“I believe, as many writers do, that there are touchstone moments in literature—poetry, fiction, and plays—that spark the imagination. So here are a couple of personal inspirations:
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.
“Running takes me out of the city and into nature, which does something to me that most man-made stuff can’t. I pass the Brazilian transsexuals, wave, pass the mean forest cops on their big horses, salute, pass that one old guy with the terry-cloth headband, wave. I stop next to that pond with those two nasty swans and I hang upside down and stretch until my head feels as alive and as heavy as an electric watermelon.
“One of the seventeen times the Supremes appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show, they sang ‘You Can’t Hurry Love’ wearing earrings that weighed close to what Diana Ross weighed at the time. At some point in the song, one of Ross’s earrings dangles and falls. What does she do? She keeps singing lead, and includes in the choreography a catch you have to watch the footage several times to see. Suddenly, Diana Ross has one earring on and one in her hand. Poetry is performance. I recommend watching this to learn writing with focus...and grace.”
“Lately I’ve been writing poems on my iPhone. But I also like to write poems on Post-it notes and in my trusty sketchbook, too. Writing on various media, not letting myself get comfortable, is very helpful. I also like to send myself off into what I call coffee shop exile. Being in public spaces makes me a little edgy, which is good for my writing.
“Also, if I want to write but can't find a way in, often the best thing I can do is read any old John Ashbery book of poetry. I write almost nothing like him, but reading his work gets me leaping in interesting directions.
“I’m the least athletic person in the world—the proverbial kid picked last for teams—so what I’m about to suggest is a bit strange: Go running. Whenever I get stuck in story, unable to get my character out of the car and into his apartment, I step away from my desk, throw on shorts, and hit the pavement. I hate sports. Truly. But there’s something about the rhythm of running—and the complete solitude it allows—that calms me down and allows me to work through whatever problems I’m encountering on the page.”
“I am very interested in cities and places, and in having conversations with them. Research and lists are big for me. Often, lists I make become poems unto themselves. Notes from my research make some of the strongest lines in my poems, I’ve found, or, like the lists, turn into poems of their own. I began my book The Straits in response to the sparse but lyrical narration in a Russian film, Palms, so I find listening for refrains and cadences—anywhere and everywhere—then responding to them highly evocative.
“I loved that moment at the 2008 Oscars when Glen Hansard closed his acceptance speech with this exhortation to the world: ‘Make art. Make art.’ As a writer, I try to ‘make art,’ but all too often the twenty-first century’s ubiquitous, on-demand distractions interfere and keep me from getting to that place where I can apply a fierce commitment and single-minded focus to the act of creation.
“I need to feel invested in life to write. So I dance to music that compels life into my body: any from the old hippie Broadway musicals—Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, Jesus Christ Superstar, Hair—any Latin ballroom or belly dance, any Jay-Z, Madonna, Run-DMC, George Michael, Black Eyed Peas and I'm at ‘Boom Boom Pow’ with life.
“The first and most visible source of inspiration for my poems is other poems. A less voluble influence is abstract art. I like seeing if I can hear the visual voice in the colored grids of Gerhard Richter and Ellsworth Kelly; in the subtle pink math of Agnes Martin; in the reflective sapphire of an Anish Kapoor floor sculpture; in the regimented presentation of red, yellow, and blue in a horizontal Donald Judd progression. I admire the treatment of Scotch tape by Tara Donovan and Tom Friedman.
“To break from the heavy lifting of writing moderately vulgar dark comedies, first I will turn to Rimbaud’s Une Saison en enfer for some light reading. Then I will wander outside to see if there are any important public gatherings. If there are no gatherings, I return to the house and head downstairs to the basement where I will spend a few minutes adding to my bottle cap collage of the Nuremberg Trial. For lunch, I boil one egg and eat it on dry bread. This is a crucial moment in the writing day, for it is now that I remember the jar of orange marmalade in the refrigerator.