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June 15, 2018

Peter Mishler's Playlist for His Poetry Collection "Fludde"

Fludde

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 Jesmyn Ward, Lauren Groff, Bret Easton Ellis, Celeste Ng, T.C. Boyle, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, Aimee Bender, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.

Awarded the 2016 Kathryn A. Morton Prize in Poetry, Peter Mishler's collection Fludde is inventive and expansive, an impressive debut.

The Rumpus wrote of the book:

"Mishler’s deft grasp of image as well as his unique voice keep these poems immediate and engaging."


In his own words, here is Peter Mishler's Book Notes music playlist for his poetry collection Fludde:



When I’m writing poems, I get so preoccupied that I find it difficult to enjoy listening to music. And I know I’m in a period of rest from my writing because I’m able to return to it. When I’m listening, I get to feel like a middle schooler again, protecting—hoarding—an identity made up solely from the music. This is what writing poems does for me, too, and it’s when I feel most at home in the world (minus the whole actual horror of adolescence of course). Below is an attempt to understand how my periods of listening have influenced the writing of Fludde.

“Noye, Heare I Behette Thee a Heste” Noye’s Fludde Op.59, Benjamin Britten

Here’s a small part of the libretto for Benjamin Britten’s opera Noye’s Fludde, the namesake for my book. In this piece, God makes his covenant with Noah, and promises that he will not destroy the world twice.

I performed in Noye’s Fludde at my parent’s church as a child, and was assigned—as all the children were—the role of an animal. I was an owl. We rehearsed for months, including a long weekend away at a summer camp called Mt. Misery. During each dress rehearsal, the animals were costumed and then made to wait in the narthex of the church two-by-two in long lines. I was paired with a second owl I didn’t know. This period of waiting, while God called to Noah, and while Noah built his ark and gathered his family, all accompanied by the crash of cymbals, the wild moving of blue sheets as waves, and the singing of an opera in Middle English, left me impatient and imaginative, peering through the small windows that separated off-stage from on-. And because I didn’t know the Flood story very well—only the boat, the animals, and the rainbow—what I saw was all the stranger.

When I wrote the lines of the title poem, I decided to title it “Fludde” because I felt—assumed, really—that the poem was reflecting that time from childhood back to me: in particular, the disposition of a child in the midst of a misunderstood experience. Though I don’t see my book as being in conversation with or specifically indebted to Britten’s opera, I thought a great deal about flood stories after that, and began writing new lines that contained them. How could I not? It was and will always be my deepest and most sublime experience with literature, with poetry—not to mention I was meant to participate and perform in it with very little agency, save for my mind.

“Something in the Way” Nirvana

There are poems in Fludde in which a speaker grieves a ruined, perhaps flooded, world, and this speaker is often positioned as a surveyor of the damage, and who sometimes speaks from a position of irony about what he sees: “So romantic these midsummer days: / the jug-bearing servants embossed / on the cool sarcophagi of the CFOs.” I owe so much to Kurt (said everyone who was twelve in 1992), who does something similar on this track—I’ve always thought it was sung by knowing outsider-traveler-stranger who half-smiles upon a wrecked place that is ours and not ours.

More recently, during the first year of writing poems for this book, I was driving with my wife on a road trip through the mountains of Arkansas and we listened to the Unplugged album all the way through, and it may have been our first time listening to Nirvana together too. After we acknowledged our shared love for this song, she said to me, “This reminds me of your new poems.” That was pure encouragement.

“I Am a Small Mistake” East River Pipe

Mel by East River Pipe was the only record I wanted to listen to when I first started making poems, so I had to include it here, certain that it has resonances in the collection. Also, it’s just really good. I’ve admired F.M. Cornog’s ability to personify a kind of psychic pain available in the State of New Jersey where I grew up.

This song in particular reminds me of Fludde in the sense that its lyrics represent the internalized shame of a very small voice as well as that voice’s desire to retreat from the world. I read the song’s line “I’ve got to leave this planet sometime soon” as an imaginative escape as opposed to a physical one, or both—the kind of escape that Donald Kalsched describes in his book Trauma and the Soul, in which a suffering person uses a kind of “archetypal defense”—a means of survival through fantasy. I read this in the opening lines of the poem “Astrolabe”: “Standing atop the moon…”

“Softer, Softest” Hole

Like many of the great songs of my youth, this one is just cryptic enough to put the listener in a riddle-solving trance, and there’s just enough exposition to disturb. Courtney Love delves into the world of the fairytale with the appearance of the witch, and I find its inclusion just as uncanny as Glück’s witch tongue in “Gretel in Darkness” which “shrivels into gas.” The song reminds me of the reasons people are drawn to fairytales for their enactment of key psychological relationships and experiences. This poem is an expression of the unhealable wound and of retribution: grief and loss, power and recovery—all of which the children, and their adult selves, in Fludde can understand.

“Rockets” Cat Power

In the summer after listening to Mel on repeat, this is the song I played nearly, truly, every morning. It was habitual. My favorite thing about “Rockets” is that I hardly know any of the lyrics except for the word “rockets,” and a few other fragments and parts I’ve misheard. In spite of this, the melody and Chan Marshall’s precisely lackadaisical guitar and of course her unmistakable voice make the song, and give it its understated yet urgent emotional dimensions. Knowing the song’s title provides some color to those dimensions—which I read as having some sociopolitical meaning—but otherwise the “narrative” is lost on me. And all this, in my opinion, is the prime efficacy of any great poem or song.

“Sumer Is Icumen In” Medieval English round

This is the Medieval round sung by the “tyrant” in the poem “Mt. Airy Resort and Casino.” He parades through the valley-towns below an abandoned mountain resort riding a glacier carved in the shape of his face, throwing out tokens carved in the shape of his face. The speaker of this poem watches from the mountains, and notes that this leader—a stand-in for our President, probably—is performing this song as a headliner for “big name venues.” Like all rounds, this one is cringe-y and vexing, especially when one of the recycled words sung is the maddening “Cuckoo!” The image that’s not in the poem is the one I love to imagine most: a President who is able to sing a Medieval round on stage with only one mouth.

“The Three Ravens” English folk ballad

Another traditional English song, “The Three Ravens” tells the story of these birds who have spied a slain knight under a tree, but they observe that the knight’s hawks and hounds protect him from being eaten by them as carrion. Then a “fallow doe” comes along and takes the knight onto her back and leads him to an “earthen lake” where he is buried. Exhausted now and heartbroken, she dies beside him. Although I mention “the song of two crows” in the poem “Haruspex,” I was thinking of this English song, and not the Scottish folk ballad “Twa Corbies,” an even darker and grotesque progenitor of this song. I mixed them up in my head when writing the poem.

Because the poem “Haruspex” mentions an “I” who whistled this song, it is therefore one of the only autobiographical poems in the book. In the November that Bush II was reelected, I couldn’t stop whistling it. The melody itself is dark and deeply appealing, minor-keyed and lamenting as it is; and I found the knight’s deliverance by the doe beautiful and rich with a kind of surrealism (the exchanging of the knight’s beloved for a doe) I thought was only available to me in modern poetry. I was wrong, and this opened various new paths of reading and writing for me, searching for the best examples of surreality in early poetry I could find. There’s plenty. Other poems from the book were originally modeled after various traditional English folk songs and Medieval poetry, including, and especially, another poem “Head in the Orchard” which is glancingly inspired by the Child ballad “The Cherry-Tree Carol” as well as “The Dream of the Rood” which includes a talking Cross.

“You Still Believe in Me” Beach Boys

Fludde quotes directly from Brian Wilson when it repurposes the line “two girls for every boy,” a line that I loathe for the acquisitive paradise it claims. So, while I won’t put “Surf City” here, I’ll include another, far better Beach Boys song which was originally titled “In My Childhood,” and which includes that incredible coda that says far more than its verses ever could. And of course, you know, that bicycle horn.

“Holland, 1945” Neutral Milk Hotel

Before I’d read Rimbaud and Max Jacob, Vasko Popa and Celan, this was my introduction to a surrealism that could contain real political emotion. I think Jeff Mangum’s In the Aeroplane Over the Sea is the kind of poetry that Andre Breton hoped could widen humanity in the face of evil. The song dredges up violence, suffering, and death only to a subvert it into a wondrous reincarnation of the human form, but—unlike a less-careful surrealism, Mangum’s paradise shares itself with the darkness. This song and album is surrealism par excellence, and shows this mode’s best capabilities, of holding both horror and exuberant inventiveness at once in its circus wheel.

Gnoissienne No. 1 - Lent Erik Satie

Satie’s Gnoissiennes as well as his other early piano works are the only pieces of music I have ever listened to when writing, and I did so, mostly, to get rid of background noise. When I think about why I chose these pieces, other than the fact that they’re sans lyrics and incredibly, haunting and gorgeous, I think of their slowness and care. The vinyl recording of Satie’s works I own is called Slow Music in deference to Satie’s indication that these pieces be played lent, at a slow tempo. This version on Spotify is the slowest I could find among several unfortunate renditions that play this piece as if it were in a tightly cranked music box.

This slowness has certainly influenced how I make, and read, my lines. Tomas Tranströmer, my favorite poet as performer of his own work (and who was also, coincidentally, a pianist) could very well have indicated that his own poems be read lento. I don’t believe his careful, deliberate reading of his poems in English is simply a product of English not being his first language. The Swedish versions of his poems are read just as slowly. His attention to each line has shown me how to establish and maintain a tone that reverberates in the silence between each one.

“Eternal Sunshine (The Pledge)” Jay Electronica

Introduced to me by music writer Brandon Perkins, Jay Electronica’s epic is everything I hoped to accomplish in the final poem of my book, “Little Tom Dacre in Heaven.” I am deeply interested in two things, among others, in a poem and this song has them both: a speaker describing a waking up elsewhere that is beyond their control and usually at the hand of some unseen divine force, and any sentence that begins with “I saw” and proceeds into the visionary from John of Revelations to “A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall” and onward.

Here’s Jay Electronica: “My ears start ringing, my nose get bloody/ I feel a little bit of pressure on my right brain / Intermission transmission put me in submission / Glistening trapped in the light prison whistling / The Christ told me come closer to the light man / I went blind, woke up in front of a mic stand.” Then there’s a break. An extended, perfect pause. Then: “…saw a shiny object floating out of the ocean…” Then a sample from an interview subject discussing a 2006 Chicago O’Hare UFO sighting. And that’s not to mention what proceeds all this: a dolorous clarinet and a sample from Willy Wonka. The whole song, but especially this part, is harrowing and profound. Check out the 12:09 mark.

“Sometimes I Wonder If I’m a Mistake / I Think You are Just Fine as You Are” Fred Rogers

I will end with one of my favorite songs. This song originally aired in an episode of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood in 1987. I would have been in the first grade then. Maybe a little old for Mr. Rogers? Never. These days, I watch the show regularly and eagerly with my daughter, and I’ve seen some tweets and memes and articles lauding Mr. Rogers’ gentle masculinity—as opposed to masculinity’s various toxic brands—and how true that is.

I rediscovered this song a few years ago on YouTube, and I was shocked by a weird recognition, having half-remembered it from childhood. I was also profoundly moved by it again, in no small part because of the complex counterpoint developed in the song’s two voices; Daniel Striped Tiger’s monosyllabic Blakean rhymes; and of course, the song’s affirming, compassionate message.

I put this song here, and last, because if there is one feeling I wanted to get into Fludde, it is the childlike, competing, sometimes dissonant, sometimes harmonious polyvocality of innocence and experience that Rogers demonstrates here.


Peter Mishler and Fludde links:

the author's website


also at Largehearted Boy:

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