“I read to be reminded of what poetry can do—especially on days when it feels like poetry makes nothing happen. I return to Anne Sexton to remind me of the first time a poem blew the top of my head off. I go back to Carolyn Forché, Eavan Boland, and Natasha Trethewey to remember how poetry can bear witness and protest, back to Robert Browning, Gwendolyn Brooks, and Rita Dove to remember how it tells people’s stories.
In this online exclusive we ask authors to share books, art, music, writing prompts, films—anything and everything—that has inspired them in their writing. We see this as a place for writers to turn to for ideas that will help feed their creative process.
“I find that writing rough patches are often a symptom of my not reading enough. I’ll reach for poetry, plays, fiction, essays, biographies—I try to read widely and deeply. Visual art is endlessly inspiring. I love richly designed films, films with style. I’m a sucker for period pieces or amazing costumes. Whenever I travel, I also make it a point to visit the local museum. Recently, I watched the biopic Jackie, a gorgeous study of Jackie Kennedy’s grief and desire to control the narratives of her own life as well as her husband’s.
“I keep this quote by Vaclav Havel taped next to my desk: ‘Hope is not the conviction that something will turn out well but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out.’ I’ve had it explained to me in a dozen or so ways, most of them contradictory. Havel came from the theater, so his activism would embrace a certain improvisation. The path from anti-Communist playwright to post-Communist statesman must have seemed, to paraphrase Robert Hass, at best untranslated. Havel was an actor and a politician: quotable. Still, I am moved by his words.
“The only working antidote I have found for spells where I struggle to write—the weeks and months where every poem seems to me some small, opaque machine, its inner workings altogether inscrutable—is to spend time with authors who unsettle my habits of analysis, especially at the level of genre convention. Christina Sharpe’s most recent monograph, In The Wake: On Blackness and Being (Duke University Press, 2016), has been a rare gift in this regard.
“Writing looks much the same for me as others: a cup of coffee, music, a bare desktop, and so on. Eventually the tank runs dry, the wheels come off, or I'm simply at the end of my workday. What's left are inevitably the problems that stymied me while I wrote, or the ones I see on the horizon. The best way for me to come at tomorrow is to find three things: The first is a dimly lit bar, and the other two are whiskies.
“One practice I’ve found useful for generating new ideas is entering into conversation with other poets, other poems. Though in general the more variously I read, the more I’m able to stretch myself writing-wise. I specifically like talking to poems I love or am confused by or disagree with as a way of clarifying my thoughts.
“I think the greatest thing we have at our disposal to write are our eyes and ears. Vanessa Hua has written in this series about writing against the clock and I think that kind of desperation and urgency can propel you toward creation. I do almost all of my writing on my commute because I like being in the in-between—you can pick up so much.
“I think of visual artifacts as prompts and as talismans. My book, House A, is a hybrid book—the third section consists of image-text poems entitled ‘How to Build an American Home’—but even in relation to other parts of the book I noticed that I was keeping collections of images close to my writing process. How might a multimodal engagement enrich our work both directly and indirectly? My personal collection of images and photographs for this book: houses with A-shaped roofs, geometric figures, and maps/diagrams/blueprints.
“Two things have transformed my productivity. The first: I made a writer friend! Specifically, one who actually wanted to meet up with me two or three times a week and write. Margaret Wappler (whose gorgeous novel, Neon Green, published by Unnamed Press, also came out this year!) and I met at the Tin House Writers Workshop and once we returned to Los Angeles, we began pulling out our laptops at various coffee shops, bars, and restaurants across town. Having a compatriot in the mucky struggle of getting a novel onto the page was invaluable to me.