Quotations for Writers
...in no particular order....
I have no perspective on what I am doing. I write a song and think, ‘Where does this come from?’ Me? I wrote this? I write fiction … I’m just enjoying myself, throwing lines together. I think it always reflects your own experience and feelings, but it isn’t always in a way that’s clear. If you find something honest enough in yourself then it will be universal.
Every worthwhile book contains many faults, and every worthwhile writer commits them.
There’s nothing more embarrassing than being a poet, really.
Nobody is asking you to do what you are doing. There are more than enough novels in the world, and nobody is more painfully aware of that than the person attempting to write one. To dig a book out of the ground can be backbreaking, hand-tearing work; you need to forget what you are doing, to fall into a trance, and when the spell breaks, you can’t be entirely sure what you’ve unearthed, where it came from or who will recognize it as belonging to them, too. And however much of what results is pure invention (or so you think), your subjectivity is all you have. You made it up. It’s made of you.
You cannot drink poetry.
The best writing is what's right in front of you. Sometimes I'd walk down the street with poets and they wouldn't see anything. I'd have to shake their arm and say, "Look! Look!"
I don't think I have a secret as such, except I suppose you could say that I'm not very easily discouraged.
—Margaret Atwood, in AARP newsletter, in answer to a question about the "secret" of her productivity and success
I’ve come to believe that in order to matter, poems must be both entertaining and useful—entertaining by being rooted in the human traditions of telling stories and making music; useful by disturbing our lives enough to reinforce our humanness. These are the kinds of poems I endeavor to write.
Without minute neatness of execution, the sublime cannot exist! Grandeur of ideas is founded on precision of ideas.
The greatest thing she ever said to me was in 1943 after the opening of Oklahoma!, when I suddenly had unexpected, flamboyant success for a work I thought was only fairly good, after years of neglect for work I thought was fine. I was bewildered and worried that my entire scale of values was untrustworthy. I talked to Martha [Graham]. I remember the conversation well. It was in a Schrafft’s restaurant over a soda. I confessed that I had a burning desire to be excellent but no faith that I could be. Martha said to me, very quietly, "There is a vitality, a life force, an energy, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all of time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and it will be lost. The world will not have it. It is not your business to determine how good it is nor how valuable nor how it compares with other expressions. It is your business to keep it yours clearly and directly, to keep the channel open. You do not even have to believe in yourself or your work. You have to keep yourself open and aware to the urges that motivate you. Keep the channel open. As for you, Agnes, you have a peculiar and unusual gift, and you have so far used about one-third of your talent."
"But," I said, "when I see my work I take for granted what other people value in it. I see only its ineptitude, inorganic flaws, and crudities. I am not pleased or satisfied."
"No artist is pleased."
"But then there is no satisfaction?"
"No satisfaction whatever at any time,” she cried out passionately. "There is only a queer divine dissatisfaction, a blessed unrest that keeps us marching and makes us more alive than the others."
—Agnes de Mille
"Listen carefully to first criticisms made of your work," he advised writers and artists. "Note just what it is about your work that critics don't like — then cultivate it. That's the only part of your work that's individual and worth keeping."
I didn’t realize the importance of having engaged in a lifelong relationship with poetry until I needed it to survive. It’s an instrument, a companion instrument that nobody can take away from you. It’s also a form of insulation from the wasteland of the world where you can go when you need a break or a place to quietly contemplate and study the common absurdities of human experience. Every day, we face a wasteland. Sometimes, it’s an aggressive boss, an angry driver, a public or private injustice of some sort. Other times it’s a rampant disease altering our environment for an extended period of time. Whatever the case, poetry is there like a garden, welcoming us with its eternal shade and warmth and wisdom.
"I thought about something you said. That I should write a book."
"I believe I more noted how everybody’s doing it," V says. "If Virginia Clay can write a book, anybody can. The main qualification appears to be an ability to sit at a desk for many hours a day."
—Charles Frazier, Varina
If my house were haunted, I would toss buckets of flour into the places where a ghost might hide. Eventually, the flour would find its mark, and the ghost would be given a form. When I write, I often begin with only a sense that something is there—a presence of some kind. I start throwing words around. With a little luck, they hit their subject and a poem appears. I’m always shocked by what they look like.
Tenacity is surely part of any poet's job description.
Poetry is not a means to an end, but a continuing engagement with being alive.
You arrive to each poem, each era of yourself different than you did the last. I write when I feel called to language. When I haven’t felt called for a while, I show up anyway to see what happens. I used to write every day. Not anymore. I try to touch words, mine or others, every day. That’s often books and poems and interviews. Sometimes it’s writing, sometimes reading, sometimes editing, sometimes listening. As long as I am actively living in or alongside language, I think I am in process. Sometimes the task at hand is to live, to witness. Sometimes “the work” looks like getting the rest of your house in order so you can focus on the writing at hand. Sometimes “the work” is rest. It’s all about learning to pay attention to yourself, your own wants and needs, your own definitions of discipline and exploration. What I mean is: I don’t always have momentum. No one is always inspired. But I have invited words into my life. I pay them mind even when I feel stuff and grey, and even when I don’t have the time for words, I trust that they will forgive me when I return.
—Danez Smith, January 2020
If you’re paying attention to the world,...if you’re a part of it and empathy is in your work, which it should be, then artists just need to do the work. Don’t be silent, speak up and write things that scare them and question their beliefs. Continue to be artists.
It is a dark, dangerous and exciting time to be alive, but “stay-at-home” is not very different from a writer’s regular life.
Resist any temptation to use the poem to make its readers like you, or admire you, or forgive you.
—Ellen Bryant Voigt
I tell people, especially if I’m giving a reading, it’s okay to let the words wash over them, the way one experiences abstract art. I’m not trained in visual art. I often see things in a museum and don’t know what to make of them, but I still have an experience, a response to what I can see. Likewise, I don’t think poems have to have easy translation. I believe strongly in emotional and psychological narratives. I think of many of my poems as emotional gestures. Context isn’t always essential—or maybe it’s that I resist context as an absolute. I like what happens when context begins to wobble a bit.
—Carl Phillips, The Art of Poetry No. 103
As you have seen, I am a writer who came of a sheltered life. A sheltered life can be a daring life as well. For all serious daring starts from within.
―Eudora Welty, One Writer’s Beginnings
It is necessary to write, if the days are not to slip emptily by. How else, indeed, to clap the net over the butterfly of the moment?
Some moments I sense that I am in alignment with those who have perfected their art when they were living. I am working alongside them. And some days I feel utterly alone and back in the muck. That is the human condition. No matter where we are in the process, it's important to keep going in the best possible manner, and bump up against the edge of unknowing.
―Joy Harjo, One Song
Somewhere, in each poet's heart who picks up their pen and attempts to climb the oddest art of all, one that is at times the most unseen, there lies the belief that this art can be mighty. There's some hope in it, as odd as poetry is. If it can't change a nation, maybe it might change one soul.
―Spencer Reece, in American Poetry Review
[Ahmet] Altan recognizes that to beat back the horrors of power intent on enslaving us all, bravery needs to come from readers, as well. In order to save their own lives, they must choose to seek out the best, the most important, the most truthful writing whether it’s journalism or fiction.
"Each eye that reads what I have written, each voice that repeats my name holds my hand like a little cloud and flies me over the lowlands."
Thus, with such readers in mind, this author wrote from his cage:
"You can imprison me but you cannot keep me here. Because like all writers, I have magic. I can pass through your walls with ease."
―James Grady, Washington Post, reviewing I Will Never See the World Again by Ahmet Altan
Everything in life is writable about if you have the outgoing guts to do it, and the imagination to improvise. The worst enemy to creativity is self-doubt.
Good poems travel in ways that are, strongly or subtly, meandering, askew, counter, extravagant, peculiar, free, and freeing. Their pelts are freckled. They loosen the map lines of the literal, underslip narrowness, and let us see more than would be possible by looking at things directly. They are raids on reality that allow raids on the heart. They are lies whose intention is truth exposed more fully.
― Jane Hirschfield
Writing is an embrace, a being embraced. Every idea is an idea reaching out.
― Susan Sontag
Publishing a book is like stuffing a note into a bottle and hurling it into the sea. Some bottles drown, some come safe to land, where the notes are read and then possibly cherished, or else misinterpreted, or else understood all too well by those who hate the message. You never know who your readers might be.
― Margaret Atwood
Stephen Dunn: The poetry that ends up mattering speaks to things we half-know but are inarticulate about. It gives us language and the music of language for what we didn’t know we knew. So a combination of insight and beauty. I also liken the writing of it to basketball—you discover that you can be better than yourself for a little while. If you’re writing a good poem, it means you’re discovering things that you didn’t know you knew. In basketball, if you’re hitting your shots, you feel in the realm of the magical.
Timothy Green: Do you think that writing is that same feeling as being 'in the zone'?
Dunn: Yes. But then, almost always, you have to revise.
—Interview, February 18, 2018
What is left unsaid, and the expanse of quiet that surrounds it, is just as important—sometimes more important—than what is said. This is true in poetry, and in life. Poets pay attention to, and understand, blank space.
—E. Ce Miller
When I am stuck in the perfection cog—as in, I am rewriting a sentence a million times over even though I’m in a first draft or, I am freaking out and can’t move forward because I am not sure how everything is going to fit together—I find it helpful to tell myself:
You will fail.
I have this written on a Post-it note. It might sound discouraging, but I find it very liberating. The idea is that no matter what I do, the draft is going to be flawed, so I might as well just have at it. I also like to look at pictures I’ve taken of all the many drafts that go into my books as they become books, which helps me remember that so much of what I am writing now will later change. When I am aware that my work is not as brave or true as it needs to be, I like to look at a particular photograph of myself as a child. I am about eight, sitting on a daybed in cut-off shorts, with a book next to me. I’m looking at the camera with great confidence, and an utter lack of self-consciousness. This photograph reminds me of who I am at my essence, and frees me up to write more like her.”
—Anna Solomon, author of Leaving Lucy Pear, in Poets & Writers
Who better to sound the alarm about impending ecological doom than this widely read poet-naturalist-lover of the world who has immersed and invested herself in soil, seashore, forest, and wetland her whole life? It is a reasonable question, but one which I think [Mary] Oliver answers in the way that an artist must. The worst kind of poetry is preachy and argumentative. Oliver invites the reader into wonder, into the harvest of presence, so that in forgetting ourselves for a moment and attending, say, to the 'trim and feistiness' of a single green moth, we might possibly (there are no guarantees, such is the risk art takes) be initiated into a practice, a form of wisdom, a way of life, whereby in time we might come to care passionately, purposefully, about more of our neighbors, human and nonhuman, with whom we share this one world.”
—Debra Dean Murphy, "Why we need Mary Oliver’s poems," April 13, 2017
Form at its best provokes creativity.
Any writer, I suppose, feels that the world into which he was born is nothing less than a conspiracy against the cultivation of his talent—which attitude certainly has a great deal to support it. On the other hand, it is only because the world looks on his talent with such a frightening indifference that the artist is compelled to make his talent important. So that any writer, looking back over even so short a span of time as I am here forced to assess, finds that the things which hurt him and the things which helped him cannot be divorced from each other; he could be helped in a certain way only because he was hurt in a certain way; and his help is simply to be enabled to move from one conundrum to the next—one is tempted to say that he moves from one disaster to the next.
—James Baldwin, Autobiographical Notes
Faith and hope, yes. Charity, no. At least not toward your own material. When you see little spots on the cabbage, throw it out. Ruthlessness, like charity, begins at home. This is a hard one to learn. Robert Lowell was a great writing teacher because he wasn't shy about telling people hard truths about their own poems. Of a seventeen line effort: "I think this is a marvelous poem. Cut the first sixteen lines and go from there."
Out of the quarrel with others we make rhetoric; out of the quarrel with ourselves we make poetry.
—William Butler Yeats
Patience is a difficult thing in our world driven by speed. As writers, we never know how the work will come into bloom. Some poems and even books seem to pop open immediately, while others have to unfurl slowly, the petals so tightly wrapped that they have to fill their veins like a butterfly coming from the chrysalis.
If the book is true, it will find an audience that is meant to read it.
If you're a writer, or a creative person, there will be times when you feel it would be wiser to stop, to give up on making poems, or photos, or clay pots, or paintings. Things start to build up. Manuscripts, pots, photo files, stretchers. Maybe no one wants them, or you've hit a wall, or you've been badly reviewed or rejected. (I just might be speaking from experience). But I'm here to tell you, you should continue.
In a book of conversations with the poet Li-Young Lee, called Breaking the Alabaster Jar, he talks at one point about the mandalas that are made by Tibetan monks from coloured sand. How when the mandala is done and after it’s looked at for a day or two, the monks dump the sand into a river. This act isn't accompanied by any feelings of loss or sadness.
Because: it’s the making of the thing that matters. How that changes you.
For me, poetry is an escape. No matter what the subject matter, I think there’s something inspiring and powerful in how the poet shapes the words and delivers the emotion. I try to always read poems on my lunch break for the small shivers of wonder and beauty they give me in the middle of the day. For me, poetry lives between the hum of ordinary moments, providing a spark that lifts us momentarily to something greater. And the best poems I read, the poems I try and fail over and over again to write, embed that spark so deep it stays with you for hours and days and years afterward (think Charles Wright, think Vievee Francis). Enjoy all these poems as you would your favorite snack: cheese and crackers, apple slices, vegetables dunked in ranch. And then smile! Because whoever you are, you’re really great, and I appreciate you reading. Now go be awesome.
The open mic afterwards went well. I read the scene “The Walmart Way” from The Pursuit of Happiness. There were no “amens,” “hallelujahs,” or “preach it, brothers” —but I did get one laugh which felt very nice.
Obscurantism is more than a desperate attempt to feign novelty, though. It’s also a tactic for badgering readers into deference to the writer’s authority. Nobody can be sure they are comprehending the author’s meaning, which has the effect of making the reader feel deeply inferior and in awe of the writer’s towering knowledge, knowledge that must exist on a level so much higher than that of ordinary mortals that we are incapable of even beginning to appreciate it.....The harder people have to work to figure out what you’re saying, the more accomplished they’ll feel when they figure it out, and the more sophisticated you will appear. Everybody wins.
—Nathan J. Robinson (on Jordan Peterson) in Current Affairs
Authenticity is the journey of figuring out who you are through what you make.
—Donald Glover in The New Yorker
You have to be open enough to hear the universe’s stage directions.
The more time I spend with poetry, the less certain I am of anything I say about it. I’ll admit that as a reader I tend to favor clarity over innovation, beauty over authenticity, and feeling over moral rectitude. As a writer I just try to write poems I would want to read. But even these inclinations I grow daily less sure of.
—Matthew Buckley Smith in Rattle
I get a lot of inspiration from just going out and pretending I’ve never been to this planet before. It’s a great way to remember just how absurd, strange, beautiful, and unlikely everything is around you. If I can stay in that childish frame of mind, in that place of possibility where you watch somebody get into an elevator, the doors close, then open again and five people come out, and it occurs to you, ‘That’s where you go to become five people!’ Or you cut your hair and more grows out, and you cut your hair and more grows out, and you deduce, ‘The human head must be packed with hair.’ If I can practice daily astonishment, I find that I’m a little more pleasant, patient, and forgiving.
I write for hours on end every day. The layers of words have given me
a thick veneer, but few poems.
The age is materialistic. Verse isn't.
—Paul Laurence Dunbar
The people in the world, and the objects in it, and the world as a whole, are not absolute things, but on the contrary, are the phenomena of perception.... If we were all alike: if we were millions of people saying do, re, mi, in unison, one poet would be enough... But we are not alone, and everything needs expounding all the time because, as people live and die, each one perceiving life and death for himself, and mostly by and in himself, there develops a curiosity about the perceptions of others. This is what makes it possible to go on saying new things about old things.
—Wallace Stevens, "A Note on Samuel French Morse"
Literacy about where you're standing is the key to great writing.
—Hannah Palmer, author of Flight Path
Subject is to poetry what
plot is to fiction: gasoline,
to get started, to get around.
Writing poems is not a career but a lifetime of looking into, and listening to, how words see.
I’m not a formalist, per se, but I tend toward narrative. I believe in the self, and I believe in meaning. And I believe that poetry is instrumental in the process of effecting and uniting both the self and meaning. In other words, I’m a square, one who hasn’t always enjoyed American poetry’s last decade or so, what with its flarfing and skitteriness; I have been, however, encouraged to see poetry turn away from that dismissive, too-cool-for-school irony and back toward the self, experience, and attempted understanding.
—James Davis May, reviewing Chen Chen's book, When I Grow up I Want to Be a List of Further Possibilities
An important moment for [James] Baldwin came when he and his friend, the modernist painter Beauford Delaney, were standing on a street corner in the Village, waiting for the light to change. Baldwin recounts in The Paris Review that Beauford "pointed down and said, 'Look.' I looked and all I saw was water. And he said, 'Look again,' which I did, and I saw oil on the water and the city reflected in that puddle." In that moment, Baldwin felt he'd been taught how to see, and how to trust what he saw, felt that from that moment on he could see the world differently than he had before.
—The Writer's Almanac
Listen to your own poem..., hear what the poem wants to do rather than impose that shape. You can recognize the steps of its particular ritual. Does it want to be a dissolving loop? Does it want a couplet at the end as a way to get a rim shot? so how does it want to move, and, deeper, what does it want to say? So that means this kind of strange ouija board participation that's not completely coming from the brain....
—Bruce Smith in The American Poetry Review
To create one's world in any of the arts takes courage.
The experience of the power of poetry comes before we can name it; no wonder writers are originally and eternally ferocious readers. As a reader of poems, I can feel the power of another person’s dreaming, and there is a great delight and fascination for me in feeling the form of the poet’s dreaming, in all its urgency and intelligence. The immersion in this process—sensing a voice emerging from private dreaming and out into formal clarity—is one of the great pleasures of my life, whether I am the reader or the writer of the poem. As a teacher, I hope to help a writer make his or her poem a true experience on the page: to figure out how to give an inner world, and one’s senses of the outer one, dynamic form.
Be a good steward of your gifts. Protect your time. Feed your inner life. Avoid too much noise. Read good books, have good sentences in your ears. Be by yourself as often as you can. Walk. Take the phone off the hook. Work regular hours.
As for the reputed attentiveness of writers, people imagine that artists are sensitive and “more present,” or more “in their senses” than other people, but in my experience, this is simply not true. I knew a writer once who stayed in his room all day, smoking cigarettes and eating Cheetos; but if you read his poems, you would swear that he was walking through the woods of Tennessee, harvesting chicory and dandelion, recording the plumage of the snowy egret and the cry of the whippoorwill. He had the gift of conjuring attentiveness. It’s a paradox. The practice of language ironically draws you into contact with the world. It teaches you how to see, and it also makes your seeing more inventive.
—Tony Hoagland, Writer's Almanac interview
TOP 10 THINGS I WISH SOMEONE HAD SAID TO ME ALONG THE WAY
1. Buy a journal -- a nice one, so nice you want to write in it even on days you don’t feel like writing.
2. Write in your journal -- every day. Make it a routine if you can. Keep it by your seat in the car, by your bed at night. Take it to the bathroom with you. Take it into restaurants. Use emergency lanes. Interrupt people and tell them to wait a moment while you write something down.
3. Revise what you write. Seek criticism. Work at it until it feels completely right. When it comes back rejected, revise it again. When it comes back published, revise it again. When it comes out in a book of your own, revise it again. When you prepare to read it in public, revise it again. After you read it in public, revise it again.
4. Read more than you write. Subscribe to at least 6 journals publishing your genre, including at least one biggie and one local. Biggies: Ploughshares, Granta, Prairie Schooner, Paris Review, Poetry, Glimmer Train. Locals: Main Street Rag, Tar River Poetry, Greensboro Review, Wild Goose, Dead Mule. Buy at least 1 new book in your genre each month.
5. Network. Join a writers’ group. Go to readings. Take classes. North Carolina Writers’ Network. North Carolina Poetry Society. Poetry Society of South Carolina. Associated Writing Programs. Academy of American Poets. Poetry Hickory & Writers’ Night Out. When you’re ready to publish, start local with networked leads.
6. Buy a book of “prompts” for the days when you feel like you have nothing to write about. Gardner’s The Art of Fiction, Gutkind’s The Art of Creative Nonfiction, Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones, Behn and Twichell’s The Practice of Poetry. Figure out which techniques take you from “seed” to “fruit,” and keep them in your back pocket.
7. Balance your life. Save time for family, for doing what you have to do, and for doing the other things you love. These are usually the best sources for material anyway. Work 8 hours; sleep 8 hours; family/chores/other 6 hours; read 1 hour; write 1 hour.
8. Occasionally ask yourself what you’re doing and why you’re doing it. Don’t feel you have to keep those answers forever. They should change as you do, but it’s still good to think about it from time to time.
9. Never be rude to a publisher. Be familiar with the journal or press before submitting. Use Duotrope, Poets & Writers, and “The Chronicle.” Most of all, read the journal itself.
10. Never stop being amazed that we exist at all. Never stop demanding that we make it better.
This is our goal as writers, I think; to help others have this sense of—please forgive me—wonder, of seeing things anew, things that can catch us off guard, that break in on our small, bordered worlds.
—Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird
Don't run, go slowly,
it is only to yourself that you have to go!
Go slowly, don't run,
for the child of yourself, just born
cannot follow you.
—Juan Ramon Jimenez
I cannot say too many times how powerful the techniques of line length and line breaks are. You cannot swing the lines around, or fling strong-sounding words, or scatter soft ones, to no purpose. A reader beginning a poem is like someone stepping into a rowboat with a stranger at the oars; the first few draws on the long oars through the deep water tell a lot—is one safe, or is one apt to be soon drowned? A poem is that real a journey.
Crunch it down and pump it up.
Once upon a time there was a six-foot-tall woman with blue hair and a sense of smallness. In her house was a teacup saying ‘girl, you got this!’ and on her wall was a kitten hanging from a clothesline. The kitten’s word balloon said something like, ‘Hang in there!’ or ‘Don’t let go!’ Always something with an exclamation mark. Isn’t that the moral of the story, always? There is always a small woman, hiding her grandness, trying to fill up on uplifting wordplay. But today, this small woman sits down and writes a poem in which she details her smallness and why she came to be that way. Another small woman reads it, and from the tip of her hair a fire starts, but just as quickly dies. Isn’t that why we are here? To write another poem for a small woman to read, and then another. Until the amount of sparks are too much for the quick extinguishing, and she is a woman on fire, exploding into the world.
I would argue that good poems and stories require and develop in reader and writer alike an imaginative thinking that crosses the very racial ethnic political differences that everywhere else on the planet are hardening into unassailable orthodoxies.What after all are racism and bigotry of any kind but a failure of imagination?...Good poems and stories are themselves instances or enactments of the human image at its most inclusive, insightful, and empathetic. They are not an evasion of politics, or a retreat from a defiled and brutal world, but a passionate form of imaginative engagement and resistance. The literary arts urge us not to ignore what’s been happening to our democracy but to rectify the damage done to it by celebrating the qualities of mind and heart that refuse to reduce the human figure to deadening abstractions, or replace the truth of experience with palatable lies.
—Alan Shapiro, New Bern, November 11, 2016
I like poems that embody experience instead of merely referring to experience; that enact among...lines and sentences an arc of feeling or an arc of action instead of merely stating what a speaker feels or does. I like sentences, in particular, that dramatize or vocalize an emotional or psychological dynamic.
He advised me to wait, to hold true
To my vision, to speak in my own voice
To say the thing straight out
There was the whole day about him
The greatest thing, he said, was presence
to be yourself in your own time, to stand up
That poetry was precision, raw precision
Truth and compassion: genius
I had hardly begun. I asked, How did you begin
He said, I began in a tree in Lucerne
In a machine shop, in an open field
He said If you don't write, it won't
Get written. No tricks. No magic
—Dorianne Laux, from "Mine Own Phil Levine"
I think the main thing is to believe in yourself. Make sure you face the page with some discipline. Once you do that you may find the words finding themselves and you are following them, as your story or poem or essay makes. What I'm trying to say is that everyone is different. The thing to do is DO it. And the vulnerable places, the subjects you think you cannot write about, the whole matter of not having anything to say, perhaps—well, please know you will feel better if you just let go and try, let the syllables find you. See what happens.
If the editor is sleepy, exhausted, really unable to focus, that turns out to be a good time to read the inbox. All the poems blur together into a big indistinguishable lump. He reads for an hour and nothing happens. Then with eyes half-open he clicks to a poem that begins with a voice so arresting that the editor feels a sudden rush of adrenaline. This is one way he might recognize a TRP poem. That's not facetious. When you receive 1,573 poems in 28 days, you are looking to be jolted awake.
—Luke Whisnant, "Perusing the Inbox: In Search of a Tar River Poetry Poem," in Shining Rock Poetry Anthology and Book Review
The most exhilarating, and therefore treacherous, moment in a poem's composition comes when the first draft is done. The poet, relieved of an emotional burden, exalted by self-expression, feels that the world should share the triumph....It is sobering to realize, upon subsequent readings, that more work needs to be done. The work includes leaving the poem alone. No rules exist for how long the poet must stop fiddling with the thing to let it seal over and form a crust, enabling further breakthroughs. Even for those rare, magical poems that keep their original form, a stage of waiting in the dark is essential—as it is for every living thing."
—Susan Snively, "Waiting and Silence," in The Practice of Poetry
As one who works with young people every day, I do not wish to encourage any more solipsism, but I do want to help them be heard over the maddening and toxic white noise of the culture in which they are drowning. I take it on faith that they must find their voice in order to lose it. Those who listen carefully to their own voice and read assiduously to study the skilled voices of others will grow into riper understanding of the craft. Noxious, obnoxious, and precious grow up together at first; the wheat and the tares will be separated at the harvest.
—David E. Poston, letter to the editor, Poetry, 2005
Words create the world. It can look so different depending on how you describe that sky and that light. It can either be really threatening, or neutral, or it can be beautiful. It can move between those things so fast. It can be lonely, it can look like a Hopper painting, or it can look like a warm sunset. Mood can shift like drr-drr-drr-drr! We have so much power, so language is how it gets built. So that’s why Trump, who’s tone deaf, is building something really alien, and very frightening, so … Oh god, I hope he doesn’t win.
—Laurie Anderson, interview, The Atlantic, June 1, 2016
Since poetry deals with the singular, not the general, it cannot—if it is good poetry—look at things of this earth other than as colorful, variegated, and exciting, and so, it cannot reduce, life, with all its pain, horror, suffering, and ecstasy, to a unified tonality of boredom or complaint. By necessity poetry is therefore on the side of being and against nothingness....The secret of all art, also of poetry is...distance....Remembering, we move to that land of past time, yet without our former passions: we do not strive for anything, we are not afraid of anything, we become an eye which perceives and finds details that had escaped our attention.
—Czeslaw Milosz, introduction to A Book of Luminous Things
In a lifetime of walking in the woods, plains, gullies, mountains, I have found that the body has no more vulnerable sense than being lost. . . . It’s happened often enough that I don’t feel panic. I feel absolutely vulnerable and recognize it’s the best state of mind for a writer whether in the woods or the studio. Your mind feels a rush of images and ideas. You have acquired humility by accident. Feeling bright-eyed, confident and arrogant doesn’t do this job unless you’re writing the memoir of a narcissist. You are far better off being lost in your work and writing over your head. You don’t know where you are as a point of view unless you go beyond yourself.
—Jim Harrison, The Ancient Minstrel
It always comes back to the same necessity: go deep enough and there is a bedrock of truth, however hard.
Poetry is a place for grief to go.
—Jaki Shelton Green
What moves you most in a work of literature?
What moves me is, I think, the trifecta of memory, love and the passage of time. The close observation of character, of the moment as it passes — suffused with love. The writer who says: Here I stood! I loved the world enough to write it all down.
—Sarah Ruhl, interview, New York Times Book Review, February 2016.
Why do you never find anything written about that idiosyncratic thought you advert to, about your fascination with something no one else understands? Because it is up to you. There is something you find interesting, for a reason hard to explain because you have never read it on any page; there you begin. You were made and set here to give voice to this, your own astonishment.
—Annie Dillard, The Abundance
In my civilization it's customary to describe poetry as discarded, almost moribund, an all-too-exclusive art form, without power to break through…. I think it is time to emphasize that poetry—in spite of all the bad poets and bad readers—starts from an advantageous position.
A piece of paper, some words: it's simple and practical. It gives independence. Poetry requires
no heavy, vulnerable apparatus that has to be lugged around, it isn't dependent on temperamental performers, dictatorial directors, bright producers with irresistible ideas. No big money is at stake. A poem doesn't come in one copy that somebody buys and locks up in a storeroom waiting for its market value to go up; it can't be stolen from a museum or become currency in the buying and selling of narcotics, or get burned up by a vandal. When I started writing, at 16, I had a couple of like-minded school friends. Sometimes, when the lessons seemed more than usually trying, we would pass notes to each other between our desks—poems and aphorisms, which would come back with the more or less enthusiastic comments of the recipient. What an impression those scribblings would make! There is the fundamental situation of poetry. The lesson of official life goes rumbling on. We send inspired notes to one another.
—Tomas Tranströmer. Translated by Judith Moffett. from "Answer to Uj Iras." Ironwood 13 (1979): 38-9. (Thanks to poet David Graham.)
For last year's words belong to last year's language
And next year's words await another voice.
And to make an end is to make a beginning.
—T.S. Eliot, "Little Gidding"
Inspiration is fleeting. Technique is eternal.
—Keith Flynn, The Rhythm Method, Razzmatazz, and Memory
If you poured water on a great poem, you would get a novel.
—Gloria Steinem, in The New York Times Review of Books
Whenever I'm stuck when I'm writing, I can just put a Smiths record on and, it's kind of like if my songwriting was like an iPhone, it recharges it in five minutes. It's because there's all these question marks in it; it's very foreign to me and it's always going to make me want to go and play guitar.
—Ryan Adams, in Rolling Stone
Rewriting establishes the palimpsest and permits you to stay in touch with the first cause of the poem, regardless of the number of erasures, writings-over, transformations: the first impulse is the secret that will be revealed the more it is concealed through rewrite.
At 100 years old, I look up and say, ‘If anyone is listening, thank you for another nice day!’ In poetry I boil things down to an essence. Rather than pages and pages of rambling. I like that.
Purity is not my claim, my game, nor a thing remotely within my grasp. I’m an American; this tarnished software will not be rectified by good intentions, or even good behavior. The poet plays with the devil; that is, she or he traffics in repressed energies. The poet’s job is elasticity, mobility of perspective, trouble-making, clowning and truth-telling.
—Tony Hoagland, 2011
Despite the literary fashion, you have to be attuned to your own ear, your own gifts. The whole justification for form is that it helps to inform and orchestrate what is being said. A good poet is never one coerced by form, but a good poet needs to have turns, climaxes, joints—or he's left floundering in infinity.
—Richard Wilbur, interview, The Light Within the Light by Jeanne Braham
Poets in any culture inherit a common tradition. What makes them separate and distinctive is the use they make of their own past, which cannot be the same as anybody else's. My first sense of what it meant to be a poet in the modern world was that it required a search for my own identity....Sometimes I feel perturbed that I've written so few poems on political themes, particularly on the causes that agitate me. But then I realize being a poet at all in the modern world is a political act.
—Stanley Kunitz, interview, The Light Within the Light by Jeanne Braham
Be careful who your critics are. Be specific. Tell almost the whole story. Put your ear close down to your soul and listen hard.
—Anne Sexton, interview, Paris Review
O thou whose face hath felt the Winter's wind,
Whose eye has seen the snow-clouds hung in mist,
And the black elm-tops 'mong the freezing stars,
To thee the Spring will be a harvest-time.
O thou, whose only book has been the light
Of supreme darkness, which thou feddest on
Night after night, when Phoebus was away,
To thee the Spring shall be a triple morn.
O fret not after knowledge—I have none,
And yet my song comes native with the warmth.
O fret not after knowledge—I have none,
And yet the evening listens. He who saddens
At thought of idleness cannot be idle,
And he's awake who thinks himself asleep.
—John Keats, "What the Thrush Said"
Work finally begins when the fear of doing nothing exceeds the fear of doing it badly.
—Alain de Botton
Those youthful days when time management was distinctly less important than it is to me now are over, never to return, and I finally understand that the perfect conditions will probably never arise. To feel the way I do about writing and to end up arranging my life around anything else, or to allow my life to become arranged around anything else, would be a personal betrayal, so I am resolved to power on. I must struggle through and against, and I must overcome Life. It’s three-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust for me, and I’ve never felt more like a writer.
—Dan Kennard, Tahoma Literary Review
Nothing brings talent to near to genius as the very qualities that genius can do without: restraint, discrimination, self-criticism.
—Edith Wharton, "Donnée Book II"
Based on your experience as an editor, what have you learned about writing?
So much is about process. Read. Read. Read. Read. Read.
—Maura Snell, co-founder, The Tishman Review
Our focus [as American writers] on exercises, on forming good writing habits by trying to write every day, and our insistence on reading, seemed a little lacking in mystery, if not downright square, in comparison to what Naseer Hassan and Hamed al-Maliki were proposing as primary qualities for being a writer: the Rilkean attributes of vision, inspiration, and the ability to express profound feeling.
—Tom Sleigh, “Six Trees and Two White Dogs…Doves?,” Poetry, March 2015
The mystery will be expressed simply or it won't be expressed.
Great writing is the product of spiritual progress.
—Jay Parini, Boston Globe, September 17, 1995
And the music becomes an act of reparation, a security guaranteed, and archaic anxieties are stilled by their incorporation into the formal beauty of the piece.
—Frank Kermode, "The Wonder of Mozart," NY Review of Books, October 19, 1995
Jump the chasm rather than staying with what you know.
And poetry, too, begins in this way: the crossing of trajectories of two (or more) elements that might not otherwise have known simultaneity. When this happens, a piece of the universe is revealed as if for the first time.
—Adrienne Rich, What Is Found There
When a poet's mind is perfectly equipped for its work, it is constantly amalgamating disparate experience; the ordinary man's experience is chaotic, irregular, fragmentary. The latter falls in love, or reads Spinoza, and these two experiences have nothing to do with each other, or with the noise of the typewriter or the smell of cooking; in the mind of the poet these experiences are always forming new wholes.
—T.S. Eliot, "The Metaphysical Poets"
The insignificant 'image' may be 'evoked' never so ably and still mean nothing.
—William Carlos Williams, Spring and All
If the Reason be stimulated to more earnest vision, outlines and surfaces become transparent, and are no longer seen; causes and spirits are seen through them. The best moments of life are these delicious awakenings of the higher powers.
—Ralph Waldo Emerson, "Nature"
Joy in looking and comprehending is nature's most beautiful gift.
...what writers are for: Throughout history, they've been the gatekeepers between raw data and complex understanding. Too often trapped these days before the brilliant glow of computer screens that reveal everything we need to know but not what to do with it, we risk losing the art of synthesis—of hearing the world around us and translating those sounds into the myriad sensible narratives that make up reality. The splintering of consciousness has also become a flattening: traveling widely but two-dimensionally, without the benefit of the information sensors of the natural world.
—Gail Caldwell, Boston Globe
The poet doesn't invent. He listens.
Everyone can draw. Not everyone can see. I can teach you to see.
A poem is a portrait of consciousness....Poetry is written for others. But it's also a study of the self, which is a private kind of work.
—Chase Twichell, "Toys in the Attic"
The poetries of men and women unlike you are a great polyglot city of resources, in whose streets you need to wander whose sounds you need to listen to, without feeling you must live there.
—Adrienne Rich, What Is Found There
The real writer is one
who really writes. Talent
is an invention like phlogiston
after the fact of fire.
Work is its own cure. You have to
like it better than being loved.
—Marge Piercy, from “For the young who want to"