What I’m reading

Right now I’m reading and very much enjoying Jack Gilbert’s new Collected Poems, especially his most recent poems, as well as new books by Alice Notley and Elizabeth Willis. I am looking forward to the forthcoming Eternal Ones of the Dream: Selected Poems 1990-2010 by James Tate, and gearing myself up to re-read War and Peace, this time in a newer translation by Volkhonskaya and Pevear.

On Influence

I think studying languages, particularly Russian, has been a big influence on my poetry in a variety of ways. As well as my fascinated ignorance of science, mechanics, architecture, psychology, bridge building, aeronautics, philosophy, and animal life.

On Inspiration

I often return to On the Level Everyday, the collection of lectures by Ted Berrigan, because of its extremely grounding mixture of goofiness and serious engagement.

Favorite Line of Poetry—Ever.

Either “La terre est bleu comme une orange,” (“the world is blue like an orange”) from Paul Éluard’s “La Terre est bleu,” or “Surrealism is old, so everyone should get some” from Joshua Beckman’s [“Final poem for the gently sifting public begins on the streets”].

On Contemporary Poets

If by “contemporary” you mean living, I guess I would have to say that W.S. Merwin and James Tate are two poets who have remained constant companions, for their unfailing allegiance to the ill communication.

After having published three collections of poems, has your process for writing poetry changed?

My process has changed for each book I have written. When I was writing the poems that would ultimately make up my first book, in graduate school at UMass Amherst, at first I used a computer, but found it frustrating, mostly because of my limitations as a poet. The computer was in a way too powerful a device for me at that stage: I found myself writing and then erasing or tinkering or making changes way too fast, without any real sense of why or even what I was doing. It was frustrating, so I knew I needed to slow myself down. The solution I stumbled on was to use a manual typewriter, actually my mother’s gorgeous Royal Quiet Deluxe from her high school days, which I salvaged from my grandparents’ attic. My grandfather was one of those people who kept everything in immaculate condition, so the typewriter was perfectly clean and required no fixing other than a new ribbon. I started writing poems only on the typewriter, so every new draft I wanted to write—even if it was just to change one word, or a line break—I would have to retype the poem again. So for each poem in my first book (or at least most of them) there is somewhere a pile of anywhere between 50 and 250 individual sheets of paper, each with a version of the poem, usually only barely changed. Each one like a flip book made by a more than slightly insane graphomaniac.

At the same time, I was also doing a lot of free and automatic writing, just to generate material, in order to begin poems. I came up with the process of taking a notebook and writing for a certain number of lines every day at an arbitrarily selected time (like 3:17PM or something like that), and then trying to build poems off of the most interesting lines that emerged from whatever semi-hypnagogic state I had tricked myself into. Obviously this was quite a hit or miss process, but I think it was a good balance for the more deliberate and conscious work I was doing writing with the typewriter. What happens when you write by hand is very different than what emerges when you use a machine, so that difference was interesting too.

I remember writing a lot of my second book on a computer, out of necessity: I was traveling a great deal, so would work on poems over the course of a long time, sporadically, in many different places. I continued (especially in the longer poems) to do a lot of collaging, especially of poems I was working on that I would finally get frustrated with and just start to take apart, using maybe one or two lines from a much longer poem and then putting them together with a few lines from another poem, and so on, until I started to build something bigger that I could work on and write into and out of. I think this accounts for the more sprawling and drifty-er feeling of some of the longer poems. There were however also poems written in a more traditional manner, of just sitting with a blank piece of paper, starting something, and then trying to make it more interesting and deeper and real.

In the writing of my third book, and the poems I have written in the past year or so subsequent to its publication in 2010, I occasionally use the writing processes above, but am just as likely to begin by employing writing exercises, either ones I have found or those I have generated myself, in order to move from the terror of the blank page into the actuality of language. As always, I then take this language and move it around as necessary, until I feel real, deep, human concerns are emerging.

Regardless of these various processes (which I feel silly revealing), the ultimate goal was to write a poem that felt close to a natural speech act, language an actual person might use when feeling emotionally and intellectually engaged and committed. I have never had any interest in writing poetry that feels irrelevant or purely interested in some abstract concept like “the possibility of language” or something like that. What intrigues and electrifies me is the possibility of beginning with total freedom, intuitive knowledge, instinct, even randomness, and building out of those states or qualities into a poem. The poem will hopefully retain in its movement the freedoms and strangenesses inherent in a knowledge beyond conscious knowing, while also engaging with human concerns in a way that is very available to anyone. Those have been my goals as a writer from the beginning (though they were much more instinctive then, and are now for better or worse much more conscious), and I continue to try to find ways, whether it is through the processes mentioned above or through new ones such as writing exercises I find or invent, to move from the unformed chaos of free language to the formed poem.