How an inspiration chooses its medium

As I begin writing creatively again after a dry spell, I’ve been thinking a lot about how one creative spark, one subject, chooses which medium to be communicated in. By this I mean: when I start writing, when and how do I know in which format the piece will emerge? Will it be best conveyed through a “page” poem, a performance poem, prose, memoir…? It’s difficult to articulate how this “sorting” or “funneling” of work occurs, because often it feels as though it is not under my control (for more on this odd feeling of external creative impetus, see my post responding to Elizabeth Gilbert’s TED talk here).

There are any number of inspirations that spark me to write. Personal memories are key, as are intense emotions. Current events can also be starting places. Sometimes it’s a phrase or metaphor that gets stuck in my head so I construct a piece around that one line. Regardless of how a piece begins, early in the process of composition I need to decide which medium will suit the subject best.

Sometimes I can tell immediately from the subject which medium will work best. For instance, political/activist writing is almost always slam poetry for me, because the performative nature of slam allows one to convey the passion behind a political message (and also because the literary canon of published poetry has tended to reject overtly political work). Love poems tend to fit the slam genre as well, allowing one to ardently display a range of emotions onstage. But observational poems or poems in thrown voice generally work better on the page, as they often don’t require the animation of performance to function. Furthermore, since slam poems usually draw their power from the performance of self, it’s rare to find a slammer performing in third person or assuming an alternate persona (although it has been done powerfully).

Sometimes I’ll start a poem thinking it will be a slam poem but then realize that I want to describe something smaller, something subtler. If I think I’m going to be using delicate metaphors, a precise visual structure on the page, or if the poem will require more than one reading to be fully understood or appreciated, then it is best on the page. And, simply put, some subjects just aren’t right for the stage. I’m not going to slam about a tree in the park unless it’s part of an extended metaphor about something personal or political, because I know the audiences at slams are hungry for something more than pretty words: they want the self-revealing and/or the powerful message.

Conversely, occasionally I’ll start a page poem then convert it into slam. This is harder: it is trickier to squish preexisting language into a rhythm than it is to write with that rhythm in your head from the beginning.

Although I identify chiefly as a poet, increasingly now I’m realizing when a subject is best for a piece of memoir or short story. Some stories have too many details to share in a three-minute poem, too many logistics that need to be dealt with in order for the readers/audience to get to the good stuff. Family stories, for example, are often best conveyed through prose in order to give all the context.

And, finally, for me there are some impulses that need to be danced. Sometimes words are insufficient or wrong to convey an idea: it needs to be physicalized. In my kinetic dance projects, I take a text and choreograph a movement score to accompany it, speaking the words and dancing simultaneously. This is a useful exercise in that it allows the body to underscore the words through the visual, kinetic medium and gives viewers an additional mode through which to interpret the work (more about this in an upcoming post).

It’s refreshing to have all of these genres at my fingertips when inspiration strikes. Artists, how do you know when a creative spark has chosen the medium through which it will be conveyed? Is this a conscious choice for you or does it happen automatically?

5 thoughts on “How an inspiration chooses its medium

  1. Talia Mason says:

    I completely identify with what you’ve written here, as a poet and as a dancer, and it makes me SO proud to know that I can come and see what you’re musing about here…Love from me and Hannah (Miller!!) xoxox


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