Under the Influence

What are your influences?

That's always the question writers get asked, or ask of others. In seeking an answer to how the magic happens, 'influences' are shorthand for how do you do it? We want the recipe, or at least a taste, for what shapes and impresses those we admire.

Though no one is asking, I've been contemplating poets that move and mark me. There are poets — Tony Hoagland, Adrienne Rich, Julia Levine — whose work I read again and again, hungry to absorb and understand the agile way they thread emotion and message with a subtle but strong stitch.

Today, when I stumbled into this Tony Hoagland poem, I fell happily under the influence again.

How It Adds Up

There was the day we swam in a river, a lake, and an ocean.
And the day I quit the job my father got me.
And the day I stood outside a door,
and listened to my girlfriend making love
to someone obviously not me, inside,

and I felt strange because I didn’t care.

There was the morning I was born,
and the year I was a loser,
and the night I was the winner of the prize
for which the audience applauded.

Then there was someone else I met,
whose face and voice I can’t forget,
and the memory of her
is like a jail I’m trapped inside,

or maybe she is something I just use
to hold my real life at a distance.

Happiness, Joe says, is a wild red flower
plucked from a river of lava
and held aloft on a tightrope
strung between two scrawny trees
above a canyon
in a manic-depressive windstorm.

Don’t drop it, Don’t drop it, Don’t drop it—,

And when you do, you will keep looking for it
everywhere, for years,
while right behind you,
the footprints you are leaving

will look like notes
of a crazy song.

How It Adds Up by Tony Hoagland.
Reprinted from What Narcissism Means to Me (2003)