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 every day, 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.
1 used to write for six hours a day, every day. I’d get up at about five in the morning and 1 would go from six until noon. Then I would read poetry from noon until six at night, and 1 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, because 1 read so much of him in grad school. Then once a poem begins to take shape, 1 send it to Kim Johnson. She can be really harsh, which is cool, that’s good because 1 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 from 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, 1 shifted it so that now 1 set off chunks of time: I’m a teacher, so 1 get summer vacation and winter vacation.
1 go to cafés and write. And that’s so much more interesting than you sitting in your living room all by yourself. 1 will sit down in the morning with a cup of tea and 1 look out the window and 1 think, What did I see in the last few days that sort of provoked my cynics, 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 baying stuff, there’s the little dead bird.
And so, I just start playing around with these ideas. I have an artist’s sketch pad. lt’s this big thing, unlined, and it’s the perfect thing to work on because you’ll think, this is the line 1 think 1 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. 1 will not go back to it until the weekend when l’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. 1 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, 1 don’t let myself be bothered by, “Does this sound like me? Is it my voice?” 1 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 1 just didn’t worry about it at the time. 1 think poetry is often a process of revising, but when we are talking to each other, we don’t worry 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 1 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.
l’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 1 think about it for a week, two weeks, a month, before 1 start writing.
Before an actual writing session I like to read because it moves me over into the creative realm, especially if 1 read good poems because they challenge me to write up to their level. To start a new poem 1 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 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 often 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, ha-ha, 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