This conversation began quite organically: at CantoMundo 2014, with J Michael’s Martinez’s sonic-powered laughter ringing through Opening Circle. Over the course of the next few days the six of us—Diego Báez, Darrel Alejandro Holnes, J. Michael Martinez, Juan Morales, Octavio Quintanilla, and yours truly ended up talking about hair metal, thrash metal, the marriage and funeral in “November Rain,” this funny take on “Sweet Child of Mine,” Keanu Reeves in that Paula Abdul video (more on that later), and the intergalactic strangeness of Gwar. (Remember Gwar? Remember the nightmares you had because of Gwar?) In one way or another, our poetry has been influenced by power ballads, and we decided to explore this relationship in more depth. We hope, by the end of this conversation, you’ll find your own inner power chord…—Rosebud “7TrainLove” Ben-Oni
Rosebud Ben-Oni: When I think of particularly memorable narratives of ballads, it’s Poe’s “Annabel Lee” and Gwendolyn Brook’s “Said and Maud.” What are some of your favorite ballads in poetry?
Diego Báez: Randall Mann’s got this perfect, tiny little poem up at the Poetry Foundation, published originally in 2005, called “Bernal Hill,” after the southside San Franciscan neighborhood. It’s wicked concise, imperative yet questioning, rhythmic and rhyming, and its punctuation frustrates the line breaks in a way that makes at least one avid reader like physically ache with empathy. The kind of poem you memorize before visiting SF with your wife over spring break to recite in a show of spontaneous inspiration. And, um … When does this go to print?
Darrel Alejandro Holnes: I really enjoy the ballad poem, “John Henry;” we don’t know the identity of its author. It’s one I remember from my childhood. As an adult, I revisit it to think about how we talk about labor, class, servitude, and duty in poems. I think it’s essential to examine these well-known poems (as well as the obscure ones) because they’re the ones that are really a part of the collective conscience, we all learned them in school. This poem is one of the texts that unify us Americans, in a way. So in thinking about how American poems have contributed to mainstream culture this ballad definitely comes to mind.
Michael Martinez: I think I knew what rock power ballads were before I knew it as a poetic contrivance. Poe’s “Annabel Lee,” published everywhere, was likely the first poetic ballad I ever read: it was often included in the kid’s horror anthologies I would read at the public library!
Octavio Quintanilla: I really dig Muriel Rukeyser’s “The Ballad of Orange and Grape.” And of course, “Rime of the Ancient Mariner.” Iron Maiden style!
Juan Morales: I’ve always clicked with the ballad because of its focus on storytelling and community. Sterling Brown’s “Riverbank Blues” is one ballad that comes to mind along with your mention of Brooks and Poe. The form’s ability to unify and confront tense subject matter enticed me into the poetry world and overlapped with my love of music that eventually led to my days of being in a ska/punk band. Those band days were more focused on writing awkward love songs about liking music not a lot of other people liked and our inability to talk to girls.
RB: Do you remember Monster Ballads? I remember wanting to “ORDER NOW!” when my brother insisted that metal bands’ ballads were nothing more than a gimmick. They were marketed to temper an album full of metal’s aggressive, faster tempos, and to ensure more airplay on radio stations by appealing to audiences whom otherwise might not care for metal (in other words, true metalheads did not, would not, buy something like Monster Ballads). So regretfully I did not “ORDER NOW.” While I know you are all fans of power ballads, how would you respond to this argument?
JM: I definitely remember the commercials to “ORDER NOW!” but I never did either. Back then, I would have agreed with your brother about the heavy metal band gimmick and how those bands snuck in the tender acoustic guitar to get the larger audience to buy and listen. Back then, I skateboarded everywhere, made punk rock mix tapes with my friends, and talked trash about mainstream radio. Still, I watched MTV for the music videos and got sucked into the music videos with surprisingly big productions. Metallica bridged the gap to punk and you couldn’t avoid watching Guns N’ Roses videos. Whether it’s Slash’s solo outside the deserted church or Axl’s trembling hands at the end of “Don’t Cry,” they were too epic and sweeping to resist.
OQ: “They taught us how to love. They taught us how to live.” The argument sounds about right. But it didn’t stop me from ordering my copy. Besides, as a “true metal head” in the late 80s, I didn’t feel too bad listening to these ballads knowing that even some thrash metal bands like Metallica were playing their own versions. Remember “Fade to Black”? With this song, Metallica even got accused of “selling out.” You took a risk of being called “poser” when you listened to power ballads, but I think it was worth it. Well, at least to me. So, yeah. You messed up, Rosebud. Should’ve ordered.
DB: On a cold school night in Newark, New Jersey after several dozen pitchers of PBR at McGovern’s, I asked Caleb Das, a peer in the MFA program at Rutgers and expert on all things metal, to school me on metaldom. He ran through the entire taxonomy, differentiating black, death, and doom, touching on symphonic varieties, various crossovers, contentious subgenres. I’d asked because I was interested in writing about a fictional substance, like Pandora’s unobtanium, that could be used to fuel a malevolent power, but without the ridiculous name and cheesy mythology of James Cameron’s creation. I recorded our whole convo on my old iPhone1, but have retained exactly zero of what we talked about. Anyway, I think Caleb would agree with your brother.
JMM: I guess I never considered the 80s glam metal to be “metal” per se. I never really owned any albums until I was in mid-adolescence; my experiences of music beyond my parent’s Motown and 60s/70s psychedelic rock were those of my older brother: he listened to both 80s glam rock and early 80s metal “metal.” They went hand in hand to me. Whether or not the ballad tempered the aggression of “true” metal and made it a “gimmick”: I suppose a “gimmick” only occurs if a thing is read as a “gimmick.” After all, even Walter Benjamin could see “revelation” in an advertisement for salt by observing how even a gimmick contained its history of emergence and, thus, a gateway leading outside the historical and into the messianic. May sound silly, but I try to do this with power ballads.
DAH: I don’t remember Monster Ballads. But I don’t think a record label could make a metal band that’s really made of metal do anything they didn’t want to do. I think some of the greatest niche artists love mainstream work and are interested in being a part of those conversations. It takes courage to enter that competitive market, and it’s not easy to write and perform a crossover hit. That to me isn’t selling out, that to me is the “que pasa,” as my godfather used to say.
RB: One of my favorite power ballads isn’t metal at all; it’s Cyndi Lauper’s “Time After Time.” One of the best days of my life was coming across Adam Fitzgerald’s “Time After Time” which serves as a perfect accompaniment to the original song while holding its own. Have you written any poems specifically inspired by ballads?
OQ: Yes, I have, but they have been mostly inspired by Mexican corridos. But none of these poems made it into the book. Now that I’ve read Adam’s take on “Time After Time,” I might give it a shot and try a new version of “I Want to Know What Love Is.”
DAH: I wrote a poem entitled, “Tu,” inspired by the ballad by the same name by Shakira. And Selena’s “Como La Flor” makes an appearance towards the end of my poem “Miss Amerika.” “Tu” was published in Kweli.
JMM: I wouldn’t say I’ve specifically written poems inspired by ballads; however, if by inspiration, you mean when I use music to excite my senses, playing loud emotional songs to excite my senses into a kind of raw openness …. then yes, I may have written all my published work to some kind of power ballad …. seems like the second definition for “power ballad” on urbandictionary.com is: “the musical equivalent of an orgasm.” There is an aesthetics here, affective and of the erotic; while the music may at times appear as if it were mocking those emotions it melodramatically professes, I think it is a music whose sheer expanse of sound wrenches a sonic baroque out from under the banal simplicity of the genre’s pop structure. In this sense, I’m thinking of the saturated guitar distortion of Pyromania-era Def Leppard and the overproduced records from Journey. My attraction to this baroque wall of sound is what later drew me to bands like My Bloody Valentine, Smashing Pumpkins; for me, it may be the seduction of discovering an overwhelming awe as opened from within the elemental human affects I interpret and understand as love, loss, courage, hope.
JM: I never specifically planned to write any ballads; instead, I stumbled into it as a gateway into poetry. Once, I came to terms with our band not making it once we all went to different colleges, I started writing poems based on family stories, the strange stories that my mother and father shared with me about ghosts, wars, and their hometowns. The communal of the ballad seeped into my poems just like the lyrics of song structured into verse, chorus, verse chorus, breakdown, verse, chorus, chorus.
RB: Your childhood in power ballads (not limited to metal): Go.
JMM: There are many of the obvious “go-to” ballads from the 80s, but some select ones—Guns n’ Roses’ “November Rain” and “Sweet Child O’ Mine;” Bon Jovi: anything off of Slippery When Wet; Smashing Pumpkins: “Disarm,”…. and everything. Also the Goo Goo Dolls, and I love the “Freshman” from The Verve Pipe. “Alien” and “Glycerin” from Bush.
It may be purely my desire or intention to see something more elemental occurring in the music, my projecting some fantasy of utopia or clandestine virtue onto a “gimmick” supposedly manipulating and/or generating that ideality in me. However, I don’t experience manipulation nor detect, critically or affectively (emotionally), the disingenuous. I comprehend market manipulation and see how lacanian desire can be traced and be seen as manipulating the symbolic economies establishing the parameters of fantasy a la Zizek. In fact, those feelings give me insight into detecting the emotionally false. In fact, such cultivation of empathy, I feel, truly helped lead to my very early activism as a child and my teens.
The first single I bought on cassette was Living Colour’s “Cult of Personality.” It had the rock sound I loved and, at that time, my mother was protesting for better wages and rights for the workers (overwhelmingly Latin@) at a meatpacking plant in my hometown. I would go to school during the day and then stand with her, my dad, and my brothers holding signs. The video for “Cult of Personality” had such scenes of political activism and Living Colour was the first time I had ever seen anyone of color playing metal, rock, or whatever you called it. Further, it was rock about politics! It blew me away…I wasn’t thinking then, “oooH, political rock! Yay!” But what I felt, I remember, was its fervor, that feeling when I got angry for what that workplace was doing to my mom and uncles and aunts, an ethical call to action.
I think of Pailhead’s “I will Refuse” as a ballad: a necessary political violence achieving its revolutionary peak, its orgasm.
DAH: 1. “Si Voy a Perderte Ya/ Don’t Wanna Lose You Now” – Gloria Estefan
2. “Alone” – Heart
3. “I Have Nothing” – Whitney Houston
4. “My All” – Mariah Carey
5. “If You Asked Me To” – Patti Labelle/Celine Dion
6. “Sweet Child O’ Mine” – Guns N’ Roses
7. “Livin’ On a Prayer” – Bon Jovi
8. “I’m The Only One” – Melissa Etheridge
9. “Don’t Stop Believin’” – Glee Cast
10. “I Don’t Wanna Miss a Thing” – Aerosmith
11. “Unbreak My Heart” – Toni Braxton
12. “Mi Mayor Venganza” – La India
13. “Cryin’” – Aerosmith
DB: We listened to exactly two kinds of music growing up in the Báez household: harp-and-accordion-heavy Paraguayan folk and Christian rock. Which meant a lot of Jars of Clay, DC Talk, and Newsboys. Also Pedro the Lion (Christian Sufjan), MxPx (Christian punk), and O.C. Supertones (Christian ska). Don’t get me started on Michael W. Smith (Christian rickroll) and Amy Grant (major crush). So, I mean, take your pick. Every one of these artists has chart-topping, storytelling power singles, complete with white Jesus lurking in the lyrics.
OQ: “House of Pain” – Fasterpussy Cat
“Love Will Tear Us Apart” – Joy Division
“Patience” – Guns N’ Roses
“Wait” – White Lion
“Don’t Know What You Got (Till It’s Gone)” – Cinderella
“Alone Again” – Dokken
“I Won’t Forget You” – Poison
“What’s Up” – 4 Non Blondes
“Story of My Life” – Social Distortion
“I Did It My Way” – Sid Vicious
JM: Definitely most songs on The Dead Milkman’s album Beezelbubba, especially “Punk Rock Girl.” I also had that soft spot for “The Final Countdown,” even if I wouldn’t admit it. “Separate Ways”” by Journey also got stuck in my head all the time since it was everywhere on the radio and MTV.
RB: Darrel, in a recent conversation, you claimed that Heart’s “Alone” is “the world’s greatest power ballad and most butchered karaoke song,” while Juan argued for either Europe’s “Ninja” or “The Final Countdown” as the hardest karaoke songs ever. Poets, weigh in. Defend your choices here. How do you feel about the butchering of lyrics? How important is the art of karaoke to you as a poet?
DAH: I think karaoke is made for its participants to sing their heart out. And I support anyone who attempts to channel their inner Ann Wilson, the lead singer of Heart, when singing “Alone.” I don’t know why this song resonates so much with me but I’ve loved it since I was a baby. Maybe my mother or nanny loved it too and played it while I was in the crib. (That’s how I came to love Gloria Estefan, my mother would play her albums constantly in the early 90s, and pretty soon I was singing “Conga” in my high chair before I could properly walk on my own.) “Alone” is one of the world’s greatest power ballads because you get two of life’s greatest emotions – 1) pain, and 2) desire. The pain of desire? Aww man, you can’t beat that. Jonesin’ for someone who may or may not love you back; the fear of rejection, the hope despite the likely fall, the chance at love, it’s the stuff that launches ships and starts wars, and hopefully the stuff that ends wars and brings peace. We all need to make a little more love and less war. Perhaps that’s what I get from the song, love revolution. ;-)
DB: I suck at karaoke, and probably always will, but I think it’s neat the word derives from “empty orchestra.”
JM: I think my argument was that Europe is never right for karaoke unless you can nail those high notes. You also need the right moves during those long guitar solos. The first time I did karaoke, I learned I did not. Karaoke definitely can aid your poetics. You have to perform someone else’s song, which feels just like a strict imitation of a poem you admire. It’s the same as the drafting process where you’re willing to try things that may not survive the revision process. Also, you have to search your memory banks for a meaningful song within your voice’s range that you can pull off with a reduced amount of public humiliation and some liquid courage.
OQ: Hahaha. Yeah. Karaoke. Did it a few times in the mid-90s, butchering songs by Social Distortion and Enrique Iglesias. Then when I played and sang in a band, I butchered a bunch of other songs. But I think when you have an electric guitar in front of you as shield it’s not as bad. You can always turn up the distortion. I felt protected. Somewhat. When you are doing Karaoke and all you have is a mic and you are butchering a song, I think you are definitely more vulnerable. Unless you are completely wasted. Then you don’t care. But you learn in the process of butchering. You learn to hold your own in front of an audience, especially when you risk getting something thrown at you. I don’t Karaoke much, not as much as I do poetry. But what attracts me to poetry and karaoke is the element of performance. Standing in front of an audience to sing and possibly butchering the song takes guts. Same with poetry. By the way, best freakin’ power ballad ever is Social D’s “Ball and Chain.” Period.
RB: Juan, you have a paleo-milagro-ballad vibe going on in Friday and the Year That Followed, which actually sounds like the title of an 80s metal band album; so does Octavio’s If I Go Missing and J Michael’s In the Garden of the Bridehouse (wait, do we have a CantoMundo Discography in progress?) If Monster Ballads rang each of you up, and asked for one of your poems to be included on a compilation album, which poem would you choose? Why?
JM: I have a newer poem I’m working on called “The Migratory Pattern of Chupacabras,” which would be a contender. It’s basically about a personal obsession of trying to see a chupacabra and the remote chance they may not exist. In my paleo-milgro-ballad first book, I would say “Handsome Francisco Ansares Becomes a Woman.” I can imagine Axl filling in for him in the music video.
DB: The only actual ballad I ever attempted caught fire and disappeared off the coast of Bermuda during my first workshop in grad school, so instead I submit the full archive of instant messenger transcripts under my AIM handle from sixth grade: BallaD101 (as in like Baller [shot caller, 20” blades on the Impala] D[iego], but also, incidentally, “ballad 101”). I’ll redact all the boring emoticons and leave you with only the corniest, most awkward tête-à-têtes my eleven-year-old self managed to entertain in those early days of online flirting.
DAH: Hmm … perhaps “Rapture” because in it, I’m belting my politics. The financial crisis was such an alarming and disturbing time that I feel there’s a Pat Benatar, Steven Tyler, high note in their somewhere. Though really if it’s pain we’re going for, like in an RnB or Blues ballad, I’d have to say perhaps it’s “Dream Girl.” When I wrote that, it really felt like I had just performed a two hour concert and died on stage.
OQ: I’ll probably send the poem, “Pretending.” Although I didn’t write it thinking about Def Leppard’s “Love Bites,” I’ve realized that the situation and the sentiment are very similar. Here’s a sample of Def Leppard’s lyrics: “When I’m with you, are you somewhere else? /Am I gettin’ thru or do you please yourself?”
And here’s are some sample lines from “Pretending”:
When I kiss you, I kiss / someone else. // Sometimes it’s your sister. /
Other times, your mother.
There’s a bit of resemblance here, don’t you think?
JM: I’ll second “November Rain” for sure and I’ll also add “Take on Me.” Does that count?
JMM: Is this really a question? “Purple Rain.” Prince.
OQ: Though I like Bonnie Tyler, Paula Abdul, and Keanu’s performance, how can you beat “One” by Metallica. I like how the video includes scenes from the movie Johnny Got His Gun, which intensifies the story and the music. And the killer guitar riffing!
DAH: “Total Eclipse of the Heart” (literal video version) or Aerosmith’s “Crazy”. I had a crush on Alicia Silverstone because of this video, or there’s also George Michael’s “Freedom,” as it stars the top supermodels of the 90s including the one and only Naomi Campbell, or Camilla, as we know her on Empire. Beautiful women all around.
DB: Due to my aforementioned familiarity with Christian rock and Paraguayan folk, I consulted my brother-in-law, singer-songwriter Robby Hecht, for his nomination for Best Power Ballad of All Time and Best Power Ballad Video. He says, “I love ‘When I See You Smile’” by Bad English, but hard not to give both awards to “November Rain” by Guns N’ Roses.” So, he’s right there with you, Luge.
RB: J. Michael, I [air] [guitar] riffed on your name to “Sweet Child of Mine” in my poem “If Delilah the Younger Sister” and then on Diego’s name in “Stepping Away with Diego Baez.” Power [Ballad] Poets, riff on each other names.
JM: – “Total Eclipse” of Darrel Alejandro Holnes’ “Heart”
– Octavio Quintanilla riding a steel horse!
– J. Michael Martinez always wearing a bandana and flannel tied around his waist, taking us to Paradise City.
-Rosebud “Time” Ben “After” Oni “Time”
-Diego “The Eternal Drum Solo” Baez
DAH: Presenting the legendary rock n’ roll band, Rosas Y Espinas, featuring Juan “notachance” Morales on bass, J. “Murcielago” Martinez on drums, Octavio “blazingsaddlesblazingguns” Quintanilla on guitar, Diego “deathstar” Baez on keyboards, Darelo “Badaxx” Holnes, aka “The Nixer” on guitar, and Rosebud “Acid Wash” Ben-Oni on vocals.
OQ: Uff, that’s a tough one. But here we go—How about some Poison for Juan “Every Rose Has Its Thorn” Morales. And a tad of Journey for Darrel Alejandro “Don’t Stop Believin’” Holnes. Some Whitesnake for J. Michael “Here I Go Again” Martinez. Hey, Rosebud, I have a feeling you like A-ha, so here’s to you “Take on Me” Ben Oni. And how can we forget about Diego “Bat Out of Hell” Baez.
DB: I’m going to go ahead and just list the names of my colleagues here as I recommend they henceforth publish work under:
Juan “Big Money” Morales
Octavio “Quintillion” Quintanilla
Joseph Michael “Michael Jordan” Martinez
Darelo Alejandro “DJ DA” Holnes
Rosebud “A Luge to Your Sled” Ben-Oni
RB: Let us close by each of you revealing your power ballad stage name and instrument of choice. (Call me 7TrainLove when I’m axing with the Roland D-50.)
DB: Back when Limewire was still a thing, I ripped the instrumental from Missy Elliot’s “Wake Up” and recorded exactly one track under the rap name The 101. (In a controversial move, I dropped the “BallaD.”) The song’s really, terribly misguided, and includes lyrical gems like: “From protégé to prodigy, that’s just the god in me. / Son of the gods, Jehovah’s only guiding me.” (Did I mention I survived a severe bout with Catholicism?) At any rate, let’s go with “The 101” as my stage name, and Timbaland’s boosted beat as my instrument(al) of choice.
JMM: J’Van Michaels
JM: On the bass, Juan “Still in the Mosh Pit” Morales aka Juan “Get Me Out of this Mosh Pit!” Morales
DAH: The Nixer, killing it on a Bad Axx SDN-01 Double Neck 6-String Electric Guitar
OQ: They know me by “Tuff ‘nuff” and watch me smash my 1997 Gibson Slash Snakepit Les Paul and then set it on fire on stage at the end of the show.
Diego Báez is a CantoMundo fellow. His poems, fiction, and reviews have appeared most recently at Ostrich Review, Number Eleven Magazine, and Entropy. He lives in Chicago and teaches at the City Colleges.
Born to a Mexican mother and Jewish father, Rosebud Ben-Oni is a recipient of the 2014 NYFA Fellowship in Poetry and a CantoMundo Fellow. She was a Rackham Merit Fellow at the University of Michigan, a Horace Goldsmith Scholar at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and a graduate of the Women’s Work Lab at New Perspectives Theater in NYC. She is the author of SOLECISM (Virtual Artists Collective, 2013) and an Editorial Advisor for VIDA: Women in Literary Arts. Her work appears in POETRY, The American Poetry Review, Arts & Letters, Bayou, Puerto del Sol, among others. Find her Facebook, Twitter and at 7TrainLove.org
Darrel Alejandro Holnes is the co-author of PRIME: Poetry & Conversations, the co-editor of Happiness, The Delight-Tree: An Anthology of Contemporary International Poetry in honour of the International Day of Happiness. His poetry has been featured Poetry Magazine, Callaloo, in the Best American Experimental Writing anthology and elsewhere in print and online. He teaches at New York University and works with the United Nations.
J. Michael Martinez received the Walt Whitman Award from the Academy of American Poets and he is a Ph.D. Candidate in Literature at the University of Colorado at Boulder. His latest book, from the University of Arizona Press, is In the Garden of the Bridehouse. He is the Poetry Editor of NOEMI Press and his poetry has been anthologized in Ahsahta Press’ The Arcadia Project: North American Postmodern Pastoral, Rescue Press’ The New Census: 40 American Poets, and Counterpath Press’ Angels of the Americlypse: New Latin@ Writing.
Juan Morales is the author of the new collection of poetry, The Siren World (Lithic Press) and Friday and the Year That Followed (Bedbug Press). His poems have recently appeared in Poet Lore, Huizache, Luna Luna, and are forthcoming from Hayden’s Ferry Review, Mas Tequila Review, Ostrich Review, Origins, and Duende. He is a CantoMundo Fellow, the Editor of Pilgrimage Magazine, and an Associate Professor of English at Colorado State University-Pueblo, where he directs the Creative Writing Program and curates the SoCo Reading Series.
Octavio Quintanilla is the author of the poetry collection, If I Go Missing (Slough Press, 2014). His work has appeared in Salamander, RHINO, Alaska Quarterly Review, Southwestern American Literature, The Texas Observer, and elsewhere. He is a CantoMundo Fellow and holds a Ph.D. from the University of North Texas. He is the regional editor for Texas Books in Review and teaches Literature and Creative Writing in the M.A./M.F.A. program at Our Lady of the Lake University in San Antonio, Texas.