By Jesica Carson Davis
The identity of a writer can be a slippery, tricky one. For years, I hesitated to call myself a poet, even though I was writing poetry. Really though, it’s pretty simple: if you write, you’re a writer.
One thing that can help a writer to own that identity is to establish a regular writing practice. It doesn’t have to be every day — having time, space, energy, and ability to maintain a daily writing practice is a huge privilege — but finding a way to make a habit out of creative practices can drastically affect a writer’s output, as well as their sense of self. I always feel more me, in touch with more layers of my secret selves when I’ve been writing because it gives me a chance to work through and out all the impressions, fears, and wonder that swirls in my head.
I first developed a writing practice the year I moved to Berlin to process the death of my best friend. It was still cheap then (2006), and I’d saved up enough money to take some time off work. Once the initial shock wore off, I’d sit at my desk every weekday and write for five or six hours. Showing up to that practice was the first time I really felt like a writer — because I was writing almost every day. I was showing up for myself, actually doing the thing I always wished I had more time for. I learned that the act of writing, detached from any outcome, makes me happy, makes time disappear in an almost magical way: even when I’m struggling with a piece, I can get lost in word choice, a quest to find a crystalline expression, forgetting myself to become more myself. When I look at the clock, hours have passed, as if hypnotized by concentration.
However, when I came back to the United States and started working again, my writing time slipped away to just few hours a month. I was living in Brooklyn, and even though I was taking workshops at The New School, NYU, and Poets House, my writing practice was sporadic at best. I stopped introducing myself as a poet; as the practice faded, so did my link to the identity.
Things changed when I moved to Denver in 2013. Suddenly isolated from many of my old friends, I had more empty hours to fill, and writing was one way to do so. It helped me feel less lonely, even if I was just communicating with myself. I began spending four or five hours every Saturday at my desk, and more started coming out. The practice helped me to remember who I was (a poet who used to extensively, someone with a huge family both blood and chosen) even though I was far and detached from what had been my life up till then. I wrote about formative, older times as well as my then-current sense of displacement until they eventually wove together to reconcile disparate identities.
When I finally settled into a regular writing practice, I was fed up with myself for wasting time scrolling the internet and watching too much TV. (I still do these things; everyone needs down time, but now I do them in smaller amounts.) So I made myself a quick, handwritten sign and pinned it over my desk: “Make yourself do stuff.” I also printed out the squirrel of judgment and tacked it up next to my sign. Once again, I began to tell people that I was a poet, but more importantly: I felt like one.
Writing regularly, for me, can be a self-reinforcing act. If I’ve worked on a poem or read some poetry in the morning, my day takes on a poetic cast; I’m much more receptive to seeing kernels of potential poems, and more likely to jot them down in a notebook to act on later.
Two years later, that sign I made for myself feels much less urgent; I do and make things pretty regularly now. But the sign stays up; it’s good to have reminders. Michelangelo would agree.
Still, there are times when, no matter how long I sit, the writing just won’t come. It’s important for me to maintain the practice, even when not feeling creative, so during those times, I:
Through establishing a writing practice, one with a structure that suits my physiology and schedule, I’ve established a discipline that makes me proud. The concept of publication doesn’t matter much to me (OK, it does a little, most writers want to be read), because I’ve grown to love the practice itself.
It reminds me of the power of language, that I can believe in myself as a poet, even on the tough days when words just thud, because I have faith that if I hold the practice, the flow will come back; it reminds me of what I can do: alchemize words, thoughts, and images into a piece that (hopefully) conveys something, perhaps a fleeting feeling, that lives beyond the realm of ordinary communication. And that’s magical.
Showing up to my writing practice taught me that I can show up for myself. I’ve learned to trust that though I have bad days, uncreative slumps, if I keep working at it and hold space for the practice, they will pass. The point is to keep practicing it. As Alexander Chee remembers Annie Dillard’s advice:
“Talent isn’t enough. Writing is work. Anyone can do this, anyone can learn to do this. It’s not rocket science, it’s habits of mind and habits of work. I started with people much more talented than me, she said, and they’re dead or in jail or not writing. The difference between myself and them is that I’m writing.”
When you get down to it, the practice of writing is an action. You do it, or you don’t, and either way, you learn something about who you are. My writing practice taught me that doing what I love makes me happy, regardless of outside judgement; what does yours say about you?
So, I have a deep, dark secret, one that I have never shared publicly before. I’m just going to say it: I’ve been watching soap operas (General Hospital and One Life to Live) on and off since arriving in the U.S. in 1994. It’s not just the element of melodrama that I find engaging or the exaggerated issues and bizarre solutions. It’s about the way in which reality is never accurately reflected and never what it seems.
Actors who play one role, return years later to play another with pleasurable Shakespeare-esque, metatextual results. But mostly, the dead are always able to be revived--nothing ever dies. Nothing is ever final, and there is rarely a neat solution to a conflict. Soap operas have taught me that when reality is challenged, the possibility for creativity opens up and that can make you a better writer. (Check out Lit Hub’s "I LOVE SOAP OPERAS (AND THEY MADE ME A BETTER WRITER" by Deborah Shapiro).
Indeed, reality is shaped by language, so if we subvert language, storytelling, imagery, isn’t it possible we initiate the potential to alter reality by altering those constructs? If in reality, we must encounter death, why not subvert language, redefine its constructs, and perhaps, like in the soaps, live forever? Is it because life isn’t ever presented so neatly that we seek to control it? Is it because that challenging tradition implies experimentation? That we avoid it because it requires stepping into an unknown, embracing the unusual, the unorthodox approaches to form and aesthetics, to discarding the familiar. Form and structure offer control over the environment, and it feels cozy and safe within a solid plot outline, within a satisfying conflict and resolution. For some writers, these components are guideposts, while for others, they are limitations; limitations towards understanding the other and thus our own humanity.
Experimentation can free us to once again write expressively and bring us closer to the self. In writing and art, experimentation functions as an agent of renewal. As writers and artists, we need to practice experimentation as a way to help us reinvent our approaches and use it as a vehicle to help us get out of structure and form, rules and rigidity. When I experiment, I am looking to extend, perhaps even subvert, the boundaries of what is considered artistic practice. Subverting traditional practices in writing allows something new to grow within ourselves and in our work. Most literary works have in some form been at one point experimental before becoming accepted as the norm. As a movement, experimentalism is associated with modernity, implying a rejection of traditions, values, and forms. Experimentalism favors self-consciousness, fragmentation, discontinuity, capturing real life which is often ambiguous. What may appear alarmingly random, is life coming at us in unusual and sometimes disconnected moments. When we step back, real events and scenes are disjointed. And yet historically, we narrate within structure, fearing the unknown in the deviation, and instead insist on portraying work with continuity, even when life does not present itself that way.
One way to step into the realm of experimentation is to consider recycling work that already exists. When I say recycling, I am saying rearrange, redesign, rethink, cut up what exists, and find something new in what already exists. When we recycle through found poetry, erasures, or collaging, we detach and re-adhere, graft others work, and undermine the authority of the author and self, allowing us to better understand the self and the other. By subverting the expectations of what makes something art or poetry, we open the door towards invention.
Recycling language is the realization that one does not need to generate new material. It’s about repurposing what's already been created. And through the process of repurposing, there’s this sense of unpredictability and an element of chance. Writers who repurpose permit a set of unreasoned rules to shape the fate and configuration of their use of language. Writers who experiment with recycling, replace making something new with choosing from what already exists and rearranging them in new ways. And with that, previously written language, like the preconceived versions of ourselves, can come to be seen and understood in a new light.
There are a few methods I like to use to recycle. One is through found poetry, including erasures and collage cut-up technique. When finding poetry, I seek out a pre-existing piece of writing with a non-literary function. By adding, deleting text, and making changes in spacing and lines, phrases, and sometimes whole passages from other sources and reframing them as poetry, I can redefine that text and make something new. The writer Annie Dillard in “Mornings Like This: Found Poems” writes that turning a text into a poem doubles that poem’s context, “The original meaning remains intact, but now it swings between two poles.” I like the idea that the use of found texts and images shake fundamental assumptions about artistic practice. I like that with found texts, we can obscure the line between the everyday life and high art, raising important questions about why we value some objects as art and not others; raising questions about how we assign value to the other and thus our humanity.
When creating from found texts, we have to be both observant and imaginative. If we focused on language and structure instead of on utility of a text, many texts that we read during our day (e.g. instructions in a manual) could be the basis for a found poem. When we re-configure pre-existing language into new systems of imagery and ideas, we place voices in conversation with one another across centuries and continents and we can transform the self.
Experimental poetry, such as found poetry, reveals that we are not separated singular beings, but beings found within the other, in layers and dependent on one another. It reveals that we must step into the space of the “other” to be able to borrow from the “other.” When we repurpose texts and rearrange them into new conversations, we establish that life is in conversation with multiple layers of life, interacting with past, present, and future. Using others words and grafting them to our pages, we see text composed of other texts; that is, one’s self as composed of other selves.Roger William Gilman, an American writer, philosopher, and educator wrote in his article, “The Raw and the Cooked: writing cento” that:
When a self is composed of other selves, its self-interest is not in mortal conflict
with others’ interests. When we are composed of each other, violence against an
“individual” Other is violence against one’s “own” Self. And so we are always on
all sides of any war. Every side loses a war. If we recognize that we live inside
each other we will see that we cannot afford to war against each other. When the
economic, political, and cultural interests of nations are in bed with each other,
legs intensely intertwined, they cannot afford to fight. Cultivating our humanity
lies in our regarding Our self as an Other’s self. Such gardening can happen only as
Seeing oneself as another.
In the search for words, we are searching for ourselves, and we find ourselves embedded in the other. And sometimes, the world is found in both what is left and how it is redacted. Closely associated with found poetry is the erasure or blackout poetry — which is poetry that is found by erasing words from an existing text, often in prose text, and framing the result on the page as a poem or prose. The results can stand as is or they can be rearranged into lines and/or stanzas.
As an example, take the work of artist and writer Tom Phillips who marries poetry and art in the same space. Phillips has spent about 50 years redacting text to the most creative levels. Calling his work “a collaboration with the author of the original work and a fight”, his creation a A Humument is originally a Victorian novel that has been altered on every page, either by painting, collage or cut-up techniques, to create an entirely new version. Phillips writes, “I took a forgotten novel found by chance. I mined, and undermined its text to make it yield alternative stories, erotic incidents and surreal catastrophes, which lurked within its wall of words. I replaced with visual images the text I’d stripped away.”
By collaging, Phillips not only erased but took cut-ups of disjointed and discontinuous text and placed them into new discourses. This idea of being able to subvert language, a narrative, inspires me to use cut-ups in my writing as a way to rupture and tap into the secret of language. Major postmodernist author and artist, William S. Burroughs once said of collaging that “when you experiment with cut-ups over a period of time, you find that some of the cut-ups and rearranged texts seem to refer to future events”. Similarly, David Bowie, known for using cut-ups in his lyric creations, said in an interview, “If you put three or four dissociated ideas together and created awkward relationships with them […] the unconscious intelligence that comes from those pairings is really quite startling sometimes.” This “unconscious intelligence” that emerges from dissociated ideas guides my pen, and its existence directs my desire to want to use language to create a reality that operates on a soap opera continuum--where stories are repurposed and reality is subverted.
The literary collage, or the cut-ups that Burroughs and Bowie refer to is a blend of pre-existing texts usually by several different authors. It is the act of removing texts out of original spaces and rearranging them into something new--the act of bringing together fragmented texts from unrelated sources, assembled and juxtaposed into new formations. When I cut up and push things against each other, different discourses present disparate ideologies, contrasting perspectives create productive ambiguities. This collision of ideas through cut-ups often times gives life to different voices and new relationships between the unrelated, whether they are events, objects, or images. As an experimental writer, I am often looking to capture the discontinuous yet seamless appearance of life. With collaging, I can express my creativity through the texts I choose and the way in which I arrange them. Using cut-ups allows me to juxtapose the texts, and for a resonance to occur between divergent texts without the forced appearance of seamlessness.
When we experiment in writing and art, we remix old and new approaches to form and aesthetics, and this is an incredible opportunity to remix ourselves. It is an incredible opportunity to reconfigure our prefabricated molds of self-identity. It allows us to approach creative writing through other means than personal experience. And that approach can infuse work with creativity.
When we remix language, we remix reality, we take apart pre-existing text and images, we make them ours, we undermine the self, we become the other, and we realize, there is no “the end,” no finale to the show. And when we go there, we begin to shake off the restrictions that interfere with creativity. When our words overlap, our lives overlap, and like a soap opera, our stories live on forever.
Digital ways to Collage
Language is a Virus
The Lazarus Corporation Cut-Up Links
Another cut-up machine
Generate random text
Dada Poem Generator
Burroughs Video on Cutups
Burroughs cut-up poems
Bowie video on cutups
The Strategy of Simultaneity in Ted Berrigan’s “The Sonnets"
Kenyon Review articles on Erasures
Tom Philips website
Tom Phillips Video
Austin Kleon on Erasures and found poetry
John Ashbery audio recording of To a Waterfowl
Line Sources for To a Waterfowl cento
Wolf Cento by Simone Muench
Found Poetry Review (archived)
A found poem Dash it by Annie Dillard
Submit your Found Poetry