07 October, 2006

Has it really been ten days since my last post? God, I feel like I do when I realize I haven't fed the hermit crabs in days. Are any of you still there?

I have been far, far away, both geographically and internally, but I'm back now. I find I am starting to move into poetmind again, which involves a certain degree of drift. Bear with me. Eventually, I look up and follow the needle back north.

I have been sketching a little (see photographic evidence above). I am a very painterly poet in terms of my work habit. I like to start in freehand, preferably black felt tip ink. I jot down images and ideas in a very loose, barely legible scrawl, because I am not ready to commit to any one of them just yet. I like either a ruled, white pad or a folded piece of computer paper, but the backside of anything will do. The notes above are made on the back of another poem I had hanging around in my purse. When people learn I am a poet, they often bring me books of poems and fancy notebooks. I am grateful for the gesture, but actually both those items are terrible creative blocks for me. The poetry books because they pile up unread, and make me feel guilty. I do read other people's poetry, but I generally have to come to it in my own way. And the notebooks go likewise untouched, because they suggest a kind of permanance and importance that is like lead in my hand.

As the poem begins to take shape, I move to the word processor, where I still have fluidity, but the typed words are at arm's length, and I can edit and shape more objectively. The process is one of expansion and contraction, where I start with a lot of loose, raw material and then start distilling it down to the essence. What can be cut? What has to stay? What is asking coming into the foreground, and what needs to fade back? Most difficult and necessary of all, what must I sacrifice altogether? In my best poems, there is one line, one idea or image that I cling to for as long as possible before finally, painfully, cutting it loose. As with painting, there is a lot of layering that is not visible at the surface level, because I have overwritten it, but I believe it adds depth that is perceptible. At least when it works.

My poems need to work lyrically, so I do a lot of reading aloud as I go. Something that looks fine on paper doesn't necessarily succeed orally. In the final ajudacation, I go with mouth feel.

I will usually continue to tweak and nitpit for days after the so-called final draft. I will move a single word or punctuation mark around obsessively. I am a perfectionist, an afflicition which runs more rampantly over my prose. I am rarely completely satisfied with an essay. It could always be better. With the poems, however, there is a kind of alchemy that takes over. At some point the poem either takes breath and moves off away from me, or it doesn't. And even some of the poems that don't, just need some incubation time. My father used to tell me to never throw anything away; that some poems ripen in the darkness of your desk drawer. This has been very good advice. Even a few weeks ago, going through old files, I was surprised to find several old "works in progress" that had gone ahead and finished themselves in the privacy of their manila folders.

I haven't had any experience writing fiction, but this difference in my own ego-alignment with respect to the work seems to be the key contrast between writing poetry and prose. The essays require a kind of arrogance to get made. I have to believe, at least while I am writing them, that I have a point to get across. There is a sense of ownership, of attachment.

But poetry is different. I no more own them than I own my children. Both simply pass through me to come here, on their way to their own lives.


Blogger littlepurplecow said...

How cool to follow your thought process and to take a peak at your scrawl. I prefer random scraps of paper too... primarily because ideas come at unpredictable times.

Do you follow a structure for your poetry or do you keep it wide open? I have been playing with senryu and have enjoyed a little structured creativity. Kind of like stretches before a long walk.

9:38 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

thanks for sharing your process it's so interesting and so like dad's and yet so very much your own. i love the painting analogy. it is like painting !

7:08 PM  
Anonymous jen zug said...

I also have to read all my essays out loud before being satisfied with them. I think hearing the words gives me a third person perspective.

This post is exactly why I'm so thankful to have stumbled into a writing community - we all have something to learn from each other, and I'm grateful for the insight into your writing process.

6:52 PM  
Anonymous SBird said...

I like when people discuss their process...ours are very similar. I start out scribbling on the backs of idle papers and move fairly quickly to the computer screen, where the poem takes on a shape, and thus a life of its own. Sometimes I have the last line of a poem early, and I put it in at the bottom of the screen...and then I am writing towards something. But I can also hover for quite.

And what was it that Dorothy Parker said about revision? Something like, 'doing revision is like killing your babies'...yikes and yes.

3:49 PM  

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