In Answer to Your Questions about Inspiration

So, it’s been a while since I posted. I’d make excuses, but I don’t have any. This morning, I read an email from a high school student working on a project about inspiration and asking if I would be willing to answer some questions to help them out. I asked my artist friends on Facebook to offer a comment about the one thing they would want someone to know about inspiration, went to work, and mulled over my answers most of the day. I think I might have this all wrong, but the answers seemed worth sharing, and it had been, you know, a really long time since I posted anything over here. So double thank you to the high school student–once for making think this through and then again for giving me a blog post. Here goes:

What is inspiration to you? And where does your inspiration come from?

Inspiration is not a thing. It is a moment. I can’t predict what is going to inspire me, but I leave myself open to it at all times. Sometimes, it’s a particular shade of a particular color in a sunrise or sunset or a woman’s dress or a man’s eyes. Sometimes, it is deep internal reflection about something. Sometimes, it’s a chord in a song or a series of words in something I’m reading or a poignant news story or the tears of a friend. Sometimes it comes from my students: their stories, their triumphs, their epiphanies, their relationships with one another and with me. Often, it is loss. That can be a personal loss–a loved one, a change in major plans, a rejection of some kind–or something I perceive as a societal loss–the failure of a bill that would help people in poverty or people with disabilities, for example, two subjects that I care about deeply. For me, the only way to combat grief and loss is to make it worth something, to bring something out of it that is worth sharing.

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Words in Muddy Water

I like to think that every writer has a period of time when they believe that every word they’ve ever put down on the page is the wrong word, that everything they’ve ever written or will write is actually crap, and that anyone who has told them it’s worthwhile is just being kind to their feelings. I have to think that every writer goes through this because it somehow normalizes my own experience. It makes it okay that I don’t like what I’ve written and okay that I keep writing anyway.

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Poetry for Publication: The Quality Question

One of the best moments for me when I’m instructing a workshop is the moment when a participant asks a question that challenges me to think through my own assumptions and ideas. While teaching a workshop on theme in poetry at the Northwest Poet’s Concord this year, I had one of these experiences. After a discussion about the importance of developing theme when writing poetry for publication, a particularly astute participant asked, “Isn’t publishing poetry really about quality?”

We’d love to think so, but my answer is an emphatic, “No!” There are several reasons for this answer. Here are 5 of them:

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Guest Blogger Christine Klocek-Lim: Words on the Edge of a Recycle Bin

For ten years after college I didn’t write much. Or rather, I didn’t write poetry, which for anyone who knows me is a strange thing. I’ve been writing since I was three or five and scribbled ridiculous amounts of tragic/melodramatic verse since the age of eleven, all of which I saved. For a while, though, all I was writing were technical manuals (this made me fall asleep at my desk). After that I was too busy dealing with a serious lack of shut-eye since my kids hated sleep (oh the irony). However, even the most apocalyptic writer’s block eventually fades and by 2007 I’d accumulated hundreds of poems: some good, some bad. Last year, I’d just begun thinking about recycling the copies of bad poems I’d kept (because really, who needs more than one copy of dreck hanging around?) when one of my favorites of the good ones leaped out at me as I was going through the piles: “How to photograph the heart” sounded like the title poem for a collection. I went through the rest of my work, finding a number of poems that encompassed love and relationships. Hmm, I thought as I gathered them up, I should send these to someone. However, before I could even so much as press Compose in my email, I received a request from a good friend who’d been talking about starting a small press. I sent the poems I collected to him pronto and to my very great delight, he loved them. “How to photograph the heart” became the title poem for my first chapbook, published by The Lives You Touch Publications.

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Poetry Review: How to photograph the heart

When I sit down and read a book of poetry, I do so hoping for two things.  First, I want to be moved.  I want the poet to trick me into thinking they are talking directly to or about my experiences and my world.  The natural progression of that is—or should be—to make me think carefully about those experiences and the world in which I live.  On the first read, I never want to be thinking about the literary devices and techniques the poet has used, and while I don’t want to be reaching for a dictionary, I also don’t want to be able to guess the next word of every line. You could say that I have high expectations.  After three years of reading Christine Klocek-Lim’s work, I always know that she’ll meet or exceed them.  Her chapbook How to photograph the heart from The Lives You Touch Publications is no exception.

On the surface, this is a book about relationships, a relatively common theme in poetry.  However, this book stands out because the relationships are approached in new and interesting ways.  In the title poem, the narrator watches the death of a loved one, acknowledging that:

“Your startled hands compressed
the shutter when you realized: this is it,
this is the last movement he will take
away from the silent fall of morphine,”

But later, in “Learning to Speak American,” Klocek-Lim notes that “We studied friendship for a year/before he described his escape from Poland.”  The poem as a whole studies friendship through the catalyst of language while also adding a touch of social commentary, and “Twenty-year love poem” is one part love poem, two parts discussion of socioeconomics.  Poems like these show the reader that they are not reading a book about relationships.  They are reading a book about the form that life takes after being molded by those relationships, an altogether different theme from poetry-as-usual.

A hallmark of Klocek-Lim’s work, How to photograph the heart isn’t shy on literary devices or unique phraseology.  In “How rain arrives,” she captures a relationship in its entirety with a few simple lines: “You couldn’t have known/how you’d sewn guilt/into your end of the conversation,/scratchy and strange the way/a mended sheet rubs/on a bare foot at dawn.”

But it is the final poem in the collection, “My heart beats against the ground,” that best illustrates her capacity for language with lines like:

When the clock stops, a broken tree reveals
how damage is writ in circles: each one a year’s orbit.

This poplar hasn’t grown a heart that old.

Indeed, these are the moments that keep me coming back to poetry time and time again, and to her poetry in particular.  Klocek-Lim reminds me of an existence shared, forever “unraveling months too early.”