Wednesday, January 28, 2009

January Reading/Writing Playlists: Or, Now I Know Why the Frustrated Writer Sings

Music plays a major role in my reading and writing life. I am one of those people who concentrates better with background noise, so I have always listened to music while reading. Sometimes, it greatly enhances the reading experience. When I was an angry teenager, listening to loud guilt-laden metal made reading Mary Shelley's Frankenstein a million times better. (Granted, sometimes music warps a reading - listening to Led Zeppelin the first time I read Catcher in the Rye certainly made for what I'll call an "interesting" experience, as much as I love those two things separately). Some music, when heard for the first time, also can remind you of a favorite book or literary moment. Music comes from the same creative impulse as writing - the need for human connection - which makes it a great prop. So whether it's pop or classical or rock, good music can be a great benefit to reading.

Music is just as important to writing as it is to reading, maybe even more so. A really good song or piece of music is a great way to work through an idea, a character, or a setting. For example, when I listen to Sufjan Stevens's "The Predatory Wasp of the Palisades Is Out to Get Us!" I get at least one-hundred ideas for a good short story. Music also works as a fantasic motivator. The Roommate and I often go to the Indianapolis Symphony, and I always come back itching to put together a poem. I don't personally know any creative writers who don't listen to some form of music while writing.

Anyways, all this is a long introduction to today's entry, my monthly playlist for reading and writing. This is the music that got me excited about reading and writing this month. Feel free to give them a try yourself. (Warning: I make no claims to being cool. This is just what's doing it for me these days.)

The Reading Playlist
1. Bela Bartok, "Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celesta"
2. Death Cab for Cutie, "I Will Possess Your Heart"
3. Led Zeppelin, "Achilles's Last Stand"
4. Okkervil River, "So Come Back, I Am Waiting"
5. Supertramp, "Rudy"
6. REM, "Country Feedback"
7. Foo Fighters, "Come Back"
8. Smetana, from Ma Vlast: "No.4, From Bohemia's Woods and Fields."

The Writing Playlist
1. Modest Mouse, "People as Places as People"
2. from the original Broadway cast recording of Spring Awakening, "Don't Do Sadness/Blue Wind"
3. The Beatles, "Day in the Life"
4. Bon Iver, "For Emma"
5. Great Lake Swimmers, "Passenger Song"
6. Grieg, "Funeral March" (the original piano piece)
7. Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, "Supernaturally"
8. Robert Randolph and the Family Band, "Ain't Nothing Wrong With It"

So there you go. Listen and enjoy.

But before you go, a literary anecdote:
In my American Lit class, we are reading John Smith and my professor promised we'd meet Pochantas. So tonight, while flipping through the assigned pages, I angrily said, "I don't see any fucking Pocahantas." To which my quick-witted Friend Who Cooks said, "He didn't write about that part of their relationship."
It was the highlight of my day.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Theodore Roethke: Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Poetry

My favorite website - the one website I cannot live without - is the AV Club. Last Friday, one of my favorite writers there, Nathan Rabin, mentioned that he did not like poetry. I was okay with this; poetry's not for everyone. But it was the Comments following the entry that so angered me. One lovely commentator, sure in his knowledge, claimed that poetry was a bastardization of language; that it was a butchering of prose with ridiculous rules like rhyme and scansion patterns. According to him, poetry got in the way of true human communication. I cannot even begin to express the anger I felt at reading this. The reason poetry exists, and particularly the reason poetry with rhyme and meter exists, is because of the need for human communication. These patterns of writing were developed in order to be the closest to human speech patterns. Iambic pentameter, etc. was created so writers could express something that could be easily understood, then repeated for illiterate audiences. So technically, prose is the real bastard of human communication. Asshole.

Anywhosen, my experience with this idiot made me think about my own experiences with poetry. Because truth be told, a few years ago, I would have agreed with the commentator. Now, I'm planning on getting an MFA in poetry. So what changed? The answer is pretty simple; I found the right poem. My theory about all forms of literature - poetry, fiction, comic books, etc. - is that anyone can be converted simply by finding the thing that speaks to him or her. I didn't like poetry because in high school I was exposed only to the things that bored me: Longfellow, Emerson, Browning. Once I read some poems that really meant something to me - poems that got under my skin or that I understood or whose language I craved - everything changed.

For me, that first poet was Theodore Roethke (with a smattering of Seamus Heaney on the side). Reading Roethke opened up a less restrictive, more concrete form of poetry than what I had seen earlier in life. My life with Roethke started out with the slight but image-packed work of "My Papa's Waltz" or "Dolor" (read that poem and tell me you don't want to hang out in an office supply closet all day). But last year, I carefully re-read a long, multi-part poem by Roethke entitled "The Lost Son." It's an amazing work - tense, beautiful, very strange and sprawling. Do I totally understand it? No. But that doesn't stop me from loving every single word in it. Here's the first stanza (from Part 1: "The Flight"):

At Woodlawn I heard the dead cry:
I was lulled by the slamming of iron,
A slow drip over stones,
Toads brooding wells.
All the leaves stuck out their tongues;
I shook the softening chalk of my bones,
Snail, snail, glister me forward,
Bird, soft-sigh me home,
Worm, be with me.
This is my hard time.

Bah! I love this poem. There are probably only a handful of people in this world who get tingles down their spines while reading this, and for us, it means everything. If you're not one of those people, awesome (I personally must confess that I have never liked a single Emily Dickinson poem I've ever read). Every poem in the world is meant for a different person, and every person was meant for a different poem. The hard part is finding what you like. The easy part is falling in love.

So for that bastard commentator on the AV Club and for everyone else: Try to actually read a poem once in a while. You might be surprised by what you get.

Book Referenced: Roethke, The Collected Poems of Theodore Roethke

Sunday, January 25, 2009


Hi everyone. This is my blog. Here, I will write about books, writing, maybe some music, and possibly some life. Enjoy.