THE READING ROOM: Buffalo Rose’s Lucy Clabby on Plays, Poetry, and Playing with Words
Lucy Clabby grew up in Wilmette, Illinois, spending happy summer days reading at her spacious local public library. “They had a great YA section, and on beautiful sunny days, I could stay there all day reading,” she recalls fondly. Her deep love of reading has never left her, and she still keeps a stack of books near her at home. As one of the lead singers of the folk-roots band Buffalo Rose, she has a little more time to read these days since the band is not on the road. Since their formation in 2016, Buffalo Rose has grown from being a collection of musicians to being a band. “When I started exploring folk music, I learned that it means the people’s music,” Clabby says. “We play music by and for the people; our music explores what it means to be human, and it affirms that we are a community.”
I caught up with Clabby by phone recently, and we had a wide-ranging conversation about the classics and Shakespeare, Mary Oliver and Patti Smith, and books and reading.
What books are on your nightstand now?
I am in the middle of re-reading Ottessa Moshfegh’s My Year of Rest and Relaxation. It’s very engrossing, and that’s exactly what I need right now. Also, Kathryn Scanlan’s Aug 9 – Fog. Scanlan found a diary at an estate sale in Illinois, and she turns the entries into a kind of blackout poetry. I have been hypnotized by it. Porn Carnival by Rachel Rabbit White. It’s her first collection of poetry, with poems that revolve around themes of capitalism and labor. I’m also reading Durga Chew-Bose’s Too Much and Not the Mood, a collection of personal essays and cultural criticism. I cycle through phases of fiction and nonfiction. I always have a book of poetry with me. I really like Anne Carson, specifically her translations of classic plays like Antigone. Sometimes it’s hard to understand ancient plays from a theatrical standpoint, but a poetic standpoint often gives fresh insights into the meanings of the plays.
What’s the last book that made you laugh? That made you cry?
I think the last book that made me laugh was Madeline Miller’s Circe. It’s a modern telling of the story of the sea witch, Circe, from Homer’s Odyssey; Miller tells Circe’s story from a modern feminist perspective. Toni Morrison’s Sula was the last book that made me cry. I remember I was in a semi-public place reading it when I came to the end of the book. I kind of lost it and started crying right there. Over the course of my adult life, I have been making my way through Morrison’s writings.
Describe your ideal reading situation.
I chase that feeling of not being able to put a book down. My goal in reading is to get back to that feeling. I don’t like to read in my bed.
What kind of reader were you as a child?
I would read anything. My parents subscribed to Newsweek, and I would read it while I was eating breakfast. I loved fiction. I looked for novels that had a dark edge to them. I read all of the World on Fire fantasy series, and I also loved realistic YA novels. I liked feeling that I was getting away with something by reading. That was my way to rebel. (Laughs.)
Do you prefer electronic or print?
I am very grateful for electronic, especially when I’m on the road and can’t carry lots of books with me. But I prefer print. E-books simply don’t stay with me in the same way that print books do. I love the Classic Lines bookstore here in Pittsburgh. When I want a book, they’ll order it for me.
Are there any books you have faked reading?
I have faked my way through all of Faulkner. (Laughs.) I’m looking at my shelf at my copy of Infinite Jest, and there’s a bookmark halfway through the book. I have tried my darnedest twice to get through the book and can’t get any farther.
Are there any books you want to read again for the first time?
Patti Smith’s Just Kids. That book is just magical. It got me fired up about walking the path of the artist. It reaffirmed for me the value of the artistic life.
Five books you will never part with?
John Gardner’s Grendel; Catcher in the Rye: it’s a cliché, but I’ll never tire of it; Joan Didion’s Play It as It Lays: not exactly a feel good read (laughs); Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek: that one’s definitely a talisman; Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream: it has universal layers of poetry and comedy.
What kinds of effects does reading have on your songwriting?
There are definitely certain authors that work on me. Some authors move me to write more, and some authors encourage me to play with words. With Annie Dillard’s writing, every single sentence is a gift, an experience. Patti Smith writes with a sense of bravado that excites me. Anne Carson writes in a way that understands longing in such a way that you can feel it. I love Mary Oliver for her simplicity. I like to read writers who use words in ways that excite me. I have sometimes taken words or phrases from poems or novels and used them in my songs, too. I was quoting Robert Frost in a song I wrote for a power pop band I was in. When I first started songwriting, I would write from the perspective of a character in a novel or story or in the song.
You’re having a dinner party, and you can invite five authors, living or dead; whom do you invite?
Toni Morrison: if given the opportunity, I would love to listen to her talk; Virginia Woolf: I think she and Morrison would get along; Tennessee Williams: he’d be such a fun dinner party guest; James Baldwin; Dorothy Parker.