Here is a Francis Ford Coppola (producer of The Godfather, Apocalypse Now, and others) interview I came across and found his opinion about art fascinating. While Coppola discusses cinema and movie-making, many of his thoughts can be applied to poetry. Here are some quotes from the interview and my reactions:
Even in the early days of the movies, they didn’t know how to make movies. They had an image and it moved and the audience loved it. You saw a train coming into the station, and just to see motion was beautiful.
The cinema language happened by experimentation – by people not knowing what to do. But unfortunately, after 15-20 years, it became a commercial industry. People made money in the cinema, and then they began to say to the pioneers, “Don’t experiment. We want to make money. We don’t want to take chances.”
Applying this thought to the current state of poetry, I can’t help but think about language poetry. Has it, in itself, become a cliche money-maker? Has langpo outlived its usefulness and originality? Does it still “matter” because its originators and evangelists need to make a buck?
I once found a little excerpt from Balzac. He speaks about a young writer who stole some of his prose. The thing that almost made me weep, he said, “I was so happy when this young person took from me.” Because that’s what we want. We want you to take from us. We want you, at first, to steal from us, because you can’t steal. You will take what we give you and you will put it in your own voice and that’s how you will find your voice.
And that’s how you begin. And then one day someone will steal from you. And Balzac said that in his book: It makes me so happy because it makes me immortal because I know that 200 years from now there will be people doing things that somehow I am part of. So the answer to your question is: Don’t worry about whether it’s appropriate to borrow or to take or do something like someone you admire because that’s only the first step and you have to take the first step.
Kenneth Goldsmith might respond to this quote by saying that a unique personal voice no longer exists in our whatever-you-call-our-post-post-modern world. But then again, I consider Goldsmith more of a con-artist rather than an artsy artist. Readers of this blog know that I’m critical of the over-abundance of copyright law, the purpose of which is to protect the owner’s property. But even children are discouraged from copying their favorite stories and poems as they learn to write creatively. (Side note: in the third grade, I wrote about a boy from a Crow tribe, and the plot was almost identical to Roald Dahl’s The BFG. It was the story I admired most at the time.) In fact, if President Obama has his way, there will be so much focus on math and science in education that creativity and art won’t even have a place in the classroom. But that’s a thought for another blog on another day. Coppola makes a great point though in learning art. Back in the day, there were apprentices of all sorts. Still, today teen guitarists learn the riffs of their favorite bands/musicians. High School art classes mimic various art movements across history. I’ve tried to copy the styles of my favorite writers. I try to write fictional prose like Ralph Ellison. I’ve tried to imitate my fair share of poets, some living some dead, and it’s helped me identify so much about my own writing.
You have to remember that it’s only a few hundred years, if that much, that artists are working with money. Artists never got money. Artists had a patron, either the leader of the state or the duke of Weimar or somewhere, or the church, the pope. Or they had another job. I have another job. I make films. No one tells me what to do. But I make the money in the wine industry. You work another job and get up at five in the morning and write your script.
This idea of Metallica or some rock n’ roll singer being rich, that’s not necessarily going to happen anymore. Because, as we enter into a new age, maybe art will be free. Maybe the students are right. They should be able to download music and movies. I’m going to be shot for saying this. But who said art has to cost money? And therefore, who says artists have to make money?
In the old days, 200 years ago, if you were a composer, the only way you could make money was to travel with the orchestra and be the conductor, because then you’d be paid as a musician. There was no recording. There were no record royalties. So I would say, “Try to disconnect the idea of cinema with the idea of making a living and money.” Because there are ways around it.
This was the crux of the interview for me, especially when looked at through the eyes of the poet. Whenever I have a poem published, I share the poem with my students. Someone inevitably asks if I’ll stop teaching because of all the fame and fortune that is bound to come my way. I chuckle and say that there is no money in poetry. If I want to make money as a writer, I need to write a novel or a memoir. Someone always asks, “Then why bother?” Being the product of American capitalism, many people have a hard time understanding why one should do something if he doesn’t get paid. The question of why then should we create is raised. The answer to this question will vary with every artist that answers it. For me, I create because it’s what I’m supposed to do. It’s like I’m filled with Tommy Knockers (the little miners, not the beer for those who are familiar with the microbrew) that are picking away at me to become real, concrete expressions. Like David, God has laid a song on my heart and the chords of that poetic music are repeatedly plucked, resonating with my life, my experiences, my relationships, and whatever other moment makes up life. While it would be nice to get paid to sit around and write poetry for 40 hours a week, I think I would fail miserably because I would be missing out on all the interactions I have on a daily basis in the real world.
Maybe it’s cliche, but I compare the rich artist to the athlete that just signed a contract for hundreds of millions of dollars (see Albert Haynesworth). He doesn’t need to play anymore, because he made his pay-day. His love and his passion gets replaced by dollars. Then what? He can live whatever lifestyle he wants (hello, American Dream) but if it impacts his play then is it worth it? Since money is not a likely outcome of writing poetry, maybe this isn’t a good connection. But what about getting published? Should “getting published” be the purpose of writing and creativity? Or is there something bigger and more important to the whole idea of creativity that capitalism forces us to overlook?