ON INSPIRATION, PRACTICE AND BLOCKS
It used to be that when folks asked me if I write poetry everyday, I would say, “yes.” Used to be. It was good to say “yes”, because I think it is a good habit to try to write poetry everyday.
It used to be that when folks would ask me how I dealt with writer’s block, I would say, “Writer’s block? It does not exist. It is a great invention of writers to blame something other than ourselves for not writing.”
I still think most of these things. But I don’t write everyday. In fact, I go for long stretches without writing poems. I suspect that this silence may be related to not quite having anything interesting to say. And if one has nothing especially interesting to say, silence seems like a reasonable response.
I don’t use “writer’s block” as a reason. After all, I know why I am not writing. I have nothing to write. Or, perhaps, I am fairly bored with what I think I might write.
It used to be that when folks asked me what I did when I did not have anything to say. I would say, “I write anyway—not everything I write has to go anywhere. The exercise is the thing.”
It is a good answer. After all, poets should practice the craft, “keep the hand in”, and work on the technical aspects, staying in a space of reception just in case something good comes.
But it is something I don’t do much any more. I just don’t have the time to do it. It takes time to write like that—everyday working on the craft, honing the skill, etc. And life takes time, making this business of working on the craft something of a luxury.
So now, when I have nothing interesting to say, I don’t write.
It used to be that when poets asked me what inspired me as a poet, I would say, “I don’t know what ‘inspiration’ is, really. I write when I decide to write, and things come to me after that.”
It is a half-truth of an answer. Something must inspire that desire to write. But what I know they want to hear is an answer that has to do with subject matter—maybe an image, maybe anger, maybe some kind of muse. The problem is that nothing consistently moves me to write except the desire to have written something.
One, I suspect, writes to fill the absence of writing. Another way to say it is that one writes to fill silences. The silence may be quite internal—a personal kind of void that has to be filled with language. But it may also be created outside of our selves. Sometimes it has to do with the idea of an audience waiting to hear what we have to say. We sometimes write to fill that void.
This month I will write a poem each day. I am not filling a void. I am not inspired. I am not trying to hone my craft. Instead, I am doing what we often do for Lent or on January 1st: I am setting myself a challenge, something of a habit-based discipline. At the end of it, I will have done something basic: I would have written a poem each day. I will also try to avoid cracks in sidewalks.
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)...