Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Concerning Poetry - Writing Process Chain Letter

This week (I hope I’m not too late!) my good friend Sophie Grimes invited me to try this blog post (hello, blogosphere, I’ve [kinda] missed you!). It’s a chain letter of sorts, and I almost never spend any time considering the impetus of my own writing, so I said yes. I teach in 45 minutes, so this will be an exercise in time management (another of my non-strengths).

Sophie and I were poetry mates in Boston University’s MFA in Creative Writing program. We have very much stayed in touch, and Sophie is going to do great things with her work. My favorite memoryamong so manywith Sophie is when I dropped by her grandparent’s plum farm/homestead in Iowa (Iowa, right, Sophie?) on one of my Boise-to-Boston road trips. It was a bit of a spur of the moment, but Sophie was an amazing host. She introduced me to her friends, made me macaroni and cheese, and we went swimming in the man-made lake down the hill. As I was leaving she handed me a heavy paper bag and said, "I am going to give you plums, because that is what poet friends do." Needless to say, the plums were delicious and I wrote a poem about that day.

"Enough with the preliminaries and now on to the main event!" Hades, in Disney’s Hercules

Man alive, what am I not working on? Composition has never been the difficult part of poetry in my case. During the MFA program, and once or thrice afterward, I created what I very creatively call "Poem-a-day February)because, let’s face it, if you’re going to write a poem a day for a month February is the month of choice. Anyways, once I got used to that I decided that I’m insane, so I dubbed this year "Poem-a-day 2014." I’m a few days behind (I play catch up sometimes), but so far I’ve done it. Which puts me at something like 250+ poems this year. Which is insanity. However, according to my personalized law of poetic averages, that means about 67 of them are good.

If you think that’s a commitment, sit ye down. In addition to Poem-a-day 2014, I’m chipping away at my haiku blog, Ten Thousand Haiku. I started the project a few years ago when one of my three part-time jobs was translating medical websites. For whatever reason, I got a corner office with a view, and I had been watching fall turn to winter and winter continue being hell on earth. So I decided to start a project where I would write 10,000 haiku in as many days. I’ll do the math for you: 27 years and 3 monthsa few months longer than how old I was when I started. I keep most of the rules of haiku written in English (5-7-5 syllable count, seasonal word, conflicting but congruent images, etc.) and jot them down in my phone or on the back of my hand until I can get them on the blog. It’s been an amazing experience so far and I’m almost to 1,000 haiku. The project keeps me adept in my "seeing" of the world, and it makes me feel like I’m doing something poetic when I’m not writing as much as I’d like to (which, this year, is not the case, I suppose).

On top of the insane amount of composition, I’m also working on revising my first book-length manuscript, applying to contests when money allows, and reading as much as I can for ideas.

This question contributes to the reasons I never consider my own poetry. Good golly. I’m assuming we’re talking the genre of poetry, in which case I don’t know that it does differ from other writers. I’m for sure not Alan Ginsberg (thankfully), but I also imitate so much, both consciously and subconsciously, that it’s difficult to separate myself. So I will dodge the question a bit and tell you poets that I do write like. I’ll narrow it to three: David Ferry, Lance Larsen, and Lawrence Raab. These three, besides being white dudes like me, are the poets who have written work that I have been trying to write. In Ferry’s case, his poem "October," (link is safe, you can click it) from his incredible collection Bewilderment, was the finished version of a poem I had started months before his book came out. And I wasn’t even disappointed. I was just amazed. My work differs from David’s work in that my work is entirely inferior. Given, he’s been writing for three times longer than I’ve been alive and I was blessed to take a course from him at BU, but still. So much to shoot for. As for the other two, and other poets (I’m looking at you, Mary Ruefle), my work differs from theirs in that it is my own. I feel that I have a very valid take on the worldor at least present a valid view of the worldand I spend a lot of time simply writing like myself (also not different from other writers). I’m going to start babbling, so I’ll say this: whether or not others feel my work differs from that of other writers, my work is informed by a reverence for the natural world. This place we live fascinates the daylights out of me, and I try to present that fascination in my poetry. Reverence for the commonplace. Now there’s a title.

I think I accidentally just answered this question. At least partially. Sophie was right on in her answer: I can’t do anything else. I’ve tried all sorts of writing, but I can’t produce anything longer than a poem. For a long time I saw that as a limitation, but I’m starting to come around to the fact that it is perfectly fine to have a niche. Thinking a bit longer about it, I think I write what I do because I have a chip on my shoulder. I find value in what I create and I couldn’t care less if others find value in it (yeah right, please publish meeeeee!). I want to carve my own space into the world of creative writing, and poetry is the best way I know how to do so. It’s what I want to write. I’ve often told people that I don’t have the patience for fiction. This is true, but I also don’t think like a fiction writer. I don’t want to develop themes and meaning and build characters; I want to punch people in the gut with things that they should have seen in the first place. When I started writing poetry, the audience mattered to me. If the poem wasn’t funny and people didn’t laugh then I was doing something wrong. My wonderful mentor at BYU, Susan Howe, and the MFA program at BU pulled me out of that rut (thank you) and poetry has become about me and the moment. I write what I do because that’s what comes out when I set pen to paper. Poetry is a much more immediate medium than other types of writing, and that appeals to me immensely.

First facetious thought to come to mind: it doesn’t. My writing process is all over the place, and as soon as I tell you what it is I’ll realize I was lying. So I’ll answer by saying that it depends on the conditions. Regardless of what is happening, I have to take a time out and sit down to write a poem. This becomes difficult when I come up with an idea in the real worldwhen I’m teaching, right before bed, the second I lose my pen, etc.). I write by hand and use the computer. Both appeal to me for different reasons. Writing by hand keeps me in the moment and allows me to pace myself and see the poem unfolding before it does (I write much slower than I think). When I’m on the computer, I can let the ideas flow, with the added bonus of revising as I go. I’m not one for revision, so the computer really works well for me in that way (anecdotal comparison: another classmate of ours, Dan Kraines, would hand us poem draft number 11 or 12 in workshop. I once made it to poem draft 5 and I thought I was gonna die.).

My ideas usually come from outside sources. I will do something innocentsomething like hearing a sentence, reading a line of poetry, or attending a readingand a line or image will pop into my head. Sometimes I can build around it, but generally I wait until I have a few of these ideas or blurbs on paper and try to build connections between them. This simplifies the process for me, particularly because I write short poems. I’m also super big on titles (slight apologies for the non sequitur), and I like my titles to be one word long if I can help it. So I usually start with a blank piece of paper and write "Poem" at the top. When the poem is finished and given a once-over, I title it as best I can. There’s no real rhyme or reason to it, I simply like the way it works for and against the poem (for an idea of what I’m going for, see Louise Gl├╝ck’s poem "Happiness."

Many, many thanks to Sophie for this prompt. It’s been too long since I blogged, and I now a bit more about myself and her. Bonus. Time is up, so I’m going to invite my other favorite classmate from BU (we’ll keep it in the family), Lisa Hiton, to write the next installment of this writing process chain letter. Lisa is probably the most insightful person close to my age when it comes to considering and identifying what makes a poem click and how to create meaning. I really want to hear what she has to say, not to mention how she says it. In the mean time, you can find her on her legit website (makin' me jealous).