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November 9, 2015

Book Notes - Marcela Sulak and Jacqueline Kolosov "Family Resemblance: An Anthology and Exploration of 8 Hybrid Literary Genres"

Family Resemblance: An Anthology and Exploration of 8 Hybrid Literary Genres

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 Bret Easton Ellis, Kate Christensen, Kevin Brockmeier, T.C. Boyle, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, Aimee Bender, Jesmyn Ward, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.

The Family Resemblance anthology's diverse and talented collection of authors (including Maggie Nelson, Nick Flynn, Etgar Keret, Rachel Zucker, Kathleen Ossip, and Terrance Hayes) explains and offers examples of hybrid literary genres.

Stream a playlist of these songs at Spotify.

In their own words, here is Marcela Sulak and Jacqueline Kolosov's Book Notes music playlist for their anthology Family Resemblance: An Anthology and Exploration of 8 Hybrid Literary Genres:

Family Resemblance is arranged in eight chapters, hence our structure below. Each chapter brings together excerpts and in some cases self-contained pieces by 5-6 writers from the well as Israel's Etgar Keret and Japan's Takashi Hiraide. Each excerpt is prefaced by a piece by the writer that discusses his or her rationale for working in that particular hybrid form.

The Lyric Essay

"Anthem" Leonard Cohen

Leonard Cohen's deep voice has always sounded trustworthy—it's almost a caricature of the male security provider. That, coupled with his lounge-y chorus (they should all be wearing gold lamé all the time) makes me feel slightly off kilter—the gorgeous lyrics are just too good to be a joke, the backup vocals too campy to be serious. The parts don't join. That's part of why I chose this song to represent the Lyric Essay, a celebration of imperfection and limitations. As such, this genre pulls in two directions at once: it confronts that which is too large for an individual to comprehend, documenting the shattering and fragmenting of the individual I, the ego, the mind, the everything, before that enormity. This shattering is unutterably painful. The other direction lyric essays take is the attempt to member (or re-member), join (or re-join) various parts to create a new and wonderful whole. To create wholeness from the holes—at any rate, it feels we're dealing with holiness. But the lyric essay isn't interested in a complete, monolithic product. Leonard Cohen's "Anthem" speaks to both movements: "You can add up the parts, you won't have the sum," he sings. But "there is a crack in everything. That's how the light gets in." The lyric essay embodies both the crack and the light. —Marcela Sulak


"Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again" Bob Dylan

Intuitively, I knew at once that Dylan's song from Blonde on Blonde was "it"; the question, then, is why? For one thing, there are the opening lyrics that put me in so many places at once, which is something that epistolary writing does—it invokes elsewhere, the faraway. Cut to Dylan's opening: "Well, Shakespeare, he's in the alley/with his pointed shoes and his bells/speaking to some French girl who says she knows me well/And I would send a message to find out if she's talked/But the post office has been stolen/And the mailbox is locked...." Dylan, in his gravelly, edgy, playful way, drops Shakespeare into the present—into the alleys that remind me of the coarser, raucous moments in his plays—and here he is talking to "some French girl who says she knows me well." Having loved Dylan since college, I smile—laugh out loud, and am positively rejuvenated every time I hear these lyrics, especially given Dylan's voice—oh, that voice coupled with a sly poet's wit. How many elsewheres has he managed to fit into these lines alone? And that doesn't even touch upon the connection between the Memphis Blues and Mobile. I didn't know the connection, until I did some digging and found out that W.C. Handy has a song called "The Memphis Blues" that dates from 1912 and Handy is considered the father of contemporary blues, the one who brought the blues to the people. An affinity to Dylan but also to the epistolary tradition—transmission, communication that spans distances, bridges elsewheres. And the modern postal system took that to a whole new level (and no, I'm not talking about junk mail.) And now there's email and Skype and Twitter… The W.H. Handy Festival is held each year in Alabama. So what? You might say. So what does this have to do with Epistolary Writing? Quite simply everything. Epistles date back to pre-biblical times. They're about communication and conversion and transformation—all of which happens in Epistolary. And then there's the associative landscape in which Shakespeare, the ragman, railroad men, a debutante, a senator, and Ruthie beneath her Panamanian moon all co-exist. And they're joined via rhythm and imagination and that marvelous refrain that yokes two places—Memphis and Mobile—while keeping all of those other characters and their places in play. That's the energy of Epistolary writing. —Jacqueline Kolosov

Poetic Memoir

"Calling All Angels" Jane Siberry & K.D. Lang

The poetic memoir, like the song "Calling all angels," might say, "why it's ah, it's almost as if you could only crack the code then you'd finally understand what this all means." If a memoir is a story within a life (not the story of a life)—then perhaps the poetic memoir is a story of the self confronting the not-self. Poetic memoirs don't make sense outside of the context of relationship. The erotic relationship between lovers, the even more intense relationship between self and self, and the relinquishing of that self, that is childbirth, are the building blocks of family, society, culture. Sometimes the poetic memoir involves emotionally mortal combat with the ego, with the other. I first heard the song "Calling all Angels" in the soundtrack to Wem Wenders' crazy, beautiful, surprising 1991 film Until the End of the World. At the movie's heart is a hitchhiker traveling around the world gathering images for a device for the blind, pursued by someone who wants to kill him, and someone who wants to love him, while around him looms the immanent destruction of the world (environmental contamination ). (Wem Wenders collects sound in the film "Lisbon Story." Wem Wenders is a memoirist of cities.). The poetic memoir is that hitchhiker collecting fragments, concentrating on "one foot then the other, as we step out on the road," and confronting what wants to kill her or love him, or both at once. We're calling all angels "because we're not sure how it goes." And also, because we know these spirits form a link that joins our fragmented selves to what came before and what will come after. —Marcela Sulak

Prose Poetry

"Sonata for Cello and Piano in D Minor" Claude Debussy

In trying to encapsulate the energy and the diversity of the prose poetry, simplicity that is simultaneously technically demanding came immediately to mind. The music that speaks to the prose poem's compression, rhyme, repetition, and heightened language is Debussy's Sonata written in 1915. This brief piece lasts no more than eleven minutes in performance and is divided into three short movements: the Prologue, Sérénade and the Finale. I like the idea of thinking about the prose poem in terms of movements. And the cello is such a soulful instrument, one that puts me into a reverie, especially when its "voice"—like amber or late afternoon sunlight in October's leaves—is accompanied by the sprightlier piano. Because yes, the piano does sound sprightly and playful in this sonata besides the cello, an instrument composed of only four strings tuned to perfect fifths, an interval that is among the most stable musical intervals—and I won't get any more technical than that because I'm already getting into deep water here. The bottom line is that there's elegance and solidity to the cello that brings to mind the prose poem's solid shape. And yet the cello's soulfulness, the reverie of listening to it, hearkens back to one of its founders, Charles Baudelaire, and his "petite poems en prose" which possess a dreamlike energy. The piano's comings and goings throughout this piece are like another thread, another voice, or perhaps a balancing effect that successful prose poetry brings into being. I'm talking about the energy that lies beneath the surface of the words, the energy that emerges through the compression and brevity of this boxy, wondrous form. It's an energy like the piano joining the cello, as if the cello were a ballerina who needed Nureyev to help her reach those wondrous heights. Again that dreamlike energy. I'll stop there. —Jacqueline Kolosov


"The Black Rider" Tom Waits

The surrealism of this song—the slightly menacing, slightly clownish, drunken accordion makes the floor buckle and lurch. Tom Wait's gravely voice feels as if it's pressed up against my ear, but a little too loud, and inappropriately close. This is how the performative genre often feels—exciting, dangerous, because it's doing what it's not supposed to do. Performative pieces say the things that mustn't be said—the things that one means when one says something else. They are what one is when one appears (to others) as something else. I saw Tom Wait's –Black Rider performed on stage when I was living in Tubingen in 1997, seven years after its world premiere, also in Germany. It was co-written with William S. Burroughs, which might tell you all you need to know. Based on the folk tale Der Freischütz (which was made into an opera by Carl Maria von Weber) the song is about a man who makes a pact with the devil, gets magic bullets and accidentally kills his love in the guise of a white dove. The pact the hunter makes with the devil ensures that appearances will ALWAYS deceive. Because in focusing on PERFORMANCE of identity, performative works oddly posit identity as a stable (mostly) phenomenon. The stable part of identity is the part that no one else ever recognizes—it's the part that the other constantly gets wrong. And sometimes that mistake can be fatal.

"Wow"—Kate Bush

For some levity, I'd add Kate Bush's sarcastic "Wow": "We know all our lines so well, uh huh, we've said them so many times." The cool thing about this sassy song is that it takes a chorus girl and makes her the director—the one at the bottom of the food chain tells it like it is. "Ooh, yeah, you're amazing! /We think you are really cool. /We'd give you a part, my love, /But you'd have to play the fool." This genre takes joy and pleasure in undermining the self-satisfied a-hole on top by outwitting him. And we love watching (as long as it's not us). (One day it might be.) —Marcela Sulak

Short Form Nonfiction

"A Day in the Life" The Beatles

I have long thought of the Beatles' "A Day in the Life" as the quintessential song for essayists. The song highlights life just being life, but that it's also unexpected if you're observant. The song says life is slow, but fast, too. Melodic one moment and then cacophonous the next. "I read the news today, oh boy," Lennon sings, the most quotidian thing in the world. The news is sad, but he laughs. The rest of the song's narrative doesn't depart much from that everyday life: A man reads the news. A man goes to the movies. A man goes to work. "Woke up, got out of bed…" McCartney sings in the middle-eight. It's a pedestrian sort of narrative, but a great starting spot for the essayist who, like the essayists in this chapter, use the small moments of life to muse over life's weightier matters.

I love, too, the change in mood throughout the song. At first slow, calm, peaceful with the piano, guitar and shaky percussion. Then building momentum into that messy symphonic crescendo into the simple alarms clock, a fast-paced even-rythmed rush to the bus, the floating background chorus of the dream which fades to the galloping beat of the last verse, which builds again to chaos, resolved by a simple chord. The essays in this section similarly work with moods, building and breaking them up in ways that surprise and delight.

And, of course, the most provocative lines of the whole song, "I'd love to turn you on." Virginia Woolf says an essay should, if nothing else, give its reader pleasure, and there is in this chapter not just the contemplative, not just the playfully moody, but the desire to turn the reader on, to words, to ideas, to how loud a quiet life can be. —Scott Morris, Editorial Assistant

Flash Fiction

"Walt Whitman's Niece" Billy Bragg

This opening song from Mermaid Avenue is 3 minutes and 53 seconds long, long enough to smoke a cigarette (if you smoke). One of flash's other names is the smoke-long story for precisely this reason, and "Walt Whitman's Niece" tells a story, sort of. But first: a bit of context. Woody Guthrie wrote this piece in 1946. After his death, his daughter approached Bragg about writing some new music to accompany the lost songs that became Mermaid Avenue (the name of the street in Coney Island, on which Guthrie lived with his wife and kids after World War II). There's plenty of emotion here and a wealth of experience, but how much of it can be enacted in flash which cannot be crowded though the back story—all that lies behind what appears—is often "felt" by the reader.

All the details behind the creation of "Walt Whitman's Niece" are clues or essential details that encapsulate the nostalgia of this particular song's coming-into-being. Simultaneously, there are the missing pieces that cannot be recovered—a little like one of Joseph Cornell's shadow boxes, which also comes to mind, for me, when it comes to flash. After two movements sung by Billy Bragg & Wilco, in the third movement of the song Bragg steps forth: "…And as well as I could recall…My girl had told us that she was a niece of Walt Whitman, but not which niece,/And it takes a night and a girl/and a book of this kind/A long long time to find its way back…" Yes, this is flash, for it singles out a transformative moment in time, but it doesn't fill in all the gaps, and the absences are part of the magic. Flash dramatizes a resonant and brief experience, so that the reader/listener experiences the emotion, too. And here listener is key, for flash fiction—a long long way back—finds its roots in the tale and even the fable. Walt Whitman's niece: Imagine that. —Jacqueline Kolosov

Pictures Made of Words

"Ojalá," Silvio Rodriguez

The Cuban Silvio Rodriguez's song "Ojalá," is a series of pictures made of words that describe the impossible/the not/yet/the desired, all concepts contained in the word "Ojala," which is like saying "may it be that." Its simple acoustic guitar strumming that sounds like a firm, gentle, welcomed rain made it a popular song in every South American city where there are universities, and guitar-wielding students sitting in circles dreaming of the future. Certainly in pre-Chavez Venezuela among the biology students, which was my first experience of the song. I later encountered it among Mexican Ph.D. students in Texas.

What's so beautiful about this song is that we never see the addressee—we only see the way the world arranges itself around the unseen body, and it is the unseen body that makes the world visible. At its best, this is what the "Pictures made of words" genre does—the invisible body of the artist, of the observer, places us in the physical world in a sensual way. The song begins, "May the leaves not touch your back when they fall, so that you can't turn them to crystal, may the rain cease being a miracle that falls over your body." I love how the unseen body draws attention to, orders, and transforms the visible, physical world. And, though the unnamed addressee is invisible, he exists. In fact, were he to appear incarnate, it would kill him. The chorus is: "I hope a constant gaze finishes you off, the precise word, the perfect smile."

To whom is Silvio Rodriguez speaking? Some people think Fidel Castro (Rodriguez did not flee Cuba), but the addressee is so intimate, it could be a lover. At any rate, the speaker even asks death to take him, if nothing else works, "so as not to see you so much, so as not to see you always, in every second, in every vision. May I not even be able to touch/play you in songs." Incredible! In the song, we don't see the addressee at all! He's the unseen mover. This speaks to the various movements of the picture made of words genre—it erases, it humanizes by identifying with what you see, it protests erasure—but at heart, its central concern is the interplay between erasure and visibility. —Marcela Sulak

Marcela Sulak and Jacqueline Kolosov and Family Resemblance: An Anthology and Exploration of 8 Hybrid Literary Genres links:

Jacqueline Kolosov's Wikipedia entry
Marcela Sulak's website

Publishers Weekly review

also at Largehearted Boy:

Book Notes (2015 - ) (authors create music playlists for their book)
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my 11 favorite Book Notes playlist essays

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