Porter House Reads: Poetry for Music Lovers
Jan 23 ● BY The Editors
My first introduction to creative writing came in middle school. It wasn’t reading Shakespeare or Yeats or Poe; in fact, it didn’t even come from an English classroom. It came on my 12th birthday when I unwrapped the Enema of the State CD that my friend Lincoln had gotten me for my birthday. For those unfamiliar, Enema of the State was Blink 182’s breakout album that included MTV hits like “What’s My Age Again?” and “All the Small Things.” For months after receiving that gift, I’d sit in my room reading the album’s lyrics in the liner notes as the CD spun in my 5-disc Sony stereo. The album offered a rollercoaster ride where one minute, I’d be getting emotional while reading the lyrics to “Adam’s Song” and the next minute, I’d be cracking up as Tom DeLonge, the band’s guitarist and co-lead vocalist, called someone a “diarrhea giver” in the song “Dysentery Gary.” Looking back now, there is nothing special about the lyrics on this album, but that album set the stage for me to make the connection for how playing with words can trigger different emotional reactions in people.
Reading those liner notes is what led me to become a writer. It started with writing lyrics for various bands that I was in during high school and college, and then with the encouragement of an English teacher in college (shoutout John A. Nieves), I started reading and writing poetry. And now, twenty-three years later, I find myself reading more books of poetry than liner notes, but that doesn’t mean that I no longer read through lyrics printed on the dust covers of records that spin on my turntable or head over to Genius.com to read along to songs that I’m listening to on Spotify. I still love music and appreciate its ability to bring people closer to poetry. For this reason, I wanted to get together with my fellow poets on the Porter House Review staff and suggest poetry books for all the music lovers out there so that they too might come to love poetry in the same way that I did. A part of me also hopes that poets can use this list to find more appreciation for some amazing lyricists out there in the music world.
Without further ado, here are some poetry recommendations for music fans (and music recommendations for poetry fans).
– Aaron Tyler Hand
The Decemberists – The Crane Wife <> Ilya Kaminsky – Deaf Republic
For fans of The Decemberists, specifically fans of their album The Crane Wife, I highly recommend you check out the book Deaf Republic by Ilya Kaminsky. As The Decemberists’ first major label album, The Crane Wife brings together the Japanese folktale of Tsuru no Ongaeshi (Crane’s Return of a Favor) and Shakespeare’s The Tempest. Colin Meloy, the band’s lead vocalist and rhythm guitarist, uses his songwriting mastery to create visual and character-heavy songs that draw the listener into worlds where love always seems to win over war. For example, in the song “Yankee Bayonet,” Meloy builds the scene of a soldier in the Civil War and his correspondence with a love back home. There is heartbreaking juxtaposition when the soldier talks about the moment him and his lover met and then switches back to describing the battlefield scene (“There at the fair when our eyes caught, careless / Got my heart right pieced by a pin / But o did you see all dead of Manassas / All the bellies and the bones and bile.”)
Much like The Crane Wife, Deaf Republic is a poetry book about a community coming together to fight war with the only thing they seem to have left: love. In the world of Deaf Republic, we see a foreign army slowly attempt to take over a city, and the citizens standing up in defiance. Kaminsky fills the book with expressions of love (“You are two fingers more beautiful than any other woman”), sorrow (“Today / I have to screw on the expression of a person”) and acts of defiance (“the flag is the towel the wind dries its hands on”). Much like in The Crane Wife, we see painful juxtapositions of love and war. This is best seen in the opening lines of the poem “Central Square” that read, “The arrested are made to walk with their arms raised up. As if they are about to leave the earth and are trying out the wind.” In Deaf Republic, Kaminsky creates a world where you cheer for the resistance and want to stand up to fight against oppression.
Aaron Tyler Hand, Reviews Editor
Slaughter Beach, Dog – Safe and Also No Fear <> Paige Lewis – Space Struck
There is an almost dreamlike quality to both my favorite Slaughter Beach, Dog album Safe and Also No Fear and Paige Lewis’ debut poetry collection Space Struck. I think it’s easier to let the two works of art speak for themselves, but the sounds and lyrics of “Petersburg” bring out an animal and real emotion in me that the couplets of Lewis’ “On the Train, A Man Snatches My Book” also evoke. Since I was a kid, I’ve loved putting together almost collages of the words I read and hear:
“I don’t think I’ve ever written / the word doom, but nothing else fits” writes Lewis.
“I don’t think you’re understanding me,” Jake Ewald sings.
“I’m / the vice president of panic, and the president is / missing.” Lewis.
“There will no be pulling out of rug from underneath your feet.” Ewald.
S.G. Huerta, Nonfiction Editor
Shakey Graves – Can’t Wake Up <> Susan Bright – Tirades and Evidence of Grace
Perhaps this connection came naturally to me because of the most obvious; Susan Bright and Alejandro Rose-Garcia (also known as Shakey Graves) are both Austinites, creating art that centers around home in a way that makes me homesick when I’m not there.
When Can’t Wake Up came out, it was my first summer in Colorado after leaving Austin; my mother had sent me the CD and I had dropped my phone in a toilet a week prior. With my main music source out of commission, I turned to this CD as my entertainment for my hour-long commute south down 287 for work. That summer, I drove with my windows down, always, because the Colorado summers were cooler than I was used to, and subjected all of my friends and passengers to the album over the course of June until I was able to replace my phone. Now whenever I hear it, I think about my first post-college job and the grumbling feeling of leaving home.
Similarly Tirades of Evidence and Grace came to me by way of my mother. For Christmas, she wrote in the cover, “Some poems for my poet.” I read it in one sitting in a downtown Denver coffee shop and cried a little bit afterwards, feeling self-pitying and homesick for Texas, and for women like Susan Bright.
I don’t know if either of these anecdotes will sell you on why you should read and listen to Shakey Graves and Susan Bright in tandem, but let me turn this a little: both artists infuse Austin into their work; the setting of the songs and poems feel deeply Texan. The lyrics and lines lean heavily on the topical: politically, environmentally, personally, while letting the bright lights of community and hope shine through the branches.
Bright’s work is rooted in feminism and activism, but knows when to turn personal, bringing us from the impending climate crisis to the loss of her own father. As her title promises, the poems are full of tirades: about the state of the politics in America and Texas, about the crumbling environment, about the perpetual grief and loss of those around us. But it is also full of the evidence that grace still exists in the muck—pulling through flashes of friendship and tenderness that laces her life together.
Can’t Wake Up similarly explores the state of society through the strings of a bluesy Americana guitar. Songs like, “My Neighbor” and “Mansion Door” dive into the changing streets of a place you once knew. Skewing lighter and brighter in the latter half of the album, into a more surreal, make-believe landscape with “Aibohphobia” (Aibohp being Phobia backwards), we are brought back to earth from the grief of the latter half.
When put next to each other, these pieces work in conversation. They talk about a changing Austin, a changing country, and the way we must seek refuge in each other to work our way through life. They came to me when I was in my own grief, feeling the pull between freedom and returning to a Texas I didn’t recognize anymore.
Riley Welch, Assistant Managing Editor
Bo Burnham – Inside (the album) <> Wendy Cope – Serious Concerns
It has been hard breaking out of the monotony of my comfort shows and movies during the pandemic. One can only watch Glee and The Office so many times before they have the scripts memorized, and the humor isn’t reaching the emotion that I’m trying to process. I’ve felt not much really can because we are still stuck in the middle of the pandemic. That is until Inside by Bo Burnham came out on Netflix in 2021. It’s a musical series depicting Burnham’s experience during the pandemic that can be listened to on Spotify. In the past, Bo had been known for his balance of wit and slapstick comedy accompanied with a performance of lighting, music, and theatricality. All of these aspects were present in Inside, but there is a melancholic tone looming over the album that deals with reflection prompted by the pandemic. Songs like “That Funny Feeling,” “Look Who’s Inside Again,” and “All Eyes on Me” share twinges of humor while addressing Burnham’s anxiety about solitude and coming back into the world. He criticizes societal ethics and capitalism by highlighting the irony of what is believed to be “normal” and the passive destruction of a strong society. All of this intertwined with songs that poke fun at sexting, social media, and aging.
The pandemic has forced a lot of us to sit in our emotions as we anticipate the transition back to a “new normal.” Humor has been a way for me to deal with this, so I went searching for funny poets. I came across the collection Serious Concerns by Wendy Cope. Though this book was published in the early 90s, I found a lot of parallels between Cope’s cynical humor criticizing social practices surrounding women and Burnham’s work. Cope comments frequently on personal relationships and men, and she pokes fun at pop culture. My personal favorite piece from the collection is “Advice to a Young Woman,” where Cope comments on the marriage timeline expected of women: no matter what you do, marriage or not, “life is hell.” Her playful verse in pieces such as “Loss” and “A Christmas Poem” balance with poems of a more serious nature like “An Unusual Cat Poem” and “I Worry.” Cope is unafraid to pull any punches on her feelings about love. Her work is honest and funny, and it reflects feminist ideas that contradict feminine/masculine standards. Burnham and Cope, though starkly different artists, share the skill of utilizing humor as a way to cut deep into serious topics that make them digestible to their audience. Though their work can leave us with a hurting heart, it could be from sadness or a good laugh.
Emmy Newman, former Special Projects Editor
Noname – Telefone <> Morgan Parker – Magical Negro
I like to think of poetry and music as cousins. Like, real close, same-holiday-party, same-kids’-table kind of cousins. When I first encountered Morgan Parker’s Magical Negro, I felt a familiarity, an instant kinship. I knew this collection’s cousin. Noname’s Telefone and Parker’s Magical Negro are both, in their own right, in conversation with contemporary Black consciousness. I find these projects overlapping in new ways each time I return to them, one enriching or lending light to the other. For instance, Noname’s “Casket Pretty” and Parker’s “Let’s Get Some Better Angels at This Party” both call upon haunting imagery of gods, angels, and well-dressed ghosts to memorialize lives cut short by police brutality and confront the systems that allow it.
Traversing nimbly through issues of identity, capitalism, marginalization, ancestral legacy, and media consumption, both have penned a manifesto of sorts and a reclamation of self, demanding consideration on their terms, providing their own seat at the table. Where Parker’s voice is often raw, dark-humored, and candid, the sound of Noname’s voice is sweet, almost lulling. But both deliver a self-aware, biting, and witty account of what it means to be a Black woman in today’s America. This connection appears to be acknowledged or at least felt by both writers, with them coming together to discuss Parker’s Magical Negro in Noname’s Book Club. When made weary by headlines and hashtags, Morgan Parker and Noname provide a voice of and for the fed-up, supplying reader and listener alike with a new sense of urgency, of energy.
Naomi Wilson, former Events Coordinator