What Turns You On?
What turns you on? What inspires you to write, or make art, or music? What makes you want to create something? What trips that trigger in your self, that goes towards Making?
Glib answer, I know, but it's true.
Getting turned on by something is mostly a mindset, I think: the receptiveness to the Perfect Moment as it appears, whatever form it takes. I've seen plenty of inspirational things in my life, that have made me want to drop everything and go make art, a poem, music, a multimedia piece, a poster, a bumpersticker, a typeface.
Reading Rumi always makes me want to write in response. Reading Rilke often does the same. Being in nature, by the ocean, or in the desert, almost always gives me a poem, or several photographs that will become a gathering of images, a sequence or set, or even a short film. Seeing the furtive coyotes that now live in all the big cities; encountering a fox, or lynx. Listening to Max Roach play a five-minute musical improvisation on nothing but a high-hat. (You either want to go home and practice, after seeing something like that, or leave all your instruments at the curb.) Standing silent before a sunset on a stony beach where the waves make archways in the cliffs. Sitting on a bright moon on a hot, sweaty night in summer, next to someone I love. Taking my father to see the doctor.
In the past two weeks of driving across the country, I've been given many more images, thoughts, poems, and sounds than I can possibly absorb right now. Later on, when I'm back home, I'll get a chance to integrate, pull them out, really look them over, and make something more of them: more finished, more polished, more thoughtful. There is some truth to the Wordsworthian dictum of poetry being emotion reflected in tranquility; in my current case, though, it is more a function of time and distance, and trying to pack in a lot of experiences into a short, intense time. Meanwhile there arise out of my daily journeying a few haiku, a few poems in my own forms, one or two essays, an idea for a multimedia piece or art-film.
Getting turned on—inspired: in-spirited, inspirational—is a normal, everyday thing, if you're open to it. (And if you don't live too much in just your head.) The Greeks used the word daimon to describe the presence of an unseen, unnamed spirit, or force, or subconscious need rising to the surface. The word liminal is used to describe experiences of standing on the threshold between realities, worlds, worldviews, viewpoints, times of life, and selves. The word numinous is used to describe things that appear to be charged with power and meaning, either in inner or outer reality.
Everything that I encounter in waking life, on a daily basis, or in dreams—everything that is numinous, liminal, and daimonic—turns me on, and makes me want to create. Creation is as much a response to these things, as it is something that arises spontaneously from within. Creation provides many wells to dip into that same water.
At root, isn't this question really: Why do we write poetry at all? (or make art, etc.) What is our source for inspiration? What is our well of fire, our daimon? What sets us on fire? Isn't the question really: Why do we do this at all?
I'm less interested in the specific trigger than the deeper upwelling of creativity.
My experience is that there are very many specific triggers, and I respond to lots of them, and not always with poetry but with image and music, or a combination of all three (and lately I'm making poetic multimedia pieces containing all three elements, such my recent film Basin & Range). The specific triggers don't matter to me as much because I find them everywhere. What matters more, to me, is the attitude of preparedness. We could call it mindfulness. I find that getting into that state of mind is what I practice—it is a discipline one can practice to attain, not a random arbitrary event but a learnable skill. When I get into that state of mind, practically anything, including a random comment someone makes in the grocery checkout line, or the way the sunlight hits a plant, can trigger a poem. So, the mindset, to me, is deeper and ultimately more important than any specific trigger.
To rephrase slightly: anything can trigger a poem (or image, etc.), if I am in the right mindset. One of the most helpful tools I have for getting into that mindset is mindfulness meditation. Once there, it's all poetry. It's all art, even the ugly bits, if I perceive them from within that mindset.
Poems can come over me at any time, sometimes literally with a shiver. My discipline is to be always ready for them, with paper and pen on hand, or whatever medium, including laptop, and just be ready, so that when a poem does come over me, I can get it down. I have been known to pull over, on the interstate, to write it down. I almost always have a notebook with me, for anything that comes up. I don't necessarily believe in "first thought, best thought" (Allen Ginsberg often quoted this truism, but the truth is, he just hated revising), but I do believe in butterfly-netting ideas as they come to you. When I transcribe them later out of my pocket notebook, or journal, I expand on them (the notebook can be in quasi-shorthand, just a word-sketch, because all I need is the memory-trigger), add more to them, flesh them out, and turn them into a real poem, or haiku, or just gather the fragments into something more coherent. (The revising that Ginsberg sometimes avoided doing; although when he did revise later on, those often became his best, most lucid poems; Howl was heavily revised, for example.)
I write a lot of essays, and some poems, in response to things people ask: they get me going, thinking, and writing. I like the aspect of dialogue and conversation that responsive writing generates.
I can give a long list of specific triggers, but that would be my list, not anyone else's. I also find it difficult to create a list of triggers that doesn't either say Everything! or end up being a detailed, Proustian listing of what everything consists of.
I think it's useful to identify the specific triggers, yes, but I also think it's useful to look past the specific tiggers, and constantly expand one's horizons: seek out new triggers, and pursue them.
This returns me to mentioning books that I find to be useful for developing the mindset of creativity, so that one can discover triggers wherever one looks. I find the following books inspirational, as triggers themselves, for that very reason: they get me into the mindset, both by example, and by inciting it.
Fredrick Franck, The Zen of Seeing: Seeing/Drawing as Meditation
Michael J. Gelb: How to Think Like Leonardo da Vinci
P.L. Travers: What the Bee Knows
Stephen Nachmanovitch: Free Play: The power of improvisation in life and the arts
Audrey Flack: Art and Soul