On inspiration (and poetry)

Last Thursday I went to this poetry reading at Pegasus Books. (Can I just note here that Pegasus & Pendragon Books is pretty much the best name for a bookstore ever?) To be honest, I wasn't expecting much of anything. The first reader was notable only because of his chapbook-making skill, which, to be fair, was impressive. His poetry, not so much.

Laura Walker, however, was fabulous. I loved her work, and probably would have bought something if I'd come prepared with cash. The most interesting thing about her, though, was the way she described her inspiration. She had an entire series of poems in which she wrote an original poem, then ran it back and forth through online translators. Norwegian, Tagalog, Icelandic... The poems that they returned were weird and evocative and totally my thing. Even if weird/evocative poetry were not totally my thing, I still would have been intrigued by the use of translation to create poetry, and also the puzzlement this whole exercise brings to mind, of how things are lost and gained in translation.

The second series of poems she read was inspired by a birdwatching book; she would read an entry (say, on an African swallow) and write a short poem evoked by that image. This I loved as well. I am not particularly interested in birdwatching, but once she started talking about it I could suddenly see myself buying a birdwatching book and writing poems out of it. Then she continued with a series inspired by the Oxford English Dictionary. For each poem, all the language in it was taken from the OED entry for one word. And those were not short poems. (Thankfully, no OED entry is short either.)

You may wonder why we're talking about this. Well, I was sitting there in awe of the ways in which she found inspiration, and being suddenly inspired to write poetry (sometimes I write bad poetry, just so you know), and it occurred to me: would anything like this ever work in fiction? Is there a way in which little snippets of life (a birdwatching book, an OED entry, an online translator) could ever be used to find inspiration for fiction in a systematic way?

I pondered this, and the answer I came up with is (for me, at least, and in this particular form) no. They're just too small! When I write fiction I am immersed in the world of fiction. Ideas are not small, they are big! World-scaping! So while these little snippets of material may be enough to inspire me with a few lines for a poem, I don't think that I could as easily read an entry in the encyclopedia and come away with the idea for a novel.

This is not to say that it couldn't happen. In fact, it could. (I think it depends on the particular entry.) But as a systematic method of inspiration, an "I'm going to sit down every day and write something based on the next birdwatching entry" kind of method, I don't think that it works. (For me.)

On the other hand, maybe the scale of the idea is inversely related to how often it appears via such inspirational nibbles. So if I were to use this for a year, maybe I'd be able to write around 300 (bad) poems, and maybe I'd get one or two ideas for a novel?

On the other (other) hand, who knows where inspiration comes from?

Oh, I think this post has been lost. My thoughts have devolved. Let me explain...No, there is too much. Let me sum up: I loved that inspiration for poetry can come from anywhere. Hearing Laura Walker talk about her process gave me so many ideas about how to find inspiration for my own poetry. But the way I think about poetry is different than the way I think about fiction. Poetry is so very different to me than fiction, even though I do both. Maybe then my question becomes: why is fiction so different than poetry?