“Words are so slippery, and still, they are what we have. We give them to one another every day – little dried leaves of them, clouds of them, gleaming commercial banners of them, thousands of scraps of scratched-on papers.”
– Kelly Schirmann, from “Popular Music” (2016)
Kelly Schirmann, a 33-year-old poet raised in rural Northern California, is among several “rock star” writers traveling to Spokane this week to appear at Get Lit, the annual, weeklong local literary festival that celebrates the written word.
Schirmann will take the stage on Friday evening with poet Kaveh Akbar to read from her book – a harmonic blend of three ruminative stories, surrounded by powerful poetry. Much of her prose was inspired by her natural surroundings and the rock music she grew up listening to – Bob Dylan, Neil Young and Stevie Nicks, to name a few.
Other parts of her book communicate ideas the way really great songs do – with strong story, lyrical language and original arrangements. A review by the Poetry Foundation described Schirmann’s “Popular Music” as “an Emersonian meditation with a kickass playlist set on shuffle.”
It is not surprising that Schirmann is both a writer and a musician. Last year, she and her partner, Jay Fiske, moved from Portland to Missoula to “make a go at making our living from the things we make,” she said. She is pursuing an MFA in nonfiction writing at the University of Montana where she also teaches. In addition to writing and creating ceramic art, Schirmann plays guitar and sings in a band called Sung Mountains with Fiske.
Schirmann’s meditations in her debut book, “Popular Music,” explore the art form as more than just a soundtrack accompanying her life’s trajectory; music practically directs her artistic journey. Her thoughts on music, how it affected her growing up and how it fascinates her to this day, sound fresh yet vaguely familiar; like an old tune sung with such distinction and truth, that it becomes a revelation.
In “Popular Music,” Schirmann uses her relationships to songs as the lens through which to explore personal identity, artistic creativity, and even life’s meaning. Her first essay starts the conversation directly on the shaky ground she knows she is on: the impossibility of describing music with words.
Worried as she is at “losing the truth of it almost at once,” she picks up what she calls her “language axe” and starts hacking away at the roots of her fascination with popular music, an obsession as common as society’s infatuation with social media say, or private jets. Schirmann shares her thoughts on a variety of subjects – love, car trips, nature, art – with the skill of Janis Joplin at Woodstock. She uses her interpretations to entertain the audience with playful experimentation, while simultaneously transforming the conversation to a higher level.
“I think music is so relatable because it is a really powerful first experience for most people, tending to happen when we are teenagers or young adults,” said Schirmann in a telephone interview from her home in Missoula.
“Music is the first chance that we get to hear a version of ourselves and of our experience on earth given back to us in this way that sounds like something,” Schirmann said.
Profound musical experiences often come at times when we are wondering who we are, where we fit in the world, and what we should do. “Music offers us an answer in a form that has this thing of a beginning, a middle and an end, a crescendo and some feeling attached to it that makes you conclude that this sums up where I’m at,” Schirmann said. “All art at its best does that. It makes you feel less alone in the world and less alienated.”
In her book Schirmann writes, “Music gives me permission … to experience the feelings I have never had, that maybe I never will. The words themselves do not need to be mine, or even true, for me to understand them, to learn from them.”
Schirmann’s second essay in the middle of the book describes a summer she spent living off the grid on a farm in Northern California with a friend at age 22. The only movie they had was a recording of the documentary “The Last Waltz,” chronicling The Band, as its members collaborated with old friends and musical giants of the ’70s to produce their final concert. It was really as much a funeral as a celebration. The roommates kept the film on a constant loop for weeks.
“By the time I was watching it, it was a showcase of a lifestyle that didn’t really exist anymore,” Schirmann said. “For some reason, watching that 40 years later, seeing so many of my heroes sort of wrapping it up, it was a very unique and powerful experience, but also troubling.”
In between the entertaining narratives of her three essays, Schirmann arranges swooping riffs of lyricism in the forms of poems. Some explore the underbelly of “popular” music. She notes that most pop songs now leave her cold. “I don’t hear the content or the message behind it, or the type of person who would receive it,” she said. “I hear the driving economic investment behind it.”
Schirmann’s final essay is a memory of sitting in the passenger seat of her father’s pickup truck and begging for something – a toy, or new clothes. Her father’s response had been to sing “You can’t always get what you want.” It was years before a local DJ informed Schirmann through her radio that it was actually an English rock band called The Rolling Stones who had made that refrain famous.
She describes the electric feeling of being “initiated into a new language,” of being “rinsed and validated by the radio … You can’t always get what you want. It was so true.”
Once again, Schirmann’s words strike a chord, uncovering forgotten memories. Where will she drop the needle next?
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