Do you listen to music while you write? Has a specific song or music artist ever influenced one of your stories, poems, etc.? This has happened with a number of my published poems. Thus, Poetry & Song is a limited-run series where I share one of my published poems and the song that “helped me write” it. I also offer insights into why I chose that particular piece of music, as well as any other inspirations for the poem.
Some of you might know that I’m a published poet, with several poems accepted for print and online publication between 2012 and 2014. While I’m focusing on novels now, from time to time I’ve entertained ideas about how to discuss poetry (either my own or the poets I admire) here at the blog. Then, during last month’s Iceland Writers Retreat, I took Nadifa Mohamed’s “Music and Literature” workshop, which explored how the music we listen to can influence our writing. It turned out to be my favorite workshop of the event – and it also sparked the idea for this series.
Today I’d like to kick off the Poetry & Song series with “Elegy,” which was published in Soul-Lit’s Summer 2013 issue. And had it not been for a certain piano ballad by one of the most incredibly voices and songwriters in current pop music, I’m not sure “Elegy” would be what it is today. That’s why it’s impossible to talk about the poem without the song, or how that poem changed my feelings toward the song forever.
Before we go too far, click here to read “Elegy” at Soul-Lit. Feel free to keep its tab / window open as you read this post.
How the Boston Marathon Bombings Compelled Me to Write “Elegy”
I wrote “Elegy” a few weeks after the terrorist attack at that year’s Boston Marathon. While I wasn’t there on Boylston Street that day, and neither was anyone else I knew or loved, the horror of that day sank in like an anchor. In fact, after re-reading this #1000Speak post I wrote for the bombings’ second anniversary, I don’t think I can express what drove me to write “Elegy” better than how I did then. So here’s a brief excerpt from that post on just that:
For days, I couldn’t stop thinking about the bombings. Even if I avoided the news coverage, my mind kept replaying the images I’d seen. Runners and spectators alike fleeing from the explosions, hurrying toward the injured and carrying them to safety, screaming, crying, bloodied, hugging each other – they haunted me to the point that I was constantly fighting a lump in my throat and tears in my eyes.
Not only that, but I felt like a special place for so many people – including myself – had been violated. I’ve never attended the Boston Marathon, but I know the neighborhood of the finish line (Boylston Street, in the Back Bay district) better than any other part of Boston. It’s home to Copley Place, the shopping center where I tried on the junior bridesmaid dress I wore at my cousin Erin’s wedding when I was 13 years old; Copley Square, the Boston Public Library, and historic churches, all of which host events during the Boston Book Festival; Grub Street, where I’ve taken several creative writing classes; and Emerson College, where I received my copyediting certificate in 2013. And that’s just for starters.
Every time I go back to Boylston Street, it feels like visiting an old friend. Cherished memories really can turn a place into something like a fictional character from your favorite book. And to see that character, that dear friend and source of happy memories and meaning, be littered with bomb debris and covered with blood… It broke my heart.
That was what struck me the most about my feelings. Not only was I upset about the trauma that had been inflicted on so many innocent people, but I was also grieving for the place. And while it’s normal to feel emotionally connected to a place, that connection tends to come in the form of nostalgia (“I miss that house,” or “I can’t wait to go back there for vacation”) or contentment (“It’s so good to be home”).
But for Boylston Street and Copley Square, on that awful day, what I felt was a mix of anguish and violation. It was raw, inconsolable… and it clung to me for days, and weeks. That’s when I knew I needed to write about it.
During that poetry phase, I always knew when a poem was coming. Motion-picture images of the idea would keep flashing in my mind, and the words that wanted to be used pranced on the tip of my tongue, as if they yearned to be spoken as well as written. Neither sensation would quit until I made time for the poem. And by the time I drafted “Elegy,” I swore the poem was about to claw its way out of my throat. It was the most visceral “arrival” I’ve ever experienced with writing.
That’s also why I prefer to say that the bombings compelled me to write “Elegy,” rather than inspired. When you’re inspired, you tend to feel uplifted, invigorated. There’s also a desire to act on that feeling, and the act of it enlivens and enriches you. But when you’re compelled, something more urgent and desperate is driving that desire. Something that still moves you as deeply as when you’re inspired, but with more emotional gravity – be it grief, anger, loss, or a tangled mess of feelings. And now that I think about it, the poems I’m most proud of writing came when I was compelled to write them, rather than simply being inspired.
Enter Adele’s “Hometown Glory”
As soon as I sat down to write “Elegy,” I knew I’d need the help of “Hometown Glory.” It was already my favorite song on Adele’s debut album 19, and at first I was hesitant to lean on such a beloved piece of music for a poem that was surely going to hurt as I wrote it. Yet, being a lyrics “junkie,” I knew what “Hometown Glory” was about as well as Adele’s story behind the song. Here’s an excerpt from a Blues & Soul interview that Adele did in 2008, where she talks about the song:
“It was kind of about me and my mum not agreeing on where I should go to university…. [I]t was a kind of protest song about cherishing the memories – whether good or bad – of your hometown. Whereas – having only been to Liverpool about twice – there’s nothing there that comforts me, here in London – even if I’m having a really shit day – there’s still something I love about the place. So really yeah, in general it is an ode to the place where I’ve always lived.”
That “hymn to a city” idea emerges throughout the lyrics in “Hometown Glory.” Adele sings about the way in which she follows the sidewalks, the tiny details that show the city’s beauty and ugliness, and the resilient yet supportive attitude of its residents. And if you listen to (or read the lyrics of) the chorus, you’ll see that the song is as much as a tribute to a place one calls home as it is to loved ones, friends, neighbors, and other people living there:
Round my hometown
Memories are fresh
Round my hometown
Ooh the people I’ve met
Are the wonders of my world…
The music for “Hometown Glory” was another reason why I played it while writing “Elegy.” It’s a piano ballad, with strings that emerge during the first chorus and continue weaving throughout the song, receding in quieter moments and cresting with the piano and Adele’s voice during the final chorus. It’s lyrical yet simple, impassioned yet spare – a piece of music that, as I thought at the time, would allow me to focus on specific things I wanted to say and possibly enhance the emotions I hoped to convey.
And… well, let’s just say that “Hometown Glory” did exactly that as I wrote the first draft of “Elegy.”
The Rest of the Story Behind “Elegy”
What still stuns me about “Elegy” is how quickly it was published. Two weeks after the Boston Marathon bombings, I attended the Massachusetts Poetry Festival in Salem with a friend. There I met poet Deborah Leipziger, who’s also the co-founder of the online spiritual poetry journal Soul-Lit, and attended a reading of local poets whose works had been featured in Soul-Lit. When I learned that Soul-Lit’s deadline for its Summer 2013 issue was coming up, I knew it was time to write the poem that had been clamoring inside me, and that I might have found the right home for it.
That happened during the first weekend of May 2013. I wrote “Elegy” the following weekend, revised and edited it until I was satisfied, and submitted it to Soul-Lit by the end of the month. Come late June, I received an email from Deborah saying that “Elegy” would be in Soul-Lit’s Summer 2013 issue in July.
In total, about 3 months passed from the birth of the idea of “Elegy” to its publication. It’s an incredibly fast turnaround compared to other poems I’d written that had received a “yes.” It’s also the “yes” that made me cry the hardest – maybe just as much as when I had drafted that poem – and the one I’m most proud of to this day.
A number of “stills” linger from this experience four years later. I’m still incredibly proud of writing “Elegy.” I’m still sensitive to any memories regarding the Boston Marathon bombings. By that, I mean that it hurts to see any replays of news coverage and follow-ups about survivors, the dead, and their families, though some stories uplift me as well. And I still tear up whenever I listen to “Hometown Glory,” or even talk about the experience of writing “Elegy.” I’m even fighting tears now, as I write this post.
But if I hadn’t listened to “Hometown Glory,” “Elegy” wouldn’t be the poem it is today – and it might not have been published, either. And for that, I’ll always be grateful.
What memorable experiences have you had with writing while listening to music? Have any songs or compositions “helped you write” a difficult piece of writing (poem, essay, scene for a story, etc.)? What song(s) has offered you comfort or solace during difficult times? Also, have you ever written a poem, essay, etc. with a particular publication in mind as you drafted that piece?
Also, since this is the first “edition” of Poetry & Song, I’d love to know your overall thoughts on this as a limited-run blog series. Would you be interested in reading more of these posts, maybe once every two or three months (or as time allows)?