Here is my artist manifesto. Well, really, it’s manifesto-ish. Manifesto adjacent. It’s not meant to be rigid. I don’t intend to ride or die on this manifesto. What I’m interested in is what I believe as an artist at this particular moment—February 25, 2018 at 4:15pm—and how that informs my plans for the next five minutes, the next five days, the next five months. I don’t expect it to be exactly the same over the next five years, for, as Sonia Sanchez has said:
“I think that the reason why art stays alive is that the artist grows. I mean the body doesn’t stay the same; the brain doesn’t stay the same. Your art can’t stay the same.”
This manifesto-ish thing is by no means comprehensive. I fully expect to read it over tomorrow, or later tonight and see some holes, gaping or otherwise. Still, it’s a way to see where my head’s at, to gather my thoughts, after a week of iron sharpening iron conversations—including two individual chats today with women artists I respect and adore as well as a three-hour symposium listening to really smart, passionate people speak smartly and passionately.
I don’t think there is anything original in this manifesto-ish thing. I am not the only one who’s had these thoughts or ideas, and, in fact, many of these thoughts/ideas are paraphrases of what other people have said to me during various creative collisions. I don’t believe we either think or create in a vacuum, but more on that below.
So here are some things I think as related to the artist’s life and practice, which you can take as a manifesto or a roadmap or a meditation or a behind-the-scenes of my brain pan or not take in any way at all.
I have to define my quest, my hero’s journey for myself. I may be Frodo or I may be Sam. I may switch roles as the quest requires. My quest may not look like anyone else’s, nor may it even seem like a quest. All of that is okay. It’s about feeling a sense of momentum, moving forward (or inching forward), even if we cannot make out what it is we’re moving toward either consistently or conclusively.
It’s okay to not be able to see past the bend in the road. But I should also not be fearful to imagine what’s past the bend in the road. So what if I’m wrong?
I must dream big. Then dream bigger than that. Then take a step forward. Baby steps are fine. As are leaps.
I do not have to wait for my greatness. I have to walk into the greatness I hold within myself right now. And, yes, we all hold greatness within us in some form or fashion, in some magnitude right at this very moment.
I must consistently and constantly be willing to ask and answer the questions: How am I stopping myself? How do I not stop myself?
There is no such thing as originality. I am always standing on the shoulders of someone else’s thought, someone else’s creativity, someone else’s work. What I mean when I say something is my original work is “I am being as faithful as I possibly can within this work of art to my own experience, my own vision.”
If I can’t write from a place of authority, I must write from a place of discovery. I also need to privilege work created from a place of creativity over that created from a place of authority. To quote Azar Nafisi paraphrasing Milan Kundera, “Artists are not here to preach the truth, they are here to discover it.”
I must engage fully in my life at all times. What that means from day to day may change. And what that means for someone else is probably not what it means for me.
I must allow myself to take up space in my life and in the lives of others. I must allow myself to inhabit my voice fully. There are people who need my voice in the same way there are those whose voices I need.
Christian Kane was briefly a muse. This is from a poetry reading in Charleston in October 2011.
Today I finished May Sarton’s 1975-1976 journal, A House By the Sea. In it she writes that for her , the muse has always been female. Though I write so often about what I generalize as “women’s concerns,” my muses have for the most part been decidedly male. By muse, in this context, I don’t mean the general inspirational element, but rather a real person who has directly inspired a poem. In Chicago, I wrote a lot about Ross Bon who led a jump blues outfit, the Mighty Blue Kings. While I was studying for my MFA, my muse was a blues-playing professor in the Lit department. Currently, it’s Michael Fassbender, though his museship seems somewhat different from his predecessors in that I’m not responding directly to him but using his words from an interview, which have already gone through the filter of someone else’s editor. Though I suppose one could argue that it’s because I was so powerfully affected by him as an actor that I decided to seek out his interviews as source text in the first place.
While I generally have a crush on my muse, not all of my crushes become muses. I’ve never once felt inspired to write anything because of George Clooney. And while my earnest sixteen-year-old self (hand) wrote a moving, shocking, gripping, hearbreaking , tearjerking, postively awful screenplay that was supposed to star Matt Dillon, even this earliest love of my life hasn’t inspired any poems.
I couldn’t even begin to tell you what makes someone a muse for me. They capture my imagination for some reason but to articulate that reason is beyond me. It’s not mere attractiveness, though, in my eyes, at least the ones I’ve named above are quite handsome. But it’s something to do with their talent and, even moreso, their ability in their performances or with their very presence to literally drive me out of my head for a moment. To get me past the editors, the censors, the dot-connectors that all crowd my head to the secret place where the poems wait.
My mother—and my father to a lesser degree—are central figures in my work but I don’t know that I’d consider them muses. They’re far too bound up in who I am. It’s as if when I write about them, as I try to unravel the self I’ve become, it’s an excavation. While the poems that are muse-born are a journey. In both cases the endpoint is unknown but it seems to me a different type of discovery. One’s a sloughing off to find the song that’s already there, perhaps, while the other is a new song entirely. No, that sounds entirely too pat. I think maybe one is a spiraling inward while the other is a spiraling outward. And this is, of course, speaking as if the processes really are that divergent, when it is more true to say that the places where the lines are blurry are much more numerous than the places in which they are distinct.
I should add that I have had women muses. Billie Holiday is a motif through many of my early poems, and even relatively new ones like “The Makers of Memorials.” And Eva Cassidy. I don’t know if Colette and May Sarton can be considered muses or if they are merely influences, and perhaps there isn’t really a difference.
But that’s enough about me and my muses….what have you to say about yours?
“All art is a type of confession.” — James Baldwin-
I’ve had this quote scrawled on the mirror near my front door for a couple of years now. Think it’s time for me to find a new quote (though this one stays forever in my heart).There’s not a lot of surface space so I’m looking for something short and sweet.
What do you suggest?