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Style and substance may represent a class system. The imagination is a democracy.

–From The Triggering Town by poet and teacher Richard Hugo

I love this book. Opening it up to a random page before heading to the studio is to find a heartwarming wink, an approving nod, a much-needed nugget. It is at times like these, when undercurrents are relentless and unpredictable, that koan-like guidance can steady the vessel. And often the steadying of the vessel is as simple as lifting the hand off the rudder and being willing to just drift.

Here are a few more:

Once you have a certain amount of accumulated technique, you can forget it in the act of writing. Those moves that are naturally yours will stay with you and will come forth mysteriously when needed.

It’s flattering to be told you are better than someone else, but victories like that do not endure. What endures are your feelings about your work.

Our triggering subjects, like our words, come from obsessions we must submit to, whatever the social cost…It is narcissistic, vain, egotistical, unrealistic, selfish, and hateful to assume emotional ownership of a town or a word. It is also essential.

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This is Rosanna Warren, part 2…

An interview with Warren was published in the Kenyon Review. She shares some deeply considered thoughts on a number of topics including the structure of poetry, writing about the visual arts, absorbing traditions, apprehension of the real.

Here are a few salient excerpts:

In a way, I have a deeply old-fashioned view that the artist in any art needs to absorb the traditions of that art and absorb them intensely. How you do it is your own business. My sense of it is that you draw from nature and that you draw from the works of the past. And that as a writer you imitate and translate from as many languages as you can so you absorb the expressive possibilities of our literatures in English, which is so various and hybrid. And only through this immersion does one enlarge the possibilities of how we can refashion inherited forms. For me, there’s no interesting art that doesn’t have a potent formal sense and also a powerful disruptive sense. I look for that in art—I look for some ratio of resistance between powerful form and powerful disruption.

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Indeed, I think there’s a great misunderstanding (well, even to go back even twenty-five years in this country) between so-called open forms (and the ideological claims being made for them, even politically, which seems to be an amazingly crude way of thinking) and the traditional metrical forms. Free verse itself is now a tradition of over a hundred years old. My coordinates are a little French so I would date it to July or August of 1886, which was when the magazine La Vogue in Paris published one of the first translations of Whitman in French and (these were an incredible set of issues) Rimbaud’s first free-verse poems which came out of the prose poetry in Illuminations. Of course, Rimbaud had long since gone off to Africa and he didn’t know they were being published. So we see the double-barreled assault on the French alexandrine line in 1886 with Whitman and Rimbaud. By now that’s well over a century ago. So my sense of form is any organic set of constraints, of structural constraints that the poem sets up for itself, which should engender a powerful form of resistance, internal resistance. A poem that doesn’t have these two elements, I find, lacks life.

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In a way I suppose it’s just an intensification of what art is, because art is a fiction. We make shapes from whatever private motivations we have, but what is happening is a kind of alchemy where whatever raw material we bring to the fictions we make—whether they’re prose or poetic fictions—we bring the raw material of our psyches, our lives, our experiences and they’re transmuted by the alembic shape of whatever form we put on the page.

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From my very early childhood, I remember at the age of three holding pencils and trying to make shapes, trying to translate onto the page what I was seeing. Drawing and then painting are meditational exercises to work at the strangeness of the world. And that’s why I was always a figurative painter, because I could stare for hours (maybe it’s a little autistic) at tree bark, or the pattern branches make against the sky, or at the shape of an orange on a table—and look at the weirdness of anything. If you look at it hard it turns revelatory in its estrangement from what we expect it to look like. That’s a nonverbal training or positioning toward reality, and poetry, in my experience, is an exhilarating, at times heartbreaking, attempt to translate into the verbal realm those distinctly nonverbal experiences or apprehensions of the real. I guess the way I’m speaking sounds a little bit like Giacometti; that’s the way Giacometti drew, by looking at the real until it dissolved. He was thinking a lot about Cézanne, and I think about Cézanne probably every day of my life. It is a discipline of looking for the revelation in the strangeness of the truth.

A few words on solitude, discipline and the nature of being interrupted, by Mary Oliver:

It is a silver morning like any other. I am at my desk. Then the phone
rings, or someone raps at the door. I am deep in the machinery of my wits.
Reluctantly I rise, I answer the phone or I open the door. And the thought
which I had in hand, or almost in hand, is gone.

Creative work needs solitude. It needs concentration, without
interruptions. It needs the whole sky to fly in, and no eye watching until
it comes to that certainty which it aspires to, but does not necessarily
have at once. Privacy, then. A place apart–to pace, to chew pencils, to
scribble and erase and scribble again.

But just as often, if not more often, the interruption comes not from
another but from the self itself, or some other self within the self, that
whistles and pounds upon the door panels and tosses itself, splashing into
the pond of meditation. And what does it have to say? That you must phone
the dentist, that you are out of mustard, that your uncle Stanley’s birthday
is two weeks hence. You react, of course. Then you return to your work, only
to find that the imps of idea have fled back into the mist.

It is this internal force–this intimate interrupter–whose tracks I would
follow. The world sheds, in the energetic way of an open and communal place,
its many greetings, as a world should. What quarrel can there be with that?
But that the self can interrupt the self–and does–is a dark and more
curious matter.

–From Blue Pastures

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Mary Oliver, poet