Inspiration is for amateurs*. You make a decision to be a poet, writer, artist, what-not, and then you do the work.
I was in the checkout line at the supermarket**. The checkout girl told me she wrote a short story. I offered encouragement and suggested she write more. “No, no,” she was adamant, “I’m not like you and never feel inspired.” Inspiration has nothing to do with it.
Perhaps I’m the odd man out. Perhaps I’m the only poet who isn’t inspired. I love reading poems and scribbling them in notebooks. Love thinking long and hard about poetic possibilities. Love testing the limits of language. And I would love for an inspiring moment to move my pen. But it doesn’t. Do great basketball players only launch themselves at the net, spring above others to dunk a basket because they’re inspired? Poetry is work. Work you – hopefully – love. So you do it.
I have to back-peddle just a little.
When I first became a copywriter I read many books about writing, the best of them was The Writer’s Art by James J. Kilpatrick. Somewhere in the book he said that the best writers were poets; no one pays more attention to writing then a poet. To me, back then, poetry was rhyming thoughts about love and flowers. Nothing an ex-paratrooper sort of man would be interested in. Kilpatrick suggested that if you want to be a great writer you should take a poetry class, even if you never wrote a poem after the class, your prose would be better for it.
Then someone died. Someone always dies. A poet died and they read some of his poems on the radio. They didn’t rhyme. They said he was a poet! Something was wrong.
I was wrong. Instead of what I was expecting, the poems struck me as beautifully written***, powerful short stories. I immediately flashed back to the Kilpatrick book, the best writers were poets. Right then and there# I decided I would take, suffer, a poetry class to make me a better advertising writer##. The following day I drove to Westwood and enrolled in a poetry class at UCLA Extension.
Austin Strauss was the instructor. Every Thursday night we met in the basement of a church on Wilshire Boulevard in Beverly Hills. The first night Strauss read us The Death of Ball Turret Gunner by Randall Jarrell and Hard Rock Returns to Prison from the Hospital for the Criminally Insane by Etheridge Knight. The world stopped. I swear it did.
I had found something to devote my life to. Or it might be more accurate to say something to devote my life to found me. Of course, it sounds corny. But it’s true.
Perhaps it’s fair to say that inspiration found me that night.
There are forces at work in the world that cannot be explained. Science and religion argue about some of them. Poetry tends to steer clear of this argument.
Though my original point was that I don’t believe in inspiration I suspect the previous does suggest that on that night in a church basement in Beverly Hills I was inspired.
An artist must live an inspired life.
Opening yours eyes in the morning, that’s inspiring.
Live fully engaged with the world. "A poet looks at the world the way a man looks at a woman. " Wallace Stevens said that.
*Not that I’m suggesting that there really is anything like a “professional” poet. Most poets make living as teachers. Yes, I know Billy Collins probably make a lot of money from his books. And while I’m on the subject, Charles Simic, Mark Strand, W.S. Merwin and a few others do so. Though all of them, with the exception of Merwin where college professors.** I lived just down the street for a dozen years, had been in there probably three times before and knew many of the employees. If I remember correctly, I went to dinner with this woman previous to this conversation.
*** Though back then I would probably have not used the word “beautiful” to describe writing.
# I remember exactly where I was when I made the decision, I was in my car driving north on Laurel Canyon Blvd in Studio City, California, on my way home from work. I was listening to NPR as I always did, and still do.
## By the way, I am a better, in fact, great ad writer for it.