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November 18, 2020

Contributors' and Editors' Playlist for the Anthology "The Best of Brevity"

The Best of Brevity

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.

The Best of Brevity is a diverse and marvelous collection of essays under 750 words.

Publishers Weekly wrote of the book:

"This collection will be an asset to writing teachers and students, and a joy to essay fans."

In their words, here are the contributors' and editors' Book Notes music playlist for the anthology The Best of Brevity:

The Best of Brevity is a new anthology celebrating more than twenty years of flash nonfiction from Brevity: A Journal of Concise Literary Nonfiction. The volume includes 84 of the most popular and best-loved essays published in our literary magazine through its first sixty issues. Rather than attempting to create a playlist on our own, we reached out to 11 contributors to select a song that connects, in some way, to their included essay in The Best of Brevity. Much like the essays, themselves, the chosen songs comprise a wild array of perspectives, experiences, subjects, and styles ranging from classic to contemporary. In short, this playlist includes a sweet little taste of everything, which is exactly experience we hope readers will come away from The Best of Brevity with.

– Zoë Bossiere and Dinty W. Moore

Writer: Ander Monson
Essay: “Letter to a Future Lover”
Song: “Joan of Arc” by Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark

To pair with “Letter to a Future Lover,” I’m selecting Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark’s 1981 song “Joan of Arc” (not “Maid of Orleans,” which is also good and often confused with it) which is my single favorite OMD song. Like all of their best tracks, it has a soaring romantic vocal that renders skepticism impossible. I think the essay has it too, or aspires to that too, in its willingness to be taken over by a tragic and lovelorn handwritten inscription in a book I found in a thrift store almost a decade ago now.

“Joan of Arc” is addressed only sort of to Joan. It’s addressed to her but really it’s addressed to us, whoever the us is, knowing she won’t hear, or if she does hear, she won’t care, or if she cares, it won’t matter: it knows she will leave anyway. But it has to be sung. The song starts as a lament, but one that in the totally glorious bridge almost escapes it. It’s like that chorus in “Fast Car” where the memory of driving in your car is so transporting that it’s almost enough to rise out of the spiral that the song otherwise describes. The beauty of the vocal line in “Joan of Arc”’s bridge is almost indescribably beautiful to me as it rises, almost heavenward. It’s one of those moments that makes this nonbeliever feel religious. When I sing along in that moment I always find myself raising my hand to the sky—in what, benediction? supplication?—before the moment passes and I realize how foolish I look and snatch it back down again, glad nobody was ever looking, as the song turns back to resignation. Yet we’re left with that indelible emotional journey, and that’s not nothing. Actually it might be more than the love itself. Both the song and the essay attempt to answer that impossible question: is the love worth the loss? I don’t have an answer, but I have the song—and the inscription in the book.

Writer: Shuly Xóchitl Cawood
Essay: “Katy Perry is Crooning and Won’t Stop Just Because I Did”
Song: “Stars” by Grace Potter & The Nocturnals

I can’t look out the window / I can’t look at this place / I can't look at the stars / They make me wonder where you are (lyric from “Stars”)

You’d think I would choose the Katy Perry song I was listening to when this essay took place, but instead I think of “Stars” by Grace Potter and The Nocturnals, with its mournful sound and lyric. I heard this song after someone I loved died six years ago. I would think of her on my walks, especially when faced with a vast landscape, a reminder that perhaps she must be somehow in the world, a reminder of my smallness and mortality. I wonder if that’s how the man in my essay feels, if he consoles himself with his brother’s memory, and how much it hurts still.

Writer: Nicole Cyrus
Essay: “Hairy Credentials”
Song: “Video” by India Arie

India Arie has a catalog of comfort songs for Black women, but her first single, “Video,” is still my favorite. Strangely, the peppy tune reminds me of myself in office restrooms on unruly hair days. The days when I frantically pat down my curls to appear acceptable.

I wrote a humorous essay about Black women’s hair, but the topic is painful. “Video” describes the intense pressure Black women feel to meet European ideals of beauty. The stress is exhausting. Black women fear our hair type or skin color may affect our paychecks or ability to receive a promotion. And that’s why “Video” matters. Black women want recognition for our talents, just like everyone else. Guitar in hand, Arie sings that we are more than enough. The world needs to take note.

Writer: Brian Trapp
Essay: “Shower Songs”
Song: “Dancing Queen” by Meryl Streep, Julie Walters, and Christine Baranski

No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t get my twin brother to share my taste in music. He was legally blind and had hypersensitive ears. He’d startle in his wheelchair when my father came home, hearing his car in the driveway before anyone else. So why did he not dig the hazy beats of Outkast’s “Aquimini?” How could he hate on the melodic punk pop of my Clash albums, or not be touched by the emo-piano of Ben Folds? To all of them, he’d say “Eh-eh” (No) until I turned them off.

Instead, my brother loved ABBA, specifically the Mamma Mia! soundtrack, which he listened to on repeat. His favorite number was “Dancing Queen.” I’m not sure why he loved this Swedish tribute to an underaged disco shaker. Maybe it was the music itself: the driving bass and choppy guitar, the triumphant piano and upbeat melody with that famous Nordic harmony. Maybe it was its placement in the narrative, reminding an over-the-hill mother-of-the-bride, played by Meryl Streep, that she still had dancing days ahead. Maybe it was the way our own mother took his hand and swayed it to the beat as he Ahhhh-ed along and smiled open-mouthed. Whatever it was, in the dark theater or, later, in the living room of our house, when a sweaty Meryl Streep bellows, “Do you want another one?” my brother would yell, “Yeah!”

Writer: Jill Talbot
Essay: “All or Nothing: Self-Portrait at Twenty-Seven”
Song: “Already Gone” by the Eagles

When I saw the “guitar player with a beard” strumming through the window of that Lubbock bar, I lingered and listened as he propped a boot heel on a rung and slow down a fast song. I wondered if he might slow me down. In the end, he taped a letter to my door: Whether you stay here or go there is not going to make any difference. That was the year I chased the distance, turning the key of my black Jeep Wrangler and taking off on 82 West toward a still lake in New Mexico or a desert town in Texas or a rock on the Rio Grande, the glow of my Marlboro Lights stubs spinning on the highway behind me like stars. I made a mix tape for every trip, mostly seventies songs, even though it was 1997. Eagles, America, Abba.

“Already Gone” was the first single released on the Eagles 1974 album, On the Border. And the border was place I knew well, not because I crossed one after another (even the one into bed with one of my professors), but because I felt somewhere between where I was and elsewhere, shouting my “woo hoo hoo”s into the hard wind. The guitar player’s letter was like thunder in the distance, but even as I read his words I knew—I was already gone.

Writer: Julie Marie Wade
Essay: “Ace of Spades”
Song: “Send Me No Flowers” by Nellie McKay

The soundtrack to my childhood was piped in courtesy of a small gray radio in our kitchen, and that perpetually tuned to “AM 8-80, K*I*X*I, hits of the 40s, 50s, and 60s.” Growing up in the 80s and '90s, I missed the likes of Madonna and Michael Jackson, so busy was I fox-trotting with my father to Frankie Avalon and Bobby Darrin across the slick linoleum floor. But Doris Day was the one we held our breath for. Not only did she sing with a relentless, one might even say indefatigable, cheer—she was also a bona fide movie star! Forget Top Gun and The Goonies. At my house, we watched Pillow Talk and Send Me No Flowers taped from television onto bulky VHS tapes. My mother had been known to grin at me, her only daughter, and proclaim: “One day you’ll grow up to be just like Doris Day! Then, you can find a Rock Hudson all your own!”

Years went by. I sent my mother flowers, a fresh-cut cushion. I told my parents I turned out “a bit more Rock Hudson than Doris Day.” Even that was too subtle. “I’m gay!’ I shouted into the receiver before silence swallowed their reply. Years went by: dial tones, blinking red lights, static. I couldn’t listen to the old songs without a new grimace, a sudden wince. Then, in 2009, Nellie McKay released a tribute album to Doris Day, Normal as Blueberry Pie. How did she manage it—such sincerity and irony spliced into every song? Almost a tinkling, those sweet high notes of her ukulele strummed in mirthful homage. We saw McKay live in concert. My partner squeezed my hand. The time machine of my youth had landed at last, and there we were, in the poignant, whimsical present.

Writer: Vincent Scarpa
Essay: “I Go Back to Berryman’s”
Song: “Merry Go ‘Round” by Kacey Musgraves

Because my essay is essentially a tour of the trailer park in which I spent the vast majority of my youth, the first song that comes to mind when I try to conceptualize a soundtrack for it is this one by Kacey Musgraves. Sure, it has to do with the fact that trailer parks get namedropped in the song—“Same hurt in every heart / Same trailer different park,” a line I love—but it has more to do with the world Musgraves is sketching out in this deceptively brilliant tune. I know well, I remember well the “Mamas hooked on Mary Kay,” the “brothers hooked on Mary Jane,” the daddy “hooked on Mary two doors down.” I remember “we're so bored until we’re buried.” And so this is a perfect song to situate alongside my essay—the form of which is a kind of merry-go-round, I think—in that both pieces of writing are interested in detailing, beyond cliché, a specific kind of lived experience I hold dear.

Writer: Sandra Gail Lambert
Essay: “Poster Children”
Song: “It’s Hard Out There for a Gimp” by Wheelchair Sports Camp

The disability rights action described in my essay “Poster Children” took place about twenty-eight years ago. Which makes it a grandmother event to queer rapper Kalyn’s music video, “Hard Out Here for a Gimp.” The nightmarish lighting, her exposed body on a stretcher, and the erratic beat all evoke the institutional abuses we were fighting against in the essay and are still fighting. As do rap lyrics such as “They’re god blessing me, but I didn't even sneeze,” “There’s a stairway to heaven. How the hell are we going to get in,” or “They’re like, Kalyn you talk too much. Shut up, you walk too much.” And any song called “My Vagina Ain’t Handicapped” just makes me happy.

Kalyn is MC of the Krip Hop band Wheelchair Sports Camp. Okay, to be honest here, as essayists are supposed to be, I had to Google things like what MC meant in this context and whether performers in this genre used “lyrics” to describe their words. I think poetry is also a good term. And I think it’s important to trace lines of influence. The only reason I know about Kalyn is from her appearance on musician and activist Gaelynn Lea’s livestreamed concert for the Americans with Disabilities Act this past summer. I've been following Gaelynn since she won NPR’s Tiny Desk Concert in 2016. Gaelynn’s violin playing and singing are seeped through with yearning and strength. And along with lyrics such as “So if you hear them make claims of progress take a good look and see who isn't there” and “Did you know that when I get angry I breathe fire. I could burn this place down,” they spur on the writing of this aging activist.

Writer: Deborah Taffa
Essay: “My Cousin’s Backyard”
Song: “Dear Mama” by Tupac

“Dear Mama” was on everyone’s playlist in the late '90s, when my essay takes place, and I was last living on the reservation. The rapper’s mother was a Black Panther who named her son after Tupac Amaru: Peru’s last Incan revolutionary. Educated in both Indigenous and western ways, the conquistadors forced Tupac to watch his wife’s execution before quartering him in the plaza in Cusco in 1781. His name is synonymous with resistance, as well as Indigenous values.

Native women are the ultimate resisters. They hold the family together. In postcolonial times especially, many kids who grew up on the reservation have stories of their grandmothers being the ones who provided stability, fed and bathed, cooked and nurtured them on a daily basis. Colonial pressures created this division of duties. Men were more involved when our cultures were intact, and it’s the pain of this distortion, and the outsized role of women, that I relate to in Tupac’s song.

Writer: Pam Durban
Essay: “Solving for X”
Song: “Anthem” by Leonard Cohen (Live in London album version)

Ring the bells that still can ring/Forget your perfect offering / There is a crack, a crack
in everything / It’s how the light gets in

I was lucky enough to see Leonard Cohen in concert on his final world tour, the one made necessary by the discovery that while he was living as a monk in a Buddhist monastery, his manager had stolen all his money. The concert was a profound experience, a celebration of imperfection, of joy and sorrow, love and betrayal, all those fractured places where the light comes in. I could have listened all night.

I had heard “Anthem” before, but the song as it was performed that night became for me the ultimate hymn of praise to the brokenness and beauty of our lives and a celebration of the ways in which those lives are shadowed by mortality and lit by joy. I wasn’t consciously thinking of the song while I was writing “Solving for X,” but it must have been playing somewhere inside me because the memory of the happiness I felt watching the water pour out of the pockets in the corners of the tent over my father’s grave came over me like light streaming through a crack in grief.

Writer: Brenda Miller
Essay: “The Shape of Emptiness”
Song: Beethoven’s Violin Concerto, 2nd Movement

The second movement of Beethoven’s “Violin Concerto” transports us into a world where grief meets joy. The violin starts off confidently in a conversation with the orchestra, the melody swaying easily like a butterfly in a tranquil meadow. But before too long, the violin finds itself farther away from the embrace of the orchestra and climbs into a higher stratosphere, where it lifts and falls, lifts and fall, straining to reach…..something just out of reach. Our breath catches as we feel the violinist moving those violin strings with such love, such tenderness, just to the edge of breaking.

Editors: Zoë Bossiere and Dinty W. Moore
Anthology: The Best of Brevity: Twenty Groundbreaking Years of Flash Nonfiction
Song: “Circle Game” by Joni Mitchell

The editors’ own inclusion, a song that we feel comprises the spirit of the collection as a whole, is “Circle Game” as performed live by Joni Mitchell at the Universal Amphitheatre in 1974. Unlike the album version, Mitchell asks the audience to sing along: “This song doesn’t sound good with one lonely voice,” she says. “It sounds good with the more voices on it the better, and the more out of tune voices on it, the better.” This communal aspect of the recording—with many voices—and the image of the carousel work well to represent the cyclical nature of universal experience, the ephemerality of our lives and the inevitable passage of time. These are the traits we feel are present across the essays we’ve included in The Best of Brevity.

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