Richard Buckner – Dead Men Talking
So what we’re talking about is a wild death trip, fixed in a lurid tangle of small-town sin, including adultery, murder, suicide, and drunkenness. Sounds like country music, doesn’t it? But that’s not what originally attracted him to the poems, Buckner said one night when I phoned him at a friend’s house in San Francisco to talk about The Hill. Oddly enough, he was in that same city, working at Acorn Books, the day he first spied Spoon River in 1989.
“I wasn’t really aware of Masters then,” Buckner said. “I was a stock boy, and while I was shelving books I opened it up and was immediately grabbed by it. What drew me initially was that I opened the index and there was a list of names. And I’d been doing the same thing in this little hotel room I was living in. I had a list of names, and I would write a one-line description about each name. It was kind of an exercise. So I open this book, written a long time ago, and there’s a list of names. It was like, ‘Fuck!’ So I started reading and I got really involved in it. It was a strange coincidence.”
Though the 244 epitaph-poems that make up Spoon River Anthology are works of fiction, the characters who inhabit them are closely based on people Masters knew growing up in the Western Illinois communities of Petersburg and Lewistown in the 1880s. Of the 18 poems Buckner chose for The Hill, nine are interpreted as instrumentals; the other nine are rendered verbatim via the twisting and turning vibrato of his expansive voice.
The process of picking the poems was actually quite arbitrary, Buckner says. “I just let it happen. The whole thing started accidentally, so I let it happen on its own. Whatever struck me in a certain way — and at the same time I happened to find some way to make a song out of it. That part was very random. What ended up happening for me was that the characters that I picked were not only my favorite characters, but they were also my favorite poems and clumps of poems. You have three or four characters all intertwined into something that was very mangled. That’s what I love about the book.”
One thing Buckner didn’t leave to chance was the sequencing of The Hill. In order to fully appreciate what’s going on, it helps to be able to cross-reference the characters using the alphabetical index to Spoon River Anthology. So it’s no accident that Tom Merritt tells his story directly after his wife, Mrs. Merritt, whose 19-year-old lover was his killer. Or that pious A.D. Blood precedes drunken Oscar Hummel, whom Blood bludgeoned to death after Hummel staggered into his front yard.
“When you read about certain characters in other people’s poems, you want to go back and see what that person was about,” Buckner said. “And why that person was reacting to them that way. That’s my dream: to have people actually read the poems that are the instrumentals and think about how they go with the songs. It’s really cool to think that somebody can interact with something that’s not your work at the same time they’re reacting to your work.”
Making The Hill was a sporadic process compared to Buckner’s three previous recordings. He thought about Spoon River for years, and even made a few of the poems into songs. Then, after he put together his modest home studio, he got down some basic tracks. Finally, last spring, he traveled to Tucson, Arizona, and joined forces with Joey Burns and John Convertino of Calexico to finish the project. J.D. Foster, who had produced Devotion & Doubt and Since, supervised.
The result is music that comes on both quietly archival and utterly avant-garde. Haunted by the past and heading toward the one future we all share, which is death, the repertoire of sounds Buckner draws on underscores the tragic, naturalistic world Masters envisions in the Anthology. Spooky, wheezing keyboards segue into urgently strummed guitar and Convertino’s delicately dramatic percussion, while Burns’ cello surfaces as a sweet refrain or graceful counterpoint. Stylistically, there’s old-time country, bits of blues and crafty rock touches. Then there’s the fact that the entire disc is a single track, with no indexing to separate the songs. The overall effect is audacious, sad, and extremely beautiful.
“A lot of the music on there was played as it was being written,” Buckner said. “There are some things that were only played once. I had to relearn them to take them on tour. There was a lot of four-in-the-morning madness going on. It was just me, focusing as hard as I could for hours at a time. The stuff I did on my own, and the stuff I did in the studio with Calexico, a lot of it was very random.”
In a way, the spontaneous methods Buckner employed on The Hill mirror Masters’ frequently puzzling approach to his own work. According to Hallwas, “No other volume of poetry since Whitman’s Leaves of Grass (1855) had attempted so much or had been so original. Masters himself did not fully comprehend the book’s uniqueness or the reasons for its powerful impact on American readers. He began it without knowing precisely what he wanted to do; he ended it without clearly realizing what he had done.”
Recently, Buckner has become almost as fascinated with Masters as Spoon River. Though his attraction to the poet was clearly a visceral one at the beginning, the more he’s learned about him, the more he seems to have identified with Masters’ struggles as an artist.
“He was just really confused,” said Buckner. “He was raised by two different kinds of lands, in his father and mother. He was raised by a Rebel and a Yankee. Masters was a Jeffersonian at a time when America was beginning to show extreme signs of the industrial revolution. He grew up in that house with that conflict in him and he also saw the world changing around him.
“He wanted to be a successful writer, and he was a lawyer. I think he probably resented having to practice law as much as he did, and the fact that he couldn’t put more of his life into his poetry. He seems to have been one of those one-shot writers, who writes in a fit and there’s not a lot of editing going on.”