The Back and Forth of Process

On working between media to advance the writing process

These three sections were written using the Notes tool during a concentrated time period in 2018. The page was updated in 2020 using the style and options available via Tufte.css. Writers have always and almost inherently used transitional moments in the writing processes for revision, correction, and advancement of their work. In some senses, these transitional moments are as integral to “writing” proper as the actual putting down of words onto a page (virtual or physical). As with many of our findings, these movements between media and devices have mirrored those movements that occurred previously, but the number and variety of devices, locations, and means through which a piece of work can move has expanded. Some movements are definitely unique to the contemporary period, such as Armantrout’s transitioning from iPad to Computer in her initial drafting stages.‘… and then once I start to think that my text is coming together, very often I’ll do a version of it—just type it into the iPad.’ - Rae Armantrout, Line 31

These transitional moments possess a great deal of interest for both scholars of writing/writers and archivists in that they represent both a transitional moment in the writing of the piece and an opportunity to record that moment archivally through the production of drafts. The majority of these ‘between’ moments are physical transitions;An overview of authors talking about their movements between media the movement between a differently presented versions—be that the movement from handwritten notes to printed poem or the movement from poem on a screen to a printed poem ready for handwritten revisions—has and continues to be the major moment of transition for the all of the writers interviewed, save for Mohammad,Detailed in Lines 29 - 40 who does the majority of his revision via computers without a defined transitional moment.

Some writers use the movement from notebook paper to computer screen to give them a semblance of permanence, e.g. 'when I move it to the computer, I'm sort of getting to a place where I want to look at it' - Nance VanWinckel, Line 239

On the difference between print and the screen

Every poet in this study mentions the importance of ‘seeing the poem’ for their writing process, be that on the page, on the screen or in a publication of some kind. Each also has strong opinions about the differences between seeing poems on a screen versus on paper.Many like to read off the page both for the purposes of revision and for understanding a piece of writing, generally. The act of seeing the poem is also often a transitional moment (and often connected to the movement between media discussed above). These poets are not looking at their poems to admire them but to see what work might still be required to make the poem better.

While the poem on the screen allows for a variety of quick and substantial changes that increases the speed at which they can judge and advance their work (deletion, moving around, copying and pasting), poems printed on paper represent, for most, a permanence to be tested, and reading a poem on the page often answers any question as to whether the poem is ready to printed in such a ‘permanent’ format. Most also prefer to read poems and collections on paper, and noted that the book represented an ideal permanence for the written word.

On the usage and organization of computer files

Some of the writers interviewed for this study were also careful to record each draft of their poems digitally as well, either by recording each draft within one fileSee Bruce Beasley, Lines 155 - 162 or by creating new files for each draft composed. However, many also simply save draft over draft of their work, thereby reducing the amount of history or tracking that might be enabled between versions. Not many were very concerned about the loss entailed in practicing this way. Pinsky, for instance noted his ambivalence by comparing drafts to family photographs. “I sometimes feel the way I told you I feel about the family photographs. Nobody wants all this.”Line 162 Pinsky is one of the most prolific recorder of drafts from our subjects, which perhaps explains some of his wavering: “And two separate questions are: do I want anyone to look at them, and who could possibly want to look at them? But I don’t destroy them and I do, somewhat mechanically, shoot the drafts into drafts. I guess part of the theory is I might want to look. And I suppose every once in many, many months, I do look.”Ibid.

Robert Pinsky discussing his ambivalence towards his saved computer file drafts.

On future archives of the work

While many of the poets, when asked whether they felt ‘dear’ towards any of their digital files responded negatively, all had some means and took some care for saving the physical versions of their work. In fact, most were especially aware of the value, both scholarly and monetarily, of paper records of their progress towards a finished piece/book. Some of their archival processes (Armantrout, for instance) began after learning about or considering the possibility of selling their papers.Line 332. Most were also aware that some of their idiosyncratic practices would lead to difficulties in the interpretation of their processes for archivists and scholars.

On Working Towards a Final Product

JM: All I care about is the product--that's all I care about.

DB: And when do you... What do you consider the product?

JM: The poem that I can't make any better.

Although the writing process overall may require ‘back and forth’ movements, the process itself is geared at realizing some sort of finished piece/final product. Each writer expressed their own idea of what the final product was.Gerstler - The book is the thing. Despite differences in their definition of what that product itself might be, each could be said to be building their practice towards better producing something polished that they might publish, preferably as a book, as they saw that format as most likely to last overall—this stayed true even if the poet’s work were often ‘digital’ in nature.Stephanie Strickland - ‘‘Books are going to last longer than almost anything else…’

James McMichael on his working towards the final product, described as the 'poem I can't make any better.'

Physical and Digital Writing Practices

On the role of paper

Paper is freeing in part due to its ‘drafty’ nature, the subjectivity of the medium acting as a foil to the speed of digital revision. For some, the polish afforded by typing on the computer comes at the cost of inhibition. Similarly, paper permits for idiosyncrasies of thought and sense making. As poet Robert Pinsky puts it, this kind of ‘physical engagement with the poem’—be it through longhand writing, review of printouts, cut and paste, or oral recitation—is ‘most integral’ to the drafting and revision process. Nance Van Winckel likewise values the lack of spatial limitation afforded by drafting poems in notebooks, and how the drafting of several poems on the same page opens new avenues for association of ideas. With the exception of K. Silem Mohammad, every poet echoes this idea in one form or another. Strickland, meanwhile, is unique in her approach to marrying a paper-based process with software creation. For her, paper is better suited both to ‘a complex argument’ and poetic freedom, and she notes (as does Glück) the comparative ‘fluidity’ of paper versus screen.

Nearly all the poets in this study echo the necessity, at some stage of the process, for unfettered possibility when it comes to format, scratching out, and starting over. There appears to be a creative hinge located in those moments where longhand is translated into digital text—or where the poet returns to the notebook, or takes a pen to a typed-out draft. Wrigley explains this act of translation as a shift in perspective. For Glück, it is a physical manifestation. As with most of these findings, however, there are outliers. For McMichael, after years of separating the two activities, writing-out and typing out merged in his practice: ‘the longhand and the typing just coalesced and became the same activity.’

On the changes derived from computerization and the internet

For these eleven poets, patterns of engagement with physical and/or paper tools emerged—and in some cases remained consistent—both before and after the advent of computers. Of course, all of them also experienced changes in process thanks to digital word processing and the internet. The factor of speed—‘instant dialogue, instant gratification,’ to use Armantrout’s words—seems most universal in each poet’s assessment of their evolving practice. Wrigley and Gerstler note the benefits of quicker, easier structural experimentation (from couplets to quatrains, for instance). Beasley, likewise, mentions speed—how the internet ‘facilitates leaps in thought, association, and poetic imagination,’ and encourages the poet to mirror the ‘radical interconnectivity of associative thinking the internet suggests.’

This concept inspires some, and repels others, highlighting that which is gained via speed and easy access to unlimited information, as well as what is lost. Pinsky sees the internet as fostering poor editing and ‘bloated prose.’ In contrast, Mohammad jumped directly to ‘internet think’ as the premise for his writing. His latest project—rearranging Shakespearean sonnets via translation software—may represent an inversion of Beasley’s attempt to ‘write like the internet.’ One poet emulates so-called digital thought to create original content, while the other dismantles and translates canonical poetry into a new form with the internet itself as co-author.

The Writing Cycle

On Early Generation and Composition

As expected, each poet finds their own unique ways toward new ideas and inspiration. Some methods include listening to jazz (McMichael), taking routine walks around the neighborhood (Beasley, Van Winckel), eavesdropping (Armantrout), and reading garden catalogs (Glück), but whatever the inspiration-seeking exercise is, nearly all surveyed take analog notes in some form, which are at some point transferred to a computer—and then, sometimes, back to paper, and so forth. For poets like Robert Wrigley and Rae Armantrout, this exchange of composition between paper and computer is a useful volley, though Wrigley does note that, for him, “composing with keys rather than longhand has been done cautiously, as such a method might improperly influence stanzaic structure, line length, etc.” Nance Van Winckel appears to share Wrigley’s concerns in this regard, as she’s often “less inclined to fiddle with line lengths” once the poem is on a computer screen. That said, others like K. Silem Mohammad and Amy Gerstler find that the quick structural editing and research that can be done on computers plays an integral role in helping to see potentially less obvious opportunities in early compositions.

On Revision

Revision practices also vary in some surprising ways, with Louise Glück reading her drafts backwards to catch errors and Robert Pinsky memorizing and reciting early drafts in order to locate potential dull spots, explaining “If you come to a part you don’t have memorized, maybe that’s the part you need to work on.” Though most poets’ revision processes are still a kind of back-and-forth between the screen and print outs, poets like Mohammad and Gerstler again rely heavily on the ability to quickly experiment with large structural edits on the computer, with Mohammad likening the process to moving refrigerator magnets around. Correspondence also factors into the revision process for some, with Armantrout observing that our modern reliance on instant dialogue (email) seems to speed up the revision process for her: “I need somebody to give me a kind of endpoint and say, Cut it out now … Maybe that’s why I’m writing faster now. Really, it is the stimulation of that.” Faster is not preferred across the board, however, with Glück claiming that, though she largely avoids computers, a more analog approach slows the overall revision process down in way that “lends more clarity to larger, holistic revision and structural considerations.” That said, regardless of methodology, the revision processes of each poet ultimately remains familiar, and as James McMichael puts it, “The product of all the work is the poem that can’t be made better, which is contained in a book.”

On Putting Together Manuscripts

Though the computer factors into the generation and revision practices of the poets to different degrees, the process of assembling entire manuscripts appears to be a heavily computer-based enterprise for all. Many poets, such as Wrigley, McMichael, and Van Winckel, keep physical print outs in binders, boxes, and notebooks in addition to digital folders, while others store working manuscripts solely on the computer, and differences between the poets’ various processes for organizing book structure appears to be what influences this contrast. Wrigley, for instance, distrusts digital file names, and so handwritten dates on printouts are used, much like dated passages in notebooks. Mohammad, on the other hand, structures the manuscript on the screen, moving digital files around until the desired energy is achieved. Nonetheless, storing working manuscripts digitally appears to be universal.