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When the Source of Poetry is not Poetry (4 of 4)
Non-poetry sources round up:
For my first book, I worked a lot off of Erich Auerbach’s Mimesis. Using some of his vocabulary, some of his themes. Overall, the book was heavily influenced by my feminism; not so much intellectual/bookish, but just what it felt like to be a woman, how the culture treated women. For the second book, The Heaven-Sent Leaf, I was working off a very real-world environment I frequented daily on 45th Street and 7th Avenue… offices, overcrowded streets, the rarefied (and sometimes terrifying) air of high finance. I was also reading a lot of financial books, chief among them influence-wise was Galbraith’s The Affluent Society. Also Veblen’s Theory of the Leisure Class, Edith Wharton. For the book I am working on now, tentatively titled The Engineers, I have been working a lot off of various articles I have found in the Times in the Health and Science Sections. Interested in the just-so stories told by various evolutionary biologists. Also interested in studies. Items I find on Wikipedia, the net.
One of the books that I’ve often returned to is J. Robert Oppenheimer’s The Flying Trapeze: Three Crises for Physicists. It takes me out of poetry land in the big guns battle of cold war politics. But he’s such a gentleman.
I’m also super obsessed with Pet Shop Boys song “Paninaro.” There aren’t really lyrics as much as there are lists of things you want. “Food / Cars / Travel / Money.” It’s just so naked.
In terms of the movies, the coffee making scene in “Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelle” It’s so sublime. For ten minutes, you watch her try to figure out what’s wrong with her thermos of coffee, before she decides to scrap it and brew a new batch.
Annie Hall — I think the way Woody Allen used cartoon in the middle really affected me when I was a kid, and just that particular way of depicting adult life as primarily being about relationships — I think I would not have focused so much on that aspect of my life, and thus my work would have been different, if I hadn’t been shown that movie so often when I was little.
No recipe book in particular, and I’m not even a big user of recipe books, but I love the idea of a recipe book, and I think a novel that could work like a recipe book would be a great thing. I mean, I love the idea that a book provides a template for something you’re to manifest in the real world.
The Paris Review Interviews – I spent my teenage years seeking out the many editions of Writers at Work, which collected the Paris Review interviews. It was the first thing I looked for in any used bookstore. It taught me what it might mean to be a writer, and to write, and also gave me a deep love of the interview; how it reveals character and feeling and the mind so well.
1. Punk rock, no question. I’ve always had something to yell about. But more specifically? Music aside, the attitude of Wendy O’Williams, Grace Jones, Poly Styrene, Lydia Lunch. One part va va voom, with a little poison and a little asylum thrown in. They taught me that high heels were not the only kind of stilettos. They taught me how to wear blood for perfume. They gave me room to breathe.
Also, (like it or not, and I’m not sure I do), activism. From reproductive rights to apartheid to AIDS to the war to the war to Occupy. There’s something about shouting in the streets, about believing in something, about making the world you want (or dismantling the one you don’t), that is very inspiring to me.
Also? Crushes. That floaty feeling frequently sends me running to the laptop because if I said out loud how I was feeling when I was so swoony, the crusher would think that I was crazy, or scary, or both. And I am, but I try and save that for the second date.
For the past 4 years, I’ve been writing from documentary photographs. I’m specifically drawn to grittier documentary photography projects–Alec Soth’s Niagara project, Brian Ulrich’s Copia project, James Griffioen’s pictures of Detroit.
I think this is partially because I’m not an imagistic poet that I’m so drawn to the image as a seed for narrative or rumination. I look at these photos, usually online (though I try to get to exhibits when I can), try my best to inhabit them, and get to the root of what I find compelling about them. I also listen to interviews with the photographers, look at their notes and writing when I can too, and use all that material to make poems. But these are semi-obvious things that have been turning up in some of my poems. My other (more secret) influence are free pamphlets I pick up at supermarkets and drugstores and in doctor’s offices, that are handed to me by Jehovah’s Witnesses or left in my doorframe by roving missionaries. I’m fascinated by the rhetoric of persuasion disguised as the rhetoric of information. One of my favorites is this one from CVS–“Preventing Teen Cough Medicine Abuse”, which became its own poem. The pamphlets catch my eye in tiered wall displays, or people offer them to me on campus or street corners or my own stoop, and the fact that I’m compelled toward this specific kind of ephemera means I have to open myself to things I normally wouldn’t consider, and isn’t that poetry sometimes? They’re so sure of themselves, these pamphlets–about their information, about their messages. If only I could always write with the chutzpah of those things.