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October 25, 2017

Book Notes - Stephanie Burt "Advice from the Lights"

Advice from the Lights

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, Lauren Groff, T.C. Boyle, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, Aimee Bender, Jesmyn Ward, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.

Stephanie Burt's poetry collection Advice from the Lights deftly explores gender and self.

Library Journal wrote of the book:

"Burt mines a nearly limitless store of empathy, lending voices to living things and inanimate objects alike. . . . Burt’s poems are never less than compassionate."

In her own words, here is Stephanie Burt's Book Notes music playlist for her poetry collection Advice from the Lights:

All my books of poetry (and some of the lit-crit books too) involve music; Advice from the Lights has more music, and more popular music (more hits from the 1970s and 1980s), as well as the more recent, less popular music I listen to for fun; some of the poems refer by name and otherwise to songs I loved, and songs I overheard frequently, growing up, either as the boy that other people thought I was, or as the girl that I wanted to be.

Leatherface, "I Want the Moon" (poem: "A Covered Bridge…")

The late-model snarl-core Sunderland version of the feeling familiar to toddlers, and dreaded by parents, and just barely audible all over durable poetry everywhere: the feeling that your desires encompass more than anything anybody can ever have, in part because desires run both forward and back, but time runs only one way.

The Loud Family, "Areodeliria"
Game Theory, "I've Tried Subtlety"
The Loud Family with Anton Barbeau, "Song About Rocks Off"
Game Theory, "Laurel Canyon"
(poem: "Over Sacramento")

Scott Miller is my favorite American songwriter and the only straight guy songwriter, of all the straight guy song writers, who really, deeply saw all the way into what's going on in my queer trans head: this poem remembers him and all his amazing work, and quotes a couple of songs from throughout his long career, and in a just world he'd be as famous as Elvis. I wrote about him in prose too: I finished that one a year before he died.

The poem, which took me about two years, came afterwards. Jessie and I had just landed in Pomona, California when I heard.

Among all the artists who have died in my lifetime, and whom I did not know personally (though I interviewed Miller once), it's possible that no death has affected me more. He should be alive. Go hear his final record, please: Your favorite pop musician probably played on it.

Strawberry Story, "Ashlands Road" (poem: "Inside Outside Stephanie")

An entire beautiful but definitely not-for-everyone subgenre of what we called, at the time, indiepop (the word has larger, cloudier meanings now) existed in the late 1980s and early 1990s in part to give us musical experiences of the glittery pastel-and-fruit-slice childhood we wanted and never had. Of course no one actually has this childhood in pure form, but some of us had some of it, and some of us wanted more of it, and some of us would have been happy to take just a walk's worth, just an hour, just a day of being a girl in light rain.

Erik Satie, Gnossienes no. 2 and 3 (all)
Young Marble Giants, "Brand New Life" (poem: "After Callimachus")

My ancient Greek alter ego famously said a big book was a great evil ("mega biblion, mega kakon"); he loved miniature perfect things, and humility, and artifice, and childhood. So did Satie; so did the great Cardiff three piece Young Marble Giants, who may never have expected their music to last. But it has, and it did.

Yes, "Roundabout"; "Long Distance Runaround" (poem: "My 1982")

I listened almost entirely to prog rock during these unfortunate years; Yes's Fragile (1971) is the rare album that holds up well (Scott Miller admired Yes too). At the time I believed (correctly) that I dug the instrumental virtuosity, and the complex interchange among melodic parts, that brought these rock songs uncommonly close to Baroque and Romantic compositions. I also dug the psychedelic lyrics, and the prominent keyboards (because I played the piano, and wanted to play keyboards), and the fact that Jon Anderson was a very fey, and yet empowered, adult man with a vocal range much more typical of women.

Pet Shop Boys, "This Must Be the Place I've Waited Years to Leave" (poem "Fifth Grade Time Capsule")

The analogy speaks for itself.

Taylor Swift, "You Belong With Me" (poem: "After Callimachus")

This analogy, also, speaks for itself. An almost perfect pop song whose video I hate so much that I have drafted, and abandoned, a prose poem about what's wrong with it, and I rarely react to music videos, having grown up in Washington DC without them (DC didn't have cable till after I moved away).

The Cars, "You Might Think"; "Drive" (poem: "The Cars' Greatest Hits")

I hated the Cars when they were popular, for all sorts of terrible reasons I'd like to forgive in my narrow-minded twelve-year-old self; their songs were too simple, too sexy, too alluring, too often about men seducing women (well, that part's still true), and too reliant on artifice, synthesizers, somehow fake, compared to the honesty of guitar, voice, Hammond organ, drums.

Really, of course, artifice can be sincerity, everything interesting about human emotion is in some sense genuine and in another constructed, and a world that contains only what's been regarded, through most of human history, as natural would be a world that had no place for me. Rockism (the belief that genuine guitar-driven rock is the best kind of popular music) is also homophobia, and transphobia, and… but this argument should be familiar by now.

Also, "Drive" is a spectacularly good melancholy commercial synth ballad, almost as good as the best of the Dream Academy. I wrote a related poem about Erasure—whom I listen to frequently now; whom I thought I wasn't supposed to like when they were at their popular, because homophobia—but that poem didn't make it into this book.

Emerson, Lake and Palmer, "Take a Pebble" (poem: "My 1985")

When I played tabletop role playing games in high school I had three regular characters; one was loosely based on Keith Emerson from Emerson Lake and Palmer and had the power to stop or extend time. He experienced a kind of berserker rage if he saw keyboard instruments damaged. The second was called Aladdin Sane and was actually David Bowie, who had arranged for his secret replacement by an impersonator in 1980 so that the real Bowie could go be a superhero. For the third, see below.

Billy Joel, "The Stranger"
Ignition, "Anger Means"
(poem: "My 1987")

The character called Psyche was absolutely real and somewhere I have the tearsheets and character stats; you could argue that my attempt to play her in tabletop roleplaying games in 1986 and 1987 was my first sustained attempt to figure out what kind of writer I wanted to be, as well as the beginning of my (three decade long) process of coming out as trans.

This whole sequence of poems tries to work with embarrassing memories—they are the chords around which the melodies work. The ending depends on the contrast between the cultural currency of Billy Joel (what kinds of kids liked him, in 1987? why?) and the cultural currency of older kids who could have been (and in fact were!) in Dischord bands circa 1987 (few of which used keyboards). Also note that all the musicians are men.

The Smiths, "Ask"; "Panic": "Golden Lights" (poem: "Palinode with Study Guide")

"Oh my darling/ Why, why did you change?"

Artichoke, "Swarm"
Shop Assistants, "Caledonian Road"
(poem: "Royal Botanical")

If you get a chance to visit the Edinburgh Royal Botanical Gardens, take it. Spare a thought for the bees.

CHVRCHES, "Recover"
Laura Veirs, "That Alice"
Alice Coltrane, "Atomic Peace"
Ornette Coleman, "Open to the Public"
A Tribe Called Red, "Electric Pow Wow Drum"
(poems: "Concord Grapes"; "White Lobelia")

Looking back on the book—and on this playlist—you might have noticed a lot of white people. White musicians, white experience, white concerns. Flowers of whiteness. Craft values steeped in whiteness, nurtured by whiteness, protected by hours and years of practice and dedication and friends who read drafts, but also by white privilege.

It's not clear to me what to do about that, right now, but it is clear—as it wasn't when I began writing this book (let alone when I began writing, during the 1980s and 1990s)— that I can't go on writing just about white people, from a white context, with white cultural references. Not even if the white people are formally innovative, or very careful, or very historically alert, or very encouraging, or very queer and trans.

It's equally clear that the art forms, genres and practices most involved with the lives and histories of people of color (even if I look only at the United States) are not art forms I know from the inside. I know Laura Veirs's terrific song about Alice Coltrane better than I know any actual Alice Coltrane records; that is in some sense just my listening history, but it is in another sense not OK, or not for a cultural arbiter (which I am, when I am not writing my own poems). I have no idea how to solve that dilemma, though one solution—which these poems contemplate-- might be "shut up, pass the mic, and get out of the way; you have already had your say, and more than your say." Another might be: don't worry about it, since individual writers and artists of color have very obviously influenced my poetry (at least, I think it's pretty obvious), and I support them, even though genres strongly associated with nonwhite experience (rap, jazz, blues, salsa, spoken word, trip-hop) have never been central to how I hear the world.

But I do worry. I'm pretty sure that I am not going to stop writing poems. I'd like to think of the poems I do write—with all their glittery electropop surfaces, all their girliness—as part of an ensemble, or a team, or a constellation, or a garden. I'd like to be visible on its grounds, or in its sky; someone else should be its morning star.

Stephanie Burt and Advice from the Lights links:

Paris Review review
Publishers Weekly review

Largehearted Boy Book Notes playlist by the author for Belmont
The Pantograph Punch interview with the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

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Book Notes (2015 - ) (authors create music playlists for their book)
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