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June 9, 2009

Note Books - Elizabeth Ziman (Elizabeth & The Catapult)

The Note Books series features musicians discussing their literary side. Past contributors have included John Darnielle, John Vanderslice, and others.

Elizabeth and the Catapult creates jazz-influenced pop that is both refreshing and substantial, filled with intelligent lyrics and Elizabeth Ziman's sultry, cool vocals.

The band's Mike Mogis-produced CD Taller Children is in stores today, and among its highlights is an inspired cover of Leonard Cohen's "Everybody Knows."

SPIN wrote of the band:

“The group utilizes elastic rhythms and dark subject matter that gives it’s songs a slow burn resonance. The sing-a-long swing of “Momma’s Boy” makes it one of the most tuneful kiss-off songs in recent memory. Fan so of Feist should be head over heels in no time.”

In her own words, here is the Note Books entry from Elizabeth Ziman:

I've chosen to write about Maya Angelou's Complete Collected Poems of Maya Angelou because my love affair with writing and poetry begins and ends with this wondrous book. It's one I've come back to over and over again, and it never fails to illuminate and inspire me. Frankly, Maya Angelou is such a larger than life figure that it's a bit intimidating to sum up my admiration for her poetry in a few feeble paragraphs. But in the name of "Largehearted Boy" and all that is good and true, I will do my very best.

I was first introduced to the collection when I was twelve years old. It was a gift from one of my grade school teachers, and I remember sitting underneath my parent's dining room table with my flashlight and some chocolate chip cookies, trying to skim through the whole thing in one sitting. Although I never quite made it through, and I definitely didn't understand the immense history behind what I was reading, there was still something so comforting about the words and the ritual -- I must have felt like I was in the womb again, protected and hidden from the world.

Many people don't know this, but before she began her writing career, Maya Angelou, among other things, was a professional singer. Unconsciously, I think this is what first attracted me to her poems, their lyrical, almost song-like quality. It's as if she's itching for someone to sing her words aloud. Sometimes when I'm sure no one is listening I'll try singing along to them, and I'm always pleasantly surprised at how easy it is to put them to melody. I have a similar feeling reading her stuff as I do when I listen to a memorable Bob Dylan or Joni Mitchell song. In the course of two or three minutes the lyrics have somehow enveloped and changed me. Like all the best writers, there is am impressive economy to her words ­ maximum impact with minimal information. Each word is so deliberate that it becomes an almost tangible, living, breathing thing. Here's a song-like ditty that I often come back to- "How often must we butt to head, Mind to ass, flank to nuts, cock to elbow, hip to toe, soul to shoulder, confront ourselves in the past".

And that's it--the entire poem. It reminds me of one my favorite Nina Simone songs, "I Got Life"- it's simple like a nursery rhyme, yet exudes this immense wisdom and grit.

Complete Collected Poems of Maya Angelou is a dense one, not just because it's so heavy to lug around on the subway, (which is something I stubbornly attempt to do quite frequently) but also because it covers so many aspects of the human condition. Angelou jumps between tales of slavery, race relations, religion, war, homelessness, love, family and (yes) crack addiction, and yet somehow manages to stay lighthearted and even joyful (tragedy's indispensable armor!). And therein lies the trick -- making the unpalatable easy to swallow. Her poems are heavy, but never arduous; knowledgeable, but never preachy. She effortlessly folds in timeless, universal truths, using only the simplest, direct language necessary --- no frills or decoration. And the words just cling to you. Like in this line from her poem, "Wonder" about growing old.

"Will I be less dead because I wrote this poem or you more because you read it long years hence?"

It's an awfully profound message, but stated in a very simple, humble way. How she does this is still sort of a mystery to me, but it is definitely a rare gift. I can only attribute this to the fact that her life and her actions reflect all that she says. I'd like to think that the definition of a "soulful" writer or thinker, is someone who by their very nature has an inherent sense of honesty and wisdom and is completely fearless in sharing it with others. And that's exactly how Angelou and this book have served me, from my heart to my head, back to my heart again. Although you may not have the same pseudo-religious experience I do from reading this, I'm pretty sure you will at the very least walk away with a newfound appreciation for both Mrs. Angelou and the day ahead of you. And that's always a good start.

Elizabeth and the Catapult links and mp3 downloads:

Elizabeth and the Catapult's website
Elizabeth and the Catapult's MySpace page

"Taller Children" [mp3] from Taller Children

Elizabeth & The Catapults posts at Largehearted Boy

also at Largehearted Boy:

Previous Note Books submissions (musicians discuss literature)
Book Notes (authors create playlists for their book)
guest book reviews
musician/author interviews
Soundtracked (directors discuss their film's soundtracks)
52 Books, 52 Weeks

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