, holding hands. The magic is in the mistakes, the scratches and dust from the vinyl record, the echo from something that happened a few bars ago and most importantly the new context in which they are placed."
SIDE B: THE MIDWEST
Guided By Voices - "Game of Pricks"
This song could've just as easily fit on the "cut-up" side, as Bob Pollard is a bonafide verbal and visual collage artist. I'm putting it on this side, because this song smells like the beer-stained basement in Ohio that it was probably recorded in, and the smell of beer-stained basements in Ohio makes me nostalgic.
His lyrics make no logical sense, but that's why they're beautiful. Poetry is about images, not logic.
I climb up on the house
weep to water the trees
The National - "Abel"
My wife and I always put on Alligator whenever we're back in Ohio, driving around. We saw them in Cleveland at the Beachland Ballroom and they blew the roof off.
They might live in Brooklyn now, but they are Cincinnati boys at heart, I know it! Amazing band. Their drummer is their secret weapon.
My Morning Jacket - "O Is The One That Is Real"
Okay, MMJ are from Kentucky, and Kentucky is not technically the Midwest, but southern Ohio, where I grew up, is very close to Kentucky, so this counts.
I listened to this song over and over back in my college art class, trying to draw some still-life picked from the trash.
...always keep your television on...
The second poem in my book goes, "If yr home alone / to feel that someone is near / set the TV all the way up..."
I believe that the drums and vocals were recorded inside a grain silo. The reverb of a grain silo! It's the sound of longing.
Another poem in my book goes: "on top of the wheat silos / we see the birds / venture farther from their nests / than we ever have."
Arthur Russell - "That's Us / Wild Combination"
I share one telling biographical detail with Captain Kirk and Arthur Russell: we all grew up in the middle of a cornfield.
I remember the first time I heard this song: we were in Used Kids, a record store in Columbus, Ohio on the Ohio State campus, and my wife and I did the dorky High Fidelity "What the heck is this??" thing with the cashier. They didn't have the record, so we had to track it down. We played an Arthur Russell song at our wedding.
Smog - "I'm New Here"
she said i had an ego on me
the size of texas
well i'm new here and i forget
does that mean big or small?
I lived in Ohio for the first 24 years of my life: I moved to Austin, Texas from Cleveland, Ohio in 2007. A year later I heard Renee Montaigne on NPR calling me a "Texas Poet." A horror to my mother: if she knew I was gonna move to Texas, she'd have named me Columbus.
Texas has this mythology that's just unavoidable. It's saturated with images. You say "Texas" to someone, they're guaranteed to have an image pop up in their head.
It's one thing to be some weirdo from Cleveland who blacks out the newspaper, it's another to be a weirdo from Texas. "Austin from Austin." All of the sudden there's a hook.
As Bill Callahan sings in this song that he wrote after moving from Chicago to Austin, "No, no, no, I did not become someone different."
Or maybe I did? I own property in Texas, I love tacos and BBQ, I love getting to wear cowboy boots, and I love the elegant plural second-person pronoun solution, "y'all."
But the fellas at work still call me "Yankee boy."
The White Stripes - "Little Room"
Jack White, a kid from Michigan on the brink of breaking big, sings in 2001:
well, you're in your little room
and you're working on something good
but if it's really good
you're gonna need a bigger room
and when you're in the bigger room
you might not know what to do
you might have to think of how you got started
sitting in your little room
He knew what was coming.
Austin Kleon and Newspaper Blackout links:
20x200 prints by the author
Art Heroes Radio interview with the author
Austin Chronicle interview with the author
Kitsune Noir profile of the author
NPR Morning Edition profile of the author
Speakeasy profile of the author
Victoria Times Colonist profile of the author
also at Largehearted Boy:
other Book Notes playlists (authors create music playlists for their book)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (weekly book reviews)
Antiheroines (interviews with up and coming female comics artists)
Atomic Books Comics Preview (weekly highlights of comics & graphic novels)
Daily Downloads (free and legal daily mp3 downloads)
guest book reviews
Largehearted Word (weekly highlights of new books)
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
Soundtracked (composers and directors discuss their film's soundtracks)
Try It Before You Buy It (mp3s and full album streams from this week's CD releases)
weekly music & DVD release lists