When I was a young poet I used to work at poems sequentially and with great patience. I would write in the morning soon after waking. I don’t remember how the poems came to me. What I remember is working at them.
Back then when I started a poem I would put the first handwritten draft in a manila folder, conjure a title and note the date on the top tab, and place the folder at the bottom of the pile on my desk.
All morning as I worked I’d pick up older folders one-by-one and open them and work on whatever draft was on top. The folders included poems in various degrees of completion. Sometime there would be 20 or 30 of them on my desk.
After two or three days working on the initial handwritten draft I’d type up (I’m talking 1979 here) a first script in 12-point courier and place the typed page on top of the earlier handwritten drafts. There was no other choice. Courier was the only typeface I had.
Once I had the typed draft I returned to making notes by hand with a pen or pencil. I marked up the draft, substituting, clarifying, rearranging. I’d seen library exhibits of multiple drafts by dead masters like Keats, Whitman, and Yeats. I knew that this was often the way poets of the past worked. I believed in continuity.
I flipped back a few pages and returned to an earlier draft and salvaged a line
I’d ruined by revision. Other times I forged restlessly forward typing a new
version, adding the new words, line breaks, sections moved to a new spot.
This process is not foreign to anyone who is serious about poetry. It’s not the only form of composition, but it might still be the best way to slow language down and make it count, as I believe it should in poetry.
The process was much like the composting I do to add nutrients to our garden. Lots of strange stuff goes into that silver can on our counter (daily life). What comes out the next year (writing poetry) is dark humus that when spread, grows good things. Within those folders my early poems built up images and lines like topsoil over weeks, months, years.
At some point I’d feel good about what was within the folder and I’d pull it out, type a final clean copy, fold it up with three or four more poems I felt good about, and send the packet out to engage the ongoing conversation of among writers and editors about poetry.
When the poems came back (which they more than often did) they never slept in the house. I sent the next batch of poems back out in the same day’s mail. I often waited many months for their return. I was much more patient and persistent back then. That was before the rationalizations about “simultaneous submissions.”
Today my process is very different. I abandoned the “real” manila folders for virtual ones about the time I bought my first computer, around 1982. Today I still revise, but I’ll often wait to the very end of the process before I print out a final version of a poem. All the work I’ve done on a poem is lost forever in hyperspace. There are no tracks in the sand to show me where my mind was a month ago, much less a year or a decade. I trust that the current version is as good as all others that came before. I follow the blinking curser into the next line, image, or whole poem.
I’ve noticed that I work more often with groups of poems now, poems that fit together not because they might share a style but now instead share a clear theme or a character or a narrative impulse. I think that in the old days I was more interested in the minutiae of poetics. Back then I was simply a poet. I didn’t write prose and poetry like I do now. I think all the prose I’ve written in the last fifteen years has spread my sensibility out into the vast floodplain of writing. I no longer write as if I’m cutting a deep channel through the bedrock of a single genre.
What I’ve written about here is the process of my writing, but I’ve also thought a great deal—maybe too much—about the moment of conception, about how poetry arrives out of the great swirling mass of day-to-day experience, and I’ve worried like all poets about whether the impulse will stay once it arrives.
William Stafford had his famous “golden thread” he pulled every morning, unraveling (or raveling?) the mundane into poetry. He pulled the thread for fifty years.
Some poets claim it’s a sharp sound or cadence that brings poetry out of hiding or hibernation; others say poetry comes from remembering a brief story condensed and ordered. Some say poetic utterance depends on silence, and that the ancient muse always waits for stillness before the leap to language. Yeats thought to write a poem he must “lie down where all the ladders start/ In the foul rag and bone shop of the heart.”
For my friend Cathy Smith Bowers (newly appointed poet laureate of North Carolina) a poem grows out of what she calls an “abiding image.” Something visual sticks with Cathy until she works it and works it. Soon other images, bits of narrative, metaphors accrue around her initial image. It’s worked well for her. Her Book of Minutes is a trove, a deep well, a larder.
For me the
arrival of the poetry impulse is spatial, like faults moving against one
another somewhere deep down in my daily conscious. A new period of poetry comes
on like a tremor, like a slow roller. When the plates start rattling in the
cupboard I know poetry is on the way. If they are large tremors the accompanying
tectonics will lead to an intense period of activity, and I’ll leave prose
behind for awhile.
I’ve been lucky. In spite of vast and endless prose projects, there are still earthquakes. Poetry still comes around. In China I felt the shaking. I came home with six good poems about my experiences there. The mystery of why and how we write is as deep as what comes of it.