by Major Jackson
It happened again yesterday, a question I increasingly hear as downright boorish, an effrontery on par with public flatulence. Whenever these words are spoken, my frustration is nearly instant, visible; one of the corners of my brown lips turns up and a dark frown emerges, and if I do not control the muscles in my face, my interlocutor will have to suffer a scowl as I attempt to push the rock back up the mountain. This question, on the surface, is benign, posed to solicit a checklist of things-to-do, tricks of the trade, so to speak, if one is to become a successful writer, as if to unmask the eccentricities of the imagination at work.
“What’s your creative process?”
Evil, thy name is banality, and here is where I am most assured the chink in The Matrix is not a fiction: for like many other writers, I have encountered that question during Q&A at the tail end of many reading; also on a tarmac at La Guardia, sitting next to a seismologist, downing gin and tonics, waiting out a storm. Somewhere back in the 19th century, a period of intense adulation of all things literary, some villain, probably a pamphlet-writer on Grub Street, decided to taunt writers henceforth and forever with the task of having to explain what amounts to a strange incubation of ambition, inquiry, desire, emotion, and talent finding release in language that conforms to one or more several genres we know as fiction, poetry, or creative non-fiction.
Each poem is its own singular journey, its own incorporation of magical circumstances, and such a question reduces writing to a mere walk around the (same) block. Contrarily, I have heard prose writers discuss the sentence itself as a fierce adventure of will and discovery, syntax as an excursion to the unknown. But to the layman, to the tyro, writing is conceived as a set of steps or directions: you-do-this, you-do-that, and lo-and-behold . . .
When I think of process, I think of gears and assembly lines, supercomputers, soulless algorithms, synthetic waltzes, a repetitive act of candle-lighting or some other guiding ritual that unremarkably leads to words. It is well-known that William Wordsworth took walks with his sister Dorothy before the faucet of feelings spontaneously overflowed. Probably less well-known, is that poet James Whitcomb Riley, that venerable bon vivant from Indiana, checked into hotels and asked his friends to lock him in his room and take with them his garments, so he wouldn’t be enticed to leave his desk to satiate his thirst for a cocktail in the lobby. Sir Walter Scott composed poems while riding on horseback. I imagine these are the salacious details of preparation and odd personality quirks which the person posing the question wants to hear, and the more exotic and incongruous, the better.
I’ve heard writers do some of the following in an effort to call back the muse from vacation: perform a hundred push-ups, make soup, play a nearby piano, engage in a quick romp with one’s beloved or self, smoke a bowl, organize all of the pens and pencils in a house, read the opening chapters of The Art of War, complete a daily crossword puzzle, wait until the minute hand hits exactly a lucky number or lands on a specific time as though the doors to a rare universe had opened through which the writer is allowed to enter, pluck fleas from their dog’s back until they were all gone, sit in a car and record all the license plates of cars that passed by. Before a visit to his writing desk, by the way, Eliot meticulously applied face powder and lipstick.
I get it: such rituals serve as the magical unlocking of a consciousness. They make the beginning of a poem or story easier to commence, maybe even give us a sense of being in control of something as inscrutable and elusive as the imagination.
However, what I find difficult to explain, in answer to the question, is that writing arises out of a greater complexity; not necessarily a need, but beyond need — and even then, only after I have attained enough of the requisite parts (memories, facts, impulses, willpower, and whatever else finds its way into the poem). That period of gestation gives rise to something within that emerges as organic and inevitable as a day lily shooting up out of earth. The beyond-need has, as its source, the urge to simply make, which points to the etymological root of the Poet as Maker. What happens from that point on is a kind of possession (of the variety that Maya Deren captures in her film Divine Horsemen), a setting free of energy existent within and around us.
Once induced into a spirit of composing, the imagination dances with language in that space William James described as “fringe consciousness.” (I should add here, half my life is spent walking in the margins of subconscious existence.) How do I explain or convey that the poem begins long before I ever sit down?
For sure, our Bennington method — “Read a Hundred. Write One”— is only a small part of a process of refinement and honing that has to occur in order for authentic expression to happen. This is not only part of developing one’s craft, but more important, I think, developing a singular way of seeing and digesting life itself. Only Gwendolyn Brooks could have gorgeously uttered: “Conduct your blooming in the noise and whip of the whirlwind.” I can only imagine what snapshots in the mind, what synapses of experiences, what encounters with language led to this moment in her poem “The Second Sermon on the Warpland” from In the Mecca. (Someday neuroscience will have the ability to data mine our thoughts and track images, lines of poems, and sounds to their original sources. Until then, let’s revel in the mystery.)
I exaggerate my hostility; in all honesty, I try to answer the question with the utmost seriousness — at times I glibly say that it depends on the poem and where it takes me. Recently, I wrote one (currently in the latest issue of New Letters) that took me to a newspaper account I’d read years ago about of of Dr. Kevorkian’s televised suicide-assistance in 1998, which landed him in jail. For years, I was startled by Thomas Youk’s answer to “Any last words?” to which he replied,“I didn’t understand any of it.” In writing my poem, I recalled the despair that came over me back then; to think someone had lived 52 years on earth and had not found any meaning, any consoling wisdom, any understanding, and that this (not his disease) was his reason for wanting to die. That memory led to my thinking about oblivion and bewilderment, and thus, the poem found its exit strategy.
After all of the films and poems, after the songs heard and the hearts broken, after the long hours arguing some philosophic belief, after walking the narrow streets of some ancient city, after the hurts and groundswell of grace and love-making, we achieve a naturalness of seeing that is uniquely ours, that emerges into some statement of who we are, some song of ourselves. How difficult it is to explain that succinctly and simply — for it is neither. In the end, in answer to the question, we can only point to the poems and stories themselves.