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When the Source of Poetry is not Poetry (1 of 4)
I’m interested in the edge between poetry and prose, between poetry and everything that is not-poetry. I love poetry but often all I want to do is read not-poetry and often my poems come from not-poetry (sometimes not-book) sources.
I like sci-fi and fantasy (especially since having three sons), and my husband has read me all the George RR Martin books aloud. I often find inspiration in novels, non-fiction, graphic novels and memoir (mostly for structure or punctuation and/or syntax): Us (Michael Kimball), The 19th Wife (David Ebershoff), The Last Samurai (Helen DeWitt), Safekeeping (Abigail Thomas), What It Is (Lynda Barry), And the Pursuit of Happiness (Maira Kalman) just to name a few. I love to read cookbooks and recently fell in love with Tamar Adler’s The Everlasting Meal: Cooking with Grace and Economy which has very few recipes in it and is more of a philosophy of cooking (and living). Music is not usually important to me but the band Luna is the soundtrack to my book, Museum of Accidents. Everything about Spalding Gray (except his suicide) is critically important to my work. I am addicted to podcasts, especially This American Life and Radio Lab. I like to write in museums and especially like paintings. I like the language of curation (both the display tags and audio tours). I like process notes and stories of artists’ lives. I like science and the language of science.
I decided to ask my writer friends to share some of their non-poetry sources. I made a distinction between sources and bridge books. Bridge books—I first heard this term from Julianna Baggott whose terrific non-poetry book, Pure, I am currently reading—are books that get you writing, that flip a switch and turn your writing ON. I’d love to do another post on bridge books, but what follows are are non-poetry sources, the often invisible influences of some of my favorite writers. I find their lists inspiring and fascinating. I hope you will too!
Non-poetry sources round up:
I think I’ve been most influenced by The Marx Brothers, particularly Groucho. His endless spirals of wit often send me into my own vortex of funny thoughts. I also have drawn a lot of inspiration from the members of the Justice League of America, particularly Batman. He always has something he can pull from his belt.
Sometimes it seems like everything I read is what influences me. That is, when I am writing (and I have been, intensely); when I am in that particular place (it’s like a room in the house of my life I keep forgetting how to get to), then it’s everything I see: lately, a 2005 New Yorker article by Richard Preston, on the great redwood trees; a completely astonishing book by Judith Schalansky, called ATLAS OF REMOTE ISLANDS (it’s about fifty actual islands on earth, places she has never been to but has researched and developed stories from; she also made the attendant maps, designed and set the book’s type—from Penguin). And a book I can’t seem to do without anymore is Fowler’s Modern English Usage. It’s not just HWF’s wonderful crankiness; there are things that . . . “work” for me. Did you know, for example, that Fowler speaks of the use of the pronoun “one” as the “false first person”? I didn’t, until some months ago, and somehow that turned into a poem. Also one movie: Chinatown: the soundtrack, that devastating solo trumpet. I thought for sure it was Terrance Blanchard, but no, it was a trumpeter I’d never heard of: Uan Rasey. Who? Which lead me to discover that he was a mostly unknown but famous-in-LA studio and session musician, and that he was born in Glasgow, Montana—the American outback, nowhere, other side of the middle of empty. How did he wind up in LA playing jazz? Where did such gorgeous, soul-bluing music come from? All I know is that the world just keeps offering—here, here, here—and you either sleep through its largesse or you do not. Clearly, Uan Rasey would have known what I mean.
1. City walking. The juxtapositions of life, decay, human detritus, and strange bits of nature pushing back-and-through endlessly fascinate. Marry those to the rhythm of purposeful movement and words just line up.
2. Choreography. Now that my kids are older and I’m back in a city–I’ve been going to see dance more than I have in a long while, even writing reviews on it. Watching people-creatures challenge the bodies’ limitations has always made me want to say. Not to mention theater-dark is loamy as a blank page.
3. Children. When they are not sucking the last airy bits from my lungs through bendy straws—they fill me with ideas. I never really wrote before them. They are the densest creative obstacles and engines I know of.
The piano music of Scriabin and Fauré; the paintings of Robert Ryman and Cy Twombly, among a thousand others; the autobiographical writings of Michel Leiris.
Several very influential books that deeply influence my thinking, my creative work, my community engagement work, my life as an artist:
David Carrasco, City of Sacrifice: The Aztec Empire and The Role of Violence in Civilization (Beacon Press) and Religions of Mesoamerica (Harpers).
Peter Block, Community: The Structure of Belonging (Berrett-Koehler).
Liz Lerman, Hiking the Horizontal: Field Notes from a Choreographer (Wesleyan University Press).
I also read a lot of plays and libretti for operas—works that inform the scripts and libretti that I write as an artist with Littleglobe.
The First Amendment
California Coastal Almanac
The King James translation of Psalms
I return to the novels of H.D. especially, Hermione. Other reliable sources: Invertebrate Zoology Texts, Medieval herbals, novels of Henry James, sacred texts —many sources- Torah, Upanishads, and most recently- as I am learning what it means to dwell within the form of elegy, The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying.
Read part 2 here.