Quotations for Writers
...in no particular order....
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"