H. L. Hix: At one point (p. 79) in “Dalhart, Texas, 1967,” there are the lines, “many of these songs may show some hard edges, and, they may fail to please, / but I am confident that the class I address / will not find them exaggerated, / nothing extenuated, nor aught / set down in malice” and so on. There’s a lot going on in the poem — allusion to John Fahey and Jess Morris music, the citation of Othello here, and much else — so I know not to assume that these lines in any way speak to the ambitions of your collection, but I do want to ask whether they do…
Aaron McCollough: Those lines are “appropriated” from the preface to Put’s Original California Songster, written by John A. Stone in 1855. It’s interesting to me that you’ve focused on them in the way that you have. The short answer to your question is definitely a “yes,” and I have a fairly clear memory of writing the lines down thinking that they were appropriate to my intentions and spoke nicely across ages. In other words, the sentiment and the tone (though originally composed by another under different circumstances) seemed like a match for what I wanted to play in that particular part of the song.
But I should back up just a little.
I composed this book in a way I felt was closest to the way a musician like John Fahey must have composed most of the music on his album America. The book is an homage to that record, among other things. It’s also an homage to a certain strain of American spirit I believe Fahey’s record also pays homage to. So, there is a way in which I experience the project as a microcosmic refraction of Fahey’s microcosm, which is in turn a microcosmic refraction of “American music.” Charles Ives, John Lomax, Leadbelly, John Cage, Elvis? Anyway, it’s turtles all the way down.
I’ve always felt mildly timid about appropriation. It’s a key part of my work, and I’m not trying to persuade anyone to believe I’m the unitary font of every word that appears in my books, but I also don’t want to clutter the work with explanatory notes and the like, because in my own reading I often find those make work feel more “specialized and hermetic” (to coin a phrase…). I also take for granted that readers will recognize that the world of my poems is a bit of a rat’s nest. Nevertheless, I sometimes fret. “If you must write prose or poems,” saith Morrissey, “the words you use should be your own.” I think stealing this bit from Put’s Original American Songster felt like a kind of mea culpa moment to me. The quotation, which itself borrows from Shakespeare, is a kind of trickster apologia. In each case (Othello’s, John Stone’s, mine), the trick is to ask the gentle reader to judge the whole work (the work of a life, the work of the entire Songster, of No Grave Can Hold My Body Down) rather than any individual indiscretions. What appears to be a flaw up close maybe explained or redeemed by perspective. Unfortunately, Othello is a murderer and seems to be insane at the end.
Another problem is that much of my book was “set down in malice” or at least a kind of rage. In 2004, when I was working most diligently on the original drafts, I was beside myself with anger, worry, and outrage. Some of this was politically provoked and some was personal, but writing was undeniably an act of sublimation then, and I knew at the time that I was turning anger into music. I had the blues. Knowing this and also knowing that to have the blues, for me, means I’m already practicing some form of cultural appropriation was a vicious engine. If John Stone twisted the meaning of Shakespeare’s line once, I was twisting it once more. I’m not confident that the class I address (which is basically all Americans) would not find exaggeration, extenuation, and/or malice there. I’m sure they should find those things. So, the quotation is certainly meant to speak in paraphrase of my intentions or hopes for the project — a kind of “Go litel boke” moment. On the other hand, my intentions have a bit of a time bomb built into them.
Aaron McCollough. No Grave Can Hold My Body Down. Ahsahta Press, 2011.