February 28, 2017
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Eleni Sikelianos's poetry collection Make Yourself Happy is bold and observant, an arresting volume on happiness.
Library Journal wrote of the book:
"Electric as a lightning storm, wild as a first-growth forest, protean as fantasy's shape-shifters—that's Sikelianos's poetry, a real pleasure to read."
I actually listened to more animal sounds than human songs while writing this book. For example, the baiji, also known as the Chinese river dolphin, last sighted in 2007:
I hear this recording with my heart rather than my ears. It just physically bypasses my head and lands somewhere in the chest. It’s piercing in innumerable ways. Putting a simile to it might lessen that puncturing, but it does sound like someone rubbing, if someone could rub pleadingly, a window with a dry cloth.
The question that drove the first poems in Make Yourself Happy was, in the simplest way, how to live. The opening section is devoted to that, to the ways we find and lose happiness. We’re in a time when we have to reflect and deflect a lot of darkness, when art needs to work through a lot of calamity, and I wanted the poems, as a counterpoint, to delight in that sensorial buoyancy that for me is singular to poetry. Around that time, I discovered a definition of life that really spoke to me, in a book by the great feminist biologist Lynn Margulis. She borrowed it from two Chilean cognitive scientists, Varela and Maturana: life, in the biological instance, is any organism’s ability to self-produce (the Chileans named this ''autopoeisis''). By extension, I thought, the pursuit of happiness is a self-making endeavor. But you can’t follow that line of thinking long without stumbling into our self-making undoing others’ self-making. Thus, the second section of the book is a devotional to animals from each continent that have gone extinct in modern times. I had a vision (while under the influence of yage) of all the animal sounds and movements making up the fabric of the earth. Their hooves and paws and caws were creating the first blanket/atmosphere of earth, and then they were performing a ghost dance. In the vision, I understood that we will never be able to take away their making of earth’s acoustics, even as we are snipping threads in the aural fabric.
One of the lost sounds that struck me was from an animal that is still hanging on, the 'alalā, or Hawaiian crow, which lives only captivity now. It’s no longer exposed to its natural predators, and because of that the species has forgotten their danger call. You can listen to some recordings of the 'alalā at the great Macaulay Library (part of the lab of ornithology at Cornell), which has been doing field recordings since 1929, and has archived over 175,000 animal sounds.
You can listen to the 'alalā here:
A song that captures the generative dark that is part of our current palette is Thurston Moore’s ''Mina Loy,'' which I first heard him perform at Naropa a few summers ago. Mina Loy was the badass feminist poet novelist lamp designer bohemian, whose 1914 ''Feminist Manifesto'' says: ''There is no half-measure, no scratching on the surface of the rubbish heap…Nothing short of Absolute Demolition will bring about reform.'' Could these be just the words we need right now? Moore’s song contains the lines ''Found a diamond in the gutter/On an early morning freeze/In your mouth it turns to water/Onyx eyes swallow me.''
I made a few great musical discoveries while writing this book, first among them Xylouris White. Check out anything on their first album; try, say, ''Chicken Song,'' which Jem Cohen did a film for. I happened to be in Paris when they were doing a concert there, which led, in a roundabout way, to being invited to a baptism while at a funeral for a shepherd turned World War II resistance fighter on Crete. It’s a long story, but it found my husband (novelist Laird Hunt) and I on the crest of a hill in the middle of olive groves looking giddily down on the Mediterranean while a crying, naked child was dipped in a cauldron of — was it olive oil? And left us at three a.m. in a seaside taverna with Giorgos Xylouris and his friends doing insane foot-slapping dances to live music. We were amongst the first to leave; the Greeks were at it till sunrise. Later, we learned the child being baptized was the daughter of lyra player Stelio Patrakis. Check out ΟΙ ΔΙΚΟΙ ΜΟΥ ΦΙΛΟΙ (''My Friends''). The moral of this story is Cretan music is alive and well, being made with a sense of tradition and innovation at once.
Xylouris White led me to the head-explosion of Marisa Anderson, when I happened to be in Providence for another show, and she opened for them. Her solo electric guitar sound was so rich, my friend joked that she had a second guitarist hiding behind the scenes. Check out her ''Battle Hymn of the Republic,'' from an album devoted to playing the music ''that belongs to all of us,'' as she put it; they haven’t made it private — yet.
I can’t get enough of ''#14'' (''I was Born to Be Your Poet'') from AroarA’s (formerly Broken Social Scene) adaptation of Alice Notley’s book of poems In the Pines (itself inspired by listening to Bob Dylan, Leadbelly, and folk music while receiving Interferon treatments)
Also on the playlist while writing:
Brian Eno, Music for Airports. For his ambient series, Eno meant to write music ''as ignorable as it is interesting,'' and that’s why this works for me for writing in a way that lots of music doesn’t. It allows my thoughts and imagination to run wild in fields of their own making.
Kronos Quartet, ''Dark Was the Night'' (but of course Blind Willie Johnson was there first).
Paul Simon, ''The Werewolves Are Coming.'' Not for writing, but for making your coffee before writing, and, boy, did he see the werewolves on the horizon.
Kristi Stassinopolou/Greekadelia, Έρχομαι κι εσύ κοιμάσαι or Majnoun (traditional Persian song sung in Greek Stassinopoulos)
Coming down the pike: YG and Nipsey Hussle, ''FDT''. This doesn’t have anything to do with writing this book, but has a lot to do with our current moment. I heard it booming out of a car on my way home from the Women’s March in Denver, and thought: that’s the new anthem.
Eleni Sikelianos and Make Yourself Happy links:
Colorado Public Radio interview with the author
Largehearted Boy Book Notes playlist by the author for You Animal Machine (The Golden Greek)
The Museum of Americana interview with the author
The Ribbon interview with the author
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)
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