blackbirdonline journalSpring 2018  Vol. 17 No. 1
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TRACKING THE MUSE

Contributors on Process

spacer Elvira Basevich
   The Long Walk Home

Sonal Kohli
   The Ritual

James Leech
   Memory and Language

Emily Nemens
   A Bird in the Hand

Melissa Stephenson
   Confetti Time

Chioma Urama
   Chasing Voices

   

Since 2007, we have invited contributors from the annual Introductions Loop to comment on their creative processes and sources of inspiration. For these emerging writers, stimulus takes many forms: the profundity of a morning ritual, the opportunity in transforming a memory into language, or in seeking African American Vernacular English in the South. In this issue, Elvira Basevich, Sonal Kohli, James Leech, Emily Nemens, Melissa Stephenson, and Chioma Urama continue the tradition in “Tracking the Muse.”

Elvira Basevich’s poetry “is driven by humanism expressed in radical particularity.” This ideal manifests itself in the poet taking the reader to “to meet people whose ethnicity you’ve probably never heard of, to listen to those without a homeland.” As an optimist, Basevich often writes “with the moral faith in the capacity for strangers to listen to each other,” rendering tales involved with the “unsung lives of ordinary people.”

Sonal Kohli roots her creative process in morning ritual, in “half a spoon of tea leaves, some milk,” and tea brewed “to a charming cinnamon hue.” Outside, a sparrow “hops up and down the dry branches of the crape myrtle.” Once in her study, as Kohli describes it, the very molecules “stir, the walls waver. I’m in the study and I’m elsewhere. I’m me yet also the characters on the page.” After two hours, the world settles, and the poet is back in her own skin, “until next morning when I go through the ritual again and invoke my muse.”

James Leech finds that stories begin with “an idea, an image, a moment,” and often, a memory. While following the process of remembering, the writer notes that “memories exist now only in the telling. And this is also the process of writing.” Memories, once transmogrified into words with the application of “sly, beautiful language,” become something altogether different. “These are the materials that we all have to work with, whether we are talking together, thinking, or writing.”

Emily Nemens is often galvanized by an “inciting object”: in this particular case, two taxidermied birds in a museum in Pittsburgh, around which a globe-spanning story began to formulate in the author’s mind. Next comes “the supplemental research that lends it authenticity,” the study of city records and old photographs, the work of historical writers. Research is followed by “the tedium and joy of the craft, the rewritten scenes and sentences”: in short, the “drafts upon drafts upon drafts.” This is how Nemens sees writing, that “one little object, no bigger than a bird that fits in the palm of your hand, can reveal a whole new universe.”

Melissa Stephenson refers to her muse, also her biggest creative challenge, as “confetti time.” The phrase describes the fragmented nature of the author’s writing life, snatching an hour here and there to write, between the demands of raising two children. This includes scribing ideas and phrases on hotel notepads, so that Stephenson, when free time presents itself, might “craft and essay from these disparate elements, letting them collide and spark.” Confetti time functions to weave together ostensibly disconnected bits of thought. For Stephenson, “in the end, it doesn’t matter when or how the work got done. It matters that it did get done, one tiny piece at a time.”

Chioma Urama seeks her muse by reclaiming voice and sound: “As a black American who grew up speaking Standard English, the notion that I was robbed of something essential to my culture led me to begin chasing voices.” This pull has led Urama farther into the South, through Richmond, to the Florida Everglades, and into New Orleans. She describes this process as “automatic writing,” toting a Moleskine notebook and recording “thoughts, sounds, names, titles, voices, and words that come to me in dreams.” Once a page fills up, Urama begins the process to “sand and smooth down the edges, rearranging language on a page until I have in front of me something that feels like a revelation.”  end