Where do poems come from? That's a question I'm often asked during school visits, at Q & A's following readings, and in workshops. It's not the same as that other question I'm often asked: Did that really happen? The second questioner wants to get into my personal life; the first questioner wants to get into my brain. That person wants to know where I find the ideas.
I say that the ideas come from all over the place, from everything around me, from bits of overheard conversations, song lyrics, current events (especially weird stuff), paintings, tv shows, movies, and daily activities, such as a trip to the dentist or the purchase of a new two-door mailbox. I mention the need for attentiveness, for curiosity (euphemism for nosiness), observation (spying), and listening (eavesdropping)—the importance of developing the poet's eye and the poet's ear. I talk about the importance of an idea journal, of writing it down.
Now I can also add a new source to the list: social network sites. I've been told by a number of poets that they won't join such sites as Red Room, Facebook, She Writes, Goodreads, or Twitter because they fear the loss of writing time. They fear they'd fritter away the hours issuing status updates, attending webinars, posting stars on books, and pecking out 140-character snippets of information about what they had for lunch.
But I have found that such sites fuel my writing life. I've become part of an extended community of poets and prose writers, many of whom are very supportive of each others' work. I've booked a few reading dates, been interviewed, and had my books reviewed. And yes, I've even written a poem as a direct result of frittering away my time online.
Back in August of 2009, Huntington Sharp, the owner of Red Room, invited blogging members to post entries on the topic of obsession. I'd already written an article on that very topic for an anthology that never materialized. I dug it out, revised it, and posted it. That piece, "Fruit Fix: My Obsession," was then selected as one of ten featured blog posts that week.
Belle Yang, a novelist, painter, memoirist, and fellow member of Red Room, read my post and left this comment: "Now the Chinese are obsessed with fruit. I've always wondered why Westerners, especially children, do not like fruit the way we do. I bought 2 lbs of lychee, juicy, sweet, for several friends, thinking they would be so very happy to have a bowl of this rarity. They merely said it was too sweet. What about the subtle fragrance, and the translucence of the peeled fruit? The color and the texture? What a waste of fruit. They prefer chocolates, heavy on the tongue and coffee. I think the Asian palate is much more sensitive to nuance and fruit is all nuance."
I replied, "Oh yes, you've got it just right—the sensuous, sensual qualities of fruit. But don't make me choose between fruit and chocolate. I want them both."
Then Belle replied, "I think genetics predisposes us to choose between fruit and chocolates. My mother prefers white chocolate, which isn't chocolate at all, and loves fruit. I'd choose a good guava over chocolate any ol' day."
My senses were tickled, and my curiosity. I'd never tasted lychee, didn't really know what it was. I did what I often do when hatching a poem: I googled. I learned that lychee is an Asian fruit, comes in different colors, is reputed to be an aphrodisiac, and has a sexy history having been the favorite fruit of an emperor's favorite concubine. I was willing to try it, but I also wanted to win Belle over to chocolate. I also sensed a cultural gap at play and wondered if I could bridge that gap with poetry.
Many drafts later I ended up with my poem, "You Offer Lychee to Your American Friends." That was the last poem to go into my new book, Temptation by Water. I knew it had to go in because it's about temptation, resistance, and capitulation. That poem would not exist if I didn't belong to Red Room, if I hadn't answered Huntington's call, if Belle Yang hadn't left a comment. Thank you, Belle. That poem's for you.
Am I frittering away valuable writing time? Sometimes, sure, but other times, I'm hunting and gathering. I'm a poet; that's what I do.