“What I say here might be counterintuitive. If I am looking for writing inspiration, I do the opposite: I refuse writing (easy to do if one is busy). In fact, I try and refuse the impulse to write for as long as possible until I feel that I am physically going to puncture and blow up. This ‘process,’ or anti-process, takes a certain amount of patience, and patience is not something we value in our culture of rushing to get published, rushing to make a splash in the literary world, rushing rushing rushing (I’m also guilty).
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.
“Whenever I find myself at a literary crossroads, I reach for my Tarot deck. In my regular life, I’m a staunch scientific materialist (I even contribute debunking articles to skeptical outlets); but in my creative life, I’m an unqualified mystic. Ghosts, spirits, metaphysical forces—when the writing is going well, something supernatural seems to be at work. Connections suggest themselves. Lines appear from nowhere. We’ve all felt it—that sense of otherworldly assistance—just as we’ve all felt it withdraw abruptly, leaving us mired in self-doubt and uncertain how to proceed.
“When I was young, I had a lot of anxiety about getting lost. I asked my mom when we went somewhere if she knew where we were—do you have the map? She’d pat the fuel gauge, tell me she had enough gas and she was sure of where we were going. Maybe it’s ironic then that my favorite way to get back to writing is to do just that. From traveling to new towns to driving a different way home, what these opportunities offer is the unfamiliar. Without the usual trees and buildings, everything snaps into focus. All of it is a possibility.
“In the poem ‘He Would Never Use One Word Where None Would Do,’ Philip Levine says: ‘Fact is, silence is the perfect water: / unlike rain it falls from no clouds….’ I attach to this Denise Levertov’s idea that a poet must be brought to speech—what we write must be felt so intensely, it ‘wakes in [the poet] this demand: the poem.’
“When I feel extra invisible in the world of American poetry I feel the need to write more. I look for vehicles able to carry my syncretic history. I take a line from Agha Shahid Ali and Kimiko Hahn and looking across the sea. Ali’s ghazal and Hahn’s zuihitsu are perfect examples of migrating a form into English and making it one’s own, kin to the original form but changed through their mediation of it. Valuable poetry does not only exist in English in the United States. I’m an immigrant and my experience is valuable. An entire universe of poetry thrums outside of this myopic country.
“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.
“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.