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June 27, 2022

Katie Marya's Playlist for Her Poetry Collection "Sugar Work"

Sugar Work by Katie Marya

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.

Katie Marya's debut poetry collection Sugar Work is filled with poems as intense as they are captivating.

Megan Mayhew Bergman wrote of the book:

"Marya's debut lands in the gorgeous, messy place where the sacred and profane overlap. Sugar Work has a compelling narrative bent and generous eyes, stunning in its southern reality and recognition of suffering and work. Marya is a psychologically astute poet, a bright new talent in touch with her own humanity and that of others―allowing strippers dignity on stage, and looking upon addicts and her own young self with nuance and compassion."

In her own words, here is Katie Marya's Book Notes music playlist for her poetry collection Sugar Work:

I wanted this playlist to include thirteen tracks and one bonus track. I was born on February 13th, I signed my book contract on that day in 2020, and I like these numerical connections. I also value pithiness and concision. I wanted the songs to reflect Sugar Work’s loose narrative arc and the era of my childhood—the nineties—but I also wanted to offer a sense of what I listened to while writing the book, the sonics that shaped my synapses as I constructed these poems. Jenny Lewis released her album The Voyager in 2014 and the oldest poems in the collection started then. I’ve danced to these songs over the course of the last eight years. My body instinctively moves to them. Here are the rules I followed as I curated:

Rule #1: I had to know the songs by heart.

And they had to be songs from albums I loved. My favorite way to listen to music is to sit down with a whole project, put on nice headphones, lay on my bed, and disappear into the world of sound an artist has made for us. I couldn’t add a song because I thought someone might think I was cool for knowing it. I couldn’t add a song because I thought it might make the playlist seem well-rounded. This rule was ultimately about patience—the patience it takes to stay committed to who I am, rather than to some imagined sense of who I’d like to be. Patience with the forms that existed while I worked on a first book, which, in so many ways, is simply a Bildungsroman in poems. What could I make from those songs? What transitions might be interesting? Those questions are not unlike the ones I asked while writing Sugar Work and working with my own mental state at the time. Put another way: no fakers.

Rule #2: The songs had to be by women.

This became a rule once I realized that Lenny Kravit’s “American Woman” was the only dude making the cut for a while. My mom played that song growing up. I can hear her voice singing it now. I know it by heart, but I was using it to say something about my book and my disdain for representations of womanhood in the US. “American Woman, stay away from me,” he sings against those aggressive electric guitar stripes. “Stay away from me too,” I think as I look at my own American face in the mirror. The song broke Rule #1 and I suspected my own pretense in asserting the aboutness of my work. What remained after I ditched Kravitz were only women, so I went with it.

1. “Keep Moving” by Charlotte Day Wilson (ALPHA, 2021)

In August of 2021, I got a breakthrough case of Covid and my friend Dwight, who is an incredible DJ (DJ HairBrain), sent me an album a day while I was in quarantine. Wilson’s ALPHA became an instant favorite. It boosted my energy while I stumbled through the malaise of lost days from staying inside. I was working on the final edits of Sugar Work at this time and the isolation created the vortex I needed. ALPHA is the kind of album you dance to without having to feign happiness. “Keep Moving” is the first track here—and on the album—because I love the ambient opening, the way it feels like you’re walking slowly into a new, beautiful, dark space before the beat drops. I lived in a lot of different places while writing Sugar Work. I taught myself to keep my body moving when I couldn’t quiet my mind. This song reminded me of my impulse to flee, to run away, and of how I’m learning to use that energy in different, more healthy ways now.

2. “Material Girl” by Madonna (Like a Virgin, 1984)

I mention this song in the poem “Daughter of an Atlanta Stripper,” which is the second poem of the book. The more I listen to this eighties pop anthem, the more it haunts me. Both the song’s title and the title of my poem are one-dimensional, like click-bait—they flatten their subjects, which allows for more severe commentary on culture, on consumerism and femininity. And Madonna’s refrain is a philosophical proposition, “We are living in a material world, and I am a material girl,” she shouts. We are shaped by the actual shit around us. We imitate it, crave it, recreate it. In the early stages of writing Sugar Work, I imagined myself doing a performance piece with this song. Shoutout to James Hapke and Hilary Trainor, dear friends and musicians, who sent me their vocal interpretations of the song back in 2016—strange acapella recordings I still have on my phone. Sometimes I listen to them to remind myself I want to have a soul even though I am not sure I believe souls exist.

3. “Higher” by Rihanna (ANTI, 2016)

We are #blessed to be alive during the time of Rihanna. I love her scratchy cry-screaming on this track. It’s unhinged like I have been unhinged. Rihanna helps me embrace it here. She helps me embrace the moments I’ve believed romantic love will absolve me of loneliness. She helps me acknowledge how I’m lured in by the high of surrendering to that belief. The line, “Let’s stay up late and smoke a jay,” with its strung-out, but sure-of-herself energy is endlessly captivating. Some of Sugar Work is about divorce and divorce is terrible, even when it’s kind. If I ever marry again, that line might be the only thing I offer as a wedding vow, not because of the high but because of its recognition of life’s fleeting nature and its awareness that to take one day at time—in love—might be the only way to create something that lasts.

4. “Heavy Balloon” by Fiona Apple (Fetch the Bolt Cutters, 2020)

I realized this song keeps evoking scenes from Fritz Lang’s Metropolis in my head. Rows and piles of workers pushing other workers into a giant mouth, or their bodies mechanically moving back and forth between dials and switches forever to keep some giant machine alive. Rows of soldiers. Marching. In the event someone sexually violated you when you were a child, you know that your mind is this machine, and all the worker-soldiers are a million other smaller yous trying to keep your mind alive. Anger is an incredible survival tool. I love how Apple negotiates it here by making herself into an unruly garden bed of fruits and vegetables.

5. “Make Me Down a Pallet on Your Floor” by Gillian Welch (Soul Journey, 2003)

I’m not sure there is an English word I love more than pallet. It is a soft-sharp word—the way love is soft and sharp. It is an intimate word and feels like a Southern word. A pallet is a simple bed made on the floor, but the French spelling, palette, refers to a painter’s knife or a potter’s flat wooden blade used for making plates and cups and bowls. Pallets are also those large wooden trays on which things get shipped. It evokes the idea of making the best of what one has. In my starkest moments of grief, I’ve laid with a lover on a pallet we made together. When I was a child and my mom worked nights, I stayed at our neighbor’s house. My mom made sure I had all my favorite blankets so I could make the perfect pallet. Sometimes, now, I make a pallet in my living room to feel cozy and fun. This became a regular thing during the most isolating times of the pandemic. I just bought a Japanese floor mattress because my mom is coming to visit. I want her to sleep in my bed—my apartment is small—and I will sleep on an upgraded pallet.

One time while I was in college in Santa Barbara, I drove to San Francisco to see Gillian Welch perform at a Bluegrass festival in Golden Gate Park. Blankets spread all over grass. I can’t remember if she performed this song, but I can picture her thin frame, I can feel the simplicity of her guitar, the lyric’s loose tetrameter, her emollient voice: it makes such a restful place.

6. “Solitary Daughter” by Bedouine (Bedouine Delux, 2017)

Azniv Korkejian, known by her stage name Bedouine, crept through in 2017 with this self-titled subtle masterpiece of an album. This song made the cut for my playlist for obvious reasons: I am a solitary daughter. When, toward the beginning Korkejian whispers, “Though I am not an island, I am a body of water,” I felt something inside me click into place. We do not think of islands as connected places, but they are. Picture the Caribbean Islands. Picture the strip of water between Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic. I needed to conceive of a self that was more like that water and less like a mirage of an isolated island somewhere in the distance. Last week, I had a few friends over and one of them—genius poet Katie Schmid—laughed as she pointed out that everyone there was a single-child of a single-mother. The next part of the lyric goes, “Jeweled in the evening a solitary daughter / If picked at by noon / By midnight I'm ruined.” It makes me think of how sensitive being alone has made me. In the song, Korkejian’s sensitivity and solitude become things to protect—keys to her quiet independence and deep inner life.

7. “All I Really Want” by Alanis Morissette (Jagged Little Pill, 1995)

Morissette offers a sonic contrast to the previous two songs. Like ANTI, Jagged Little Pill is an iconic and perfect album. It is perfect because of its commitment to angst. I love the moment everything goes dead quiet after Morissette sings, “Why are you so afraid of silence? Here, can you hear this?”

8. “Try Again” by Aaliyah (Aaliyah, 2001)

It’s the sinuous croak of the underlying bassline for me. I see Aaliyah shapeshifting her way through an era set on sexualizing her by eternally infantilizing her—an era which also asked her to be responsible for adult men’s choices. People called her music the avant-garde of R&B. The future. I wish she were here now to shapeshift some more.

9. “Just One of the Guys” by Jenny Lewis (The Voyager, 2014)

I’m calling Jenny Lewis the goddess of transcendent cosmic twang. Ann Powers, in her write up on The Voyager, compares Lewis to Joan Didion in that her observations are unrelenting— “a measured perspective, shored up by her fanatical attention to detail.” The song I’ve chosen here is about wanting a baby. It’s pure comedy. At 34, in a world that still equates womanhood to motherhood, I am often thinking of the baby I want. Sometimes, I tremble in a flash of sadness as I watch my friends’ infants try to wrap their baby fingers around their big adult faces. I am in love with the idea of pressing tiny chunk thighs and tiny plump feet to my lips. I am, though, an auntie. Not a mother. When this longing begins to hurt, I go to Lewis.

Powers also says, “Lewis' version of the Voyager — the NASA craft, currently floating beyond human perception? the only Star Trek ship to be captained by a woman? — goes up in smoke.

10. “Every Ghetto, Every City” by Lauren Hill (The Miseducation of Lauren Hill, 1998)

Kick-and-step. Kick-and-step. Kick-and-step. You dancing? Roger Rabbit? It’s the beat here. The Miseducation of Lauren Hill grew me up. Grew so many people up. And this song’s joy still carries me. It is pure ode—her homage to finding belonging in where she’s been. “Looking back, looking back, looking back.”

Same, same, same—I am doing the same thing in Sugar Work.

11. “Love Is a Losing Game” by Amy Winehouse (Back to Black, 2006)

I got excited about the transition from Hill’s song to this song. It happened by accident as I was moving things around. Sometimes the best shit is by accident. Hill’s song ends with that famous conversation among kids where they’ve been asked to define love. Winehouse’s answer is my answer.

12. “Forgiveness” by Patty Griffin (Living with Ghosts, 1996)

This may be the defining album of my life so far. Because I’ve lived in lots of places and my family is scattered, I am often looking for home. Griffin’s voice always comes to mind. Her songs are portraits, true and unwavering in their observations. After my former partner and I separated, we went to see Griffin perform in Des Moines. We drove three hours north from Lincoln. Both of us carrying our tensions and fears. Both of us quiet. I strained to truly see him. He held my jacket in the lobby while I went to the bathroom. The venue was small, and now in my mind’s eye all the stage lights were blue. I was stiff. Those months, I couldn’t bear the thought of touch. Every feeling was harsh. I tried not to be ruled by guilt. Parts of all this are in the book, in its pressurized couplets and off-kilter blues formulas. I never wanted to celebrate my divorce, though sometimes people said congratulations and I appreciated the sentiment. Some marriages are bad. Ours wasn’t. But I was lost. Now, I celebrate forgiveness the way Griffin sings it here. The same minor chord opens nearly every line, the melancholy—and resolve—always coming through.

13. “Sour Flower” by Lianne La Havas (Lianne La Havas, 2020)

Lianne La Havas’ voice is a universe unto itself in this self-titled album about self-reclamation. But this song—for the nearly three-minute outro—is a form of prayer to something beyond the self. No words, just those soft claps and the fluttering cymbal work carrying us into a different season.

14. “Juicy” by Doja Cat (Hot Pink, 2019)

Bonus Track! Sugar Work, like “Juicy,” is a celebration of work and pleasure. In this iteration of life, I am here to shake what my mama gave me, as I can hear her say now in a drawl. The book ends with grief, and writing it helped me accept grief’s enduring nature. To rephrase Louise Glück: Is the body in grief any different than the body in ecstasy?

Thanks for listening with me. See you fools on the dance floor!

Katie Marya is a writer and translator originally from Atlanta, GA. Her work has appeared in North American Review, Guernica, Waxwing, and other literary magazines. She was the recipient of the 2018 James Dickey Prize for Poetry at Five Points and has received fellowships from the Kimmel Harding Nelson Center for the Arts and Nebraska Arts Council. Her first full-length poetry collection Sugar Work was the Editor's Choice for the 2020 Alice James Award and will be published in June 2022. She earned a BA in Spanish from Westmont College and an MFA from Bennington College. She is currently a PhD student in poetry at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

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