I've spent the last month and a half reading all of Sylvia Plath, some Ted Hughes, and a book on the Russian poet Vladimir Mayakovsky. All of this reading has been connected to a new book project I'm working on and developing. I'm intentionally using these works as inspiration and filtering them into the project in very direct ways, but other things are entering in less direct or intended ways.
On Friday, I was working out a new poem and suddenly realized that the poem was evoking Gertrude Stein and would actually work better as a clear play off of her, because of the subject matter and the history of Stein. I haven't read Stein in about five years, yet there she was in the back of my head and clearly there on the page long before I realized it. This is the power of being informed and reading. When things like this happen, you have a choice. You can keep the reference under the surface or bring it to the top. In this case, I brought it to the top.
I've often heard writers say, they don't like to read much when working on new works because they fear copying whatever it is they are reading. I can understand this fear, but also think it's about reading the right things at the right times. I'm also a firm believer in placing yourself within the wider poetry world. It's important to know what's come before you and what's currently around you and to sometimes clearly acknowledge that. Give your work a place in the grand timeline of poetic work.
Perhaps I find this easier than others simply because of the subject matter I often write about and my style of writing. For example, in my book (He Do the Gay Man in Different Voices), the title poem is a play off of T.S. Eliot's "The Waste Land." There are tons of references throughout my poem that connect to that very famous work, but it's a far, far cry from a copy or imitation because my subject matter is very different as is my overall style. I don't write like Eliot. In lots of ways, this is what I enjoy doing. I enjoy combining my knowledge of poetry and the history of poetry with very current, modern, and often uncomfortable subject matters that those writers would not have written about. Eliot would not have written about gay sex, gay clubs, hookups, etc. In fact, I doubt Eliot would approve of my book or the poem he helped inspire. The same can probably be said for the new poems I'm working on that reference Plath, but look absolutely nothing like a Plath poem.
The point is that reading plays a huge role in my writing process. Without my years of study and without my constant reading of poetry, I wouldn't be the poet I am today. This can be a hard concept to teach especially to students wanting a quick fix. This is what makes teaching writing so difficult. It's a process. Often a very long process. There's no clear end point. In fact, I've studied and read just as much since finishing my MFA four years ago as I did in school. It doesn't stop, which isn't typically what students want to hear.
Reading is vital and it's important to remember that as a writer you are part of a wider community. We need each other as readers. Writing can be a very lonely act, but sharing that writing can be very fulfilling.