When I entered graduate school, I had a firm understanding of the history of Western literature. My undergrad was in literature at a very traditional liberal arts school where I learned a great deal. During my MFA, I was pleased to be allowed to take more specific courses that dived deeply into periods and writers I loved. My favorite of these was a course on the New York School poets, which completely changed my writing.
As a writer, I feel as if I am engaging in a conversation that has been going on for centuries, and I'm just one more addition or one more voice. If I don't know what has come before me, I would feel a little lost. That's not to say you can't have an original voice, but it should be an informed original voice. If you are going against something, it is important to know what that something is and to be able to talk about it. Have I loved everything I have been required to read? Of course not. But I do have an understanding of why I don't like it, and many times why it is important to the ongoing discussion. I don't regret reading any of these pieces no matter how hard they might have been to get through at the time. Students often confuse "liking" with "valuable." Many things I do not like have been very useful to me and to my growth as a person.
Being a gay poet, I am particularly interested in the history and story of other gay poets, which I've written a bit about on this blog already. But it isn't just gay writers that inform my work and inspire me. There is a danger in only reading people "like you."
Yesterday, I finished what I'm considering the first "complete" draft of a new poem. The poem is titled "He Do the Gay Man in Different Voices." When I began writing this poem, I had no idea where it was going. My original idea came from a series of photos by gay artists that got me thinking about the idea of narcissism within the gay community. The photos were addressing that issue in relation to AIDS. I wanted a poem that would explore the idea of narcissism from different gay perspectives (multiple voices).
I began writing and writing, and I had all these little chunks that I didn't know exactly how to connect. As I was reading through the chunks one day, feeling defeated, a sudden thought surfaced: the original title for "The Waste Land" by T.S. Eliot was "He Do the Police in Different Voices," and I thought why not take that title, change it, and think of Eliot's poem as a strange guide for my own poem. This suddenly made things click and I started reshaping the poem and expanding beyond just narcissism. The result is one I am pleased with, so far. The poem is not trying to be "The Waste Land," but has various references to it besides the title. I don't necessary want people to take out my poem and compare it to, what is considered by many, the most important poem of the 20th century. That might be a bit too much pressure, but my poem is building on Eliot's and talking with it.
My point is that I would never have written this poem had I not spent various classes studying T.S. Eliot. I enjoy much of Eliot's work and I'm a huge modernist fan, but I hadn't read "The Waste Land" in three years, yet still the thought was there and completely saved my poem. You never know what might be useful later, which is why well-rounded education is vital to being a great writer whether you do that inside or outside a classroom.
I am going to continue to work on this poem, build on it, and hopefully get it published. I am also going to continue reading everything I can and push my own knowledge of literature, and I encourage you to do the same.