“When I’m managing to write regularly, I always have a collection of poems in translation on my desk. I’ll usually begin a writing session by reading a few poems from the collection and copying out the lines that speak to me. Then, I’ll re-organize those lines into a new poem, editing the lines or improvising my own language. During this process, I usually stumble upon a new phrase or image, which I’ll then use as the starter for a new draft. I often sense distance in a translated poem, and it is precisely this distance that frees me to experiment with the language.
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“A lifetime ago, when I was a bumbling graduate student at the Michener Center for Writers, I had the immense pleasure of taking a poetry class from Denis Johnson. Here’s what happened. He told us that we should keep two notebooks. In the first, he said, we were to write in the usual way—fretting, second-guessing, brooding. The second one, he said, was different because it was governed by a single rule—this notebook had to be a space where the pen never left the page, where we wrote everything down, no matter how bizarre or reckless it felt.
“I believe that writers should have a childlike sense of wonder about the world. But wonder is hard to come by when life is there with its demands on your attention, always with its problems—the long commute, the friend who snubbed you, the coworker or student who needs your help. For me, renewing that sense of wonder is a cornerstone of my writing practice. And whenever I feel like I’ve lost it, I head to the aquarium. I often go alone.
“This year, I read a book each day during the month of August. Though it was one of the most challenging things I’ve ever done, I’m so glad I did it. Before then, I hadn’t read a full collection of poetry in weeks. Between my work at Cave Canem and promoting Ordinary Beast, I hadn’t been reading as much and chalked it up to not having enough time. But that wasn’t true, as I would make time to play Juice Jam during my commute. Those hours spent making matches of three to five fruits could’ve been spent reading.
“Let’s say I’m trying to write a long poem about rainbow herbicides, the production of Agent Orange in New Jersey, ecological disaster, and a parent having leukemia, and I get stuck. There’s a problem with where to go next in the poem. Or there’s a transition I can’t seem to get right. Instead of looking even more closely at the poetry models that have helped me build the poem, I turn instead to something totally opposite, like a few of Carl Phillips’s small, intense poems about desire.
“What do I always turn to for inspiration or energy when I am downcast or in need of invigoration? Classy and sapient answers crowd the brain: I reread the dinner scenes in James Boswell’s The Life of Samuel Johnson (true, I do). I turn again to The Thurber Carnival (true, too). Or I look at a picture book, bought in Paris, of Manet’s watercolors, and am reminded of how truth to touch and tone is all the truth an artist needs—be true to those small things, and you will be true to your time. All...true.
“When I’m lost, first I pretend I’m not. Then I admit it and analyze. Am I coiled into a choking sentence that signals avoidance rather than deep delving? Am I short-circuiting what must be fully discovered, explored, and written? Have I lost the connective sinews, become emotionally distant? That checklist can send up a signpost. If no signpost appears, I read through my thick stack of possibly-to-be-incorporated thoughts, images, ideas, and fragments, hoping to sight the missing path.
“A few years ago, my friend and I began keeping an e-mail chain about writers who have wrecked their bodies through writing. It’s true: Occasionally intellectual labor is as backbreaking as physical labor. There’s the well-known example of Giacomo Leopardi, whose prodigious output—the result of countless neck-straining hours stooped over his desk—permanently deformed his spine. Then there’s Herman Melville, once an active, swashbuckling young man, who dove with such intensity into his whale book that his entire family circulated letters conspiring to make him rest.
“My pre-husband tells me that I am an obsessive person. He is right. When faced with a problem, I will stare at it until it goes away. I will actively try to fix the problem. Planning our wedding, for instance. Not a problem but a growing disaster. Similarly, if I am stuck on a story, a page, a line, I will sit there until I get it right. What helps me most with writing is sheer persistence and also reading writers I admire, wish I could sound like, can’t sound like, fail to mimic, and in that failure I start sounding like myself.
“In secondary school, one of my literature teachers would ask us to attribute lines from a play to the right characters. So, I prepared for exams by revising plays only after I’d covered each character’s name with a tiny piece of paper. My goal was to figure out who said what by paying closer attention to the speech patterns, and I soon discovered that how something was said could reveal as much about the speaker as the words themselves.