Hollowell: Tracing Your Family Tree

A few years ago, I was part of a discussion that consisted
of people listing current poets and then shouting “Walt Whitman!” or “Emily
Dickinson!” The conceit of the game was that every contemporary American poet
can be classified into one of two camps based on which poet seems more
influential to their work, Whitman or Dickinson. (I am a Whitman child, as if
there was ever a doubt). Oh, and in case you were wondering, yes, it was a
bunch of slightly drunk writers having this discussion. (Slightly being a
sliding scale.)

Yet there is something quite profound about tracing your artistic
family tree. First of all, the process of actually sorting through the writers
that you admire to search for whose work has influenced you is an exceedingly
convivial activity. It’s like gaining a whole slew of relatives who really understand you (finally!). I
sometimes like to imagine them all at a party, probably outside under great
trees in a long summer twilight, in little groups, the less gregarious poets
wandering off in the woods holding glasses of whiskey or small handfuls of wild

Second, you suddenly have a whole new reading list, but it
takes a bit of sleuthing. You identify a few contemporary writers who have
influenced you or whose style is similar to your own. Then you dive into
reviews they’ve written, essays, and now even blog or Facebook postings. Look
to see who they recommend or who they teach. Occasionally they’ll fess up in an
interview, as Billy Collins did when he nodded to Kerouac, Ginsberg, Ferlinghetti,
and Samuel Taylor Coleridge as early influences. (Coleridge seems like the odd
man out there, doesn’t he?) Start a family tree with you at the bottom, each
writer’s influences branching further and further back in time. I guarantee
when you’re done, you’ll have learned of a few new people whose writerly DNA is
inherent in your work, and you’ll have some unexpected material to explore.

We stand on the shoulders of giants (and maybe some not-so-giants).
Understanding the choices they made in their own work and what writers they
looked up to will help us understand the choices we’re making in our own work.
It’s all part of entering the great conversation that was happening long before
we got here and will continue long after we’re gone. Remember that party? Being
a guest in that revel is one of our honors and duties. For when we are gone, it
is our words that will continue on, and perhaps someone will have a postcard of
one of us propped up on the windowsill behind her desk, just as I do of Walt
Whitman and William Stafford.
Erin Coughlin Hollowell is a poet and writer who lives in Homer, Alaska. Prior to landing there, she lived on both coasts, in big cities and small towns, pursuing many different professions from tapestry weaving to arts administration. She earned her MFA from the Rainier Writing Workshop at Pacific Lutheran University in 2009. Her poetry has most recently been published in Alaska Quarterly Review, Permafrost, Terrain: A Journal of the Built and Natural Environment, and Sugar House Review. Her first collection of poetry Pause, Traveler was published on June 1, 2013 by Boreal Books, an imprint of Red Hen Press. Her blog is www.beingpoetry.net. 

3 thoughts on “Hollowell: Tracing Your Family Tree”

  1. I love the idea of creating a literary family tree – what a delightful exercise that will be. Thanks for the inspiration! In the middle of re-reading Kathleen Jamie's essay collection, Findings, it's clear she's the Scottish literary sister I want to emulate.

  2. Vivian Prescott

    Erin, I like the family tree idea. Fortunately I wasn't influenced by some and was influenced by others. The oral traditions of the Tlingit, Haida, & Scandinavians had a big influence on my poetry. But, that said, I love Emily Dickenson. Now, I'm going to think about this some more. Gunalchéesh.

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