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Amy Lingafelter
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I like when he says With no lovin’ in our souls and no money in our coats. I like when they say Out with the truckers and the kickers and the cowboy angels. I like when she says I know you’ve heard it all before so I don’t say it anymore. I just stand by and let you fight your secret war. I like when he says I still owe money to the money to the money I owe. I never thought about love when I thought about home. I like when he says Started from the bottom, now we here. I like when he says If you feel like mud, you’ll end up gold. If you feel like lost, you’ll end up found, so amigos lay them raises down. I like when he says Ain’t you had enough of this stuff? Ashtray floors, dirty clothes and filthy jokes. I like when she says When I walk in, sit up straight. I don’t give a f**k if I was late. I like when he says Well if you want a friend, feed any animal. I like when he says You think you’re gonna take her away with your money and your cocaine. I like when he says Brooklyn, New York City where they paint murals of Biggie. And I really really really like when he says I’ll be there on time and I’ll pay the cost for wanting things that can only be found in the darkness on the edge of town. Continue reading
Posted Sep 26, 2015 at The Best American Poetry
The documentary sent me on a serious Amy Winehouse internet journey this summer, and I feel compelled to include a link to this performance. Shame on the Isle of Wight videographers for fetishizing her thinness the way so much of the media did. Click on it and minimize it if that part makes you mad, but do listen. Her singing on "Back to Black" is just about some of the best singing you'll ever hear:
I worried that confessing to still having an in-my-head version of my teenaged notebooks of song lyrics would seem less than adult or academic. Even worse, I worried that it would seem girlish. Girlish. And some of the attendant adjectives that might accompany that word in your head: emotional, messy, sensitive, vulnerable, too much, just too much. Then I saw Amy (2015) the excellent documentary by Asif Kapadia. It’s been written about much more eloquently and in depth around the internet this summer, including here and here. I liked it more than Anthony Lane, but it left me troubled for some of the same reasons. My favorite part of the movie ended up being something I hated initially. You see Amy Winehouse scribbling out her lyrics in her own notebooks. She writes and rewrites, crosses out and erases, even records “Back to Black” reading from her notebook. But Kapadia chose to float the lyrics over the screen while songs are being performed or played, and as I sat in the theater, my initial reaction was negative- it seemed so girlish. As if girlishness somehow diminished the bright and beautiful art that Amy Winehouse made. Then I went home and actually read the lyrics to ”Wake Up Alone”. And “Me & Mr. Jones”. And “Tears Dry on Their Own”. So we are history, the shadow covers me, the sky above a blaze that only lovers see... There is nothing wrong with the girlish notebook of song lyrics that produced those lines. In fact, thank goodness she had the notebook with her to begin with (the documentary produced so much obsessive revisiting for me, “Back to Black” is now firmly on my Top Ten albums list). And thank goodness for emotions, messiness, sensitivity, and vulnerability. They are not traits one needs to apologize for. They have produced much greatness in this world. And girls and women don’t need to do any more apologizing than they already do. And thank goodness for my own notebooks of song lyrics and poem fragments and the happiness they brought me. The sky above a blaze that only lovers see... Continue reading
Posted Sep 26, 2015 at The Best American Poetry
Interesting! I don't think the song ends up on that side either, but I always read it as wantonly ambiguous on the matter, and that the prayer was ongoing throughout, allowing him to escape to his death at the end... Looking at the places and times and the switches between prayer and plot, I see exactly what you're saying though... It has such a specific Blue-Duck-Jumping-Out-of-the-Jailhouse window spin to it: the gallows are for no man. Love this song so much. Thankful someone else has read it so closely too.
Sometimes it’s the whole story of song that gets me. See “Tom Ames’ Prayer” by Steve Earle on Train a Comin’ (1995). It's a supreme argument for the existence of God, or not. If you like Rio Bravo or Deadwood or Lonesome Dove (book or miniseries), you will love the lyrics and delivery of it. Lyrically, it’s part narrative, part actual prayer. The narrative and prayer of a non-believer and thief whose luck has run out, trapped in an alley in Abilene with all but four shells spent. A non-believer who really doesn’t even know how to pray: You know I ain’t never prayed before but it always seemed to me that if prayin’s the same as beggin’, Lord, I don’t take no charity. And he calls out God for his own badness: Well it ain't the first close call I ever had, I'm sure you already know, I had some help from you Lord and the devil himself. The devil and God only existing in opposition to each other and because of each other. His temptation towards evil existing only because of a generic temptation towards good. One he doesn’t possess. So he prays, like many non-believers do, in his time of need, but he doesn’t ask for anything big: I ain’t asking for a miracle, Lord, just a little bit of luck will do. And maybe God delivers. The preacher comes to his prison cell. And the preacher, by mistake or divine intervention, turns his back for just one second. And Tom Ames puts a homemade blade to that golden throat. He doesn’t expect anything from God. You don’t owe me nothin’ and as far as I know, Lord, I don’t owe nothin’ to you. All the opportunities possibly afforded by God don’t make up for his solitude at the end, though. Who in the hell am I talkin’ to? There ain’t no one here but me. Before he cocks both his pistols and spits in the dirt and walks out to certain death. A feeling of loneliness even believers must have, praying, sometimes. Even in times of less dire need. Am I just talking to myself? How do I know? But still. He wasn’t asking for a miracle. And then that preacher came. Who turned his back at just the right time. Just a little bit of luck. As the prayer goes, it’s been strictly touch and go. Continue reading
Posted Sep 25, 2015 at The Best American Poetry
“It’s a very moving violent song, because that’s how I feel about the whole thing.” Nina Simone has been with me. For at least 20 years now. If she’s been with you, you know what I mean. Her songs have made you feel all of the things one can possibly feel. Her “Trouble in Mind” and this live rendition of it might be the saddest song ever. The drummer is so on point with the ride cymbal, and her piano is, as always, classical. I like to pretend that that “Oh boy” towards the end isn’t just a signal to the band to wrap up the song; she actually MADE herself sad enough to utter it in that way... her tone going lower and lower on “’Cause the sun’s gonna shine in my back door someday” until it’s just: “Oh boy." My explanation of my love for her flails in the face of you just listening to this, this, and this, but I’d say it started on the basest level: with me just loving to sing along with her by myself a long time ago. Singing along with her own songs, jazz standards, protest songs, spirituals, her own songs, Bob Dylan and Bee Gees covers. No one really knows it but me, but she and I sing very well together. And loving a singer in that way means loving him or her in a way very few people (except maybe those who ride in your car with you) know about. My love for her is not just about her piano playing, her voice, her anger, and her dedication. It’s about how I sound when I sing with her. It’s a very selfish sort of identification (maybe identity is all selfish). I am not any of the singers I love singing along with (Tom Petty included), but it is a very personal thing. I am not Nina Simone, I did not live through what she lived through, but I feel this way too (sad about love, angry about injustice, in love with music). And she clearly feels this way. Let us sing together. So as a less than casual fan, my obsessive reading about her began before one could just do that on one’s phone. And my excitement when I finally watched the documentary What Happened, Miss Simone? earlier this summer knew no bounds. The movie made me revisit “Mississippi Goddam”, a song I knew and loved and thought I had already felt all the appropriate feelings (disgust and dismay) about... but real disgust and dismay got realer having watched the movie this summer, post-Charleston and post-Sandra-Bland. And watching Nina Simone talk about her own disgust and dismay over so many things that had built up and are still building up (“When the kids got killed in that church, that did it. First, you get depressed, and after that you get mad,” she says), felt so sad and prescient. And then there is the sometimes unfortunate fact that a piece of... Continue reading
Posted Sep 24, 2015 at The Best American Poetry
I started thinking about this because of “Up to Me”, which I know from the box set Biograph (1985), but was apparently meant for Blood on the Tracks (1975). It’s not even like my fifth favorite Bob Dylan song, but it has been in heavy rotation for a few years now, leaving me wondering: A) about my relationships with artists that I’ve “known” for a long time and how those relationships change as I change, and B) how this book, and its Barnes & Noble easiness, came into my life at the exact same time I started to notice song lyrics. (I mean, I really started to notice them. Like, really.) It’s just a little Greatest Hits book, published in 1988 by Contemporary Books, Inc. I was most struck by “Song from Maud” by Tennyson and the Edna St. Vincent Millay poems. It has Shakespeare, Matthew Arnold, a bunch of Ballads by unknown singers, Christina Rossetti, and the Song of Solomon. It contains a lot of poems you know, even if you think you don’t know poems, and with a few misses, I’d say it basically lives up to its promise regarding the “classic” quality of the love poems. And I was reading it just as I was reading the lyrics to all the songs on Born to Run. Reading for feelings, not comprehension; feelings both ancient and presently felt. Come into the garden, Maud. We're out here casing the Promised Land. I filled notebook after notebook with snippets of songs and poems; lines I liked, lines that caught me, lines I noticed. Obviously, there is empowerment in this kind of adolescent noticing. I picked the music (and books and movies, for that matter) I listened to, and I liked it all for reasons specific to me, thus continuing the development of a biological “self”, an ego; one that we all know exists but can be hard to scientifically quantify for outside viewers. Why do you like the stuff you like, and what does it mean about you? Song lyrics have been poems for me ever since. I like a poem in the way I like a song, and I like a song in the way I like a poem. I explain them to myself in the same way. So. Again. “Up to Me” by Bob Dylan. It’s rueful, cynical, hopeful, funny, boastful, and epically sad. I probably won’t need to repeat the above adjectives for the remainder of this project. They are the mathematical givens in my art equation. The plot (?) still remains unclear to me, heavy rotation aside. There’s a Three Musketeers meets the Old West meets a Navy ship meets a working at the post office vibe going on. Is he referencing a “Wanted” poster that he hauled down off the wall? And who is Estelle? I get that she’s the one I’ve been wondering about but there’s really nothing much to tell. But what does she have to do with the old rounder in the... Continue reading
Posted Sep 21, 2015 at The Best American Poetry
Not to bask too much in the glow of this venue, but I have always loved these mix tapes David Lehman and Editor give us every year. I started reading as a high school student in 1992 (Charles Simic), and I've sought them out every year since (no worries, I've worked backwards too). 1994 (A.R. Ammons), 1997 (James Tate), 2001 (Robert Hass), and 2011 (Kevin Young) all floored me. Thank you, Terrance Hayes, for Major Jackson, Donald Revell, Cate Marvin, and on and on, this past year (thanks to them too, and the magazines that noticed their poems). I love these books. They put poetry in people's lives, in both populist and subversive ways, and they put the names of magazines and poets and editors in front of people's faces. They're beautifully made books, they feel good in the hand, they're artifacts, and what's more, I want to read them every year. I love it when someone makes me a mix. So needless to say, this week has been fun for me. And it’s probably time for me to tell you, with all due respect to all the poets and editors over the years, what the BEST poem in the BEST edition of The Best American Poetry is: “Being Pharaoh" by Beckian Fritz Goldberg, 1995 (Richard Howard) Because it came to me when I needed it. I picked the book up in a library, flipped to this poem, and thought, well, I need this in my life. Because it made me learn about Beckian Fritz Goldberg. Because I feel like it's a breaking-up-with-something poem that's mostly about something else. Because I kind of feel like the speaker is the you in "Refugee" by Tom Petty. You don't have to live like a refugee, you're just kind of choosing to; no offense. Because of the medical words and terms and images, the oxygen mask hissing, and because the nature stuff is vague and weirdly put: the feather trees across / the river, the curious shore dog. Because it taught me about smart line breaks: Tonight I am sick of every man / and his past. And the past is tired of his / request that it love him Because of that personification of "the past" right there. Because she describes the soul as gelatinous. Rather, she describes her image of the soul as a child as a glass / wing, fluted, gelatinous, detached / as my voice under water... I understand every single bit of that. Because of the power trip of being an actual pharaoh, and the fact that no one is actually being a pharaoh. They're just trying. Because it made me learn about Field. Because it made me learn about Richard Howard and Richard Howard's poems! Thank you, Richard Howard. The entire 1995 edition is, as previously stated, the official best Best American Poetry. All the Beats and references to them in the poems, your acceptance of "longish" poems, the ending of Nicholas Christopher's poem ("Terminus"), your assertion... Continue reading
Posted Mar 20, 2015 at The Best American Poetry
What I’m about to describe is not special just because it exists. Nor is it a novel idea; teachers run programs like our Coffeehouse in schools every day. I didn’t invent it, nor am I especially good at it. I’d describe my role as less mentor, more encourager. I’m the person who supplies the hot chocolate and claps really loud. Another teacher and I run it, we inherited it from teachers of the same mindset, born from our own teachers who sensed the same thing we do: these artsy kids need some space and a venue for their artsy-ness. Mr. C. and I run an after school Coffeehouse multiple times a year for our students in a 100 seat Little Theatre. That’s it. Students can get up and perform. Whatever. We have some rules (“No swearing” “Five minutes or two poems” “No singing along with songs playing over your headphones while the rest of us can’t hear the music” [NEW rule]). The most important rule (and one that exists in Poetry Slams and similar programs everywhere) is “No apologies.” This rule is designed to prevent shy kids or kids sharing what they’ve made for the first time from standing and stuttering apologies for their five minutes. Sharing something you’ve made is unbelievably difficult. Seriously. Sharing something you’ve made is unbelievably difficult. I salute every person who’s ever done it, especially if you’re 15 years old. (I also salute my parents and the teachers I had who made it possible for me to do it. Who gave me some space and a venue.) With all due respect to coaches (wonderful people who care a lot about our kids and spend a lot of time with them), when a kid physically grows big and tall or stays small, coaches have a pretty good idea there might be talent to be cultivated there. A kid talented at making art doesn’t necessarily stand out in a physical way. If artistic talent is to be cultivated and some-of-the-most-important-contributions-humans-have-to-offer-this-otherwise-busted-world, from cave paintings to Da Vinci to students reading their own poems on the stage of a Little Theatre in a high school America in 2015, is to continue to exist, who will see this talent if we don’t give burgeoning artists the space and time to show it? So basically, Coffeehouse is the basketball practice of art. There are many singers and musicians. They’re especially good this year. Tony played the theme song from Rocky on the ocarina. Jaidah played her own songs and “Just the Two of Us” by Bill Withers. Josh played “Bankrupt on Selling” by Modest Mouse. Mikeya sang the Sam Smith version of “How Will I Know.” A group of students sang the theme song to Pokemon. Mr. C. played death metal versions of Taylor Swift songs. We kind of hit every genre. The poets earn my special respect. They read their poems off laptops and phones and out of old school journals. Some of them know their work by heart. Some... Continue reading
Posted Mar 19, 2015 at The Best American Poetry
Specifically, this copy of this book. I had read most of it before, in libraries and at other people’s houses. And I knew a lot about it when I got it. I was at Mercer Street Books in NYC with amazing former contributor Tanya Larkin on October 27, 2007. We both saw it at the same time, but she let me buy it. She's good to me. We talked about the poems a lot. It’s the first US edition from 1971, and the pages are worn in the best way. You can see it’s a great artifact for someone who likes books as artifacts. I’ve always loved prices on old books, too, and thinking about the cost of milk and meat at the time. $2.95 for all the things inside this book in 1971. After I read it straight through, the $2.95 stuck out at me most for some reason. It’s a beautiful book. It’s really not for everybody. It’s full of death and animals and animalistic behavior and God and really specific names of body parts and modern machinery and Oedipus and "a ceremonial Japanese decapitator" and stabbing and battles and wombs. It's a lot. It can be read in one sitting. I see it in a lot of other places. I imagine Markus Zusak read it before he wrote his excellent The Book Thief. I’d be interested to talk to someone who came to it blindly. I can’t describe reading it without some pretty extensive background knowledge of Hughes’ life. I think this made the book more valuable to me, but how the poems exist without the context of him, I don’t know. I don’t know how the poems exist on their own at all, really. I know my favorites are: Crow’s First Lesson, A Grin, In Laughter, Crow Frowns, Crow Blacker Than Ever… The agony did not diminish Man could not be man nor God God. The agony Grew. Crow Grinned Crying: “This is my Creation,” Flying the black flag of himself. That line. I want to fly the black flag of myself. It’s not a book I want to leave the house with or return to very often. It’s kind of like the Schindler’s List of violent poetry books. That movie got to me, intensely, but it’s not something I really want to watch again to pass the time. It is not a pass-the-time book. Examination at the Womb-Door, also a favorite. The act of owning in that poem inspires me. Death owns your still-working lungs, your utility coat of muscles, your questionable brains, but who is stronger than death? Someone about to be born. For the moment. That might be the best picture to paint of it. It is essentially a book that describes the act of living (waking up and breathing every day) as "owning a utility coat of muscles." Thank you for letting me buy it that day, TL. Continue reading
Posted Mar 18, 2015 at The Best American Poetry
I’m afraid I won’t match the level of amazing discourse that’s been appearing here regularly, and I do have more thoughts about poems, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t take a minute to mention librarians. I am one of them. I know a lot of smart ones. I live in a perpetual state of hope that they are important to the people (you) that fund them. I hope you know a librarian or two or three. I hope you have a positive library memory from your life when you think back on it all. I suspect many of you do. More specifically, I am a school librarian. I know that kids go home with school library books every day in this country. Maybe you see them around your house right now. Every day I have to squash the thought that I am touching items that I have lent to teenagers. Every day a kid asks me a computer question that I almost can’t believe exists anymore. A lot of my job is computer questions or the most random questions you can imagine: "Do you have a can opener?" "When is this dance/that thing/this thing/the other thing?" This makes me happy. I want people to go to libraries with their random questions. Every day these questions feel really important and inconsequential at the same time. The inconsequential element comes only from their age versus my age. Consequences are never really a fair thing to judge. It all matters. And every day at least one school student in America asks me (or my stand-in, at all the schools lucky enough to have a librarian) for a "good" book. Most days, it’s many students asking. "Good" means something different every time. I have been asked specifically for a "calm" book, a "happy" book, a book with "a whole bunch of drama," a "love" book, that "blue" book, that "book with the guy and the girl in a circle on the cover," that "book where [insert plot detail here]," etc. I have been asked specifically for a "dirty" book. I admire that question, because while many high school students know what they want, few have the wherewithal to ask that way. I don’t love all the books I point out. They don’t love all the books I point out. When I start to rattle off books, the most popular question is, "Miss, have you read every book in this whole library?" The most popular title for random adults in many schools is "Miss" - an approach some adults hate, but I find it sweetly formal. I have not read all the books in this whole library. I can’t. Some of these books are not good. And some of them are not the right fit for me as a reader. But everyone gets to pick, and good librarians (on the public service side of things) haven’t read every book, they just know about books. There’s a difference. I know the books I love. I... Continue reading
Posted Mar 17, 2015 at The Best American Poetry
I was roughly 18-19, and it was “Hôtel Transylvanie” by Frank O’Hara. It’s on page 350 if you have the big black Collected Poems (University of California Press, 1995) by you now. It's here, if you don’t. It’s not even my favorite Frank O’Hara poem anymore, but when I read it that long ago, it got to me. Someone had pointed it out. It suggested what I had always suspected, that there was a gaming element present in human relationships. A game was going on that I didn’t fully know about or understand, but I liked that I felt trusted with that information. Thanks, Frank. The line you know that I am not here to fool around, that I must win or die made me feel like someone had just left it all on the field. Teenagery and dramatic and romantic and epic. I didn’t (and still don’t) understand all of it. Even reading it now, it feels nice not knowing exactly what’s going on. He tells me I only have to be myself, as I am being, as I must be, as I always am and shall be forever no matter what fate deals you or the imagination discards like a tyrant / as the drums descend and summon the hatchet over the tinseled realities. I only sort of understand that. But I know what he means. The last three lines. It's mean! You are amusing / as a game is amusing when someone is forced to lose as in a game I must I was jealous of the things he put in there, the things he knew about that I didn’t, like a Futurist torture. Hopefully, the art you like makes you look at least one thing up. The way it looked on the page didn’t make a lot of sense to me. I felt like he just did what he wanted, with the slashes and punctuation. I read it and thought, that guy just did exactly what he wanted. Moreover, I felt like he had earned the right to do exactly what he wanted. You will continue to refuse to die for yourself is pretty good too. It made me happy that I recognized the qualities that made it a good poem. And I felt a sense of accomplishment in the recognition. Shall we win at love or shall we lose It was a good poem. Continue reading
Posted Mar 16, 2015 at The Best American Poetry
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Mar 15, 2015