My main memory of watching The West Wing is the way Martin Sheen would wrap up discussions with his staff by asking ‘What’s next?’ I loved the energy of this, the sense the script gave you that there was no time to lose in facing the new challenges ahead.
I have often wondered if the same can be applied to poetry.
Many is the time I have heard poets say (and I include myself in this) ‘I cannot send you a poem/contribute/take part because I have just finished a book/sequence of work/commission and I am in a creative drought/down-cycle/fallow period and am exhausted/not working/unable to produce anything/resting.’
I used to take people at their word. As I get older, I am not so sure.
I am sure my own sense of a lack of time and concomitant urgency to move on to the next thing can be explained, in part, by my personal experience of serious illness. Of late I have also been influenced by Seth Godin’s The Icarus Deception, and Stephen Pressfield’s The War of Art and Do the Work. (There are a million blog posts already about these books (as well as the authors’ own), so I won’t spend too much time rehashing what they say here.)
At the risk of being reductive, they essentially tell us (and by ‘us’ I mean anyone with a laptop or smartphone and half an idea to their name) not to wait to get picked but to get on and do the work we have been given to do, whatever the risk of failure, and to do it repeatedly: ‘You don’t need a guru; you need experience, the best kind of experience, the experience of repeated failure’ [Seth Godin].
This might be setting up that poetry blog, festival on a chicken farm (ChickenStock, geddit?), experimental poetry group, or beginning that commission on a subject you know nothing about (going out of your comfort zone, how exciting!). The list goes on.
In a similar vein, creativity theorists talk about the ‘over-inclusive’ thinking that is demonstrated by artists, makers and entrepreneurs, both at the point at which they make their work, and that can be seen when looking at their work as a whole [insert your favourite novelist/poet/band/artist/inventor here]. This goes against the ‘less is more’ approach we are often told is the real secret of creativity. Refinement, editing and killing your darlings can always come later.
As I get older the artists whose work I am increasingly drawn to are the ones who make and made lots of stuff, lots and lots of it. Some of it great, some of it not so great, some of it self-indulgent and sprawling, but all of it theirs, alive and kicking. They didn’t rest between poems, or books. They said ‘What’s next?’ then did it.