From Poetry Magazine

Cosmic Cuttlefish: A Playlist for the March 2019 Issue

For our March 2019 playlist, we asked contributor Brian Kim Stefans to curate a selection of music for us. You can read about his approach to creating the playlist below. Click here to open the playlist in your Spotify app.

I tried to let the poems in the issue suggest which tracks to pick for this month’s playlist. In some cases it was the form of the poem, say a villanelle or the run-on improvisation, that recalled for me a piece of music; in other cases it was a phrase or the general meaning and tone of the poem. Some tracks will be familiar to many of you, some tracks completely new, and some will be tracks you’ll wish you’d never heard. I haven’t really updated my pop music tastes since the early nineties (or when I did, it was for much older music), so there’s a retro vibe here. Well, at least I didn’t include “Bohemian Rhapsody.”

This might not be the best gym music—unless you’re a cuttlefish!

Conlon Nancarrow, “Study for Player Piano No. 3a”

Looping and looping.
—From Cell by Naomi Cohn 
The concrete Lego-like bunker and tower, bunker and tower, barbwired cabbage and vines.
—From Quf : ק by Peter Cole 

Conlon Nancarrow (1912–1997), an American who lived out most of his life a political exile in Mexico (he became a citizen in 1956), is most famous for experimenting with polyrhythms and extremely fast playing by composing for modified player pianos. Humans have since figured out ways to perform a few of these.

Tom Waits, “Shore Leave”

his husky voice’s crackle.
—From Main Na Bhoolunga by Fatimah Asghar
          On shoulders exhausted
by games.
—From I Belong Here by Ray Gonzalez

There something of the wilds of the borderlands, absurdly evoked (think Orson Welles’s Touch of Evil) in this old chestnut from Waits’s “junkyard orchestra” days.

Scott Walker, “Farmer in the City”

                          I used to think
the cemeteries were far from the city.
—From Souk by Zeina Hashem Beck
  Half a tennis court of land
up a rutted lane above the road.
—From The Burdens by Stephen Sexton
City streetlamps flared like learnéd ghosts.
—From Dead Men Walking by William Logan

Scott Walker’s career is epic, from his early pop days with the Walker Brothers, through a succession of popular solo albums (on which he covered several songs by Jacques Brel), to the latter part where he’s become one of the most haunted singer-songwriters I’ve ever heard. This one takes lyrics from a letter the poet and director Pier Paolo Pasolini wrote to his lover, Ninetto Davoli.

Gregory Whitehead, “If A Voice Like, Then What?”

the the the the

each article drenched to the bone
—From Asylum, by Jana Prikryl 

My favorite piece by audio and permanence artist (or poet?) Gregory Whitehead is called “So You Wanna Talk about Squid,” but it’s not on Spotify (it’s available elsewhere online, and worth the hunt!).

Suburban Lawns, “Janitor”

an omnivorous harpy ! goofy !
—From ! katya ! by Chrissy Williams
Hard hats tuneless in the rain!
—From Terrestrials by Stephen Sexton

I was happy there was a poem in here that allowed me to include a track from an eighties band I only learned about when creating my Scavenged Luxury collections of Los Angeles post-punk music. The chorus emerged from a conversation singer Su Tissue had with a new friend in which she asked what he did for a living. He said, “I’m a janitor” and she thought he said “Oh my genitals.” That’s how it’s done.

Eric Dolphy “Feathers”

Breath assuaging its own battery.
—From Diagnosis by Meena Alexander

One of my favorite tracks by Dolphy, pretty much on constant rotation in the nineties.

Henry Flynt, “Solo Spindizzy”

        Curled up inside
of the ring in my ear.
—From Failed Sestina by Jane Huffman
The alien learns quickly.
—From Explaining Villanelles to an Alien by Anthony Lawrence

I first heard Henry Flynt perform on a CD published in 2002 called “Raga Electric,” the first track of which is an explosive burst of “sound poetry” (I guess) that could also be a wolf having an epileptic fit while choking on a bone. Flynt is best known for his association with Fluxus but is also a philosopher and mathematician.

The Who, “Blue, Red and Grey”

a cuppa tea.
—From Maybe my most important identity is being a son by Raymond Antrobus
Coffee stunts growth.
—From If You Go to Bed Hungry by Angela Narciso Torres
don’t say graying
say sea salt
—From Maybe my most important identity is being a son

An old track from The Who By Numbers with a lovely orchestration in the background written by bassist John Entwistle. Ukulele and horns together again.

Brian Eno, “On Some Faraway Beach”

Concertina music drifting over the dunes.
—From Stolen Dress by Tess Gallagher
My spiral life.
—From A Root by Annie Finch

Eno experimenting with the canonic form and counterpoint on his first solo album (after being booted from Roxy Music), Here Come the Warm Jets. This one always makes me sad.

John Cage, “Suite for Toy Piano, I.”

All the electric music in the world has been turned
into handbells.
—From Honeymoon by Brenda Shaughnessy
sweets, frills, perfumes, with hints
 of cherry chance
—From Mango hats stood out from the rest by Shira Dentz

It is at it says.

John Oswald, “Manifold”

   On hearing the word chondrosarcoma
you went home and immediately unplugged your router
—From The Following Scan Will Last Four Minutes by Lieke Marsman, translated by Sophie Collins
The white noise in between.
—From The White Room by D. Nurkse

An example of Oswald’s technique of “Plunderphonics,” the most amazing examples of which can only be circulated illegally due to various legal issues raised by the LP Plunderphonic in 1989 (notably on behalf of Michael Jackson and his label). Fine Young Cannibals, anyone?

The Sugarcubes, “Deus”

A god whose name is Gone ...
—From Quf : ק
Fingernails are clean and white.
—From Among Every Three Fathers, One Will by Jennifer Tseng

Hard to beat the Sugarcubes. But it was Einar Örn’s bit about being “squeaky clean” that suggested this song to me. If you want another funny song about being clean (Nietzsche, for one, was all about personal hygiene) look up “I Like to Be Clean” by The Mumps (another L.A. post-punk band).

Radiohead, “Weird Fishes / Arpeggi”

  Large creatures change their shapes
to fit.
—From Silhouettes by Kien Lam
“Nothing gets wasted in the water.”
—From Okean Means Endless by Julia Kolchinsky Dasbach
      Those who didn’t qualify
for tickets to the sky.
—From Pulling Out by Eliza Griswold

Before, or maybe concurrent, with the rise in H.P. Lovecraft’s fortunes, there was Thom Yorke singing about “weird fishes.” I air drum to this all the time.

Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith, “I Am a Thought”

in yogurt, carrots, the apple tree
—From Alive by Natasha Sajé
                                         the boundary
between things floating.
—From on this day / or any other by Mia Kang
                                                       A flash
of the magnesium bulb’s Lichtenberg lace.
—From • by Miriam Bird Greenberg

Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith is an L.A.-based artist whom I only learned about a few years ago. Smith composes nearly entirely on the Buchla 100 Series Synthesizer produced in the sixties, but has also composed parts for other instruments on her LPs. There’s some awesome video on YouTube of Smith working with the Buchla, which is a beast.

Pink Floyd, “On the Run”

You will be
—From Case Comparison by Patrick Durgin
                 A house made of screams floats down a black river
on the planet Pluto.
—From The Binchōtan Charcoal & Its Ash by Vi Khi Nao
Steel tethers over the saltlick plain.
—From Pulling Out 

There was something about Patrick Durgin’s poem that suggested this, not just its form but the notes of paranoia and persecution in it. No one does paranoia and persecution quite like Pink Floyd, except maybe Scott Walker and Radiohead!

Scott Walker, “Plastic Palace People”

When the boy band was born the world
got brighter.
From “When”/“i'm hysterical”/“i can't stop thinking about”/“representations” by Alyssa Moore

Ok, so I’m not actually including a Walker Brother’s track, but there’s plenty on Spotify you can dip into. This is from Walker’s second solo album, and gives you a great sense of why Walker’s voice was so revered by countless singers who followed him, not least David Bowie. If you end up getting hooked on Walker (most don’t), there’s an excellent documentary, Scott Walker: 30 Century Man, which you can find online.

Johnny Hartman, “Charade”

Alone on the road
with a dead phone.
—From It’ll get Worse Before It Gets Better by Joshua Marie Wilkinson
The space in snow.
—From Explorer by Kazim Ali

This was written by Henry Mancini and Johnny Mercer for the 1963 film Charade starring Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn in which, orchestrated for choir, it plays over the opening montage. It only really comes alive, to me, in this version by Johnny Hartmann, released the same year as the film.

The Smiths, “This Night Has Opened My Eyes”

             A church (a cave supported
By old bicycle parts to keep it up).
—From The Definitions by Fanny Howe
because we speak to each other in our sleep
—From I Haven’t Masturbated in Fie Days for Fear of Crying by Eloisa Amezcua

I don’t know what Fanny Howe’s opinion of the Smiths is, but there was plenty in her extended poem sequence that reminded me of a number of Morrissey’s lyrics. This is one of my favorites from their Peel sessions, collected on Hatful of Hollow. The band was tight and tasteful, especially bassist Andy Rourke.

Steve Reich, “Tehillim: 1.”

quiver of dissolution in the pool of no single thing.
—From Come Back by Rocket Caleshu
I never shivered I knew love
the whole time
—From The Only Museum by Ben Purkert
                                A glow
I’ve nursed into nova.
—From Hanuman Puja by Rajiv Mohabir
The tongues of the air
—From Pigeons by Huang Fan, translated by Huang Fan & Margaret Ross

The first part of one of my favorite pieces by Steve Reich. There is a barrenness here in the orchestration—almost all very simple percussion, even hand claps—from which joy finds a way to emerge.

Jacques Brel, “Ne me quitte pas”

Jacques Brel songbook,
ukulele, bread
and wine.
—From To A—

I don’t include the one I mention in my poem, “J’arrive,” rather this one, well known in the US from the cover by Nina Simone. You can see Brel cry while singing this on YouTube. The American translation by poet Rod McKuen is total shit, though it was used in dozens of English-language covers since 1967 (Dusty Springfield among the first). Simone sang it in French, much to her credit! I made my own translation, which I titled “Don’t You Go Away,” and recorded it one intoxicated night in Philadelphia in GarageBand. (It’s floating around on the internet somewhere, along with my “Morrissey-esque” song.)

Originally Published: March 1st, 2019

Brian Kim Stefans was born in Rutherford, New Jersey. He earned a BA from Bard College and attended the CUNY Graduate School for two years before earning an MFA in electronic literature from Brown University. His books of poetry include "Viva Miscegenation”: New Writing (MakeNow Books, 2013), Kluge: A Meditation and...