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Kenji C. Liu’s Playlist for His Poetry Collection "Monsters I Have Been"

Kenji C. Liu’s Playlist for His Poetry Collection "Monsters I Have Been"

Monsters I Have Been

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.

Previous contributors include Jesmyn Ward, Lauren Groff, Bret Easton Ellis, Celeste Ng, T.C. Boyle, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, Aimee Bender, Heidi Julavits, Andrew Sean Greer, and many others.

Kenji C. Liu’s uses his “franken-po” style, which remixes existing texts, to poignant and arresting effect in his brilliant poetry collection Monsters I Have Been.

Publishers Weekly wrote of the book:

“Liu relishes the absurd and the happenstance, that ‘tornado gorgeous’ that becomes possible with a non-utilitarian approach to language.”

In his own words, here is Kenji C. Liu’s Book Notes music playlist for his poetry collection Monsters I Have Been:

Stream the playlist on YouTube

All of the songs on my playlist are variously embedded in my poetry collection, Monsters I Have Been (Alice James books). Since the “frankenpo” (Frankenstein poem) method I used to create many of the poems involves chopping up and piecing together bits of source materials, you will mostly find only fragments of these songs in the book.

Caetano Veloso, “Cucurrucucú Paloma”

This song might be best known to some from Pedro Almodóvar’s Hable Con Ella (2002). But my introduction to it was in the opening scenes of Wong Kar-Wai’s turbulent romance film Happy Together (1997). Leslie Cheung and Tony Leung Chiu-wai’s characters attempt to visit the Iguazu waterfalls in Argentina. Wong’s film was one of the first I ever saw featuring a gay Asian couple, although their relationship was terrible.

Barbara Lewis, “Hello Stranger”

The film Moonlight (2016) gave this song a whole new tender meaning for me. The third portion of the film, when Black and Kevin meet again at the diner as adults, is interwoven with unanswered questions and erotic tension, which I try to explore in my poem of the same title.

Bon Odori Uta (traditional song)

Obon, the Japanese festival of the dead, is for me a magical way to mark late summer. Bon Odori Uta simply means Obon festival dancing song. After hearing it at the Gardena Obon, it took some digging to find, because it’s not actually from Japan. It was written by a Japanese American priest in California’s Central Valley. My favorite part of the dance is when we swim forward with palms together.

Shigeru Umebayashi, ”Yumeji’s Theme”

Fans of Wong Kar-Wai will recognize this nostalgic waltz from his masterpiece, In the Mood For Love (2000). It was actually first used in an earlier Japanese film, but Wong gave it new life. It will always bring to mind the tightly contained camera shots of the interiors Maggie Cheung and Tony Leung Chiu-Wai navigated, with their noodles and repressed erotic feelings.

New Order, “Blue Monday”

How does it feel / to treat me like you do
When you’ve laid your hands upon me / and told me who you are

To me, this song is such a generational marker, the shared musical imagination of a certain period. It instantly inserts me in the moody lineage that Joy Division created for all of us long-hair-over-the-eye kids. And yet I don’t think I really considered the lyrics until years later—it’s a song about abuse.

Nazia Hassan, “Aap Jaisa Koi Meri Zindagi” (Qurbani soundtrack)

The writer Neela Banerjee invited me to write a poem in response to the Bollywood film Qurbani for her husband’s birthday. Who am I to refuse such a glamorous commission? The scene featuring this song is a huge 70s-sideburns-wink-open-shirt innuendo, as is the rest of the film.

Prince, “Purple Rain”

Although I grew up in the ’80s and ’90s, I was a latecomer to Prince’s music because I didn’t pay much attention to Top 40 pop and rock. Shockingly I didn’t even see Purple Rain until a few years ago. After Prince’s death, I became fascinated with the song “Purple Rain,” because as a musician, I recognized the brilliance of what Prince did with a basic blues chord progression. The relevance of this song to my book, however, is the hot, gender-queer figure of The Kid. Prince created a realm of possibility where it was ok for men to not fit conventional gender standards.

Jimi Hendrix, “The Star-Spangled Banner” (Live at Woodstock, 1969)

Hendrix’s version was basically a critique of US imperialism and militarism in Southeast Asia. With a single electric guitar, he turned the national anthem into an aural representation of war, a perfect reflection of the US’ violent trajectory from Plymouth to Manifest Destiny and beyond.

Bonus Tracks

These songs are not in the collection, but they definitely influenced it.

“Asadoya Yunta” (traditional Okinawan song)
Akira Ifukube, “The Godzilla Theme” (Godzilla soundtrack)
Nicholas Britell, “Little’s Theme” (Moonlight soundtrack)

Kenji C. Liu and Monsters I Have Been links:

the author’s website

Lantern Review review
Publishers Weekly review
RHINO review
Tupelo Quarterly review

Poets & Writers interview with the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

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