Hearts and Thoughts: On 10 Years of Poets off Poetry
It feels inevitable and slightly embarrassing to admit it, but as a young teen in suburban New Jersey my favorite band was Pearl Jam. I caught the Pearl Jam bug early when a friend’s older sister played Ten for my friend and I in their finished basement. I grew up on The Beatles and Billy Joel and despite the fact that my dad had been a DJ for hire for parties and other engagements, the only records he really had were Top 40 and disco.
Pearl Jam’s music changed the course of my life, alongside of so many other factors that contributed to the daunting (to my mom) and radical (to my dad) shifts I underwent beginning around age 13 (e.g., cigarettes, Manic Panic hair dye, and body piercings, as well as a whole host of invisible shifts too opaque to detail here). But Pearl Jam was right there to loan me a ready-made “alternative” identity, something I fell into full of emotion and without question, the way only an adolescent does. I certainly wouldn’t describe myself as a precocious kid but I was definitely an emotional one. I was filled to the brink with a litany of hearts and thoughts. I was desperate to know what one was to do with all those feelings. It was music that helped me begin to figure out what to do with all those feelings and kept me company out there in the suburbs. It was music that corroborated my blind belief that there had to be more to life than what immediately surrounded me and gave me the courage to go find it.
Once describing the difference between my sister and I, my mom said to me “You always wanted your world to be bigger.” As if that statement alone summed it up.
Ten years ago, I met a writer who encouraged me to come up with my own online literary series. He was in the nascent stages of developing his own literary blog, and I took him up on the idea. Originally he wanted to me run some sort of series about poets talking about poetry or some sort of short interview series. This wasn’t really interesting to me, so he challenged me to come up with something that was and that’s when Poets off Poetry, a series featuring poets writing about music, was born.
I ran around four or five essays on his burgeoning literary blog until we had a falling out. As a 36 year old woman, I can see now that the series on his site was a carrot he dangled as a way to earn my affections. I should have realized this then, but I did not. Our friendship ended poorly and there I found myself with a great idea without a home. But this didn’t last long since friends and former graduate school colleagues offered me a place on Coldfront. Coldfront was founded by John Deming, Melinda Wilson, and Graeme Bezanson back in 2006. Their objective was simple: to create a place for contemporary poetry reviews. Really, it was one of the only sites at the time doing it. Taking on Poetry off Poetry broaden their reach and scope. After several years, Poets off Poetry evolved to include Song of the Week, a more compact piece of writing, which is easy to write, consume, and enjoy. I have learned about so much music from the contributors to Song of the Week. The robust archive is incredible and dates back to 2011. The list of contributors is broad ranging and chalk full of so many poets who I admire. The accompanying Spotify playlist is almost 300 songs and is literally hours worth of listening enjoyment. Poets off Poetry gave me a reason to reach out to writers and a way to connect to small presses. Except for a few rare instances, the entire series has been solicited by me and I am proud of that. It felt really meaningful to me to post someone’s song and text every Monday morning. For many years it was a rare solace in my 9-5, when I felt connected to some other universe full of another’s emotion and experience and perseverance. The writing that was submitted to me very often touched a deep chord. I love how people trusted me with their emotions. I love that people believed in the series and Coldfront and lent us their inner selves 150 words at a time.
I loved Ten the way so many of us did, but I really felt a special kinship with Vs. Ten had already been out for a couple of years before I heard it. Vs. I got to experience in real time and therefore it felt more mine than Ten did. I loved the way the songs openly emoted, the “overflow of powerful feelings,” as Wordsworth would say. No one in my life had ever encouraged me to openly emote. I wasn’t discouraged necessarily, but there was no one certainly by which to model emotional expression and therefore Eddie Vedder’s lyrics and affect were both a call to action and a comfort. Here was someone else feeling their feelings and saying so and as such there was no way that I could not love “Elderly Woman Behind a Counter in a Small Town.”
The fact that this song was everything to me then, and still is now, 25 years hence, is remarkable to me. The premise of the song, if you are unfamiliar, is simple. An elderly woman is behind the counter in a small town. A former lover/old friend comes in who the elderly woman hasn’t seen in many years. It’s been so long. But here they are. She changed by not changing at all. She just wants to say hello. Hearts and thoughts they fade. That’s it. That’s the entire song really. But what a massive feat, to capture all that time in a three minute and 24 second song. To capture the feelings of time passing so succinctly, from youth to old age. The nonchalant expression of condensed time when you are in it and the radical betrayal of time when you step outside of it and see that it has passed. Of a connection you felt with another human, however brief and however distant. This song spoke to my existential loneliness then as it does now. It spoke to my fear of getting old, of losing love(s), of losing myself to the conformity of adulthood. It earnestly, yet forcefully, repeats the words “hearts” and “thoughts,” simple and cliche as these things go. And yet the basis of all of my (and our) experiences.
Ten years ago when I started publishing Poets off Poetry, the internet was different. I was different. I was just embarking on my professional life, which still consists of sitting in front of a (different) computer everyday. But there was a perfect confluence then of my arriving at the internet every morning and the internet becoming what we know it as today. Facebook was still a novelty. Google still supported it’s Reader. The Awl and Gothamist were my dailies [ed. Note]. I had just graduated from graduate school and was beginning to have my poetry published. All of my life was outwardly engaging with poetry in some way and it was beautiful. Adding Song of the Week to the arsenal of things sustaining me on a weekly basis sustained me against stagnation as only art can. It opened up my world to include the worlds of so many talented writers, and thereby made my world bigger. Even though it is hard to let things go, there is a certain satisfaction that comes with knowing when it is time to do so, which is why I have decided to put the series on an indefinite hiatus. I send my sincere thanks to each and every one of you who contributed to Poets off Poetry or read Song of the Week or said something nice to me about the series. It has meant and will continue to mean so much to me, to my story, to all my hearts and thoughts.
(PS) The photo of Eddie Vedder included here is a poster from Hit Parader magazine, circa 1995. It was on my bedroom wall then and remains an important fixture of every bedroom I have ever inhabited since. I keep it less as a reminder of my love for Vedder and more as a reminder of the Jackie who first ripped it out of the magazine and taped it to her wall.
Jackie Clark is a poet living in Jersey City. She is the author of Aphoria (Brooklyn Arts Press) and most recently Sympathetic Nervous System (Bloof Books). A new chapbook, Depression Parts, is forthcoming from Dancing Girl Press. Some of her writing has recently appeared in Gramma and The Elephants. For the last 10 years she has been the series editor of Poets off Poetry and Song of the Week for Coldfront Magazine. She works at The New School, teaches writing in New Jersey, and can be found online at nohelpforthat.com.