“hold the page out like a work of art, see for yourself, comb through it twice, three times, look for your likeness in the lines but find someone else…”
At the Singapore Writers Festival a couple of weekends ago, I had the opportunity of attending Armitage’s poetry panel with Rae Armantrout on the role of poetry in society. I had been a big fan since I first encountered his work in The English Bookshop, back when I was studying in Sweden & was a stranger to its curious language with all its sharp turns & confusing vowel system. The English Bookshop in Uppsala was & still is an institution, an oasis for foreign students hungry for Norton Anthologies or English poetry translations.
Along with Mark Doty’s Atlantis, I picked up Simon Armitage’s Book of Matches without much of a thought. I’ve loved both poets ever since, but am drawn to the natural rhythms & jolting descriptions of the latter. Book of Matches consists primarily of short, untitled sonnets, each meant to be read in 20 seconds – the time it takes for a match to burn out completely from the time it is lit. Here’s one:
My party piece:
I strike, then from the moment when the matchstick
conjures up its light, to when the brightness moves
beyond its means, and dies, I say the story
of my life –
dates and places, torches I carried,
a cast of names and faces, those
who showed me love, or came close,
the changes I made, the lessons I learnt –
then somehow still find time to stall and blush
before I’m bitten by the flame, and burnt.
A warning, though, to anyone nursing
an ounce of sadness, anyone alone:
don’t try this on your own; it’s dangerous,
I like vivid, true-to-life love scenes
in a movie. No, that’s a lie,
that’s when I like love least;
it’s the turn of the head or a pale blue eye
that moves me.
Keep love in the mind
and out of the blood, beds
are for sleep, for dreams, for good.
I can see what it takes
to keep a friendship in the heart,
the chest. That’s
when I like love best – not locked away
but left unsung, unsaid.
And then the rest.
And another one, that is perhaps my favourite.
Mother, any distance greater than a single span
requires a second pair of hands.
You come to help me measure windows, pelmets, doors,
the acres of the walls, the prairies of the floors.
You at the zero end, me with the spool of tape, recording
length, reporting metres, centimetres back to base, then leaving
up the stairs, the line still feeding out, unreeling
years between us. Anchor. Kite.
I space-walk through the empty bedrooms, climb
the ladder to the loft, to breaking point, where something
has to give;
two floors below your fingertips still pinch
the last one-hundredth of an inch . . . I reach
towards a hatch that opens on an endless sky
to fall or fly.
What is it? What is it about these poems that makes Armitage both a popular & critically-acclaimed poet? It’s all because of style, a quality sorely lacking in this digital age, which Armitage emphasises time & time again is the essence of poetry. I have never read or written a poem which contained content that I couldn’t Google, he said, and I have to agree, which is why I am not surprised at the fact that Instagram poets like Rupi Kaur are receiving so much backlash lately. Unfortunately, social media has given confessional poetry a bad name – a genre once carried by the likes of Plath and Lowell, who valued language craftsmanship & prosody at the highest level – building it around a cult personality rather than the art form.
There is no point to be flummoxed by Kaur, or even angry at her. She is famous in her own right & is at the very least lucrative, if not talented. But like Armitage & Armantrout addressed at that panel, the good that poetry does is found in the form it serves, not in the subject matter. While topics can & should be compelling, poetry is not composed of statements or personal opinions broken up on a page, but of form, & sound, & syntax. Style is integral for poetry as plot is to prose, or setting is to plays.
Is this thinking old-fashioned? I don’t know. I just know that like Armitage & Armantrout, a poet like Rupi Kaur cannot give me what I want from poetry. A poem can be simple but it cannot be simplistic. One cannot simplify what is meant to be complex. In 14 lines, selected words in the right order translates into an effervescent feeling. In 14 lines, a creature becomes a world unto itself.
It is why I love Armitage so much, because he upholds the integrity of the art form without being unreachable by the masses. His poems exist at the fringe of popular culture, dipping toes, dialoguing, touching on socio-political & even environmental issues without losing its characteristic style. In the poem In Praise of Air, the good in poetry manifests itself a very tangible way.
“In May 2014 the University of Sheffield unveiled the world’s first catalytic poem. 20 metres in height, the poem is mounted on the wall of the Alfred Denny building on Western Bank. It is an original work by Sheffield University’s Professor of Poetry, Simon Armitage, and the result of a collaboration with Pro-Vice Chancellor for Science, Professor Tony Ryan. The giant banner on which the poem is printed has been manufactured using revolutionary nano-technology. It is coated with a photocatalyst which eats pollution, enabling the poem to clean the air around it as it sits in place, overlooking the busy A57.”
In Praise of Air was the first poem that Armitage read that afternoon. In a small chamber room at The Arts House, we listened as he read the 16-line poem in his slight, Yorkshire accent, enraptured at the way the words washed over all of us, knowing perfectly well what needed to be said & was said, & at the same time, being delightfully surprised by the warm, half-familiar feeling it gave anyway.
In Praise of Air
I write in praise of air. I was six or five
when a conjurer opened my knotted fist
and I held in my palm the whole of the sky.
I’ve carried it with me ever since.
Let air be a major god, its being
and touch, its breast-milk always tilted
to the lips. Both dragonfly and Boeing
dangle in its see-through nothingness…
Among the jumbled bric-a-brac I keep
a padlocked treasure-chest of empty space,
and on days when thoughts are fuddled with smog
or civilization crosses the street
with a white handkerchief over its mouth
and cars blow kisses to our lips from theirs
I turn the key, throw back the lid, breathe deep.
My first word, everyone’s first word, was air.
In 2014, I was browsing through Cereal magazine when I stumbled upon this article about a “Town of Books”. The feature was brief but evocative, & in characteristic Cereal Magazine aesthetic, generously layered with moody, rain-washed images – a spindly chair at the back of a bookstore in dusky light, clothbound volumes stacked against each other, the humble yet majestic Welsh plains. I devoured the pictures as I did the words, & remember being drawn to this particular line: The books of Hay-on-Wye outnumber its human inhabitants by an estimated 6800 to one.
It was a figure that did not make sense, perhaps because all my life I had felt that there was no real limit of how much one could read if he or she was willing. But there it was, the impossible number as stark as day – 6800. If a resident of Hay-on-Wye were to read a book every week, it would take 130.77 years to finish the volumes allotted to him or her, book swaps aside. It was unreachable, astounding, daunting.
According to the feature, Hay-on-Wye (commonly abbreviated to just “Hay”) lies just on the border between Wales & England, far away from the capital cities of each country. Up till the 1960s, Hay was nothing more than a floundering market town until Richard Booth – a wiry, 20-something graduate who had gone off to study at Oxford University – returned home & became frustrated at how all his friends were leaving for cities like Cardiff & London for greater prospects. He decided to save the dwindling economy of his rural home the only way he knew how – through books. In 1962, he shipped hundreds of them in containers from the soon-to-be derelict libraries of America & scoured the counties for the forgotten collections of English aristocrats & opened a secondhand bookstore in Hay’s abandoned fire station.
It worked. Tourists started coming, followed by quizzical literati in the years after (it was after all the famed playwright Arthur Miller, who upon being asked to attend the town’s annual literary festival, asked: Hay-on-Wye? What is that, some kind of sandwich?). The sleepy town was finally & thankfully drawn out of slumber, saved from the fate of going out like a whisper like so many others. Since then, many have followed Booth’s example in setting up their own book enclaves, peppered all around town. Fifty-odd years later, Hay is home to two dozen bookstores & something like two million books. It is also hosts the annual Hay festival. Every year in May to June, writers, poets, artists, philosophers & bibliophiles, the likes of which include Alain De Botton & Joseph Heller, descend to the little town for this very reason.
What a story, what a place. I wanted to be there. For 22 years, I had sat on the floor of my tiny “library” & inhabited pages of novels & their fantastic tales. Books had been my world. How would it be like then, to live in a world of books?
“Books are the cumulative livelihood, directly or indirectly, of hundreds living in this town, and the draw for the many hundreds of thousands more who come to visit. They contain every imaginable world within their covers, our sum knowledge, every hope and every fear, in scores of languages by countless hands.”
– Richard Aslan, for Cereal Magazine.
For a long time, the natural rhythms of life intervened. Final year thesis, relationships, fixations with other cities, first job, tragedy. As each year passed, my life became a little messier & confusing & I read a little less until I read nothing at all. The mystical town of Hay faded into the background like a forgotten poet. But then like a miracle, three years later, I found myself in Swansea, Wales under the most unlikely of circumstances & remembered the book town that existed in between the folds of the Welsh countryside. Hay-on-Wye. A whimsical, three-note melody that beckoned me to thee. & so I booked my bus tickets, packed a night bag, & went.
Here’s the story of my 36 hours in the magical kingdom.
From where I am in Swansea, it takes 25 pounds, four hours & three buses to get to Hay, all to visit a town that you can walk across in ten minutes. The morning I leave, the temperature drops to a frigid four degrees & I miss the first bus out & have to wait forty minutes for the next one to arrive. Waiting at the interchange, it’s so cold that I can hardly feel my face. I finally clamber onto the regional bus at 7am. It is just me & an old couple sitting two seats ahead. The radiator is on full blast. I fall asleep almost immediately, unable to witness Swansea City fading behind me.
I wake up a half hour later & all I see is green. This is not the green that I am used to – that gaudy shade caught in jarring, tropical sunlight – but green touched by hues of brown & unbridled rock, an expansive landscape that forms the backdrop of books by Dylan Thomas & Bruce Chatwin. I realise that we are in the heart of Brecon Beacons National Park. There seems to be no horizon to this rolling greenery & a strange feeling rises in the pit of my stomach, swelling like a bubble, a feeling that I’ve only felt a few times before when I found myself in the middle of infinities… what was it? Peace? Bliss? Awe?
I wish I could ask someone about this. The old man turns around & gestures to the top window above his head. He’s asking me if it’s alright to open it. I nod, & he cracks the glass panel wide open & the bus is filled with fresh, vale air. I listen to James Vincent McMorrow & Sam Amidon & Lucy Rose. For more than an hour, we watch the hills twist slowly into roads, the old couple & I; we pass by clusters of thatched cottages, clusters of sheep, all the things in clusters against the sheet of green.
Now as I was young and easy under the apple boughs
About the lilting house and happy as the grass was green,
The night above the dingle starry,
Time let me hail and climb
Golden in the heydays of his eyes,
And honoured among wagons I was prince of the apple towns
And once below a time I lordly had the trees and leaves
Trail with daisies and barley
Down the rivers of the windfall light.
And as I was green and carefree, famous among the barns
About the happy yard and singing as the farm was home,
In the sun that is young once only,
Time let me play and be
Golden in the mercy of his means,
And green and golden I was huntsman and herdsman, the calves
Sang to my horn, the foxes on the hills barked clear and cold,
And the sabbath rang slowly
In the pebbles of the holy streams.
Nothing I cared, in the lamb white days, that time would take me
Up to the swallow thronged loft by the shadow of my hand,
In the moon that is always rising,
Nor that riding to sleep
I should hear him fly with the high fields
And wake to the farm forever fled from the childless land.
Oh as I was young and easy in the mercy of his means,
Time held me green and dying
Though I sang in my chains like the sea.
(Dylan Thomas, 1914 – 1953)
I get off at Brecon & catch bus 39 as per instructions from Chrissy, my Airbnb host. From the looks of her online profile, she is fifty or sixty-something, has a doughy, not unpleasant face & wears purple glasses. She says that she will meet me outside Hay Castle at exactly noon. I’m nervous because my phone has run out of battery & I have stupidly not written her phone number or address down.
We pass by a few stone mansions, a few road signs, a few people. Suddenly, Hay-on-Wye bursts into view. I can’t believe it, I’ve arrived. It’s down season here – the literary festival isn’t for a few more months – so the streets are mostly clear with the odd couple or lone traveller milling about at a pleasant pace. The bus stops right outside Hay Castle & seconds after I step down, I meet Chrissy. She is exactly like how I imagined – chatty, kind, warm. Immediately she launches into questions about where I came from, what I was doing in here in Hay, if I’ve had any lunch, etc. Her little apartment sits on the edge of town & when we reach, we trudge up two flights of steps & step into a warm little abode.
She shows me my room – spacious, comfy, big windows with a view of Hay Castle – & tells me where the amenities are. The tour takes two minutes because besides my bedroom, the only things to see are the bathroom (which we both share), a tiny sitting room & an even tinier kitchen. We don’t talk very much because she knows that I have come all this way & am itching to explore the town & its many bookstores. Chrissy leaves me with some food recommendations & retreats into her own room. I take only what I need, including two empty book bags & step out.
I don’t really know where to go so I stop everywhere. I go into The Fudge Shop & get a piece of chocolate fudge to nibble at as I let the streets take me where they may. To get to Castle Road, which is the main vein where most of the bookshops are clustered on, I make a turn into “Back Fold”, an unsuspecting lane, in itself a self-contained world of record shops & knick-knack boutiques & hidden tea salons. Back Fold narrows steadily until one has to squeeze oneself through the opening at the end. As I slide through the two building walls, I think to myself, this is what Alice in Wonderland must have felt like, falling through the rabbit hole.
Castle Street. The store signs are studded with old-fashioned names – apothecary, antiques, antiquarian – spelt out in fading gold letter & winding curlicues. I duck into Hay-on-Wye Booksellers first & lose myself in the first of many shelves of books. I marvel at the first editions locked behind glass boxes in the antiquarian section & talk briefly to the woman behind the counter, who has a shock of white blond hair & is meticulously cataloguing new arrivals, only stopping to make a sale or answer queries.
The next stop is Hay Castle, the crumbling monument that is the heart of Hay-on-Wye. I enter the castle via a small staircase & am surprised to find a dozen shelves groaning under the weight of hundreds of books, abandoned to the raw elements on this cold day.
The Honesty Bookshop is a peculiar feature of Hay-on-Wye, the only one in town that has no till nor owner. It gets its supply from a variety of sources & works like this – 50p for paperbacks, £1 for hardbacks, take all the time you need & leave the money in the little box at the stairs after you’re done. All proceeds go to the restoration & upkeep of the castle. The castle grounds & the sweet, spring air are yours alone to take in.
Hay Castle isn’t much when you compare it to the other massive stone castles scattered across England, but it is here where Richard Booth, the unofficial founding father of Hay, laid down the cornerstone for the first national book town in the world & all the eccentric booksellers to come. Similar to the eponymous, hapless hero of Miguel de Cervantes’ Spanish classic Don Quixote, Booth is a queer enigma with ridiculous dreams. Quixote dubs himself a knight-errant & Booth proclaims Hay-on-Wye an independent kingdom under his self-declared kingship, taking Hay Castle as his throne room; Quixote recruits an unsuspecting farmer to be his squire & Booth establishes a House of Lords made out of ordinary citizens & names his horse his prime minister. They are both driven by the same, unrealistic desire, or in Cervantes’ words: to set out to revive chivalry, undo wrongs, bring justice to the world… & if not the world, at least this little corner of the once mighty Welsh kingdom.
What fools. What kings.
Next is Addyman Annexe, complete with a book passage & thousands of penguin paperbacks. Then Rose’s Books, all pretty in pink, a children’s books specialty store stocked with hundreds of out-of-print Tin Tin magazines & Grimm compendiums & beautifully illustrated fables. Then Francis Edwards, whose name sounds familiar until I remember that this is the “same” bookshop that I stumbled into four years ago in London’s west end when I was wet & cold & beginning to feel the first pangs of loneliness in that big, English city. As I stepped into this sister bookshop, I felt a rush of familiarity & recalled that moment from years ago tenderly. Francis Edwards welcomed me then & it was welcoming me now.
Quinto Bookshop & Francis Edwards
The sheet tacked on the front door reads Open till late for midnight browsers so I enter just after eleven
& even when the stinging spring chill blows
through the narrow shop space
nobody lifts their head to look, nobody notices
In a second everything is stock-still.
The first thing I see is an old man in a corner
apart from the rest, tenderly touching the book spines
& I want to cry from the beauty of it
from the realization that this city
is not of love or light or sin
but of little moments & things;
the shelves like billowing arms
& I can’t help it, I let myself fall
You’ve felt like this before, haven’t you?
Battened. held. safe.
(how well you know it
though you’ve never been before)
like maybe you could settle your words down into the dust
like maybe it would keep your secret for you
The rest of the afternoon passes in a salubrious haze. Lunch at Oscars – a ham pie & coffee with cream unspooling slowly in its warm centre. Broad Street Book Centre. A sundae at Shepherd’s Ice Cream Parlour, listening to Willie Nelson. I finally arrive at Richard Booth’s Bookstore, the grandest one in town by a mile with two massive storeys, a cafe & a cinema. One can spot it from far away with its red lacquered front & huge glass windows.
Here, I take my time. I order a beer & an English muffin from the cafe & read some poetry; I melt into one of the plush chairs on the second floor, light streaming in from the open ceiling as I navigate worlds of botany, sailing, history, & philosophy. I’m beginning to taste the edges of that feeling of being battened, held, safe, the feeling of finally settling into the skin that I was always meant to be in, like a fitting book jacket. Ah.
That night, after a quick dinner at one of the two open pubs in town, I go back to Richard Booth’s 47-seat cinema, where I’ve purchased a ticket for that night’s showing of “Jackie”. Here, going for a film feels like you’re going to the opera, & rightfully so, in a town where the weekly film is the only form of entertainment besides the local pub or watching TV at home. At the foyer, there is a man in a trim vest & bow tie that serves wine, ice cream & candy from big, glass jars. I get gummy bears & a glass of red, feeling a little sheepish.
At 730pm sharp, me & 46 other people troop into the theatre & nestle into the plush red seats. We watch Natalie Portman on the big screen in all of her lithe beauty, watch her go into a catatonic state of shock & nearly mad with grief as Mr Kennedy is assassinated. We marvel at her polished, mid-Atlantic accent & her expressive brown eyes. We see her go from devastation to gracefulness in seconds & then back again, feeling our own hearts skip a beat at the tumult of raw emotion.
When the credits roll, everybody claps. It is a very good film. I sit in my corner seat for a little while longer while people get up to leave. I realise that I’m tearing up. From what? It has been months since I’ve watched a movie & enjoyed it, but it goes beyond that. Something about community, or home. I can’t be too sure.
The next morning I get up early to spend a few more daylight hours in Booth’s kingdom, but before I venture out, Chrissy prepares breakfast for me – three kinds of cereal, fresh fruit juice, & a really delicious toast that has all kinds of nuts & fruit in it. She brews me a cup of strong, Welsh tea & while I devour my bowl of sweet oats on a foldable table in her tiny living room, we talk about life & people & books. Like me, Chrissy isn’t a native of Hay-on-Wye. She’s not even Welsh. She is a welcome stranger in the land, who left a bad marriage, stumbled upon Hay after traversing the English countryside for days & then decided to stay.
“I came across this little town, & I know this sounds strange but when I arrived at Hay, I just felt it sort of… embrace me, you know? There was such an air of love in this place & somehow I knew that I would fit right in.”
Strange, I felt it too.
She tells me about her life, the whole unfiltered version of it too, all without asking, & I listen. She talks about how tough it is to make ends meet, but how she knits little hats & scarves to sell at the main square on Market day & rents out the second room & gets by. She says she’s happier then she’s ever been. I don’t know how to respond to the stark openness, but I buy a red knit cap from her & promise I will take some photos of her apartment with my DSLR camera so that she can put them up on the site.
Oh that would be so nice! I’ll need to clean up the place first though…
I decide to leave her to it, & so I thank her for the wonderful breakfast & go out. It’s another morning of the same – Hay Cinema Bookshop, Clocktower Books, Hancock & Monks Music. I do a little shopping in The Old Electric Shop, a space flooded with natural light & odds & ends.
I love this, the quiet tinkering. Two feet away from me, there is a couple sitting in silence on a couch, just holding hands & bathing in the glow of early morning. A few more people scattered around, reading or writing. I don’t know what it is that draws writers to cafes, to coffee & wine, but I love it – you know you are with the like-minded. Here, the gentle whir of the espresso machine will keep you company; here, the muffled conversations will inspire you. You will inhale, sigh with relief, & perhaps if you are lucky, the word will start flowing.
One rarely has days like these in Singapore. I treasure the effervescent moment.
It’s eleven – time to go.
After half an hour of walking around, I finally find The Poetry Bookshop, a quiet space in a back alley run by Chris & his wife, where I have a lovely conversation with him & find a rare, first edition poetry collection by Elizabeth Smart aptly titled “A Bonus”. Smart, like most other poets, was unknown & unappreciated in her time & only achieved relative fame years after she died with the prose-poetry volume titled “By Grand Central Station I Set Down & Wept”, a pivotal piece of work for me in my late teens, writing that joined two worlds that I never knew could touch. Her poetry though, is very different, but lovely all the same, & true.
How I used to long
For silence and solitude.
Because in a day or two
Out of the blue
Angels descended then
Connecting me with heaven
In a constant consummation
Independent of men
and things and events
All day and night
A long long amen.
Is This Pain Justified – Elizabeth Smart, from “The Bonus”
In my reverie, I realise that I’m blocking someone from making an actual query. I make way for a man in a beautiful navy blue coat who asks Chris a question about an author I’ve never heard of before & Chris says that while he does not have any copies, Richard Booth’s might have some. He writes down a few things on a scrap of paper & the man leaves happy, hopeful, his leather satchel bouncing behind him as he exits the bookshop & makes his way to the bookseller down the street.
Booksellers. I realise that this is the company that I am in – booksellers – people who have made it their life’s work to hunt down gems of the written word, who have driven for hours or days in search for their favourite author’s work. Next to them, I pale in comparison when it comes to a singular love for books. I can only peer through the looking glass, my fingers grazing the cold illuminated surface, in wonderment of these bookshops & their inhabitants.
Two o’ clock. My time in Hay has come to an end. I pick up my things, say goodbye to Chrissy, & catch the 39 out of Herefordshire. I settle into the seat, thinking about the hours that have passed in a tranquil fury. It was everything hoped for & more. It has been a rough year & I feel like maybe these 36 hours in Hay-on-Wye have done a healing work, that maybe something that I’ve been holding within me has broken like a dam. Lo, the Magical Kingdom.
Hay is a town that is full of dreamers, & not the kind of dreamers that sit around all day doing nothing. Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Sylvia Beach, George Whitman & his daughter, Richard Booth… these booksellers are men & women of greatness because they know & believe in the magic of storytelling, of print, of curation. Booth just decided to do something, & a bunch of people then did the same.
In his memoir, The Yellow-Lighted Bookshop, the poet Lewis Buzbee says this: I am fatally attracted to all bookstores, & I identify with this gravitational pull well because in this day & age where we see the world through pixels & screens, there is a certain comfort & romance to reading with unadulterated eyes. By reading, you partake not only in your past, but someone else’s, or maybe even a whole civilisation’s. It is a necessity & a privilege.
So go ahead. Open the door, dip your finger into the jar, let your eye linger on the page. It’s all waiting for you.
the ruining has begun
& I am going to the other side
I must reach before the night seeps
(already the clicking of cicadas
are prising apart my mind)
yes, it has begun, the setting
the sun altering
into a pool of gold, licked up
from the concrete
it’s all in the detail
all in the cracks
like the note folded thrice
in my back pocket
the sweat, diamonds on
my neck, slicked back
& you’re jittery, I get it
so am I
because this tension
it’s found its way into everything
sticky heat, a pomegranate
splits open at your feet
scooped out like a bad habit
the rupture, it sickens me
& so I quicken my step
on this covered lane
that never seems to end
like the ruining
the quick stab in my left side
this ramshackling of a time
I try & lay it all to rest
but if you could tell yourself
a lie in a dream
why not in real life?
Follow this rotating playlist of new releases & old classics here.
In the eighties, they used to make mixtapes with cassettes.
To make one, you would stick the original cassette with the song you wanted into one side of the stereo & a blank one into the other & press the “play” & “record” buttons simultaneously. That song from the original would then be recorded on the blank as it played. Three, four, five minutes would pass. You would hit the “pause” button exactly when the song ended, change the original cassette, repeat twenty times over, & out of the hundreds of rewinds & tape hisses would emerge a cobbled-together tapestry of songs.
This is why mixtapes are such a labour of love – because they had to be made in real time. It’s hard to imagine an age where one was unable to assemble a playlist in a matter of seconds like how you would on Spotify but yes, there was. Before iTunes & digital streaming, it wasn’t uncommon to spend hours ruminating on the perfect sequence of songs and compiling them for a certain mood, a certain season, a certain someone. Why do you think there have been so many movies made & books written about mixtapes? They are soundtracks to the beat of love unraveling, stitched together by fictional characters.
In the film High Fidelity, the main character Rob (played by John Cusack) summed up my feelings about a good mixtape when he said this: The making of a good compilation tape is a very subtle art. Many do’s and don’ts. First of all, you’re using someone else’s poetry to express how you feel. This is a delicate thing.
Rob was right – it is a delicate thing, especially when they’re made as gifts. The best mixtapes were the ones embedded with coded messages, not unlike song titles. A good mix didn’t just say: Here, This is For You, but also Hey, I Love You, or This Is Who I Really Am, or This Was How I Felt That One Hot Summer Night When I Was Thinking of You but You Didn’t Have a Clue.
The word “mixtape” was foreign to me for a long time because I was born in a time of discmans & their accompanying CDs – yes, those long-gone, shiny circles of music. When I was eight or nine, the first iPod had not been invented yet & I spent most of my school allowances at HMV, picking up whatever looked interesting & rushing home to stick it into my CD player & listen to the delicious morsels of music under the sheets (as detailed in this long spiel about my love for Fleet Foxes).
The first time I ever heard the word “mixtape” was when I was at a sleepover with my friend Liz (who loved The Dresden Dolls & The Academy Is & who was always introducing me to interesting music) & we were falling asleep in the attic after a night of eating too much pizza & watching bad chick flicks. After hours of dancing to Cobra Starship (!), we finally collapsed, exhausted, our bodies splayed out on the floor. She put on this CD at a low volume & this amazing, piano-driven rock started to play, & as we drifted to sleep, I asked her what it was & she whispered drowsily, The Mixed Tape…
Where are you now? As I rearrange the songs again This mix could burn a hole in anyone But it was you I was thinking of
Since hearing that line in Jack’s Mannequin’s record Everything in Transit, I don’t think I’ve stopped making mixtapes, whatever form they may take. When I was thirteen & broke during Christmas, I bought blank CDs by the dozen & make a “mixtape” for each of my friends. I’m sure most of them went unlistened to, but I loved making them all the same, loved the gentle whirring of the disc in my dad’s laptop, designing album covers with magic markers while I waited for it to burn, the click of the CD tray as it delivered its gift to me twenty minutes later, warm & complete.
Where are you now?
As I’m swimming through the stereo
I’m writing you a symphony of sound As I’m cutting through you track by track I swear to God this mix could sink the sun But it was you I was thinking of
When I was eighteen, a good friend moved to Australia for college. We had grown up together & shared common tastes in television shows & music & when she told me she was really leaving, I was happy for her but also quite morose. I was in that stage in my life where all my friends were making major life decisions, some of which scattered them across continents. Anyway, in December that year, she called to wish me happy birthday & we ended up speaking for a bit. I had missed her terribly & knew she had missed me too.
Finally, as we reluctantly said goodbye over the static of international airwaves, I thought I heard her say “I made a mistake!” before the line went dead & for the rest of the week, I wondered what mistake she had made… Was it her decision to leave Singapore? Did she want to come back? It wasn’t until I received a square package postmarked Australia a few days later that I realised that what she had really meant to say was this: I made a mixtape (for you).
“Sentimental music has this great way of taking you back somewhere at the same time that it takes you forward, so you feel nostagic and hopeful all at the same time.”
― Nick Hornby, High Fidelity
& then finally, there was that time when I took a music composition module in university which turned out to be an “experimental” soundscaping class. The professor was a hippie who wore long, white linen shirts and whose eyes lit up when he talked about John Cage or Steve Reich. He was also a terrible teacher & had the tendency to drone on or get lost in the middle of his sentence, never to find his way back again. It’s a true miracle I managed to pass the class since I was asleep most of the time.
Once though, he told us about how composers would create “incredible masterpieces” by locating sounds they liked in certain tapes & painstakingly splicing the portions by hand – literally cutting & pasting sounds together to create an auditory landscape. This avant-garde work had to be precise & sometimes took months, all to create pieces of “music” that sounded like noise to me. In that moment, I remember feeling crestfallen because it seemed like those new pieces, like the hundreds of mixtapes I had made over the years, were not new per se & were just combinations of things that already existed. You’re using someone else’s poetry to express how you feel. This is a delicate thing…
The question of whether I would ever create something original haunted me all the way till I started to write in earnest. All the same, many poems & songs later, I arrived at the inevitable conclusion that everyone comes to when they set out to create something original – that we can’t, not really. But it’s quite alright, isn’t it? Artistic expression is but a combination of observation & imitation & influence. & we too, are undeniably made out of a thousand, indelible impressions from our pasts, & music is just a tiny slice of this inconceivable miracle that defines our humanity.
& where are you now?
& this is my mixed tape for her
It’s like I wrote every note
With my own fingers
Console yourself with this, dear reader: that we are more than the sum of our parts.
Even as I make playlists on Spotify today, some of them two hundred songs long, I try to think of what it was like for the original makers of mixtapes, how slow & torturous, but also how rewarding it must have been to find oneself in the immersive process. Sometimes the magic of music is lost on us because it has become so easy. But I won’t forget – no, I won’t.
I am from a time past, I fade onto squares of film, I am a mixtape…
“In the other room, there is a light twinkling of distant keys & like a planet pulled along its orbit, you gravitate to where the music is. You turn the corner and find yourself in this hidden chamber. It is drenched in an other-worldly, warm light. Six people sit on traveling chests & rocking chairs & one dishevelled, badly made up bed. One dark-haired boy with glasses sits in front of the upright, playing something you could swear you’ve heard before. Perhaps it was that Nico Muhly song you heard once a very long time ago… yes, the one that made you cry inappropriately in the middle of a university lecture. You had turned to your friend & begged her to listen to it but by then the moment was over & the magic was lost & you didn’t listen to that song ever again.
Anyway, the boy that sits before you, his awkward elbows jut out as he ploughs on with concentration. He plays a tune, his fingers dipping into the ivory bars like liquid. He isn’t very good, no, but he plays beautifully all the same, the sound coming out like sirens of a distant sea, muted where the piano’s insides have grown mouldy with age, the notes breathing with memory, lovely in its out-of-tune sweetness as the room swirls around you… & before you know it, the song is over & everybody is clapping, laughing, speaking in several languages all at once. Bravo, bravo!
The boy stands up, does a little bow. People disperse & walk right past you, but you, you stand there alone in the room, quite stunned. All is quiet again.”
Light ended the night, but the song remained And I was hiding by the stair Half here, half there, past the lashing rain And as the sky would petal white Old innocent lies came to mind As we stood, congregated, at the firing line
Night ended the fight, but the song remained And so I headed to the wall Turned tail to call to the new domain As if in the sight of sea, you’re suddenly free But it’s all the same… Oh, but I can hear you, loud in the center Aren’t we made to be crowded together, like leaves?
On 16th June 2017, Fleet Foxes released Crack-Up, their first full-length album in six years. I have just finished listening to it in its entirely in my bedroom, under the covers & with the lights off, & I am flush with feeling & memory. Music has such a powerful transportive ability; it can take you anywhere, anyplace, if you let it.
Listening to Third of May / Ōdaigahara brought me back to almost a decade ago when I wandered into HMV at City Hall & was drawn to this slim, paper sleeve with the most intriguing cover – a composite of two strange images, gothic yet modern, speckled with neon spots of colour & the notion of motion, like a technicolour medieval film framed within a 5″ square. I was reeled in even by their name, the “f” consonants light & fleeing on my tongue. I imagined their songs would feel like smoke, slipping seamlessly out of a room & back in again. I bought the five-song EP on a whim, not knowing how much this record was going to change me & how I related to music. I was only fifteen years old.
I remember listening to Mykonos for the very first time, not unlike how I just listened to Crack-Up, plugged in & with my eyes squeezed shut in the dark, & even though I had not been to the tiny Greek island (I still have not, but I am hopeful), I felt all at once wrecked & known. I thought, perhaps if I could write a song like that someday that could make someone feel so intensely (like how Mykonos was for me), all that time spent saturated in music – all the hours & days of intent listening & furious writing & practicing the guitar – would not have been wasted… No, they wouldn’t have been wasted at all.
And you will go to Mykonos With a vision of a gentle coast And a sun to maybe dissipate Shadows of the mess you made
I didn’t know much about folk music then, but Fleet Foxes made me feel like it was okay to be into the folk music that I did know about – Simon & Garfunkel, Bob Dylan, Crosby, Stills & Nash – & not feel so ridiculously old-fashioned about the music I was dreaming about making one day. If you are a curious person, music is like an infinite series of rooms waiting to be discovered – genres & artistes cascading into another – & Fleet Foxes was my backdoor to modern folk acts like Bon Iver & Laura Marling & Feist. I learnt how to harmonise by singing along to White Winter Hymnal, how to finger-pick by practicing with Ragged Wood, & about the intricacies of arrangement by listening to Grown Ocean & Helplessness Blues. I listened to Quiet Houses when I was becoming somewhat disillusioned with the Junior College literature syllabus & marveled at how poetry could be derived from six words, sung over & over in majestic crescendos:
Lay me down… Darkening… Come to me…
Nearly ten years later & having a little experience in music-making, I still find myself crying whenever Oliver James comes on, & I inevitably wander back to my shelves again to pick through the weathered record covers. In Sun Giant, the only thing you’ll find in the sleeve besides sparse album credits & the CD itself is a lengthy note jokingly credited to Thomas Jefferson but actually written by Fleet Foxes’ frontman Robin Pecknold. It is essentially a long preamble about the magic of music but it holds so much truth & remains relevant to my existence till this day. I don’t know if Pecknold is a religious man, but this piece of writing speaks to me deeply about my faith & I suppose to a greater extent, the expression of that very faith – worship. The music of Fleet Foxes has inadvertently taught me how to host my sense of wonder well, & along with it, whatever gifts God has chosen to bless me with.
Here are portions of that note:
Sometimes when driving, or riding the bus, or walking around some park, I will try to get an image in my head of what the land around me would have looked like 400 years ago. The same hills, the same landscape, but in my mind I’ll cover it with nothing & wonder what it was like to be the first man to chance upon it. This is always useless to me. There is so much wonder in this world, but I always have trouble getting past our influence, our disasters & clumsy systems. & even in those places where there is some real beauty, like down at Golden Gardens or on the Olympic Peninsula, or in my grandparents’ cabin in Wenatchee when it’s deep in snowdrifts, all I have to do is take one look at the skyline in the distance, or the cement path I’m walking on, or the white car parked in the gravel driveway to take me out of the tenuous illusion & put me back in reality.
We are constantly tethered to some safety line. There is always a lantern, or a map, or a screen, or a cell phone. These things guarantee that whatever experience we’re having is just an attempt at connecting to something foreign & old, that it’s not real, no matter how real it looks. We’ve sketched out a new world over the old & they are in two separate universes. The old is lost despite the remnants of the everyday. If properly prepared, one could live entire decades indoors, in a world of their own creation.
A very smart & gifted friend of mine told me once that music is a kind of replacement for the natural world that, before civilisation or whatever, the world must have seemed a place of such immense wonder & confusion, so terrifying in a way, unthinkably massive & majestic. & that feeling of mystery & amazement, is somehow hardwired into us. Once the world became commonplace, mapped, & conquered, that mystery left our common mind & we needed something to replace it with & then came along music. I think she’s right, music is magic to me, transportive & full of wonder in a way that I have trouble getting from the natural world. All the human things that make the natural world so hard to connect with just aren’t there with music… Music to me is just as awe-inspiring as the world maybe once was, & I just love it a lot.”
Another one, & a lasting favourite.
In that dream I’m as old as the mountains Still is starlight reflected in fountains Children grown on the edge of the ocean Kept like jewelry kept with devotion In that dream moving slow through the morning
Wide-eyed walker, don’t betray me I will wake one day, don’t delay me Wide-eyed leaver, always going…