Gianmarc Manzione Poetry and Interview, with Kaite L.H. Robidoux
Gianmarc, it is so good to talk to you again and to see your new work! I love it. Thank you so much for trusting us with this work.
I admire people who face and prioritize in their lives what is real and important, even if it means forging into the unknown, taking risks, and changing. Trying to discover and facing truth take character and courage. I feel that character and courage in you from these poems – a frankness among the desperation that accompanies facing horrible, uncontrollable possibilities alongside the things (people, love…) that give life value. There is solace in discovering, acknowledging, valuing, and pursuing what is truly important in life, and in trusting that will save some good part of you, all the while knowing the more you invest in it, the more it may hurt if you lose it. I wonder if, in your mind, these poems come from (or reflect) that type of a place, and if so, what spurred your courage. I will tell you, I am concerned based on the references to brain lesions in these poems because I feel like we’re old friends and I want you to be relaxed and healthy. But I also wonder if facing down that type of a reality (whether literal or metaphorical) is affecting your approach to, and your focus in, life – and what it means to you to address it in poetry.
Thank you so much for your warm receptiveness to this work, Kaite. It means a great deal to me. It was scary for me to send these poems out into the world because I let them lead me to places that made me uncomfortable, and there are a lot of influences that helped me develop the capacity and courage to do so. One of those influences is a poet whose work I was stunned to encounter around the same time that I happened to be diagnosed with multiple sclerosis several years ago. An interview with Lucia Perillo had, at the time, just been published in the latest issue of American Poetry Review. She does in that interview what she does in absolutely devastating poems such as “Shrike Tree” from her unforgettable 2005 collection with Random House, Luck is Luck, which is to talk about her own battle with MS with a bracing and, at times, an almost sardonic candor. I could not believe that the work of this great poet who is herself also living with MS happened to fall into my lap out of nowhere around the same time I first had been diagnosed with the same condition. It just blew me away. And then to dig into her work, oh, it is achingly beautiful and witheringly honest in its perceptions. She is gifted with an ability to grapple with a subject such as MS with far greater subtlety than I.
In my case, I had come to a point with my work at which I felt I was writing too many so-called “persona poems.” I always have loved the opportunity to explore the identities that the persona poem enables me to explore. I think my fascination with persona poems originally was fired up by Randall Jarrell’s “Seele im Raum” and “The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner,” probably two of the most famous persona poems of the 20th century. And for many years now I have loved the way John Berryman switches from one persona to another throughout his “Dream Songs.” Denis Johnson has some great poems like “White, White Collars” which, to me at least, do read like persona poems and have been huge influences on my own work. I still find new terrain to explore in the persona poem. Maybe the most straightforward example among of the poems you’re publishing here is “School Day,” in which the “persona” approach enables me to give a voice to those poor kids who were slaughtered in the gut-wrenching Peshawar school shooting in Pakistan in 2014, an event I haven’t been able to keep out of my mind. (I know the argument can be made that each of these poems explores a “persona,” but that certainly is not how they read to me nor is it how they felt coming out.)
Nonetheless, I started to wonder if this tendency to explore personas signified a fear of exploring the self—or maybe just a plain old inability to do so. But things happened. MS being one of them. Having a child being another. Getting married. Losing jobs and getting new ones that turned out to be disasters and then leaving those and moving out of state and back again and living in, oh, about five different cities over the past nine years. Losing young loved ones to cancer. Losing my sister-in-law to a brain aneurysm when she was just 27 years old after she had been born with a brain tumor, gone blind, and lived a life of fiercely determined self-reliance in the face of unrelenting physical challenges. My wife and I have been through a lot.
Maybe I needed to be smacked around a little, or a lot, to develop both the capacity and courage to let my life into my poems. Maybe I needed to be pushed to the point at which I had to let my life into my poems or my life would destroy me. I’m sure that sounds very histrionic to people; not to me, not in the little haunted moments of these adversities as they happened. But I had to make a deal with myself or it would not work. I had to write without ever daring to tell my poems, “No, I won’t go there. Stop.” I had to let the poems lead me wherever they wished to take me and write down what they showed me. I think one reason I handle the subject of MS with, in my view, far less subtlety than Lucia Perillo is that I was daring circumstance to scare me away from my poems. Maybe there was a little bravado involved, and I’m not convinced that necessarily served the poems well.
But you know, these things I am “confessing” here—to be honest, many of them pissed me off. It is not fair, what happened to my sister-in-law. It is not fair that my cousin died of cancer at age 40 and in doing so had to leave behind a daughter who was, at the time, just nine years old. It is jarring to be told you have brain lesions and then to hear a doctor attribute them to something that sounds as scary as “MS.” I wanted to feel that fear and write it down anyway. I wanted to feel that contempt and go down swinging. That’s what it means to me to address these things in my poetry.
Steve Davenport has a few terrific collections in which he looks some of these same circumstances straight on and doesn’t flinch—books like Overpass, Uncontainable Noise or Murder on Gasoline Lake. Joe Millar, same thing. Great story. A guy who starts writing poems on his truck during lunch breaks while working as a telephone repair man and living as a single father, taking classes by Dorianne Laux in the evenings and figuring out his voice. And man, did he figure it out. What a talent. Then there is Max Ritvo. Erin Belieu. Laura McCullough. Arielle Greenberg. Carrie Fountain, who weaves her life into her poems with an apparent ease that astonishes me. Bruce Weigl. I could go on and on, as they say.
I haul two cart-loads of lumber out of the Lowe’s Of Things I Wish I’d Done Differently in this
one dream I keep having, then I fashion it into a deck for my ex-wife’s house. In another, I’m a
blowfish that inhales my student loan debt until it inflates my spiny round body beyond the
measure of even the most sizeable predator’s jaws. Years from finding both parents strangled
and his little sister hung, Charlie Otero said, “You can wish in one hand and shit in the other;
they’ll both fill up just the same.” My friend on Facebook said, “We breed dogs to be hairless
and thus hypoallergenic but most of us still stick our fingers in places and then smell them.”
Huh. Can you believe all Dudley Wright had to do to scare his kid into poetry was work his
whole life at Hazel-Atlas Glass? Do you realize that you are the song your strandedness coaxed
out of you? How is it possible that there is such a thing as a mint-scented urinal cake? Join me.
Let us wheel our recycling bins to the curb under a vault of stars whose names we don’t recall, if
indeed we knew them to begin with. Let me tell you I’ve scrubbed stains from my shirts using
toilet-bowl cleaner. That I, too, am lonely. Now a no-good bastard moon is horned yet again with
its long dry thought. The shooter walks the floor of the gay club, checking the pulses of the folks
he gunned down to make sure they’re dead and pumping the live ones with another round of his
Glock 17. How does Marylin Manson prefer his eggs? What will become of Carrie Fisher’s
beloved dog, Gary? What if the passerby who smiles at you at Safeway is the same person who
would consider eating you when the great disaster wipes out all other food sources? I’m playing
blind man’s bluff with the bills this month. I’m Bob Dylan singing “Every Grain of Sand” in the
time of my confession, in the hour of my deepest need, grateful for the email from Chase Bank
encouraging me to activate my $2.36 in cashback bonus points, and for the MRI of the brain that
no longer will operate my legs once the lesions reach their levers, my body the distillate of
damage. The wind has knocked a neighbor’s blow-up snowman into the topiary on his lawn,
which is pruned improbably in the form of a heptapus. A father’s affixing antlers to a
Subaru pocked with sun-blistered clear coat. May the drug-store Christmas lights curtaining my
garage flaunt their blinking pearls, may the units of this subdivision assert their sameness
in the peach stare of streetlights. The day a kid in a Star Wars shirt sprays bullets into people
crowding baggage claim at a south-Florida airport, I enter the world in which the kiss my three-
year-old blows me, my wife holding her tiny hand as they leave on an errand, invites the actual
concern that they may be blown away at the mall. Again I am amazed that Pat Sajak, after all
these years, still masters the visage of one who gives a shit when somebody draws the
bankruptcy wedge on Wheel of Fortune. You should see how speedily the coquinas head for
cover before a frenzy of turnstones at Bathtub Beach. Fake bubble snow is falling in Downtown
Naples, Florida, where it’s 80 degrees at midnight in December, and all the department store
Santas have packed it in. Silver-haired white men slow their Bentleys in the crowded street. A
fountain curls open its rose of rain at the center of a pond that dries away from its edges all
winter. I am on to you, life. I have seen you sunning on the screened-in porch where you dropped
in on this poem, watching dragonflies dare their drunk designs as the afternoon filled with bills
and birdsong. Now I’m almost out of gas, scraping scratch-offs behind the wheel of this Corolla.
I wait with you for the light to change.
You mention confession in your poetry, and these poems, more than other poetry of yours I’ve read, seem (in part) like confessions – intimate thoughts exposed with, or despite, the knowledge that some others will receive them with judgment. We live in a time when intimate thoughts are routinely exposed online, judged, even memed. Do you feel pressured to confess by someone(s) or society, as if confession is demanded in this age of deteriorating privacy and widespread self-exposure? And/or do you seek it out hoping it will lead to some sort of absolution, a personal lightening, or hope of salvation on a larger scale, a changed light? Or just acknowledgment? What is your relationship with confession?
Great question. This question stuns me with the realization that this is the first time I ever have thought about these particular poems as “confessional.” I’m not sure what that says about me or about these poems. Perhaps the reason I had not perceived them as “confessional” poems is that I had taken such a deep dive into my life on the page as I wrote them, banged my head against the walls of my life as I struggled to find some way to let it into my work, that the poems that resulted did not to me feel “confessional” so much as they felt inevitable. They needed me, and I needed them, and that reciprocity ignited some spark I never had dared to light before. I couldn’t have if I wanted to; this took time and work and loss and clumsily climbing over those losses to find what was still here. If the lines and details that resulted come off as “confessional,” that’s fine with me. Whatever judgments they may invite, I have to embrace those as fully as I had to embrace the things these poems wanted to say. I remember one night, at a reading Alicia Ostriker did at the KGB Bar in New York City years ago, she said she had gone through a period during which she had not written a poem in at least a year. More than that, I think. She said she made a deal with herself. She said that if the poems would just come back to her, she would consent to say whatever they needed her to say. That moved me. I never forgot it. I never will. And I know I consciously had that disclosure of hers in mind as I worked on these poems.
I do want to make the important point that these are not straightforwardly autobiographical poems. I don’t have a son. I don’t have an ex-wife; I’ve never been divorced. My wife’s sister was not 20 when she died. Some of the details are altered to make them fit the music or meter a particular line required. These poems are not written in any strict meter, but sometimes I needed a certain beat or pattern of beats to allow a line to sing its song. James Longebach’s book, The Art of the Line—while I do not always agree with his analysis of the poems he explores in the book— helped me greatly in thinking about the line as its own taut unit within the poem. I’ve restricted the syllable count per line in “Einstein” and “School Day,” which was the suggestion of my friend Charles Wuest, an excellent poet whose manuscript, Hubbub, was a finalist for the 2016 Dorset Prize judged by Robert Pinsky. I’m so grateful he challenged me to experiment with more disciplined lines because it’s amazing how many surprises occur by giving up what I thought I had to say to find something better, as I think Milan Kundera has put it.
I did not realize that “School Day” concluded with a rhyming couplet until long after I had written it; that was entirely unintentional and a result of the restrictions within which I composed that poem. A poem like “Anger” came out in heterometric lines because confining it within a more structured environment would have felt like trying to package a bomb after it’s already exploded. That may be the same reason I went with an A.R. Ammons approach to the lines in “Christmas Poem,” just spanning the page from margin to margin—albeit, unlike Ammons, unfortunately I did not have any receipt rolls at my disposal on which to type the poem! Any effort to “contain” those lines would not have honored the stormy spirit of that poem. But giving myself over to the line in poems like “Einstein” and “School Day” was part of what enabled me to write these poems. Speaking of that prize Pinsky judged—he was asked to talk about what he was looking for in the manuscripts he read for that contest, and he said, “Truth and music, or to put it another way, reality and real lines.” Wow, I thought. Reality and real lines. Music. Yes. I hope there are some real lines in these poems. And some music for them to sing to.
Fasten it to anyone's horse
and fire a pistol. See that the horse drags
it off, won’t you, with the sun, moon, and sea.
Locate the hurt it reaches and
crowd it out with owls. Do not
stir them from their nests. Tether it
to any bird’s tail
to take from here to some shit-bucket town
I’ll never see. Name it Worm and
wheedle it out of the unstudied ground
Tell a scream from a kalma, tell a gun
from God. Pashto and Hindko, commotion
of hands. Blood in the doorway, blood on the
stairs. The teacher in flames dripped in her chair.
The sun didn’t startle the field-hockey
grass, lintels held still for the assassin’s
grenade. I stuffed my folded-up tie in
my mouth to hold back a scream and pretend
I had died. Boots approached. I don’t know why
my last thought was about the day I told
my best friend Daniyal that I was going
to be a doctor so I could fix my
brother’s eyes. I wanted to know where he
was just then, if he was thinking of me.
I wouldn’t say I’ve figured out emotions or how to deal with them. I try not to dwell in anger (it’s so heavy), but I think anger has an important place – including in poetry. Do you battle with anger? Do you tire of it? Does it help you accomplish anything? Does it get in your way?
I think there is nothing that anger ever has helped me accomplish, but I am biased on this topic because I grew up around so much fuming anger as a kid that generally I find anger to be repugnant. Has it gotten in my way? Repeatedly. Do I tire of it? Oh yes, it has been a tiresome presence in my life indeed. It’s interesting to me that an earlier version of the poem I titled “Anger” ended with a scene of physical abuse from my childhood. I removed it because it deadened the poem by oversimplifying the causes of the tension with which it pleads. That’s not telling the poem “No” or that I won’t go there; that’s editing the poem, nudging it, helping it become its best self.
But why did the poem initially want to point its finger of blame at that one thing? I think about that. And thinking about that as often as I do, which, the older I get, is almost every day, helps me realize things about my childhood that maybe occur to me only now because I myself am the father of a young child. I realize now in a way I did not fully appreciate prior to becoming a father that the kind of anger around which I grew up was of such a violence as to traumatize a child. I realize only now that I live with that trauma today in my adult life. This is the thing about these poems; I am someone who feels increasingly that I know almost nothing about myself or what makes me tick. There is that point in “As I Ebb’d with the Ocean of Life” at which Whitman realizes, as he puts it, “I have not once had the least idea who or what I am.” I think he may have meant that differently than the way I read it, or the way I have taken that line and lived with it for years now as I have tried to patch together the pieces of myself that were blasted apart when I was a kid. Sometimes I feel like the guy in Memento. Maybe my poems are my clues. If only I’d write more of them than I do, I might really have figured something out by now.
When I was younger, and when my father was younger, I lived alone with him for years and, back then, he was at turns menacingly angry and wildly charismatic. There was no gray area; it was all or all, not “all or nothing.” All or all. Those were the two poles between which my father swung crazily. Living with him then, by myself, with the rest of my family living 3,000 miles away in California while I lived with him in Brooklyn, was an enterprise in survival. I never knew when the next outburst of volcanic fury would possess him, or what would trigger it, but I knew that when it erupted again it would be both terrifying and lonely for me. And if I ever dared ask him what was wrong, oh, forget it. That’s when he really would blow up. Living alone in such an environment as a child meant I had to deprive myself of any selfhood; whatever sense of self I might have developed in my childhood had to be set aside in order to be whatever I needed to be to not provoke the volcano. So I had to crawl deep inside myself and hide there. You cannot develop any kind of agency in an environment in which you are made to constantly walk on eggshells.
My younger sister later joined me under the same roof with my father and the fact that she now works as a child psychologist may be evidence enough of what the experience was like for her and for me. Those who have any interest in actually being any kind of grownup as they age will get at the root of any anger they battle within themselves and learn that it is an expression of powerlessness and a tool with which they manipulate those around them. Why anyone would want to create such an environment is beyond me. As the father of a little girl, the thought of subjecting my daughter to any such environment is so abhorrent to me that I require no further incentive to do everything I possibly can to tame whatever anger I have carried into my adulthood as a result of the powerlessness and deprivation of selfhood that I experienced as a child. And raising a hand to a kid? I don’t understand it. My wife also does not need to be living around the kind of anger my mother endured for about 17 years of marriage. I have spoken with my mother about what that was like and she has told me that, by the end of it, she knew it was over because she had become completely numb, a zombie, a dead woman walking. People around those who are losing their battle with anger become mute and malleable things. I don’t know if it occurs to the person who does that to them that they are doing that to the people around them, and I don’t know if they think about what it says about themselves that they need the people around them to be so absent emotionally and psychologically.
Lately I have been dealing with this one memory of myself playing with fingerpaints when I was in kindergarten, and what happens each time this particular random memory occurs to me is I am overcome with an inconsolable sadness and the wish that I could reach back in time and hug that boy and just tell him that it will all be OK. The things that boy will have to face are things so much bigger than he is, so titanic to a little innocent kid who didn’t ask to be born to begin with, that my own daughter’s innocence today is crushingly heartbreaking to me when I realize that I had to face those things at her age. She’s four years old. No child can survive an angry household psychologically or emotionally intact. Which is why I guess I will spend the rest of my life recovering the sense of self I was prohibited from cultivating as a kid.
One of my favorite songwriters, Mark Oliver Everett, said in an interview with The Ringer a few months ago that, when he found his father dead of a heart attack, “It was weird touching him. That was the first time we had any physical contact that I could remember, other than the occasional cigarette burn on my arm while squeezing by him in the hallway.” There was very little physical contact in my family growing up, as well. No hugging and not much saying “I love you” or any of that. There was one time I hugged my father about 20 years ago, but only after an argument, and in that moment he actually remarked out loud that it was the first time we ever had hugged. But as I said, my father also was, and still can be today, wildly charismatic company. Absolutely hilarious and joyous to be around. Maybe that made it all worse in a way when I was a kid living with him. I’d know this man who was amazing company and then whatever it was that was tormenting him would pull that man out from under me like a rug and leave me to face his fearsome doppelgänger.
The mailbox is shepherding demands for
money we will never have, which gets me
thinking again about how to manage
the machinery of the day-to-day.
Days proceed through its gears and come out as
frozen pizzas, a fistful of drug-store
carnations, grocery receipts, the fourth
counselor’s pedestrian take on loss,
what we won’t eat to pay for the new tires
the Chrysler needs, the mac and cheese our son
used as face paint, flowers from your 20-
year-old sister’s funeral, the smell of
the sea somewhere, the actual bags of
human shit hidden throughout my aging
father’s house, the fleck of facial hair you
found on the bathroom sink that somehow pushed
us both to the edge on a damn long day.
Now you’re hanging a cinnamon-scented
broom, telling me the smell’s enough to make
a wrong thing right, how a patent clerk in
Switzerland fucked with the stars to bend the
light of the universe, teased its fabric
into the tantrum it’s made from while he
rode a bus alone. Whatever. We’ve dragged
Tuscan rolls through the elk blood greasing our
plates while meteors fell blameless somewhere
we’ll never be. We have not known a damned
star’s name by heart since school. Tell me again
how Einstein saw the stars through the coffee-
dark sun, the things we’ve made it through somehow.
You’re in charge of assigning superpowers for a day. You can give yourself and others any superpower you want, but each person only gets one. What do you do?
Do I get to have the superpower to make a loaded ATM machine appear in my living room? I could use one of those. Sallie Mae’s been calling. Well, let’s see. Serious superpower assignments. If I could give my daughter one superpower that she would have for the rest of her life, it would be an immunity to self-doubt. If it were up to me, she would be genetically incapable of ever doubting herself. What a waste of time is self-doubt. I say that as someone who doubts himself once an hour, so I know how much time I’ve wasted on that over the years.
As for me, I’d assign myself the ability to begin playing guitar like Mike Campbell, right now. Today. This very minute. I’d do nothing but sit on my couch playing the licks to “Breakdown” for at least the next week. Instead, I have to do all this damned work to get there. But, damned or not, I will do it. I am not giving up this time.
Oh, how about assigning—to myself and also to others—the ability to not be afraid to say, “I’m sorry.” There are certain people in my life who, if they ever said those two words to me, I may well burst into tears. And I am absolutely certain that there are other people in my life who would have liked to hear that from me, and I failed. Sorry indeed does often seem to be the hardest word. There may be no power more “super” than the power to just recognize the need to say those two words to someone you’ve hurt, and then to actually utter them. Sometimes, to do that is to move a mountain.
An old professor told me in a dream
he’d insulated his house with kale leaves
which, he reported amazed, “worked
just like a platypus.” A neighbor
decided that his porch lacked a huge lit
plastic panda spinning in laughter while
the brain smudge a CAT scan revealed bloomed
into lesions I’ve had for years. The malady
an MRI interprets will not blind
me, that much is certain. But maybe it
will blind me. What is known is not even
what’s known. Fuck it. I’ll DVR shows I’m
ashamed to turn on, my heart gone to fat
in its unsteady room, my sent-up prayer
falling back down as one noiseless spider.
I’ve said for a long time that one thing that makes me smart is that I know what I don’t know. And I certainly don’t know why we’re here, living our lives amid such pain. I’ve decided, at least for now, to think that maybe I chose this life (even if it’s only one incarnation of “me”). Given that premise, I try to figure out why I might have chosen this life/incarnation, and I try to make decisions and live in a way that aligns with that choice. For example, if I think maybe I chose this life because it would give me the opportunity to learn x and enjoy y, then I go about trying to learn x and to enjoy y. You of course don’t have to share my approach in your life, but if you would play along with me for a minute and imagine that you chose this particular life, why do you think you might have chosen it?
This question gets me thinking about a quote I stumbled upon recently that was attributed to e.e. cummings: “To be nobody but yourself in a world which is doing its best, night and day, to make you everybody else, means to fight the hardest battle which any human being can fight; and never stop fighting.” Now I understand that quote is making a statement about conformity and individuality and resisting odious pressures, but what fascinates me about the quote is its presumptuousness. “To be nobody but yourself,” it begins. Well, who am I? What is “myself”? Who is that? How do I know I’ve found him? That quote can resonate only with people who already have developed some distinct self they have come to know well enough to cherish. That requires the refinement of some sense of self, which is a process that takes many years and may not come to fruition as often or as easily as many people may believe. If I have chosen this life, perhaps I did so to fulfill the lifelong project of answering those questions I just asked. If I get answers to them at some point, I’ll feel like Siddhartha sitting by the river at the end of Herman Hesse’s novel, having achieved something quietly within myself that no one can take away from me.
I think very few people have the slightest idea who they are. And I think many people think they know very well who they are. The older I get, the harder that is for me to imagine. I don’t think I am alone in this perplexity just because I had a tough time when I was a kid. I think this is true of most people, whether they’ve been abused or not, whether they have had hard lives or easy lives, whether they’ve had to go down swinging or they’ve never been put in a position of even having to pull a punch, no less to deliver one. (I am speaking figuratively here, of course. I have no interest in punching anyone for any reason. Ever.) The easier mode of living is to run from ourselves, to not face ourselves, to not go digging around in what Yeats called “the foul rag and bone shop of the heart.” I think most of us understand that we will not like everything we find there. And hey, life is hard enough without putting ourselves through that. I don’t begrudge anyone who chooses to do otherwise. In my case, though, I am somewhat desperate in my need to understand myself. And that may be because I only had the opportunity even to meet myself after I no longer was living in an environment in which I needed to be whoever or whatever I needed to be to survive the roiling sea of anger I sailed through as a kid with a sole mad captain at the helm.
Maybe that’s why “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” has been so appealing to me lately. The loneliness, the abandonment, the terror, the rueful self-examination the ancient mariner undergoes after he shoots the albatross and then faces the haunted hell that follows. I have been listening to a lot of Coleridge lectures lately while doing things around the house, rereading “The Rime” and wanting to know everything I possibly can know about Coleridge. And that is something I love, that quest for knowledge—knowledge of self and knowledge of the great artists whose work I revere and how they made the art that brought them to the attention of the world. In my own life, I think the impetus for that project is pain, but it doesn’t have to be that way for everyone. You can want to write and learn about great art without having gone through any particularly terrible circumstance; to suggest otherwise would be to advance an absurdly romanticized notion of art and the artist, a notion that continues to plague public perceptions of art and artists.
After Anthony Bourdain killed himself, for instance, the Observer ran a piece suggesting that Bourdain’s brilliant insights into the human condition through the lens of cultures different from our own “did not come from some idealistic, saccharine instinct to please, but from pain itself.” That seems to me an awfully easy presumption to make about the man’s work in the immediate aftermath of his suicide, and a corrosive one at that. To me, there is something myopic about extrapolating from the manner in which Bourdain died this conclusion that, “Oh, OK, so that means everything he did came from ‘pain itself.’” Yes, anyone aware of Bourdain’s story knows he battled things like addiction and anger earlier in his life, but I heard, saw and read at least as much joie de vivre in Bourdain’s work as I saw, heard or read any pain in it.
The kind of either-or construction that observation advances—either you’re producing “saccharine idealism” or you’re excavating pain (i.e., making “real” art)—is itself more saccharine than any idealism at which that particular writer may sneer. That may not be what the writer meant, but the implication is there and it’s indicative of a well-worn stereotype about creative geniuses like Bourdain. P eople are complicated. We Americans often seem eager to oversimplify the motives behind people’s actions. We don’t have time to do the hard work of questioning our own presumptions. And so every celebrity death ignites national discussion about “mental illness” as though suicide never is allowed to be a perfectly rational act performed by perfectly cool-headed adults who weigh their options and make a choice. To deny them their free will in that way is to deny the complexity of their circumstance. I do not think any reasonable person can Google and read a story called “How Robin Williams was Being Torn Apart and Couldn’t Fight Back” and then tell me that there is zero chance that what I just said possibly could be true of his situation.
I’ve always been a dancer rather than a musician (though I wish I were both), so I’m awed and moved by the power of music without really understanding the complexity of its composure or performance, or its fascinating interrelation with math. But I do know that music reaches something deep inside. I’ve been so charmed by things you’ve posted online about your daughter, who seems wonderful and like one of the very best things. I noticed that you and she talk about music, and I’d bet it’s an important part of your relationship with her and her understanding of the world. Would you say that’s true? What does sharing music with her mean to you (and do you know what it means to her)?
I’m not sure I adequately can express how much music means to me or how important a part it plays in my relationship with my daughter. I know I’ve been listening to too much Lindsey Buckingham lately because the other day, on the drive home from her school as one of his solo tracks was playing—so much of his solo work is so brilliant—she said, “Daddy, you should let Lindsdey Buckingham take a nap tomorrow. He sings for you every day, and he gets tired.”
I’ve made all these CDs for her—yes, I still burn playlists to CDs and play them on my Bose stereo because I don’t understand the appeal of “streaming” or other ways people consume music today—I call them “Baby Bath Time” CDs. I take the mellower, more acoustic tracks by artists whose work I want to share with her, gather them into a playlist and play them for my daughter, often while she is playing in the bath tub. So far we’ve got, let’s see, a Leonard Cohen Baby Bath Time, Fleetwood Mac, Rolling Stones, Beatles, Sheryl Crow, Beach Boys, Tears for Fears, Neil Young, Richard and Linda Thompson, Velvet Underground, Bob Dylan, Tom Petty, Simon & Garfunkel.
One day, we were listening to the Leonard Cohen Baby Bath Time CD, and “Suzanne” was playing, and she asked me why he was singing about Suzanne. I told her someone really ought to sing about Elli, and I asked her why no one had yet written a song about Elli. My daughter’s name is Ellianna, Elli for short. “I don’t know!” she said excitedly. So I asked her, “Well, who do you think could write a song called ‘Ellianna?’” She said, “Maybe Bob Dylan?” I said, “Oh! Do you think Bob Dylan could write a song about you?” She said, “If we ask him!” My heart melts in these moments.
She has memorized the first couple verses of “Sisters of Mercy.” We’ve snuggled up on the couch at night listening to that on repeat before bedtime; she had a phase during which that was all she wanted to hear. More recently it’s “Transformer Man” by Neil Young from his unjustly maligned 1982 album, Trans. I explained to her the story behind his use of the vocoder on that record, how it emerged from his attempts to communicate with his son, who is stricken with cerebral palsy. I’m not sure where she heard the term “handicapped,” but for some reason she has been asking us lately what it means, so we talk with her about her aunt Sheri, my late sister-in-law, and how she lived her life in spite of the things that made her a little different from others.
One day recently, we were on a little road trip, and Elli actually said, “Daddy, put on ‘Transformer Man.’ That’s my jam!” Can you imagine hearing that come out of a four-year-old’s mouth? It’s her ‘jam’ now. In recent months I’ve been making good on my long-held promise to myself to learn to play guitar. Elli has a little Barbie guitar, and I’ve been showing her how to play “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” on that. We’ve been “rehearsing” a version of “Hush Little Baby” so we can make a little music video in which she sings the song while I back her up on guitar. So, we’re having fun. That is the reason I finally am motivated to push myself to learn guitar; I want to sing and play with my daughter.
I have qualms about using the word “vice” because it denotes something immoral but is often used to describe acts that I think aren’t unethical at all. But I love secret pleasures. Would you share a story about one of your favorite “vices” or secret pleasures? I don’t mean to pry, but I love stories, so alternatively, would you share a story something that lifts your heart and makes you laugh or giggle?
I am mildly embarrassed by the fact that, as much as I love the high-brow songwriters I named earlier—Richard Thompson, Leonard Cohen—I can rock as much to Laura Branigan’s “Self Control” as I can to anything on Sticky Fingers. Sorry, world. I can. I’ve seen Billy Idol live twice and, again world, I am sorry, but I loved it. When Branigan died from a brain aneurysm in 2004 at the terribly young age of 52, one reason it crushed me was that I knew she happened to have been working on a new album at the time. When Billy Idol came out with his bruising 2005 comeback record, Devil’s Playground, I was working in the music department of a Barnes & Noble at the time, and I begged the manager under whom I worked to let me have a copy a day earlier than its official release date. He refused. Oh, cruel heart! So I had to wait a whole agonizing night to get my first listen of the new Billy Idol record—probably one of, oh, 10 people in the world who wanted to hear it that badly?
Sometimes, I admit, I do feel compelled to roll up the windows of my car in the event that I feel the need to once again rock out a Laura Branigan song. You don’t want to risk letting on to those around you that, for you, it’s still 1984 and you’re damn proud of it. Other times, eh, I figure, ‘The hell with it. Sooner or later, they’re going to have to know.’ Those are the times I keep the windows down and grin.
Oh, and Rick Astley. Look, people ruined him with that whole “Rickroll” thing. My nephew, who is 16, had his mother (my sister) in a state of disbelieving laughter one night when he rolled up into her driveway blasting “Never Gonna Give You Up.” She grew up on that stuff, like I did. My nephew thinks it’s hilarious; no one takes that music seriously these days, not like they did in 1987 when it came out. Except me. I adore that song. I love his work. That voice! Come on. I’ll take “Whenever You Need Somebody” over any contemporary pop hit today. Bring it. How many people realize that Astley played every instrument and wrote every song on his last album, 50, released in 2016? Give me Bananarama. Give me Belinda Carlisle. Guilty pleasure? Sure. I am guilty as charged. Book me.