Look at the following list, my friend, and see if you can guess what it inspired: Scrabble. A rock star. A dictionary. Rhyme. Em dashes. A Chihuahua. Cartoons.
Merritt, of course, is the very talented singer-songwriter of The Magnetic Fields. The band’s recorded 10 albums, including 69 Love Songs, named by Rolling Stone as one of the top 500 albums of all time.
Last month I spoke with Stephin Merritt about the inspiration behind his new book, his favorite poem (think trashy ladies), and his creative process.
Unfortunately, the transcript doesn’t capture how much we laughed!
Vicki: Stephin, you have a passion for playing Scrabble … which one doesn’t necessarily equate with a rock star (although I was married to a rock musician who also liked Scrabble). But there’s an interesting story behind how you became inspired to write this book.
Stephin: As everyone knows, being a rock star is incredibly boring. If it wasn’t … everyone would do it! My life consists largely of waiting around in airports. You can’t actually read anything, because paradoxically, there isn’t enough time to read anything. Basically, I end up spending lots of time playing Scrabble and Words with Friends online. But I couldn’t remember the two-letter words to save my life because I have a horrible memory. So I started making mnemonics for myself, to help me remember the two letter words … gradually, it just sort of turned into a book. My literary agent liked it and shopped it around.
Vicki: I love that you included “em” dashes in the book for us writers.
Stephin: Oh, yes. Where would modern writing be without the em dash and the en dash, and the extremely subtle distinction?
Vicki: Exactly! Your rhymes and Roz’s illustrations make a wonderful, fun combination. Tell us how this all came together … how did you connect with Roz Chast from The New Yorker, first of all.
Stephin: Thank you. Roz Chast wrote me a fan letter two or three days before my editor at Norton suggested that it was time to find an illustrator. I said, “Oh, no need. Here is Roz Chast’s phone number.”
Vicki: That was very serendipitous. Did you guys meet? Did you have input on the illustration? Did you send her notes and ideas?
Stephin: I had no input whatsoever, except for the suggestion that the word “artisanal” was misspelled on the illustration of the box of “Fe”, meaning iron. I did go to Roz’s house in Connecticut and met her parrot – which was difficult because I have a phobia of parrots. And and I met her family, which was okay because none of them were children … I also have a phobia of children.
Vicki: Let’s talk about some of the two letter words you’ve included.
Stephin: Yes. Za and qi are the most valuable ones. You often play a word that will produce just that and nothing else.
Vicki: I want to read listeners the one about “em” dashes – because I’m partial to em dashes.
“Em dashes — this just in — are used to interrupt a thought. The use of them is subtle — ha — and it cannot be taught.”
I think you had a lot of fun putting these rhymes together.
Stephin: I definitely had a lot of fun putting them together. I did what I usually do when I write, which is sit around in bars with a cocktail in one hand and a pen in the other. I just covered 3 x 5 cards with possible two-letter word poems.
I used as a template the “axe” from: “Lizzie Borden took an axe and gave her mother 40 whacks. When she saw what she had done, she gave her father 41.”
I don’t remember which order the mother and father are in that one … but anyway, that poem was my lighthouse.
Vicki: How do you describe your poems.
Stephin: I’d say they’re quatrain. None of them are especially complicated. They’re all essentially the same rhythmically.
“Please, no Chinese water torture. I confess it freely: one li is, like, .3 miles; a mile is roughly three li.”
They are all in pairs. There’s one poem per two-letter word. There are 101 poems. I try to have recurring characters, obvious ones such as Ma and Pa, and less obvious like Vampire Dog. And some of the words fall into patterns like the Scottish “Ay”.
Vicki: And the English “Oy”. We don’t say, “Hey,” we say, “Oy!”
Stephin: And in America we say, “Yo!” One day when we’re walking down the street we say, “Yo! Yo!” to everyone we see. Just as the British say, “Oy,” to everyone. There are a thousand little patterns in these deceptively simple two letter words.
Vicki: Some of my favorite illustrations are of Vampire Dog, which you mentioned earlier. I think I read somewhere that the inspiration for Vampire Dog was a Chihuahua.
Stephin: Oh yes. My late Chihuahua, Irving Berlin Merritt, or Irving for short. He had especially bat-like ears … looked like a deer with the head of a bat. He was often asleep in my shirt while I was writing my poems.
Vicki: I love it … my dog sits at my feet when I am writing. Let’s talk about your creative process. You say you enjoy constraints rather than just writing whatever you want. I do too. They may get lost along the way, but to begin with, it’s often easier to access creative flow if I put constraints on myself. I might choose a particular word, a phrase, or a color to start me moving forward. Tell me how that works for you …
Stephin: It’s much easier to be told that you have three minutes to write a limerick or a sonnet, than to be told you have three minutes to write an essay or poem in free meter. I think the formulas we’ve had for centuries – that everyone understands – are easier to work within, rather than inventing your own form every time you sit down. It’s much easier to make a particular food than to invent your own dish every time you try to make lunch.
Eric: Okay. Thank you very much. Stephin, it’s a pleasure to talk to you. I’m loving the new book. Vicki loaned me a copy of it today. I’m looking forward to perusing that this afternoon. As a Magnetic Fields fan, and a fan of some of your other projects like Gothic Archies and The 6ths, I’m wondering what’s coming next for you musically.
Stephin: I’m working on a mini-musical involved with This American Life. It’s an adaptation of This American Life. Hopefully, it will be its own musical This American Life episode. I’m not sure when it’s supposed to air … I have to finish it first.
Eric: I’m a big fan of This American Life as well. I’m also wondering, as much as I love all your albums, I’ve had the pleasure of seeing The Magnetic Fields live several times, and I’ve always thought the live shows were amazing and wondered why there hasn’t been an official live recording out there. Have you ever wanted to put out a live album?
Stephin: Hell no! I hate live albums.
Vicki: I’m with Stephin on that one. I don’t like listening to all the clapping and cheering every time I listen to the music.
Eric: I can understand that, but he’s a great live performer.
Stephin: They’re like real albums, only mixed really badly and with too much reverb, and all the endings and beginnings mucked up by having white noise in between.
Vicki: I love that “Hell no!” Let’s end on a literary note with my favorite poem … would you read that to us Stephin?
Stephin: Yes, this is also my favorite poem … it’s the poem for “As”.
“As I Lay Dying, William Faulkner’s seventh novel, made him. He got some cash, a Nobel sash, and trashy ladies laid him.”
So now you know!
~ More about Stephin Merritt and The Magnetic Fields at The House of Tomorrow.
~ Photo Credit Bryant Park: Julie Glassberg for The New York Times.
Excerpted from an interview with Stephin Merritt on Seattle’s Conversations LIVE with Vicki St. Clair, Talk Radio, KKNW, September 2014. Edited for clarity, readability, and length.