“As a rule, think plain, unadorned, gravitas. No cleavage, thigh-high boots, or microminis. No animal prints and certainly no cowboy fringe.”
— Nina Garcia’s Look Book: What to Wear for Every Occasion, “What to Wear to a Funeral”
Between January 1, 2016 and mid-February 2018, five people I loved died: my best friend, two aunts, my grandmother, and my father. I started writing “How to Keep a Dead Woman Alive” shortly after the last two deaths, when I was unable to stop myself from dreaming about dead women. It was always the women. Women watching me while I slept, women waiting for me to catch up.
I never questioned the dreams or what was happening on the page. Writing about dead women seemed to be the natural result of not taking off work, not talking about my grief, and not stopping the day-to-day “grind” of grading essays, folding laundry, and hosting birthday parties for a house full of five-year olds.
“How to Keep a Dead Woman Alive” was/is part of a longer work-in-progress. The individual sections, though, were born from the blend of influences that seeped into my brain during each of those mind-numbing, grief-filled days.
In no particular order: Sylvia Plath, Selena, Carmen Maria Machado’s Her Body and Other Parties, Peaches ‘N Cream Barbie, Lincoln in the Bardo, what to wear to a funeral, how long it takes to grieve, Ouija boards, Bloody Mary, Twin Peaks, Linkin Park, George Michael, Amy Winehouse, The Cranberries, cremation, novel after novel after TV show after movie with a dead woman in the middle of the plot. The question of what happens to your best stories and your worst secrets if you’re the only one left alive to remember?
In his essay, “On Becoming an American Writer,” Alexander Chee says, “Speak to your dead. Write for your dead. Tell them a story. What are you doing with this life? Let them hold you accountable.”
Is that what I was trying to do as I wrote in the aftermath of my grief? Did I intend to speak to my dead? On some level, yes. Each time I dream about my friend, always her more than the others, I wake up wondering what she wants me to do now. What stories does she want me to write? What secrets am I allowed to share?
I wrote “How to Keep a Dead Woman Alive” with her in mind, her at age 35 and age 28 and age 22 and age 12. I saw her passing me a note in 8thgrade English and escorting me to junior prom and holding back my hair when we lived together years later. I saw her holding my son. I saw us shopping and sharing and stealing each other’s clothes. How intimate it all seems now, in retrospect, that I don’t have anyone who wants to borrow my favorite dress.
The dress, I think, was always part of the story, even before I started writing. As I packed my funeral dress for my friend’s memorial service, I might have thought about the perfect symbolism of a black dress and how I would one day write about my loss. I had a feeling more funerals were coming (though I didn’t know how many or how quickly), and if I had thought about writing through my grief, I would have also known how central a dress would be to that narrative.
Otherwise, I don’t remember writing a single word.
One of the benefits of writing at 5 a.m. is that no one cares what I’m wearing. Inside-out T-shirts tops and ratty robes are my uniform. It doesn’t matter if I’m blurry, stumbling, and unable to form complete thoughts yet. There’s coffee, and a cat to keep me company. There’s a (hopefully) charged laptop. The sky is just the right kind of dark.
This is how I write, with my subconscious still buzzing from half-baked dreams, and a complete lack of censorship. The internal editor is still asleep and the lack of perfection, the full-on embrace of imperfection, becomes the fuel for my creative process. A quiet house at 5 a.m. is pure luxury. Better than Burberry trench coats and Missoni knits and Frye harness boots, and whatever else Nina Garcia says I am supposed to own and enjoy.
After I wrote “How to Keep a Dead Woman Alive,” my Twitter friend, Steve Bargdill, told me about keening. Keening is a death wail, a public lament that has now grown out of fashion, giving women a voice for their grief. Sometimes professional mourners were hired to grieve publically at funerals. I am simplifying, of course, but the blend of beauty and tragedy struck a nerve. Yes, I thought. That is what it feels like to ache and not have the words, or to not need the words, to express it.
This is not to suggest that writing “How to Keep a Dead Woman Alive” was a healing experience. Not at all. I like how T Kira Madden addresses the issue of writing and healing in her essay “Against Catharsis: Writing is Not Therapy.” She writes, “But to render the art, to render the experience, does not, in my practice, involve ‘bleeding into the typewriter.’ It does not entail a writer spilling or spewing the memory onto a blank page, nailing it down, healing.” I don’t disagree.
Lately, my writing and my mourning are mashed together so brutally, I couldn’t ever call the creative process therapeutic. Instead, it feels like I am crafting a eulogy that no one has asked me to write. Over and over, it feels like standing in front of my family and friends, pretending like I have all the right words instead of one long, imperfect wail.
Today we are pleased to feature Benjamin Soileau as our Authors Talk series contributor. With jazzy Louisiana music playing lightly in the background, Ms. Kennedy Soileau—Benjamin’s wife, first reader, and editor—interviews Benjamin about his writing process and recent fiction piece, “What Paul Would Do,” published in SR’s Issue 23.
Benjamin explains that the idea for his short story stemmed from an old family memory: one where his father would send Benjamin and his little brother outside into the garden with a jar and list of bugs to catch for some pocket change. From here, writing “What Paul Would Do” came naturally, unlike some of Benjamin’s other stories. However, he explains that the biggest challenge in writing “What Paul Would Do” was working with the interrupted grief in Gayle’s character. In reflecting on Gayle, Benjamin notices nearly all of the characters in his story grapple with “a grief interrupted.”
Kennedy remarks that she finds the protagonist’s simultaneous likability and reprehensible action to be an interesting “balance act.” To this, Benjamin acknowledges, “We’re all capable of terrible things. Just like, you know, we’re capable of good things. Terrible. Beautiful. We’re all mixed up.”
Benjamin and his wife also take time to discuss the way he captures cajun-style dialogue and story structure with his language. Although some of his inspiration may have come from Joel Chandler Harris’ Uncle Remus stories or Roald Dahl’s “Lamb to the Slaughter” (which he read around the time he composed “What Paul Would Do”), Benjamin explains that his ability to construct the voices in his stories comes from listening to the family voices in his grandmother’s kitchen who “spoke French half the time.” He believes this particular voice is dying while the “land is slipping away” and “the culture, of course, is going with it.”
Benjamin and Kennedy also consider their unique relationship, with Benjamin acting as a writer and husband and Kennedy acting as his editor and wife. Benjamin mentions the challenges of this editing process, but he notices it gives him someone to write for and impress. Kennedy explains how their relationship dynamic switches to a writer-editor relationship during this editing phase. While she feels apologetic about marking up his story with a red pen, she likes to see how the stories change between the first and last drafts. Benjamin concludes, laughing “They usually do [change], quite a bit. I wish they’d change a lot quicker.”
A Playlist for The Now Dark Sky, Setting Us All on Fire
Note: The Now Dark Sky, Setting Us All on Fire playlist can be heard here (on Apple Music) and here (on Spotify).
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 notes, he 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.
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.
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.
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.