The Creative Process
Could you walk us through your writing process and tell us what it’s like when you’re sitting down to write a poem?
When poems come to me, usually a line will just happen to come into my head. Then I probably have no idea what it means. And so I’ll write that down, and then—it varies. I try to work everyday, but that often isn’t productive. A poem will take me anywhere from an hour to twelve years to do. For example, there’s a poem in my book six lines long that took twelve years to write, while the long poem in my book took only 45 minutes, which is amazing
I used to write for six hours a day, every day. I’d get up at about five in the morning and I would go from six until noon. Then I would read poetry from noon until six at night, and I would read it all out loud so that I could feel the rhythms. I wanted to be able to feel [Wallace] Stevens—which is probably why there’s so much of Stevens in my work, becaue I read so much of him in grad school. Then once a poem begins to take shape, I send it to Kim Johnson. She can be really harsh, which is cool, that’s good because I wouldn’t want to publish a bad poem. I’ve published bad poems; they don’t go away.
I’m really curious about your creative process. Like, from the beginning, the inception of the poem to the end.
It used to be that I’d have a special time early in the morning, like six to seven-thirty or eight, but I got tired of that routine. About six or seven years ago, I shifted it so that now I set off chunks of time: I’m a teacher, so I get summer vacation and winter vacation.
I go to cafés and write. And that’s so much more interesting than you sitting in your living room all by yourself. I will sit down in the morning with a cup of tea and I look out the window and I think, Alright, what did I see in the last few days that sort of provoked my curiosity, my interest, that kind of stuck in my mind? Oh yeah, yesterday, when I bought a newspaper at the drug store, I stepped out onto the sidewalk and there was a dead bird. What do I make of that? What’s a dead bird doing there? And what a poignant sight this fragile little thing with all these people rushing back and forth parking and buying stuff, there’s the little dead bird.
And so, I just start playing around with these ideas. I have an artist’s sketch pad. It’s this big thing, unlined, and it’s the perfect thing to work on because you’ll think, this is the line I think I want, but this alternative occurs to me and I can put it over there—maybe I’ll go back and use that. Then you go through the whole thing and sketch it out, and you’ve got the main poem there on the right and some ideas that you didn’t want to throw out here on the left. It might have taken an hour to do it and then I’m through with it. I will not go back to it until the weekend when I’ll type it up on the computer and start fooling around with revision and so forth.
When you sit down to write, how do you tap into your personal voice each time?
I think that an individual voice or style takes a long time to achieve and is not totally a matter of will. I think it takes years of experience as well as talent. An awful lot of poetry doesn’t have very much of an individual voice. But when I’m sitting down to write, I don’t let myself be bothered by, “Does this sound like me? Is it my voice?” I just try to get something down on paper. And often it looks like a total mess; it’s illegible. Flannery O’Conner, the wonderful novelist, said, “My first drafts look like a chicken wrote them.” Well, so do mine.
So where does my voice come in? Part of the answer is in the process of revision. I’ve gotten much better at revising as I’ve gotten older. And the other thing is, maybe my voice was there all along in those illegible lines—something in my own vocabulary or syntax—and I just didn’t worry about it at the time. I think poetry is often a process of revising, but when we are talking about the words, they just come out—it would take too long if we shaped every sentence to be perfect.
What are your inspirations? Is there a particular time and place that you write?
I’ll start backwards. I get inspiration everywhere, I guess. Or I look for it everywhere. A lot of times I go to readings by other writers and catch inspiration there. Last Friday I went to a reading by Katie Coles. She talked about astronomers in all their hurry to get information and detail everything. She said something like, “I hope they remember just to gaze,” and I’ve been dealing with some astronomers lately and so I thought that was a good idea. “The ever divisible photon” works into an essay I’m already writing, which is about divisibility and approximation. But basically when I want to write an essay it’s something that I’m interested in learning more about. Perhaps a bit confused by, and hopefully something I want to connect to other things. All the essays I’ve written lately are about connections through ideas or words.
When do you know a poem is a poem? Or, when do you know a poem is going to be a good poem?
Generally, you just have to work on them. Sometimes you can get a poem right in the first sequence of writing; sometimes you have to come back to it after several months or even a year. You might think it’s done, then look at it after a long time and realize the ending is wrong or something.
I’ve found that an event or experience that seizes my imagination and that I think about over and over and over has the best chance of becoming a poem—if the idea’s in my head and I think about it for a week, two weeks, a month, before I start writing.
Before an actual writing session I like to read because it moves me over into the creative realm, especially if I read good poems because they challenge me to write up to their level. To start a new poem I take scratch paper and I just write down language—all the language that suggests itself to me as necessary to discuss the subject, to embody the subject in a poem. Not even sentences, just phrases or single words that evoke various concerns the issue raises. I don’t write the words in a linear fashion but all over the page. Then I spread all that language out in front of me and try to construct the poem.
After I get that first draft, I put it away and come back to it at a later session, look at it, and see what needs to be different. Once I’ve taken the poem as far as I can, I give it to my writing group for their critique. They make suggestions, and I continue to revise from there. Sometimes after the writing group I think ouch!—this poem is too broken to fix, but about half the time I can keep working and know what to do.
In your stories you incorporate humor, and incorporate it well. How do you write “funny”? Is it an innate sense, or is it something that can be learned, or both?
I’ve found that the harder I try to make something funny, the greater chance I run of failing in my goal—that is, my goal of creating a sophisticated work of fiction.
See, many people can write a story that is laugh-out-loud, hah-hah, knee-slapping funny. Think of a silly character, think of a contrived plot, think of a zany host of supporting characters, and voila! You’ve got a story that can get some chuckles—but not much else. Stephen Tuttle, a friend of mine, often uses the word “coy” to describe this kind of humor, humor that occurs when the author knows he’s being funny, the audience knows that the author’s trying to be funny, and there’s a lot of winking and elbow-nudging going on.
Such humor has its place, and I realize that “Couching Westwood” comes dangerously close to matching the aforementioned “ha-ha” description. Lately, though, I feel that the best humor arises in a story when humor isn’t the overt goal because some of the best humor comes out of serious situations. That’s the humor that interests me more now, that kind of “you had to have been there” humor that allows for a brief respite from the seriousness of the story without distracting from the story’s intent.
In your poems you tackle some risky topics—love, marriage, religious devotion, etc.—and you pull them off gracefully, without pit-falling into the maudlin or the sentimental. How do you do that? How do you poeticize about the emotional world without coming off too emotional?
For me, the key is knowing who my audience is. In my head, my audience is never academia or even other poets. It’s just an average guy. Sometimes I imagine him as a struggling fisherman who only graduated from high school. So if I am going to write a love poem, it’s got to be one that he can somehow enjoy. I think that is why my poetry tries to be funny. A fisherman can always appreciate a funny joke. The trick is to keep the fisherman’s attention while you try and say something profound. When I forget about my audience I quickly sink into sentimental abstraction. If my fisherman ever saw what I wrote in that mood he’d probably throw up.
I think your poems showcase your eye (and ear) for imagery and metaphor; I’m consistently impressed with their freshness and ease. In a lot of writers’ work, freshness comes at the expense of ease, or vice versa. If you would, then, take me through your process of creating an image or a metaphor. More generally, how do you achieve originality in a poem without falling prey to the trying-too-hard-ness that claims so many young writers?
Some writers create images and metaphors, I suppose. Others find images or stumble across them. In my poems, the images and metaphors usually sneak their way in. Perhaps that is the source of freshness: my poems avoid “trying-too-hard-ness” because they rarely try at all to pin down an image. When writing a poem, I begin with a peculiar phrase, a fascinating word, a rhythm or a form, rather than with an image.
I have focused on the technical elements and allowed the meaning to enter naturally. Being an artist has less to do with being able to find the right image, I think, and more to do with how the image is expressed and incorporated.
During your reading you said most of your story ideas are just in your head—“what ifs.” Do they start to naturally morph into more fully formed stories, or do you devote highly concentrated thought to each idea in order for it develop? Are you constantly nurturing different story ideas, or do you stick to one until you’ve worked it out?
My ideas usually come in the form of a character who has a problem, depending on the seriousness of the book, it could be a doozy (like she’s fifteen and pregnant) or it could be minor as problems go (she’s in love with her class president and his best friend is her boyfriend). I usually think about this character for a while—how I can get the maximum tension out of her character and the situation. Getting a character into a mess is the easy part. Getting them out of the mess in any kind of believable way is more difficult.
In the case of the young adult novel, a writer needs to make sure that adults don’t just come in and make everything all right. The character has to resolve her own dilemmas, or readers, even young readers, will just throw the book against a wall. There comes a point in every book, —the middle—when it gets hard. You know the beginning and you know something about the end, but connecting the dots is hard work.
Poets on Poetry
What do you think is wrong with contemporary poetry?
Well, most of it is bad just because I think very few good poems get written in a period of time. That is to say, what’s wrong with contemporary poetry is probably not specific to this period. It may be that we have the illusion that other periods are better precisely because the winnowing process isn’t complete and so what’s presented to us in the pages of books and anthologies is often the best of what was written in a particular time, and what besets us on bookshelves now is simply an unedited flood. I’m skeptical about the emergence of really good poems. I think they’re rare-ish for any individual person or for any period in history.
I do get the sense that with contemporary poetry a couple of things have gone wrong. One of those things is that technical accomplishment has gone out the window, and as a result a great deal of musicality has gone out of verse. I think one of the pleasures of poetry is that it moves you into the realm of sort of musicality, but a lot of verse that I read just strikes me as very prosey and doesn’t have strong rhythmic basis. The lines seems arbitrary to me. Whereas someone who couldn’t play a chord would not deign to go out and presume to entertain us, people who can’t do the poetic equivalent of those things do presume to write books.
If I were to say what strikes me as wrong about poetry these days, it’s that there’s kind of that sense that absolutely anything goes—absolute complete diversity.
The third thing is a collective amnesia that everybody seems to be undergoing where we forget about the past. Literature, perhaps poetry in particular, ministers to our need for continuity and continuance of long memories. Much of the poetry written today doesn’t seem to go back much farther than 1974. It doesn’t seem to be connected to or participating in a tradition. Or it seems to have the notion that to be participating in tradition is to be dogmatic and limited, whereas it is just the opposite.
You’re a person who’s devoted a good deal to the writing, studying, and teaching of poetry. What value does poetry have for you? What is the value of poetry?
Poetry for me is intricately tied to religion. So for me, writing is a type of prayer. It’s a big part of my life, as far as that goes, a huge spiritual part.
The value of poetry in general? I think that it puts us in touch with our humanity and provides a means by which we can confirm our humanity in a time period that is marked by chaos and uncertainty and a real dehumanization.
Advice to Writers
What advice would you give to a poet who is just starting out?
I think first of all, if you are a young poet, you should read a lot—see how masters did it and learn. Writing goes together with reading. Don’t hurry to workshops, maybe just to find a poetry friend whom you trust, someone who see what you can become, not just what you are now. Remember that it is a long way with lots of tests, but I believe that if you are a real poet your destiny will lead you.
Do you have any advice for aspiring writers on ways to get started?
Everybody’s curious about something. I think that curiosity is the number one necessary characteristic—to walk around looking for interesting things. Writing is a way of sustaining curiosity and thought and pulling it out. Often we’re satisfied with “hmm”s and we go along with our lives. And we probably have to do that most of the time because we’re busy with important things but the essay you take those “hmm”s and you convert them into something big. You start to investigate experiences and how they connect to that idea, look for quotes and for what others have said in the past, and find those connections. I’d say that half my time writing is spent reading.
Could you impart any words of wisdom for aspiring writers?
If you want to be a writer, then write. If you have no confidence, take writing classes and see where you come out. Are you as good or better than others in the class? Most writers have to spend time learning their craft. Don’t get so caught up with writers’ conferences and networking that you end up knowing everything there is to know about writing, but you still don’t write. You have to sit on your behind and write. There is no magic. There is no other way. Then you have to find someone who will publish what you write, but there’s no point thinking about it if you haven’t written anything to sell.