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August 2, 2013

Book Notes - Stephen Burt "Belmont"


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 Bret Easton Ellis, Kate Christensen, Kevin Brockmeier, George Pelecanos, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, Aimee Bender, Myla Goldberg, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.

Stephen Burt's poetry collection Belmont is lyrical yet contemporary, a fascinating exploration of everyday life.

Publishers Weekly wrote of the book:

"[Belmont] explores themes of adulthood, parenthood, and personhood with tenderness, intelligence, and wonder. . . . This collection, full of heart and humor, demonstrates Burt's impressive range and formal deftness."

Stream a Spotify playlist of these tunes. If you don't have Spotify yet, sign up for the free service.

In his own words, here is Stephen Burt's Book Notes music playlist for his poetry collection, Belmont:

Good music radio works very much like a poetry magazine, or like an anthology with commentary, mixing the familiar and the famous with the new and the obscure: that's one thing I learned—perhaps too well—during my years immersed in college radio, helping out with the more or less indie-rock nighttime programming at WHRB (95.3fm) in Cambridge, where I spent most of my supposedly free time between 1991 and 1994. All that indie music also gave me subjects for my poetry, not least for the poems I wrote in 2006-2012, those that went into Belmont. Most of these songs are named in, or else stand behind, particular poems in that book: the rest stand behind, or stand for, what I do.

Braille Party: "Welcome to Maryland"

I say I'm a writer from DC, because I was an anxious, volatile, inquisitive, half-formed teenager there, but I was a child in suburban Maryland; my friend the mathematician and novelist Jordan Ellenberg sometimes claims that I'm from Maryland; Belmont, Mass.— the compact, privileged suburb where I live now, and one namesake for Belmont—can feel a lot like Chevy Chase, Maryland. Braille Party were from Maryland and announced it in this, their best and catchiest song, recorded the year before my family moved across the District line. Its ringing guitars and reedily harmonized male vocals steer the right path in between "We hate the suburbs!" and "We are proud of our suburbs!": it's a little bit of both, just like (or perhaps just a bit like) my poem "Exploring the Suburbs," in which I'm careful not to say whose suburbs they are.

The Raincoats: "No Side to Fall In"

This one goes with "Poem of Six AM," where the anti-rock percussion of "washer and dryer" rebukes the masculine myth of independence and asks for better choices from fathers, for fatherhood, for parenthood in any gender you like. My poem goes on to say "There is also a song/ made of Cheerios, honey nut and multigrain," but that's not a reference to any particular song: it may be a reference to the poetry of Laura Kasischke.

The Owls: "The Lucky Ones"

This quietly disturbing indiepop duo from the Twin Cities shares members with the Hang-Ups, whose best album Jessie and I purchased on our first date. This song begins "We're so lucky, we're the lucky ones," and it's not quite clear how ironic they want it: which is how I want my poems about suburban life in Belmont to come across, too. I do not think I had the Owls in mind when writing my longish poem "Owl Music," set in the middle of the night in Belmont, but I wouldn't rule it out.

The Ramones: "Needles and Pins"

My poem "Rue" is mostly an argument about the history of this song, about the Ramones' version of straight masculinity, which I can't repudiate entirely, no matter how much I try: the song is clearly—what the poem is, what all poems might be, implicitly—a cover, and a commentary, on the original (in this case, the Searchers' chestnut about teen longing). Given the chance to revisit the song in prose, I'll add that I was not (as the poem says) in junior high school when it came out, in 1979; I was eight. I didn't hear it till (probably) college, alas.

Avril Lavigne: "I Can Do Better"

Yes, much of what she records is done by committee, and you can usually tell that it cost a ton to create, but I like most of it very much, un-ironically, and not just because if you're distracted a couple of her best tunes ("Everything Back But You," for example) could be the Fastbacks: no, I like her because that committee has done its work very well (cp. The Monkees), and because the committee so clearly includes her, and because most of what she did—at least till she made the transition from touring pop megastar to TV star—tells us that she wants to control her own music, that she wants to control her own life, and that she can't have the control that she wants, no matter how fortunate she ought to feel, no matter how much privilege or how much attention she gets, for what she already is.

That's an experience that relatively fortunate teenagers and fortunate adults (who aren't pop stars) have, too—especially if they are academically inclined and value security: and that's the genesis of my own poem "For Avril Lavigne," spoken by the pop star (it also incorporates a few words from her liner notes in Goodbye Lullaby).

Also I am not-so-secretly a not-very-rebellious fourteen-year-old girl.

R.E.M.: "Can't Get There From Here"

The title's the last among dozens of rhymes on –are/ -or/ -eer in my poem "Bad Newz," which describes a real photograph, by Alec Soth, of two hapless teens in Grand Rapids, Minnesota. My poem imagines that they want to get out of town by becoming rock-and-rollers, and that their chances aren't much: thus the rhymes, which go around and around and don't change, and thus my choice of this song, in which the band (or at least Michael Stipe) remembers getting lost, going in circles, not getting where he wants to go.

Ernie and Aaron Neville: "I Don't Want to Live on the Moon"

My poem "Self-Portrait As Muppet" has other Muppets and other Muppet songs, e.g. "Mahna Mahna," but this is the one that made me cry when I traveled while our guy Nathan was small; it's secretly behind several other poems.

Breaking Circus: "Took a Hammering"
Breaking Circus: "Laid So Low"
Breaking Circus: "Driving the Dynamite Truck"

Led by the cantankerous (at least he sounded that way on a mic) Steve Bjorklund, Breaking Circus began in Chicago's mid-1980s anti-social proto-industrial postpunk scene, alongside Naked Raygun and Big Black, and like Big Black they used a drum machine; Bjorklund was by far the most cerebral, and by far the least successful, among the notable bands in that circuit, moving to Minneapolis to restart his band, then giving up singing and songwriting for studio engineering and producing (especially for the loud-indie label Amphetamine Reptile).

I wrote a whole poem about this band's frustrating, annoying, amazing discography, and about their mostly frustrated career: it's called "In Memory of the Rock Band Breaking Circus," and it tries to figure out why I am (as far as I know) one of two people in the whole world who really, really likes them.

Tallulah Gosh: "Bringing Up Baby"
Heavenly: "So Little Deserve"
Tender Trap: "Love Is Hard Enough"

There's nothing in Belmont specifically about the pop groups led by Amelia Fletcher—Tallulah Gosh, Heavenly, Marine Research, Tender Trap—but in some hazier sense a lot of the book, and a lot of what I do, takes her and her bandmates' work as an overall model: she once said that her favorite songs were "disposable pop, except that it's not disposable," which is a neat slogan for the ephemerality of lyric poetry, too. Her own songs have changed, more than once, the direction of my writing and of my life. I'm not sure that I would have tried to live in Britain twenty years ago if I had never heard "So Little Deserve," and I would probably never have met the love of my life (who, yes, decided to marry me) had we not been so far into this thing called "indiepop," whose ideal-typical form for me is probably still constituted by Heavenly, and by the latest and best and most layered, most complicated, most explicitly feminist, and most allusive (60s "girl groups," 80s indie) record from Fletcher's current band, Tender Trap, who also—having re-grouped and re-formed after she and her partner, the bassist Rob Pursey, had kids—show how you might keep making your art, and sharing it with your friends, even after you have adult responsibilities, and grade schoolers who eat your toast and live in your home.

"Bringing Up Baby" comes from Fletcher's first band; it's a song about Katharine Hepburn's wackiest, most appealing role, in the movie of the same name, in which she chases a leopard while Cary Grant chases an intracostal clavicle. The role and the movie, though not the song, show up in my poem "Prothalamium with Laocoön Simulacrum," which is a real prothalamium (commissioned for a friend's wedding) but also a real attempt to think about the differences among the arts: between sculpture and writing, for example, but also between writing and music performance, and also between writing and real life.

Magnetic Fields: "Deep Sea Diving Suit"

Without the Magnetic Fields the love of my life would not have been so far into this thing called "indiepop," which is what the Magnetic Fields were or seemed to be in the mid-1990s, when they recorded this song about obtuse and frustrated love undersea. The latest Magnetic Fields album is called Love At the Bottom of the Sea. I have a poem that takes place in part undersea (it's an illusion caused when my older son flies his kite over our heads), though it does not contain a diving suit.

Husker Du: "Celebrated Summer"

My spring-into-summertime poem "Bifrost" takes place on the campus of Macalester College, in St. Paul, where I taught for seven years. Great place. Bob Mould went there. I tried (and failed) to get him an honorary degree.

Cesar Franck: Prelude, Fugue and Variation for Piano and Harmonium, performed by Bertrand Chamayou (piano), Oliver Latry (harmonium)

Towards the end of writing Belmont I was listening to a lot of composed music, most of it 19th and 20th century chamber works: Prokofiev, Ravel, Poulenc, Messiaen, and especially Cesar Franck, whose works can grab me and stay with me in almost the same way that great indiepop hooks have done: people who know one work by Franck usually know his Sonata in A for Violin and Piano (it's supposedly one model for Vinteuil's piece in Proust), but this is the other one I can't get out of my head. How many "classical" works do you know for harmonium, anyway?

Blueboy: "Unisex"
Blueboy: "Imipramine"

A melancholy hushed piece and a big strong anthem for all boys who want to be girls, and also for all girls who want to be boys.

Game Theory: "The Real Sheila"
The Loud Family with Anton Barbeau: "Song About 'Rocks Off'"

I wrote about Scott Miller elsewhere recently, in an essay that wasn't supposed to be a memorial, and I'm still pretty seriously hung up and sad about his sudden demise: he was the artist whom I would have been, whose work I would have made, if I had a talent for pop and rock song-making rather than whatever talent I have (or do not have) for the arts that use only words.

Boy in Static: "Young San Francisco"

I discovered this one while I was assembling Belmont, and Nathan, who was four at the time, truly loved it; but that's not why it's here.

Instead, it's here because it represents—to me— the pop of the very near future: in its ultra-catchy, song-form electronica, a toy piano (so dinky, so low-tech) and a violin (even lower-tech, and masterful) collaborates with the high-tech synthetic percussion. It leaves room for the words, and for drop-outs, where each instrument takes a breather; it says that guitars are still nice but we no longer need them, and its whole arc promises that singable pop in the form that I've known it is going to survive big technical change, equipment fatigue, generational progressions. It promises—more broadly-- that the pleasures of the old, the human, the single voice, the sound of a person-becoming-herself-or-himself, are compatible with the pleasures of a technical challenge, of growing up and trying new things, of leaving behind some of what you used to do-- which is sort of the promise that most of my poems seek, too.

Stephen Burt and Belmont links:

Los Angeles Times review
New Books in Poetry review
New York Journal of Books review
New Yorker review
Open Letters Monthly review
Publishers Weekly review

Los Angeles Review of Books interview with the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

Book Notes (2012 - ) (authors create music playlists for their book)
Book Notes (2005 - 2011) (authors create music playlists for their book)
my 11 favorite Book Notes playlist essays

100 Online Sources for Free and Legal Music Downloads
Antiheroines (interviews with up and coming female comics artists)
Atomic Books Comics Preview (weekly comics highlights)
Daily Downloads (free and legal daily mp3 downloads)
guest book reviews
Largehearted Word (weekly new book highlights)
musician/author interviews
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
Shorties (daily music, literature, and pop culture links)
Soundtracked (composers and directors discuss their film's soundtracks)
Try It Before You Buy It (mp3s and full album streams from the week's CD releases)
weekly music & DVD release lists

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