“Every time I finish something, I’m not sure I can do anything else,” accomplished poet and university professor, Elizabeth Arnold said at a Q&A at the Jiménez-Porter Writers’ House on Wednesday. “I spend a lot of time staring out the window and doodling. A lot of time.”
Before taking the stage at the first all-faculty reading at the Writers Here and Now series, alongside MFA faculty members and professors Maud Casey and Howard Norman, Arnold discussed writing poetry with student writers and poetry enthusiasts.
“There’s no definite process,” said Arnold, the author of four books of poetry, including The Reef, Civilization, Effacement and Life.
If you’re looking to embark on the upcoming National Poetry Month in April for the first time, or you’re having the all too familiar pangs of writer’s block, don’t worry, advised Arnold.
Arnold admitted to once having a 10-day dry stretch, but then she found inspiration in an unexpected place.
“Something led me to my iPhone,” Arnold said. “I had like 300 pages of notes, and a lot of them were really interesting. I didn’t realize I was doing anything meaningful. I thought it was just grocery lists.”
After finding the gems in her iPhone’s note app one night, Arnold stayed up until 4 a.m. sorting through her notes only to type them up and compose one poem, still sitting on her computer desktop, titled “iPhone Notes.”
Journaling has also influenced her poetry material, which ranges in topic from traveling to dealing with a borderline sociopath in “The Man.”
“I have two journals, which are now all chaotic really,” Arnold said. “One where I wrote down ideas or anything I’m thinking about, and the other one, I’d just write down quotations, which were really great.”
But one of the biggest inspirations for the poet and recipient of the Amy Lowell Poetry Traveling Scholarship is travel.
“Traveling is really good for writing is what I learned,” said Arnold, who lived in Sicily, Italy for seven months, experienced Egypt’s first revolution in 2011 and just recently returned from a stay in Quintana Roo, Mexico. “You can’t know what a place is until you’re there. It took me a long time to learn that.”
Arnold, who plans to travel to Namibia in May, said countries that are a little less developed are much more intriguing.
“There seems to be a pulse of an earlier time there,” Arnold said. “And as a poet, that’s like being carried somewhere else.”
Having grown up in a house where singing was a favorite pastime, Arnold also emphasized the importance of music and its connection to language.
“I think learning about music helps you hear more of it in poetry, just as I think that listening to a foreign language without knowing what it means allows you to hear the music in it,” Arnold said.
Arnold said she often tries to use this idea of musicality in poetry to her advantage by hearing her way into a subject matter.
“Sometimes when I’m writing, I’ll just have a sentence, and I’ll copy it over and over again,” said Arnold, who said she believes poems are often like tunes, and hearing the language of the sentence repeatedly allows her to proceed writing her poem just as a musician would write a song.
And when it comes to writer’s block, Arnold said you can cut yourself some slack.
Comparing writing to a form of meditation, Arnold said it is often helpful for writers to find a personal space just for writing, even if it’s just a corner of a room, and to identify the most productive or inspiring time for them to write.
“A friend of mine goes into her writing place. She’s there for four hours, and then she gets up, closes the door, and she’s done with her day of writing, whether she wrote something or not,” said Arnold, whose brain works best in the morning (or after a couple episodes of Big Bang Theory).
With hectic schedules and time crunches, Arnold said even 10 to 20 minutes of writing can create something great. And on the opposite end, when it comes to having too much time, Arnold said there is beauty to be found in the boredom.
“A time when you’re disinterested or you’re not planning anything, you don’t have a prejudice or a point,” Arnold said. “But when you think you know what you’re doing, forget it. It’s often misguided.”
That’s when you have to get to the “goo goo ga ga” of it all, Arnold said.
“Sometimes you have to allow yourself to be stupid to the point where you’re not even pronouncing words anymore, you’re just making sounds,” said Arnold, emphasizing the art of letting ideas naturally flow without judgment. “That’s where things start to happen for me.”
But that doesn’t mean Arnold doesn’t want her writing to make sense, she told listeners.
“I want to make sense but I want to take you to the edge of sense,” Arnold said. “If you’re not doing that as a poet, you’re kind of just reiterating.”
Junior economics major and creative writing minor Aiyun Battogtokh, who often draws inspiration from observations, autobiographical experiences and different forms of art including music by the The Weeknd, was inspired by Arnold’s process.
“You always want to know if people are standing there with a pad and paper writing while they are in the exact location, or whether they need time to marinate, or to let their imagination take over while they write to fill in the blanks,” Battogtokh said. “I learned that it’s not 100 percent factual. It’s factual, autobiographical and imaginative.”
Brittany Britto is a graduate student and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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