Wednesday, October 30, 2013

You're a Poet

Yesterday, it happened again: someone made the assumption that I am a poet.

Look, I get it. I work for a press that focuses on poetry. My undergraduate alma mater is known more for its poetry output than its fiction. Of the reviews I've posted here so far, the majority have been about collections of poetry. Almost all of my publications have been of the verse persuasion.

But the fact is, I have always thought of myself as a fiction writer first. Until partway through my BFA program, I didn't much believe in poetry at all. In grad school, I studied young adult fiction. Do you see where I'm going with this?

Maybe not. Because I didn't see it until about thirty seconds ago. I'm not a prose writer. I'm not a verse writer. I'm just a writer. That's all.


Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Adventures in Rejection: Cate As Editor

I have to admit something to you.

When sending out rejection letters, I'm a bit heartless. This might make me a hypocrite, seeing as how I regularly complain about receiving rejection letters. But hear me out, because this is important, at least as far as I'm concerned: as an editor, I MUST close myself off to the acute memories of having been rejected in order to reject the work of others.

It's a survival instinct. If I accept every piece, regardless of literary merit, I won't be able to publish the magazine. Even if I only accept works from people whose words have appeared in our pages before (again, without considering the printworthiness of their offerings), the end product will exceed our capabilities. As a result, I have to be merciless.

Some people who have been on the wrong end of my red pen will tell you that I have no soul anyway, and that I take endless pleasure in making pages bleed. But my selection work as the editor of a literary magazine differs in an important way from my revision/correction editorial work: as a reviser, I'm helping to shape an individual piece, whereas I have to create a collection when selecting from a huge pile of submissions.

Not every writer is in my position, having to live a double life. But some of us are, and as a group, we tend to feel the same way non-editors do when we get those form letters in the mail. That's how I can say with certainty that we don't hate you. I promise.


PS This has nothing to do with the topic at hand, but here's a link to an interview with a guy I know, and I think you should all know about him, too, because he's the cat's pajamas.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Ray of Light, Part 5: The Conclusion

Welcome to the fifth and final installment of my Madonna series! For Part 1: An Introduction, click here. For Part 2: Tracks 1-4, click here. For Part 3: Tracks 5-8, click here. For Part 4: Tracks 9-13, click here.


Of course, Madonna is well-known for drawing inspiration from other people--Marilyn Monroe in the “Material Girl” video (Like a Virgin), Andy Warhol on the cover of True Blue, ABBA on “Hung Up,” and so forth. Why should she not also reference herself, then? After the success of Ray of Light, Madonna became much better at doing this, perhaps because she had integrated her previous work and was fully self-actualized for the first time in her life. Prominent examples show up in obvious places, such as when she was on The Confessions Tour and folded part of the chorus of “Where’s the Party” into “Music” (Music) for an interesting mash-up. Sometimes, though, it is harder to determine at first blush. There are not always easy answers, like when a semi-continuation of “Borderline” (Madonna) makes an appearance in “Push” (Confessions on a Dance Floor).

To this day, however, Ray of Light remains the best synthesis of Madonna’s early career as well as an indication of what would come in the future. Rich Cohen argues that “Fashioning images: images that riff on Scripture, images that riff on junk, images that riff on other images--that’s been her genius.” But for this listener, it is Madonna’s ability to riff on herself that defines her. Confessions on a Dance Floor may be the best distillation of her musical efforts, but Ray of Light is a greater definition of who Madonna is, has been, and will be.


Thanks for reading along! I hope you enjoyed this commentary, and I'd love to hear what you think about it. Comment below or e-mail me:

Monday, October 14, 2013

Ray of Light, Part 4: Tracks 9-13

Welcome to the fourth installment of my Madonna series! For Part 1: An Introduction, click here. For Part 2: Tracks 1-4, click here. For Part 3: Tracks 5-8, click here.


Madonna even felt comfortable enough with her new knowledge that she managed to call out others in a state of denial in “Frozen.” “You only see what your eyes want to see,” she sings at the beginning of the song. Another lyric, “Give yourself to me; / you hold the key,” is a throwback to “Open Your Heart” (True Blue), which finds Madonna saying that “I hold the lock and you hold the key.” This exhortation to be a more receptive person is, in fact, a common theme in Madonna’s music, from “Stay” (Like a Virgin) to “I’d Rather Be YourLover” (Bedtime Stories) before Ray of Light and from “Get Together” (Confessions on a Dance Floor) to “Masterpiece” (MDNA) afterward. It is this more recent track that is easiest to connect with “Frozen,” when Madonna laments the pain that comes with “be[ing] in love with a masterpiece” who is the “look, but please don’t touch me-type,” which lines up with her declaration of frustration with a partner who is “frozen when your heart’s not open.”

Heartbreak, in fact, abounds on Ray of Light. After “Frozen” comes “The Power of Good-Bye,” an end-of-relationship anthem that finds Madonna declaring her freedom from another lover who is distant and closed off. She absorbs lessons from this decision, noting that “Freedom comes when you learn to let go; / creation comes when you learn to say no.” But this is not exactly a revelation, since Madonna explored similar themes in “Till Death Do Us Part” (Like a Prayer) nine years earlier. In that song, she realizes that her husband will not change, which is the catalyst for her leaving the relationship and letting go as she would again in “The Power of Good-Bye.” Sadly, this is a pattern for the singer, who would come to similar conclusions in “Miles Away” (Hard Candy) after another decade passed: “I can’t pretend to be someone else,” she insists, and then continues on to say that “When no one’s around and I have you here, / I begin to see the picture--it becomes so clear.” Even the affluent among us must endure life lessons, if these examples are any indication.

There is a moment on Ray of Light where Madonna achieves clarity, however, after the tumult of “Frozen” and “The Power of Good-Bye.” In “To Have and Not to Hold,” she comes to the conclusion that she is responsible for her troubles: “Like a moth to a flame, / only I am to blame” since she “go[es] straight to you.” But that does not mean she has let go of her frustrations. Rather, she spends most of the song lamenting the situation. Similar tactics were used on Erotica, both in “Waiting” and “Words.” In “Words,” she sings, “I don’t wanna hear your words; / they always attack,” hurting her the same way the paramour of “To Have” has eyes that “go right through.” Moreover, she opens “Waiting” with the very sentiment that permeates “To Have” by saying, “Well, I know from experience that if you have to ask for something more than once or twice, it wasn’t yours in the first place,” which declaration is echoed in the chorus of “To Have,’ where she sings, “I’ve been told / you’re to have, not to hold.”

Later, Madonna would revisit this theme in her disco-drenched tune “Hung Up” (Confessions on a Dance Floor), where she insists that she “can’t keep waiting for you; / I know that you’re still hesitating.” But a more powerful connection to “To Have” is found in “X-StaticProcess” (American Life). “Process” hinges on the singer’s frustration with an aloof, too-perfect Other, who makes her feel that “I’m not myself and I don’t know how.” This recalls her contention in “To Have” that no one, including herself, will be able to “break my fall.”

There is a brief respite from the sadness on the back end of Ray of Light, delivered in the form of “Little Star,” an ode to the infant Lourdes. A glittery, lightweight tune that is no less heartfelt for its sheen, “Little Star” immediately brings to mind “Cherish” (Like a Prayer). While that earlier tune focuses on romance, it also addresses the importance of love with the line “Cherish is the word I use to remind me of your love,” while Madonna instructs Lourdes to “never forget where you come from: from love” in “Little Star.” And although “Little Star” is more of a lullaby, it still has an influence on “Easy Ride” (American Life), a song about what Madonna wants for herself and her offspring: to “breathe the air and feel the sun on my children’s face.”

After “Little Star,” though, we realize why Madonna is so adamant about her daughter knowing that she is safe, beyond the obvious fact of maternal love. The final track on Ray of Light is, it turns out, a meditation on the early death of Madonna’s own mother. “Mer Girl” therefore negates the warm, fuzzy feeling the listener gets from “Little Star.” But Madonna had explored this territory earlier in her career, notably in “Promise to Try” (Like a Prayer). “Can’t kiss her goodbye,” she sings at the end of the song, “but I promise to try.” In “Mer Girl,” however, she admits that “I’m still running today.” And, like many people do with their childhood traumas, Madonna continued trying to process this. “Mother and Father” (American Life) was her next attempt, when she pulled together pieces of “Oh Father” (Like a Prayer), “Promise to Try,” and “Mer Girl” to create a fuller picture of what she had experienced, admitting that she was “a victim of a kind of rage,” which goes a long way toward explaining the images of decay and fear that crop up in “Mer Girl.” The track, however, is a fitting close to an album that starts with an examination of Madonna’s external life and then moves inward to explore her personal demons. This is her attempt at fulfilling a prophecy she made in an interview with Maureen Orth in 1992: “I will never be hurt again, I will be in charge of my life, in charge of my destiny. I will make things work. I will not feel this pain in my heart.”


For Part 5: The Conclusion, come back on Thursday!

Friday, October 11, 2013

Ray of Light, Part 3: Tracks 5-8

Welcome to the third installment of my Madonna series! For Part 1: An Introduction, click here. For Part 2: Tracks 1-4, click here.


Skin” is the sort of overdramatic love song that has the power to both entrance and alarm the listener, and perhaps especially the subject of the track, whoever he or she may be. Sonically, it is a descendant of “Bedtime Story” (Bedtime Stories). Both songs share an ethereal quality, largely because of their electronic basis. Years later, when Madonna recorded “Nobody Knows Me” (American Life), she would fuse “Bedtime Story” with “Skin” and punch it up a bit; moreover, she would take the same theme from “Skin”--the idea that there is one person who can solve her problems, either by knowing her “like you know me” in “Nobody Knows Me” or by saving her through the request that the person “kiss me; I’m dying” in “Skin.”

Of course, the line “Put your hand on my skin” can be traced back to “Erotica” (Erotica), wherein Madonna sings, “Put your hands all over my body.” But in this case, it seems that the singer is asking for deliverance from something, thereby subverting the expectation set up in “Erotica”--that she is constantly asking for pleasure. This slight desperation shows up again in “Forbidden Love [2]” (Confessions on a Dance Floor), when we hear Madonna wondering, “how we supposed to be together?” She also admits that “Just one look from your eye was like a certain kind of torture,” further echoing her sentiment from “Skin” that “you leave me wanting more.”

Luckily, not all of Madonna’s ideas about love involve desolation, as evidenced by one of the strongest love songs in her repertoire: “Nothing Really Matters,” ostensibly written about her daughter. Like the lines “They hold the keys to your heart and your soul. / Don’t forget that your family is gold” and “I wouldn’t change it for another chance” from “Keep It Together” (Like a Prayer) before it, Madonna rejoices in celebrating her family in “Nothing Really Matters.” She even matches the slight melancholy of that earlier track in the long notes and muted undertones. More importantly, Madonna brings her professional family into the fold here: this is the only track on Ray of Light employing backup singers, and the job is executed by Donna De Lory and Niki Harris, longtime collaborators and friends of Madonna’s.

The obvious legacy of “Nothing Really Matters” is “Intervention” (American Life), another song about her children. The chorus lyric “And I know that love will change us forever” hearkens back to the theme of “Nothing Really Matters,” which is the transformative power of love. But if one listens to “Nothing Really Matters” as a romantic love song instead of one of familial love, there is another strong, lasting result: the “You Thrill Me” mix of “Erotica” used on Madonna’s Confessions Tour in 2006. This version of the song takes its musical cues from “Nothing Really Matters” rather than “Erotica” and replaces some of the lyrics with those from the fan-beloved “You Thrill Me,” an early demo of “Erotica.” This results in a kinder, gentler “Erotica,” a dance jam heavily influenced by the less-combative side of Madonna that seems to have been borne of her motherhood.

Madonna’s maternity had wider implications, as well. A new sense of spirituality began to permeate her work with Ray of Light. In an interview with Barry Walters, she said, “My spiritual journey is to be open to everything. Pay attention to what makes sense, be absorbed.” For the most part, she was paying attention to Lourdes, if the lyric “Child fits mother, so hold your baby tight” is any indication. At the same time, Madonna was no stranger to spirituality. One of her biggest hits, after all, was 1989’s “Like a Prayer” (Like a Prayer), which informed “Sky Fits Heaven” with its references to flying and, of course, heaven. Both of these prophetic songs also contributed to her later tune “Isaac” (Confessions on a Dance Floor). The instructive nature of “Sky Fits Heaven,” in particular, lent itself well to “Isaac,” wherein the singer discusses “Staring up into the heavens” and learning lessons.

It is also important to pair “Sky Fits Heaven” with its follow-up, “Shanti/Ashtangi.” The lyrics of “Shanti” are Sanskrit, precluding an immediate understanding of the song, but a translation is included in the liner notes to Ray of Light, indicating that Madonna is singing about “worshipping the gurus’ lotus feet,” something connected to the prophet mentioned in “Sky Fits Heaven.” The non-Western, boisterous aural nature of “Shanti/Ashtangi” recalls “Act of Contrition” (Like a Prayer), a track that bends some clips from “Like a Prayer” and acts as an unexpected counterweight to that tune, much like “Shanti” contrasts with “Sky Fits Heaven.” Naturally, Madonna continues to explore religious themes in her music, including in “I’m a Sinner” (MDNA), which exults in wrongdoing the way the English lyrics of “Shanti” extoll the virtues of awakening.


For Part 4: Tracks 9-13, come back next Tuesday!

For Part 5: The Conclusion, come back next Thursday!