Writing at 35,000 Feet

I don’t fly well. I never have. And a red-eye flight is just about the worst punishment of which I can conceive. On just such a flight last week, after quite a delay, a sketchy airport meal and a flubbed reservation that had me seated far from my husband, I was determined to get some sleep. Granted, I’ve never slept on an flight before (transatlantic or not), but I felt good about my odds.


But when I found my seat I realized I’d been put in front of a toddler with long, kick-happy legs. Toddler’s father, all 400-pounds of him, began a creepy, havalina-like snore even before we were cleared for takeoff. After a few hours of squirming (punctuated by small panic attacks anytime we hit a pocket of turbulence), I dug out the ipod and decided to listen to some music I’d not gotten to in a while. Laziness dictated that I not flip around from album to album, and a lack of internet connectivity kept me from trying Apple’s annoyingly impersonal yet clever “genius” feature. 


As I drifted slack-jawed and sleepy-eyed through Elliott Smith’s Either/Or, Radiohead’s OK Computer and Jose Gonzales’s Veneer (noticing a sleepy theme?), I realized it had been quite some time–months or even years–since I’d experienced any of these albums as the artistic wholes they were no doubt conceived to be. The reasons are none too unusual: an NPR addiction during my commute, a need for silence when I write, the fear of peeving my shared-wall neighbors with the bass and spookiness of a Tricky record. 


Yet I realize my scattershot listening habit is much like picking up a poetry collection, reading a poem in isolation, and putting it back on the shelf. Some readers do encounter poetry in this way, and I suppose it’s better than reading no poetry at all. But in the past year or so I’ve rediscovered the joys of reading a collection of poetry in a single sitting, front to back, unbroken by page-flipping or title hunting in the table of contents. The overall sense a single reading produces is like that of listening from the first to last song in a well-structured album, or that of reading a novel–a narrative and lyrical arc, character progression and a story–however subtle–worth telling. 


About halfway through The Mountain Goats’ gorgeous album The Sunset Tree (likely the closest album to a novel I’ve heard), I suppose I reached something like an answer to the question of why I’d try out a project like a novel-in-poems in the first place: my goal is to achieve the kind of story that makes the reader turn each page at the same time as creating the musicality that makes the listener want to listen from track 1 to track 12.


The why answered, the new question becomes how?

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