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October 14, 2020

Destiny O. Birdsong's Playlist for Her Poetry Collection "Negotiations City"

Negotiations by Destiny O. Birdsong

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 Jesmyn Ward, Lauren Groff, Bret Easton Ellis, Celeste Ng, T.C. Boyle, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, Aimee Bender, Roxane Gay, and many others.

Destiny O. Birdsong's poetry collection Negotiations is exclamatory yet also surprisingly intimate.

Publishers Weekly wrote of the book:

"An extraordinary string of immaculate, brutal narratives about systemic violence and racism, and their repercussions for Black American women. . . . Birdsong’s striking imagery and contagious fervor are a potent salve against apathy and foreboding."

In her own words, here is Destiny O. Birdsong's Book Notes music playlist for her poetry collection Negotiations:

It’s ironic: I grew up in a household where music was heavily sanctioned. We were only supposed to listen to gospel, which accomplished two things. First, it gave me a surprisingly broad exposure to musicians and composers who could sing and play all kinds of things: country, pop, hymns; the trumpet, the drums, the bass guitar. My mom loved singers like Candi Staton and Helen Baylor, who started out as blues and R&B greats, and had raw talent that made all their music beautiful, no matter what they were singing about.

The second thing is that it made all the music I sneaked to listen to more precious. Ah, I can still remember the first time I heard Brian McKnight’s “One Last Cry” or 112’s “Cupid” while my mom was out running errands, and how both songs made me feel like I wanted to fall in love. And while I was being surrounded by all this music, I was also being surrounded by art. My mother was the first artist I ever saw up close, and she could make anything beautiful: T-shirts, hair bows, a planetarium, a pumpkin. Even now, music and art feel connected, and I can sometimes tell when I’m about to write something because I’ll have a day (or a night) beforehand when I pull up song after song on YouTube and play them, sometimes on repeat for hours. In the two-and-a-half years it took to write Negotiations, I learned about and came to love so much music, and the vestiges of those songs appear throughout the book. Here are a few songs that helped me write poems.

1. “Freedom,” Beyonce: The title poem, “Negotiations” was inspired by the chorus of this song, and for a while, a line from it served as its epigraph. But since the poem ultimately became the first in the book, and the book already has two epigraphs, I decided to cut it. But the spirit of that song—which is both a lament about the fact that freedom ain’t free and a battle cry for something better—lives on in the poem. The last line about Sally Hemings not coming to play with Thomas Jefferson is also inspired by Big Freedia’s voice on that track.

2. “Hey Ya” and “Billie Jean,” Eden: I went to my first Bonnaroo in the summer of 2017, and I paid my way by writing poems for my friend Josh’s podcast, Versify. We would run the Poetry on Demand booth during the day, and then go to concerts in the evenings. As we were wandering around one night, we stumbled upon Eden singing these covers, and we were blown away. I’d never heard of him, but when I got back to my tent, I logged onto YouTube and listened to whatever I could. The fact that the songs were bangers was beside the point. He was just good, and he made me think about being a good poet, which helped me a lot later that summer when I started thinking about Nego as a book and not just a collection of poems.

3. “Shattered Ring,” “The Weekend,” and “Love Galore,” SZA: I really didn’t get put on to SZA until Ctrl came out, also during Bonnaroo. Josh would wake up every morning playing it at our campsite, and eventually, I came to love the album, but I also looked back at some of SZA’s earlier work. I wrote “Spilled Milk” (which contains a few lines that nod to her lyrics) right after I came home, and I think the connection with the subject matter (hotep fuckbois) and SZA’s music is clear: no one sings heartbreak, longing, and frustration quite like she does.

4. “Lion’s Song/Be Good,” Gregory Porter: I’ve written about this before, but this was a favorite song of someone who harmed me. It’s such a lovely piece, but its meaning was twisted in ways that make it monstrous for me sometimes. Still, I listen to it because it informs how I think about that experience, and it no doubt helped me write a sequence of poems that appear in the book. No matter what, I can never hear Gregory Porter’s voice and not want to make something beautiful, even if the beauty comes out of a narrative of deep pain.

5. “Bodak Yellow,” Cardi B: I was at a residency where I first began thinking about this book as a book, and this song came out, but I wasn’t really feeling it until a friend broke down the lyrics for me. My life was (at least I thought at the time) spinning out of control. I was writing a book I hadn’t planned on writing. I was getting very sick from something that would take me months to discover was the culprit (a biologic medicine that literally made me lose my skin), and I had just had a panel accepted at a prestigious conference, but one of the panelists was threatening to back out. I was stressed, but my friend reminded me of Cardi B’s rise to stardom, how she fought back the haters, and how the song really is a manifesto for women like us: hungry for a chance to make good on our talents; taking care of business while struggling to make ends meet; being constantly told that what we want isn’t actually what we deserve. I came to love this song, and Cardi slips into my poem “Long Division,” not only because she’s beautiful, but because she’s fearless. She’s a hustler. She survived.

6. “Rub You The Right Way,” Johnny Gill: If you’ve never been eight years old in the summer in Louisiana and heard music blaring from cars that pass by, and thought about being rubbed by a boy you have a crush on, you might not understand why I love this song so much. It just reminds me of being carefree and happy and young and loud. When I was writing “Ode to My Penis,” an allusion to this song slipped into that poem because I believe masturbating and listening to it have the same purpose for me: reminiscence, private joy.

7. “Overjoyed,” Stevie Wonder: The last poem in the book, “and though the odds say improbable” is named for a lyric in this song. After writing a draft of the poem in late 2018, I’d logged onto Facebook to take a break, and the poet Ernesto Mercer had uploaded a video of Esperanza Spalding doing a cover of this song with Stevie Wonder in the audience. When she sang this lyric, I thought, “THAT IS MY TITLE!” I went back to the original version too, just to make sure it was the right choice, and it was. There’s so much love in that song, and so much love for Black women in that poem.

Destiny O. Birdsong is a Louisiana-born poet, fiction writer, and essayist. She has received fellowships from Cave Canem, Callaloo, Jack Jones Literary Arts, the Ragdale Foundation, and the MacDowell Colony, and won the Academy of American Poets Prize, Naugatuck River Review's 2016 Narrative Poetry Contest, and Meridian's 2017 "Borders" Contest in Poetry. She earned both her MFA and PhD from Vanderbilt University, and now lives and works in Nashville, Tennessee.

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