Drifting the Undercurrent from Poems to Essays an interview with Stewart Moss
"What a poet is conscious of can seriously limit his or her work."
As a poet, why do you write essays? How does the writing process resemble, or differ from, the process of writing a poem?
I started a few essays a year ago when the poems I was drafting were feeling lifeless. I find that the process for me is very different. Poems for me rely on a quick start with images or phrases that begin a flow toward an idea that is only vaguely present at the start. And those late drafts of poems were stumbling – jerky, hesitant – relying too much on just tinkering with words. Well, okay - I found that the process of writing essays relies a good deal on tinkering with words. Trying out words for their exactness in service to stuff I like to think about . It’s a different discipline – the satisfaction of surface clarity much more than the joy of discovery. In your “Undercurrent” essays, you emphasize the importance of tapping the unconscious in writing poetry. What do you mean by this, and what practical recommendations do you have for poets who want to use this practice in their own writing?
I mean simply that the writer pay attention to fragmentary starts or to “interruptions” - images, sounds, words or phrases, flashes - things that drift in and later make you ask, ‘Now where did that come from?’ What comes in from beneath your consciousness is not bound by habit or dull convention. It is the uniquely, deeply searching, creative you. That’s the rare part of composing that’s very different from simply reporting your experiences or thoughts.
One way to exercise this: I used to tell students to carry 3 x 5 cards instead of keeping the more deliberate and systematic writer’s notebook. Impressions, good words or phrases, sounds, contrasts, shocks of memory, surprises. Jot them down quickly,unedited, one per card. The thing is, you can shuffle cards; they will ignite each other, clustering perceptions that you’ve forgotten. Free them from the notebook’s meaningless sequence of dates. Start the next poem not with an idea but with words from shuffled cards that beckon your curiosity .A gathering poem might find itself, telling more than you would have known how to say. What a poet is conscious of can seriously limit his or her work.
In the “Funny Things” essay, why do you say that the intellect is limited in what it can know? What kinds of things lie outside of the intellect?
Oh yeah; I think I said, though, that it’s the unaided intellect that can’t know much. The problem is, our culture treats intellect, mind, and brain as if they are synonymous. I see mind as a sort of corporate headquarters that unifies its “company shops,” such as imagination, mythic consciousness, rationality, will, dream, as well as intellect and brain function. Our culture tends to downgrade these other components of mind while genuflecting toward brain function and intellect. But when intellect rules, and we agree thoughtlessly to call it “the mind”, humans get dehumanized.
Intellect, nowadays in command, tends to trivialize the other shops. Imagination, for example, comes to mean either untruth or mere cleverness; the mythic mind is reduced to the status, not of Genesis I and II or the Odyssey, but of deceptive lying. From elsewhere, at the cutting edge of thinking big in a whole new universe of cyberspace, Margaret Wertheim warns us, “what we need is the science of the mind, not of the brain.”
We need whole mind, not just intellect, to make effective protest against mass conformity to media-controlled definitions and values. We need math and science for the mind, not just for job placement. The humanities and the arts (historically including poetry) are being cut from school budgets and losing their place in the preservation of a rounded, aesthetically grounded, inquiring, free civilization. So yes, there is a whole mind perceiving a world that lies beyond the intellect. And poetry is part of it.
What impact does the spirituality you describe have on your own writing process and on the subject matter of your poems?
The remarkably popular kinds of spirituality in our present-day culture seem rooted in Asian cultures and in Asian philosophical monism. They beckon the soul to escape from the limitations of time and physicality. My own belief about the spiritual is that it yearns to be enfleshed, embodied, working within time, rather than wafted upwards in timeless, infinite vapors toward nothingness. Soul wants work, it wants a performing body. The body is not “the prison house of the soul” – it’s the living room and front porch of the spirit’s true home.
I sympathize with the urge millions of people feel to escape the sadness of history, bodies, time, the physical, death – but I absolutely reject such escapist religion. My poems probably leap toward carnality on their way to what I call incarnality – I want the fine tension between spirit and whatever it embodies. So spirituality for me awakens my senses and human instincts toward, compassion, love, celebration, justice.
Western civilization, heavily indebted to a Judeo-Christian vision, posits a good life that daily honors time and all things physical as it tries to build a true, present, and yet everlasting community. The Christian faith, more narrowly, offers me a world in which a divine Incarnation – God as logos, Word, taking on human flesh and time and history – becomes the prototype for art. Spirit (think divine breath, a direct human inheritance from the Creator) inhabits paint and musical sounds and language. I learn much from many incarnationist poets, among them Donne, Vaughan, Hopkins, Muir, Eliot, Auden, Wilbur, Rogers, Hudgins.
The Christian faith gets bad press these days. Its practitioners deserve it. Far more than a secularist can, I regret and detest the shallow, anti-intellectual, sentimentalist, emotion-driven, money-gathering, anti-social, harshly judgmental wave that passes for “Christian.” I resent how my claim to that word identifies me with such sickness. I grieve the brokenness of the world. But I feel no impulse to want to escape it.
Interview originally published Fall 2014 Writers Center Workshop and Events. At the time, Stewart Moss, a poet, was executive director of the Writers Center, Bethesda, Maryland.