On January 23, 2024, we're thrilled to release Zachary Pace's debut book, I Sing to Use the Waiting: A Collection of Essays About the Women Singers Who've Made Me Who I Am. With remarkable grace, candor, and a poet’s ear for prose, Zachary Pace recounts the women singers — from Cat Power to Madonna, Kim Gordon to Rihanna — who shaped them as a young person coming-of-age in rural New York, first discovering their own queer voice.
Structured like a mixtape, Pace juxtaposes their coming out with the music that informed them along the way. They recount how listening to themselves sing along as a child to a Disney theme song they recorded on a boom box in 1995, was when they first realized there was an effeminate inflection to their voice. As childhood friendships splinter, Pace discusses the relationship between Whitney Houston and Robyn Crawford. Cat Power’s song “My Daddy Was a Musician” spurs a discussion of Pace’s own musician father, and their gradual estrangement.
Resonant and compelling, I Sing to Use the Waiting is a deeply personal rumination on how queer stories are abundant yet often suppressed, and how music may act as a comforting balm carrying us through difficult periods and decisions.
Eileen Myles says: "Zachary Pace takes listening & fanhood to a teeming level of worship which is exactly what it is. Beautiful precise quirky bodily cerebral listening to female vocalists and writing about it. I’m so in awe of what I get when I read this dedicated performance of that. I think Kim (Gordon) should hear, Chan (Marshall) should hear. The chapter on the Kabbalah (and Madonna) was so astonishing. God should hear too: this miraculous and fun and deeply cool book that’s really about sound and our relationship to it, gendered, historic, mortal and true."
Wayne Koestenbaum says: "I’ve been waiting a long time to read a book as soulful and precise, in its treatment of listening, as Zachary Pace’s tender account of an identity put back together through the powerful elixir of singing women. Pace, a lover of the overlooked, attends to the brocaded minutiae of triumphs, comebacks, travails. To enunciation and excess, Pace brings a curatively lucid eye and ear, each vignette invested with lyric care, and with a fastidious affection for the contours of a singer’s career. This impeccable book sends me back, with a renewed heart, to the songs Pace masterfully covers, with a delivery as splendid, as emotionally impressive, as the lauded originals."
Following is an interview with Pace about the book.
Question: You are originally a poet, how did a collection of personal essays about music and musicians come about?
Zachary Pace: In 2016, when the forty-fifth US president was elected, I felt the need to make writing that would preserve certain values that were suddenly even more imperiled than they had been: queerness, femininity, what the amazing Jessica Hopper calls “matrilineage”—history that centers the influence and power of women and femme people—subjects that we’re so fortunate to have the space to write about here and now, because we haven’t always been able to, and we may not always be able to, which became increasingly clear to me in 2016.
But I couldn’t say what I needed to say in poems. I have a kind of cramped and overly precious relationship to the information that I can put into and get out of writing poetry. In one of the only recordings of Sylvia Plath’s voice, in an interview, she says that she could never use the word “toothbrush[ZP1]” in a poem. I have a similar difficulty in letting the toothbrushes of the world into my poetry. But now I want to make writing that has room for all the stuff of life, and in the personal essay, I found room for the toothbrush.
My favorite musician is the great Chan Marshall, who performs and records as Cat Power, and I spent a lot of time listening to bootlegs from all stages of her long and ongoing career. When I stopped feeling the need to make poems, I started noticing a narrative running through the bootlegs and wanted to try to tell the story. Greil Marcus’s book about Bob Dylan’s bootlegs, Like a Rolling Stone, inspired me to look through the microscope of one song. My partner at the time, the wise and gifted writer Eric Dean Wilson, found a copy of Hanif Abdurraqib’s They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us (which had just come out) and gave it to me, saying, “I think this will be your jam.” That book inspired me to keep going, and so it’s unbelievably meaningful that Two Dollar Radio became the home for my book.
Q: How do you feel music has informed your identity?
ZP: I’ve used music to self-soothe since I was a kid. I remember, when I was three or four, putting a 45 on the record player at preschool—the A-side was “Bella Notte” from Disney’s The Lady and the Tramp—and listening so many times, it got too scuffed to play. When I was four or five, my anthem was “Heaven Is a Place on Earth” by Belinda Carlisle, and I’d stare at her glamour shot on the Heaven on Earth cassette’s insert, wishing so badly to look like that. I cultivated my personality through mimicking the gestures of singers. And their music has been my constant companion. It has given me language to articulate emotions that I couldn’t express on my own. It makes me feel more legible.
Q: The essays all deal with your personal development alongside music and artists, whether that be through the tattoos you have that came about through a stint with the Kabbalah (via Madonna), or the sense of invincibility you feel in teenage years and how that translates through the music of Kim Gordon. Did setting parameters—personally, musically—help spark the creative direction of the book and its subjects rather than feeling restrictive?
ZP: The only parameter I set was to listen to the music that I was writing about as frequently as possible. Especially with Cat Power, Kim Gordon, Rihanna, Whitney Houston, and Frances Quinlan—when writing those essays, I made a rule: I had to listen to their music exclusively. I could listen to someone else for a palate cleanser on rare occasion, but honestly, I listened only to the musician I was writing about at the time.
Aside from that, I had no rules, and the process was totally liberating. Not only did I find room for the proverbial toothbrush, I found the space to tell stories that I’ve always wanted to share—and stumbled on some stories I didn’t know were waiting there. My personal narrative is present in all but two essays: the one on Cher and the one on Rihanna. For the Cher essay, I couldn’t find a way to narrate my experience alongside hers, but the two films at the center—Mask and Mermaids—were hugely influential to me when I was growing up. The Rihanna essay centers around the effects of colonialism on the history of music in Barbados, which was important to me not to narrate through my “I.” For the Madonna essay, my personal narrative came first; this is the story I wish I could tell whenever I’m asked what my tattoos mean. The Kim Gordon essay started with the music—I set out to tell the story of the final song on the final Sonic Youth record—and my personal narrative was secondary to Kim’s.
Formally, the main and maybe only difference between how I make a poem and an essay is the use of line endings, which play a big part in the logic of my poems. Writing without line endings liberated the way I make sentences. But when I’m making an essay, I’m using all the other tools I’d use to make poetry, including poem-logic: I try to prove the thesis both through factual evidence and through poetic tools like repetition, litany, alliteration and assonance, even rhyme.
Q: One of my favorite essays in the collection is “Ballad of Robyn and Whitney,” in which you focus on Whitney Houston’s relationship with Robyn Crawford, and the social, familial, and business forces that pried them apart. It’s less about the actual music, and more about the “heterosexist requirements of pop culture.” How do you see Robyn and Whitney’s relationship relating to your own personal evolution?
ZP: I learned a lot later in life. When I was a kid, The Bodyguard, Waiting to Exhale, and The Preacher’s Wife films and soundtracks were on constant rotation. I was magnetized by Whitney’s star quality. Between 2017 and 2018, two documentaries on Whitney were released, and both spoke to her relationship with Robyn Crawford. I’d never heard of Robyn, and the reason I’d never heard of Robyn is because the industry and the family did everything that they could to conceal the relationship. The relationship was queer, and it was vital to Whitney’s well-being.
Robyn published a memoir in 2019, while I was still deep in writing the essay, and all the information coalesced around then. Sarah Schulman’s crucial book Ties That Bind gave me the language—“familial homophobia”—to tell the story, along with the attachment theory of John Bowlby, who believed that an infant’s first separation from the mother figure sets the tone for the individual’s attachment and separation styles later in life.
My personal narrative bookends the essay because, at some point, I realized that one of my earliest attachment-separations was the result of homophobia—and that it occurred during the years I was most obsessed with Whitney. Telling that story here is cathartic, and it may help me along in the grieving process.
I don’t necessarily believe in ghosts, but I do believe I had two visitations from Whitney while I was writing the essay.
Q: The last essay in the collection concerns the song “The Color of the Wind,” from the Disney movie, Pocahontas. You recount how when you were ten years old, you would record yourself singing along to the song, and it was the first time that you recognized your voice as containing inflections you flag as queer. How do you believe voice relates to identity?
ZP: I believe it is paramount. And I believe this is true even for people who can’t speak; if a person can’t speak, the absence of voice is perceived by the dominant society through certain frameworks—primarily those of ability and disability. A lot of assumptions and judgments are made by the dominant society based on how a person fits or doesn’t fit within these frameworks, or standards of normativity, which are bound to inform a person’s self-perception and thus structure their identity.
If a person can speak, their voice is perceived through other standards of normativity—primarily those of gender. Since the dominant society is largely homophobic and transphobic, the more your voice matches your gender presentation, the better your legibility. People modulate their voices to become more legible all the time. You can hear, in a voice, when a person is sure of themselves. And you can hear it when they aren’t.
I believe the voice is one of the top three factors (along with face and name) by which a speaking person becomes recognized and known by others.
Q: You cover female musicians from a broad swath of genres, from Rihanna to Whitney Houston to Cat Power. Were there any musicians you feel were formative to your development that you ended up leaving out of the collection?
ZP: Countless. Sheryl Crow, for one: I’ve been looking for but can’t find a photograph of her that I loved when I was a kid—I used to mimic her facial expression in the photo, and it remains one of my default facial expressions to this day. Bonnie Raitt. Tracy Chapman. Jenny Lewis. Sade. Alanis Morissette, Shania Twain, Sarah McLachlan, Céline Dion. Selena. Regina Spektor. Natalie Merchant. Trisha Yearwood. An album called “Comatised” by Leona Naess was the soundtrack to my first big crush, and it takes me back in one note. The list goes on. I just couldn’t find a strong enough story to tell there, but maybe one day I will. I’m working on what I hope will be a book about Alice Coltrane, whose discography includes one album that features her voice: Turiya Sings.
[ZP1]Skip to 10:22 and listen through 11:20 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=g2lMsVpRh5c
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