Tom Waits talks to his songs while he’s composing. He’ll flirt with one in the studio, he’ll argue with another while driving home. He’s been known to bully, sweet-talk, talk shop, talk up, whisper, and say whatever it takes to get a song to reveal itself.
In an 2002 interview with Elizabeth Gilbert (who later became the author of Eat, Pray, Love) Waits says that he discovers each song and composition differently. They may all be “Tom Waits” songs but, to their composer, each song has an distinct character and he talks to them as individuals. Some songs need to be snuck up on like a rare bird. Some songs are sewn together from pieces of a dozen other failed attempts. Some feel like each part was chiseled out of rock, hard-won and revised, revised. Some are bullied into completion with the rest of the album finished and one part of one song still loitering outside: “We’re leaving in ten minutes – are you on the bus or not?” he yells in the studio.
There is no one way to make a Tom Waits song, even if you’re Tom Waits. This is a guy who has collected a big set of tools for discovering his next song. And a guy who never seems to get bored of music. And, whatever opinions you may have of Tom Waits songs, his music is never boring.
Much of what poets write these days, myself included, is lumped into the giant category of “free verse”. But all this means is that much of what we write isn’t “fixed” in form, like a sonnet or a limerick or a sestina. In free verse here’s no prescribed system of rhyme or meter that comes from outside the poet. Yet free verse still has form, which is to say it still has rules. All “free verse” means is that the poet made up the rules herself. Whether she was aware of it or not, she used her knowledge of poetic devices and rhetoric (her tools) to craft that free-verse poem, to decide what rules it should follow, what rules it should break.
These tools resemble a compass and sextant more than they do a hammer and drill. They are, foremost, tools of discovery. Rules and restrictions force us out of known territory and allow us to traverse unknowns where the easiest next word may not be the right word. For those of us used to writing poems by our own rules, it’s a real adventure to write using formal restrictions. If we’re fenced out of the pastures we know, what can we find in the high grass nearby?
Workshops are a great opportunity to acquire more tools of discovery. Aside from time spent in workshop, a lot goes home with the poet to feed his writing – drafts to work on, tools to play with, new poets to read, and connections with other local poets. Workshops help poets check how well their discoveries are being served by the forms and strategies they’ve chosen. Moreover, workshops give poets the opportunity to respond constructively to the work of other poets. The better we become at responding to other people’s poems, at naming the tools they’ve used and the discoveries they’ve made, the better we will be at discovering our own poems.
I’m not in the habit of talking to my poems, but I think Tom Waits would agree when I say that a big part of composition is about is finding the strangeness of a piece. There’s a quirk, a darkness, a discord, an obsession to each work of art. Every day I use tools I’ve acquired in workshops in order to discover a poem and navigate its unique geography. The way into one poem may not be the way into the next. All we have on these trips are our toolboxes and our fascinations.
Susanna Mishler is teaching the 49 Writers workshop "Poetry Toolbox: Lines and Tropes" beginning Saturday, Oct. 22. Register today at the 49 Writers website.