Writing, Joni Mitchell, LA and Other Things

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Your poem sounds like a Joni Mitchell song I’ve never heard before.

My wonderful professor, Gail—with red hair that week—had taken me aside after poetry class. I didn’t ask what she meant. I got the tone: go home and write something different.

I knew “Big Yellow Taxi” and I had this vivid recollection of hearing “Help Me” on a radio on the way to Shakey’s pizza when I was eight. But these had nothing in common with what I brought to class. I called my friend, Tom, told him what Gail had said, and he laughed: she might be saying your poems are like stories, he said. I asked around and someone loaned me Blue. I listened. I got to “The Last Time I saw Richard,” where Mitchell sings about a man—Richard—last seen in ’68 in Detroit. She sings about the small things that happened and what Richard said: You like roses and kisses and pretty men to tell you/ All those pretty lies pretty lies. I understood.

Mitchell could weave narratives about relationships, the everyday aspect of them, with her incredible use of literary devices and her heart-on-her-sleeve lyrics. She could talk about Richard and convince me that what they said mattered once. That some conversations were worth recording if they let you admit, for a minute, that you really do like pretty men to tell you pretty lies.

Joni Mitchell may have been amazing. But Gail was telling me I was not. Mitchell was an artist. She was singing. She had an ear, an era, experience. She had that falsetto register. She was mysterious. She smoked. She was foreign. Okay, she was Canadian, but that counted.

But I was trying to write about Los Angeles, being in love—which is hard if you haven’t ever been—and the feeling that I would never be able to leave here. I was 21, and I didn’t have enough experience with relationships to say how they were or to know what was worth recounting. I crashed around, kept the good college boyfriend as near as I could for as long as I could. In the meantime, I spent summer evenings, too, after a film class with a 6’7″ basketball star, who danced for me at a house in Ladera Heights. And a few hours in a car overlooking Dockweiler State Beach—a wasteland—with a shortstop. And the last two weeks of August with a rugby player at whose Playa del Rey beachfront house I lost—and this was all I lost—a silver earring that I still wish I had. Then there was the good Catholic boy who tried to take me home to his mother in Arizona and who, to this day, is the only man I’ve been with who made me feel like a slut. And not in a good way.  None of it was worth saying much about. None of it was poetry.

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Eventually, I learned about Joni Mitchell as I moved from relationship to relationship and left each one in the dust. Because, if I began to hear anything in Joni Mitchell’s lyrics, it was that love and longing and Los Angeles were things that could tear a girl apart. What it means to be with another person—in Mitchell’s songs—comes through landscape and language, what two people say. In “Court and Spark,” she sings, And the more he talked to me/the more he reached me. And there’s nothing about skin in “Court and Spark.” There’s only how what she hears translates to something she needs. Anyone listening to the song has to fill in the rest. The flesh. The singer is split between wanting the man and longing for anything else: But I couldn’t let go of it/ City of fallen angels…

One aspect of Mitchell’s lyrics that took me time to uncover is desperation. In “Blue Motel Room” she says I’ve got a blue motel room/ With a blue bedspread/ I’ve got the blues inside and outside my head/Will you still love me/When I get back to town? The singer is nowhere near her lover, and maybe the distance lets her say this. It reminds me of postcards I wrote once or twice. You can write or sing these things, but it’s hard to say them. Instead, you talk about weather. You describe the blue motel room, the inside and outside, which means don’t forget what I look like, who I am for you.

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After I discovered Joni Mitchell, “California” would become a song I took with me, in my head, whenever I traveled. I’d play and replay it. Over time, its meaning changed for me, and my love for it was a slow burn. It’s a song about heartbreak over war and homesickness and belonging to one place. When I sat in a Paris park, I listened: Sitting in a park in Paris, France/Reading the news and it sure looks bad. The singer has gone to Paris, to a Grecian Isle where someone did the goat dance very well, and she caught a plane to Spain. But what she wants is California where there are people she digs. California is some mythical—but not perfect—place for Mitchell, and, from the time I was old enough to know where I lived, it has seemed like that for me, too. Later, I found myself heartbroken and in France where the terrain impersonated home; I ached to land back in traffic and smog and with my lousy friends who’d never be able to help me feel better. By then, I didn’t need to play the song to remember Mitchell’s searing voice, its centerpiece: Oh will you take me as I am/ Strung out on another man? The voice is high and desperate and sure the place will heal her even when all she’s reading about in the news is more about the war and the bloody changes.

A few years back, I was living two blocks from my ex-husband. We would have dinner together three or four times a week. Sometimes we’d see a movie. He’d bring my dogs over for a visit. I’m sure a lot of people wouldn’t understand such an arrangement. But I think Joni Mitchell would get it; sometimes it just doesn’t work to be with someone the way you wanted or thought you could. Instead, you hang onto the place you know, you dig into its dark corners, April fog, and eighty-degree days. Landscape—at least if you live out here—can make up for more than you think. You find it in your fancy French cologne, white linen, beach tar, a hawk, cactus, a bottle of wine, a coffee shop, a coyote, and the white lines of a freeway. There’s love in that, too. On Saturdays, when I’d leave my windows open and play “Ladies of the Canyon,” I suspected my neighbors—a nice couple—laughed about living next door to a  Joni Mitchell fan. A woman alone. Cynical but holding out hope. And I imagine the happy wife said, disparagingly: she probably writes poems. I don’t mind fitting the stereotype; people have thought worse of me.

In that first year as a student working to write poetry and knowing nothing about it, I tried to please Gail by bringing something different to class; on scratch paper at night, I reached for surreal images. But I was drawn to history and stories—what really happened—and long lines with too many words. Besides, my narrative was barely unfolding. In the meantime, I could hear, anytime I wanted, history repeat itself and become mine, too, in the California song about melancholy: that high cry, the falsetto from the almost-native.

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Rumpus original art by Ilyse Iris Magy,


Colette LaBouff Atkinson is the author of Mean, a collection of prose poems (University of Chicago Press 2008). Her prose has been featured in the Los Angeles Times, Seneca Review, Santa Monica Review, Orange Coast Magazine, Babble, and elsewhere. She is currently Associate Director of the International Center for Writing and Translation at UC Irvine, lives in southern California, and spent the better part of this past year listening to Mitchell's "The Tea Leaf Prophecy" from Herbie Hancock's River: The Joni Letters. More from this author →