Stephin Merritt is one of the most literate songwriters around.
Through his work with The Magnetic Fields, The 6ths, Future Bible Heroes and The Gothic Archies, Merritt has revealed himself to be a writer possessing both a deep knowledge of love—and loss—and an ever-widening vocabulary. While themes of heartbreak aren’t present, his trademark wit and command of the English language is on full display in his first poetry collection, 101 Two-Letter Words. Accompanied by illustrations from Roz Chast, the poems discuss every two-letter word in the Scrabble dictionary at the time Merritt penned the collection (he was eager to mention that more two-letter words have been accepted into the Scrabble canon since the book went to press, and he’s even more excited to get a chance to play them).
Paste caught up with Merritt to chat about 101 Two-Letter Words, the poets who influenced him growing up and how he’s been happier since he stopped reading Ethan Frome.
Paste: This is your first book of poetry. Who are the first poets you read who had an impact on your own life?
Merritt: I guess they would be children’s authors. Probably Edward Lear and the poems in Lewis Carroll books. I certainly must’ve been pretty flabbergasted by the Alice books and “The Hunting of the Snark.” I was a huge Edward Gorey fan, and he tends to fall between genres. That’s one of the reasons I love him; he doesn’t have a genre. He’s not a comics artist or a poet or a graphic novelist. He fills niches but he doesn’t have a niche.
Paste: How did you get to know Roz Chast, the illustrator for the book, and decide to collaborate?
Merritt: Roz Chast sent me a fan letter only a few days before my editor at Norton told me to start thinking of who an illustrator should be. There was really no search process. I said, “Well, we should just ask Roz Chast.” So we did. There’s no saga there, it was as easy as could be.
Paste: I remember reading when Distortion [an album by The Magnetic Fields] came out that the record had been inspired in part by The Jesus and Mary Chain’s Psychocandy. Other than Scrabble, was there a Psychocandy for this book? A poet you were emulating?
Merritt: Well, Edward Gorey and Edward Lear. But the template for all the two-letter words, couplets, quatrains, however you want to put it, was them all being in the rhythm of “Lizzie Borden took an axe / And gave her mother forty whacks / And when she saw what she had done / She gave her father forty-one.” That was the lighthouse I was heading towards.
Paste: Have there been any books you’ve read this year which have struck you as particularly important?
Merritt: Coincidentally, Roz Chast’s new book. Her memoir about the last days with her parents was wonderful. I just read, on audio book actually, Neil Gaiman reading his own story, “The Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountains.” What I’ve been reading is The Art of the Novella series, which Melville House publishes. I’ve got the whole collection, and I’ve been reading my way through it. I’m probably two-thirds of the way through it, so I’m a little behind. I like reading short books and I like the idea of becoming well-read by reading the short stuff first. Why read The Old Curiosity Shop when you can read A Christmas Carol?
Paste: Who have been the most formative writers in your life? And what are your desert island books?
Merritt: Well, I used to read Ethan Frome every year on my birthday. Then I realized why that was a bad idea, so I’m a lot happier now that I don’t read Ethan Frome every year on my birthday. I guess, on this desert island, I have no access to the Internet, right?
Paste: I suppose we could posit a Wi-Fi enabled desert island, if that would help.
Merritt: Yeah, it would nice to be able to read things online. That way, the books I could have with me on this desert island would not have to be the things I would need, in regard to shelter. Rock the Shack just came out, and that’s a horrible title for a wonderful book about new developments in small houses. Something else I’ve just bought is the new Joseph Cornell box, Joseph Cornell’s Manual of Marvels. It’s sort of a book, sold in bookstores, but it’s sort of a box. New and influential in my life is The Official Scrabble Player’s Dictionary, 5th edition. I just got the Norman Pettingill book, Backwoods Humorist, with an introduction by Robert Crumb, from Fantagraphics. But that came out in 2010, so that doesn’t count (laughs). I just got the new John Darnielle novel, Wolf in White Van. I got distracted, but any day now I’ll go back to reading Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch. I’m really looking forward to William Burroughs biography by Barry Miles, Call Me Burroughs.