This past Thursday in my Creative Writing class, we listened to a segment from NPR on Sufjan Stevens. For those who don’t know, Sufjan Stevens is a musician whose recent album, Illinois, was the most critically-acclaimed of 2005. It’s hard to describe the music. I guess it’s folky rock, but it’s full of varied instrumentation and choir singing. when I first heard his music months ago, it just struck me as strange. But he came highly recommended by my friend John, who’s my musical soul mate, so I got the Illinois album and it grew on me. I now think Sufjan Stevens is a genius, but I haven’t fully articulated why.
His songs have long titles, like “The Predatory Wasp of the Palisades Is Out to Get Us!” which hint at an ironic or kitschy quality, but the music is sincere. His voice is intimate; it sounds like he’s trying not to disturb someone in the next room — perhaps some sleeping children or an ailing grandmother. And in his lyrics, he frequently repeats lines, like “I made a lot of mistakes/I made a lot of mistakes,” which drive home the sincerity.
He often throw in some archaic language, which should end up having a laughable effect on the poetry — misplaced hallelujahs and grandiose Os initiating lines. But somehow the effect isn’t mockery, satire, or mockable material for satire; instead, it’s very sincere. In the afore-mentioned “Predatory Wasp of the Palisades,” whose subject is boyhood friendship, there are a pair of lines that illustrate this incongruous sincerity. The first line of the pair states, “O, how I meant to tease him.” But then just as you’re about to laugh at the mismatch between the “O, how,” and the teasing, the next line makes you think that maybe the emotions here are genuine: “O, how I meant no harm.” Isn’t that accurate to child intentions? You simultaneously meant to tease and meant no harm.
Anyhow, I’m getting carried away. Despite my admiration for Sufjan Stevens, my lesson plan on Thursday really had little to do with him. The NPR segment in question was a piece on Brinkley, Arkansas. Apparently, Sufjan Stevens has announced the intention to create an album for each state. He’s already got Michigan (his home state) and Illinois (where he’s never lived). So some radio producer put together some interviews of folks in Brinkley, Arkansas and asked Sufjan to write a song. And I decided I’d ask my students to do the same: listen to the interviews and write a story, poem, or essay inspired by the interviews.
You can listen to the segment here. It’s about the town, which has recently undergone a transformation with the discovery of an ivory-billed woodpecker, previously thought extinct. The bird is known as the “lord god bird,” or the “great god bird.”
As we listened in class, we took notes. Then we took about ten minutes to jot down ideas. Here’s what I wrote:
“The first time hearing this, I didn’t hear that the sewing machine company Singer had come to Louisiana and had had such an impact on the region. You gotta wonder if industry — “what makes America great” — caused the initial extinction of the bird, and no that he’s back, they’re making an industry out of him. But the bird is deified because he can be exploited, not because anyone respects him. In fact, one guy says he’s a little ticked off at first; another guy calls it the yellow-billed woodpecker.
“We’re fickle with our gods. We worship whatever will get us a better life. Maybe I could have a phone conversation with a girl who has graduated and left town (one man said that graduation is a sad event because young people leave –they want to escape), and she calls home but gets a wrong number (at one point, an interviewee said that in this town, you can call a wrong number and talk for five minutes).”
Now, the trick is to see if I can stay inspired by this premise and write something from it. I’m assigning myself the same exercise.