September 15, 2015
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Sandra Beasley's poetry collection Count the Waves is as impressive as it is inventive in its language.
The Washington Post wrote of the book:
"These engrossing poems are interspersed with pieces that explore the book's other major theme: how language shapes experience, enhancing or impeding understanding. By crafting rich poems that respond to 19th-century phrases — 'In the latest fashion,' 'The calamity was not serious' — Beasley seems to free expression from time and other restraints."
Stream a playlist of these songs at Spotify.
At readings, I introduce Count the Waves as unabashedly full of love poems. Not to seduce, but to record: "Here's who I am, and here's how I got here. Can you love me on those terms?"
When I was a teenager, I made mix tapes. My high-school boyfriend's family did not approve of our relationship--I was the wrong race--so we dated in secret for several years. Cards were risky, emails worse. But we made each other mixes as a way of sharing an emotional reality. Whether cool and loud, or soft and sentimental, we avoided dead air at all costs. Deep into the B side of a Maxwell UR 90 cassette, one of us might stop the music to add a message. Years later, reaching into my archives, I was caught off guard when my ex's voice came flooding through the car's speakers to remind me: we'd get through.
This collection is shaped by the way intimacy is lost and gained over long distances. "Distance" can be a matter of cultural divides, financial desperation, state lines, or the passing of years. The stories on these pages are not mine alone. Much of the book is in dialogue with The Traveler's Vade Mecum, an obscure 1853 index of phrases, numbered for the purpose of telegraphing in code. Some of these poems were brainstormed during long trips between DC and the greater South. I have Mapquest directions with sestina endwords scribbled in the margins. Sometimes, you gotta get through. These are songs that keep me going.
Elliott Smith / "Waltz #2 (XO)"
One thing a poet has to shake off, when she's carrying around a stack of pages, is the hierarchy of chronology. What you wrote first is not necessarily Page One; what provides closure, narratively, does not need to be the final poem. I fell head over heels for Elliott Smith's XO in 1998. On his album, he positions "Waltz #2" before "Waltz #1"--something I mirrored, in Count the Waves, with "Fidelity (II)" and "Fidelity (I)."
Reverend John Wilkins / "You Can't Hurry God"
John Wilkins calls himself a gospel guitarist. His dad, Robert Wilkins, was a bluesman turned preacher whose "Prodigal Son," was covered by the Rolling Stones. Rev. Wilkins' sound is, for me, a defining element of a good day in the Oxford, Mississippi. The tempo is majestic, while the lyrics praise patience and faith--two qualities that sometimes fall by the wayside of being celebrated in art.
Laura Veirs / "July Flame"
"Can I call you mine? Can I call you mine?" This is the perfect song of summer infatuation. But we often forget how much of intimacy is rooted in taxonomy: what is permitted, what is admitted, what is declared. Count the Waves spends a lot of time looking at how language is wielded, and the boundaries drawn by words.
LaVern Baker / "Soul On Fire"
I'm interested in writing about mature relationships, which are bonded not only through pleasure but through struggle. The characters in these poems experience economic hardship and chronic illness; they travel not only because they want to, but because they have to. What inspires me about this LaVern Baker song is the way she locates lust in loyalty. To be devoted is incredibly sexy.
Chuck Berry / "Downbound Train"
Oh, the poems that have been composed during a night of drinking--or sometimes, the morning after. Berry's parents were Baptists, and this dark, tense song feels at once like fable and confessional. In Count the Waves, I have a poem called "Parable" that walks that same tightrope. "Downbound Train" started out as a B side. Really? Really? Just a reminder that we do not always know what will capture the audience's attention.
Valerie June / "Shackle Bound"
Poets often talk about "voice." That's because, in less than a hundred pages, covering what is usually thirty-plus individual topics, we must project a discernable quality that shines through the variety. Valerie June has one of the strongest voices I have ever encountered firsthand. Even on a simple acoustic recording, the equivalent of a straightforward lyric poem, she produces powerful and aching depth. She is a bard of wandering.
Solomon Burke / "That's How I Got to Memphis"
Solomon Burke never had the chart success afforded to James Brown or Otis Redding. He put out 38 albums, yet he's the best soul singer you may have never heard. When he was younger, he worked for Chubby Checker at Eddie's Meat Market in Philadelphia. He went to the Apollo and sold popcorn. He found work as a mortician in Los Angeles. He covered Bob Dylan. He had a wicked sense of humor, and we need more of that in poetry.
Junior Kimbrough / "Old Black Mattie"
There are two blues monarchies in the North Mississippi Hill Country, the Burnsides and the Kimbroughs, and both R.L. and Junior sang this song. "Old Black Mattie" stretches to six minutes and thirty-nine seconds. In this book, I consciously made room for jams: "The Wake," about the artist James Abbott McNeill Whistler, and "The Circus," about Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. These aren't punchline poems. Sometimes you build a world, then explore it.
Mos Def / "Quiet Dog"
If you've ever wrestled with the form of the sestina--a commitment to six end words, repeated across seven stanzas--you can appreciate rigorous pattern in language, a.k.a. rap. Whether employing rhyme or lexical repetition, you have to keep the rhythm tight and the energy high. I can't listen to this song without dancing, and I always feel slightly winded by the time it's done. A good poem can do that to the body.
Lucinda Williams / "Joy"
Lucinda Williams is daughter to the late Arkansas poet Miller Williams, and this is the next-to-last track on Car Wheels on a Gravel Road. Like "Inventory" in Count the Waves, the words rebel and celebrate. "Maybe in Slidell, I'll find my joy," she sings, "You took my joy, I want it back." No neat stinger of an ending, just a pluck of notes diminishing into silence. But you know that when she sets out in that car, she finds her joy. And she keeps driving.
Sandra Beasley and Count the Waves links:
also at Largehearted Boy:
Book Notes (2015 - ) (authors create music playlists for their book)
Book Notes (2012 - 2014) (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
Librairie Drawn & Quarterly Books of the Week (recommended new books, magazines, and comics)
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
Short Cuts (writers pair a song with their short story or essay)
Shorties (daily music, literature, and pop culture links)
Soundtracked (composers and directors discuss their film's soundtracks)
weekly music release lists
Word Bookstores Books of the Week (weekly new book highlights)