“My sense these days is that I’m constantly inspired by all kinds of things
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.
“There’s a studio recording of Nina Simone singing ‘My Father’ that always knocks me out. Ms. Simone actually sings only a few lines from the song:
My father always promised me
That we would live in France.
We'd go boating on the Seine
And I would learn to dance
“The Lure of the Detour: five things that feed me plus the sixth that haunts them.
“(1) Silence: the body and the breath that haunts that house.
“(2) Sound: Alice Coltrane, Yoko Ono, David Lang, John Cage, Krishna Das.
“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:
“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.