Interview with Maureen McLane

Inscape: What kinds of things inspire you to write a poem?

Maureen mclane: That’s a great, though complicated question.  I realize that I am inspired by something when I have a particular feeling. Maybe a sense of awe or wonder, maybe a phrase, a rhythm, or a musical sentence that will begin to float around in my mind. Certain events trigger certain phrases, with which I become absolutely obsessed. These phrases then turn over and over again in the mental chatter of my mind, the mental chatter we all live in. I begin to feel more alive and musical, and I become more generative. Many of the seeds of my inspiration, or my poems, come in the very act of writing. I have a bunch of notebooks that contain jumbles and jumbles of random phrases, such as an overheard conversation, something plainly journalistic, or maybe a dream I had. There are also poems to be found in the simple act of sitting down to write. Stimulation from other people’s work also inspires me to further conversation. Or there are other times when I become irritated by something someone else has written. All of this inspires more writing.

Inscape: Sting once said that inspiration strikes every day at 9 o’clock. Do you write poetry according to a schedule? Do you ever begin to write without any direction or knowledge of where you want to go?

mm: Absolutely. I am amazed to find how some poets are able to write according to a strict schedule. It’s said that Gertrude Stein, for example, wrote every morning from four in the morning until ten everyday. I, myself, am not a poet of will. There are definite benefits in scheduled writing, in spending time everyday with poetry. But certain kinds of irregularity are good for a poet, for a person. I think there is value in spontaneity, in opening your mind to new environments, atmospheres, and times of day. Also, I think that one learns to tolerate silences. I think that if a poem is not happening, it’s just not happening. The world doesn’t need new poems in general. I believe that poems can be ferociously beautiful objects, and I would love to write lots of them, but I do not have the privilege of legislating when they will happen. William Carlos Williams once said that the most important thing about writing is not the writing itself, it’s being in the position to write. There is something honorable to be said about what writers are doing when they are not writing. So much of their time is spent getting the groceries, feeding the pet, doing homework, and all the while their subconscious mind is working, moving towards something worth writing.

Inscape: At what point do you feel at peace with something you have written? At what point do you feel ready to publish?

MM: I know something is alive when I am endlessly revising it in my head. If I can repeat something to myself, then I know it is nearing its final form. If the poem compels me and continues to surprise me after each reading, then I know that perhaps the time has come to let it go into the world. I begin to sense this kind of inner feeling of alignment. I often draft and redraft in a notebook and then type the poem on a computer to make sure that the poem feels right in various places. I often find that things I assumed to be separate are a part of the same macro plan. Sometimes I spend months or even years writing the same poem without realizing that it is the same poem, and I continue working until I find the one that fits.

Inscape: Lastly, what kind of advice do you have for younger writers?

MM: Read maniacally, and read people born before 1900. English is a huge sea. One should take the measure of the sea. This is not to say that the measure of the English language will appear in your work, but one should be equipped with language that is deep, and rich in form and sound. If you are a writer, words are your medium. Know your medium. You must know words the way a painter knows color. Young writers now will obviously have his or her passions and dedications to certain contemporary writers. The young writer should know where contemporary writers came from. The present is built on the past. For a young writer to know where literature is going, he or she must know the past. The newest stuff often comes through unforeseeable conjunctions. For example, I may find myself thinking, “Yes, that weird Victorian novel has some technique or language that I would like to use. Or that Chaucer poem has a kind of rhythm that I want to mimic.” Young writers are getting tons of advice from writing cohorts or instructors to read contemporary writing. My counter advice would be to go out there and explore the strange literature of the past, read against your own grain, test your tastes, read something that is not to your liking. See if there is anything that you can find, explore and bring to new light.