Tuesday, March 11, 2014


Writing Process Blog Tour

Last month I got an e-mail from poet friend Julia Stein, who was taking part in a kind of chain blogpost passing from one person to another. The idea is for each writer who's taking part to write a blogpost answering four questions.

The four questions are: What am I working on? How does my work differ from others of its genre? Why do I write what I do? How does your writing process work?

My first impulse was not to attempt answering the questions, because these are pretty broad questions, and they touch on stuff that writers and artists and philosphers and workers of all kinds have been tangling with for, what, thousands (or, possibly, hundreds of thousands) of years. I had no notion how I might answer most of the questions.

But after talking with Julia about it a little more, I decided to attempt this. This will likely be kind of muddled.

What am I working on?
I write mostly poetry. I've been writing for 45 years. I write somewhat sporadically, some days I find it relatively easy to write, the poems come out without great effort, other days I have to push with a real act of will, dig for the next line, I'll find maybe a line or two for something I'm writing and that's it for the day. Some days nothing comes out. I try to spend at least a little while every day sitting with my notebook open in front of me or near me, waiting to see if something will bite. (I write by hand with a pen in a paper notebook.)

(I just paused here for a minute, went and looked out the window at the sun setting in a chilly northern March sky, long swashes of flaming pink and pale rose and lilac clouds ranged across a faint blue evening sky, the sky near the horizon so pale it's almost white, above the intricately tangled tree branches in the old cemetery across the street.)

I always try to sit with the notebook open at least for a little while each day, whether or not I'm able to write anything.

At any time I'm usually working on several poems in progress, and at any time the poems I'm writing are gradually gathering together into three or four poetry book manuscripts in progress. (I also have, right now four or five completed poetry book manuscripts that are, theoretically, looking for homes, though I'm not highly vigorous in searching for publishers.

Right now the two manuscripts I seem to be paying the most attention to are one titled, probably, Road Song and Annunciation, which may be completed or nearly completed, and one titled, maybe, Twentieth Century Modern, which probably isn't completed yet.

How does my work differ from others of its genre?
Each time I think about this question, I'm put off by how arrogant and smug it sounds. I don't know whether my work differs from any other work. Much more interesting to me what one person's poetry may have in common with another person's poetry. Written poetry has existed in the world for several thousand years, and oral poetry (and its ancestor, chant and song and solemn ritual and ecstatic dance) has likely existed for several tens of thousand years at least. (Poet Gary Snyder, among others, has written much on this -- the enduring practices of literature, i.e. oral literature, that begin long before the practices of writing.)

I tend toward poetry that tries to have some perceptible connection between a person's interior world and the exterior world around us. Poetry that is relevant to the billion daily events of our individual lives and our collective lives, our individual and collective histories. Political, would be one word to describe what I intend when I write poems, at least much of the time. All human activity is political; all human activity takes place in the context of all other human activity, in the past and the present and moving into the future. Poetry is a part of this collective act, just a much as any other human action is.

Why do I write what I do?
I maybe have partly answered this in my answer to the previous question. In the more basic sense, why I write poetry, why anyone does, or paints paintings or makes music or dance, these things are, at least in part, rooted in the most basic questions that face all of us. Questions about why we exist, what it means to exist, what it means to think these things, to be conscious of our own existence and thought and longing.

Poetry is one way for the mysterious inner life of one person to meet and speak with the mysterious inner life of another person, through the medium of the common world and life we share, which is, among other things, political. Long-time poet friend Roy McBride said, "You don't make poetry out of nothing, you make poetry out of everything."

How does your writing process work?
Of the four questions here, this is maybe the most difficult to answer. I sit with my notebook open, feel or "listen" in myself, around myself, for anything that might want to come out. Writing seems to come and go in cycles for me; I have periods of active almost constant writing, for days and (now and then) weeks, and then periods of little or nothing, "dry" periods, or days or (sometimes) weeks. One of the difficult and necessary disciplines I've needed to learn has been how to wait out the dry times when I'm not writing, or not writing much, or grind out just a line or two every few days.

In a certain sense -- in the sense of sitting with the notebook and waiting and listening -- I'm always writing, though not always literally writing something down on the page.

Sometimes after a dry few days or week or two, I'll start feeling a kind of vague irritableness, something grumbling and rumbling just below the surface of clear articulation. By now, after many years, I've found that this often means a poem or two are taking shape (but, sometimes, not yet ready to come out).

A poem often comes to me (whatever "comes to me" means exactly) as a kind of three-dimensional geometric shape (or, maybe, four-dimensional, though I'm not entirely sure what a four-dimensional shape looks like). I'll get a kind of quick glimpse of what the poem might be, how long it might be, where it slows and quickens, how wide-reaching it is, how many parts of the universe it pulls into itself, how close-up-detailed it is, things like that. Little by little, I start attaching words to the points and pieces of the geometric shape, the flicker of universe that's emerging from whatever place it is that poems emerge from. I'll write the first line.

I don't have a very clear notion of where it is that poems "come from," or what it exactly means when a poems comes or comes out. It might be possible to describe writing a poem as being in a state of dreaming and waking at the same time, maybe not literally so, but at least some state of mind resembling that. I do know that some of the techniques I've found effective at remembering dreams when I've waken up remembering only a brief scene or moment or fragment, also seem to be useful in finding a full poem when all I have are one or two lines. At least in a sense, poems often seem to me to begin in the silence and space before words.

I don't write multiple drafts of poems. Typically I start with the first line, and I cross out and rewrite, as needed, as I work line by line through the poem. So, most of the time, the first draft is in effect also the final draft. Sometimes I get stuck, not sure what comes next in a poem, and then there's nothing to do by sit and wait for it. Sometimes I've waited a day or several days or a few weeks, then more of the poem starts coming out again. Sometimes I've waited years. I have at least a couple of poems that sat half-finished in my notebook for more than ten years before I figured out how to finish them. Usually it doesn't take that long...

For many years the whole preliminary incubation of the poem was entirely interior for me, I just sat and waited for it. In recent years I've sometimes started writing a few notes for a poem as it starts taking shape. Once it's at the very brink of forming and coming out, it can happen very quickly, and sometimes I can lose the thread of it. I've found that writing down the bits and pieces of lines as they took shape has been helpful in not losing track of a poem once I start writing it. It took a long time before I felt sure enough of what I was doing, before I started writing down notes for a poem before I actually wrote it. And even now I don't do that all the time. Sometimes it just seems to work best to let the poem come out as it comes. Most of this is a more or less mysterious thing to me.

At some point when I'm working on a poem, it's done, or as done as I'm going to get it. Learning when to leave off, when to stop working and working the poem and let it be done. A poem that is worked too much, that is too oversmoothed, may loose some of the power it had when it first emerged into articulation, it may start to become a little too mass-produced. (This may be a way to start to approach questions about the differences between art and craft, though that's maybe another discussion.) It took me a while to learn the discipline of letting the poem be done, to understand that there will be more poems.


That's what I've got right now on the four questoins Julia Stein passed along to me. Thanks for the nudge, Julia.

"Sometimes after a dry few days or week or two, I'll start feeling a kind of vague irritableness, something grumbling and rumbling just below the surface of clear articulation. By now, after many years, I've found that this often means a poem or two are taking shape (but, sometimes, not yet ready to come out)."

This is exactly my experience too, Lyle. It connects with the idea of "writing a poem as being in a state of dreaming and waking at the same time." The psyche, of course, never sleeps; we dream constantly, I think, and these dreams can surface as poems, jokes, recurrent memories, a sense of music being played in the next room or down in the basement, and voices (of course), and glimpses of figures moving at the edge of your peripheral vision. Consciousness is dreaming, so poetry, being the highest form of consciousness in language, is the highest form of dreaming. "Highest" is probably wrong, because it suggests hierarchy; maybe it's the most comprehensive form of dreaming....
Actually, I find this fascinating.

Chris Butters
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