Issue 107, Summer 1988
Next year the Viking Press will publish A Writer’s Chapbook, a volume composed of extracts from the series of interviews with authors which have appeared in this magazine since 1953. The extracts have been reordered under various headings (Plot, Character, Style, Stimulant Devices, Teaching Programs, and so forth). What follows are the authors’ discussions on the first stirrings, the germination of a poem, or a work of fiction. Any number of headings would be appropriate: Beginnings, The StartingPoint, etc. Inspiration would be as good as any. — G. A.P.
An idea might occur to me, something very banal — for example, isn’t it strange that it is possible to both talk and think at the same time? That might be an idea for a poem. Or certain words or phrases might have come to my attention with a meaning I wasn’t aware of before. Also, I often put in things that I have overheard people say, on the street for instance. Suddenly something fixes itself in the flow that is going on around one and seems to have a significance. In fact, there is an example of that in this poem, “What Is Poetry.” In a bookstore I overheard a boy saying to a girl this last line: “It might give us—what?—some flowers soon?” I have no idea what the context was, but it suddenly seemed the way to end my poem. I am a believer in fortuitous accidents. The ending of my poem “Clepsydra,” the last two lines, came from a notebook that I kept a number of years before, during my first trip to Italy. I actually wrote some poems while I was traveling, which I don’t usually do, but I was very excited by my first visit there. So years later, when I was trying to end “Clepsydra” and getting very nervous, I happened to open that notebook and found these two lines that I had completely forgotten about: “while morning is still and before the body / Is changed by the faces of evening.” They were just what I needed at that time. But it doesn’t really matter so much what the individual thing is. Many times I will jot down ideas and phrases, and then when I am ready to write I can’t find them. But it doesn’t make any difference, because whatever comes along at that time will have the same quality. Whatever was there is replaceable. In fact, often in revising I will remove the idea that was the original stimulus. I think I am more interested in the movement among ideas than in the ideas themselves, the way one goes from one point to another rather than the destination or the origin.
Different books start in different ways. I sometimes wish that I were the kind of writer who begins with a passionate interest in a character and then, as I’ve heard other writers say, just gives that character elbow room and sees what he or she wants to do. I’m not that kind of writer. Much more often I start with a shape or form, maybe an image. The floating showboat, for example, which became the central image in The Floating Opera, was a photograph of an actual showboat I remember seeing as a child. It happened to be named Captain Adams’ Original Unparalleled Floating Opera, and when nature, in her heavy-handed way, gives you an image like that, the only honorable thing to do is to make a novel out of it. This may not be the most elevated of approaches. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, for example, comes to the medium of fiction with a high moral purpose; he wants, literally, to try to change the world through the medium of the novel. I honor and admire that intention, but just as often a great writer will come to his novel with a much less elevated purpose than wanting to undermine the Soviet government. Henry James wanted to write a book in the shape of an hourglass. Flaubert wanted to write a novel about nothing. What I’ve learned is that the muses’ decision to sing or not to sing is not based on the elevation of your moral purpose —they will sing or not, regardless.
— John Barth
I suppose that all of us have a primitive prompter or commentator within who from earliest years has been advising us, telling us what the real world is. There is such a commentator in me. I have to prepare the ground for him. From this source come words, phrases, syllables; sometimes only sounds, which I try to interpret, sometimes whole paragraphs, fully punctuated. When E. M. Forster said, “How do I know what I think until I see what I say?” he was perhaps referring to his own prompter. There is that observing instrument in us —in childhood at any rate. At the sight of a man’s face, his shoes, the color of light, a woman’s mouth or perhaps her ear, one receives a word, a phrase, at times nothing but a nonsense-syllable from the primitive commentator.
— Saul Bellow
The question after the The Dream Songs was whether I would ever again attempt a long poem, and I thought it improbable, so I didn’t expect to write any more verse.
But suddenly one day last winter I wrote down a line: “I fell in love with a girl.” I looked at it, and I couldn’t find anything wrong with it. I thought, “God damn it, that is fact” I felt, as a friend of mine says, “comfortable with that.” And I looked at it until I thought of a second line, and then a third line, and then a fourth line, and that was a stanza. Unrhymed. And the more I looked at it, the better I liked it, so I wrote a second stanza. And then I wrote some more stanzas, and you know what? I had a lyric poem, and a very good one. I didn’t know I had it in me! Well, the next day I knocked out a stanza, changed various lines, this and that, but pretty soon it looked classical. As classical as one of the Rubáiyát poems—without the necessities of rhyme and meter, but with its own necessities. I thought it was as good as any of my early poems, and some of them are quite good; most of them are not, but some are. Moreover, it didn’t resemble any verse I had ever written in my entire life, and moreover, the subject was entirely new, solely and simply myself. Nothing else. A subject on which I am an expert. Nobody can contradict me.* I believe strongly in the authority of learning. The reason Milton is the greatest English poet except for Shakespeare is because of the authority of his learning. I am a scholar in certain fields, but the subject on which I am a real authority is me, so I wiped out all the disguises and went to work. In about five or six weeks I had what was obviously a book called Love & Fame.
I had forty-two poems and was ready to print them, but they were so weird, so unlike all my previous work, that I was a little worried. I had encouragement from one or two friends, but still I didn’t know what to do. I had previously sent the first poem to Arthur Crook at the Times Literary Supplement. He was delighted with it and sent me a proof. I, in turn, was delighted that he liked the poem, so I corrected the proof and sent him five more —I didn’t want the poem to appear alone. So he printed the six, which made up a whole page—very nice typographically—and this was further encouragement. But I still wasn’t sure. Meanwhile, I was in the hospital. I was a nervous wreck. I had lost nineteen pounds in five weeks and had been drinking heavily—a quart a day. So I had my publisher in New York, Giroux, xerox a dozen copies, which I sent out to friends of mine around the country for opinions. It was a weird thing to do —I’ve never heard of anybody else doing it —but I did it, looking for reassurance, confirmation, wanting criticism, and so on, and I got some very good criticism. Dick Wilbur took “Shirley & Auden,” one of the most important lyrics in Part I —some of the poems are quite slight, and others are very ambitious —and gave it hell. And I agreed —I adopted almost every suggestion.
I also got some confirmation and reassurance, but there were other opinions as well. Edmund Wilson, for whose opinion I have a high regard, found the book hopeless. He said there were some fine lines and striking passages. How do you like that? It is like saying to a beautiful woman, “I like your left small toenail; that’s very nice indeed,” while she’s standing there stark naked looking like Venus. I was deeply hurt by that letter. And then other responses were very strange. Mark Van Doren, my teacher, an old, old friend and a wonderful judge of poetry, also wrote. I forget exactly what he said, but he was very heavy on it. He said things like “original,” and “will be influential,” and “will be popular,” and so on, but “will also be feared and hated.” What a surprising letter! It took me days to get used to it, and it took me days even to see what he meant. But now I see what he means. Some of the poems are threatening, very threatening to some readers, no doubt about it. Just as some people find me threatening—to be in a room with me drives them crazy. And then there is a good deal of obscenity in the poems, too. And there is a grave piety in the last poems, which is going to trouble a lot of people. You know, the country is full of atheists, and they really are going to find themselves threatened by those poems. The Saturday Review printed five of them, and I had a lot of mail about them —again expressing a wide variety of opinion. Some people were just purely grateful for my having told them how to put what they’d felt for years. Then there are others who detest them —they don’t call them insincere, but they just can’t believe them,
Let’s call it embullo, a Cuban word that means easy eagerness, a particularly gracious way of climbing on the bandwagons of the mind. I write every time the Holy Ghost whispers some sweet something in my ear. Of course I also write to meet deadlines, but that’s not really writing. Sometimes it comes just because I sit down at the typewriter.
— Guillermo Cabrera Infante