Blackbirdan online journal of literature and the artsSpring 2022  Vol. 21  No. 1
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Movement and Conversion

The title of this series, “Tracking the Muse,” feels accurate, as “tracking” implies the muse is always on the move. This resonates with me in two ways: first, that my source for poetic inspiration seems to always be shifting, and second, that movement itself is often necessary to my writing process. Whatever the inspiration for a particular poem—my poems here in Blackbird explore questions of who I am in relation to my past and my family, whereas recently, I’ve been more interested in voices that aren’t explicitly my own—they tend to arise from the same situation. I sit at my desk looking at the cottonwood, or in my backyard watching the pecans and rock doves, and wait for what words come. But that’s usually only the initial period of writing. When revising and deepening my poems, it helps me to get on the move. As I find my way between the first draft of a poem and a final draft, I like to go on a bike ride. The movement of my body through space and the movement of my mind feel more in sync that way, and paths for expanding my poem toward something more complex will come to me in the form of lines, words, images, and concepts while I’m pedaling on my typical path. I return to the page after biking with, in a sense, a new muse.

I’m interested, right now, in expanding my voice—not so much to capture the world or rival the world, but to enlarge my (and hopefully the reader’s) sense of what is available to say. I read my favorite poets less for specific lessons or moral values, though those details are important, and more for the subtle atmosphere of possibility, for the slow realization of what the world would be like living with or through their voice. Here’s Elizabeth Bishop explaining to Robert Lowell how she judges the worth of a poem (or a painting) by how long the world looks like that art after you’ve viewed it:

But (perhaps I’ve said this before) if after I read a poem, the world looks like that poem for twenty-four hours or so, I’m sure it’s a good one—and the same goes for paintings. I studied a huge book on Bosch I have for several days—and the world looked like Bosch’s for a month afterwards—not that it really doesn’t anyway, these days. Then recently here I saw a Julius Bissier show (do you know his paintings?—slight, maybe, but beautiful) and the world looked all like Bissier’s for a long time, here, there, and everywhere.

Certainly, Bishop’s poems have this effect on me, as do all poets of minute, intricate, and careful attention, such as Gerard Manley Hopkins, Marianne Moore, A.R. Ammons, Jorie Graham, Emma Aylor, and many more—perhaps because I find such detail so difficult in my own poetry. But one hopes that one’s work can have this effect: not so much the presentation of a persuasive ego or persona that can tell us who they are or what they believe, but a more impersonal, subtle movement—a force akin to a natural event or magnetic field. Though I’m skeptical so often, perhaps too often, that my own poems could ever have that power, I can still read for it. And reading, for me, is a necessary conversation before I can write. In the best literature, such world-altering vision is always available if we have the heart to devote to it and the strength to let reading constantly change our relationship with our world.  

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