Incorporating Multiple Disciplines in Your Writing
Author: Bruce Bond
To begin with, your background is as a musician. What is the backstory on how you took on poetry as an art?
My attraction to both art forms came early. I trained as a pianist from the age of 6, learning music theory about the same time I learned multiplication tables, then took up guitar in my adolescence, not taking lessons, but teaching myself, performing here and there and writing songs. Thus my attraction to poetry came through the power of song, and poets such as Yeats, Auden, Dickinson, and Whitman as well as Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, and Leonard Cohen were huge in my teenage imagination. I still love songs and admire songwriters tremendously, but in my own process I longed for the kind of complexity of feeling and idea that came from solo instrumental guitar and, on the other hand, poems read and reread on the page. That said, the two art forms continue to borrow from one another. After getting a couple degrees in English, I went on to play music for a living and attend the Lamont School of Music where I got an MA in guitar performance. Then I ran into pinched-nerve and tendonitis problems brought on by using a chainsaw in my backyard. I was pretty depressed about all that, so I went to University to Denver to see if I could sit in on English classes to get my mind off things. To my surprise, they offered me a doctoral fellowship in the middle of a semester, and I somewhat confusedly started back on my path of becoming a writer. Poetry worked out for me in the long haul, and these days I have learned a lot more about the neck, back, shoulder relationships that have made for 30 plus years of problems. The happy conclusion of it all is that I play quite a bit of guitar now, and yet I get to enjoy this other art form in a way that would have been unlikely without my difficulties. Also I have made tremendous use of my music training in my life as a poet, critic, and teacher, since, given the kind of poetry that moves me most, I see poetry as a form of music, and there are oodles of less theorized elements of musical structure in language that potentially shape the power of the word. Also music has provided me with a world to explore poetically, to articulate issues of faith, the imagination, and the relation between aesthetics, epistemology, and ethics.
What principles of music do you find bleed into your work? Do you feel conscious of when and how this happens?
The more obvious elements have to do with rhythmic stress, measure, silence, phrasing, and the many forms of echo. One can through musical recursivity and surprise set up moments of tremendous emphasis and surprise. I am not much of a fan of the notion of “correctness” in musical structure—it just sounds like a failed imagination to me. It’s odd to me that folks can feel antagonistic toward the metrical impulse in poems and see it as something stiff and phony, perhaps even politically regressive, and meanwhile the music they listen too is primarily if not exclusively metrical. The guiding “principle” in music, if there is one, is more obviously pleasure (as opposed to mere control)—partly as a function of the complication and play of tension and its surrender. While I understand that musical form can be emblematic in cultural or programmatic terms, it is likewise, for those attentive to the moment, music—that is, it is always in some large measure about an elaborate conversation among musical details, many of which go unnoticed by less mindful ears. This point is perhaps obvious, but especially so to those who, as musicians or music historians, invest hours in the nuances that evade language. Music is slippery and asserts, in musical terms, an intelligence that must reckon with the sensuous complexity of form as form. Unfortunately a lot of metered poetry is far from musical, or rather it represents a less evolved and more mechanically obvious sense of music. The mindful exposure to music evolves the ear. So too, a mindful exposure to poetic form will evolve what it is that we find fresh, engaging, and profound. Meter, if handled musically, is energetic, expansive, and propulsive. Its scope of imaginative appeal is tremendous, since it must move in time, while nonetheless reflecting upon itself in ever changing terms. The other musical elements of poetry that are less theorized and yet essential to a poem’s power include tempo and melody. Melody is immensely influential, and in poetry, as in music, it is tricky to teach. One can begin by noticing color in language, which is a function of sonority, of fundamental pitch and its overtone content. There is also a difference in music between ornament and structure, just as there is in poetry—that is, there are larger architectural concerns in music and poetry that may be less obvious but that are key to the arc and profundity of the journey. As for being conscious of all this while I write, well, yes, but not in the sense of clearly separating intention from practice. Yes, certainly I am most conscious of scansion and patterns of stress and silence as I write. Much of it is instinctual at this point, so my conscious mind has a bit more space in it for other concerns. As for the other elements, I am constantly improvising musically when I lay down lines, just as I am when I improvise musical structure on the guitar, though the feeling of collaboration with some otherness is pretty strong. Something in the medium begins to lead you. You find yourself in the middle of terms that beg to be expanded upon and refreshed, to yield in order to progress, to say something that will suffice and yet leave something unsaid, something to honor the mystery, to make the silence ring.
What sort of outside source material inspires you to write a poem? What would you recommend to someone searching for inspiration?
I have zillions of outside sources—lots of books on philosophy and psychology especially, though in recommending these to others, I would emphasize the importance of concretizing and “owning” the material. I encourage folks to use their own psyche and history as source material which extends one’s reach into the world, whatever world that is. Intellect, as a gift rather than a credential in a poem, is huge to me, and often underrated as key to the transformative power of emotion in a poem. A poet’s medium is logos after all. I get many ideas from the internet as well, from articles I read, videos I watch, and, yes, Wiki entries on scientific subjects. All these sources can be terrific, as can some overheard conversation at a filling station, but they are not to be confused with vision, which finally is the greatest challenge for any artist. Vision should not be confused with a mere facility with one’s medium either, though a visionary sense of one’s medium is essential. The fetishization of the medium is actually a big problem in contemporary poetics—somehow it is more obvious in the world of film that stylistic or technical novelty may be more distractive than visionary. There is always a reciprocal relation between the medium and the vision: that is, form opens up the space of meaning as meaning, in turn, opens up the space of form. It is important not to be attached to information that we find of local interest, just as we should not be attached to lines for their episodic effect. Research can do that to folks—it can make people a little too fond of the products of their labor. Those forms of attachment will drain the power from a poem rather quickly and send up a smoke screen of fact and special effects. Vision is the power to go deeply inward and outward at the same time. The sources that inspire us must speak to each individually in a highly mercurial way. Knowing how and when to listen is a big part of the art.
What sort of material do you find difficult to incorporate in a poem? Why?
I find it especially difficult to get certain registers of diction into a poem, that’s true. Since my bias is toward a poetics of unlabored complexity, speed, and precision, of verbal resonance line by line, a diction that does not open up levels of reading that are convincing in shaping some significantly felt relation to the subject becomes difficult to manage. Thus, coldly technical, sluggishly literal language that has no nuance or physicality is problematic. There are loads of rich terms through the worlds of science and technology that make for intriguing poems, and clearly these worlds impact us emotionally. I face problems however writing about big groups of people—so the language of sociology and a certain political jargon would feel a bit imprecise and reductive to me. I have a hard time mustering excitement in my own mind for the kind of simplifications involved in making statements about nations and religions and the like, though I am indeed attracted to writing political poems—intriguing largely because it is so difficult to be sharp, immediate, and aware of the poem’s and poet’s own limitations. The language of literary criticism can be the death of a poem—since a cold objectification might exacerbate an air of self-conscious sophistication in the context of a poem. Then again, theory can be a rich source material if transfigured in the light of immediate necessities and more fully put under pressure there. A poem too must discover and forge its own authority—mere apologists who come to a poem knowing what they want to say are bound to be dull. The world of business and the economy could be terrific as a source of poems, but I have had little success penetrating that world far enough in my own mind. Few poets have, though Tony Hoagland has somewhat. Most poets don’t know much about those things. Perhaps that is a challenge on the horizon.
Who are some figures you look up to who incorporated multiple disciplines in their writing? Who most influences you in this regard?
Great question, and yet the poets that have influenced me in this regard possess a philosophical drive—that is, a love of distinctions and connections—that they in turn seek to subvert and challenge. Poetry can figure as philosophy’s conscience (its awakening other self) in some respects, and I am sure the opposite is true as well. Gertrude Schnackenberg, Robert Hass, Charles Simic, Louise Glück, Charles Wright, John Donne, T.S.Eliot, Emily Dickinson, Wallace Stevens, Adrienne Rich, and my teachers Bin Ramke, Anthony Hecht, Robert Pinsky, Phil Levine, Don Justice, Richard Howard, and Don Revell—they all have had an influence on me at various times as poets of great intellectual range, their curiosity, mercurial tonality, and imaginative daring coupled (to varying degrees) with some deeply inward sense of emotional necessity. There is something philosophical, though doubtlessly unsystematic, even in the most surreal of their poems, when those poems are penetrating very deeply. Donne, Dickinson, Revell, and Eliot with their theologies; Simic with his Heidegger; Wright, Glück, and Schnackenberg with their knowledge of classical literature and art; Stevens and Hass with their knowledge of aesthetics and epistemology; Pinsky, Rich, and Levine with their insight into power and politics; Ramke with his knowledge of math; Justice with his knowledge of music; and Hecht and Howard with their immense knowledge of history—they all succeed because they find ways of opening up the territories of interest and broadening their relevance philosophically, opening rather than closing inquiry, while making an earned case for what matters. I love the generosity of that.