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.
With the past two Poetry & Song posts, I’ve realized – or, rather, remembered – how personal some of my sources of inspiration have been. Today’s is no different. A few times while writing this post, I felt… well, uncomfortable, but not in a negative way. It wasn’t so much the idea of sharing the story behind this poem, since other people in real life already know it. Rather, it was the act of revisiting that inspiration, and reliving the warring emotions tied to it, that made a heart-wrenching situation from the past fresh again.
So, yes, “At A Loss” isn’t a happy poem. Neither is the song that helped me write it. But what makes this Poetry & Song combination unique is that, together, they provided some much-needed insight on an unraveling friendship. If it makes any sense, this post chronicles the first time I learned an important life lesson from my own poetry.
First, click here to read “At A Loss” at The Eunoia Review. Feel free to keep the tab / window open as you read this post.
Failed Friendships, Dreamlike States, and Finding Solace Through Free-Writing
I first wrote “At A Loss” during the winter of 2012, in the midst of the situational depression that began when two friendships fell apart. (This was shortly before I wrote “Eve of Spring,” which was previously featured in Poetry & Song.) The weird thing is, when I first drafted “At A Loss,” I had absolutely no idea what it was about. It was only after weeks passed, as I revised the poem, that the meaning behind its story sank in.
You see, “At A Loss”… sort of just happened. During that depressive episode, I spent many evenings journaling and free-writing. I’d let words and emotions flow onto the page as music played in the background. In that way, I wasn’t exploring my grief and loneliness, but wandering through it. Wading through it as if it were shallow water, feeling it fully but not purposefully trying to make sense of it. I’d fall into a trance, and the stream-of-conscious writing that often resulted was melancholy, dreamlike, and challenging to decipher.
Yet, even though I didn’t understand “At A Loss” right away, that poem stayed with me. It “spoke” to me the way we say a meaningful song “speaks” to us, imploring me not to give up on it. So I keep working on it, and through those later revisions, I came to this conclusion: The poem was about one of the failed friendships that led to my depression – a friendship that, I hadn’t realized until then, had become emotionally draining.
Admittedly, that friend had been dealing with her own issues. So I’d been doing my best to help her, offering encouragement and advice when I felt it was needed. But no matter how sensible the advice had seemed, or how carefully I’d phrased it, she’d always turn it down – and then add a hurtful comment like,”Why I do bother asking you?” It also didn’t help that she rarely asked how I was doing, and whenever I mentioned what I’d been up to, she’d quickly turn the conversation back to herself.
This pattern continued for some time: My friend would come to me for help, I would offer it, and then she’d reject it and twist the figurative knife to make that rejection clear. Eventually I was so tired of how my friend was treating me and so confused about what I might have been doing wrong (because I’m sure I made mistakes as well) that I tried to talk to her about it. But when she showed no interest in how she’d hurt me, or in changing her ways, I knew I had to walk away.
Even now, I can’t explain how terrible I felt then. Who was I to leave a friend when she needed me most? But whenever I reflect on that moment, I also remember these lines from “At A Loss”: “What else can I do when / the help I offer is like / crumpled paper / you’ll only throw away?” Those words describe the sense of utter defeat I’d felt after that conversation. Because what else can you do when you’ve done all you can for someone, and they respond with bitterness instead of gratitude?
So, How Did Autumn’s “Alloy” Enter the Picture?
To be honest, “Alloy” snuck its way in there. The Dutch band Autumn was one of my favorite bands during my “rock chick phase” from 2008 to 2014, when I was writing CD reviews for Sonic Cathedral. (What am I saying? Autumn is still one of my favorite bands now!) So whenever they released a new album, I’d play it over and over again for months.
Not long before the events that led to “At A Loss,” I’d gotten a copy of Autumn’s latest CD Cold Comfort. It’s an album that sounds, for lack of a better word, “autumnal”: grungey, heavy rock that’s often slow in tempo, meandering in structure, and suffused with atmosphere. The guitars riffs, which range from funky and nimble to dark and down-tuned, contribute as much to the band’s style as the cascading synths and Marjan Welman’s entrancing vocals. Melody and ambiance have always been vital to Autumn’s music, and Cold Comfort is a shining example of this.
Oddly enough, “Alloy” isn’t one of my favorite tracks from Cold Comfort. It never grabbed my attention the way other songs on that album did. Yet whenever I was free-writing, I’d put on whatever song I’d felt I needed at the time. And by then, I’d listened to Cold Comfort enough times to know the unique mood and character of each song.
So why choose “Alloy” if I hadn’t connected with it before? Maybe its quiet beginning reminded me of the late hour (I often stayed up late to free-write) and felt strangely comfortable. Or, maybe its layers of keyboards and synthesizers enhanced the reverie-like state of mind I was seeking. Or, maybe its deliberateness, the way in which it takes its time building to its rousing, psychedelic crescendo, coaxed the wounded little girl inside me to come out and share her story. Or, maybe I related to the lyrics more than I realized:
I shiver and shake
Sweat as it breaks like a junky in need of that ‘something’
I’ve tried to explain
I wax and I wane with your ever-changing moods
Now that I think about it, it was probably the coalescing of all those elements at once that I needed that night.
How “At A Loss” Was Published, and Later Influenced an Important Decision
About 6 months after I scribbled its first words, “At A Loss” was published in The Eunoia Review, a Singapore-based online literary journal that, true to the Greek origins of its title, is “committed to sharing the fruits of ‘beautiful thinking’.” (Eunoia published two of my poems that summer, the other being “Writing A Memoir.”) Little did I know, though, that I’d soon need the wisdom of my own words once again.
A few months before “At A Loss” was published, my former friend contacted me to apologize. She explained that she’d realized the pain she had caused me before, and that she missed our friendship and wanted a second chance. I remember being genuinely moved by her apology because, despite what had happened between us, I still missed her in a way. And I didn’t want to cling to sadness anymore, either. After all, I’d spent the past winter in a depression. In my mind, it was worth forgiving her and trying again, for her sake as well as mine.
Fast-forward to fall – and to my dismay, my friend was falling back to the behaviors that had sabotaged our friendship the year before. Around that time, I was reflecting on “At A Loss” again. Its final stanza in particular was resonating with me: at the end of a recurring dream / nightmare, the narrator opens a box that the unidentified “you” leaves behind and, every time, finds it empty. And I knew why it was resonating – I was feeling that same way, once again.
Five years have gone by since that friendship dissolved for the second, and final, time. It’s hard to believe that much time has passed, but whenever I back on it, I remember how forgiveness can be a double-edged sword sometimes. Both parties have to prove they’re willing to change and to avoid making the same mistakes. What still bewilders me, though, is I learned this with the help of one of my own poems. Maybe I would have learned it another way later on if I hadn’t written “At A Loss,” but I don’t know if the lesson would have been as profound.
I do know this, though. Whenever I revisit “At A Loss” or “Alloy,” that familiar tangle of emotions – anguish, helplessness, and, most of all, sadness – begins to knot itself again, and I find myself wondering whether things could have ended differently, more positively for the both of us… and hoping I made the right decision nonetheless.
What memorable experiences have you had with writing while listening to music? Have you learned important lessons or gained valuable insight on life through your own writings? If so, what did you learn? Also, have you ever written something stream-of-consciously and surprised yourself with the results?