Featured Author: Sean McPherson
Why do you write? What purpose does writing serve for you currently?
I write for several reasons. Sometimes for me composing a poem is like attempting to complete a crossword puzzle or sudoku. It’s a mentally-stimulating activity, a light challenge. I should mention here that, just as I don’t enjoy sudokus labeled “extremely challenging,” I usually keep my poetic projects at a level of difficulty that doesn’t spoil the fun. I believe that a balance must be struck in this regard.
Also, I have an innate interest in collecting and decorating (think Fernando Botero’s “The Collector”), and I write to collect and arrange images, words, sounds and colors. I’m a color-grapheme synesthete, that is, I associate colors with letters and numbers, and my poems are often arrangements of words that evoke in my own mind hues to which I’m partial.
Third, writing is a way for me to “photograph” then process memories that stick out as important to me. After I complete a poem, if it’s a memory poem, I normally feel as though the symbolic significance of that memory within my life’s narrative becomes clearer.
A fourth reason I write is tied to this idea of memory: I write to tell a (usually autobiographical) story I find to be entertaining or thought-provoking. Although I read more prose than poetry, the narrations I compose usually fall into the latter category. I’m not sure why that is.
Finally, sometimes I write poetry for the simple reason that I’m overwhelmed by a feeling and the desire to express it. The Spanish philosopher José Ortega y Gasset said the metaphor is “like a tool for creation that God forgot inside one of his creatures when he created it.” Metaphors are magical, one of the most powerful instruments we have at our disposal to communicate with other human beings. So, when I have an especially complex feeling or profound idea I want/need to share, I look to them for help.
How do you usually start a poem, story, etc?
Typically an idea comes to me when I'm jogging or doing something relatively simple that allows my mind to wander. I also get a lot of artistic ideas while consuming different works of art. Really, though, an idea can come to me from anywhere. Whatever its origin, I write it down as soon as possible (I think it’s really important for a poet to keep a notepad handy at all times). Then I let it stew and add to it until I've got a few potential verses’ or stanzas’ worth of material. After that, when I have a bit of free time I sit down somewhere (usually at home or in a café) and really start writing, usually from the beginning.
How do you know when a piece is finished?
When I was in high school, an art teacher of mine taught me not to fall in love too deeply with the pot you’re throwing, to call it good when it’s 90% to your liking, so that you don’t ruin the entire thing by either making it too ornate or mangling it all together. This applies to writing poetry as well. In my personal experience, picking at a poem for months doesn’t tend to improve it much. This is something I take into consideration when attempting to wrap up a project. Other times I realize I've stated something too explicitly (usually near the end), so the last step for me is to chop off that unneeded stanza or verse, and after that I've got a fine specimen of a poem. If necessary, I may ask my sister to read the work in progress, too. Maybe she’ll love it, maybe she’ll feel like the poem should have ended earlier than it does. Ultimately it’s up to me to decide if I agree with her or not, of course, but I do take into consideration her opinion, since I respect her taste. If she likes it, however, and I like it too, then reread it a few days later and still like it, I say “it’s done!” and that’s that.
What writers/artists are influencing you right now?
Lately I’ve been writing a lot of folk songs inspired by Townes Van Zandt and Bob Dylan (circa the album John Wesley Harding). Annie Dillard’s book Pilgrim at Tinker Creek has been in my mind over the past few months as well, since I just read it for the first time earlier this year. It’s in part because of her that lately I'm allowing myself to make more specific references to plants and animals in my poetry, though I still only feel comfortable including a species (or anything, for that matter) if I have a strong personal connection to it.
Poets whose works I read a while back and continue to influence me profoundly to this day are Walt Whitman and the Chilean poet Nicanor Parra, the former for a million obvious reasons and the latter for his far-off, almost emotionless, calm voice. Something the Brazilian writer Oswald de Andrade said in his “Brazilwood Manifesto” has stuck with me through the past few years as well. He calls for “the millionaire contribution of all errors,” arguing basically that the artist (for him Brazilian artists of the early 20th century) cannot make a mistake, that any “mistake” will ultimately be what makes a work unique and even brilliant. Any time I hesitate to start a project, what Oswald said helps to assuage any fear of failure I might be experiencing.
What do you want people to know about your work?
A professor and mentor of mine once advised me not to prime people before showing them my work, especially when the plan is to discuss it later. It makes sense; you want the reader to come to his/her own conclusion and then give you an unadulterated opinion. That said, I am still often tempted to tell people beforehand what I was thinking as I was writing, what I was trying to express, maybe some of the more ingenious little details I’m worried they might miss on the first go-around. Since, however, this is an opportunity to explain what my work is all about in general, without there being a discussion scheduled for later, I will say this: I am usually simply trying to give my readers a word photograph of a special subject: a friend, an enemy, a lover, an event from my past, a landscape, a space. Also, remember that for me poetry is ikebana with words instead of flowers; every letter appearing on the page was deliberately placed there and has a color.
What question do you wish I asked you?
Really I’m very satisfied with these questions. In fact, they’ve tuckered me out! I’m glad you didn’t ask me for my definition of poetry, or the difference between it and prose. “What do you want to be when you grow up?” might have been fun, although I would have liked being told the answer to that question more than having to provide one myself. There’s a question I sometimes ask people in an effort to get to know them better, one that’s turned into a running joke, which is: “Who would you rather be? Jacques Cousteau or Jerry Seinfeld?” Let’s go with that one.