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Musing on the Muse


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?

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Learning Curve

“When I began writing those poems I had had the dream that I would celebrate my sixtieth birthday with a book of joys, a book speaking of fulfillment and happiness. But on the final re-reading I saw clearly that is an elegiac book and that the seeds of parting were in it from the beginning. This is where poetry is so mysterious, the work more mature than the writer of it, always the messenger of growth. So perhaps we write toward what we will become from where we are.” — May Sarton, Journal of a Solitude

A poem for me begins with a phrase that swims its way up from deep within my body, or a snatch of conversation that tumbles over and over on my tongue, or sometimes even a method—a collage poem or something excavated from someone else’s text. But it never starts with an idea. There is no plan for what I will write. Though I know I will discover something in the writing, I do not know until the words are secure on the page what my question is. Writing poetry—and actually all of my literary writing—is like speaking in tongues: I let go and let my better self takes over, the part that never strays from its intimate conversation with the Creator. I remember when my first chapbook was published how shocked I was when everyone said that the poems were so sexual. It took years for me to see that the poems I thought were just a celebration of music and musicians who moved me were also poems about hunger, about longing, about wanting to be touched. In retrospect it’s clear that the person I was then—caught between my fear of intimacy and my equal fear of being in relationship—would puzzle that out on the page. Writing is my way of thinking, it is my safe place to feel and my safe place to reveal myself to myself.

I have always thought my best poems were the ones I didn’t understand. I instinctively know that the logic of them makes sense, that they are “right,” but I usually can’t articulate why I feel that way, what is so right about them, or even what I am trying to say in them. Over time I’ve found that those poems, the ones where I almost can’t decide if they are successful or not, are usually the ones in which I’ve made some huge leap forward—in style, in understanding—and it may take months, and sometimes years, for me to understand what the attempt is.

Poems are mysterious creatures to me. I am suspicious of high school teachers who claim that what is going on in a poem can be assessed with multiple-choice tests. While I agree that there are many poets who are better at probing the mysteries of their poems than I am—I am not the type of reader (or writer) who needs every metaphor to be logical or every motive to be crystal clear for a poem to be satisfying—I also think that even the most ardent sleuths of their own work are, at most, just giving their best guess of what the poem is about. And that to me is the most joyful part of writing, that the more we write, the more still there is to be discovered.

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