The questions always come up: Who’s your favorite poet? Who were your influences? Neither is easy because there are so many right answers and not all of them will be top-of-mind at that moment. Philip Levine. Naomi Shihab Nye. B. H. Fairchild. Jim Harrison, who’s known much more for his prose than his poetry. David St. John, both for his poetry and his incredible generosity as a teacher. Later that night in bed I always remember more names that I could have mentioned. You know, what I shoulda said.
But it’s not always the poets you admire who have the most influence on your writing. Anyone who’s ever been in one of my classes has probably heard me say that sometimes you learn more from the poetry you don’t like than the poetry you do. It’s a matter of exposure. As poets, engaging with someone else’s work rarely comes down to a simple yes/no proposition. When you’re ready to slam closed a poetry collection after 10 pages, that’s the time to pay closer attention, to see what the poet is doing that’s not working for you. There has to be a reason why a poem or collection affects you one way or the other. And the secret is to discover what it is and to be able to find a way to express it.
I think that was one of the most important take-aways from my MFA program—practicing how to say why a poem works or doesn’t work for me and to be able to specifically point out what, to me, are the problem areas or craft issues. You have to be able take the machine apart and put it back together to see what little disgruntled gears or springs you have left over on the poetry workbench. Then, you’re better prepared to suggest what might be done to make the poem stronger, smoother, more musical, always keeping in mind, of course, that the voice of the poem, the inspiration to write it, and the intention of the poet are not yours. As with any other skill, the more you do this—in classes, or workshops, or on your own—the more focused your diagnostic penlight.
Here’s a personal example. I came across the old Japanese haibun form in Gary Snyder’s collection, Danger on Peaks. The book has a whole section of poems in this style and they didn’t move me at all. I thought they were, well, flat compared to the usual lively spirituality that I anticipated from Snyder’s poetry. Very basically, a haibun is a block of crafted prose (not prose poetry) followed by a short haiku-like poem that serves to augment or comment on the prose. As much as I didn’t like the haibun, I couldn’t get the form out of my mind. So I did a little research and decided I’d try to write one to help figure out my initial negative reaction. [JUMP CUT] Last April, I published 52 Views: The Haibun Variations, a collection written completely in my version of the haibun form.
As art consumers, we all have our opinions and personal taste. We download songs and make playlists of music that hooks us; go to a museum for a show or collection that piques our interest; we choose a book because the writer, genre, or subject appeals to us. We pretty much know going in whether or not there’s a good chance we’re going to enjoy something.
Occasionally, though, we go in blind with no expectations. And that’s where the fun comes in—the surprises as well as the disappointments. But as artists (and I think of poets and writers as artists), we can’t just walk away and fuggedaboudit. We owe it to ourselves to identify any disconnects so that either (a) we don’t make the same creative choices and mistakes or (b) we understand what’s so different (and/or disturbing) that we may be able to use to add impact to our own work.
And, oh yes, earlier I should also have mentioned Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen, Marvin Bell, Mark Doty, Lynn Emanuel…