All the Poets (Musicians on Writing): Stephin Merritt of The Magnetic Fields




In this monthly series, Scott Timberg interviews musicians on the literary work that has inspired and informed their music.

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STEPHIN MERRITT HAS been leading the literate and often brittle band The Magnetic Fields since the beginning of the ’90s, when they formed around Cambridge, Massachusetts. They made their commercial breakthrough in 1999, with the three-disc 69 Love Songs. Merritt, 52, who chose the unusual spelling of his given name as of way of tracking junk mail subscriptions, has been called a pop poet, a curmudgeon, and his generation’s finest songwriter. The band’s latest LP is 50 Song Memoir, a five-disc set, with notes by Lemony Snicket creator Daniel Handler, and a track for each year of its leader’s life. 

Merritt, who lived in Hollywood for a few years but has since moved back east, appears with The Magnetic Fields at UCLA’s Royce Hall next Thursday and Friday nights (April 27 and 28) to present 50 Song Memoir in two installments.

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SCOTT TIMBERG: I know a songwriter can draw on a lot of sources: their life, other songwriters, et cetera. But I am wondering how important writers in other genres — literary prose, verse — have been to you?

STEPHIN MERRITT: Of course it is impossible to quantify. Richard Brautigan in particular has been very important to me; as a child I bought a three-book set, which I think included Revenge of the Lawn, The Hawkline Monster, and The Pill Versus the Springhill Mine Disaster, and I loved the set physically. I tried to find it online — I couldn’t. And it has served as a lifelong lesson to me about how important it is to have words come in a pretty object … More than half the fun of a record is that it is an object — and when it isn’t an object, that’s important.

I can’t really get with the whole dematerialized music and books and things. I wonder what is what about the Brautigan book that …

How are you supposed to remember which book is which, if you can’t see the cover?

Right. Exactly.

And that’s even more true with records. It is completely visual. How are you supposed to remember which is which, if you have no visual component?

Right. So are you purely a vinyl guy when it comes to music — is that pretty much everything you buy? 

No, I like both vinyl and CDs, and I like different things about each. And I also like cassettes, which are really not around anymore — but I like them, and they were really good when I made tapes. Before I made records I made tapes, and it sure was easy to just duplicate some of them as new ones. And I would draw on my handmade tapes, so each one was different — a neat little object. And we can’t do that online. If there is an equivalent, I’d be curious to find out about it. If there is some way of personalizing the completely impersonal, totally disembodied music file, I don’t know it — and I don’t see that to be a very important secular problem, because no one seems to care about that stuff anymore.

Let’s go back to Brautigan, if you don’t mind. Was there something about the prose, the storytelling, the author’s voice that grabbed you?

Well, those particular books — particularly the poems in Hawkline Monster — were almost entirely very short prose poems, which is the closest thing you can really get to being a song. Short prose poetry is almost more like song than verse poetry is. It’s just the way the storytelling works, actually. Oddly, it’s a flip. Verse does not work the same way as lyric. The prose poems kind of did work the same way as lyric. You tell a little story, and then get out.

Right … I hadn’t thought about that. There must be other poets, people like Charles Simic, who write in verse but also prose poetry, that you responded to?

I very recently started getting into him. I have bought all of Lydia Davis. If I had to be on a desert island, it would probably be with her.

Right, that’s not a bad option. We think of Lydia Davis as a short-story writer first, but her stuff makes sense as prose poetry …

I understand why there are sections for poetry and prose, but I have a section for poetry right now in my house, and half the poets are something else. I keep Edward Gorey and Dr. Seuss in my poetry section, although they’re also something else.

I guess you know enough Stevie Smith to know she’s not just a poet but an illustrator of her own poetry. She’s as much fun as you’d want her to be, and it looks like she’s a big influence on Warhol. She’s so cute. Everything she does is so cute. No matter what it is.

Yeah, it’s cute, but you look at the words …

No matter what it’s on, it’s adorable.

And you would never hire her …

… to illustrate technical catalogs or something — or hire her as a courtroom artist — but accuracy is not the point.

So are we talking about Gorey here? 

Edward, yeah.

I love Stevie Smith’s illustrations, but I never thought of her as an artist or illustrator. But her stuff is really distinctive. Somebody who weirdly resembles her is the writer and sort-of comic artist David Berman. He’s got the same kind of line drawing, lots of space, kind of whimsical — with a kind of grim irony underneath it all. I will have to chew on the resemblance in my spare time. Are there other forms that seem congruent to songwriting? I think you mentioned the novella in a Boston Globe interview.

Yeah, I went out and I bought the whole Melville House novella series. And I’ve read almost all of them at this point.

That includes a Chekhov novella, I think?

Yes, and there were 35 [novellas in the series] now. It is the soul of songwriting. The way you do it in shorter forms is a major point of interest for a songwriter. 

Before the interview, you mentioned Mark Twain and Ursula K. Le Guin — writers with very different styles. I’d be curious to hear what you admire about them.

I can’t think of any particular way in which I have been informed by Mark Twain, although I am sure I definitely was when I was a child, and I went through a complete Mark Twain [set] that my mother gave me … I guess I’ll go through it again when I’m done with the other things I am reading.

Ursula was one part of my journey through David Pringle’s list of 100 best science fiction novels from 1949 to 1984. If you want to read about the history of sexism in American and British literature, a great way of doing that is by reading what David Pringle thinks are good books. The science fiction novels are, of course, very sexist. In my case, I’d say they’re often unreadably sexist. The sexism is so distracting you can’t tell what is supposed to be going on, because you can’t tell what the characters are supposed to be thinking.

Are we talking about Robert Heinlein and people like that?

Robert Heinlein is nowhere near the worst. I don’t have the bookshelf in front of me. If I had known you were going to ask me about this specifically, I would have scheduled the interview for a week from now, when I’ll be home. Instead I’m in a hotel room in Atlanta having to just visualize things. But there’s the science fiction that is often unreadably sexist, and then there is ’70s science fiction, which is often unreadably counter-sexist. There is this unreadably boring science fiction book where the only point seems to be that it isn’t sexist. Which is really interesting for a few chapters. I have physically thrown across the room 20 of the science fiction books by Pringle, but I have gone through probably 30 for various reasons.

But Le Guin is the best writer in the period after Orwell, and then Gene Wolfe.

That’s another name from the list. I’d like to hear more about Le Guin.

First of all, her father was an ethnographer. And she is definitely her father’s daughter, in that she is a brilliant ethnographer, who happens to have chosen, often, science fiction as her medium — but even in her nonfiction books, she is an expert … Ethnography is her major focus. In writing about imaginary groups of people, she is a science fiction ethnographer.

I loved The Dispossessed as a kid, though The Left Hand of Darkness was considered the best of her novels.

I am about to read The Word for World Is Forest. The idea of space travel privileging homosexuality really struck me as a child. Perfectly practical and nifty idea. Why shouldn’t there be something that gay people are more suited for?

That is interesting.

Reproduction in space travel is a really bad idea. So gay people are the way to go.

Basically, yeah. That’s the last thing you want when you are in a 20-year space voyage or something.

Oh no — babies in the aircraft!

I actually flew up to Portland to interview her about Lavinia, set on the edge of early ancient Rome. That is a kickass novel. Have you read that one? I highly recommend it.

… I should have done that before reading David Pringle. And I also know people who get all the way through Gene Wolfe.

What speaks to you or doesn’t about his work?

I love it because, when you get to the last line, you realize the novel you were reading isn’t the novel you thought you were reading. There’s a recent short story in which he performs the same trick, in which you realize something about the narrator that completely changes the story. But Gene Wolfe does this again and again in long novels.

He has a Christian viewpoint on science fiction, and although I loathe Christianity, I am always interested in Christian theories about other planets. Theoretically, life on other planets directly contradicts Christianity, which always makes Christian science fiction stories kind of richer. And again, if I were in front of my bookshelf, I would be able to find the titles of the author of a particularly interesting Pringle 100 book, or I could just tell you five minutes after hanging up. There is a particularly interesting novel about a Jesuit, I guess, on another planet, who has to figure out whether the aliens on the other planet are under the same God — whether they are sent by the devil to abolish Christianity by showing that there has been a creation on another planet, or whether they have their own gods, or whether they have not yet fallen. [Note: This is James Blish’s A Case of Conscience.]

Changing subjects a bit, this new album of yours is a 50-year project. Is there a writer, poet, novelist, or essay writer that you have been going back to since you were a teenager, or in your 20s — somebody who keeps drawing you back across the decades? 

Well, I guess I have read [Edith Wharton’s] Ethan Frome … I used to read Ethan Frome every year on my birthday, which I highly recommend. Richard Brautigan again, and someone who has only recently become a touchstone for me is Joe Brainard. [His memoir] I Remember is obviously a huge template for 50 Song Memoir. I don’t think I would have done the album if I hadn’t had the sense that there was no reason to be linear in my memoir. The linearity of most memoirs is completely irrelevant to the material.

What you’re talking about here is structure or lack of structure, maybe …

[Brainard’s book] is about structure, and it is an impressive structure. I remember every single sentence of every entry, and most of them are short enough that they are single sentences, and every one of them begins with the phrase, “I remember.”

Ahh, there is a Philip Larkin poem of that title, “I Remember, I Remember.” I wonder if you feel like you’ve learned anything from poetry or writers in general that doesn’t have much to do with words, exactly, but rather with the shape and structure of things. 

Sure. Edward Gorey says that people would always ask him where he got his wonderful drawings, and he’d say from the sports pages of newspapers. The elaborate, improbable dissolution of his characters is taken, anatomically correctly, from the weird contortions sports people tend to be in when you photograph them.

And so that’s encouragement to look at everything in the world for inspiration — which, unfortunately, prevents you from living a normal life, because you have to look at absolutely everything. That’s definitely a mistake from the perspective of anyone who is not committed to an art career.

Right, you’re talking about never being off the clock, never taking your glasses off.

But also appreciating the things that you least appreciate. Edward Gorey had zero interest in sports, like any sensible person. But he was in it for the contortionist photos.

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Scott Timberg is the editor of The Misread City: New Literary Los Angeles and author of Culture Crash: The Killing of the Creative Class.


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