In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Heidi Seaborn’s poetry collection An Insomniac’s Slumber Party with Marilyn Monroe illuminates and refracts the facets of the star’s life and work.
Heavy Feather Review wrote of the book:
“If you already adore Marilyn Monroe, you will appreciate this book for the different sides of her Seaborn highlights, and the respect she shows as she does so. Your icon is in good hands. But, if you’ve barely thought about Marilyn Monroe, and I count myself in that group, you might like this book even more. “Who said nights were for sleep?” Marilyn Monroe demands in the book’s epigram. Seaborn takes up that bravado, and her lush language invite us all to the party.”
In my next life, I will be a crooner. In this one, I was gifted the family failing of being utterly tone deaf. Our collective rendition of “Happy Birthday” being so off-pitch, so god awful, the recipient cringes, hands over ears. Nonetheless, I sing in the car, the shower, the kitchen and brazeningly, embarrassingly around those I love. For me, music is an elixir, a mood enhancer—the best drug possible. Stevie Nicks is happy music for me, Amy Winehouse is my angry bitch, Lady Gaga’s good for housework. I run to Adele (don’t ask me why, but it works). Music transports me to other times in my life: Growing up with my parents listening to Herb Alpert on the radio before they discovered Rod Stewart and Al Green. Joni Mitchell prodded my early poetry along. And Simon & Garfinkle will always remind me of being 18 and traveling around Europe, “Bridge Over Troubled Water” being the only cassette on a six-week bus tour. I feel like David Bowie roomed with me during my freshman year, that Sarah Vaughn sung my babies to sleep, and that I heard Gnarls Barkley sing “Crazy” as I fell in love. Sometimes, life seems like one long soundtrack. And much like a song lyric that sticks in the brain all day, poems begin with a line that reverberates in my mind for a while as I go about my day. When I finally sit down at my computer, that line usually leads me into a poem.
This process became more complicated when I began writing An Insomniac’s Slumber Party with Marilyn Monroe. I was writing as two people: me, or some version of me the poet, and Marilyn. I never knew whose voice would take over and claim the poem I was drafting until it was done. The collection contains the voices of two women from different eras and different worlds but with shared experiences. And a shared music palette that further melds our voices. Music became another gateway into Marilyn’s time and life. I listened to Marilyn singing her showtunes such as “Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend” and “I Wanna Be Loved by You.” And I researched how Marilyn taught herself to sing—spinning Ella Fitzgerald on her turntable, stopping to lift the stylus to hear it again, knowing she could never achieve Ella’s range, but listening to the breath, to where Ella dove into a lower octave before soaring. Ella, Billie Holiday, Sarah Vaughn have always been on my playlists, as has Marilyn’s friend and sometime lover, Frank Sinatra. But now I listened to them as I imagined she would have—fresh and urgent.
Music also served as an emotional transit for the narrative arc of An Insomniac’s Slumber Party with Marilyn Monroe. The book begins with the poet discovering Marilyn in the middle of night— “Bathroom Girl” by Air sets the tone, followed by Pharrell Williams’ “Marilyn Monroe.” Then continues as a conversation between two insomniacs with shared obsessions, addictions, histories of marriage, divorce, abuse and sexism, but also success, love and desire. Music underscores the giddiness of Marilyn’s early fame with a song like Britney Spear’s “Lucky.” But with that fame came grief and disappointment that songs like “All That Glitters” by Death in Vegas, Lorde’s “Bravado” and Julie London’s “Cry Me a River” bring to life. We all know how the story ends for Marilyn or as Lana Del Rey sings in “Born to Die:”: “Sometimes love is not enough and the road gets tough.” My playlist:
Dirty Vegas, “Ghosts”
My son Jack reminded me of this song, and it is the perfect anthem for this collection. The irony of Marilyn is that nearly sixty years after her death, she remains the world’s most iconic celebrity—ever present. This song expresses that wish to put our ghosts to rest, to live in the moment. Through my poems, I aim to let go of my ghosts, the ghost of Marilyn, and the ghosts that haunt our lives and keep us awake at night.
Pharrell Williams, “Marilyn Monroe”
Who better than Pharrell Williams to help conjure Marilyn Monroe? And the energy of this song fits so well with the poems at the beginning of the collection where the speaker encounters Marilyn wherever she looks. “I just close my eyes and visions appear,” sings Williams and my poem, “I see her everywhere—” responds “I let her stay/in my head for a while—.” What follows from that poem is a series of poems in her persona as her voice takes root.
Minnie Riperton, “Les Fleurs”
In writing these poems, I created a language for Marilyn that is floral, fruity, colorful, dangerous—feminine, vibrant with a hint of violence. My son Nicky shared “Les Fleurs” with me. If I were to set the language and imagery to music, this piece would be it. In Palm Springs, where Marilyn spent a lot of time, there is a mural of her that covers the side of a building, her hair a bouquet of flowers.
Marilyn Monroe, “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend”
I was a year into writing An Insomniac’s Slumber Party with Marilyn Monroe before I watched her films. I wanted to discover her, before her characters took root in my mind. When I heard her sing this song and others, I was initially surprised by her voice, the easy of joy it. And it made me realize that I needed to capture the confidence and pleasure that Marilyn achieved through her talent.
Death in Vegas, “All That Glitters”
The poem “Selfie with Marilyn Monroe” ends with the line “I too have lived on that glittering edge—.” Death in Vegas front man Richard Fearless evokes not only the sentiment of that line and the poem in the lyrics but in his voice dragging across the drumbeat. The song is both seductive and creates a feeling of the precariousness that is inherent in living the gilded life.
Amy Winehouse, “Valerie”
I imagine that if Amy Winehouse and Marilyn Monroe were to hang out a bar in heaven, drinking champagne and smoking cigarettes, they would drunkenly commandeer the microphone on the little stage in the corner and sing this song together.
Taylor Swift, “champagne problems”
An Insomniac’s Slumber Party with Marilyn Monroe is full of the ‘champagne problems’ of both Marilyn and the speaker as well as the problems caused by too much champagne and barbiturates and Ambien. Taylor Swift captures it all in this brief, eloquent song. My daughter Hallie, who is a former EDM DJ raves about this Swift album.
Billie Holiday, “Good Morning Heartache”
One of my poems is called “Good Morning” and it’s a morning after a binger poem, but it’s also about the heartache that comes with waking up, looking in the mirror to face whatever happened in the night, then getting on with the day.
Beyoncé & JAY-Z, “Crazy in Love”
Initially I had a poem called “Crazy in Love” in the collection before pulling it. Yet the sentiment that is in this song carries throughout, and especially in the poems that talk to Marilyn’s marriages with Joe DiMaggio and Arthur Miller. Plus, I imagine Beyoncé and Marilyn inhabiting the same big stage.
Nancy Wilson, “(You Don’t Know) How Glad I Am”
I can easily envision Marilyn when Nancy Wilson sings “I wish I were a poet so I could express what I want to say” because I have read Marilyn’s poems and her notes on her favorite poetry. When she was in love with Arthur Miller, she scrawled love poems to him in her notebooks. And he described her as “a poet on a street corner trying to recite to a crowd pulling at her clothes.”
Ella Fitzgerald, “Someone to Watch Over Me”
Not only did Marilyn learn to sing by imitating Ella Fitzgerald, but she also became an ardent supporter of Ella. According to Fitzgerald, Marilyn was responsible for her ability to sing at the famous Mocambo Night Club on Sunset Strip in Hollywood: “I owe Marilyn Monroe a real debt…she told the owner of the Mocambo to book me, and that she would take a front table every night…After that, I never had to play a small jazz club again.” In the “Divine Marilyn in Paris” sequence, I have a poem that imagines Marilyn seeing Ella on stage from that front table at the Mocambo.
Group From Lutheran East, “From the Files of Lonely Hearts—Take Me” & Christine and Queens, “People, I’ve been sad”
Both of these songs embody the sad denouement of Marilyn’s life and my own feeling of isolation as I worked to finish this collection during the early days of the pandemic. I felt really fortunate to have such an intense project to work on yet, like so many all over the world, the loneliness at times has been oppressive.
Ella Fitzgerald & Louis Armstrong, “Autumn in New York”
Marilyn lived in New York on her own and then with her third husband, Arthur Miller. I spent time walking the streets where Marilyn lived, along the East River, down to The Strand bookstore, to the MOMA, to the bar at the Ritz. Imagining her life then. It was autumn of 2018, the leaves the color of a bowl of citrus. This song by Ella playing in my head. The poem “Sometimes I Just Want to Be Norma Jeane” came from those walks and the wistfulness of this song.
Frank Sinatra, “The Way You Look Tonight”
As I wrote the poem, “Hello it’s Me, Marilyn” which I think of as her death poem, I listened to Sinatra’s “The Way You Look Tonight” over and over. The lyrics beg to hold on to time, to capture a moment and a person that is already gone. That Sinatra, as someone who Marilyn loved and who loved her, sings this song adds to its poignancy. I first wrote “Hello it’s Me, Marilyn” as a crown of Petrarchan sonnets and then erased and unraveled it until all that remains is a fragmented series of six poems containing the essence of a rhyme scheme that chronicle the real and imagined calls she made the night she died.
Israel Kamakawiwo’ole, “Over the Rainbow”
Marilyn asked that Judy Garland’s “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” be sung at her funeral. I put her request into one of my poems “Curating a Death” that talks to my own father’s death, Marilyn’s and one day, mine. But rather than Judy Garland’s version, I listen to Israel Kamakawiwo’ole’s because it played often the last year that I lived together with all my children under one roof. For me this song punctuates my own sense of loss.
Lana Del Rey, “Born to Die”
This song from Lana Del Rey captures the essence of the poems that end the collection, where the speaker releases Marilyn and walks off into the sunset, clutching her kitten in heels in hand. There is relief in death and in the hope for spring. The speaker finally sleeps.
George Gershwin, “Rhapsody in Blue”
Growing up, I would lie in my twin bed at night listening to late night talk radio to fall asleep. Somehow, I could receive the San Francisco KGO 810 broadcast of Ira Blue all the way where I lived in Seattle. His show music was Ira Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” played the end of the broadcast, putting me to sleep. When Ira Blue died and the show went off the air, I stopped sleeping. With this gorgeous piece in my playlist, now I can sleep.
Heidi Seaborn is author of the acclaimed GIVE A GIRL CHAOS (Mastodon Publishing, 2019) and Comstock Chapbook 2020 prize winning Bite Marks. She’s won or been shortlisted for dozens of awards and her work has been widely published. She’s the Executive Editor of The Adroit Journal.