Sad Ass Songs: Justin Marks
Sad Ass Songs is a weekly column where I ask some of my favorite writers to tell me about their favorite sad songs. They send me songs and then I send them questions and then I post their answers here and then we all cry a little bit.
This week I talked with Justin Marks, the author of You’re Going To Miss Me When You’re Bored (Barrelhouse, 2014), because Justin wrote one of the most fun & depressing books of poetry that you’ll ever read.
The Song: “Epilogue” by The Antlers
Mark Cugini: Not gonna lie: this is the last song I would have expected you to pick. What gives? What did I have wrong about you?
Justin Marks: That depends on what you would have expected me to pick. I think a less surprising choice would have been something from The National, real sad-bastard-middle-age-middle-class-family-man music. Or something from the Annie soundtrack. That’s big in my house right now. I love both.
But I was obsessed with that first Antlers album when I was writing the last section of my book. I’d never heard anything so brutally sad and I really identified with it.
In my own life, I was completely overwhelmed and unhappy, engaging in some unhealthy behavior. It felt like, spiritually at least, I was sick and kind of dying.
That’s what I hear in that song. There’s disease, someone is dying, maybe is already dead, and the other person is trying desperately to save himself. That’s what was going on with me internally—one part of me was sick, the other was trying to save itself but had no idea how to do that. Things are much better now.
MC: The first time I heard the chorus to this song, I distinctively remember thinking, holy shit, this is terrifying. Is terror something that’s important to you and your work? I kind of feel like it is (albeit a completely different sort of terror, but terror nonetheless).
JM: It’s so terrifying, especially when you listen to the whole album straight through. The cumulative terror. I think it’s the absolute honesty of it, the complete vulnerability and nakedness. Those things terrify me like nothing else. But also inspire me. I’m not dealing with the terror of someone I love dying, but I do try real hard to be honest in my work. It’s all I know how to do.
There’s a line I steal from The Flaming Lips about how we think that without love there could be no life, but the terror is that even without love life goes on, same as always. It’s merciless and has no concern for us. Good things happen. Bad things happen. We die. All of us. That’s it. No escape. That’s the terror my work inhabits.
MC: I’m so happy that you picked on of the “Sylvia” songs (that’s a thing, right?), because they reference and reinvent Plath’s life story and I alwaysalwaysalways credit you with being the first poet who taught me that appropriation could be one of the most badass literary devices that a poet could use. So I was wondering if you wanted to use this space to talk about why appropriation is important to you.
JM: Appropriation is the shiz. If you’re alive and awake, paying attention and breathing in our cultural air, I don’t see how you can avoid appropriation. We’re bombarded with so much shit every waking second. What do you do with it all? I put it in my poems.
I also think appropriation, when done well, is a sign of massive respect. Appropriation and inspiration are closely related for me. Someone else’s art affected me so much that it inspired me to create my own art. It’s a little like old blues tunes in that way. There were tons of versions of those old songs. Each blues man had his own version that he bent and warped to suit his needs. I’m no blues man, I’m not even sure I got that mythology right, but I think about appropriation along those lines—one big fucked up song.
MC: What’s your favorite lyric in this song, and why?
JM: “I’ve woken up, I’m in our bed, but there’s no breathing body there beside me.”
It’s pure terror and loneliness, waking from one nightmare to another—reality. But also, if you listen closely, there’s just a tinge of relief. I find that incredibly moving.
MC: When was the last time you cried? What were you crying about?
JM: A couple days before Christmas. My cat died. She’d been with me for 13 years, from before I moved to NYC, got married or had kids. She was the last tangible connection I had to a huge and important part of my life—my youth. She was also the sweetest, coolest cat in the world. Loving, totally chill with the kids. Great personality. We all had a big family cry together. For all its sadness, I was really grateful that me and the kids and my wife got to have that super emotional experience together. To be there for each other.
Listen to the whole playlist right here: