Greg Bales

Murder City Challenge

In Charles Bowden’s Murder City, which is at once brutal and beautiful, is this:

Here’s the deal: Given the choices, what would you do? I’d kill to get in the gang, I’d put on the high heels and the perfume, I’d pick up the guitar, I’d go through the wire, I’d open the bottle, I’d sniff the glue, I’d say tell me the lovers are losers and I’d certainly piss on the winners anointed by the authorities. And I’d maybe kill in Juárez, but far more certainly, I would die in Juárez. With a shout and a scream and a head full of dreams.

The passage comes during a longer meditation on the choices that people have in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, the city with the highest murder rate in the world (a trend that this guy, who seems to have adopted Eric Cartman as his muse, probably has no real chance of reversing). With no good choices in life, why not choose the life of fancy or of violence? Bowden’s is not so much an argument as it is a gesture, an exasperated throwing-up-of-the-hands and a shrug. It’s a gesture held down by the impossible weight of circumstance.

But my question is this: How has the passage not already been made into a song? The sentiment, the language is there; all it needs is a structure. If ever there was prose that needed to be a song, this is it.

So I’m issuing a challenge to you, songwriters and poets. Make music of Bowden’s prose. Upload a recording of the song to YouTube and send me a link; I’ll post it here. Write a poem and send it to me (or send me a link to your blog); I’ll post that, too. The only rule is that you take the passage quoted above as your inspiration. Work with the text verbatim or take it as inspiration; I’m no stickler. Signed copies of Murder City and The Sicario, courtesy of the author and Nation Books go to the winner. Submissions must be received by 11.59 pm on July 10, 2011. Good luck!


This is where I’ll post answers to any questions about the challenge.

Q: Instead of posting to YouTube, can I send an audio file?

By all means! I have no special affinity for YouTube—I suggested it for convenience’s sake. Any format you want to submit in is fine. You can use this link to e-mail me.

Q: Wasn’t the original deadline June 30?

Yes, but I revised this post somewhat and extended the challenge another week and a weekend with the announcement of the prize. Did you notice the prize? Signed copies of Murder City and The Sicario!

Q: How will the winning song or poem be chosen?

When I first offered this challenge, I hadn’t put any thought into judging, but it’s a good question! I’ve certainly made it no easier by challenging both songwriters and poets. Could a judge compare a gentle ballad strummed on a guitar to a pantoum with any validity? Probably not! But I submit that “Is it valid” is the wrong question to ask. This is about challenging your creativity and mine to build upon and adapt another writer’s work, to mine gold and copper out of an already rich vein.

But there is a prize, and judging can’t be done by me alone. When all of the entries are in, I will of set up a poll, and I will invite you to vote on your favorite entries. Yes, this does invite the usual problems of Internet polls like ballot stuffing; I’ll do what I can to police that. (On the plus side, if one person can stuff a ballot, everybody can stuff a ballot.) Judging will be transparent and, I hope you will agree, fair.


Music, Poetry


June 14, 2011

Being neither a poet nor a songwriter, I shan’t attempt to improvise or improve upon Bowden, but I did want to say what a terrifically good writer I think he is.

June 15, 2011

June 21, 2011

July 10, 2011

July 11, 2011

And here’s my response (though it’s no entry).

July 18, 2011

Vote for the winner!

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