A 6-Disc Set of “Warm-Up” Songs for Writers by Natalie Diaz

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In another life, my older brother was a beautiful, muscular boy who could jump from a standing position and grab a missed shot right from the rim and either hit a waiting outlet or spring back up to drop it into the net. He had thin ankles and long lean legs with high calf muscles balled tight like fists and split like upside down hearts—runners legs, jumpers legs, Indian legs. He also had the upper body of a Mojave man—wide-chested, broad-shouldered, arms and hands that hung down near his knees, like sling shots is what my mother always said, meaning he was a fighter. He played varsity basketball for our small town high school, the Needles Mustangs. They were royal blue and white. A bright blue mustang was painted on the front of the gymnasium, another inside against the brick wall, and a third in a circle on the wooden middle half court. Mustangs. I have always associated them with basketball. I have always felt them in me—tolling beneath my sternum, drumming in my belly, hooves in my ears, jolts of muscle in my throat—the way my brother must have felt them running in his veins, breaking up and down the court.

I love my brother best in memories such as this one: I sat in the wooden bleachers of the Needles Mustangs gymnasium with my mother, my father, all of my brothers and sisters, and watched my brother run out to the warm-up song “Thunderstruck” by ACDC. It begins with an unhinged, chant-like yell, followed by the strike of the word thunder and then thunderstruck. The word thunder is growled fifteen times followed by nineteen war-cried versions of thunderstruck. Dressed in Mustang blue tear-away warm-up pants and shirts, my brother and his teammates—some of whom were from our reservation—were all glide and finesse. Their high tops barely touched the floor. They circled the court twice before crossing it and moving into a lay-up drill while Thunderstruck filled the gymnasium. They were all the things they could ever be. They were mustangs. They were young kings and conquerors. On those nights, they were forgiven for all they would ever do wrong. Thunderstruck played so loudly that I could only see my mother’s mouth opening and closing but could not hear what she hollered to cheer my brother. To that song, they made lay-up after lay-up, passed the ball like a planet between them, pulled it back and forth from the floor to their hands like a yo-yo. I was twelve years old, and I realized right there on those bleachers the power music had over the body. The way it commanded the thoughts to quiet and set the mind loose, and then set both the mind and the body wild. I saw it in my brother, in those wild boys. I saw it in my mother. I felt it in my chest.

Poetry for me often feels like the electric blue mustangs of my memory—they are what I chase when I try to tell my stories—their bright muscle, their dark power, the fear and wonder they fill me with. On a good night, I feel them running through me during a poetry reading. They are a music that quiets me, that lets me shush my day’s failures and listen instead to the body, to the miracle of it. Maybe it started with “Thunderstruck,” maybe before, but music has always been my way back to my body. It lets me return to the muscle of myself—the heart, the diaphragm, the larynx, the tongue, the tensor tympani—the body that builds my stories. For me, this is what a warm-up song does.

So, I asked some of my poem- and prose-building friends to tell me what their warm-up song for a reading might be, what song they wanted to play as they ran (some protested and demanded they only walk or jog) to the stage to read. There were a few poetry purists who reminded me that writing is not athletics, that writers are not rock stars and should not seek to “rock the mic.” Some replied, I can’t give you an answer because writers don’t have warm-up songs. But, for those who were able to imagine our poetry and prose as not so quiet, as being not so far from the world of the body and athletics, well, a list, no, an anthology, a 6-disc set of “warm-up” songs. As you move through the list, imagine these writers whom I so admire—some trotting, some loping, some jogging, some sprinting to the stage, letting the music ease them from the day’s hard thoughts, letting their bodies take control—letting loose those blue-blue mustangs to wild through us.

Below is a Spotify playlist of many of the selections made my writers, click play to listen, and scroll through the list to see who chose what!



Sherman Alexie, “We Got the Beat” by The Go-Go’s

Holly Amos, wants Elliot Smith’s “King’s Crossing” because “it’s magical and explosive and it feels like everyone in the world is in your head.”

James Arthur, “Troy” by SinĂ©ad O’Connor

Ramona Ausubel, “Ramona” by The Ramones

Kafah Bachari, “Don’t Stop Me Now” by Queen

Kim Barnes chose a song her father’s family used to sing in Oklahoma, “Goodnight Irene” Lead Belly version

Jan Beatty, “Back in Black” by ACDC

Mark Bibbins, “Milk” by Moderat

Sherwin Bitsui, “Fear of the Dark” by Iron Maiden

Traci Brimhall, “Final Countdown” by Europe so, as she said, “I can pretend to be Bob Bluth and do an amazing poetry magic show.”

Jericho Brown, “Signed, Sealed, Delivered, I’m Yours” by Stevie Wonder

Mahogany Browne, “Never Scared” by Bone Crusher

Sarah Browning, “The Joker” by Steve Miller Band

Gabrielle Calvacoressi, “Cruise” by Nelly, the remix

Jennifer Chang, “Self Control” by Laura Branigan

Joy Castro, “Oye Como Va” the 1963 version played by Tito Puente, to which she added, “I love that brass.”

Eduardo C. Corral, “Losing My Religion” by REM

Bruce Covey, “Waves of Fear” by Lou Reed

Cynthia Cruz, “Cross Bones Style” by Cat Power

Alex Dimitrov, “Chelsea Hotel No. 2” by Lana Del Rey

Timothy Donnelly, “Buffalo Stance” by Neneh Cherry

Nicole Terez Dutton, “Squib Cakes” by Tower of Power

Elaina Ellis, “I’m Coming Out” by Diana Ross

Heid E. Erdrich wants anything by Patti Smith

Kerry James Evans, “Super Freak” by Rick James

Tarfia Faizullah, “Bad Girls” by M.I.A.

Melissa Febos, “Pump Up the Jam” by Technotronic. She then texted me the YouTube video link and performed a live dance to it on Skype.

Todd Fredson, “Otherside” by Red Hot Chili Peppers

Santee Frazier, “Lovesong” by the Cure

Ru Freeman, “I Know You Want Me,” by Pitbull

Christian Anton Gerard, “Mint Car” by The Cure

Hafizah Geter, “Simply the Best” by Tina Turner

Timothy Green, “Enter Sandman” by Metallica

Joy Harjo said “Anything by James Brown, especially “Get Up I Feel Like Being a Sex Machine.”

Matt Hart, “Train in Vain” by The Clash”

Yona Harvey, “The Fire” by The Roots feat. John Legend

Terrence Hayes, “Let Me Clear My Throat” by DJ Kool

Gordon Henry, “Shake Your Money Maker” by Elmore James

Cathy Hong, “Bad Girls” by M.I.A.

John Hoppenthaler, “Super Bon Bon” by Soul Coughing

Gary Jackson, “Misfit Love” by Queens of the Stone Age

Troy Jollimore, “Race for the Prize” by the Flaming Lips

Joan Kane, “Rebel Girl” by Bikini Kill

Keetje Kuipers, “Don’t Stop Believing” by Journey

Marianne Kunkel, “Electric Lady” by Janelle Monae

Jason Koo, “Power” by Yeezy

Dorianne Laux, “The Heart of Saturday Night” by Tom Waits

Robin Coste Lewis, “Use Me” by Grace Jones

Marie-Elizabeth Mali, “Fuego” by Bomba Estereo

Jamaal May said, “I have a whole group of songs I call the “Unfuckwitable Playlist” for just such occasions. A key track on that joint is “Who Gon Stop Me” by Kanye West.

Eric McHenry, “Everyday I Write the Book” by Elvis Costello

John McManus, “Time to Pretend” by MGMT

Lynn Melnick said “This has actually happened before and I chose Dolly Parton’s Seven Bridges Road.”

Deborah Miranda said “If I’m really nervous or scared, I hum the Esselen Deer Song because it calms me down and reminds me that giving a poetry reading is a lot like stalking and seducing a deer.”

R. Vincent Moniz Jr., “Held Down” by De La Soul feat. Cee-Lo

Kamilah Aisha Moon, “Show Me What You Got” by Jay-Z

Tomas Q Morin, “He Got Game” by Public Enemy

Aimee Nezhukumatathil said, “It’s easy: “Xanadu” by Olivia Newton-John. 80s roller-skating exhuberance!”

Shelly Oria, “Final Countdown” by Europe

Danielle Pafunda, “Beast of Burden” by The Rolling Stones

Katherine DeBlassie Page, “Untitled (How Does It Feel)” by D’Angelo

Elena Passarello, “Back in Black” by ACDC

Oliver de la Paz, “It’s a Long Way to the Top (If You Wanna Rock n Roll) by ACDC. He added, “Malcom and Angus Young on the guitars…boom. My walk-up song.”

Janet Peery, “Mustang Sally” by Wilson Pickett

Ben Purkert, wants a mash-up of “Put On” by Young Jeezy and “The Sound of Silence” by Simon and Garfunkel

Khadijah Queen, “Fight the Power” by Public Enemy

Bridget Quinn, “Back in Black” by ACDC

Jacques J. Rancourt, “Get Met Bodied” by Beyonce, after which he wondered, “Is that bad that I have an immediate answer?”

Barbara Jane Reyes, “Outshined” by Soundgarden

Wesley Rothman, “Sinnerman” by Nina Simone

Linda Rodriguez, “Sky Dances” version by Holly Near with lyrics by Cherokee poet Jimmy Durham

Patrick Rosal, “Call My Name” by Joe Bataan

Charif Shanahan, “Rock the Casbah” by The Clash. He directed me to the lines: Shareeeeef don’t like it.”

Evie Shockley wants “Erotic City” by Prince, but she only wants them playing in her earbuds, not for the house system.

Cedar Sigo, “Children of the Grave” by Black Sabbath

Don Share, “Hocus Pocus” by Focus

Aaron Smith, “Zero” by Yeah Yeah Yeahs

Katherine Sullivan, “And It Stoned Me” by Van Morrison

Mecah Jamilah Sullivan, “Big Poppa” by Notorious B.I.G.

Ed Skoog, “Tipitina” by Professor Longhair

Jon Tribble, “Magic Carpet Ride” by Steppenwolf

Stacey Waite, “I Wish” by Skee-Lo

Jess Walter, “Two-Headed Boy” by Neutral Milk Hotel

Claire Vaye Watkins said “The ultimate: Shimmy Shimmy Ya by Ol’ Dirty Bastard. R.I.P. D.O.B”

Michael Wiegers, “Slack Motherfucker” by Superchunk

Marcus Wicker, “Who Got the Props” by Black Moon

Crystal Williams, “A Change is Gonna Come” by Sam Cooke

L. Lamar Wilson, “Take a Love Song” by Donny Hathaway

C. Dale Young, “Circus” by Britney Spears. He added, “Trashy…but true.”

Matthew Zapruder, “September Gurls” by Alex Chilton and asked “can I stroll instead of running? I feel it’s my last chance at dignity.”