SARAH MESLE: One of the poems in the book starts with fu, so even though your book is about two-letter words, I started thinking about four-letter words. If four-letter words are the dangerous words, then two-letter words are like the least dangerous words, right? What was it like to write poems using words that are so puny at their heart?
STEPHIN MERRITT: Well I was happy to have these one-syllable words, because anything longer would have gotten in the way of variety in the poems. The nice thing about two-letter words is that they’re all one-syllable, if you call aa one-syllable—
Is it pronounced (as you say) ah-ah?
Yes, it is. In Hawaii if you have two of the same letter in a row there’s generally a kind of apostrophe between them. Now where were we? Right, writing words focusing on two-letter words, rather than four-letter words, allowed me to have, first, the central conceit of the book, which is that you can play scrabble with it and, second, I was able to use as a template one of my favorite poems and one of the most popular poems for the youth of America:
Lizzie Borden Took an Axe
And gave her father 40 whacks
When she saw what she had done
She gave her mother 41.
Is it father first or mother first? I can never remember. For me that poem was the template of the whole book. I mean, I like Edward Gorey and Edward Lear, and I think it probably seems more like Shel Silverstein, but really that Lizzie Borden poem is the template for the book.
Because it’s a folk poem, or a children’s poem, or that it’s a murderous poem?
The Lizzie Borden nursery rhyme seems to be a good template for me because, in the first place, it’s well known enough that I won’t forget it myself. And since nobody forgets it, it’s probably in a rhythm that people find easy to remember, so it’s a good rhythm for me to copy. Also I knew that I could use that particular poem in my book, just refer to it and people would understand that there was a reference happening. Because I think that outside of the rhyme, people don’t actually know very much about Lizzie Borden at all—including the police. There wasn’t all that much to know. She was a young teenager, to whom nothing had ever happened, really. And if her parents hadn’t been killed, probably nobody would ever have heard of her.
Magnetic Fields song are so often very character and narrative driven, and I’m curious about how you think that quality translated to these poems. Do they feel narrative to you? Is there a character throughout them?
As with my songwriting, I don’t feel like there’s a central persona of Stephen Merritt who is the understood voice behind everything, who is the god-like narrator. I don’t really believe in God, or narrators, and I wouldn’t want to try to be one. So I may write in character or not, but it doesn’t occur to me that I’m writing in my character, because I don’t especially have one.
I did try to have the continuing saga of Ma and Pa (who are themselves two-letter words) and there’s the continuing saga of Vampire Dog. And there’s an assortment of transgender or gender-fluid characters who illustrate the pronouns for us, or illustrate the deviations from the pronouns, highlighting maybe not the arbitrariness of pronouns, but how pronouns don’t tell the whole story.
A couple of the words that jumped out at me —three, in fact — were tranny, skanking, and phat, the latter of the three sounding especially like a different, “hip” voice. Did you feel like you were working in different dictions as you were writing?
Well one of the two-letter words is yo, which requires an informal voice. There’s a person pictured on the cover of the book saying “yo.” This is certainly not me, but a farmer in a rural area who in twenty years will be saying “yo.” So I tried to use a variety of registers in a number of ways, as with 69 Love Songs, where I tried to have as many voices as possible, both singing voices and character voices. And continuity as it appears in something like A Midsummer Night’s Dream, where although there are three different social universes, they all touch each other somewhere. You might just have to have your head turned into the head of an ass to find that out, but once you do, you realize that there’s continuity.
What was it like to get the illustrations back? Was it tough to harmonize with the illustrator?
I wrote the whole book and then Roz Chast illustrated the whole book. She didn’t have any instructions for me and I also didn’t have any instructions for her. I got all the illustrations at the same moment, and my only reactions was, “Wow, that’s brilliant. You misspelled artisanal.” Everyone misspells artisanal, so it wasn’t a big deal. I happen to be a former copyeditor.
Did you work with an editor on this? What is editing a book of poems like versus editing songs? Is there a different revision process?
In songwriting there’s not usually any social aspect to revising a song. I sit in a gay bar with a cocktail in my hand and a pen in the other and I write a song and then six months later I may still be writing the same song but I come back to it and revise it myself. I say, “Oh, that won’t fit on the folk album,” or “Wait, what if I put a dragon here? And take out the Seagram building. Yes, now it will fit on the folk album.” So I can do that myself. But if I find myself writing a book of poems, then I have an editor at Norton — and they know what they’re talking about — which is kind of scary because I don’t know what I’m talking about. There are two poems, the em and en dash poems, and I could’ve just used the names of the letters, em and en, but what fun would that be? So I gave Roz something to do by having the two different dashes. In this case you learn, basically, what the Chicago Manual of Style has to tell you about the differences between the em and en dash. This at Norton was a big flag for “Let’s get involved!” and quibble over exactly what we should say about the em and en dash, because otherwise they’ll think we don’t know what we’re doing. So going back and forth revising em and en was easily the longest part of the the revision process for this book.
Can you read one of them aloud?
Em dashes—this just in!—are used
to interrupt a thought;
the use of them is subtle—ha!—and
it cannot be taught.
You’ll notice that I had to actually read it out of the book. The ones that stayed pretty much unedited I can recite, like “aa”, but the more back and forth there was in the editing, the less I can recite it from memory, because I remember the earlier versions. Which is what happens to me on stage with songwriting. There’s multiple versions, and I remember all of them equally well. When I’m standing at the Lincoln Center, I may not remember the correct version. I may remember the one about the Yiddish mama who doesn’t exist anymore in the current version of the song, and everyone would be totally puzzled. So I have a music stand in front of me when I sing, and I need to do that here.
What was different about fitting words to meter rather than melody?
In songwriting I’m free to dictate the relationship between the meter and the prosody and the melody, but in poetry there’s no prosody in the same sense, and there’s no melody. I was able to deviate once in a while from my strict adherence to Lizzie Borden and her rhythm, like so:
Xi: fourteenth Greek letter,
or fourteenth one in a line;
like, the great great great great great great
great great great great grandson
of the Son of Frankenstein.
That’s something I’d be very unlikely to do in a song, but I wouldn’t have to do it in a song, because I wouldn’t have to be saying something true. Whereas in describing what the fourteenth Greek letter is, I have to do it accurately.
So in general did you feel that this book was more beholden to truth?
Yeah, I felt like, for example, I had a responsibility to be correct about em and en, or specify which Greek letter and which Hebrew letter, and something about them. My original entry for pi specified who named it and in what year, which I’ve carefully now forgotten. So I think the book was a lot geekier before Norton got to it.
I was moved by Vampire Dog and your account of your dog in your introduction. Do you have any stories of writing with your dog around?
One of the characters, Vampire Dog, is based on my late, lamented chihuahua, Irving Berlin Merritt. It used to be that Irving and I would go to Dick’s Bar, this wonderful late gay bar with a great early eighties jukebox, and Irving would sit up in the window, on this chihuahua-sized shelf, and I would sometimes get lost in my songwriting and maybe forget to bring Irving some water. It turns out that he liked to drink my drink, which I didn’t know about, until someone came over and told me that there was a reason my dog was asleep. So apparently everyone but me knew that Irving would lap up my drink, which was behind me on the shelf with Irving, because it never occurred to me that he would ever do it. And I guess he quickly was out cold, which apparently happens when you’re a five-pound chihuaha with an eight-ounce drink.