A few years back, an acquaintance confessed to me that he was a closet poet. Since I had spent some of my youth nursing dreams of being the next e.e. cummings, Dorothy Parker, or Ogden Nash, I asked him who his influences were. “The only person I read is Charles Bukowski,” he said.
After reading his work I understood — it was the same prosaic, she-done-me-wrong boozy confessional style as Bukowski, intercut with the same kind of tiny slices of mundane revelation like so many rays of late afternoon sun cutting through a basement barroom’s shades. In other words, dreary, clichéd stuff. I implored him to consider, at the very least, reading Bukowski’s contemporaries and influences in both poetry and prose: Robinson Jeffers, William Saroyan, d.a. levy, John Fante, Corso, Ginsberg, and so on. He looked at me like I was crazy.
Sometimes, we in the genre world can suffer from a similarly myopic view of what constitutes literature — this gets even worse when you consider the various sub-genres, like my beloved traditional mysteries. Can you imagine telling someone, “Sorry, I only read cupcake cozies”?
For my own Bert Shambles series, I was influenced by many characters and writers: yes, there was Bernie Rhodenbarr and Stephanie Plum; of course I channeled Philip Marlowe and Nick and Nora and Bertie Wooster — but there is just as much of Robert Walser’s “Little man behind a desk” stories as any mystery, crime, or detective fiction. I leaned on Dawn Powell and Villiers; both J.K. Rowling and J.K. Huysmans; Ernest Hemingway and The Importance of Being Earnest. In other words, I will use everything and anything in my writing — nothing is ever off-limits.
That doesn’t make me immune to weak writing, clichés or other pitfalls, of course. But expanding your reading list will give you many more raw materials to work with, and give you the courage to try new things. I know that I’m not here to regurgitate the past masters and try to be like them; the challenge is to find my own authentic voice, using the tools and techniques already discovered by greater talents than myself, in whatever genre or style they perfected.
T.S. Eliot — a guy who knew something about poetry — once wrote: “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.”
Which kind of poet do you want to be?
Tim Hall had a long and colorful career as a journalist, musician, bike messenger and moving man–experiences that help shape his fiction and give his characters the humanity, humor and empathy. His crime fiction has appeared in Thuglit, BIGnews, and Chicago Reader, and a story with S.A. Solomon will be featured in the upcoming Cannibal Cookbook anthology. He is the author of the Bert Shambles Mysteries, a New Adult mystery series published by Cozy Cat Press. The first installment, Dead Stock, was called “one of the best novels of 2013" by Splice Today. The second in the series, Tie Died, was published in 2015. He lives in New York City with his wife and son.