Those Eyes, That Mouth
I fell in love with Elizabeth Fraser in college. If you don’t know her, she was the singer and lyricist for the Cocteau Twins, one of the more well-known bands to come from the indie 4ad label in the UK (although maybe not as well-known as the Pixies, but that’s neither here nor there), their music known mostly for shimmering, layered guitars and songs with arcane titles and even more arcane lyrics, sung with beautiful, soaring, rolling vocals. They’re responsible for the most beautiful song I’ve ever heard in my life:
(And now I have to take a break from writing to listen to this song. I can’t really do anything while listening to this song. After all these years, listening to it more times that I can count, it still makes me catch my breath and tear up.)
I learned of the Cocteau Twins when I was 17 and living in England, reading the weekly music magazines (NME, Sounds, but mostly Melody Maker) with an obsessive regularity, giving myself an education in the independent music of ’80s Great Britain. Most of the bands on 4ad (British, American, and European) had names unlike any other bands I was familiar with, names like Throwing Muses, Clan of Xymox, and, of course, Cocteau Twins. The label’s album design was also distinct, frequently abstract and surreal, with kickass typography. (I’m a sucker for cool typography.) 4ad’s bands were also making music unlike anything I’d ever heard, whether it was the epic, timeless compositions of Dead Can Dance or the funky darkness of the Wolfgang Press, it was singular and strange. My mind was properly expanded.
Of all the 4ad groups, it was the Cocteaus who made the biggest impression on me, in large part because of Elizabeth Fraser’s gorgeous voice and inscrutable lyrics. After wondering for years where her ideas came from, I found a CD with a long interview with the band. In the interview, Fraser, with a shy, elfin voice, talks about how she collects words she likes, from English and languages she doesn’t even speak, in notebooks and puts together the words she’s most obsessed with at the time into songs. “I like words,” she says, almost embarrassed.
That’s the moment I fell in love with her.
As soon as she said it, I realized that all of the poems I’d written, all of the stories and story fragments, all of the theoretical stories I’d made notes about, were largely fueled by a feverish love of words. I also collected words I loved in notebooks (although probably not as obsessively as Fraser, going by this interview) and found a particular kind of sense-expanding magic in combining words in ways I wouldn’t normally expect, which I began referring to as “word alchemy.” Even papers I wrote in college (which I can only loosely call “academic”) were written around images and words stuck in my head at the time.
A lot of my frustration with writing has come from people asking me, “What’s this poem about?” or telling me, “Your story doesn’t have much of a plot or any conflict,” when what I was trying to do didn’t have anything to do with plot or conflict or meaning–unless the meaning was “I have words and images stuck in my head and they want to come out.” That frustration turns into writer’s block when I internalize those questions and make them my own; I have words and images in my head, but I don’t know how to make them mean anything, and so I’m afraid to let them out.
But then I think of Elizabeth Fraser and I realize that even if I’m feeling scared or shy, I can let the words out however my mind wants them to be, and I don’t have to worry about what other people say. I can be meaningful if I want to be, but I can also be meaningless, or let meaning come after the fact (“emergent narrative”, as Colin Wilson of Wire–another strong influence–puts it). Internalizing the hang-ups of others? That’s meaningless. Letting my words flow freely, on the other hand, is my kind of meaningful.