Award-winning poet and teacher Dan Maguire will present a feature, Courting the Spark: Finding and Using your Creativity, at the 2015 Philadelphia Writers’ Conference on Saturday, June 13th at 4:15 P.M.
Dan Maguire has twice been awarded first prize for poetry at the Philadelphia Writers’ Conference, in 2000 and again in 2001. In February of 2004, he was invited to read at the Library of Congress of the United States. He has led workshops for the National Federation of State Poetry Societies and the Philadelphia Writers Conference. In 2009, he won the Almeda Boulton Memorial Award from the National Federation of State Poetry Societies. Maguire currently teaches at the Renaissance Institute at the University of Notre Dame, Baltimore, where he has offered courses in poetry, James Joyce, Samuel Beckett and Marcel Proust. His latest publication is a chapbook, Finding the Words, published by Plan B Press.
A native of Philadelphia, Maguire has lived in Arizona, New England, New Jersey and now resides in Baltimore, Maryland. I first met him in May of 2000, when we’d both been invited to participate in a one-evening workshop conducted by Robert Bly in Philadelphia. Since then, we’ve exchanged poems and correspondence, participated in the Mad Poets critique circle together and visited in my home in Wilmington and during visits to the Baltimore Museum of Art. He is an easy, amiable conversationalist and talented storyteller, whose enthusiasms pour out in generous servings with wit, humility and wisdom.
I discussed the nature of our interview with Dan by telephone prior to sending him, via e-mail, the series of questions for which he provided answers.
D.K. In our phone conversation you said your feature is addressed not only to poets but to all writers – of prose fiction, non-fiction, etc. Does the process of stimulating one’s creativity differ depending on the type of writing he/she is pursuing?
D.M. I can’t speak for science writers or technical writers, but I think all writers need to court the spark once in a while. But I think the methods employed are unique to each individual.
D.K. What are some of the resources you have used to ease your own writer’s journey? How have you gotten past, over, around writer’s block?
D.M. Without giving away my presentation, I’ll mention music, reading and meditation as some of the things I’ve used.
D.K. You’ve taught workshops on poetry but also courses on James Joyce, Samuel Beckett and Marcel Proust, among others. Was your own preparation for one of these teaching gigs particularly surprising or revealing? What did you find out about the writers, their work and/or their processes that was entirely new to you, either while doing your research or while teaching?
D.M. What I mainly found out, with all of the above and some others, is that most of what I thought I knew about them was wrong. In preparing to present someone’s work it is essential to do some tangential readings about them. Get as many different perspectives as you can. Once you begin teaching, the truth will emerge, for both the student and the teacher.
D.K. The title of your feature presentation is, “Courting the Spark: Finding and Using Your Creativity.” Given your fondness for song lyrics, did you have the Joni Mitchell song (“Court and Spark”) in mind when you named the feature? Would you tell us something about the course you taught on popular song lyrics and poetry?
D.M. I suppose that, subconsciously, Joni was right there behind it. She’s wonderful, in my opinion. When I did the course on song lyrics as poetry I came to the conclusion that many were poems, but not good poems. Mitchell and Jackson Browne and, of course Dylan, would be exceptions to that. The later Lennon and McCartney, too. But adding music changes the work, enhances it and pumps up the mediocre. For the most part, the words can’t stand on their own as poetry.
D.K. In our earlier conversation, you mentioned using music as a stimulus for creativity. I know a number of visual artists who have talked about this very thing. Do you think the technique would vary greatly from art form to art form? Could you offer some examples of how music has stimulated your own writing?
D.M. Ekphrasis, using one art form to stimulate another, is quite in vogue these days, but the concept has been around a while. The most prevalent seems to be painting and poetry. But it’s not limited to that. Music is a real turn-on for me. It can be any kind. It just has to be good. When I hear something good, whether lyrics or instrumental, or both, it makes me want to create something good of my own. I love Jimmy Webb. I love Steve Earl and Steely Dan. The words and music. And I love new stuff, by artists I don’t know, heard for the first time.
D.K. You reminded me of Robert Bly’s advice that writers should, “Find a place to write and go there.” Would you expand on what you think he meant by that? Also, do you have or have you ever had such a place?
D.M. What I think Robert was saying was that you should avoid distractions. I’m always distracting myself. It’s an excuse to justify not creating. “I was busy,” we tell ourselves. It’s safer to do that than to write something bad. We all fear failure. In Robert Bly’s case, he found an actual physical place to do his writing, a cabin on a lake. Most of us don’t have that opportunity. So I look for tranquil moments, whenever and where ever I can find them. I use them for contemplation and internal dialogues. Most of what I write is at least partially written in my head before I face the page. The actual physical act of writing doesn’t take that long, and the place doesn’t matter.
D.K. Yeats most likely suffered from depression, Joyce lived on the edge of poverty, and Beckett lived in occupied France during World War II and fought with the French resistance. In the face of troubles like these, could ego have been the only driving force that propelled their remarkable, lasting achievements? Lots of us have big egos, but…
D.M. Ego is important, no doubt. Thinking that what you have to say is so important that the world needs to hear it is not humility. But it is only part of the package. You need courage. Trying to deal with poverty, or fighting Nazis, is a hard road to travel. It takes courage and character. Ego is just the voice that tells you to keep going. Beckett has two great quotes that I use as a spur. One is, “Try. Fail. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.” The other is, “I can’t go on. I can’t go on. I will go on.” Just look at his life. He wanted to be a great poet, but Yeats was there first. So he turned to the novel, but realized that Joyce would always be ahead of him. So he reinvented the modern theatre. That takes ego. And character. And courage.
D.K. A popular sports aphorism has it that one learns more from the losses than from the wins. Do you see a correlation between loss and/or adversity and an artist’s creativity?
D.M. If you write, and want to be published, you’re going to experience rejection. This can be soul crushing. But I like to remind myself of the old factoid that Babe Ruth struck out 3 times for every home run he hit. I don’t think failure, or perceived failure, does anything for creativity. But it may spark anger, which may engender determination. Then the ego and the courage and the character have to take over. And by the way, I wonder if Babe Ruth has any relevance to young writers today?
D.K. You’ve twice won top poetry prizes at the Philadelphia Writers’ Conference and I know you’ve had plenty of fun both in workshops and “after hours” at the more informal gatherings. What were some of those experiences that you remember most fondly? Who were some of the writers that made your PWC experiences memorable?
D.M. There is nothing better than recognition from your peers. And I won’t mention any names for fear of leaving someone out. But there have been many, many PWC members who have had a positive effect on me. And the hours spent both in and out of the workshops are precious in my memory. I will mention one moment that is very special to me. It was late on a Saturday night after the banquet and all the poets had gathered to take turns reading to each other. The late – great Lou McKee and I engaged in a “Yeats – off.” We took turns quoting lines from that great poet, in between sips of Jameson Irish Whiskey. As I recall, I finally won because I could recite “The Second Coming” in its entirety. Magical.