You are what you eat. I’m pretty sure everyone from Christians to vegans has used this cliché while trying to convince others of some holistic approach to purify the body or mind or soul. Even so, I think it’s a good expression; a nice reminder that we are made up of the things we consume. And really, that’s what we are: consumers. No matter how else we wish to define ourselves—as artists or poets or writers, as creators and producers—we are inescapably consumers.
I know consumer sounds like a dirty word. We, as artists, want to be on the opposite end of that relationship. We want to create and have others react to our creations. But no matter what, we are always taking things in, always consuming. Whether it’s voluntary (through open mics and Netflix binges) or not (ads on the “L” and assigned readings for school), the world around us makes its way in. And that’s okay. In fact, it’s a good thing.
As artists, it is good for us to take in the world around us. It is good for us to observe and listen and consume. Aaron Weiss, one of my favorite lyricists and frontman of the band mewithoutYou, plays off an Arabic proverb when he sings, “A glass can only spill what it contains.” From style to subject matter, the art we make is only a product of everything we’ve been able to take in. So, my advice: take in more.
Now I’m not going to tell you which art you should consume more of. If you are what you eat, who am I to tell you what to be? I don’t care what you eat specifically, I just want you to be eating. And more importantly, I want you to be aware of what you’re eating, both voluntarily and not.
Regardless of why you’re consuming art or what medium it is, I would argue that there’s almost always something—even if it’s small—that is working. It’s important to look for these things. Maybe the format does something cool, maybe there’s a unique phrase or image, maybe it’s just the right color. Noticing things that work in a piece allows you to do the same thing, sometimes quite literally. There’s a quote that seems to get thrown around writing circles a lot and has been attributed to a different person almost every time I’ve heard it. However, the most common iteration has been from T.S. Eliot: “Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal.” For years, I didn’t really get what that meant, but now I think I see what he was getting at. To see what works in another piece of art—like something as simple as the layout of the piece—and take it for your own use is perhaps the best way to learn and grow as an artist. Now, to be clear, I am in no way promoting plagiarism of any kind, but if you see something you like that another artist has done, don’t be afraid of seeing how you can take that and make it your own.
Recently, I read a book of poems called Blood Dazzler by Patricia Smith. Initially, it wasn’t something I was particularly excited to read, but did so based on the recommendation of a friend who knew that I was starting work on some documentary poetry. The poems in Blood Dazzler are focused on documenting the effects of Hurricane Katrina. Not only did her voice just blow me away, but I found little aspects, little tricks and forms, that I knew I wanted to take for my own work. What I took from the book mostly had to do with poetic forms I hadn’t considered before, especially within the genre of documentary poetry; but also, how the project was organized as a cohesive unit with individual and recurring series of poems. If you were to read Blood Dazzler yourself, however, I’m sure you would walk away with something very different to make your own.
Exploring art we’re not immediately drawn to is so important. It’s easy to stay comfortable in the art we like; however, if you only tend to consume one or two kinds of art, the art you make can’t help but be derivative of those influences. The more you have to work with, the more things you’ve been able to steal and collect and consume, the broader, the bigger, the better your art will be.
While writing this article, I finally took the time to further explore the context of that Eliot quote. In his book The Sacred Wood: Essays on Poetry and Criticism, Eliot writes: “One of the surest of tests is the way in which a poet borrows. Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different.” As a creator, you won’t make anything entirely original. It’s just how the world is. We all know this. You will borrow, you will be influenced, and all of this is okay. Be a good poet or musician or painter; steal well. You’re on a steady diet of everything. Take it all in. Figure out what’s best for you. Give it back to us, different and wonderful and yours.