Sunday, November 02, 2008

Where Do You Find Poems?

Often, poems find you. They crawl out of the corners, and take up residence, like mice wintering indoors. An image appears in your mind's eye (call it imagination, if you wish, or vision), and will not be evicted till it's been embraced and wrestled with. You see places you've been, but as in dreams: taller, steeper, rougher, more purely archetypal.


redtail wheel
above blasted scarp

This came into my mind before falling asleep, and was still there when I awoke again. I could see a hawk turning above a tall exposed pillar of rock in the Badlands, under a clear sky darkening above.

It feels like the beginning of a poem, but it might be a poem all in itself: a single vivid image, the pivot on which the entire world is turning. I have to sit quietly to wait and see. If something else happens, or if it doesn't.

The perennial question asked of creatives is, Where do you get your ideas? This is a constant question, and it has been answered, by creatives, as often as it has been avoided. Some have answered, Everywhere. Others have answered, equally glibly, Purely from my imagination. Both respondents know the questioner won't understand; unless there is some shared experience of having been caught up in the creative process. It's an impossible question to answer, and so respondents must often be vague or evasive, or metaphorical.

Let me start by saying that it is the wrong question. It is an ignorant question, and based on assumptions that are false. That's why the question gets deflected or avoided so often, or answered glibly and ironically. The most honest answer to the question, most of the time, is, I have no idea.

It's the wrong question to ask because it assumes that creativity is a sub-category of ideation. That creation is a rationally-directed process: a process of intellect, or cognition, of brain activity alone, and usually left-brain at that. That writers, in particular, since their tools are words, fabricate rather than invent, using words. That creativity is a measurable skill, with clear and simple answers available to our needs, if we could just remember them, like a spelling test in grade school English class.

The question as asked, Where do you get your ideas? is of the same category of question as How do I fix my car?

This is a pragmatic question, that wants to know how the process works so it can be easily replicated. It seeks a quick and easy answer. It wants to know how the magic bullet works. It wants the perfect pill that will solve, once and for all, all such questions. It is an engineering question, not a design question (and no disrespect intended towards engineers, who are often themselves very creative). The question invites a neat and simple response; it seeks to elicit a wiring diagram for the mind.

It may be asked purely out of ignorance and wonder, by the very young, or the young in their art. The difficult task on the artist's part is to discern when one must enter teaching mode rather than creative mode. This is often wearying. Mistakes are made, and sarcasm is cast out like a net. When one finds oneself in a teaching moment, it's wise to remember that the question was usually asked out of ignorance, not out of experience. The question is often asked, as has been said, not by someone who wants to be a writer but by someone who wants the recognition of having written. The questioner wants to know how to get where you are, what maps to follow to trace your path, to follow in your footsteps. The subtext is imitation. Which, while it may be flattering, is equally frustrating, as any thoughtful creative knows that formulaic methods give mostly formulaic results. Cheap imitations are not indeed the sincerest form of flattery.

Probably the best response is to turn the question around, and ask in return, I don't know, where do you get yours? This might hopefully make the questioner pause and contemplate their own experience, which is after all the only genuine place to mine for their answers.

There is a false assumption underlying the question, Where do you get your ideas? The assumption is that one can go looking for them; that it is an active process, that it is work—an activity or job like any other—that you can go out like a hunter, bag the prey, and bring it back home, as if ideas were deer or rabbits.

Well, that's one method; but it's not the only one, and possibly not even a durable one. It's true that anyone can go out and practice observing the world, and mining their experience for ideas to turn into art; it's equally true the results of facile observation are often shallow and personally specific, not universal. Squirrels, not buffalo.

This problem of facility lies at the root of why the confessional lyric has taken over the poetry world—it's what's been taught in workshops and seminars, because it's the easiest data for beginning poets to mine—and thus why so much contemporary poetry, even as more gets published than ever before, doesn't stick to the ribs, and is so eminently forgettable. Where is the rich and strange in all this? Buried under the mundane. Ants, not armadillos.

Many non-creatives don't understand why creatives spend so much time staring off into space; who has not heard the exhortation to go get a real job? In fact, when they're staring off into space, they're not being idle: they're waiting for lightning to strike, and in the meantime turning the engine of creation over, keeping the wheels greased.

These are mechanistic metaphors we've fallen into here, coined by a society with a mechanistic worldview, built on the assumption of pragmatism in working at any job: if it ain't worth doing, don't do it. (Quit before you fail, and avoid the humiliation.) Somewhere the ideal of idle time got lost, under the mechanistic wheels of a culture that worships measurable results rather than organic processes. The problem with the mechanistic worldview, when applied to creativity, is that it seduces the questioner into believing the process is mechanical rather than organic, and that tangible products matter more than the process itself. Creativity is the ghost in the machine; it is often chaotically unpredictable. There may or may not be tangible products. The emphasis, however, is on measurable, reproducible results.

The question Where do you get your ideas? presumes that, if one can only receive the magic answer, one can always reproduce predictable, expected results. Asking the question is a quest for certainty in an uncertain world, a desire for easy answers where there are none.

The quest for certainty, in asking the question, has unintended consequences. The risk is that, if a creative answers the question too literally, or seems to offer too simple a formula, that they will be imitated by the questioner, all too precisely—the ritual placement of pen, of brush, the perfect time of day—thus converting process into dogma. The questioner will soon discover that the ritual doesn't work, and be disappointed. The truth is, everyone has personal rituals, but they are very individual, and don't translate well. Rituals do give us a foundation for entering the universe of creative force; they are necessary. But my rituals probably won't work for you, and vice versa. What does transfer is the general awareness of the importance of ritual towards creating open space in which creativity can grow and flourish. But the details, the details, the details are where we all get hung up. Obsessing on the details of form often leads to losing track of the results.

The next false assumption in the question is that creativity is about ideas, is made of ideas, and produces ideas. As if ideas were the atoms of the conceptual universe, and intellect the analytical glue that binds it together. This is the bias of the rational, philosophical, analytical, materialist mindset. Yet "idea" is a word like "love"—it means a great number of different things to different people. There are philosophers and cognitive scientists who treat ideas as atomic facts: as though a thoughtform had the same material presence as a rock. That's okay for working with ideas in balanced equations, wherein to manage the juggling you have to assume that the balls you're juggling are in fact solid. But when you look at them directly, they dissolve into the very ether. Nothing is more evanescent and evaporative.

The truth is, creativity is mysterious. Creatives often do not know what they're doing, and often cannot articulate their own processes. There are so many answers to the question that confusion rather than clarity is the result of asking it. Many creatives also fear being overly analytical towards their creative process, in fear of damaging it. Not all engineers are forensic: it if ain't broke, they're content not to fix it.

There are no solid, tangible, permanent answers to the question. Even if I answered it, today, right now, just for the moment, my answer might well change, in a day, a month, ten years. We are not machines, gear-driven and certain. In our own selves there are many mysteries—and out of our mysteries creativity arises. It's not a light you can plug in to the wall, and turn a switch.

It's much more like planting a garden, doing your planting, watering, and weeding. Then you must sit back and wait for the buds to rise through the ground, and wait longer, always carefully tending the plants, till they bloom, flower, and produce their seeds.

A process that takes time, sunlight, earth, and patience.

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Blogger Jim Murdoch said...

Where do I get my ideas? Anywhere. That is not the issue. The issue is recognising the ones worth running with. I woke up last night and, after I'd pottered around for a bit I headed off to bed. As I left my office I glanced up at the top of one of the bookcases and noticed my dad's old trilby, a hat I must see out of the corner of my eye a dozen times every day or more. As I walked down the hall a poem formed in my mind. I went to the bathroom, went back up the hall wrote the first draft, checked the structure, added two neither-here-nor-there words to fix the shape and wandered back down the hall to bed. Before I got to my bedroom I realised that one of the verbs wasn't right so I went back to my office and changed the title to 'The Wrong Verb' and I think that's it done. I'll have a look at it once I'm done here. Now, you explain to me what went on there

3:04 AM  
Blogger Dave King said...

An excellent post. I found myself saying Amen! all the way through.

3:15 AM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

But that makes my point: you didn't go looking for a poem, like a quest for fire, it came to you, and you got it down. I don't need to explain that, it just happened. But that's what I'm saying: poems happen. Poetry isn't engineering. Yes?

Restated, this was all about the attitude lots of new writers have where they think that writing is like doing a crossword puzzle or something; if they can just fit all the pieces together in some magical way; or if there's some secret formula for inspiration. The point being: inspiration can happen anytime, anywhere, it's not a purely intellectual process.

Can we see the poem?

Thanks for the comments, gentlemen.

9:45 AM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

Synchronistically, perhaps, some interview excerpts with Mochael Ondaatje get at this issue. It's a reading, with a typical question and answer period, which elicit from the writer some interesting observations along these lines.

10:17 AM  
Blogger Jim Murdoch said...

This is how the poem started out.

    The Wrong Verb

    I do not have much
    of my father left:

    a hat, a coat and some gloves.

    They are not him though.
    They belonged to him;

    they all learned to be his shape,

    where he used to be.
    If I dress in them

    I can feel him surround me.

And this is how I left it.

    Today's Lesson

    I do not have much
    of my father left:
    a hat, a coat and some gloves.

    They are not him though.
    They belonged to him;
    they have learned his shape by rote

     (tried and true is best)
    so when I wear them
    I can feel him again and

    again. Again, that
    is the key word here.
    And it should not be a verb.

3:42 PM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...


Thanks very much for gracing us with your poem here, Jim, and for the discussion about its origin. That's exactly the kind of prompt I hoped this would lead to.

It's an honor.

6:25 PM  

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