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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The Pessimism of Jack Gilbert

Update: I recently learned the Jack Gilbert passed away Sunday, November 11. You can read more about that here.

I came across this set of interviews with Jack Gilbert today(April 23, 2012). He’s one of my favorite poets, and I’ve mentioned him on UnIambic several times. I love the simplicity, the sincerity of his poems. How he’s able to be completely at ease pouring out intense emotion without being sentimental or maudlin about it.

In the interview he discusses some of his apprehension with publishing, his disappointment with much of the contemporary po-biz and his poor outlook on the future of poetry. OK, some of that I agree with, but I also feel he shortchanges poets in a big way. Yes, there are the career-minded poets, the post-modern tricksters, the posers and all the rest: “Much of postmodern poetry has no significance at all.” But he overstates how much poetry or poets have changed, and underestimates the sincerity of many of today’s poets.

That’s not surprising really. For a large part of his adult life I believe Gilbert has lived a partial hermit’s life, if not physically (as in the years he spend on Greek islands) then mentally or emotionally. He’s a person who thrives on removing himself from the pressures of the rest of the world, while he focuses on the inner world.

He says: “I don’t believe people would continue to write poetry, most of them, if there was no money to be made in poetry.” Here I assume he’s referring to the career academicians and big prize money winners, yet how could he not realize that poetry is so much more than that. Look around here (the greater Philadelphia area). There are scads of poets, with no academic affiliations,  working alone and together for just the pleasure of the poems themselves (see this recent Philly.com article on the scene.)

He also says some things in this interview which are a bit dishonest to himself. His comments on craft, for instance, he critiques the workshop experience here:

“Nobody wants to talk about how a poem works, what its purpose is. They all want to deal with the outside of the poem. Does it look good? Should I take the left line out and put it over here? How should I make the rhythm correct and such. But hardly anybody talks about the strategies of poetry, or how you make poetry live, how to use concrete detail rather than similes, goddamned similes, the weakest kind of resource there is in poetry. People are so much in love with similes. It’s a pity. The mechanics of poetry have little to do with design.”

Yet he came out of one of the most celebrated workshop programs (Iowa Writers’ Workshop). Speaking of similes here’s a couple of lines from one of my favorite Gilbert poems Finding Something

“The arches of her feet are like voices

of children calling in the groves of lemon trees

where my hart is as helpless as crushed birds.”

His craft is not the obvious, meticulously tinkered craft, but it’s a craft that shows he understands the workmanship of writing, the effort that goes into making something feel effortless.

Anyway, this interview, while illuminating, also makes me sad because I don’t feel poets and poetry warrant the negativity and pessimism he heaps upon them. I hope and believe he’s wrong.

The interview is from the book  Sad Friends, Drowned Lovers, Stapled Songs which I’ve just added to my Amazon wish list.

Dreaded Inspiration and the Damned Muse

I was the featured reader at a bookstore reading series recently, and after the reading, the host asked members of the audience (all two of them, I think) if anyone had any questions for me. One gentleman raised his hand and asked that common, yet dreaded question, “what inspires your poems?”

Wow, that’s both an important and maddening question. I believe most serious poets will agree with me, that inspiration, at least in terms of writing, is a horrible and troubling concept. You might as well ask what inspires me to wake up in the morning. I do it because that’s what needs to be done at that moment.

It’s pretty common for non writers to believe that writers seek out inspiration or wait to get touched by a divine muse. But that doesn’t happen. Not once in any of my creative writing classes did the instructor talk about how to be inspired. Instead we talked about line tension, metaphors, pacing, loading and sometimes whether buffalo or pork sausage was better on pizza (buffalo usually won out).

Perhaps it’s because inspiration is just such a lousy word. What I think the questioner really wanted to know was where I got the ideas for my poems (sort of the same question, but different enough to be important).

Anyway, my answer was words, images, everything. I get excited by words, word images, word sounds and textures and word shadows. When I read poems, I read with a pencil. I check, circle and underline words and phrases that get me excited. Also, things I bump into on a daily and boring basis. Life.

When I talk about poems with other people in my monthly workshop group, we don’t talk about inspiration; we talk about the words–which ones are working for the poem and which ones are working against it.

When I get to Robert Lowell’s line “under the chalk-dry and spar spire / of the Trinitarian Church” I get tingles. The way the consonants first choke up my throat and then the ps stumble out the lips, well that’s just marvelous.

I love William Stafford’s “On the near pine rain hangs / the way I suppose it hangs / on the far” because those words both create a clear little picture for me as well as hold shadows and levels of significance.

And when Jane Hirshfield writes of a redwood tree: “Already the first branch-tips brush at the window. / Softly, calmly, immensity taps at your life” I shudder with a little bit of fear for all of us.

Is that inspiration?

To answer his question I referred to one of the poems I’d presented earlier that evening and pointed out one of the words in it: andirons. I have andirons in my fireplace, but it’s not a word I use regularly, or ever. Yet I like the sound of it. It sounds rugged, useful, a little romantic and a little archaic. The simple answer is that I was in a mood to write and I was looking for a word to get me started, so I picked that one. “That word, if you will, was the inspiration,” I told him.

Of course, the poem is not about andirons.

My dog sometimes sleeps in front of the fireplace, so I knew I could put the dog in there someplace. Without wood, there’s no fire, and without forests there’s no wood. From there a logical structure was born, ideas developed, and a poem was built from that.

I had no idea where the poem was going, what, if any, primary theme would emerge or any significant plan, but I had a few words to start, and I let those, along with the sounds and connotative shadows, dictate the words that followed.

That’s not inspiration, that’s process.

When I was in college I lived a couple of years with a painter. Sometimes he’d pass me a canvas and we’d paint together. And once again, the creation was about process, not inspiration. He’d put down a line or shape and let that stroke define the next one.

Sometimes subject matter starts first. I may tell myself I want to write about a specific experience or incident, but I still let process do most of the driving. Rarely do I know what exactly I’m going to write until I’m in the middle of spelling the word. That discovery is a large part of the thrill for me. Even now. Themes and patterns will emerge, sense will come forth, and then you give it more shape in the firming up process of revision.

In his book about writing, The Triggering Town, poet Richard Hugo makes similar suggestions: “Depend on rhythm, tonality, and the music of language to hold things together. It is impossible to write meaningless sequences.”

I’m not sure any of that explanation helped this audience member. I hope it helped him appreciate the poems he was hearing, and maybe helped eliminate the stress he felt in trying to “figure out” what the poem was saying. There is no muse. The truth is a lot simpler and a lot more complicated than that.

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