Going a Distance
In Little Blair Valley, you can mark a far spot
With your eyes, like a prize, from a cragged mountaintop
And dingledo down, warm as rain runoff
(Cracks in the ground form a stormdrain for sundrops)
Never obstructing your view of the distance
Your leg muscles close, like lovers insistent
On proving devotion with low locomotion
In this old army fort for the forces of Ocean.
The memory trace of moisture is baked in:
To the rust in the dust and the salt in a snakeskin
Into strange succulent cousins to kelp
Who drift with the wind currents, stump for themselves.
And when where you are has turned far to near
And changed day for night, you can see the stars clearly
And tunnel from one to the other, to here.
You open me up
Appraised of the danger
Craters and smoke
You scrape away skin
Pry ribs aside
And plunge fists in
You work your way slowly
Tunnel through blood
Sinew and scar tissue
Broken bones bite you
Old shrapnel stabs thick skin
Only trying to help
Only trying to reach
To lift my jalebi heart
To crush the sweetness out
Drink the syrup down
Wipe your chin
And kiss me back
The Second Time
The second time
It came in a wave
Nothing too sharp
To lodge in the heart
Just once-love nostalgia
Shapes in the bloodflow
A new and happy
For my dear friend Lara Pickle.
On Love and Time Travel
Because there was so much love in me
Pumped in till I was stuffed as a tick
It was a cinch to fly backwards
Soar over years on an updraft
Like a fighter jet, fueled and armed
I streaked past a courthouse, on recon
Long-range sensors locked onto
The face of a woman, a witness
Mahogany-boxed in a room of accusers
Two men at the end of her finger
I braked at an alleyway, my target
Shaming myself with the sight
Of a woman with her eyes closed tightly
Two men in the cruelest context
A young, not-yet mother—
And I had to wonder:
Did you whisper my name?
Did you know I was already with you?
It was no matter…
I fired my sidewinder missiles
With thunderclaps of love
Under mushroom clouds of affection
A nuclear payload laid waste
And exposed the scene to a light
So bright that nothing remained
Just a map of the love you gave
Grown so full it spilled over
To course through time’s arroyo
To shatter and soothe, to do
Anything it damn well wants to
There when you needed me
The Department of Corrections
Come back in time
Didn’t you wonder:
Where you found the strength?
Whose love fueled you?
It was a mother’s love unchained
Returned to run amok.
To my Mom, who withstood more punishment than anyone deserves throughout the early parts of her life, yet somehow came through it all unscathed—in the places that matter most, at least—full of love, wisdom, and ferocity.
Here’s a poem she wrote about the same incident with which this poem is concerned. She shared it with me after she read the above, and agreed to let me publish both only on the condition that I explain that she believes “rape survivors should shout it out, carry no shame,” and feel no need to hide their experiences from others.
May 12, 1979
Saturday night, nothing has changedBut now she hugs her kids a lotSince they took her behind the concrete wallAnd let her scream her outrage towards the skyAs she watched it blazeBlacker and blacker in the night.
Nothing has changedSince they let her walk awaySoreFrom the concrete wallWhere they made her pay.
They each stuck a dollar in her left front pocket,Walked her to the streetAnd let her goBack into the city Saturday nightThe bars were still openAnd the street filled with lightsThey let her goAnd the feelings followed herComing on for daysHard and slow.
Nothing is differentSince her legs stuck outWhite and nakedOn the dirtUnder the skyWhere she couldn’t fightThe sun still beats in daytimeAnd darknessBeats at night,And nothing lasted from itExcept for wrong and right.
Nothing has changedFrom that Saturday nightExcept that she watches the baby’s smileAnd bathes her tired bodyIn its light.
I tried to pack a box with light
Fixed flaps tightly, sealed with wax
Wrapped with tape and latched as if the
Crate contained a treasure map.
Splintered rays escaped and danced
Through the gloom, twitching like
A diarist’s jellyfish fist as it
Recounts some shameful circumstance.
Photonic motes leapt and echoed
Entranced, the fragments flashed before me
The filmstrip negative of memories
A chem-bath had recast the story.
I saw tastes and tears on skin
Whispered words and grasping hands
Plans made in warm silences
Drugs and vows and sleeping in.
A car, a restaurant, a beach
I saw sounds and smells and wisdom
Hikes, a name, laughter, sage-smoke
Falling water, sun—an instant.
I blinked to see the vision linger
(The shards, in darkness, burned my eyes)
Neon green and fading, I saw her lips
Her hips, her thighs, her fingers.
I heard words and words and words
I tasted steak and fresh-cut chips
The fractals bled and slurred, skewed edges
Blurring into dimness.
As those whitenesses turned black
And wet lashed my forgetful face
I must admit, all tact and grace,
Their absence made a lighter pack…
And nothing valuable was lost
Then, shaking the box, I found
In fact, the chest lacked only Hope.
I sealed it up and set it down.
victorianspaceprostitute asked: Could you give any pointers about writing rap lyrics? Much like you did about the comedy advice.
I’m not at all sure this will actually help anyone else actively trying to write rap lyrics, but I have been DYING to talk about my process, so thanks for asking.
In the most straightforward mechanical sense, I write in the car.
BORING RAPPER ORIGIN STORY: I’ve got a long commute, about 45 minutes each way, and realized I wasn’t using it for anything productive. I decided to learn to rap. So I made a playlist of instrumental music with a beats per minute that appeals to me for composition (usually very slow, under 100 bpm). Lots of Ratatat and RJD2, stuff like that. And I came up with the topic or premise of the song, much like I would for a sketch, from whatever ethereal plane ideas come from, and just considered the topic and listened to a song on repeat and started building lines.
I do all my writing in the car, usually staring silently into space for minutes at a time before trying out a line aloud. It’s a slow process, but I never write anything down, which is neat, and by writing and revising all in my head or aloud, I’m forced to repeat the rap hundreds of times before I’ve even done it all the way through once. By the time I’m done writing it, it’s also usually memorized.
Now, that’s the mechanics of what I’m doing when I write rap lyrics, but of course the interesting bit is what my brain’s doing during those minutes of staring slack-jawed into space while I hurtle down the freeway with my hand on the volume knob. And I’ve actually found that there are a number of mental tactics I come to time and again, so much so that I’ve sort of given them unofficial shorthand names in my mind, because apparently I knew this question was coming.
Here are those! There’s a lot of them, but just consider each one a different sort of tool that’s helped me at some point in the past. I don’t use every technique described on every rap I write. You should probably use any that seem helpful to you, if any, and discard the rest.
PREMISE and BIT: Before I even start writing lyrics (unless one randomly occurs to me out of the blue and I decide to build from it, which has happened), I settle on what the premise of the song is going to be. Sometimes it’s as simple as “I’m going to do a brag rap, but from the point of view of the little paperclip helper dude from MS Word documents.” Sometimes it’s as simple as “An ode to weed.” It’s usually pretty simple. But sometimes the idea lends itself to a structure, which can be neat, like a song I do called “Like, Than or As,” where the first verse is all similes using “like,” the second verse is…you know where this is going. But whatever it does or doesn’t do for you structurally, the premise gives you a solid footing on which to build BITS, which are just the “must have” lines that were the reason you settled on that premise in the first place. Once you’ve got a few of those bits and an opening line, it’s fairly simple to start building more connective tissue between them. But where do those bits come from, exactly?
ROLODEXING: Once I’ve got a premise (let’s say “Batman sucks. I hate Batman. That’s my premise.”), I simply rolodex as many big, impactful words, concepts or images that connect directly to that idea. What connects most directly to Batman? Gotham city. Bruce Wayne. The Joker. Parents being shot. Crime. Darkness. A series of cool villains. The idea that his existence may propagate crime instead of diminishing it. And so on. Anything from tonal stuff to other characters that I know I should reference or concepts I know I’d like to explore. This rolodexing allows me to start building bits, because I’ll know I want to mention Joker, figure out how to relate that to the premise (“Batman sucks. Joker killed one of the Robins. Kinda fucked up that Bruce Wayne lets orphan kids get shot for him. I’m going to mention that.”), and boom, there’s a bit. I have the concept for a couplet of lines there, I just need to write actual words that rhyme and express that sentiment.
OPENER: Once I’ve got a few bits I know I’ll want to string together, I start to feel more confident. I’ve got a premise that seems fertile, because it yielded bits, and I can see the vague shape of my song somewhere in the future. At this point I usually go back to the beginning and try to come up with a killer opening line, because the only way I know how to craft the rhyme structure stuff is front to back. Coming up with the opening line is invariably the hardest part of writing the rap, and I have no tips for you about that. I usually resort to some cliché opening thing like “Ladies and gentlemen…” or “Let me tell you a story…” or “Listen up, yo!” and then add an on-premise rhyme to build a full line. This is a shitty stopgap solution. Openings are hard.
THE WORD GAME: This is the best, most fun part of writing rap, and the reason I enjoy it and will continue to do it until I die, at least as a hobby. Writing the actual lyrics of the rap, the rhyming words that convey the bits I want to, really feels like doing a crossword puzzle in my head to me. Or like playing boggle, or some other word game, only with a few of its own special rules. The object of the game is to express your bit (“The Joker killed one of the Robins, and Batman, an adult man, allowed that, which should be a crime, and is…the crime of child endangerment.”) in a cool way that happens to rhyme.
Making it rhyme on the last syllable of the line is winning the game on the EASIEST setting. The more syllables you can rhyme, counting from the last syllable backwards, in a given line, the higher your CHAIN COMBO BONUS. A line that scores high by that standard would be something like:
A E I O U, sometimes Y
Make these lines flow through yer mind’s eye
Because it strives to have every single syllable in one rhyme line with the line preceding it. Adding internal rhymes gives you bonus points, and combining sounds that create interesting MOUTHFEEL or just sound rich, cacophonous in the right way, produce the effect of speed (“gotta sit n’ getta little bit o’ rigoletto”), or evoke a certain tone (provided it’s the tone you’re going for) also give you major bonuses.
To keep CONTENT strong, I also award myself different amounts of points for clever jokes, puns that work on two, three, or four levels (I only have one pun so far that works on four levels; I’m quite proud of her), really visceral images, strong metaphors, clarity, stuff like that. Whatever you value in your work, incentivize it internally.
By the way, here’s the final Joker line from the rap I keep referencing, though it’s not particularly high-scoring on the system described above. I picked it at random. Really should have picked a favorite line of mine. Ah well, too late now.
He likes to recruit kids
So he can watch ‘em do flips
While the Joker takes potshots
For kicks, that usually miss
Yeah, that’d be like a C+.
MOUTHFEEL: Remember to value the feeling of the words as they come out of your mouth. Rap is ultimately a performative art, a really cool hybrid between writer and actor, and the actor in you will appreciate fat, juicy syllables with lots of phonetic variety that force their mouth into interesting shapes, and phonemes that work well together in the sense that those interesting shapes aren’t arrived at at a strain, but because it’s a mouth-shape that flows well from the one that preceded it.
This is a weird thing, and maybe something you need to rap for a while to understand, or maybe something I’m making up. But rap this lyric aloud and tell me there isn’t something pleasing about the shapes your mouth makes, and the order in which it makes them.
Stressed, just desserts in reverse
‘Cuz it comes undeserved
But what hurts worse than the rest…
Which isn’t to say that mouthfeel should or shouldn’t trump any other aspect of THE WORD GAME, just that it’s a thing I consider.
In general, with everything on this list, what I do is attack the line with all the tools and whichever tool starts yielding results the quickest, that’s what I go with. I’m lazy. If I’m trying to write a line about how my wiener is the size of the moon-worms from Dune, I might arrive at the final by means of a cool rhyme, or a mouthfeel I stumble upon and have to include, or any number of other “leads” I might pick up on by utilizing the tools described here. If one isn’t working, try another. Switch off until something gives you a lead, and follow the lead. That’s my technique in a nutshell.
FOLLOW THE RHYME: If you’ve got a line you like, just think of every word you can that rhymes, or even slant-rhymes, with the last syllable of the line. VERY USEFUL. Line opportunities will often make themselves apparent and jump out at you just because one word rhymes with another. “Munchkin” kind of rhymes with “pumpkin,” and suddenly you think of a funny joke you could make relating pumpkins to whatever weird thing you’re rapping about, and you fill in the intervening space with support or exposition words (making sure to get high scores for internal rhyme, assonance, consonance and mouthfeel), and there’s your partner line. Keep it going and you can get four or six or eight lines out of the same rhyme scheme.
You can also end up finding what you want the second line to be, liking it more than the first line you formed it from, and rewrite THAT line. Stay fluid. You’ll know when the line is right and you should stop tinkering with it.
APING: Rip off col bits or rhyme- or structure-contraptions you hear in other peoples’ work. Never rip off content, and try to make things your own, but make them your own by stealing them. Have good taste and rip off the things you like.
SING-TALK: Focus on pitch variety in your sound, if you want. A lot of rappers don’t, so maybe this is just a preference of mine, but ever since I thought of myself as sing-talking instead of rapping, I’ve enjoyed my own flow a lot more.
CHARACTER: Rap in character. It’s an acting gig, and you’re only a good rapper if you can act worth a damn. Which isn’t to say you have to actually do voices or characters (though I do), but that you need to play a big bombastic version of yourself (or a shy quiet version of yourself if you’re revolutionizing the rap game with shy rap) for this to work. You need to have the kind of vocal presence actors have on stage, and work your diaphragm and all that jazz. Really treat your lungs like bellows and your voice like an instrument. And remember, you’re trying to make it the lead instrument, so it should be strong and mighty and fucking somethin’. Anything you could say to an actor…more energy, more commitment, more varied tactics…you could say to a rapper just as truthfully.
INTERNAL PACING: I’ve recently found that by focusing on hitting the syllables that pull out the rhyme scheme I want people to notice, emphasizing them with my voice or just giving them a little bit more time on either side and rushing the “throwaway syllables” around them, I end up with a much “crunchier” experience I like a lot. Being perfectly on beat is imperative, but there’s room within lines to stretch certain syllables at the expense of others, and I try to use that freedom to erect big neon signs pointing out the bits that prove how clever I am, or how many damn times I got that “oo” sound into this one sentence.
SAY WHAT: This is two things. Firstly, I personally strive for very clear diction and enunciation. I encourage this as a craftsman and someone who feels embarrassed when they hear other peoples’ raps and can’t tell what’s being said.
Secondly, if you’re stuck at the end of a line and looking out into a void that’s meant to be the next one, just ask yourself “what am I trying to say?” I don’t think rap works best as a loose assortment of flow-of-consciousness rhymes about how you’re great at rapping (though most commercial rap is that), but as something that uses rhyme to tell a cohesive story with a planned throughline, an arc. Something where things are in a particular order, because they wouldn’t make sense in any other order. What are you saying? What’s your premise? How far along are you in the song, and by that point, what facet of your idea did you want to be discussing? Be careful just following the rhyme, because you can end up far afield of your premise pretty quickly.
FUCK IT UP: Have thoughts bleed over and end mid-line. Make some third lines of a quatrain not rhyme, in favor of a sound-tone or -feel thing. Take a weird breath or pause somewhere for effect. Whatever. Fuck it up. Follow weird impulses and do some stuff just because you want to. If it sounds too by-the-book I think you start to lose people, and your personality tends to recede. I think with rap, people want to see your personality front and center. It’s a very “connect with that individual mind” kind of thing.
GIMMICKS: Find yours. I think mine is going to be that I do a lot of character voices, but we’ll see. There are also in-song gimmicks, like a song I do where the chorus is:
Alec Baldwins Close
Flows Get Hoes
Intuition Just Knows…
And so on to Z. It’s a dumb gimmick, but as soon as I thought of the concept for it, I knew I had a little word game I could play and end up with a chorus. I didn’t have to fish around the infinite sea of possibilities, because I’d found a gimmick that severely limited the number of words I could bring to the table and provided structure and therefore guidance for my writing.
SHAKESPEARE: Good rap is the closest thing today to Shakespeare, in my opinion. It’s the most exuberant and freeing form of expression around. It takes mythic themes and epic tones and renders them in rhyme, unafraid to make up new words or force words to rhyme that only kind of rhymed, really. Don’t be afraid to make the language your bitch when writing rap. Poetry is a medium that tends to (NOT ALWAYS) exalt the codification and sanctity of words and their meanings. Rap is the ID running amok through a dictionary. Have fun. Be confident. Make strong choices.
The bomb bay doors
Pale yellow rectangle
Grows large as you descend
Occluded, briefly, black
Sea lion-like, but riveted
Slipping through the gap
The bombs fall—
Cold grabs you
Screaming wind a glacier
Encasing gray shapes
Land like a switchboard
Circuits of light and wire
Nowhere, nothing, numb
All that falls are bombs
Vapor blinds you
Obscene white, a winding sheet
A moist blanket, it throbs orange
Perforated by bullets
Bombs falling punch holes
Whistling in concert
You rip free and fall—
Cackling flame lashes
As the first ones impact
Earth flashes, fractures, warmth
On the snarling updraft
Trading clouds for smoke
And white for gray
You choke on red heat—
Cloaked in carbon silt
Like oiled animals, they fall
Flopping into the wall
That is the ground
They smack and blossom
Like black dandelions
And the fire sweeps clean
Leaving a clearing—
A building window
Pale yellow rectangle
Grows large as you descend
Occluded, briefly, black
A man’s shadow
Hunched, broke-backed, taps
Frantic at a telegraph
I radio co-ordinates—
Teeth grit, foaming
I jam the button
As you crash into that last
Standing structure, the box
Spits gapped electric gasps
And calls for more bombs
And bombs, and bombs, and bombs
And bombs, and bombs…