Writing Process Blog Tour

I need to thank Christine Brandel for inviting me to this writing process blog tour. Please check out her excellent site CLBwrites and see what she’s up to.

Now, onto the questions

What are you working on?

I recently finished up a new poetry manuscript and am starting to send that out to book contests and trying not to think about all the $25 reading fees. A few weeks ago I started a sort-of series of poems that’s sort of a metaphysical bestiary. I also hope to spend time on a long-term project with fishing illustrator Jason Borger. When it’s done, Lucia Press will produce a fine art book of Borger’s prints and my poems. His beautiful fish pictures are done, but I’m not even halfway through writing the poems to compliment the images. I’ve also been collecting and studying odes, classic and new, for a 2-day class I’m teaching in November at Musehouse (you can still sign up here). Some of my own odes will be appearing soon in Gargoyle and Superstition Review.

Also, I’m pretty excited about a trip coming up soon to the Sharjah International Book Fair in the United Arab Emirates. I’ll be on a poetry panel or two, do some readings and browse around meeting writers from all over the world.

How does your work differ from others in the genre?

On the genre level, it probably doesn’t differ a whole lot. I write poems that look like poems and can’t really get confused with clay pots or oriental rugs. However, I hope my poems distinguish themselves in voice and attitude. A reviewer not too long ago called my poetry “old fashioned and audacious,” and I like that.

Why do you write what you do?

I was initially attracted to poetry in 6th or 7th grade when I memorized The Raven. I like the rhythms, images and mystery of it. Those are characteristics I’m still drawn to, and features that I think poetry does best. Also, I have a very short attention span and can’t write long-form creatively.

How does your writing process work?

Usually I start with an image, word or phrase I like. Sometimes that phrase is in the form of a title. I keep a file of lines and titles that occur to me, and a couple of times a week I’ll go to that file and pick out something to work with. Then I just let each line tell me what to put in the next one, so hopefully the poem has a natural, self-generative feel to it. I also tinker with my new poems a lot in the first few days, and if it doesn’t keep my attention longer than that, I’ll probably forget about it. I never save separate drafts; I just save over the prior one, not really caring if I lose something in the process.

For the past year and a half I’ve been doing a lot of what you might call project poetry—poems who’s themes or situations were all planned out in advance. That’s not something I’d ever done before, but I like the results so far. We’ll see if the book gets published.

While I don’t like to use prompts (I assign them in workshops though), I do get a lot of ideas from reading other poems. I especially like response poems in which I write a response to some other poem. I also just plain steal small ideas (and credit the original of course). In fact, once I wrote a poem about finding some other poet’s line in my poem. I’m sure it was an accident.

Check out Christine Brandel’s Writing Process post, click here.

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A Bill Knott Poetry Exercise

In an interview on the site Memorious Bill Knott (who passed away this week) describes a poetry exercise he’d given to students. I don’t know for for a fact if he actually did this, or what the results were, but I find the exercise fascinating. If you reading this were ever a student of Knott’s and did this exercise, please comment on what it was like and how effective it was. I offer it here:

“I often recommend to my students that they take their two favorite poets and try to combine them as an exercise. To do a quantitative line-by-line analysis of a template poem by poet X, and the same with poet Y. (All successful poets have a template poem.) How many verbs per line? Adverbs, adjectives, prepositions, concrete nouns, abstract nouns, etc. Count them up. Take the number-totals from the two models and add them together, and then divide those in half. And then use that final amount to write your own poem. Split the difference. Combine the quantitative habits of your two faves to create your own constant. (What the successful poet knows that you don’t, I tell the students, is how to quantitatively distribute the elements of language (verbs, nouns, etc.) down the page in an effective and commensurate ratio.)”

I wonder how many poets are as conscious of their “template?” Do we even recognize our own styles? Sometimes I think so, and sometimes not. One of my favorite poets, Richard Hugo, clearly had a template and in fact wrote a whole book about it. A practice a friend and I used to do on our own in graduate school was to take poems we admired and rewrite them but using different words–replace each noun with a new noun, each verb with a new verb, etc. (a poplar tree might be replaced with a blueberry bush, for instance). We’d mimic the line and stanza forms, maybe even the metaphor styles. The idea was to study by imitation the craft of another poet. Afterword, if we liked the new poems we created, we’d feel free to write them further away from the original to ensure it was our own. I haven’t done that in a long time, but it was a useful exercise in understanding how a particular poem worked, seeing the inside workings, the machinery of the thing, rather than just the emotional jolt you get from the experience of reading a poem.

By the way, I have recognized a sort-of template in some of my poems (the nature/woodsy poems seem to follow a bit of a construction pattern). I even wrote the template out as a prompt and offered it to a class. It was surprisingly successful for the group.

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