Robert Pinsky






Process Narrative

Robert Pinsky is not much of a note taker—rather, the second a poem occurs to Pinsky, he gets right to work on it, almost immediately generating some kind of draft on his Macbook Pro, using Microsoft Office (though, the poet is nostalgic about Windows’ earlier word processing software: “Word Perfect was terrific—it was perfect.”). Occasionally, Pinsky will use Nisus Writer Pro for more difficult or complex compositional tasks—like prose—because of its elaborate formatting and indexing capabilities.

Composition isn’t a fully digital enterprise for Pinsky, however. Most of the poet’s initial process occurs in a heavily analog environment—he prefers to draft images and constructions on a yellow and black legal pad until he has accrued enough material to feel compelled to type it up. For Pinsky, “the unique quality of poetry is that it is vocal. It’s on a human scale. It comes out of one person’s body, one syllable at a time.” The poem, for this poet, thus begins and ends in the body, as it is composed by ear and, ultimately, received by ear. For Pinsky, the digital aspect of composition seems merely a means to an organic and analog end.

That said, Pinsky acknowledges contemporary technological anxieties in regard to saving and keeping track of digital materials. Due to a previous, devastating computer crash, Pinsky maintains a Dropbox account and routinely backs-up his working drafts to an external hard drive (though he’s admittedly somewhat “ambivalent” about the permanence of this digital material). The assembly of actual manuscripts for Pinsky works in a similar fashion—he maintains a folder on his computer titled “Book.pms,” which later acquires a more apt name, and which contains individual folders for each poem that each then contain numbered drafts.

Pinsky’s revision practices reflect his largely organic approach to composition. Though digitally generated, his poem drafts are printed-out and annotated or proofed by hand (in a way similar to his days with an IBM Selectric typewriter, which he refers to as having been a “beautiful machine—like a BMW”). Additionally, Pinsky will attempt to memorize a working draft and repeat it to himself at the end of the day—the portions he doesn’t remember, he believes, are the portions that most likely need revisiting and revision. Regardless, Pinsky’s personal feedback network of other writers (Louis Glück, Jim Olson, Gail Mazur, among others) exists in a digital environment (as he argues, it must, now).

However, Robert Pinsky is an example of one of the first prolific writers to have quickly assimilated into the new digital environment. Much of this has to do with his involvement in the creation of 1981’s Mindwheel, an early “electronic novel,” which he wrote entirely on an Atari. During that process, he acquired a new technological lexicon, as well as a general writing practice that is aware of both the benefits and the hindrances of writing with computers.