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Joanna Newsom: Musician or Poet?

I first heard the musician, Joanna Newsom, in the early spring of 2010, just before graduating from college with an English degree from the University of Utah. My friend, Sam, and I were reconnecting after a year-ish of quietly ignoring each other—something you could do in Salt Lake City (SLC), partly because nobody could afford a scene amid that little bit of blue awash in all that red, and partly because a sort-of unsaid kindness was operating principle for us both.

Sam, an adopted Korean queer kid of 19, was notably different from the SLC usual, yes for being gay and Asian, but equally as much for being non-Mormon. His lazy unconcern for the whole business of religion (despite having been raised by a white Latter-day Saint family) was ridiculously thrilling to me. When we’d met that previous year, me at 25, positively entranced by his shoulder-cropped hair and devil-may-care demeanor, I was smitten and distressingly obvious about my crush: any sane person would have run, and Sam was sane enough. A year later, we became friends. To be frank, reconnecting at all was a surprise to me. The fact that we kept falling into bed together, well, I blame Joanna Newsom.

Sam had always been musical. Piano, violin—in 2010, Sam had added singing as well. One evening that spring, we were sitting in my hallway of a basement bedroom, backs against opposing walls, thumbing through mp3’s on Sam’s iPod Shuffle. He sold Joanna to me by referencing her socially-progressive uncle, Gavin Newsom—the mayor of San Francisco who had made headlines by illegally marrying gay couples on the steps of City Hall, during the height of the Bush Administration’s campaign for a constitutional amendment that banned such marriages across the country—and by claiming, plainly, that Johanna was the closest thing to a poet a musician could be. Sam picked “Emily” off the 2006 album, Ys, and hit PLAY.

Joanna herself is, according to a 2010 New York Times bio piece entitled “The Changeling,” a “willowy girl strumming a harp in the forest gloaming” with “great imagination, and a beautiful lyrical sense.” The Times journalist, Jody Rosen, maybe a little bemused and spellbound as well, felt to ask: “Was she a wood sprite? Or was she woodshedding: a serious musician, diligently, obsessively, honing her skills?” I’d say a bit of both. Notoriously private, Newsom lives in rural central California in the bucolic counter-culture bastion, Nevada City. Her teachers, her friends, all note how feverishly she works.

Newsom made her studio debut in 2004 with The Milk-Eyed Mender, after two self-produced albums from the two years previous, and has since released several singles and two other albums (Ys in 2006, and Have One on Me in 2010). Her voice is, according to NPR writer, Bob Boilen, “polarizing.” NPR’s show, first listen, noted a “richer, more restrained and relaxed” sound in Have One on Me, which Boilen called “a journey worth taking,” and perhaps oddly attributed Newsom’s vocal maturity to “adjustments she’s made after developing vocal-cord nodules in early 2009.” In an album filled with love and loss, perhaps, what she has damaged is all the more important.

Eventually, “In California” would become a kind of background noise to my early explorations after entering grad school in 2010 in San Francisco, punctuated by the bright spike of the new, and tinged with the casual and aimless loss that followed me in my mid-twenties. After graduation, after a scholarship to the MFA in Writing program at University of San Francisco—where my poems were championed, not by the poet faculty, but by fiction writer, David Vann. After fussing over my hair in the wind and fog of the Inner Richmond before finally giving up and letting it just be messy. I remember, at 27, being terrified of turning 30; and then to my surprise not minding when I did. What’s strange is how completely her music resonated especially after leaving Sam for good; it was maybe four or six months after I moved to San Francisco that he told me he, not only loved, but wanted me—and classic, in a way, that he waited till it was impossible before saying anything at all. As the song goes:

Some nights

I just never go to sleep at all,

and I stand,

shaking in my doorway like a sentinel,

all alone,

bracing like the bow upon a ship,

and fully abandoning

any thought of anywhere

but home,

my home.

Sometimes I can almost feel the power.

And I do love you.

Is it only timing,

that has made it such a dark hour,

only ever chiming out,

"Cuckoo, cuckoo"?

Yet back in that bedroom in Salt Lake City, still an undergrad, puzzled and cautious with this new-old connection, I was once again confronted by a theoretical claim I vehemently disagreed with: music was, could be, poetry; and I was pretty darn sure it couldn’t be.

I’d heard the claim made in three, maybe four, poetry courses during undergrad. Inevitable, at start of term, our professors seemed to ask: who are you reading? who are your favorite poets? One, two, perhaps three, students would parlay the name of their favorite musician: Kurt Cobain, Bob Dylan, Jim Morrison, Tom Waits, Morrissey; often the students who offered these names editorialized quickly, justifying with “I know this isn’t poetry, but…” And my professors treated these comments, not like mana, but rather like bread you’d left in the toaster too long: delicately handled on its way to the compost bin. I heard the claim made once in grad school, during my 2nd year by one of the 1st-year poets; there the student got—maybe I’m an asshole—just a sad shake of the head.

Dana Stevens and Francine Prose, writing for the New York Times, took on this claim with regards to Bob Dylan in the Sunday Book Review, back in 2013, in a piece entitled, “Bob Dylan: Musician or Poet?” Stevens suggests that “creative activity at a certain level renders genre categorization moot…[pushing] ‘genre’ back toward its origin in an Indo-European root denoting procreation, ‘engendering’ in the most literal sense.” She claims that Dylan’s personality, our inability to satisfactorily categorize it, at least allows us to agree to land on neither alone. Prose alludes and refers in her response, taking Bolaño and Dickinson and Rimbaud and Whitman as evidence of Dylan’s surreal images and multifaceted rhythms. The piece overall seems to stake a claim that Bob Dylan, at least, might well be a poet too.

But how much of this is form and process? Do we read a song—not only its lyrics—in the same manner that we read a poem? Do we compose our poems with guitar pick or trumpet in hand? Or, perhaps more generously, is the pen or typewriter the same kind of instrument as an oboe or a voice? Do we use our minds and bodies in the same way? I spent my undergrad wrestling with the question of just how form follows content, and both leads and informs content as well.

Much of the vocabulary and rhetoric for poetry and music are the same. And this causes slippage that annoyed me endlessly: rhythms, cadences, verse, breaks, etc., even esoteric tropes like “finding your voice,” where the meaning in writerly poetic circles absolutely doesn’t refer to the same things it does in music circles. Yet I cannot count the number of times I’ve heard lyrics described as “poetic” and lyricists (mostly rappers or jazz artists—is there something racially non-permissive in my frustration here? probably) as “poets,” often “street poets.” Spoken word plays a big role here, I think, as it blurs the line between written poem and performance even further. In his 2005 essay for Poetry Magazine, “Sight-Specific, Sound-Specific…,” Nathaniel Mackey calls performance “a bothersome word for writerly poets”; he says “performance art, poetry slams, and the like have made the term synonymous with theatricality, a resource to dramatic, declamatory, and other tactics aimed at propping up words or at least helping them out—words regarded, either way, as needing help…even dead left on their own”.

Mackey insists that words “perform on multiple fronts...[to be] as attentive…to the placement of words on the page (the use of variable margins, intralinear spacing, page breaks, and such to advance a now swept, now swung, sculpted look, a visual dance down the page and from page to page) as I am to the rhythms and inflections with which they’re to be read when read aloud. It’s not that the former serves as a score for the latter.” For him, it seems that confusing spoken word, or music, with poetry confuses the elements of their different natures, what serves and what is in service to. This after the subject of the piece, relating Mackey’s experience of recording some of his poems with the musical collaboration of Spoken Engine Company’s Royal Hartigan and Hafez Modirzadeh. Mackey saw the venture as a way to address music’s inspiration for his poems, while remaining determined that “my reading style with music accompaniment remain essentially the same as when reading alone,” both propositions he insists being mostly successful in the end. At the times when he wasn’t successful, he found the music swelling or dramatizing—or simply drowning—his reading in ways he felt he needed to guard against.

Nathaniel Mackey sounds, as a rule, much like the opposite of the poet, Donald Revell, who composes almost entirely orally—with a tape recorder—writing the poem down later.

There is a moment in Newsom’s “Emily” that still strikes me. And I pointed it out to Sam, that first time, after literally bending my ear towards his iPod to listen. Joanna sings:

And, Emily, I saw you last night by the river.

I dreamed you were skipping little stones across the surface of the water —

frowning at the angle where they were lost, and slipped under forever,

in a mud-cloud, mica-spangled, like the sky’d been breathing on a mirror.

If Anne Carson is to be believed, in her poem, “Essay On What I Think About Most,” “what we are engaged in when we do poetry is error, / the willful creation of error, / the deliberate break and complication of mistakes / out of which may arise / unexpectedness,” then unexpectedness is the means by which the goal of a poem is reached for. When I hear these lines from Joanna, there is the surprise which arises from the declarative turning to dream-world and then the way in which that dream-like image turns again to both the physical and metaphorical image; we move from “saw” to “dreamed” to the very tactile/bodily image of the human face, the loss of skipping stones underneath running water to, finally, a simile. I find it even more graceful and startling that this last move, into simile, lands on so opaque an image as fogged breath. It seems as fitted to its referent, the mica-spangled mud-cloud, as it is to the very dream the singer refers. This seems like poetry to me.

Now, after a lot of time, I feel richer, more restrained and relaxed—like Bob Boilen’s description of Joanna’s last album: I’m more willing to put my anxiety over genre to bed. I’ll admit, sometimes a little begrudgingly, that music can sometimes be poetry-like. I’ve come to respect the things they share, their slippages. Though I still believe, at heart, that they have very different goals in mind.

As for Sam, initial cause for my wrestling Newsom’s work, he’s an East Coast man now, so far away. Love clouds, especially when unrequited, and falls away like a stone. Then the stone is as hard to distinguish as its ensuing cloud.

Dreams remain, though, and Joanna Newsom is as good a dream as any I know. Poetic enough for me.

Stay Backwords,

Matthew D. Kulisch

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