One thing I’ve been thinking about lately is how a poet is this person who has words that will not stay inside his or her head. Like the brain is fertile with language, and the language literally grows out of us. Maybe it’s this way with all people, and a poet is just someone who takes responsibility for that, who begins to cultivate the growing words, begins to treat their own brain as a farm.

As writers we must be cognizant of what we are pouring into our soil (soul). What we put into ourselves, our mental or psychic diet, will have an influence on the writing. To keep from drying up, (and many of us do dry up), we want to find a way to till the soil, to keep it artistically fertile by pouring in the right mix of nutrients. Nutrients, in this case, include actions, foods, thoughts, obsessions, people.

Rilke is the great example of a poet who put poetry in the center of his life. Some questions one might ask: Where do you put your poetry in your life? Is there sufficient room for it? Do you construct your life in a way that feeds your art? Do you to tend to your poems regularly? Do you surround yourself with people who honor the poet inside you?

People. I’m not saying one should make a list of all their friends and relatives and contemplate the continuation of each relationship based exclusively on whether it is good or bad for the soil, for artistic production, but when we hang out with someone, we are allowing them to pour their words directly into our head. We are also responsible for the feelings (or lack thereof) that the people in our lives stimulate. Maybe one needs to erect a few scarecrows. More and more as a writer, I am cognizant of the fact that I want to preserve some mental and emotional space. (When I was in my twenties, it was almost the opposite.)

Food. Obviously what we eat and drink has an influence on us physically, but it also touches us mentally, as the brain is still technically part of the body. One will feel differently at 6 pm depending if one has had a beet salad for lunch or engaged in a hot dog eating contest. One will feel differently the next morning depending if one drank a fifth of Jim Beam the night before or sipped green tea.

I’m not saying there is one right way, and that all poets should drink green tea or whisky exclusively. Maybe it serves your art well to rupture your thought process with a night of black-out drinking—that has worked for many writers over the years, (it worked for me with mixed results many moons ago.)

Obsessions. A poet and former teacher who I respect greatly said to me recently that we all have demons, but that my particular demons, when he knew me 15 years ago in grad school, were undermining me. So I guess the goal is to gravitate towards demons that will enhance your art rather than undermine it. Personally I hope to not have the same obsessions in 10 years that I have today. I pray (pry?) for new obsessions, or at least a new relationship to my current ones.

Culture. The culture we ingest will eventually come out of us. When you read a book or watch a film or listen to a record, it gets poured into your soil. Again I’m not saying one should listen to only classical music, or only punk rock, just that we are cognizant of the fact that what we pour into ourselves will eventually come back out, or at least influence, flavor, what emerges.

If you want to change how you’re writing, or what you’re writing about, you can do this by swallowing, pouring, lots of a particular style or subject matter into yourself. It takes about five years of feeding something into your brain, of planting the seeds, before it will start to emerge organically in your poems. If you want to write political poems, devour politics. If you want to write with wilder imagery, devour all things surreal. And in five years, it will begin to emerge from you, naturally.

Thoughts. This is a little trickier. The soil is also influenced by the thoughts one chooses to engage. Think of them as mental friends. When one sits down to write (are there some poets who write while standing up? I hope so.), the words that grow out of you will be different if you engaged hostile thoughts all morning than if you had a clear mind.

What some might call the “stream of consciousness”, I will call the “brain road”; it’s what you are on mentally when you wake up and begin having thoughts. I guess you are less free of exerting your will if it’s a “stream” than if it’s a “road”, because a stream will carry you along; a road has forks in it, places where you must make a decision.

Anyway, for the purpose of this instance, I will call it a road. You’ve just woken up and gotten onto your brain road. You step in the shower, and as the water begins to hit you, a person who pissed you off, yesterday or months before, pops into your head and trots over to you, baits you into an imaginary argument. This is the first fork of the day. If you engage that thorny discussion, begin telling that imaginary person where to stick it, you are making a decision that will have an impact on the kind of day you will have.

I know that when I engage that first resentment I can quickly work myself into a froth, because soon a second character from the boiling side of the past pops up miraculously, and then a third, as if there’s a conveyor belt of resentment—I believe there is a physical conveyor belt, just for self-taunting, built into the brain—and soon I am sending out brain waves to other angry people on the telepathic internet connecting us all, saying meet me on aisle three of Home Depot at exactly 11:27, we will reach for the same roll of masking tape, and have the confrontation that we both have been lusting for.

Maybe it works for you to keep your mind filled with static, to constantly wrestle with the world. Maybe it helps you write good poems. (It worked for Frost, right?) Or maybe you want to keep your mind clean. I want to keep my mind clean today, though I seem to have this innate gift for producing static.

I was in a play six years ago in Los Angeles; we did twenty-nine shows. I would get on stage each night, and try to invite the character’s psyche into my brain, but sometimes my brain was cluttered with the thoughts, feelings I’d been having (indulging) all day, and suddenly I’d be on stage, in front of people, and become uncomfortably aware of all the mental baggage I had been lugging around. I began to strive to keep my brain free of unnecessary thoughts and feelings during the day, so that I would have a blanker space for the character to inhabit at night.

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It’s becoming clear that this is too much to include in a blog entry, that this is merely a beginning; there are three main stages that I wished to explore, and I’ve only touched on one. I will speed through the last two. Here are the three:

  • Tilling the soil, what you put into yourself: thoughts, actions etc.
  • Harvesting the crop, writing, re-writing etc.
  • Distributing the crop, sharing the work

Harvesting. This is the act of writing, the showing up on a regular basis and doing the work. If you don’t tend your word crops, your poetry farm will go under.

The metaphor I sometimes use (and I realize I am mixing metaphors here) is that writing is kind of like surfing—the surfer gets in position, floats around in the water for several hours, waiting for the right wave to come along. You can’t catch the wave if you’re not in the water. Our job is to place ourselves in a position to succeed: to show up at the blank page and float around for a couple hours, ready to catch a wave.

Distribution. This last stage is crucial. It doesn’t mean only publication, though it can mean than that. It means getting your poems, your word crop, out into the world somehow. If you don’t take your poems somewhere, they will dry up and this will undermine your endeavor in a big way.

Distribution can mean publication in national or regional literary magazines, or it can mean sharing your work with a writing group or an open mike that you feel connected to, or it can be sharing poems with a few trusted friends who you feel “get you”, who see you as you wish to be seen. Even Emily Dickinson had at least one person to share some of her poems with.

This distribution, if it is successfully executed, will feed you. The money of publication or literary success will not be enough to sustain you, (though a little success doesn’t hurt). The only things that will sustain you over the long haul are the joy from the act of creation and the knowledge that some other person has truly eaten what has grown out of you.

Originally Published: May 18th, 2006

Jeffrey McDaniel is the author of five books of poetry, most recently Chapel of Inadvertent Joy (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2013). Other books include The Endarkenment (Pittsburgh, 2008), The Splinter Factory (Manic D, 2002), The Forgiveness Parade (Manic D Press, 1998), and Alibi School (Manic D, 1995). His poems have...