James Longenbach, my first poetry teacher, gave me the only really helpful technical creative-writing advice I’ve ever received at the end of that semester when he had been so generous to me. He said, “So, okay. You might have some talent, but who cares? Talent is meaningless.” He said, “If you’re serious about this poetry thing, you will spend two years only writing in blank verse—unrhymed iambic pentameter—and you will also scan every line of Milton’s Paradise Lost.” That’s such an extreme thing to say to a student, but I was the kind of student to go and do it. I spent two years only writing iambic pentameter lines. I’m not sure that I scanned every line of Paradise Lost, but I scanned hundreds and hundreds of lines, and thought really hard about how their rhythms were working.
Those rhythms are so deeply ingrained in me now. I remember something that happened when I first started doing public readings from What Belongs to You. Reading aloud is part of my composition practice, and very much part of my revision practice, but it was only when I was reading in front of audiences that I realized that there are lines of pentameter in my prose. That doesn’t happen because I say to myself, ”Oh, this clause needs to be iambic pentameter.” I’m saying to myself, “This needs to feel right,” and I’ll tinker with something endlessly until it does. And I think those iambs are in my prose because those rhythms are deeply associated, for me, with a certain feeling of authority that I wanted particular moments in the novel to have.
That’s a great example of how this works: Iambic pentameter is not something that my agency has invented and is intending to impose. It’s something in the language itself, in my sense of the language, that exerts a kind of pressure when I’m writing. Syntax does that too. Before you write the first word of a sentence, you have almost infinite possibility—but with each word, the possibility decreases. A sentence exerts an increasing pressure of inevitability as you’re writing. Sometimes what gives pleasure in writing is giving in to that inevitability—and sometimes, instead, it’s slipping free from that pressure by trying to open a door in a sentence, and allowing it to escape from where it seemed it would inevitably go.
This dialogue with the past doesn’t feel antagonistic. It feels collaborative. I think of Jessye Norman, one of the earliest singers I fell in love with, someone whose voice is part of the equipment of my inner life. She took forms that were hundreds of years old, and filled them with the glorious substance of her voice—and Strauss will never be the same, Wagner will never be the same, because we’ve heard the way she transformed them. And we have been transformed in turn by listening to her.
That’s why working with preexisting forms is not a sign of unoriginality. We need preexisting forms so we can fill them and change them and be changed. We look to the past for sources of greater richness, greater depth—something I think queer people, in particular, do. Queer aesthetics are often invested in mining the past for resources that allow us to imagine a future. That, to me, is what the conversation of art is about.