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Thursday, April 4, 2013

Improv & Poetry

Yesterday I listened to Radiolab, my favorite podcast of all time. They did an unusual show (for them) about two improv performers, TJ & Dave. TJ & Dave are unusual among the improv set in that they don't take suggestions from the audience, or from any kind of random generator of ideas. Instead, at the beginning of their show the lights go down, then back up, and at that point, TJ & Dave wipe their minds clean, stare at each other in silence as if the entire world is unknown to them and must be learned starting from that point, piece by piece, and then they wait for one of them to speak. There are no preconceived ideas, and all they ever know is what has just happened on stage between them.

When asked about dealing with that kind of pressure to come up with ideas, one of them said that the way they visualize it is that there are ideas and stories floating around us all the time, generally going unrealized, and when they as performers dim the lights, all stories but one disappear and they just have to be tuned in to find that story. They don't see themselves as generating ideas at all, but as identifying one of a myriad of ideas that are free-floating around them all of the time.

When I heard that, I almost stopped in my tracks, because I had had a similar thought last month. I don't really believe that stories and ideas exist independent of the human brain and sensory system, but I still had had this thought recently. The impetus was the very productive three months of writing I've had from January to March of this year. Instead of struggling with writing, I've written fairly fluidly and continuously, working on a few poems at once, having new ones starting as old ones finished up, basically without the angst and struggle between poems that I normally have (within poem, yes, some struggle and angst, but between them, almost none recently). It seemed to me as though there were ideas floating all around me and if I just paid attention, if I just tuned in, I could pluck them from the air. I felt the quality of my attention was allowing me to see details and images that embroidered themselves nearly seamlessly into the poems in progress or very naturally suggested new poems. And I had the idea that those ideas were always there, had ALWAYS been there, circling me and everyone, and it was the quality of my attention that has in the past (and undoubtedly will in the future) kept (keep) me from seeing them.

I don't actually believe this, that ideas exist independently of a perception apparatus (or do I?). But it was a useful image for me, one that kept me writing happily as it seems to keep TJ & Dave able to perform their improv under such pressure. Self-delusion, maybe, or just a useful way of visualizing the creative process--I don't know. But I was interested to see that it worked for other creative people too.

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