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When the Source of Poetry is not Poetry (3 of 4)
Non-poetry sources round up:
Nick Cave: Not his lyrics especially, nor his compositions particularly. It’s his manner, his privileging affect over all else – lust, murderous rage, bitterness, disgust. A poem without affect is like a person without affect – interesting to study but I wouldn’t want to take it to bed with me.
Modern Dance: I used to dance, not in any notable way. At my very best I was a weak ensemble member in a small-town company. But dance put me in touch with the physicality of poetry before I understood anything else about poetry. For years I wrote almost exclusively for rhythm, suspension, collision, and movement.
The book on my shelf that has inspired me the most these past twenty years has been my Better Homes and Gardens New Cookbook. A letter at the beginning of this edition (1965?) begins: “Dear Homemaker …” In this volume there is a graph labeled Shrimp Arithmetic, as well as many great verbs like score and spring.
A book titled Chainsaw Savvy
Several books on sausage making
The Dark is Rising Series, by Susan Cooper, which I read when I was 11 and to which I return every few years, in order to dip back into the well of myself. They return me to this moment when I was completely open to wonder: a necessary state, I think, for a reader and a writer.
History of the United States of America During the Administrations of Thomas Jefferson, by Henry Adams, which is the most brilliant and beautiful book I’ve ever read, and also the most soporific. It taught me that not all the best writing grabs the reader and shakes her. It taught me to tend to your task and tend to it well, with an ear for sound and rhythm, with an eye for color and absurdity, and with unrelenting sympathy.
Action and horror movies are very influential for me. I love how film makers create narratives, especially narratives centered around tense, uneasy, action-filled scenes — how time slows down when the helicopter explodes or the babysitter hides from the killer in the upstairs closet, how these movies so often layer past and present on top of each other, or expand and narrow their points of view. I used always to watch (often awful) action-filled movies before I wrote, and felt the directors’ senses of pacing and scene-making influence my own writing. Sometimes I do that today, too.
Also, Roman history is important to me — Suetonius, Livy, Tacitus, those guys. I find that reading the great (and not-so-great) Roman historians helps me to think of myself within the context of a much larger history. I like to imagine that we are all writing out of history, that writing is a way that the historical dead speak to the transiently living (or the not-yet-born) — and reading books from the distant past helps me to keep this in mind as I write. (And the obvious points of similarity between our empire and the Roman empire are endlessly interesting subject matter for poetry.)
Well, I’d have to say for me they’d be musical and they be jazz, which I feel like is one of those things poets are always saying. But I’ve listened to jazz very passionately for about half my life and it’s worked it’s way into everything. It seems to me that there’s nowhere else in music where one can find a version of extemporaneous speaking that is unparaphrasable but in which there is clearly meaning and, between musicians, conversation going on. It’s what, I think, much poetry aspires to, or at least much (though not all) of the poetry I love. I think about the long solos of mid-sixties Coltrane, where he and Elvin Jones are clearly in the midst of long, wordless conversations. I often wish I didn’t have to talk and could do what they do instead.
If you want a list, here are three albums that make me more able to write:
ONE DOWN AND ONE UP by John Coltrane
SONGS by Brad Mehldau
DOGON AD by Julius Hemphill
Financial magazines (like Barron’s, Fortune, Kiplinger’s) and the business section of the newspaper are an unending source of metaphors and arresting phrases: “triple witching hour;” “dead cat bounce;” “catch a falling knife,” “risk-on, risk-off.”
Then, too, I am sure that my love of old movies and of classic American popular songs (“My Funny Valentine,” “The Way You Look Tonight,” “Come Rain or Come Shine,” “Our Love is Here to Stay”) enters my poetry in a variety of ways. And baseball in the summer, basketball in the winter and spring.
-Fabric catalogs. I love flipping through the spreads of patterns and reading the names the textures and colors have been given.
-The wry, sassy Chilean tabloid newspaper The Clinic and other foreign newspapers available online, reading their take on world events and especially things connected to the United States often gets me questioning my perspective on things, a state of mind that sometimes leads to a poem.
So I’m about to confess something I never thought I’d tell anyone: my poems are occasionally directly influenced by pop songs. These songs are often cheesy, yes, often reductive and trite and bordering on ridiculous. Vacant. Cliché. But at the same time I wonder: if Americans love pop songs so much, why don’t they love poems more than they do? Songs we hear on the radio are meant to be concentrated packets of sometimes-messy emotions, they are quick and they suggest and, though they are often less than subtle, at least they work to lend us an emotional urgency and immediacy. They don’t always have happy endings. They aren’t always toting Hollywood-style fluff. It is this immediacy and urgency of words given power by being blurred into music that I find can sometimes strike me in a way that feels like a poem.
I’ll cringingly admit that my poem “History of the Always Pain” is to some degree my version of the Police song “King of Pain.” That “Passing for Red” was most certainly written after listening to Peter Murphy’s “Cuts You Up.” And, perhaps worst of all, the first image in the poem “What We No Longer Know” was inspired by a Madonna video.
I’m in the car and a song strikes me because of its phrasings or its rhythms or its lyrics.The complications of its language snaking together with some heavy beat or taut guitar opens up a place in me that looks a lot like a poem’s place. It hooks me. I want to take that hook and turn it around, make it hook others instead. And so I do.
David Pye’s book The Nature and art of Workmanship is one that helps me; he’s coming out of the last generation of English Arts & Crafts designer/builder/theorists, and makes a great case for the contiguous metaphors of all processes of making.
I like to watch certain individual athletes of various kinds, because they seem to me so resilient and resourceful and creative in what they do. Specifically, certain soccer players– Adam Johnson, Leo Messi, Didier Drogba– or David Belle in parkour, or Danny McAskill riding a bike. What they do is as gorgeous as modern dance and as spontaneous as a poem whose end one can’t foresee at the outset.
And I like to get lost walking in cities where I don’t speak the language.
Philip Guston Collected Writings, Lectures, & Conversations edited by Clark Coolidge as recommended by David Rivard when he came to Tucson for a visit.
Damien Jurado’s new record Maraqopa: incredible as recommended by Katy Henriksen, who interviewed Jurado here.
All of Noah Saterstrom‘s work makes me want to write:
DIA-Beacon… the space, the curation and, of course, the whole corridors, rooms and floors focusing on a single artist’s work…has been a really important place for me to see what ideas and experiments [in the visual arts] can compellingly translate, feed or inform playfulness and innovation in the literary arts (not by providing material per se, but by providing new ways to consider manipulating material in the future).
I have also been shaped…neurotic as this sounds… by watching every film a particular filmmaker has ever produced. Watching everything Pedro Almodóvar, Krzysztof Kieslowski or Lucrecia Martel has written and/or directed, allows me to see certain throughlines…which, often, remain remarkably consistent… project to project.
I am obsessed with signatures, and how, exactly, artists arrive at their very own. In a thirty-five second snippet, taken randomly from the beginning, middle or end of a career, you know when you are watching a film by Ingmar Bergman or Jean-Luc Godard (in the same way you can tell when you are reading a line of poetry by John Ashbery or Rachel Zucker). Seeing every film in the filmography helps me see the signature, stage to stage, as it evolves to accomodate the filmmaker’s enduring fixations, tics and styles. It is all there in the beginning, and something else to see in the end.
Fashion, too, really inspires me. (I have none, myself). But the sheer mad range of Alexander McQueen’s imagination can flummox and feed me in all of the best ways.
Finally, I love wine labels(!) Unless we are real eonophiles, sous-chefs or sommeliers (with a sick amount of so-called disposable income), so few of us will ever really be able to tell the differences between a Châteauneuf-du-Pape and Côte-Rôtie. On a wine tour, or at a tasting, or simply by reading about a wine’s terroir, fermentation, and flavor, it’s such a treat aerating a glass of wine, trying to find the mint, the smoke, the violets, blackberry, vanilla, white and/or black pepper, steel, leather, plums, or chocolate on the nose.
Answering this for the poems that I like most, I would say the argumentative structure that influences me most comes from Freud (I know, I know), Foucault, and Rich. Also Hayden White. I remember not understanding these authors at all when I first read them. I mean, I understood the words, the sentences, and sometimes even the paragraphs. But the way the arguments would turn back, double over, even contradict previous passages. Writing is more like sculpture, as Judith Roof (not a poet as far as I know) taught me, than we are led to believe. The only way to start is with an incomplete idea. Ambitious as you like, but always incomplete. I find that liberating, to remember how dumb and simple Freud begins sometimes. (and ends! But that’s another issue.)
In terms of surface tension, or texture, I suspect my most recent influences are children’s films. Monsters Incorporated plays in an endless loop in my head, especially the music and transitions, Mike’s scene ending and frustrated No No No becomes a scene starter with Mr. Waternoose’s No No No. The mad romp of the movement, not a gesture wasted. I like a swinging, freewheeling beat when I can manage it, something you just have to ride out like a driving narrative.
Read part 4 here.