Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Hollowell: Tracing Your Family Tree

A few years ago, I was part of a discussion that consisted of people listing current poets and then shouting “Walt Whitman!” or “Emily Dickinson!” The conceit of the game was that every contemporary American poet can be classified into one of two camps based on which poet seems more influential to their work, Whitman or Dickinson. (I am a Whitman child, as if there was ever a doubt). Oh, and in case you were wondering, yes, it was a bunch of slightly drunk writers having this discussion. (Slightly being a sliding scale.)

Yet there is something quite profound about tracing your artistic family tree. First of all, the process of actually sorting through the writers that you admire to search for whose work has influenced you is an exceedingly convivial activity. It’s like gaining a whole slew of relatives who really understand you (finally!). I sometimes like to imagine them all at a party, probably outside under great trees in a long summer twilight, in little groups, the less gregarious poets wandering off in the woods holding glasses of whiskey or small handfuls of wild strawberries.

Second, you suddenly have a whole new reading list, but it takes a bit of sleuthing. You identify a few contemporary writers who have influenced you or whose style is similar to your own. Then you dive into reviews they’ve written, essays, and now even blog or Facebook postings. Look to see who they recommend or who they teach. Occasionally they’ll fess up in an interview, as Billy Collins did when he nodded to Kerouac, Ginsberg, Ferlinghetti, and Samuel Taylor Coleridge as early influences. (Coleridge seems like the odd man out there, doesn’t he?) Start a family tree with you at the bottom, each writer’s influences branching further and further back in time. I guarantee when you’re done, you’ll have learned of a few new people whose writerly DNA is inherent in your work, and you’ll have some unexpected material to explore.

We stand on the shoulders of giants (and maybe some not-so-giants). Understanding the choices they made in their own work and what writers they looked up to will help us understand the choices we’re making in our own work. It’s all part of entering the great conversation that was happening long before we got here and will continue long after we’re gone. Remember that party? Being a guest in that revel is one of our honors and duties. For when we are gone, it is our words that will continue on, and perhaps someone will have a postcard of one of us propped up on the windowsill behind her desk, just as I do of Walt Whitman and William Stafford.
Erin Coughlin Hollowell is a poet and writer who lives in Homer, Alaska. Prior to landing there, she lived on both coasts, in big cities and small towns, pursuing many different professions from tapestry weaving to arts administration. She earned her MFA from the Rainier Writing Workshop at Pacific Lutheran University in 2009. Her poetry has most recently been published in Alaska Quarterly Review, Permafrost, Terrain: A Journal of the Built and Natural Environment, and Sugar House Review. Her first collection of poetry Pause, Traveler was published on June 1, 2013 by Boreal Books, an imprint of Red Hen Press. Her blog is 


Linda said...

I love the idea of creating a literary family tree - what a delightful exercise that will be. Thanks for the inspiration! In the middle of re-reading Kathleen Jamie's essay collection, Findings, it's clear she's the Scottish literary sister I want to emulate.

AKBrady said...

This is such a fantastic idea! Now I need to do some serious sleuthing.

Vivian Prescott said...

Erin, I like the family tree idea. Fortunately I wasn't influenced by some and was influenced by others. The oral traditions of the Tlingit, Haida, & Scandinavians had a big influence on my poetry. But, that said, I love Emily Dickenson. Now, I'm going to think about this some more. Gunalchéesh.