Sunday, October 24, 2010

You Don't Need to Be Crazy

I am reading with great pleasure many of The Paris Review Interviews, which are now all available online. I enjoy reading what writers have to say about writing. I am always reading lots of writer's books of essays on writing; sometimes I like these books more than their fiction or poetry. There is a great deal of wisdom to be found in the Paris Review interviews, about the creative process, about how different writers approach and accomplish their work. One of intriguing facets of this long series of writer's interviews is how revealing, even surprising they can be, at their best. You find out things you never imagined. You might find something you can relate to, yourself, in your own creative process, that you share with some well-known writer.

Reading the interview with former Poet Laureate Kay Ryan, for example, I find a lot of her attitude towards The Literary Game parallel to my own. She is sometimes labeled an outsider, but really she is an iconoclast: she has gone her own way, and doesn't subscribe to either conventional wisdom about writing, or academic writerly stereotypes.

For example, this exchange:

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INTERVIEWER
How much time do you spend away from your desk as opposed to sitting at it, working?

RYAN
I spend vastly more time away from my desk. I’ve spent maybe one hundredth of my time writing. It seems like many people think that if you drive yourself crazy, then you can write. I’m absolutely not interested in that. It made sense to me to be as whole and well as I could be, and as happy. I wanted to see what a fortunate life would produce. What writing would come out of a mind that didn’t try to torment itself? What did I have to know? What did I have to do rather than what can I torment and bend myself into doing? What was the fruit on that tree? I’ve had a terrifically fortunate life. Which is not to say I’m talking nothing but sunshine. A certain kind of perhaps rather unwholesome-looking distortion or lopsidedness is necessary to the writer’s mind, but I never wanted to add to the grief of being human, the burden of it, or have my work do that. I never wanted to make things harder for people, or to make them feel more weighed down or guilty.

INTERVIEWER
Why do you avoid the hot emotions that are often associated with confessional poetry?

RYAN
If you put ice on your skin, your skin turns pink. Your body sends blood there. If you think about that in terms of writing, cool writing draws us, draws our heat.


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I've objected again and again to the stereotypes of the Poor Starving Artist, the Mad Artist, the idea that to make art you have to be crazy, or under duress, or somehow suffering. While it's true that suffering can produce art, it is not true that suffering is necessary. I see what Ryan says here as validation of my belief that you can be relatively happy and still write well. Driving yourself crazy, or into lonely alcoholism or suicide, is not necessary.

I also agree with her point about Confessional Poetry. Of the several strands that dominate contemporary poetry today, the post-confessional lyric poem is one of the stronger. Some of this comes out of the workshop poetry culture, where people are told to write about what they know—as though they were reporters—to write small lyric poems about small episodes in their own lives.

I like what Ryan says here about drawing heat to the poem. It also makes me think of T.S. Eliot's idea that it's okay to be oblique in a poem, but not obscure. Ryan's poems are often cool to the touch, as she says; and they often contain inner rhymes and ironic humor. She is definitely a "cool" poet compared to many. But Ryan is rarely obscure, if often oblique; she might not write directly about her life experience, but you get a sense from each poem that you know what's going on, at least on some level. That this is real, that it's more than just an imaginary emotion described in disembodied words. Good poems open up to having several levels, many layers. With Ryan, you often get the concrete, almost scientifically factual surface, but there are things moving behind that, emotions peeking out from behind the rocks in the garden.

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2 Comments:

Blogger Jim Murdoch said...

Needless to say I’d never heard of her but you know me, I’ve not heard of anyone. I’ve just read a dozen or so poems online. I like her. Quiet, thoughtful pieces, easy to read and even easier to forget. By that I mean they’re the kind of pieces you need to stop and look at to really notice. And she doesn’t go for the punch line at the end either to help you get the point.

2:53 AM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

I agree. I had heard of her but not read her till just a couple of years ago, and so far I've liked everything I've read. I agree too about her poems, that they make you stop and pay attention.

As she says elsewhere in the interview, she's not big on self-marketing, but just content to go her own way alone. It's the public world that's finally caught up with her, I think. She didn't go seeking it out.

11:08 AM  

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