Guest Post, Robert Krut: The North Star Pinball Jukebox

A Playlist for The Now Dark Sky, Setting Us All on Fire

NoteThe Now Dark Sky, Setting Us All on Fire playlist can be heard here (on Apple Music) and here (on Spotify).  

1.  

My parents recently sent me a warehouse worth’s of VHS tapes from my childhood home—a bulky mix of home movies, high school events, and choppy collections of 120 Minutes clips culled from hours of attentive viewing. In those tapes, there were some crystal-clear views of our old house, and my room, which, in retrospect, was something of a folk-art shrine to my favorite music. There are old 45s propped up on shelves, concert tickets in tiny frames, posters and magazine clippings covering most of the walls—REM mingles with the Led Zeppelin, Joan Jett leans up against The Replacements, Prince stands next to Patti Smith. In the nook near the front window, cases of cassettes climb from the ground to the ceiling—the classic plastic rectangle-collage of a music-loving kid in the 80s.  

Next to that, though, was the real treasure—milk crates stocked with true, old school, vinyl records. A mix of hand-me-downs and purchases from local flea markets, their artwork would stare at me as I filed through, looking for just the right album to play. Bruce Springsteen and Clarence Clemons leaned on each other and smiled up from the cardboard; the first-pressing Velvet Underground record tempted you to peel the banana back; and Bob Dylan stared straight through you, daring you to decipher the stream of words on the back of his records. And those streams of words, printed across the back of records like Highway 61 Revisited, led me to poetry, and music has been a part of the process ever since.

With the songs echoing through my suburban room, I would hover over the strange poetry on the back covers. On classics like Bringing It All Back Home say, there were rambling, seemingly meaningless word parades on the back of his records—the sort of prose poetry that certainly never won over any literary scholars (it’s one of the few areas of his career that does not garner effusive praise—but I am happy to report that, years later, Denis Johnson discussed discovering poetry through these albums, as well), a sort of confetti of phrases and names that rolls on with abandon. There are no book-length analyses of those back covers like there are about “Like a Rolling Stone,” but for me, they were a gateway to poetry. Never a talented musician, I couldn’t write songs, but I began writing my versions (read: knockoffs) of these sorts of poems (I have volumes of notebooks of this mortifying work). I couldn’t stop, and I didn’t want to.

And, importantly, in that excitement, I began seeking out the poets that inspired him. In one set of noteshe mentions Allen Ginsberg, so I pulled the string, and then wound up reading the entirety of the Beats, and then Blake, and then Rimbaud, and then venturing into more contemporary writers—and once that started, the entirety of poetry was exciting to me.  

So, from the very start, music has been ingrained in my writing, as a spark, sometimes as a guide, sometimes as a role model, sometimes even as an editor. It’s not surprising, seeing the direct line from those records, that it would be part of it all. People like Dylan and Patti Smith have fingerprints on what I write now, as do more current musicians like Kendrick Lamar and Waxahatchee. The two worlds, of poetry and music, are always connected. I’m excited that Superstition Review has asked me to share a playlist of songs that connect to my new collection, as so many helped shape the book.  

2.  

I rarely listen to music as I write, but it serves three important roles during the process. There is the “North Star” approach, where I hear a particular song and something about it pushes me forward, toward its tone, or themes, or lyrics. I live with it for weeks, playing it on repeat, until I write, gaining momentum from the song. Then, there is the “jukebox”—a song comes on, out of the blue, shakes up my vision and I’m inspired to write by it. And, finally, particularly with finalizing a manuscript, there is the “pinball machine”—in crafting the order and focus of a book, it’s as if songs are the bumpers in a pinball machine, helping me see connections and themes that exist in the poems, jolting them toward each other as the ball rolls along the wood surface.

Of course, in writing this, I know that none of this is unique—we all have stories about how music connects to our lives, whether that be as artists or just in our everyday experiences. There have even been great poetry collections rooted in music in every sense of the word (two of my early favorite books, Michael Harper’s Dear John, Dear Coltrane and David Wojahn’s Mystery Train, for example). Here, in this piece, I can just speak to my experience, naturally, and how it shaped the poems in the new book. Music led me to poetry when I was younger; now, older, it helps inspire and shape it. 

In writing this new book, certain songs were clearly “North Stars,” those pieces that captured a tone or theme I was aiming for in the collection. I could listen to them and know this is what I’m after. I knew the landscapes I was seeing in my head were reflected in “Dark Eyes”; I knew some of the topics I wanted to explore were in “XXX”; and I knew some of the tone I wanted to evoke was in “Annie Christian.” At other times, a song would appear on the “jukebox” (an iPhone is much less romantic than a jukebox) and either alter my goals, or fine tune them. When Kamasi Washington released “Fists of Fury,” it hit me like a bolt, not only because I had been anxiously awaiting his new album, but because of the themes and ideas in it—which immediately sparked more writing. When I heard Waxahatchee for the first time, a local radio station played “Peace & Quiet.” Hearing that voice cut through the car, I literally pulled over, purchased the album on iTunes (again, not as romantic as running to the record store, I know), and listened to it three times in row before heading home to write. 

 And finally, when piecing the manuscript together into sections, into an order, and into (what I hope) is a cohesive whole, many of these songs helped serve as posts to guide them into place. I knew, thematically, section 2 of the book was going to house both the Jane’s Addiction and Jackie Shane songs, two of the more vulnerable, romantic pieces, and that helped guide the formatting. Section 3 seemed to call for Leonard Cohen’s voice, and everything fell in place from there.  

Of course, this is all a lengthy way to say I love music, and it inspires poetry.  I bet most writers reading this will say the same thing. But the chance to express that sentiment, and share how it affected this new book—particularly since there were very specific songs that did—is too enjoyable to pass up. And perhaps, if nothing else, someone else might enjoy the songs that follow, and maybe even listen in conjunction with the book.  

3. 

All of this is to say that creating a playlist for this new book was something I had been doing for the entirety of writing it, so it was a pleasure to put it together in some sort of “final” version to share with the published collection. As mentioned above, the playlist can be found here (on Apple Music) and here (on Spotify) for anyone who might want to listen along now, or with the book when it comes out in June. 

Here are a few words about each track, as they relate to the collection. I’ve forced myself to keep it to two sentences per song, as my enthusiasm for this music could easily lead me down (even longer), rambling, discussion.

1. Bettye Lavette, “Ain’t Talkin’.” An overture for the book, the opening credits theme as the poems start. Lavette’s voice, combined with these lyrics, captures the tone I aimed for in these poems.

2. Kamasi Washington, “Fists of Fury.” Love is always the goal, but love and resistance are not mutually exclusive. There are times for righteous anger.

3. Parquet Courts, “Violence.” Whereas Washington uses swirling jazz to encircle the wrongs of the world, Parquet Courts are more direct here.  

4. Talking Heads, “The Big Country.” Flying over the country, watching the news in a seat-back, and turning away from the screen to look down on the huge grids of land and puzzle-piece suburbs, this is always the song that floats in and out of the air vents.

5. Rhianna (feat. Calvin Harris), “We Found Love.” In the very earliest stages of writing this book, we were living in New Orleans, and this song had just been released. It was almost a joke how often it was played throughout the city—even in jazz clubs between sets—and it sunk into my system, with “we fell in love in a hopeless place” a working epigraph for the collection for a while.

6. Kendrick Lamar (feat. U2), “XXX.” He seems to get better and better, and while all of his albums have inspired writing, this song kept reappearing and pushing and guiding. In three short sections of one song, there are countless quote-worthy lines, but “the great American flag is wrapped and dragged with explosives” might be the best.

7. Jane’s Addiction, “I Would for You.” Slow dancing at the end of the world while the ground falls away in all directions.

8. Jackie Shane, “Cruel Cruel World.” Shane received some well-earned praise near the end of her life, and it is a gift to have her work easily available now. This piece goes hand-in-hand with the previous one—the world may be cruel, but hope is worth it.

9. Waxahatchee, “Peace & Quiet.” Even more than they lyrics here (although she is an incredible lyricist), the first time I heard Katie Crutchfield’s voice, it was like a note from a frequency I didn’t even realize I was tuned to, and I wanted to write poems in that key.

10. Frank Ocean, “Solo.” The summer this album came out, I would drive around at night listening to it on repeat, and it seemed like the tires turned to fog while the car floated through the neighborhoods. That tone, and the lyrics in the chorus here (“it’s Hell on Earth and the city’s on fire . . . there’s a bull and a matador dueling in the sky”) seeped into my writing for weeks.

11. Leonard Cohen, “You Want It Darker.” Leonard Cohen is just about the only person who could pull off this song, but I went back to it frequently as license to dive into dark waves. 

12. The Veils, “Axolotl.”Few pieces of art affected me over the past few years as much as David Lynch’s return to “Twin Peaks,” which aired two years ago now. This song, which was featured in one of the most haunting scenes in the series, captured what I was after in the poems, and pushed them further.

13. Prince, “Annie Christian.” It may be hard to believe, but Prince is actually underrated in some regards, as in his skill to capture anxiety and chaos. The swirling keyboards and staccato guitar skipping around then-current end-times events were a reference point as I worked on the book.

14. Jeff Tweedy, “Some Birds.”Superstition Review editor Trish Murphy actually blurbed the new book, saying that it works to build an “alternate universe designed to help us better understand our real one” and there are, indeed, at least a few twins from other worlds staring back at us in there.  In this song, tonally a breath of fresh air in the playlist, one of those twins appear.

15. Patti Smith, “Pissing in a River.” If there’s an artist more willing to put her heart and mind out there against all risks, I haven’t seen or heard them. I aspire to be as fearless as her voice and heart-on-sleeve passion that builds through this song.  

16. REM, “Every Day is Yours to Win.” With all of the darkness in the book, I wanted to end with a more delicate voice, with at least a ribbon of light, in the very last poem. The peace in this song, and (literal) repetition of the last lines are an earnest attempt to do so, even if it is futile.

17. Bob Dylan, “Dark Eyes.” The bookend to the very first song, this was always the piece of music I heard in my head while putting the book together. The images, the tone, the lyrics—it was a North Star, and is the song I hear when I close the book at its conclusion.

4.  

There is one final way that music influences writing, and it is less specific than being sparked by a particular line of a song, or influenced by the melody and rhythm. Sometimes, as with all art, the simple act of being exposed to someone else’s creativity is enough to move us to action—the earnest inspiration of someone else’s work. And by listening, and sensing their passion, it puts momentum into our own work. We can’t listen without wanting to create as well.

With this new book, I had a version of the manuscript for a solid year or two that I thought was done. But it wasn’t.  If I was being honest with myself (it took a while), about a quarter of the poems needed to go, and be flushed out with new pieces. That was a tough pill to swallow, but it was obvious to me—I just didn’t know where to begin.  

At the very start of last summer, we were driving through Northern Arizona, and up through Nevada, along route 93, running parallel to the Colorado River and alongside the White Hills area. After stopping for gas at one of the rare stations, I plugged my phone into the audio output, and hit shuffle. Pharaoh Sanders came on, and the opening sounds of “The Creator Has a Masterplan,” from Karma, played. We pulled onto the road, his saxophone lifted off, the chiming bells echoed out, and as we curved through the desert. The car was flying.

If you’ve never heard this song before, it’s worth a listen, and if you have, it’s worth a second. All 32 minutes and 47 seconds of it. When it started that afternoon, the sun had just started to go down, and by the end of it, we were driving in the dim light of dusk.  

When we ultimately got back to California, I started writing, and I didn’t stop until the book was done.


Robert Krut’s new book, The Now Dark Sky, Setting Us All on Fire, is the recipient of the Codhill Poetry Award and will be released in June by Codhill Press. He is also the author of This Is the Ocean (Bona Fide Books, 2013), which received the Melissa Lanitis Gregory Poetry Award, and The Spider Sermons (BlazeVox, 2009). As a faculty member in the Writing Program and College of Creative Studies, he teaches at the University of California, Santa Barbara. More information is available at www.robert-krut.com.


Contributor Update, Robert Krut: The Now Dark Sky, Setting Us All On Fire

Today we are happy to announce the news of past contributor Robert Krut! Robert’s newest book titled The Now Dark Sky, Setting Us All on Fire will be available for preorder soon, to be published this summer. The book was just awarded the Codhill Poetry Award by the Codhill Press. S[r]’s own founding editor, Patricia Colleen Murphy, said Robert’s poems are “filled not only with what is real but with what is possible.”

More information about Robert and his new book can be found here. One poem included in the book can be found in S[r]’s Issue 18, and four more in Issue 3.

Congratulations Robert!

Guest Post, Robert Krut: Heroes Are Dead; Long Live Heroes

 

Robert Krut Bio PhotoI have a handwritten postcard from Allen Ginsberg. And not some random handwritten postcard I discovered in an antique desk drawer at a flea market, or bought online somewhere.  It is handwritten to me. It is, needless to say, one of my most prized possessionsAs you might imagine, it is framed and hanging within view of the computer I am typing on at this very moment.

Ginsberg was my first big literary hero—the person I read obsessively, rhapsodized about to others—I carried around my copy of his glorious red-covered Collected Poems everywhere I went.  I drove my high school English teacher crazy by insisting I share “America” with the class, “go fuck yourself” and all. I wanted to write like him, and if I am honest with myself, I wanted to be him—free, wild-bearded, hand to the sky and capturing the lightning of electric lines right to the page.

So, I wrote him a letter.  Certain I was the first teenager to ever write him and tell him how much his poems meant to me, and how my high school just “didn’t get it” (looking back now, my teacher was more than accommodating of my obsession), I told him how I was also from New Jersey and wanted to be a poet.  Much to my surprise, a few weeks later, a postcard was sitting on the kitchen table when I got home (my Mom was smiling when she said “well, you got a postcard today…”).  In a cruel twist of fate, he even suggested I come to a reading in the city and introduce myself—but the card arrived the day after the reading (cursed by slow mail over the December holidays).  But I had my postcard.  My handwritten postcard from my hero.  And that was more than enough.

Naturally, in the coming years, I discovered many literary heroes that led me to want to write, each one stepping into the hero role: Raymond Carver, Flannery O’Connor, Denis Johnson, Michael Burkard. . . they all became not only writers I admired, but those that lit fires, guided my own work (often leading to not-so-infrequent unintended homages).  With each new hero, the previous faded a bit into the background–needless to say, when my Carver obsession began, my attempts at poems were stripped-down affairs as opposed to the expansive, no-thought-should-be-discarded Ginsbergian approach.  Denis Johnson, of course, married those two approaches well, in a sort of tough visionary literature–his poem “The Veil” has remained on my office wall for twenty years.  I suppose this sort of admiration is human nature.

Ultimately, the sort of “hero worship” I had early on for Ginsberg was somewhat similar to that of other, earlier incarnations of fandom: my bedroom as a little kid was plastered with posters of Reggie Jackson and Catfish Hunter; my early teenage years saw U2 and REM on those same walls.  Ultimately, they made room for Bob Dylan memorabilia; Dylan directly pointed me to Ginsberg, who took up the hero mantle.

When you admire someone so completely, of course, it is only natural to see them not only replaced, but also drift a bit back.  At times, we even have to discard them to move past their (encouraging, sparkling) grip.  For me, by the end of my undergraduate years, I would say things like “I’ll always love Ginsberg, but…” completing that sentence with phrases like “his Collected Poems could have been half as long” (my precious red book!), or “I’m realizing I can go straight to the source–Whitman!”  As time went on though, I kept a place for my hero in my heart–I had my list of lingering poems that still knocked me out, taught him periodically over the years (a visionary literature class here, a political poetry unit there, etc.), even thrilled at going to City Lights Books in San Francisco.  But it was never truly quite the same as those first few years in the rush of discovering his work.

Now, though, after a recent event, I realized that my love for Ginsberg was never only about the cult of personality or some cartoon of his “character.”  There was–is–real magic in his work, so it was only a matter of time that I would revisit my full force love of his poetry, and role as a poet.  In going back to him after all these years, I can appreciate him on a deeper level–embracing what I love, acknowledging any limitations, and feeling the rush of connecting with poetry for the first time again.  It’s a great feeling–I encourage all readers to go back to their first heroes and see if it happens for them, too.

My renewed fervor grew out of the most common of occurrences for those of us who write poems–a simple conversation where someone asks “who is your favorite poet?” Or, similarly, but with a bit more breathing room: “who are your favorite poets?”  It’s always nice when someone asks this at a party–particularly when you’re the only one there who may write (or publicly acknowledge writing) poems, as you see someone taking an interest in poetry–so often I am pleased to see a real interest out in the “non-poetry” and/or “non-academic” worlds about poems.

That being said, I have also learned over the years that, in those moments, breaking out truly contemporary, or even slightly obscure older, poets leads to blank stares–I have killed many a conversation over the years extolling the virtues of names that didn’t register in the conversation partner.  So, typically now I mention someone relatively well-known that I do love, but that will bridge the discussion.  Typically a response of “well, it all starts with Whitman and Dickinson” is a solid one, and allows for an engaging conversation.  Other names that have worked well in these moments include Langston Hughes, William Carlos Williams, and Elizabeth Bishop (for reference, “One Art” and “The Moose” are very popular; “The Man-Moth” tends to unfortunately be a deal breaker).  It should be pointed out, though that mentioning these “classic names” provides a perfect chance to share newer ones, as common ground has been established. Last month I was at a bar where someone asked about poets and I followed up a Whitman reference by saying “and if you want to read some great contemporary work, go find Danez Smith.”  Later in the night, that same person came back to me and asked me to repeat the name so he could enter it into his phone for future reference.

But back to Ginsberg–at a recent party, sensing that my conversation partner might have loved the Beats back in the day, I mentioned my old hero.  To my shock, this was not met with a positive response–the person, laughing in a good natured way, let me know “Oh no!  I can’t stand Ginsberg!”  I was surprised at how quickly I snapped back into being that teenager again, with my Ginsberg love back front and center.  The good thing, though, as I now realize, is that my hero worship had been replaced with admiration–and in defending his legacy, I could feel myself reconnected with him, and what excites me about poetry, all over again.

I made my case.  In a world where everyone can be so cynical, isn’t it refreshing to have his poems out there, in all of their rambling, heart-on-sleeve glory?  In a time when it is so necessary, isn’t it exhilarating to read poems facing capital-A America straight on?  What lover of poetry didn’t want to break out “America” on November 9, 2016?  And have you read “Supermarket in California” recently?  It feels fresh and heartbreaking all over again–only now Ginsberg is the one we meet in the grocery store instead of Whitman.

And, if the poetry/politics intersection doesn’t do it for you, there is the personal and spiritual work.  The teenage version of me read “To Aunt Rose” and loved it.  But as we all get older, and lose people we love, good luck reading it, with its detailed and loving portrait, and not only marveling at its poetry but also tearing up at the emotions.  Additionally, the spirituality that runs through so much of the work, with its mix of Judaism and Buddhism, takes us out of the rough observations of the political work and places American life on a different plane–try listening to his reading of “Wichita Vortex Sutra” with Phillip Glass and not feeling like you are floating five feet above the ground.

All of this came out though that party conversation, and I was back in, full force.  In doing so, I reconnected with something I loved about poetry from when I first started writing.  That night I went home and wrote, and I did the next day, too.

We put our heroes away for a bit for a reason, and we certainly can’t sacrifice what is new in poetry to stay safe in our comfort zones–we would become boring if that happened.  At the right time, though, it is worth revisiting them once again, with the deeper understanding that comes from time as well as the larger world of literature. We see them with added depth, but lit by the spark that first excited us about writing.  In the end, it leaves us admiring them as writers, not heroes.  And I say that as I look up at Allen Ginsberg’s handwriting from 1990 on my wall.

Guest Blog Post, Robert Krut: Wherever, Whenever

Robert KrutWith the school year just starting up, I have new students asking about creating good writing schedules, patterns, and habits.  As always, I recommend having a solid daily (or at least “near daily”) routine to get work done, whether that work means starting something new, tinkering with an existing piece, or revising to a final draft.  That schedule is different for different people–when I was younger, it was always late at night.  Now, I do this sort of work first thing in the morning.  Of course, it all starts with a cup of coffee (importantly, though, I don’t allow myself a second cup until I’ve gotten some work done–I still hear Ron Carlson’s voice from graduate school saying that morning coffee can be a crutch to take you away from writing, so that second cup is reserved until after some work is done).  Having a schedule like this, even if you don’t always follow it exactly, is incredibly helpful.  I can always tell when I’ve been good about keeping to it, as opposed to slacking, based on the amount of pieces I’ve got done.

In addition to having that sort of daily schedule, though, I encourage them to write wherever the possibility arises, and (forgive me for using this phrase) whenever inspiration strikes.  I’m not talking about setting a laptop up in a coffee shop to write while spacing out to the pastries case–I mean taking a second, wherever you are, to jot down images, ideas, phrases, words that jump out–this may be because you’ve actually seen something worth remembering, or it may just be that a particular turn of phrase is stuck in your head for some unknown reason.  Get it down.  After many times of thinking to myself, “oh, I’ll remember that later”–and then, of course, not–I’ve tried to be much better about that.

This is an approach I’ve always known to be helpful, but really stepped up my use of it over the past few years.  At least half of the poems in my new book started “on the scene,” so to speak, and then were finished during my regular, home-based writing schedule.  Looking through the table of contents, I can easily point to the places where each started, even if it was just a one-line image: the corner of 6th and Broadway in Downtown LA, the shoreline in La Conchita, a gas station in Tarzana, awaiting jury duty in a municipal building, outside any number of music venues (Largo, El Cid, Silverlake Lounge all come to mind)–the list goes on.  One of my favorite of these memories, though, had me piecing together cryptic text messages on a very bright California morning.

The previous evening, I had gone with a group of friends to a glittery, velvet-rope-having, line-down-the-block dance club in Hollywood–not the sort of place I frequent, admittedly.  The Los Angeles I love and live in is much more Big Lebowski than TMZ, but I also enjoy trying just about anything, so I went along, strolling into a club bordered by a perimeter of paparazzi.  Needless to say, I felt a little out of place walking past the line of people dressed as if they were auditioning for a reboot of Club MTV (a reference that shows my age, but makes sense considering that, a week later, an MTV personality was DJing in this very club).  Thanks to some good planning, and what I suspect was string pulling, by my friends, though, we walked past the crowds and right to our table on the edge of the dance floor.

I am, to be honest, not exactly one to walk into a dance club and immediately break out killer moves (although, I do always fantasize about reenacting the classic dance scene from Airplane in this sort of setting), so after getting a drink and swaying tastefully around my friends for a while, I removed myself from the actual dance floor. Walking up to the rise, near the DJ, I watched the crowd for a while.  Then, moved back down and out to the smoking deck to get away from the crowd for a bit.  Then, back to our table to get another drink, then back to the rise, and so on and so forth.  As the night went on–and it went on a while–I got over myself and wound up back in the mass of people on the dance floor, and everything just moved on from there.  Importantly, during all of this, I sent myself two text messages.

In the midst of the evening, I had two of those “write this now” moments, and didn’t want to forget them.  They weren’t grand reveals of entire poems, but were just images/ideas that jumped out: one from standing on the second level looking at the crowd, and one from leaning on the outdoor patio and seeing people come in and out.  As unromantic as texting yourself poem ideas sounds, I didn’t want to lose the ideas.

The next morning, I turned on my phone to find the two texts.  The first simply said “medusa head dead snakes.”  The second, which read “stones sparking above,” was accompanied by a video.  I had tried to subtly get a picture–subtly because I didn’t want to seem like the creep staring down at the crowd taking photos of strangers, but did want to capture the scene.  I accidentally hit the video button, though, and wound up with an 8-second clip.  Here’s the video, for reference:  https://vimeo.com/76005684

Sitting at my desk with these two clues, I started my regular writing routine.  The “stones sparking above” quickly gave way to an entire poem, with Medusa appearing with a “ghost snake halo” near the end.  It was the first time I’ve ever invoked Greek mythology in a poem, and after revision and revision and revision, it became “The Gods Take Your Secrets, and the Gods Take You Down,” which appears in the new book.

I haven’t shared this story with those same students who asked about writing habits, as I don’t relish the thought of them picturing me dancing around in a strobe-light twitching Hollywood club (years ago, two students saw me dancing at an Outkast show in Atlanta, and they later admitted it was hard to look at me the same way in class after that).  All the same, it reminds me of the importance of writing wherever writing wants to arrive, whether it is at a desk with morning coffee, or in a club, hearing your friends call you back into a crowd of dancing bodies.

Robert Krut’s new book, This is the Ocean, will be released on October 11, but can be pre-ordered at http://www.bonafidebooks.com/this-is-the-ocean/