In Track a Book, we follow one manuscript’s journey from creation to publication. This monthly series will look at Brent Newsom’s upcoming CavanKerry release Love’s Labors, which is scheduled for release in April 2015.
The Writer’s Janus: On Inspiration and Process
By Brent Newsom
In the writer’s life—or in this writer’s life, at least—inspiration and process are names for the two faces of a Janus: one looking forward, the other looking back, and back, and back. Inspiration, the rush of words and ideas spilling forth in the euphoria of a creative moment, looks ever forward like a mad, visionary genius, saying, “Good, yes, keep going, this is going to be great, the best thing you’ve written—no: that’s ever been written!” And while you know inspiration is a flatterer and a flirt and given to hyperbole, you’re tempted to listen. Process, the plodding and drawn-out work of revision, of tinkering and refining a stanza or a line or a phrase, is the more prudent of these twins (and the boring one at cocktail parties). Process looks back at the page and points to the cliché in the very first line, to the awkward phrasing, to the weak line endings, to the muddled metaphors and lackluster language. And Process has the gall to ask, “What is this poem about, anyway?”
Of course these creative forces aren’t so opposed as I’ve made them seem. Like Janus’s two faces, they’re attached. They overlap and interweave. Invite process for brunch, and inspiration will probably show up too. (Who doesn’t love brunch?) Scrapping the second quatrain of your sonnet—those easy rhymes and the halting meter—makes way for a new burst of inspired energy, one that could make the poem richer and more surprising than before. And when you’re talking about a book, not just a single poem, inspiration and process are layered together so thickly they’re nearly inseparable.
The earliest poems that will be included in Love’s Labors were drafted in 2007. I was living in Louisiana, the state where I was born and raised, and to which I’d returned after living other places. In a burst of creative inspiration, I began writing short narrative poems set in a fictional Louisiana town I called Smyrna. I peopled the town with citizens and like those I’d observed in my home state—salt-of-the-earth people with their inherent contradictions and struggles and celebrations and faults. I envisioned a whole book of these poems. A Spoon River Anthology of sorts for Louisiana in the twenty-first century. But the revision process revealed certain weaknesses with this scheme: poems overpopulated with peripheral characters, a lack of clear focal points, the possible tedium a reader might feel when faced with one persona poem after another. Over the next few years I scrapped some of those poems and reshaped others, focused on a few recurring characters.
Meanwhile, in 2008 my wife became pregnant with our first child, and the prospect of becoming a father unleashed inspiration in a big way. Though I knew it was dangerous—how to write about babies without producing treacly sap?—I found it hard to write about anything else. But what about the Smyrna idea? Would these poems be part of a different manuscript? And then there were, occasionally, poems seemingly unrelated to either of these driving forces. Where did they fit?
As inspiration and process did their work over the next couple of years, a web of shared themes emerged: issues related to place, family, and faith, as well as motifs of automotive imagery and a concern with America’s twenty-first century wars. By 2010 I’d drafted all of the poems that remain in the collection. I began to see that the poems spoke to one another in ways I hadn’t noticed or anticipated as I was writing them. I was in the doctoral program in English at Texas Tech University then, and the community of poets there helped me greatly to see such connections where I’d missed them before: it wasn’t two or three different books I was writing, but one book. I developed an early version of the collection (with a title I later abandoned) as the creative portion of my dissertation project.
But the work of restructuring the book and revising the poems continued up until CavanKerry Press accepted the manuscript in 2013, and then after that, throughout the editorial process, up until July 2014. (Remember: process looks back, and back, and back.) By the time the book is published, eight years will have passed since those earliest poems were drafted, making Love’s Labors a true labor of love. It’s a labor I’m proud of precisely because inspiration and process have both been given their due.