On a mailing list I subscribe to, someone recently said he was not interested (as a writer, I presume) in fooling around with the words of other people. In recent years, I have become more and more interested in such "fooling around." Found poetry, appropriation, borrowing, hommaging,--whatever such methods are called-- all can fundamentally be used in the creation of *new* things, and doing so has become more and more intriguing to me of late.
I do my share of "venting" I suppose, but "self-expression" in the usual sense is less and less a concern of mine. Nowadays, I am much more interested in what can be made with words, even (and maybe especially) other people's words, than with "saying something." More and more, I love to write when I have nothing to say.
Edward de Bono once suggested that the key to creativity, to making something new, is random input, and that led me to look for entry points to new poems in randomly chosen words of others. I remember jump-starting lots of new poems by choosing a book by chance and reading down the left- or right- hand margins, looking for words, phrases, strings of words that would start something going for me.
Writing found poems involved finding and/or seeking out texts to fit to the Procrustean bed of the poem. I have found such texts in newspapers, in ad copy, and in other prose texts, sometimes in indexes or tables of contents.
"Mosque" and "Reckless Girl on the Lam" represent, I think, a combination of these methods. They, along with a number of others, were done during a recent stay at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, an arts colony near Lynchburg, Virginia.
Earlier, I had achieved some poems through a process I think of as "excavation": one looks at a page of prose as raw material for a poem, and procedes, as a sculptor might, to chip away all of the pieces that are not the poem. To make "Mosque" and these other new poems, though, I just skipped around the books, jotting down words, phrases, whole sentences, just as they struck me. The form (five four-line stanzas) is not sacred, just useful--not too long, not too short; not too open, not too constraining. The tone, momentum, and direction of the poems spring from the initial choices, and, to some extent, my general sense or "feel" of the book as a whole. But in seeking out bits and pieces to use, I have tried not to get too much into the book, the story, the plot, etc. My purpose is to make a poem using materials from the source texts--not to summarize or comment on the texts themselves.
E. M. Forster's A Passage to India and Ross MacDonald's The Barbarous Coast were chosen as sources simply because they were at hand, though I'll admit to a fondness for Forster's novel and to a one-time infatuation with the LA of MacDonald and his private eye, Lew Archer.
I made a piece called "Allure" from Anne Tyler's novel Breathing Lessons. It is like a little anthology of Anne Tyler images and sentences. The selection and arrangement were mine. And, as with all these pieces, I think I've made something new of it.
I did a piece called "ATM in Lobby," which started with the title phrase stuck in my head, picked up from some signage I frequently see on the way to or from one of the schools I teach at here in the Baltimore area. An "original" epigraph ("Lobby Girl sits on the fat man's knee-e / fat man happy as he can be-e") came to me (sung to a tune I'm sure you know), and then the title and self-made epigraph sat there staring at me from a sheet of paper for a few days.
Next, I saw in (I think) The New Yorker, an ad for lighting fixtures that featured this quote: "The only difference between pornography and erotica is lighting," attributed to a woman whose name I didn't recognize. I did a websearch on her name, and learned she was an apparently well-known porn star--lots of have-your-credit-card-ready sites devoted to her. (Forgive me, her name eludes me at the moment. Check back.) One of these (found via Alta Vista, or perhaps more appropriately, Excite) was a rather standard piece of hack porno (textwork, not image). On a whim, I cut and pasted that text into a file.
Next, (not, mind you, that all this was a planned, deliberate operation with me knowing where it was leading)--next, I visited Columbia University's Bartleby site, where lots of searchable antique texts abide. I ran a search for "explore," hoping to come up with all sorts of quotes, passages having to do with exploring, exploration, etc. I do not remember off-hand the authors of all the quotes I used in putting "ATM in Lobby" together. A number of them were out of Chapman's translation of Homer (yes, the same one John Keats once enthused over).
So, the process of building these is not always the same, and the results vary considerably too--in tone, in impact, and (I am sure) in quality as well.
How many of these will I do? How long will I do them?
Remains (as they say in the mortuary trade) to be seen. I have always been interested in finding new approaches (new to me, anyway) to the making of poems (prose too, in fact). And I haven't ever been able to see myself doing exactly the same sort of thing until the day comes to hang up my word processor and move on.
- Halvard Johnson