Stay Mad, Make Shit, Get Joy, Work Hard
By E. Kristin Anderson
It’s easier to be mad than to be depressed.
In March I was so goddamned mad that I woke up mad and I went to bed mad and I was mad in my nightmares and everything I saw made me mad and I just kept looking at it because if I was mad I couldn’t feel the things that made me want to jump off an overpass into MOPAC.
I have bipolar disorder. It’s a lot. I also have a rare autoimmune disease which, while currently in remission, has left my mind and body wrecked. The trauma wrecked me. The treatment wrecked me. The disease wrecked me. I’m a 35-year-old woman who lives her life exhausted, anxious, and in pain, but somehow I manage to get up and do things every day.
I get dressed. I put on makeup. I eat meals. I run errands. I care for my animals. And as often as I can, I write.
In March I went to AWP in Tampa. I had a good time (aside from all the goddamned stairs, like, seriously AWP) (also the cockroaches in my hotel room…seriously, Florida?) and while I was there I had this dream about [CENSORED] with Dave Grohl. I tweeted about it. I laughed about it with friends at the conference. But more, I felt something new but vaguely familiar.
Stay with me here. I promise this is moderately relevant.
On my way back from AWP, listening to Foo Fighters records on the iPod kept safe in my bra, I realized that I had omitted my childhood hero in my current writing. I have recently fallen in love with Foo Fighters’ more recent albums and I was rediscovering things from when I was younger that I wanted to write about. But if I was going to do this I wanted to approach it with techniques I hadn’t used before. While I often work with found materials in my poems, it was important to me that—if I indeed was going to write tribute pieces to Foo Fighters—I was going to do it in a way that was worthy of the material I was planning to use—their albums.
Working with song lyrics is tricky. With any found poetry, you need your poems to diverge enough from the original material that it is not recognizable as someone else’s work. With song lyrics, this can be exceptionally difficult from both a craft and a legal perspective. Pop songs tend to be repetitive and easily memorable.
One tactic I’ve used to work with song lyrics is scrambling the words from an entire album and then applying erasure techniques to this new text to create a poem. (My chapbook Fire In the Sky came from this process.) But I didn’t want to repeat that. I have this fear of being thought of as a one-trick poet. I’m always looking for a new path to take within my own writing practices.
So I stayed up late, angry that I couldn’t sleep, of course, trying in the dark to think of a way to do something new with the words of a band I’ve been enamored with since MTV actually played music videos. And for some reason I thought writing crowns of sonnets was a good idea. I hate myself a little.
I set up some rules for myself. I always have rules, maybe because I’m competitive (even with myself) and because I’m neurotic. Constraint has a way of opening creative windows while also forcing accountability. The more I bring this to my writing, the better the drafts that result. For my Foo sonnets, these were my rules:
1. I would write a crown(let) of three sonnets for each Foo Fighters album.
2. This would include the Saint Cecilia EP but no collections/compilations (like Greatest Hits) or live albums.
3. The double album In Your Honor would be split into two albums, because honestly they pretty much are and should have been and I think Dave Grohl even said so but I didn’t Google it to verify let’s just go with this.
4. For each crown I could only use words that were on the corresponding album. So “Feel This Real Forever,” which consists of three linked sonnets from the Foo Fighters album The Colour And The Shape, can only use words that appear on that album.
5. I could repeat words as many times as necessary. For example, if I wanted to use the word “ceiling” three times, but it only appeared on the album once, that was okay.
6. I wouldn’t have to use meter, but I did have to use end rhyme.
7. The end rhyme would be slant rhyme. Like really, obsessively strict slant rhyme.
8. In a crown, the sonnets are linked by line 14 of the preceding poem and line one of the next—the line repeats. Some folks who write sonnets might change a word or two, or change verb tenses. But my rule was to only change punctuation in these linked lines.
9. I would write the third sonnet in each crown first. (This was less of a rule and more of a really good tip from Cathleen Allyn Conway)
10. I would rite three linked Foo sonnets every day for 10 days.
This last rule showed up at the end of day one. Because I was feeling overzealous and obsessive. But it worked:
To prepare, I compiled the lyrics of each album into a Word doc. I removed line breaks and all punctuation except for hyphens and apostrophes, creating a paragraph out of each song. I then ran the doc for each album through the Cut-Up Machine at the Language Is A Virus website, creating a scrambled version of the lyrics. I saved these versions as separate docs creating two docs for the lyrics of each album.
Every day I started by printing out the two docs corresponding with an album. I read through these pages and circled words and phrases I liked or thought would be useful. The scrambled lyrics gave me Dave Grohl’s language out of its original context and the original version let me pick choice phrases that I could use to call back to Foo Fighters songs. As the days went on, I also started making lists of concrete nouns from each album, since songwriting tends to use more abstract language. I needed words that could anchor my poems.
And then I revised. I revised a lot. My first drafts were all hand-written (and occasionally illegible, ugh) and as I was typing up these drafts I revised. I cross-checked the language in my poems with the source text(s). My poems got better. They even got good.
I’m pleased to say that my efforts paid off. I wrote ten mini-crowns of sonnets. I actually really love them and many have been sent off into the slushpile ether.
And I was angry while I wrote. I figured if I could stay angry I could stave off depression. I could put that anger into these poems every day. I knew I could keep myself from feeling dark even when I was writing dark topics by using my anger fuel my creative work.
But what I didn’t expect was finding an absolute joy in this grueling routine. In the weeks since finishing the first drafts, I’ve missed writing these sonnets. I’ve missed the language. I’ve missed the process. I’ve missed the neurotic obsession. My rules—my constraints—continue to set me free in more ways than one.
And while I’m writing some erasures for the month of April, I’m already planning my next manic, fast-drafted project. I have an idea. Some rules. A notebook I’ve selected from my stash. A text from myself at 3 a.m. a week or so ago that just says “research golden shovels.”
I’m looking forward to chasing another poetry high all summer and I am excited to see where my new rules—and my new joy—take me. I’m doing another thing I’ve never done before. I’m going to write tough things and I’m going to have tough rules, but I’m going to have fun with it. And goddamn, I’m going to write a shit ton of poems.
E. Kristin Anderson is a poet, Starbucks connoisseur, and glitter enthusiast living in Austin, Texas. A Connecticut College graduate with a B.A. in classics, Kristin has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net. She is the editor of Come as You Are, an anthology of writing on 90s pop culture (Anomalous Press), and Hysteria: Writing the female body (Sable Books, forthcoming). Her writing has been published worldwide in magazines and anthologies and she is the author of eight chapbooks of poetry including A Guide for the Practical Abductee (Red Bird Chapbooks), Pray Pray Pray: Poems I wrote to Prince in the middle of the night (Porkbelly Press), Fire in the Sky (Grey Book Press), We’re Doing Witchcraft (Hermeneutic Chaos Press), and 17 seventeen XVII (Grey Book Press). Kristin is an assistant poetry editor at The Boiler and a slush reader at Sugared Water. Once upon a time she worked the night shift at The New Yorker. She blogs at EKristinAnderson.com and tweets at @ek_anderson.