Stephin Merritt is under the weather. "I've had food poisoning for three days," the songwriter and musician says by phone from his room at the Standard Hotel in West Hollywood, "but as long as you can hear me, we're OK."
Merritt is in Southern California on book tour; his "101 Two-Letter Words" (W.W. Norton: 216 pp., $19.95) is a collection of four-line poems celebrating the two-letter words for which players can get points in Scrabble, a game Merritt likes to play (along with Words with Friends) when he is on the road. Illustrated by Roz Chast, it's a delightfully whimsical collection; "'I think, therefore I am, declared / Descartes, while he was living," reads the entry for the word "Am." "That thought remains, while he does not … / which causes some misgiving."
"101 Two-Letter Words" is your first book. How did it come about?
The last time I was on tour, in 2012, bored to tears as I was, I was playing a lot of Scrabble and Words with Friends, and I was doing poorly. I couldn't remember the eligible two-letter words. So I started writing little poems as mnemonic devices. Since then, there's been a new edition of "The Official Scrabble Player's Dictionary," which adds four more two-letter words for use in the board game. But these were the words admissible in Scrabble as of the time I wrote.
What's the difference between writing a song and writing one of these poems?
In most cases, with most of my songs and most of the poems in the book, I'm writing for a particular project. I know the shape, and this helps with the details. I'll sit around in my local gay bar with a cocktail in one hand and a pen in the other, listening to other people's songs. This drowns out the music in my head.
You listen to other people's music when you're writing your own songs?
I'd try to write in a silent room, but it's hard to find a silent room. Right now, I'm in a hotel room in West Hollywood, listening to revelers around the pool. If I were going to write a song, it would probably be something like "Let's Have a Pool Party," which is not a song I'd want to write. So listening to other songs drowns out the background noise; I don't need to pay attention to it.
I'm also afflicted with a few unbearably repeating jingles; if nothing else, I'm hard-wired for writing and rewriting the Bumble Bee Tuna theme. We like to think of songwriting as an act of self-expression, but for people of my generation, the music in our heads is the advertising jingles of the early 1970s, or TV theme songs.
Did you know you were writing a book from the beginning? Or did the idea sneak up on you?
I knew fairly early, after I'd written 10 or 15 of them. I bought a stack of 3 x 5 index cards and started putting the poems on there. I liked them. I thought about maybe turning them into songs, but then I thought, No, that's a terrible idea. The songs would be 10 seconds long. Eventually, I realized I had enough poems, so why not do all the two-letter words and make a project out of it? I could do a little artist edition with photos of the accompanying words, or I could do a book. I am here to tell you that poetry is where the money is.
How did Roz Chast get involved?
Weirdly, coincidentally, she wrote to me a few days before my editor said it was time to find an illustrator. I went to her house in Connecticut and met her parrots and her family before I finished the book. Then I sent her the manuscript and she sent back the illustrations.
I don't usually have favorite things, but in this case, my favorite is her illustration for the poem "Be": "'Be yourself,' all thinkers say; / how odd they think alike. / 'Be yourself,' says Lao Tzu; / 'Be yourself,' says Wilhelm Reich." She drew a couple; the man is wearing a T-shirt that says "Be Yourself," and the woman is wearing one that says, "I'm with stupid." It seems to me to make the point of the poem, and then go further, which I love.
You're reading at Book Soup on Monday night. Will you be singing too?
I will be bringing a ukulele with me. I have no particular plan to play, but if someone asks the time-honored question of why these are poems and not songs, I will perform one to show how badly it would have turned out.