MUSE, MUSES & CHANNELING
HOW I WROTE “VISITS FROM THE SEVENTH"
During the years that I was writing Visits from the Seventh I experienced myself as channeling.
I said this in an interview at the time it was published: I’m channeling voices.
I met Timothy Donnelly at a party in Soho, and he said he enjoyed the notion of “visits” as a conceit, but he was not prepared to accept that as a record of reality. These are my words but his gist.
I wrote with pencil or pen on a sheet of lined paper, letting my hand go. It moved in unexpected, swirling ways, giving me words. I transcribed the words quickly; otherwise I couldn’t make sense of them later.
There is no way for me to know whether my experience of channeling is one thing or another. Those who invoked the muses hoped they were bringing in Calliope, Erato and Polyhymnia. Do we know who those muses were or what they were?
I choose Erato, though I hear not only the word “eros” but also the word “errata” in her name.
It’s usual to love, and just as usual to err, to be wrong, to go astray.
I like to think of writing as “erring”--straying out there where you don’t know what you’ll find. Wrong sometimes turns out to be right.
This makes me think that “errand” must come from “err,” too, wandering out there to get what you need; the etymologies do not support this.
I also like Polyhymnia, with her finger on her lip, and her thoughts full of praise--”many praises.”
Okay breath, inspiration. Breathing in, breathing out. Do we know what we’re accessing?
I heard James Merrill tell someone to stand on a mirror and shout to them; he understood (as I did) that they were on the other side of mirrors.
Stand on a mirror and shout?
Okay, you hear a voice in your mind and you start to write. What a rapture, hearing this voice, and writing it as fast as it comes to you. Does it matter if it’s yours or not?
In any event, since no one truly knows the nature of the mind or the soul, no one knows where thoughts or words come from--study as they may.
It’s interesting, also, to say “this was not me.” It liberates, doesn’t it?
They are on the other side of mirrors. Since we look at ourselves in mirrors, this could also be construed, abstractly, to mean that they are in us or beyond us.
I gathered the dictations into stanzas and formed the poems--writing and rewriting the lines, tweaking and testing the sound of the line.
When the first jacket design arrived--by messenger to my New York apartment--it was a photograph showing a mirror reflecting a small, undecorated white room, a mattress on the floor with white sheets and one white pillow, and a steam riser also painted white--an empty East Village-type apartment. Despite the whiteness, the image was of dismal, dingy solitude: the crumpled sheets showed that one person had slept there alone.
I was, in fact, living in an East Village apartment painted white. I sat down on my sofa and wept: I had thought my book was full of beauty, lightness, humor.
I think I said, I was hoping for something more abstract.
In the end, the designer used a pale blue sky over which seven bubbles floated.
* * *
A year or so later, I looked at some of Pessoa’s notebooks that my friend Richard Zenith had published in Portugal. Pessoa was channeling: I saw some of those peculiar swirls and squiggles on the page.
His many voices: did he invent them, did they pass through him? It interests me that the least interesting of his voices is the one he called his own.
It’s clear from The Book of Disquiet that Pessoa was in pain. Does pain fracture the self and make it more porous?
I was in pain: the pleasure of writing became an antidote.