Interviewers like to ask, “What inspires you as a poet?” Generally I don’t like the question because as soon as I start to answer the question, I seem to be inventing a rationale for my work, and in the process, I pretend to know what may have prompted every single poem that I have written. I really don’t know. More importantly, I really don’t want to know.

I sometimes imagine that if I share with people in a public forum what inspires me, a number of things could happen. Perhaps one day, I might say to some friends, “You know, I am not writing poems these days, I feel as if I am empty most of the time. I am miserable.” And me saying this is not outlandish at all. It is quite possible that I have similar words and expressed similar sentiments before.

On hearing this, my well thinking friends, now equipped with the knowledge that I am inspired by fruit, will start to send me a great deal of fruit on a daily basis. They will arrange for me to go strawberry picking in some farm country. They will send me postcards and email attachments of fruit. They will send me any poem, short story or anecdote about fruit that they can find. The expectation, then, is that I will begin to write poems and more poems. I like fruit, but I can assure my friends that this will not work.

Most of the time, I am inspired by the compulsion to make poems. Which, said another more cryptic and perhaps unhelpful way, would sound like this: “I am inspired by the inspiration to write poems." I imagine that many poets can identify their source of “inspiration," but for me, the word itself fills me with some disquiet.

Scripture, you see, is inspired by God. That lofty language points to something quite weighty in this business of inspiration. Preachers will parse out the Greek and say, “scripture is God-breathed.” Those who wrote the scriptures joined the anatomy of God and soon found the rhythm and pulse of God. Here, the inspiration is not some external object, some sentiment or some muse, but is in fact a process by which the poet is merely a instrument of some divine breathing.

I know my poems. I can’t put that on God. Not at all.

We like to use words like trigger, prompt, fired, to describe the thing that we believe is the first push for us to make a poem. I have thought a lot about the way poems start for me, and I have concluded that poems start with a decision that I am going to make a poem.

Even if something really powerful has happened around me, were I to decide that I am not making a poem, I simply won’t. I have never felt a poem take a hold of me and leave me miserable if I did not write it.

Some of my friends have described such a phenomenon, and I am fascinated by this. But for me, no such force exists — not in poems.

Once I have made the decision, I start to look out for things that may make a good start.

In the last eight days, I have watched a strange list of things make their way into my poems. I could tell people that I was inspired by these things, but really, I would be lying. They just came up and helped a poem find its way home. Here is the list:

1. A Lens Crafters employee telling me not to use my shirt to clean my new lenses.

2. Discovering unexpectedly that an old friend is remarried to someone of a different race.

3. An African woman in a movie carrying a tray of food in a dingy restaurant in France.

4. A rainy drive through Ohio

5. A curious painting of Harriet Tubman and some black slaves in a hotel lobby in a forgettable town.

6. A friend going a bit out of control in his behavior.

7. Shadows.

8. LeBron James’ mother’s arrest for assault.

None of the poems are about any of these things really. They have defiantly become something else. Is it possible to discern from this list the kind of thing that “inspires” this poet? I have not been able to do so.

My metaphor, instead, is a cesspool (if I am trying to be a little provocative), or a dumping area (if not). I collect things. Sometimes I collect them consciously, but most times I collect them unconsciously. I have, apparently, been collecting stuff in that pool for decades — even before I thought I would write poems.

What happens is that when I start to write a poem that pool throws up all kinds of stuff. The pool does not act in this way until I start to write a poem. In fact the pool does not appear to be there until I start to write a poem.

Tonight, Gillian Conoley’s question about my palette has been tossed into the pool. This time, consciously, because it is such a provocative and beautiful question. I have no useful answers to it. This blog, is, in some ways, an answer to it.

Because I am saying that what others may think of as “inspiration," I probably think of the idea of a palette as being a better way of thinking about it. I know that she means what do I do with color in my poems, and how do colors figure. But color is not the only part of the palette.

I used to paint once. In those days, the two colors I liked to use were burnt sienna and yellow ochre. I did not use them a great deal, but when I had the chance to use them, I got excited by the opportunity. To this day, I associate those colors to river banks. I don’t think I have such a color in my poems — a single color that I love. But what I do love is the challenge of bringing color into my poems — finding a way of using language so that what I am seeing or feeling is conveyed clearly and in a lasting manner.

I imagine that inside that deep pool are lots of colors. I am never sure what will come floating upwards, but so far, so good — something always comes up.

Originally Published: April 9th, 2011

Born in Ghana in 1962, Kwame Dawes spent most of his childhood in Jamaica. As a poet, he is profoundly influenced by the rhythms and textures of the country, citing in a recent interview his “spiritual, intellectual, and emotional engagement with reggae music.” His book Bob Marley: Lyrical Genius (2007)...