Poets in their Youth

I did that “20 Books of Poetry” meme on Facebook and have enjoyed reading the lists generated by other people.

Except that it sparked a good case of neurosis in me as practically no one shares affection for the books I chose. I think about 3 books I picked have ended up on other people’s lists.

And it’s, you know, an exercise in inauthenticity, doing this list thing. At the moment I wrote the list, I chose the books that stuck out in my memory. If I were to be excessively honest, the first poet whose work I read in great depth was John Updike. I was in high school, it was the biggest book of poetry I could find at Half Price Books (and therefore, the greatest value for my Wal-Mart dollar), and so I read it.

From then on, not being an English major in college, I read uninformedly, continuing in a tradition of reading each year’s Best American Poetry anthology and being sparked mostly by the work I read there, not fully understanding then the implications or ramifications of anthology inclusion/exclusion.

I don’t like a lot of the poetry I should like. I remember teachers in my MFA program looking at me with great sympathy and confusion when I said I’d rather stick red hot pokers through my eyes than read any more Wallace Stevens (the only poem of his I can stomach is “13 Ways of Looking at a Blackbird”). I actually described Stevens’s poems as “word noise” in that class. I would rather replace my shower soap with sandpaper than have to read Elizabeth Bishop’s Collected Poems again. And I, too, dislike almost all of Marianne Moore’s poems.

The list of poets who’ve shaped me in the negative is probably longer than its companion list.

Sometimes I wonder if this means something significant about the quality of my own work. Something, you know, I don’t want to hear.

And it’s true, too, that I’ve drawn much of my poetic inspiration from watching widely of cinema. I could easily scrap out a list of films that make me want to write great poems. To wit:

Citizen Kane
Cleo from 5 to 7
Rear Window
The 400 Blows
Moulin Rouge
All About My Mother
Dead Again
Myra Breckinridge
V for Vendetta
Raiders of the Lost Ark
Bonnie and Clyde

That was a 30-second list. A longer reflection would lend itself to more certainty, but there you are.

I think The First Risk owes a great structural debt to Poison, for example, and The Strange Case of Maribel Dixon reflects my obsession with Lost.

Generally, I think I should read more poetry.

Visit Me at AWP

Where you can find me:

1. My room, stealing a moment (call for instructions).
2. The Writer’s Center/Poet Lore booth, #238.
3. “Poetry’s Electronic Communities” panel chatting about LOCUSPOINT, Thursday at 4:30 – 5:45 pm, Private Dining Room 2, 3rd floor.
4. Watching the ASU/Piper Center for Creative Writing booth from afar, trying to gauge if they “miss me” enough or not.
5. Resuscitating a cocktail (at appropriate times of day only).
6. Resuscitating a coffee (anytime).
7. At the Court Green/Fence reading event on Thursday at 6:30 pm, Film Row Cinema at Columbia College Chicago.
8. In Alison Stine’s hotel room for her book party.
9. Checking my email in a dark corner to see how Arden is doing with her lovely pet sitter, whom Arden may like more than she does me.

Perfect Albums of the 90s

Last week, my colleagues and I were discussing what we thought were the 1990s “perfect albums.” Our lists had few similarities, but one of two consistent nods to the decade’s most influential releases.

For the record, a “perfect album” is a cohesively original set (or successfully produced unified collection) of songs that, ultimately, tended to define the era, the band, the moment, the culture, etc.

Here’s my ultimately irresponsible list, in no order:

Automatic for the People, R.E.M.
They were once my favorite band of all time and I owned just about everything they put out. But this was the album that, to me, really crystallized what they were capable of. Yeah, “Everybody Hurts” was polluted by too much airplay, but it got too much airplay because it captured something. Seemingly pedestrian at times, I think this album transcends both rock and folk music and becomes something different and unique.
Favorite cuts: “Drive,” “Nightswimming”

OK Computer, Radiohead
The band’s last decipherable output, in my opinion, but one that placed them squarely on the vanguard of what rock would mean in our next decade. Radiohead trailblazed the return of synths, computerization, and cultural disenfranchisement, floating among these elements the strangely mystical lyrics that warned of a future in which we pray aliens kidnap us from the planet.
Best cuts: “Karma Police,” “Exit Music (for a Film)”

Little Earthquakes, Tori Amos
The original is still the best. Although Tori has traveled down many a road diverging in her musical wood, this first album—bold, unique, uncompromised, aggressive—reopened the door Kate Bush left ajar years before. Although she owes a debt to many who came before, including Led Zeppelin, Tori was a tiny woman who roared.
Best cuts: “Mother,” “Little Earthquakes”

Tragic Kingdom, No Doubt
As much about breaking up as it is about the economic chasm in Anaheim, No Doubt’s second album is definitely my favorite and showcases a band rising out of its own ashes (suicide, failed romances, band member departures) into greatness. Gwen Stefani’s weirdly charismatic voice holds center stage with the boys here, a factor that almost destroyed the band when everyone tried to make her the centerpiece of the entire band.
Best cuts: “Sunday Morning,” “Excuse Me, Mr.,” “End It on This”

My 2007 in Music


Infinity on High, Fall Out Boy
Sounds like: Giddy, catchy post-punk boy pop
Best Tracks: “Thnks fr th Mmrs,” “I’m Like a Lawyer with the Way I’m Always Trying to Get You Off,” “Don’t You Know Who I Think I Am?” “The (After) Life of the Party”
Representative Lyrics: “We’re the new face of failure / prettier and younger / but not any better off” (“I’m Like a Lawyer…”)
Notes: On their newest album, FOB finally found a balance to their blend of smarmily punning lyrics and deft guitar hooks. What truly makes or breaks a band, though, is percussion, and FOB displays such a range of beats and crashes on this album, that aspect alone elevates it above the majority of pop music in the world today.


My December, Kelly Clarkson
Sounds like: “This time, it’s personal”
Best Tracks: “Maybe,” “Never Again,” “Hole,” “Irvine, “Don’t Waste Your Time”
Representative Lyrics: “Someday when we’re at the same place / when we’re on the same road / when it’s okay to hold my hand / without feeling lost / without all the excuses / when it’s just because you love me, you let me, you need me, then maybe / maybe.” (“Maybe”)
Notes: A lot of people have dismissed this album because it’s dissonant, seems unpolished and well, sort of sophomoric. It took some listens to get into, but Kelly’s break-up album, for me, is among some of the best ever recorded. It has texture, ranging from danceable anger (“Never Again”) to wistful longing (“Maybe”) to a disarmingly tender meditation on where’s-he-now (“Irvine”), balanced out by the Southern Rock influences of the syncopated and brilliant “Hole,” plus fantastic bonus tracks “Dirty Little Secret” and “Not Today.”

Good Morning Revival, Good Charlotte
Sounds like: The kids in auto shop put down their guitars and got a drum machine
Best Tracks: “Where Would We Be Now?” “Dance Floor Anthem,” “Victims of Love,” “Beautiful Place,” “The River”
Representative Lyrics: “Where would we be now baby / if we’d found each other first / if I’d said those simple words / ‘I’ll wait, I’ll wait / As long as it takes.’” (“Where Would We Be Now?”)
Notes: The second break-up album on the list is dominated by lead singer Joel Madden’s newfound fascination with R&B and hip hop rhythms and rhymes, generally set to Good Charlotte’s characteristically dark and introspective lyrics and snarling guitars. The diversity is good for them, I think, and like FOB, this effort transcends their smark alecky lyrics and too-easy metaphors. The metaphors are still too easy, but now you can dance to them, or feel sorry for yourself.

Futuresex/Lovesounds, Justin Timberlake
Sounds like: Justin Timberlake and Timbaland had a baby and it wants to kiss you on your privates!
Best Tracks: “Lovestoned/I Think She Knows,” “SexyBack,” “Futuresex/Lovesound,” “What Goes Around…”
Representative Lyrics: “Those flashing lights come from every where / The way they hit it, I just stop and stare / She’s got me lovestoned / I think I’m lovestoned / She’s got me lovestoned / I think that she knows” (“Lovestoned…”)
Notes: For his second solo disc, Justin did exactly what nobody thought he could: an R&B concept album. It’s a bold move, avoiding crafting strong singles in favor of creating a lush electronic landscape that varies from the PG-13 (“Lovestoned”) to the R “(SexyBack”). This album has a surprisingly strong flow from track to track and the tracks work best when heard in order, from start to finish, although fun standouts like “SexyBack” still stand on their own. And since we’re always dissing Britney, there’s the latest “Cry Me a River,” here called “What Goes Around Comes Around.”

The Best Damn Thing, Avril Lavigne
Sounds like: Avril’s got a guitar, a bottle of lemoncello, and a thirst for trouble
Best Tracks: “Girlfriend,” “Runaway,” “One of Those Girls,” “I Will Be,” “Hot”
Representative Lyrics: “I wanna drive you into the corner / and kiss you without a sound / I wanna stay this way forever / I’ll say it loud / Now you’re in / you can’t get out / you make me so hot” (“Hot”)
Avril shrugs off the concern for social issues that peppered “Under My Skin” in favor of mindless faux-punk rock that does, well, pretty much what you’d expect. While this album is less complex lyrically, it’s a fun listen, balancing songs inspired by her marriage to the Sum 41 frontman with fuck-off break-up songs.

Dignity, Hilary Duff
Sounds like: Madonna, if she still went to church and never got naughty
Best Tracks: “With Love,” “Dignity,” “Stranger,” “Happy,” “Danger,” “Burned”
Representative Lyrics: “There’s no kindness in your eyes / The way you look at me it’s just not right / but I can tell what’s going on this time / there’s a stranger in my life” (“Stranger”)
Notes: Is my gay showing? Um, I think so. What happens when two radically disparate musicians break up? Well, you get the Good Charlotte album, and you get Hilary’s offering, a pointed song-by-song indictment of Joel Madden’s problems, including an especially poignant f-you to Nicole Ritchie (“Dignity”), who’s having Joel’s baby. Isn’t this tawdry? But yes, this slickly produced album of beats does a good job of maturing Hilary out of her Lizzie McGuire drag, but only barely.

Under the Blacklight, Rilo Kiley
Sounds like: Sarah McLachlan and Shania Twain made a baby in the late 60s
Best Tracks: “Silver Lining,” “Close Call,” “Breakin’ Up,” “Under the Blacklight,” “Smoke Detector,” “15”
Representative lyrics: “It’s not as if New York City burned down to the ground / once you drove away / It’s not as if the sun won’t shine when the clouds up above / wash the blues away” (“Breakin’ Up”)
Notes: I got this album just a few days ago, but I’m already obsessed with it. Fans of the late 80s Fred Savage film The Wizard will remember lead singer Jenny Lewis as the apple of his eye, but now she’s all grown up and her heart’s been broke—by a bandmate. Shades of Tragic Kingdom here, but the formula is all Rilo Kiley’s own—everything from 50s doo-wop, 60s psychedelia, and 70s disco influences pop up, echoing everything from the Beatles to Fleetwood Mac.

Too Young to Fight It, Young Love
Sounds like: The Strokes got a little gay
Best Tracks: “Discotech,” “Give Up,” “Closer to You,” “Find a New Way,” “Take It or Leave It,” “Underneath the Night Sky”
Representative Lyrics: “I wanna get closer to you / I’m on the outside looking in / Tell me our love is real / you know that I will understand” (“Closer to You”)
Notes: Young Love are sort of a pop anomaly. While their music is deadly catchy and hook-laden, they have an awkward depth lyrically and musically. I saw them in concert in Phoenix this year and they in explicably replicated the complex beats and guitar riffs in concert. It was sort of amazing to see. And the singer can sing in real life, too. Their album is also just really fun to listen to.

Drastic Fantastic, KT Tunstall
Sounds like: The Indigo Girls – Lesbianism + Ireland + 1950s American pop sensibility
Best Tracks: “Little Favours,” “If Only,” “Hold On,” “I Don’t Want You Now”
Representative Lyrics: “I slipped softly through your slim fingers / Feeling traces, I embrace this / Feeling of letting go / Oh and there goes, there it goes” (“Little Favours”)
Notes: I didn’t want to like this album. I didn’t even want to buy it. But I accidentally overheard it somewhere and then, well, I was hooked. I love on “If Only” how KT switches back and forth between major and minor chords as she sings a lyric; I love her crazy little guitar riffs and fun little beats. Her husky voice isn’t hard on the ears, either. I just like her. I didn’t want to, but I do.

The Black and White Album, The Hives
Sounds like: Sweden just got MTV, and the pop-punk revolution has begun!
Best Tracks: “Tick Tick Boom,” “Hey Little World,” “Won’t Be Long,” “T.H.E.H.I.V.E.S.,” “Return the Favor”
Representative Lyrics: “I’ve done it before and I can do it some more / blah / it’s too late, it’s too soon / or is it tick tick tick tick tick tick tick boom!” (“Tick Tick Boom”)
Notes: There’s something about Sweden that encourages them to take American pop music conventions, coat them in sunshine and socialism, and send them back out into the world to spread a Scandinavian message of irreverence and happiness. Even though the Hives can sound a little raw, your mother would probably invite them in for some lemonade if they stopped over. Collectively, they look like the most unlikely group of musicians (by American standards), but they can rock out and have a good time.

On the Road to Nashville, Erasure
Sounds like: Rascal Flatts in a magenta feather boa
Best Tracks: “Alien,” “Breathe,” “Victim of Love,” “How Many Times?” “Chains of Love”
Representative lyrics: “Still you dare to change your mind / you’ll be sorry when it’s over / when you’ve had your taste of freedom / don’t come crying on my shoulder” (“Boy”)
Notes: This live album backs Andy Bell’s plaintive song stylings with a bona fide country sound, complete with slide guitar and twang guitar, and back up girls moaning their sad ooohs and aaahs. It’s actually a gorgeous album, ranging from bluegrass revisions (“Blue Savannah”) to tender and hushed heartbreakers (“Spiralling”). If you ever thought Erasure was fun but lacked depth, this is the album that will change your mind.

Blackout, Britney Spears
Sounds like: Britney Spears with a long island in one hand and her crotch in the other
Best Tracks: “Gimme More,” “Break the Ice,” “Piece of Me,” “Get Naked (I Got a Plan),” “Everybody”
Representative Lyrics: “You got me hypnotized / I never felt this way / You got my heart beating / Like an 808” (“Break the Ice”)
Notes: Come on, you knew she was going to be on here. Probably for the wrong reason, because her album, while still fairly mediocre by music standards, was lightyears above what anyone expected. With a sound she culled from digging through Timbaland’s trash can (and working with one of his protégés), the songs vary from sexually danceable (horizontally or vertically) to oddly introspective. “Piece of Me” seems to imply that Britney knows exactly what she’s doing and how the world works, but then again, she didn’t even write that song.

Alright, Still, Lily Allen
Sounds like: imagine Madonna at age 17, drunk and slightly stoned in London, with a big fat chip on her shoulder. So, you know, younger.
Best Tracks: “LDN,” “Smile,” “Knock ‘Em Out,” “Take What You Take”
Representative Lyrics: “There was a little old lady who was walking down the road / She was struggling with bags from Tesco / There were people from the city having lunch in the park / I believe that is called ‘al fresco’” (“LDN”)
Notes: Lily makes the list because her album is fun and sassy, even if some of the songs aren’t even pop-album worthy, but there is enough here to enjoy. The creepy muppet person from the “Alfie” video shows that Allen has her tongue firmly in her cheek when it comes to her music career, and her smarmy lyrics and vocal posturings are both entertaining and often titillating.

From the Screen to Your Stereo II, New Found Glory
Sounds like: the setlist for the cover band I’m about to start
Best Tracks: “The Promise,” “King of Wishful Thinking,” “Stay (I Missed You),” “Crazy for You,” “Head Over Heels,” “Hungry Eyes”
Representative lyrics: “I’ve been meaning to tell you / I’ve got this feeling that won’t subside / I look at you and I fantasize / Darling tonight / Now I’ve got you in my sights / with these hungry eyes” (“Hungry Eyes”)
Notes: NFG found some online notoriety when they covered—and slammed—Justin Timberlake’s “Cry Me a River” on Pepsi Smash. Here they stick to songs made popular by films—everything from Pretty Woman to Romeo + Juliet to Dirty Dancing—and bring their snazzy poppy ska-rock sensibility to it. Bonus points for shaking the dust off “King of Wishful Thinking.”


Gracious thanks to Matthew Thorburn for linking to this and restoring my ability to laugh out loud:

The Fives

Some favorites so far:

Five things, besides “your ride,” that you might wish to “pimp”
your sideboard
your clergyman
your thoughts on transubstantiation
your hypothalamus
your ranch dressing mix

Five terrible fake reality TV shows
Thoracic Surgery With the Stars
Track, Destroy, and Consume Your New Mom
Mormon Idol
Survivor: Leaky Hot Air Balloon
Gastroenterologist 911

Five things you might do with “all that ass”
open a modest home ass business
serve hot meals of ass to the less fortunate
hold a weekend “Ass Sale” on your lawn
make colorful ass gift bags for the holidays
give sympathetic testimony for recovering hump drunks