NaPoWriMo 2014: the importance of influence

Our own poetic voices are the product of the voices of our heroes. Guess who mine are.

Here in NaPoWriMo 2014, we’re encouraging everyone to write poetry every freakin’ day. As I said last week, write like nobody’s reading. In my case, I’m not doing new writing so much as I am reflecting on writing and thinking about the times when I was writing, not only every day for a month, but pretty much every day period. And I’m thinking about the writing process – why we write, and how.

Early in their careers most artists imitate. If you want to know who they idolized, simply ask yourself who their work reminds you of. I was certainly no exception. Those familiar with my work will testify to my reverence for Yeats, the greatest poet in the history of the English language, and Thomas, whose words were music, and Charles Wright, whom I regard as perhaps America’s greatest living poet. Each exerted influence on my work, although I can’t say you can see much Yeats until my last book. Truth is, I just wasn’t good enough to imitate the man.

But the truth is that none of these writers has had a more powerful and lasting impact on my writing than… Well, tell you what, let’s see if you can guess. This is the final version of a poem from my first book and it was written (and rewritten and rewritten) back in the mid/late 1980s. I wasn’t aping my hero, exactly, but I wasn’t trying to hide the homage, either.

Gypsy Sonata

Roxy is this girl I know
speaks her soul 
		  with her eyes, 
tight black pools air-brushed 
like some Vogue boy-candy fantasy.
I knew a guy once
climbed the seam 
		    up the back of her fishnets,
all the way to those eyes,
looked in, 
	    got lost 
like a bumpkin field rat 
in a maze by Escher.

What do you think of our
night-worn path, my love,
when all seems so
steamy and 
	      far away? 
Faster, lover.  Faster. 
This way takes us behind old 
buildings, alley-light, and 
does it really matter if my dripping
	 hides your face?

Our lives curve, 
your body curves 
in almost the right places. 

	We are empty, 
	we children of priority
	and circumstance,
	our love choking along
	a million miles of cable.

I almost know your name,
these days, 
	     your eleven-
digit access code...
I almost remember the hazelnut 
regret of your eyes.  

Let us go, then, you and I, 
and catch a buck-fifty thriller,
maybe grab a bite 

	God, your hands are cold. 

Tell me again how
you want to sing 
in the movies –
I somehow find 
that alluring, 
	        like the slow 
gravity tug, thirty hard years 
setting in at your skin, 
your breasts.  

Tonight, parades, Mardi Gras: 
oil-skinned boys with fireworks, 
				   dragon machés, 
their primal serpentine rhythm... 
Your hand, your open back – 

	are you kidding?
	Right now, here? 

My eyes burn 
with the memory of flesh 
and leather, and slave girl 
        let for free.  

I saw the light in your window, 
came up 
	  to see what's happenin'.

Fake it 
if you must.

	I could not speak, and my eyes failed.

Oh, those eyes,
those eyes that once were pearls –
now blooded and limp,
trembling beneath the weight of dreams.

So, figured it out yet?

If not, revisit The Waste Land and see if it rings any bells.

I was obviously attracted to the darkness of Eliot’s world – the grit, the raw sexual degeneracy, the edge of his falling-down London. I was a simple kid from the North Carolina outback, and the sheer exotic/erotic energy of it all was overwhelming.

From a technique perspective, though, what was liberating was the way he appropriated voice. He’d pick up a snatch of a conversation in a street or pub, weave it in with an imagined voice from antiquity, strip it of context and slam it together in a way that forced you to consider a new context, and in doing so piled layer upon layer of deep symbolism upon the page. It was a tad fascist in a way, but you can say that for any number of the High Modernists.

It was an easy gimmick to imitate, but hellishly hard to control in a way that projected Eliot’s seething resonance.

As you’re writing this month, I hope you’re also reading and making the most of the lessons you’re learning from those who have gone before. We read, we admire, we imitate, we learn and refine. Before long the voices of those we revere have been assimilated into our own voices, which are now deeper, more nuanced and compelling.

So, get to it.

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