I came across an article about the soulful British singer Beth Orton in the New York Times on the occasion of the release of her new album called “Sugaring Season.” It’s her first album in six years, and I found her description of her songwriting process as a painstaking gathering and distillation to be very evocative.
In the article she describes her experience of performing live as “shamanizing” the audience while in a spontaneous, meditative, altered state. This is the vision of art as Dionysian transport–that the artist is attuned to another realm from which inspiration and ideas come as if by magic. This sense that inspiration is beyond individual control invites projection about who or what–muses, spirits, or gods–can be thanked for the gift which seems to come from outside the self.
That romantic (and classical) view of creativity is popular with the public, but is seen as passé in sophisticated and professional art circles. There, the eye is on the work as a commodity whose value is derived from the artist’s status as an artist approved by fad, authorities, and market forces.
Orton seems unabashed in hewing to the old, popular ways of thinking about her musical craft. She sees her music as coming, not exactly from muses, but from a different part of her brain, which she sees as “smarter than me.” Yet she doesn’t give short shrift to the conscious attunement or discipline (the “steadfastness”) also required:
“For Orton, her lyrics have always poured out thoughts of longing, solitude and steadfastness that rise toward the philosophical. ‘You want to learn the trick to turn/What’s not so pretty into something more beautiful’ . . . .
“She added: ‘The songwriting brain is much smarter than me. I’m not that person. It makes connections that I don’t make necessarily.’”
I like how simply Orton puts this. It’s what most poets say about the creative genesis of their work–that they have no idea where it comes from or why. That it comes from a part of us that we can’t account for. That part is that thing in us which makes connections or wild associations we wouldn’t (consciously) have ever thought of.
We poets say the work comes from ‘elsewhere,’ or that it feels like something that an ‘other’ has authored. It’s not that of our creations still strikes us as so mysterious that, even in 2012, we invoke spirits and phantasmagorical brain regions to account for it.
Part of the purpose of this blog is to approach, over and over–through different voices and different descriptions–, what that ‘other’ is that inspires the art we make. I want to read that otherness in light of what we’re starting to learn about the creating brain from neuroscience. I like this approach not because the scientific explanation is a better one, but because it is simply another interesting metaphor-laden language for talking about creativity.
Again, from the New York Times piece about Beth Orton:
“Although Ms. Orton wrote a song called ‘Sugaring Season,’ it didn’t end up on the album.
“’It’s a beautiful poetic phrase,’ she said. ‘These long cold nights and then this slight upping in the temperature in the day would create an upsurgence in the tree, and the sap would rise, and it would create some sugar. But you’d have to have a lot of sap for every little bit of sugar. I like the chemistry of the idea that that’s the creative process for me. It’s taking it all and just making a little bit of sugar.'”
“A lot of sap for every little bit of sugar” — that really expresses the essence of creative work. When I first read that passage, it set up precisely the kind of chemical reaction in me that she was talking about. That reaction distilled itself, as if I were living the creation of a crystal, into a poem I call “Sugaring.”
It’s a poem that, as Orton says, is both the product of the long, simmering process of taking things in, reading, observing, musing, reflecting, as well as the inexplicable lightning-bolt moment of things suddenly clicking into place; that alchemical process of producing something in the crucible of one’s imagination out of materials both interior and external to one’s sense of self, both utterly self and utterly other.
Here is the poem that Orton’s words triggered for me:
happens when sap
defies winter gravity & rises
to be let
in an upward blood-flow
from compressed woody
& frozen tissues.
That flow is know-how–
liquid life’s thawing spurt &
spring run-off. It’s the not-yet
of Vermont, or of the lovers’
sugar-shack set. It is
sweated sufferance, pooled
in a wood-fired vat,
stirred, sweltered, boiled down.
— Coco Owen