Tuesday, March 25, 2014

The Writing Process Blog Tour, or Four Questions that Might Not Relate

Well, hi.

I've been off the post-writing wagon lately, just sticking to the FTTDS lists, because it's really all I can manage. Why? Well, this semester has been even crazier than usual for one thing, but also, I've been doing a lot of poetry stuff: the editorial work for Cider Press Review, co-editing a book of essays all related in some way to the poetry conference I help run in Connecticut each summer, writing a couple of essays to go into the book, putting together some chapbooks, writing. All that good stuff. And I've been reading like a crazy person, now that I've got my brain back from its 2+ year mourning-induced hiatus.

BUT. My friend Donna Vorreyer over at Put Words Together, Make Meaning asked me to participate in a writing process blog tour, so here I am, and here are my answers to the questions we're all supposed to answer:

What am I working on?
I guess, technically, I'm working on generating material for my second manuscript, but I'm not really thinking about it that way. In the past couple of weeks, I've put together two new chapbook manuscripts, and I'm trying to decide whether to send them to publishers or produce them myself. I'm playing with producing them myself (Santa brought me a bunch of chapbook-making supplies for Christmas this past year), and if everything works out all right, that's what I'll likely end up doing. I'll keep you all posted.

And while I often have some sort of theme or obsession pushing guiding me through writing individual poems, I don't have that right now. In the past, I've written several series that were designed as series, and while I was writing them, I didn't really write anything else. Lately, I've been writing poems as they come. Several of them tangle with the question of place—my place in the world, the influence of specific places, or some other geographic reference—but they're not connected to each other the way my poems often are. I'm not sure what this means, but I'm sure it'll all work out somehow. It's not the first time this has happened, but it's the longest I've gone without working on a series in several years.

How does my work differ from others of its genre?
Well, that's not really a question for poets, I wouldn't think. The genre of poetry is vast, and its various subgenres don't necessarily mean much to non-poets. For a while, I thought of myself as a formalist, and I do still love a well-crafted formal piece. Some of my favorite poems (either mine or those written by other people) are formal. But I haven't been writing in form much in the past couple of years. At the same time, formal elements have a huge place in my writing. Having written so much in form, I can't really divest myself of the rhythmic or sonic elements I've picked up there. I still tend to rhyme a lot, for example, but it's much more likely to be slant rhyme, and it's much much more likely to be internal rhyme rather than end rhyme. And all that talk of form aside, I recently wrote a poem that uses white space in lieu of punctuation. Old dogs and new tricks be damned. 

For a while, my poems were almost painfully tightly wound—I feel like if I touch one of those poems, it might shatter. They came out pretty close to finished the first time through. It took so long for me to begin to write them that I had a really good handle on what was happening before I ever put anything on paper. In the past six months or so I've begun to loosen up again a little bit, which is a relief, but even my more relaxed poems are more taut than they used to be. There's more tension there, and I think that's a good thing in general.

I realize this doesn't really answer the question. The question should be "How does my work differ from what it used to be?" Or "How has my work changed over time?" Tough. If you don't like it, get your own blog. I'll be over here, answering the questions I want to answer.

Why do I write what I do?
I'm not sure whether this is a subject matter question or a genre question. Subject matter is easy, so I'll answer that first: I don't tend to choose my subjects. They choose me. It's not inspiration so much as drive. And I'm not sure I'm the one who's driving. Sometimes I think I'm haunted. Sometimes I know I am.

As for genre, the simple answer is that I accidentally took a poetry writing course as an undergrad. It was mislabled in the course catalog as being "Intro to Creative Writing," meaning a mixture of fiction, nonfiction, and poetry. On the first day, the professor announced that we'd only be writing poetry, and half of the people in the class got up and left. I was a little scared, but in a good way, so I stayed, and over the course of the semester I realized that I was pretty good.

The more complicated answer is that poetry has a power to speak that other forms of writing do not. I've written some terrible fiction. I've written some pretty good nonfiction. I've written reviews and academic work. I don't find any of them as satisfying as poetry. When I find myself needing to process an event, I turn to poetry. The constraints—be they length or formal challenges—force me to investigate the world in detail. I have to examine it. Here's a conversation I overheard while I was in graduate school. One of my friends (a fiction writer) was taking a workshop in which he had to create a synopsis of his novel-in-process, and complained about it at lunch to another friend (a poet):

HE: How am I supposed to condense a whole novel into less than 200 words?
SHE: You could write a poem.

She didn't miss a beat. I've always envied how quick she was with that reply, and I'll never forget it.

How does my writing process work?
Short answer: I have no idea. Long answer: It depends.

Okay, so the long answer is shorter than the short answer. Fine. Be picky like that.

Usually, lately, I've been reading. Not always—sometimes I've just been noticing things. But often, I've been reading. I read a lot of poetry, maybe more than I should. Maybe I should spend a little more time with every poem, I don't know. And sometimes—like with my "Dear Turquoise" poems—I'm writing without reading, without any kind of written stimulus, because I've been a poet so long at this point that it's my natural venue for figuring out what the hell is happening to me (or to anyone else). Those poems were kind of wild. I was deep into grief, preparing myself to lose my cousin Turquoise, and at the same time knowing there was no preparation possible. I wrote like I was possessed, and I suppose I was.

But the fact of the matter is that every poem is different. Some of them need ten or fifteen revisions to get to where they're supposed to be. Some never make it at all. Some come out practically whole. Some of them are warm-up poems for the poem I'm really trying to write. I never know what will happen at the time, and sometimes it's years before I figure it out. Sometimes, if I've hit on a really productive period, I'll write a poem I have no memory of having written, and come across it later. That's a little creepy. Cool, but creepy.

These days, my writing tends to go something like this: read a bit, pick up a notebook (or my laptop), write a bit. Put the book aside if something really strikes me; otherwise, put the draft aside and read some more. Repeat as necessary. I'm usually sitting on my couch in the living room, with the room as quiet as I can make it (I can't listen to music, but I can, if I'm really in a zone, have the television on. I'd rather have the quiet, though). Sometimes I'm in bed—often, I should have been asleep an hour previously. If I begin a draft on my laptop, it tends to stay there, and I save new versions any time I make any kind of real revision. If I begin a draft in a notebook, I'll sometimes go back and forth between two notebooks, writing the revision in one and reading off the other, and switching them as I move from one draft to the next. It all ends up on the screen eventually, though, and that's where I tend to make final decisions about line breaks (sometimes what works well in handwriting doesn’t translate well to the screen).

I also think my brain works differently depending on if I'm writing by hand or with the keyboard. Not better, not worse, just differently. I'm a really fast typist, for example, so handwriting tends to slow me down. Sometimes I want that, sometimes I don't. And my handwriting tends to be pretty big and sweeping, so I sometimes want a word processor so that I can see what's really happening in a nice sedate Times New Roman instead of in my more emotional script.

So that's it from me. Now it's confession time: I've had terrible luck getting 2 writers to sign on to answer these questions. So if you're a writer--even if you don't have your own blog (I'll give you space here)--and want to answer these questions about your own process, don't be shy. Let me know in the comments or send me an email.

I am, however, going to tag my friend Kristin LaTour. Right now. She's the author of three chapbooks: Agoraphobia from dancing girl press; Blood, from Naked Mannequin Press, and Town Limits: Red Beaver Lake, Minnesota from Pudding House Press. Her poems appear widely online and in print (Google her if you don't believe me), and while she's currently taking a break from her series "It's Not Dead Yet" at Luna Luna, but you will definitely want to catch up on archived posts and keep an eye out for her return this summer. She'll be posting on Donna Vorreyer's blog, and I'll post a link here when she does.

I've got room for one more tag, so don't be shy, folks. I promise that participating in the Writing Process Blog Tour is one more thing that does not suck.

UPDATE: Well, that didn't take long. Sandy Marchetti is allowing me to tag her. Here's a little bit about her: Sandra's debut full-length collection of poetry, Confluence, is forthcoming from Gold Wake Press as part of their 2015 Print Series. She was named the winner of the Midwest Writing Center's 2011 Mississippi Valley Chapbook Contest for her volume The Canopy. She was also a finalist in Gulf Coast's 2011 Poetry Prize and Phoebe's 2009 Greg Grummer Poetry Contest. Sandy has recently published poems in The Journal, Nashville Review, Phoebe, Subtropics, Gargoyle, Sugar House Review, Thrush Poetry Journal, and Stone Highway Review.

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