In my previous post, I wrote about reading widely. I also want to write about the importance of being a cultural omnivore and looking beyond your own realm of specialism as a poet to what we can also learn from other artists. What we’re talking about here is cross-pollination between art forms and approaches – and how it can be of value to your own perspectives on writing.
When I left school I took a year to go and study an art course at my local college; I wasn’t particularly great at art, but I did make some wobbly pots, completed some passable paintings, and experienced things that opened the doors for me in lots of other ways. We went on trips all over the place, turned up late and worked late, created things that went terribly wrong, made and broke friendships and were trusted to find and make our own way, for better or for worse.
We also learnt how to take our craft seriously; we were taught think about scale and starting points, and how to study the techniques of other artists. Magpie-eyed, we mixed high and popular culture, learned to ‘get our eye in’ and look at things afresh, take oblique angles, seek parallels, contracts, points of reference.
I’m not suggesting that you pack it all in now, forget writing poetry and hurry off to sign up for your nearest arts course, but I hope that this illustrates how our cultural commonwealth can be a resource of ideas and inspiration, and provide us with sage advice and manifestos for making. Keeping our wider creative radar tuned-in can help us to be fully-fledged not just as writers but as creative beings. Culture isn’t just in galleries and museums, or on arts courses or programmes of study. It’s in our cinemas and record shops, in small venues and on stage, on our streets, in daily conversations, outdoors in our landscapes, on TV and online and anywhere else it can find you.
Art and culture is invaluable to the writer because we can learn so much from it about the minds’ eye (or even the minds’ ear, if we’re talking about music) and how to stimulate and appeal to it.
For instance, as Jo was recently talking to you about looking carefully, let’s think for a moment about how film and television teaches us to think about detail, particularly the kind of subtle detail which is about imagination and ‘showing’ rather than ‘telling’ (we’ll come back to this topic later on). The very best films or TV work beyond the screen, involving our own imagination and playing with our attention, making active participants of the viewer. Through visual motifs and the power of image and metaphor, we are able to approach and reflect in parallel on the ‘big themes’ of human existence. Here, in a short clip from The Sopranos, death is party for which we all have an invitation, a place where ‘they’re waiting for you’.
What can a writer take away from this? That metaphors, similes, motifs and images allow us to find a subtle, sideways approach to the big, life-and-death matters of the universe which are, in their own right, just too vast to set down on the table in front of your audience like an immovable monolith. And that by involving and innately trusting your reader (viewer / audience ) to take the leap with you, you will not only involve them imaginatively in what you’re doing, but reward them for bringing their own imagination to the table.
Also, the way in which artists think about what they make, their advice, the ideas they propose and more can help motivate and shape our work as poets and writers, too. The short clip of David Bowie at the start of this article is a useful provocation for creativity, putting exactly into words that complicated out of my depth / frankly terrified / rather excited feeling we get when we create something that might actually be close to our best work. It also touches on how we should learn to instinctively go with this reaction, and come to know and trust where it is taking us if we want to get out of our comfort zones and make work that consistently challenges and changes us.
There’s a reason too that I put certain music on when I’m trying and failing to write; I find that it provides me motivation and reminds me why I want to write in the first place, where I’m coming from and what I want to say. In music, we will often find the soundtrack to bring our own imaginings and visualisations to. When writing about the city I was born in, I went back to The Specials to find the right atmosphere, and found the sensation of a place in time coming to me vividly. I responded by writing not about the music itself, but the shared connections I have with it in a physical place, the city’s people and its story. What would be your own writing soundtrack? And what might you write if you were to listen to a piece of experimental electronica, grime, or a choral piece?
This is to say nothing of form, rhythm, sound and so much more that music can teach us about. Or the way that a perfectly placed punchline in comedy teaches us about the importance of timing. And what a pleasure it is to learn techniques and ideas through things we can enjoy participating in hearing, seeing, laughing, feeling…
So do read widely, yes, and read beyond poetry. But also be active in finding inspiration and approaches within all that art and culture can offer you. Try thinking like a dancer about the rhythms of your poetry – where will you next put your foot, and how will this matter? Think like an architect as you build the stanzas or rooms of your poems. Raid art’s make-up bag and come up wearing some kind of brand new drag, if it helps you to get closer to what you need to say and how it needs to be said. Look at the poem’s scene through a view-finder – get the distinct angle, perhaps even find your own Fibonacci spiral in unlikely places.