Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Library Catalogue As Inspiration



(image: old library-catalogue, the wooden kind)

So recently I searched (online) the Nevada County (California--confusing, I know) Library catalogue to see if the library held a book by me. I thought I had donated one, but I was wrong. At any rate, I typed my name in and hit search, and although I was searching by "author," the catalogue, having not found anything related to my name, presented me with suggested keywords related to each of my names.

Consequently, in relation to "Hans," the following list was provided:

strong, lost, most, cost, position, stop, strength, St [no period], stood, lot

The list, however, was verticle and had no commas, so it looked a bit like a poem.

In relation to "Ostrom," the following list was provided:

hands, has, then, hand, as, an, answer, things, means, ask

Of course, when presented with lists of words like this--lists that are both random and not--a poet thinks he or she has just received a most extraordinary gift indeed.

In poetry-writing classes, I often have students make lists of their favorite words (although I steer them away from proper names or pets' names) and then begin to generate a poem strictly from the words themselves, without a subject or topic in mind. Of course, additional words have to come into play to help begin to stitch something together. Temporarily, I fashion a false binary and say that sometimes we're inspired by something than happens or that we remember, and then we go find language to make a poem out of it, but that at other times, we start with language and go in search of a topic. The processes are much more entangled and reciprocal than that, certainly, but the idea is to consider language itself as a kind of "inspiration," a starting place, a trigger.

In any event, I gave myself the same assignment, except that I worked with the words from the library catalogue, not with my favorite words. The initial draft looks like this:

What Things May Mean

Even the strong
will have lost most.
That is the cost
of our position.
We must stop
thinking of strength
as sainthood.

Hands have. A
hand has an answer
sometimes. In
the conversation
you will have
this afternoon,
the word “things”
means “ask.”

I don't know that I've really found a subject yet, or maybe I've found too many, but it was most pleasurable to work with these words, which had arrived unexpectedly and seemed to ask to be made into some kind of poem. Putting them into sentences and aligning their sounds were satisfying tasks. I also like the fact that databases now politely correct us and offer to make up for our mistakes by providing "helpful" suggestions, including lists of words the computer thinks we thought we meant to write. Lovely.

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