When I read or write or think about poetry, I think about this Emily Dickinson line: “Tell all the truth but tell it slant.” What does it mean to tell the truth slant? To tell it sideways?
Kelly Schirmann’s new book, to me, tells, or attempts to tell, the truth both slant (in the poems) & head on (in the prose/essays). Sections 1, 3, & 5 are short personal essays—the first a sort of spiritual manifesto about the significance of music; the second a meditation on Kelly’s time living “on a small farm in the remote mountains of Northern California” with friends after graduating college (viewing this time as a “Sacred Irresponsible Experience”) – where they watched Scorsese’s documentary The Last Waltz about the band The Band daily as a coping mechanism for having “all the distractions of life removed” and no phone service; & the third a reflection on a memory of her father singing the Rolling Stone’s line, “You can’t always get what you want,” in a “rough, swooping chant,” smiling, in response to her as a child asking for something.
As the title, Popular Music, suggests, she probes the question of why music has the power to generate something in us that makes us want to fill so many everyday spaces with it. After my second reading of the book, it seems that in many ways the book is an investigation of the yearning, limitations, & transcendence that we experience when faced with the seduction of music (& by extension, language itself, expression, art, creative communication, etc.) in relation to our seemingly inevitable tendency to turn “pure Experience into mere Information.”
In the poems, she eschews punctuation to produce a water-like effect, where each line leaks into the next & each stanza is like a pond. She persistently returns to how other people’s music can make us come into contact with our own emotional landscape, can make us feel things we may never otherwise feel, even when we don’t know if our feeling/interpretation of the music parallels the feeling/interpretation of the creator of the music.
Each stanza feels as if it could’ve been dashed off or pieced together from snippets of thoughts typed into a phone’s Notes, but even if that’s true, upon rereading each one, I find the words (& what they seem to pointing to) spiraling around in my head in multiple directions, so they simultaneously read as if each detail has been diligently labored over.
Which is one of the wonderful things about Kelly’s work: it’s so thoughtful & accessible at the same time.
This is a book about the spaces between us, the spaces inside us, public spaces, wild spaces, & how we try to document, curate, or exploit those spaces even though they don’t require us to. This is a book about practicing & pretending to understand things that may not be understandable, especially when what we have is “little dried leaves of [words]” with which to do so. This is a book about how art is not utilitarian, but how a world without it seems bleak, or seems purposeless if not for its ability to articulate suffering (& joy). This is a book about how even though art should probably “spend its days doing whatever the hell is wants,” it should nevertheless use its power to illuminate its own importance. This is a book about the frustration that comes with the realization that “You can’t always get what you want” & that some things are simply out of our control, but how we must use our “clear voices” to “pronounc[e] what [we] kn[o]w to be True.” This is a book about the notion that, despite the violence & overthinking that floods our everyday lives, “All I wanna do / is have a little fun / before I die.”
Here are some of my favorite moments:
The secret to pollen
is that if fucks everybody up
& then disappears into
beautiful things that keep us alive
In your twenties
you feel so violently
about whatever peace means
I want a job
that leaks slowly into a lake
& I want to swim in this lake my whole life
Don’t be so hard on yourself, you offer
& I practice the version of me
that knows exactly what you mean
If everything was really okay
I don’t think we’d need
To remind ourselves
The world is punishment enough
in that you see everything lying there
but have no agency to rearrange it
You have to build a tiny city
in your mind then
full of constructed emergencies
you will one day know
how to prepare for
I don’t know if rituals are created out of a kind of neurotic loneliness or if it’s the other way around.
Now I have
this whole list of questions
that I’m too embarrassed
to not be asking anymore
Technology is boring
but not as boring
as our addiction to technology
Kelly was kind enough to talk to me about the book. Here is our conversation!
MATTHEW: Hi, Kelly! Where are you living these days, and do you like it there?
KELLY: Hi, Matthew! Thanks for having me here. I’ve been living in Portland, Oregon off and on for nearly eight years—we’ve had a good run, but no, I don’t like it here. In the last few years the city has really made a project of re-branding late capitalism as something more humane, and now that it consists mainly of over-priced and over-branded products, there’s not a lot more to do but allow consistently higher tax brackets of people move in and colonize it. It belongs to Creative Directors now, not artists. I’ll be leaving soon to travel with my partner for a couple months and am hoping to land somewhere where the tree-to-storefront ratio is a little higher.
M: Well, I’d like to say that I very much enjoy your new book. Did you begin writing it with the intention of exploring Popular Music?
K: Thank you for reading it! I’m not sure exactly how I began writing it—I think at some point I became fascinated with popular music as a kind of real-time construction and reflection of our shared cultural mythologies, values, and desires, particularly in relation to how we regard and engage with art. To me, popular music feels like the most visible representation of what art, on a large scale, can both accomplish and fail at accomplishing. You can see so clearly the delineation between music as expression and music as industry. You can see the exact moment when music (or a musician) becomes more interested in being a product; you can see when money is brought in to make that happen. And I think that’s really important to pay attention to as an artist now. We live in a time where commodification of the self (mind, body) is essentially second nature, and because of this I think it’s more important than ever for people to be able to encounter sincerity and truth in our art forms and in the ways that we share our ideas with others. Otherwise, the whole landscape and enterprise is depressing.
M: What about the order? Did you write each section in the order that they appear, or did you organize the sections strategically in the editing process?
K: The poem sections were written in the order they appear in the book, and to me they represent three different ways of approaching songwriting (poem-making). The essays all arrived at different times and in different iterations, but I put them where I thought they needed to be to make the larger thing go. The book, at its core, is a love song to the person I love, so during the editing process I just tried to imagine that I was making a perfect mixtape for him.
M: To you, what does avoiding periods & commas in the poems allow that including them would not allow?
K: It allows an open-ness and an accessibility, I think; it removes all the gates from the feeling at the center of the poem. If I look at a poem and feel exhausted, it’s not going to be able to enter my body, no matter how beautiful or smart it is. Poetry has too many tricks, too many gates. I think these kinds of gates (rules) are what keep people from poetry, both readers and writers. They’re kept from the experience of articulating their own emotion. I wanted these poems to have movement, to allow wind (song) to go through them, like lyrics. Songs move me, and I want poems to move me. I think if you do it right, the music of the poem makes its own punctuation. And then readers can interpret the poem in their own way, with their own starts and stops, their own melodies.
M: Are there any books or writers that impacted your vision for this book?
K: Anne Boyer, Gary Snyder, Hoa Nguyen, Jean Baudrillard, Joseph Campbell, and Wendell Berry were all authors that helped me understand how the book could talk and what it could say. Mostly I tried to listen to music and transcribe something that was happening there. The albums I listened to while writing the book were hugely influential in forming the sound of it, in a way I don’t quite understand yet.
M: I admire how honest & bold your voice is, how vulnerable you are without being too ‘precious.’ This is the type of book that feels therapeutic – for the writer & potentially for the reader (it gave me lots of feels!). Does your work serve as a form of catharsis for you?
K: This is a good question and I don’t know the answer. I constantly wonder whether writing is actually therapeutic to me or whether it’s just an old compulsion. I think it’s probably both. I write to work things out, and that can either be cathartic or aggravating, depending on how far in I let myself go. I think within any medium, what people respond to—that non-precious vulnerability you’re referencing—is the sound of a person honestly saying what they think. It is really difficult, increasingly difficult, to say what you think, to even know what you think. We can’t hear ourselves at all. And in addition, because we are being marketed to constantly, people are starved for real information, for feeling and humanity. So above all I wanted this book to be honest, and I had to continuously re-visit it as it was being edited with this lens in front of it. I wanted it to feel like there was a person talking from within this object, trying to make sense of the larger, deafening things we’re all trying to talk through—the internet, commerce, institutions—without making any other demands.
M: The word “God” pops up in your book a number of times, and I see that Alan Watts is the first person you thank for making the book “go.” Can you say a bit about your spiritual views, and how Alan Watts, if at all, has affected them?
K: I use God in the poetic sense, or in the general sense of acknowledging that there is something greater than me at work that I can connect to if I make bare minimum attempts to connect with it. For me that connection comes from being outside and from being quiet. Alan Watts was one of the people I first heard in my spiritual development that validated my hunches that the man-made world, the cities and industries, were exterior manifestations of an original impulse to control nature that no longer serves us. I don’t think the human being can realize its full potential in many of the designated spaces for human beings to be, and I think that’s really one of the fundamental problems of being alive right now.
M: I am sure that your work as a musician contributes to your motivation to integrate music into your writing. What is the relationship between your music and your writing like?
K: They each definitely inform the other, though I can’t always do both at the same time. I think they’re almost at odds with each other, or at least in the ways that I use them; writing helps me refine ideas within the boundaries of language (society) and singing helps me transcend those things, to experience something playful and weird. I’ve been getting back into recording music since the book has been released, which feels amazing. Like burning sage in the left side of my brain.
M: I really appreciate your answering these questions! Conclusively, is there anything you’re working on currently that you’d like to tell us about?
K: I really appreciate you asking me! I can tell you that I’m recording an album of music with my partner, Jason Fiske, under the name Sung Mountains, and that I’ve begun working on a collaborative chapbook of poems with my friend Tyler Brewington. Other than that, I’m just looking for a nice piece of creek-front property to disappear onto.
Kelly Schirmann is a poet, musician, and ceramicist from Northern California. She is the author of Popular Music (Black Ocean) and the co-author, with Tyler Brewington, of Boyfriend Mountain (Poor Claudia). Other projects include: Sung Mountains, Black Cake, Public Access, and Americans for Responsible Technologies (ART). She lives in Oregon, and at kellyschirmann.com.