April 20, 2010

On inspiration (and poetry)

Last Thursday I went to this poetry reading at Pegasus Books. (Can I just note here that Pegasus & Pendragon Books is pretty much the best name for a bookstore ever?) To be honest, I wasn't expecting much of anything. The first reader was notable only because of his chapbook-making skill, which, to be fair, was impressive. His poetry, not so much.

Laura Walker, however, was fabulous. I loved her work, and probably would have bought something if I'd come prepared with cash. The most interesting thing about her, though, was the way she described her inspiration. She had an entire series of poems in which she wrote an original poem, then ran it back and forth through online translators. Norwegian, Tagalog, Icelandic... The poems that they returned were weird and evocative and totally my thing. Even if weird/evocative poetry were not totally my thing, I still would have been intrigued by the use of translation to create poetry, and also the puzzlement this whole exercise brings to mind, of how things are lost and gained in translation.

The second series of poems she read was inspired by a birdwatching book; she would read an entry (say, on an African swallow) and write a short poem evoked by that image. This I loved as well. I am not particularly interested in birdwatching, but once she started talking about it I could suddenly see myself buying a birdwatching book and writing poems out of it. Then she continued with a series inspired by the Oxford English Dictionary. For each poem, all the language in it was taken from the OED entry for one word. And those were not short poems. (Thankfully, no OED entry is short either.)

You may wonder why we're talking about this. Well, I was sitting there in awe of the ways in which she found inspiration, and being suddenly inspired to write poetry (sometimes I write bad poetry, just so you know), and it occurred to me: would anything like this ever work in fiction? Is there a way in which little snippets of life (a birdwatching book, an OED entry, an online translator) could ever be used to find inspiration for fiction in a systematic way?

I pondered this, and the answer I came up with is (for me, at least, and in this particular form) no. They're just too small! When I write fiction I am immersed in the world of fiction. Ideas are not small, they are big! World-scaping! So while these little snippets of material may be enough to inspire me with a few lines for a poem, I don't think that I could as easily read an entry in the encyclopedia and come away with the idea for a novel.

This is not to say that it couldn't happen. In fact, it could. (I think it depends on the particular entry.) But as a systematic method of inspiration, an "I'm going to sit down every day and write something based on the next birdwatching entry" kind of method, I don't think that it works. (For me.)

On the other hand, maybe the scale of the idea is inversely related to how often it appears via such inspirational nibbles. So if I were to use this for a year, maybe I'd be able to write around 300 (bad) poems, and maybe I'd get one or two ideas for a novel?

On the other (other) hand, who knows where inspiration comes from?

Oh, I think this post has been lost. My thoughts have devolved. Let me explain...No, there is too much. Let me sum up: I loved that inspiration for poetry can come from anywhere. Hearing Laura Walker talk about her process gave me so many ideas about how to find inspiration for my own poetry. But the way I think about poetry is different than the way I think about fiction. Poetry is so very different to me than fiction, even though I do both. Maybe then my question becomes: why is fiction so different than poetry?


  1. This was such an interesting post. What a unique way to write poetry. It's amazing the things we can use for inspiration. And of course, how can you go wrong with a Princess Bride quote :)

  2. Yep, The Princess Bride never fails. I thought it was interesting too, although I need to do some more thinking... There'll probably be another post on inspiration sometime. Once I can end the post with something other than "I've lost it!" :)

  3. What a fun blog. Thank you for sharing yourself with us all in this way.

  4. What an interesting way to get inspiration.

    I love the way your post shows your thought processes - it feels like a comfortable chat.

  5. @Onenow - Thanks.

    @fairyhedgehog - I'm glad you like it... I was afraid that it was going to come out as simply impossible to follow, but by then I'd already thought about it too much, so there was nothing to do but let it out into the world. :)

  6. Hi :) I'm your newest follower! And I disagree with you about the little snippets becoming a full story - that happens to me all the time:) I read a nursery rhyme a while ago, and was so struck by it that I turned it into a 20 page short story. But it could have been a book too - for me, at least, I don't need more than a hint of an idea to turn it into a story:)

  7. Yeah, that's kind of where I ended up after writing this - the "inspiration can strike at any time, kind of like a ninja!" perspective. I think that the small-snippet inspiration theory is more specific to the way I usually get inspired (which is to say, usually not by small snippets), although I'd love to be more like you, finding big inspiration in very small places!

    Thanks for joining my (very small) community! :)