From the inaugural Poets Forum, presented by the Academy of American Poets on October 20, 2007, at Marymount College in New York City. On the second panel of the day, Frank Bidart, Rita Dove, Sharon Olds, and Gerald Stern answered questions about "Drawing From the Past, Breaking From the Past" from poet Elizabeth Alexander.
I want to believe—and I actually do believe—that I prefer to draw from the past more than break from the past. The breaking, I think, tends to happen when the world, or the world's assumptions about what one's past can be, make one want to declare something.
And one reason why often, when people ask me, "what are your influences?" and I just, I skitter all around that question, and I say "No;" is because I don't want anyone to latch on to one thing and say, "Oh, yes, that's very clear," and also because it's a lie. I don't really know what all of my influences are. The ones that have influenced me the most I don't know. I'll throw out ones which will confuse you, perhaps because you might assume that that's who I am. I don't even know who I am or what I'm doing, in terms of the work.
Except that I do know that music is extremely, extremely important to my work, and not in that conventional sense of just making a line sing, but something in the way that our very breath is engaged in the making of music, and also the way that music does something that words can never do. And I also believe that words, in the end, aspire toward speechlessness; in the end, we aspire toward something that can't be said.
I do know that I, well, I'm trying to think. Here's an odd one: James Brown. Why James Brown? You know, it has to do with showmanship which shows incredible vulnerability deep down inside—I mean, the cape that comes out every time, you know, Maceo brings out the cape. He stylizes an anguish which is actually in each of us, and therefore we can laugh at it, and we can feel it. And then he also keeps that beat just pounding, pounding, pounding, pounding, pounding, until you say "Okay, we've heard, you know, enough of that." But we start to get his measure, we start to take his breath. We slow down or speed up to meet it. And then we are in his language, whatever that is.