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Various Locations Across the United States on Various times | Interviewer: Devin Becker

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Devin Becker: Yeah, so we'll go through these. Some of it is a little repetitive. It's looking to be a little bit more exhaustive than, I guess, organic. If you feel like we've covered anything in some of these, just say, "Let's go," it's fine.
Let me know if you have any questions in the middle, or anything like that. It doesn't need to go straight through. We can take breaks, or whatever—that sort of thing.
So, we've gotten kind of where we're at. I'm going to ask you kind of currently compose some of these on the computer, how you currently save, and how you kind of back it up and work with the files. Then, we'll move on to the process questions.
First questions— and these are meant to be kind of short answer, basically—what genres do you work in as a writer?
James McMichael: Only poetry
What kind of devices do you own or have access to for writing?
JM: Just this machine
DB: Just that computer, and what operating system do you use on it?
JM: I don't know.
DB: Is it a Windows computer?
JM: I think so.
DB: I'm pretty sure it is.
JM: I know almost nothing about it
And you work on that device primarily, and that's where your files are stored as well?
JM: My files are up here to the right. They're artist sketchbook, so they're unlined. And I take notes from the reading I do in those, and I also include (in green ink) my own responses to the things I'm reading, or things that occurred to me that might turn out to be germs for lines. So, I do that longhand.
DB: Do they transfer—for those ideas, and those workings—on to the computer? And when they are, are they saved just on that computer?
JM: In a selective way. Then, I'll go in to these notebooks and take stuff from them. And then in that form, develop some of what's there—add to it. So, that's part of the process, too.
DB: Great!
So, I guess just in terms of your computer files, do you have them like in a certain folder? Do you save them in certain kind of organizational fashion? Or are they just, once you transfer them in there, they're there and you don't worry about them?
JM: They're there and I can find them alphabetically.
So, are these files then primarily for your publishing sake, or...? I mean, do you...
JM: Only for composition.
DB: Only for composition?
JM: Yeah, right
DB: Do you print them out and revise them from the computer?
JM: Sometimes.
DB: Sometimes.
What are your naming conventions for those files?
JM: Usually the date.
DB: The date.
JM: Oh, I'm sorry—the date and the notebook. So, the notebooks are numbered. So, it'll be from Notebook 23, or something like that.
DB: Oh, great!
JM: So, that'll be that in addition to the date.
DB: And if you went and revised one of the computer files, would you make a new file, or would you just like over what's already there?
JM: I'd write over what's there, and then I would get probably a different number—you know, that document number.
DB: Yeah, OK
So, it'd be like my example here—"The Wasteland.1" and then "The Wasteland2". That kind of thing?
JM: Yeah, that kind of thing.
Do you back-up those files, or do you just keep them on that computer? Do you put them on like a Dropbox, or anything like that? Or is it just on that computer?
JM: On Wednesday, I'm told by our tech, that what's there gets backed up. So, Wednesday about 2:00AM, or something like that, and on Thursday at 2:00AM, some back-up takes place. So, that's all I know about it.
DB: Like you don't have an external hard-drive, or some other box that you put them?
JM: There's this blue thing down there—whatever that is.
DB: Oh, yeah! That's it, that it.
JM: That's it.
When you get to like a final draft, or something, is there another protocol for that sort of file, or...?
JM: That file would have the title of the poem, and then the highest number of the draft of that poem would be the most current one—the one that's replaced the others.
DB: OK, yeah, yeah
And your tech--what's the relationship between you and your tech?
JM: He's a genius. He's an expensive genius. His name is Steve Marinoff. We're entirely dependent on him—Susan and I for having these machines continue to work—and he's never failed us.
DB: Good!
And you guys like consult with him like when you get a new machine? Or... How does that relationship work?
JM: If that happens or something goes wrong with one of these, but I'd say we see him maybe 3 or 4 times a year.
DB: OK, and he just checks to make sure everything is working and backing up, and that sort of thing?
JM: Right. We call him if we have a problem, and then we usually see him within a couple of days. He's wonderfully reliable.
DB: How long has that relationship been going on?
JM: I think like 8 year maybe, something like that. He had worked for another company, and now he's on his own.
DB: Yeah, kind of his own consulting firm or something—great!
DB: And did you seek him out, or did you know him? I mean...
JM: Susan had him come out when he was working with the company that he worked for before he had his own business. Liked him a lot, and so...
DB: Great, great!
JM: His confidence inspiring. You know, we really count on—
DB: That's the biggest thing!
JM: We're very grateful for him
DB: Yeah, yeah
DB: OK, so that's the basic kind of just to get a sense of where you're at with your digital composition. Now we'll talk more about the process and the writing, and the notebooks, and the artist books, and stuff like that.
DB: And then to start, I'd like to kind of know- how long would you say you've been writing professionally? I mean, in the sense that that writing has been what's kind of supported you in some way. I know the teaching, but I think that's kind of intertwined.
JM: I published my first poem 53 years ago.
And could you give us kind of an overview of like the ark of your career—starting with maybe like your education, and then moving through?
JM: I was an undergraduate at UC-Santa Barbara, and had some extraordinary teachers there. I learned how to read. Didn't learn how to write, but I learned how to read, I think, from them. Then I did my graduate work. Got a Ph.D. at Stanford immediately after I graduated from Santa Barbara.
Was thru with the Ph.D. in 1965 at a time when white males got jobs in the Academy, so I took the job at Irvine and began teaching on the Fall of '65 there. Understood at that time that I had 6 years to complete a book that would get me tenure, and at that time, there weren't poets getting tenure by writing books of poems. So, it seemed as if what I needed to do was continue the critical, expository writing that I'd done as a Ph.D. student in English and American Literature. I wrote and published 4 essays out of my dissertation. They weren't exactly a book. I could've turned them in to a book but after about 2 years in the job, I started writing quite bad poems—and they continued to be bad poems until I'd completed a book of them. I submitted it for publication. It was accepted. It turned up in the mail. I sat down and read it, and it confirmed what I knew about it which was that it was a really bad book of poems.
DB: And this is?
JM: This was in 1971 that the book turned up—but it got me tenure!
DB: This is the "Against the Falling Evil"?.
JM: Against the Falling Evil
JM: Yeah
DB: It had some good poems. It had the Vegetables
JM: It had the Vegetables in it, and
that was important to me in the sense that it gave me a standard that I wanted to live up to in anything else I kept after that. So then I had the great, good fortune of being able to have it take as long as it needed for me to write another book. I wrote the second book which I still like, and then I've gone off from there. With the kind of interruption in the writing of poetry, I finished 4 good things in the late '70s—it was published in 1980.
And then I wrote a book on Ulysses. I needed to teach myself how to write a paragraph. I didn't know how to write a paragraph. I knew how to write a paragraph in graduate school prose, but not a paragraph. Those are different things, so that took quite a while. I didn't understand it—that's what I was doing at the time. I didn't understand that I didn't know what a paragraph was, but because I was meaning to be dealing with the content of what it was I was wanting to write about. It took about 4 years just to get that formal understanding in place about how to write a chapter of paragraphs.
So, I worked on the Ulysses book uninterruptedly about 10 years, and then didn't go back to writing poems until it was finished. And so, I finished it about 1990, and then I'd been working on poems ever since then.
DB: And since then, you've published 3 books?
JM: I've published Each in a Place Apart, The World At-Large (which is New and Selected, and it's only about a tenth of that book is new), and then Capacity (which is published in 2006). And, I've just completed another book called If You Can Tell.
DB: If You Can Tell. Do you know when that's coming up?
JM: I'm guessing it'll be within the next 2 years
DB: Great, great! That was good.
DB: So, generally, I've kind of broken these questions in to 3 stages of the writing process - the compositional stage, the stage of revision, and the organizational/archival stage. That is my own kind of box for these things. If you think those do not fit your own personal writing style, we can kind of go through these in different ways. But if that sounds OK, then we can start. But, if anytime like, "Well, this doesn't make much sense," and you can go back and revise—because we talked about one thing in one section doesn't mean we can talk about that one thing.
JM: I understand the 1st two of those—they seem perfectly clear, but what would the archival...?
DB: I would say that would be once you've revised poems or critical writing (or probably books of poems) in to more of a final state, how do you deal with organizing your collection; how do you deal with the more minutiae of saving them and making sure they're together, and then sending them off—kind of more the business part of it.
JM: I guess I asked because that's going on all the time in what I think of as the 1st two stages.
DB: OK, so maybe we'll just address them in the 1st two stages, and it's not that...
JM: Yeah
DB: Maybe I have a couple of questions from that section but they won't be much.
JM: I mean, this may just be parenthetical but, for me, since I tend to work in an extended (what can seem like) book length forms almost all the time, then any individual poem I'm working on has a necessary relationship to everything else I'm imagining. It's being with, and so that's part of what you're describing as archival—would have to be kind of in front of me all the time. So, that may be part of why it seems to me that it's—
DB: No, that makes total sense to me.
[That'll be
(15:00) a good shot—just my neck]
So, let's start with talking about kind of the compositional- the writing, the pre-writing, the generative parts. I know that reading has a quite a lot to do for you.
JM: Yes
DB: I'd like to start when you first started writing, and I guess part of this will be kind of tracking the changes in your process. So, like if there were certain ways you worked in the beginning, did those change, and then, did they change again?
So, when you first started writing, would you kind of describe your typical compositional (pre-writing, drafting) practices? Yeah, when you first started writing... And when would this period be?
JM: I guess the early 1960s, when I was still an undergraduate—I was writing. I mean, if the poems that I wrote before 1970 were bad, those poems were awful (they were worse), and there weren't many of them. Soon after I'd started writing poems, I was in a Ph.D. program. And even though I had a Stegner Fellowship for one of the years that I was there (which entailed taking writing workshops), the workshop wasn't anything like the workshops that you and I know in the sense that not much went on in them. There were maybe four people in the room—not much got said about them—and it was a very minor part of the four years that I spent getting a Ph.D. So, the bulk of that work was reading and writing essays, and having conversations with my wonderful peers that were there.
So, I didn't have any reliable habits as a writer of poems—I don't think—until I was maybe two years in to the job at Irvine. So, I'd say 1967 or something like that.
DB: Great!
JM: And then, whatever it was I was doing wasn't working—and I think it wasn't working because what I was needing to do was convince myself that I knew how to write a poem. So, the substance of the work was completely inverted in terms of it being a working out of my need to prove something to myself that I couldn't prove. I couldn't prove it because what I was proving to myself was that I didn't know how to write a good poem. That went on for 3, 4 years, and I think there wasn't anything I could alter until I asked myself if there was something I needed to write about rather than just my own insecurities as someone who didn't know how to write a poem.
DB: Then so, after you wrote that, or sort of started to ask yourself that question and you started to write the poems that you considered your good poems, in terms of the sort of minutiae of your writing process, did that mark a shift? Or was there always a sort of way that you approached the writing and that kind of gradually expanded? Or...
JM: There had to have been a shift that since before writing the Vegetables (which is a poem about the impact on me of my mother's death when I was 11 years old). Prior to having that as matter to write about, I wouldn't have been able to identify a phrase that I came up with that was good enough (there's no other way to say it) to keep. I come up with phrases and I didn't have the acumen to be able to tell that this phrase was better, was
(20:00) enough better than the accompanying phrases that it could supply me with an example of what I had to bring everything else up to. So, I was just putting stuff together, and there it was—it wasn't any good.
After I wrote the Vegetables, I had a standard that I had to apply all the time. And once it was in place, then I had something to work with besides form (I had form, too, but I had form before when I was filling form with bad phrases). Then, I felt more equipped, to know what to keep and what not to keep.
DB: So, how were you then able to generate those phrases? Like, how were you able to generate the phrase that then you could judge as being enough or not?
JM: I guess by way (and this is where what I'd said earlier about working in extended forms)—the only way I knew how to generate it was to think really in book length terms. So, I'd have (in the case of my second book, The Lovers' Familiar I came up with something that's formal but also structural—The Canonical Hours. So, I thought... There were 8 of those - Midnight, 3:00AM, 6:00, all the way on to 9:00PM. If they would organize the book as a whole and have a medieval affect to them, faintly Catholic—if that was in place but it was not really a religious book, how might things go? There were going to be more than 8 poems in the book, but it turned out to be 15. What would come in where in relation to a 24-hour period? What might happen between noon and 3:00PM?
So, I had that general scheme as something that could direct me toward, in one case, a portrait of an otter. You know, something along those lines. Then a lot of stuff in the course of working on the book (which I'm trying to remember how long—I think it took me 4 years to write it), a lot of stuff just fell away because it wasn't, again, good enough.
DB: And in terms of simply... Were you drafting by hand, or...?
JM: By hand—all of it by hand
DB: All of it by hand
JM: And then I would... The process through all of the books until this most recent one was all long-hand and then typewriter. I loved typing successive drafts because typing is so much easier than composing, so, it was a break. It was just, "Oh, boy! I get to..."
So, I never minded typing, and I suspected that I would miss it on this machine. I didn't miss it. It turned out, since I'm typing all the time--I'm composing from the beginning and I'm redoing everything—I liked this. I can't imagine how it was possible to write a book of prose (to write the Ulysses book) long-hand with a typewriter. I mean, I just can't. It would have been so much easier if I'd had some facility with the computer to write that.
DB: Yeah, yeah
So, essentially though, all of your books except this last one have followed the similar process of—
JM: Yes
DB: Could you kind of detail that in kind of like step-by-step process?
JM: Yeah
On a good day ... I mean I have to work every day usually in the morning, sometimes as early as 4:00. I didn't mean to get up at that time but I was awake at that time—I was wide awake at that time and I'd go to work right away. I'd go back over what I'd had up to that point in a poem and I'd find stuff that had to be revised. So, I'd do revision.
Sometimes that would be all I would do on a given day, and then something that I hadn't yet gotten to would suggest itself, and I'd have a phrase or a sentence. That's what I mean when I use the word compose—Something I hadn't had yet, there's at least a possibility that I might have and it would sound maybe something like this, maybe one more of the words would actually survive. So then I'd nudge it along a little more and on a good day, if I had a line and a half, or two lines, that would be a pretty good day. And that could take 4 hours.
DB: And in doing that, in kind of getting to that point, is that all done on loose notebook paper?
JM: On long-hand.
DB: Long-hand.
JM: What did I work...? I think I just worked by 8x11 sheets of paper. I remember at one point they were yellow—and then they were white!
DB: It didn't matter.
JM: It didn't matter.
DB: Yeah
So, what would one of those pieces of paper look like?
JM: A lot of crossing out, rehearsing what I had already that needed to be there to remind me of what seemed as if it had made the cut with me as something that could be kept, and then something new would join it for a while but it wouldn't really be good enough. And then, it would have to be revised. Pretty soon, it would be better enough maybe to stay, and then when I'd get (I don't know what) 8 or 9 lines more, then I'd go to the typed copy of what I'd transcribed from long-hand on to typed copy and add what was new, make what changes I'd made in long-hand, and then just bring all of that along with me.
When I was writing my third book, Four Good Things, that entailed thousands of lines in untitled sections. There's 16 sections of it of varying lengths, and I'd do it section by section. It was pretty much chronological, but some of the sections were 16, 17 pages long, so I'd go through the whole process for that particular section. You know, if I were typing up what I'd recently added 4 or 5 lines to, I'd probably type the whole thing again.
DB: So, you were generating lines long-hand—working on those. And then as they got to the level where you though they could enter in to the poem, you would then retype the entire poem or section, and go from there?
JM: Yes, yeah
And never minded that activity—never minded it.
DB: Did you find that in typing that, were you actively making changes at that time, or not so much?
JM: Not so much.
And then once you had that object, would you go back and read it to yourself, or read it out loud?
JM: Yes, yeah
DB: And then you would start the revision process on that type-written document?
JM: I'd wait 'til the next day. It would, more often than not, not look so good the next day.
DB: Yes, yes
So, would you save these sheets of paper on which you were long-hand composing?
Not with any fondness. I mean, they were only (30:00) for my uses—it was not anything I wanted to preserve in anyway. I didn't care about anything other than finishing the poem and having it done. That was all that mattered to me.
JM: And I didn't often find myself in situations in which lines that I'd deleted I later missed and wished I had copies of them to see if I could... I mean, that happened a few times but it was so rare that I don't think it influenced my ways of going at the whole process. I didn't ever regret throwing stuff away.
DB: Right
I guess we can kind of maybe talk in about how... I mean, we're already talking about the revision process for these poems, and it seems like... I sort of asked the other writers like what is your sort of primary revision or textual changes, and it seems sort of subtractive. Like you would find something that you didn't like, and would you try to substitute something in for that?
JM: If I could find it.
DB: If you could find it.
JM: And if I couldn't, then it probably needed to disappear.
DB: Just that part, or...?
JM: Just that part.
DB: OK, but once you kind of had a structure of a general poem, though, it usually stayed?
JM: By the time I got to the end of it, it did. I mean, I work on them almost only cumulatively so that I take them along line by line. I don't...I'm not able to write a draft of something. The only variation on that is that I'll sometimes get the ending--it'll present itself to me—I mean the phrases. And I'll have that as a kind of telos for where I'm headed—not all the time, but I'd say half the time that happens somewhat in advance of my getting even within the couple of pages of the ending itself. It'll occur to me, and it won't tell me what is missing. It won't do that. It'll be just something that I feel would provide the kind of closure that I think would work.
DB: So, essentially, you are writing (I don't know if you can) chronologically or...?
JM: It is chronologically.
DB: OK, so, as you build it and build it and build it, the revision process and the composition process are all happening at the same time?
JM: Yep, yep
DB: And that's happening in concert with the other poems in the book, or are you usually focused on one until it's done and then you move on?
JM: I'm focused on one, but I have a pretty good sense of where it might go, organizationally, in relation to the others except right at the beginning of the project. At that point, I'm not clear on what's missing. I'm working toward beginning to understand what the whole might contain, but I just have to wait until... I mean, if I think of the last two books - there are 6 poems in capacity and 8 poems here (8 poems in the most recent one), and in both cases that's a small enough number that I'm not sure where in the process of writing either of those books (whether it took me 3 or 4 poems) to have a sense of what else I needed, but it was somewhere in there. Kind of midway, then I'd be a little clearer.
DB: Can you talk a little bit about what that point is in the beginning of the project? Like how that... Is there something starting to emerge in your thinking, in your reading, or...? Where does that come from?
JM: Again, I have to learn what it's possible to learn about the first and the second poem that I write in any of the projects. If I think about this most recent book, I was commissioned by the New York Times to write a Thanksgiving poem. I mean, that was the first poem that I wrote for this most recent book, and I wrote it. I kept taking my notes on all of the things that I was reading, and was caught up in the reading and the note-taking and all of that. All of it was to the end of my getting started on my second poem and I had no ideas what that was for 2 years, and then that poem came out of Proverbs. Then I spent another year and a half before I had any lines at all on a third poem. I looked back over a 4-1/2 to 5 year period in which I had written two poems (neither of them particularly long—the longer of the two was 4 pages). That was all I had. I didn't have a page a year, essentially.
And for the life of me, I don't understand why I didn't just accept that I was thru writing. I mean, that should have been enough, but that wasn't what I felt –I don't know why, but I didn't. Then, I guess, I'd taught myself enough about what I was trying to learn in the whole project that it got underway, and then there was a momentum to it that I don't really remember in any of the other books that I wrote. There was kind of a momentum in writing Four Good Things but it was a momentum that I would describe as documentary even though there was an autobiographical element to it. It was as if I could hear some kind of narrator in a documentary saying this thing, or that. And the form of the thing was usually more than a 10-syllable line in this monolithic block that looked kind of like prose but still had a jamb, and it was lines.
So, that gave me kind of momentum but very different from what the lack of momentum that I had when I began this book—there just wasn't any. I don't know where it was going to come from.
DB: I guess, in those... You said you were kind of teaching yourself to get to the point where you can get that momentum back and start writing more. What are those parts of your life look like in terms of your writing, your practice? I mean, are you still waking up and working?
JM: Yeah
DB: I mean, in your writing and in your reading, taking notes...
JM: All the time.
DB: Can you describe how that works, how that part of your practice works? And that's been pretty steady since the beginning, or since you start writing for the second book?
JM: Yes, all the way back, and I think the reading and the note-taking part of it has gotten to be more dominant over the course of the time. These notebooks...[points to bookshelves full of notebooks] And there are probably about 10 others and the ones that fit in that shelf right there—that's about 4 years of worth. Prior to those, I was working with 5x8 cards, writing in long-hand. That just got too hard to keep track of (I had boxes of them and arranged alphabetically), but this is an improvement on that. It's more... It's something I could find and I'd index these so I could find my way around these books. In a way, the cards—they just got too many of them.
DB: So, the cards, you had them in just like regular card... Would you flip through them like a card catalog kind of, or...?
JM: Except I wouldn't flip through them, that's the thing. They didn't invite me back to them the way these [notebooks] do. I can take one of these down at random and be reminded pretty quickly of why it was that particular book that I was reading and why I was having the responses to it that I did.
DB: Do you mind grabbing one of those and just kind of showing how you would do that?
JM: No
DB: [Hopefully, we'll get it in the frame.]
JM: Let's see if I can find some pages here where I've gone—
DB: Or I can take pictures of these, if you don't mind.
JM: Not at all.
I work on... These are the notes that I would take for the book that I'm reading. The RED is the more important material. It's something that, if I'm going through it I can read and just pick out the highlighted parts, then GREEN are my own responses. So, I'm always working on the right hand page when I'm taking notes from books I'm reading, then when I'm going back over the material, I'll work on this page and there'll be other changes. Usually more GREEN will turn up.
And that's your response to it. OK, I got it. So, how do you index them?
JM: Just by title and... Let's see. I've got some of those pages here.
And indexed by title of work that you're reading?
JM: Now, where did they go? See, I should know where they are, Devin ... But I had the sheets.
Ha, ha, ha, I can't find them now. They were usually in this red notebook. So, they're pages of an index that are arranged according to notebook numbers. They're here. Susan just rearranged them. They're somewhere in here, they're not lost.
DB: OK, good
JM: I hope so.
So, then I just find my way to the notebook and it'll have the page numbers and everything. Oh, and then in the front of each notebook, I have the title and the page numbers.
DB: Oh, OK. So you know you can go back and find the work you're thinking about for whatever you are doing.
JM: Right
That's fascinating.
OK, just to remind me then...
JM: [You're very patient.]
DB: [No, no. I like dogs. He's a good guy. I have a new appreciation for dogs, too. It's our first dog, so...]
JM: [Would she be smelling Rufus on you?]
DB: [I don't know. Maybe? Maybe on these jeans.]
JM: [Yeah]
DB: [I'm admitting my jeans are not super clean!]
So, the index cards—were they cards that you were working—?
JM: They were cards.
DB: OK, and that's what...
JM: Shall I... I think... I don't know if I have them. She may have moved those.
She moved them somewhere. I don't know where they've gone.
DB: Well, we can find them and take pictures later.
Michelle [Latiolais] wanted one. I gave her one. She framed it.
DB: Oh, that's awesome!
So, and all that note-taking... Say... I mean, is there like a hypothetical where you could say like, "I used my index to find something and that led to a line or..."? How would that... I guess, what is that process like?
JM: That is the way it tends to work and yet I can't go back once I've got the line unless I'm quoting.
DB: Right
JM: I can't make a connection. There's just some kind of break—something gets suggested and I can never reconstruct it.
DB: OK, wow!
JM: Another way to say it is that I think the(45:00) reading...it feels like the reading does this to me. Like it just pulls me out towards stuff that other people, the writers of the books I'm taking notes on, are more connected to than I am but they do a good enough job of saying what their connections to it are that the things I'm reading become suggestive to me of things that I didn't know that they make available. And then that gives me a sense that there's less I've failed to address, and therefore maybe I've been brought to a position (with their help) of being able to find a phrase that lets me move from this point, in where I am with the poem I'm writing, further along.
DB: How do you choose the books that you're reading?
JM: The disciplines that I've gone back to more and more than any others are philosophy, theology, history, psychology, sociology, anthropology. And one or other of those will seem like it's more pertinent, depending on where I am, in the process
So, I'm on Amazon a lot, truck stops in front of the house fairly frequently, and I'm helped enormously by the succession of books that turn up at the door that I have the time to indulge myself with.
DB: Great!
So, you mentioned Amazon. Are you using the recommendations that Amazon provides you, or are you finding a book from another book?
JM: I'm usually finding a book from another book. They do send me the monthly things--"Here's my list," and I go through it but I'm usually ahead of them.
DB: OK, that's good.
Most people are not ahead of them ...
JM: But they're not bad at it.
DB: Oh, no. They've got pretty powerful algorithms.
JM: It's their job.
DB: Yes, it's what they do
So, going back, you said... Then, so every book except this last book was composed in long-hand and on a typewriter.
JM: Yes
DB: What's the change then for this final—the last book here?
JM: There was, as I said before, a surprise that I wasn't at all missing the typing—the typing stage probably because it was all typing. So, it was as if... That's what's happened with this machine—was the long-hand and the typing just coalesced and because the same activity. I don't feel that it made any of it any quicker. I mean, it probably did, but that wasn't the sense I had of it. It was less cumbersome because it's sitting here and I put it over here, and all that. But it seemed like it was very easy transition—I don't miss the typewriter, which I loved, you know? But I don't miss it—I think it's in my storage space about 2 miles away from here.
So, it couldn't have been an easier shift from that technology to this one, I don't think.
DB: Just to clarify for myself—are you still doing the long-hand composition, or is all of that work now happening on the computer?
JM: It's all happening here [on the computer] except when I don't take the computer with me, say, to Idaho then I will (50:00) work in long-hand. So, I'll print out whatever it is of whatever I have working on and I take that printed copy with me. Then, I'll just work long-hand with it, leaving the computer here. Then, I'll be back in 3 weeks, or something like that, and then re-incorporate it into what I've got here in my files.
One thing, I guess, I might... So, in the composition stage, do you still do like strikethroughs in that?
JM: Yeah. I work pretty much the way I've worked before.
DB: You just transferred those processes on the computer?
JM: Yes
DB: Did it take some time to figure how to do that--?
JM: No
DB: --or was it fairly intuitive?
JM: Yeah
And I guess... I mean.... Then another aspect of it is letters that I write here. So, I'm doing whatever revision I do of the emails I send right here on this. In that way, this makes it a little more personal. I can't remember how it was like to write a letter to somebody. It wasn't one of these, and I understand that letters you post aren't any more invasive than something you send here [on the computer]. But I love how non-invasive this [the computer] is as a medium—not so much in terms of my being protected against being invaded by somebody else, but being able to say something (send somebody something here [on the computer]) and understand that they can open it when they want, and that it's not an imposition on them.
DB: So explain that a little bit. The non-invasive part—do you feel like the letter was a more invasive...?
JM: No, I think it'd probably wasn't but it took more trouble to write it, and post it, and 32 cents, or whatever it costs (whatever a letter cost to send before I started doing this). Then I have a friend who's a lifer. He doesn't have a computer, so, it's with Robby that I correspond by snail mail.
DB: Yeah
And do those feel different now? I mean, is it sort of a more difficult to get up, to write that letter?
JM: Yes. Yes, it is. And I wind up writing it here and printing it out, and signing it, and putting it in the mail. Then his letters to me are all in long-hand.
DB: I guess, in keeping with this latest work, when you went back to revise the poems, that was a fairly similar process, too?
JM: I think it was exactly.
DB: Exactly the same?
JM: Yeah
DB: And then kind of a general question about your revision process, and this is one that I kind of... And this is a little bit repetitive. So, are the revisions driven by sound, by meaning, by theme, by structure? Are these all kind of intertwining?
JM: I think they are.
JM: You know, it has to be—it just has to be. What can your ear bear here? And if it can bear it, is it saying what it has to be saying?
DB: So, that's kind of step 1 and step 2 for your revisions?
JM: Yeah, and they're probably inseparable.
DB: Right, right
Do other people play a process in your revisions or in your working?
JM: Yes, they do.
DB: OK, how so?
JM: I'll send then drafts and get responses from them that are almost always helpful. And they're helpful in terms less of my being able to meet what they might have preferred to having what they've said to me help me prefer what happens once I make the revisions.
DB: OK, and have those people stayed the same throughout your career, or they've changed somewhat?
JM: They've... Yeah, there've been a couple who are new in the last 4 or 5 years on this most recent books—colleagues.
DB: And how will that process work? Will you now email them a section whereas before you might send them a letter with the section, or...?
JM: Yeah, it's easier. This makes it a lot easier to do and (55:00) then, of course, I get work from other people in this form, too, and I like that. I've liked it... I mean, I haven't taught now for a year and a half, but I've really liked the way the computer makes it possible to re-lineate poems that I've gotten from students—just to give them a sense of how I hear what they're doing with the lines. It's been a help. It's been a help to me. I haven't seen much evidence that it means anything at all to them.
DB: No, I can tell you from experience. It's a lesson--it's a valuable lesson.
JM: Oh, good
DB: Definitely!
JM: Well, you may be the only one.
DB: Sometimes it's difficult in the lessons learned but definitely valuable.
[OK, let me look at this for one second. Do you want to take a break by any chance?]
JM: [I'm fine. Now you want to take a break!]
DB: [She's tired of these questions]
DB: So, how did you keep track of all these things? I mean, I guess, with the computer if fairly... You have one file with all of them in it?
JM: Yes
DB: And before that, did you just have them in a binder, or...?
JM: Just loose pages probably.
DB: Just loose pages.
JM: With a clip probably.
DB: OK, and with that... As you got the manuscript more towards where you wanted, that would just grow bigger and bigger?
JM: Yeah
DB: So, it's a fairly easy way to do that.
JM: Yeah
DB: So it wasn't like some of the other writers, like they have these special notebooks; they have kind of like a process where they move from notebook to this, to this? That wasn't...?
JM: No
DB: That part of the writing was never that...?
JM: No
DB: And those files and that sort of ephemera, it's never....It doesn't seem that it was that dear to you?
JM: No
DB: And it's still not?
JM: No
Do you know... Have you ever thought why?
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.
Do you... I guess, in the same way in the computer? How do you feel about computer files? Do you try to... Do you have much sort of sense of trying to maintain them and keep them, or are they just sort of means to getting it to that point?
JM: They're the Work In Progress. At the most recent stage, if I'm going to get on an airplane I'll send what I've got on the book as a whole to a couple of people. They'll understand why I did it. So, that would be one of the later things that I would do before I got on the car to take us to the airport.
DB: OK, yeah
JM: It's egomaniacal, you know, in its way.
DB: Yeah
But, I mean, it's also your work.
JM: It's my work.
DB: Yeah
So, the product (the poem)—where does it exist? Is it in the book? Is it in the printed out page? I mean, I know you're very strong proponent of the aural poem... I guess that's sort of a larger question, but where is it?
JM: I guess it's in the book.
DB: It's in the book?
JM: Yeah
JM: And I would want form, which in my case is the line and the stanza, to instruct a reader of that book on how I hear the phrases and the sentences.
DB: Right, right
Do you ever record yourself doing this? Have you ever like recorded yourself reading a book, or has anybody ever asked you to do that?
JM: I did read... Somebody recorded All of Capacity. Matt Nelson did it. Some years ago, I was asked to do some for one of those New York poetry societies, or... I can't remember what the others are, but I did. I have recorded some things. I've liked doing it, but it's only been when somebody's asked me for a recording.
DB: I think that would be a valuable thing.
[Let me just look through these. I think, we've gone... We've actually organically answered some of these questions I have, so that's nice.]
DB: This is a little off, but has the internet changed the way that you do any of this process? Has the kind of availability of all these extra information allowed you to maybe find books, or find ideas and research online in a way that changed anything for your writing?
JM: I'm so bad at this that Amazon has like been the only resource that I've been helped by. I'm sure there's lots else there, but it hasn't served me. I'll google some things but not much.
DB: Not much
Do you... I mean, why do you feel like you're bad at it, I guess, is a question. Is it something... But it's something that... I mean, is it something that you feel like kind of naturally, inherently, bad at, or...?
JM: Yes, I feel naturally, inherently bad at it.
DB: And at the times that you have sort of attempted to teach yourself, it's just not something that come naturally, and not something that you've needed?
JM: I think, yeah. I think if I had needed it more I'd probably would've availed myself of it more and taught myself how to do it. I guess, yeah—I haven't felt the need of it.
DB: Yeah, yeah
Again, where do your files and folders kind of reside on your computer? Are they... Do you have like a folder for that book with all the drafts, or is it just one document?
JM: Just one document.
DB: Just one document.
JM: Just the most recent.
DB: OK, and that's how it works for almost everything?
JM: Yes
JM: And I think that would be related to what you probably remember—if I'm seeing students revisions, I'm interested in the one that they feel is the strongest, and I'm not going to compare it to earlier things. I wouldn't want... I want them to be making that call, and that's what I want them to hear from me back about.
DB: Right, right
DB: How do you... I mean, you've sort of spoken about this in describing your earlier practices. How did you get that acumen in sort of being able to tell? I mean, it's just...
JM: I don't know. Just listening to a lot of great, great music, I think. I mean, that would make more sense to me than anything else.
DB: Hmm...
OK, and what was the... Is there a progression of music that you listen to ever?
JM: Yes, yes
DB: Can you talk a little bit about that?
JM: I think I was helped immeasurably by what I listened to when I was 12 and 13 just in a really bad way, and that was first jazz from the early '50s that got to be more and more exclusively black jazz, or black musicians. And that got me through high school, and then I had other things to do once I went to college. It kind of was suspended pretty much all the way through my undergraduate work, and my graduate work, then it came back once I had the job here.
So, in the late '60s, it was the popular music—rock mostly—and The Stones and Hendrix were kind of at the top of that list. Then Hendrix was dead and The Stones weren't what they had been. At that point, I had a need for music that got to me, and there wasn't any more of it coming from jazz or rock, so then I started learning classical, learning the literature of
(1:05:00) classical music, and it's had hold of me since November of 1973. You know, I feel that it's trained my ear to be what it is. I don't know how it's done that but it's been elemental to me.
DB: Did you take any formal education?
JM: No, no
DB: Just listening?
JM: I just listened.
DB: And where would you find... How would you find new things? What was your progress there?
JM: From composers and from artists both. So, going at it both ways
DB: Yeah
Have there been particular composers, or artists, at times that you listen to more? I mean like is there... Does it move forward, or...?
JM: It's been Mahler and Beethoven at the top, and then Brahms and Bach. Loads of others but Mahler and Beethoven most of all.
DB: I mean, you based one of your stanzaic forms on the... Who was it? Was it—
JM: Well, Schoenberg, whom I'm not that crazy about but the 12-tone system suggested to me a stanzaic progression in which if I've got (as I had in the two most recent books) 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5 line stanzas—the 12-tone system in which he would not come back to a note until he had used the other eleven [on the] scale suggested to me a form in which I would not interrupt the progression of 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 until I'd exhausted all of those five. And then I would begin the next sequence with another number and try to have that second sequence be as varied from the first as I could be, and then continue that all the way through.
That's not to say that I wouldn't wind up having a 3, 2, 1, 4, 5 sequence somewhere else in the poem, but I'd want it to be removed by several other sequences.
DB: Right
JM: So, variety is one of the models but that was the form.
DB: And how did you... Did you pick that up by listening, or was that from a reading? I mean, are you reading about this as well, or...?
JM: No. I mean, I just knew what the 12-tone system was and knew no more about it than that.
DB: OK, but it—
JM: It's just in one sentence thing. So that suggested itself to me. I began it with a poem I wrote about Greenland called "T"he World At Large." There, I was working with 1, 2, 3, and 4—I stopped at 4 there. And then the next time, I was in to Capacity. In that book, I added a 5-line stanza.
DB: Capacious stanza.
JM: It was more capacious.
DB: Great!
JM: I would say, too, that when I think back about moving from the late '60s when I was writing poems I didn't like, weren't very good, into the early '70s, I think there's a non-accidental relationship between the forms I was working with having been as short as a 3-minute take and a sonata form, or a scherzo trio form, or an adagio, or something like that that the lengths of it (the units I was working on ) got larger when I was listening to pieces of music that were 8-9 minutes to ½ an hour long.
DB: Right, that makes a lot of sense.
And you're listening to this classical piece. Was it a very active listening? I mean, is it usually like you're alone with the music? Is it a head-... Do you listen to it on
(01:10:00) headphones?
JM: Both
DB: Both
JM: A lot of it. You know, I spend a lot of time with it.
DB: Yeah, and are you ever writing while that's on?
JM: No
DB: You give the attention to the music?
JM: Yeah
DB: OK, and that's still a part of your process now?
JM: Yeah
DB: That's fascinating!
DB: OK, I have a little bit, a few more questions—a little bit on teaching—and then just kind of the blunt ending questions.
You just speak about this with the computer kind of changing your relationship with your students. You can kind of rely in their poems to show them how you hear them. Is there any other ways that you've seen this computer sort of age adjusting, or affecting, your teaching and working with students?
JM: I don't think so. It's made it all more efficient in terms of not having to go to the mailbox to get the copies, but to just come here and here's their poems. I like that. I think they like it, too.
DB: Right, right
Do you see, in your later students, that there's like an increased technological or cultural understanding that affected their work, or...?
JM: No
DB: [inaudible 01:11:26]
That's fine with me.
JM: I mean, except that I think there's a probably a proclivity for exotic words that they trust Google will help you with. I think that's happened.
DB: Yeah, yeah
JM: I don't... That's not necessarily a gain, but it's not terrible either.
DB: Yeah, yeah. No, that's not bad.
So, I guess, I just have like the kind of blunt questions. I mean, this sort of the frame of my thing (of my study) is - what changes happened with this rise of personal computer. I mean, for you, it seems like maybe not that many. Do you have any opinions on kind of how...? Is there a change in feel, change in structure, or...?
JM: I like what's personal about this medium in that way that I've described already. I like the contact this machine gives me with people. I feel it's certainly more immediate. I think it's increased the contact that I have with people who are spread around the world. It's been more important to me since I don't go in to school and run in to people that I have conversations with. And I like the fact that it's this keyboard that connects me with them, and this keyboard that connects me with strangers who might read my poems. I like that about this—a lot. I like it a lot. I like it all the more now that when the phone rings, 90% of the time (even though I've asked not to be called by telemarketers) it's telemarketers.
DB: Yeah, because most of your conversations that are important now are on the computer.
JM: Yeah
DB: And then, I guess, has that changed the poems? Has that--?
JM: I don't think so.
DB: No, OK
JM: But I can't know that. I mean, it might well have.
DB: I mean, it's interesting to me. I guess just thinking of the Ulysses class, and just like thinking about that connection with people with being so integral to thinking about that book and about what you were talking about. And I wanted—
JM: My favorite class, ever.
DB: That was a great class.
JM: I mean, just by miles and miles.
DB: Good, good. I'm glad I was in it.
JM: I'm glad you were, too.
DB: I think... I guess... But I mentioned... I mean, it is in a sense a very good democratic object—
JM: It is.
DB: --and I guess I can see your relationship to it in that way. And I guess, it would be left for others to comment how that may have broached this.
OK, well thank you very much, Jim.
JM: Oh, it's been so good.
DB: That's great!
JM: You're so good at this. You really are.
Devin Becker: All right. I've basically got a few little sections to this. The first section is kind of like where you are at now with more digital work and the sort of technical processes that you use. The second session will kind of go through your compositional practices and how they've changed over the course of your career. So, the first one is almost like short answer, which I'm sure we'll go through it fairly quickly. If you would, for the camera, please state your name, your date of birth and the location where we are right now?
Bruce Beasley: Bruce Beasley. Date of birth January 20, 1958, and we are in my writing cottage in my studio in the back of my house in Bellingham, Washington.
DB: What genres do you work in?
BB: Poetry only.
DB: What kinds of devices do you own or have access to for writing?
BB: Devices?
DB: Yeah.
BB: You mean like computers?
DB: Sure.
BB: I have a laptop, a Toshiba Satellite laptop computer, and that's mainly it.
DB: Is that it? Do you work on a tablet or a phone or anything like that?
BB: No.
DB: Or pretty primarily on that device?
BB: That and my office computer, which is a desktop.
DB: The operating system on which you work, is that a Windows?
BB: Windows 7—or that's Windows 8, now.
DB: Do you work on that office computer very often or is that—?
BB: I do. In the summer, like now, I work almost exclusively here on that computer. When I'm at work, when I'm teaching, I am often working a couple of hours a day during the day, and I work mostly on the office computer when I'm doing that. So, I'm always sending files back and forth.
DB: How do you do that? Do you email them to yourself?
BB: I have Carbonite on this computer.
DB: Okay.
BB: So, you can call up these files there easily, but not vice versa. Things that I put in my office computer, I have to email to myself if I want to work on them here.
DB: Okay, so you don't have the folder on your office computer, you just have the kind of shared folder here?
BB: Yeah.
DB: Do you use computers exclusively or do you also work —physically?
BB: I use computers mostly. What I do a lot is—I've brought some examples of this, if you want to see them—I write a lot when I'm walking. I take long walks and scribble in a notebook like this one. Just usually individual lines—let's see if I can find some examples. And then often I will transcribe them onto note cards. Just—this says: "Your omissive offspring deviled what you've got in there," which is lines that I was working toward a poem called "Offspring Insprung," which is a response to a sculptor named Bruce Beasley—he has the same name as me.
We've been doing this kind of collaboration. I have been writing sort of my self-portrait through the lens of his sculptures. So he sent me a sculpture called "Offspring," which is in the house if you want to see it—one of his sculptures. And I wrote a poem called "Offspring Insprung" responding to his sculpture. So when I was writing that, I was taking long walks and just scribbling down random lines.
I can write individual lines by hand. When it comes to a whole poem, I do it almost exclusively on the computer. This one says, "Even the evenings are odd, even the odds are even/ offspring, autumnal, equinox, off quilter," which are not lines I ended up using but often, when I'm doing this kind of walking, I'll end up with a stack this big of note cards, and then when I'm at the computer, I shift them around and type them up, and rearrange them and shuffle them and move them into different places.
DB: So, you'll have them, like, kind of spread out in a grid on your desk essentially?
BB: Yes.
DB: And then move them around. How does that help you—are you sort of picturing them on a page, then?
DB: Or are you still kind of picturing them in the air? How is that?
BB: In the air—very much in the air. And I'll do a thing where I'll start by dealing out a card, so like I'll just randomly deal a card—"coverts of the cube"—and start writing from that on the computer. I'm a big fan of craps and gambling, and I like to think of words as, like, "rolls of the dice," in a way. So often when I'm beginning a poem, I'll start with the straight lines and images, or phrases, quotations—like this—and then when I'm sitting down with a computer, I'll deal them out with something like—"You're in geometry."
My teenage son was in geometry, taking geometry, but I was thinking about Bruce Beasley the sculptor, and how geometrical his abstract sculptures are. So, I write like, "You're in geometry," which is also not something I ended up using—though I kind of like it now. So yeah, I do a lot of handwriting work like that, especially when I'm walking.
DB: Okay. And where do you walk?
BB: The bay is about half a mile from here, Bellingham Bay. The beach is about one mile exactly. There is a beach called Little Squalicum Beach. I usually walk from here down to there and sit on the rocks by the water, by the beach.
DB: Will you write while you are walking?
BB: Yeah. I carry either note cards or a notebook with me and scribble things down as I'm walking.
DB: Do you have specific notebooks that you use? I mean, that seems like a very unique notebook.
BB: It's got a Byzantine cross on it. It's kind of appropriate for me.
DB: Yeah! No, it's great. Do you have many of those?
BB: I do. And I'll write—often when I'm writing, I'll just write tittles off and I'll start with just tittles. So, just yesterday, I wrote "False Negatives," "Team Lullaby with Abraham and Dedalus," "Isaac and Icarus," "Be All and End All," "Study for Happiness." Often I'll start with a title like that and start mulling it—and scribbling down lines for it in a journal like this one, and then when I get enough lines, either put them on note cards or just sit down with a computer and a notebook and start transcribing and moving around things that I've written in the notebook.
I can't remember the last time, and I may never have done it—written an entire poem by hand without a typewriter or a computer. I just don't work that way.
DB: Yeah, but you do write by hand a lot of the pieces of the poem.
BB: I generate—yeah, I generate fragments of the poem, but the act of consolidating and moving them, and making a poem out of them—for me it's always been done on a computer, or a typewriter before that.
DB: So, what do you do to kind of save—like when you are finished with the project or finished with these cards, do you save them somewhere?
BB: Yeah. I was trying to find the rest of these. I have them, but I can't put my finger on them—but they're somewhere.
DB: Somewhere like in a box or in a file, cabinet?
BB: Yeah.
DB: And how many notebooks do you have at this point?
BB: I have a lot. I have a box of them this big, in no particular order. The other thing I do—you might be interested in—is once a year I print out all the notes, all the computer writing I've done. I keep them in a bound journal that is by year. So this one, for example, is 1999—and you'll see that a lot of times, when I work on the computer, I'll write a kind of journal, just sort of what's going on and what I'm thinking about, and working with stray pieces of poems that I've written down by hand.
And then—I don't know, somehow it's important to me to have it all printed out. Because when I'm writing and in between poems, I'll often skim through the printouts of previous years, looking for pieces of poems I've started but never finished, or just stray lines that didn't go anywhere but now they do.
DB: So does this serve almost like—so would you search for things on your computer, too? Or you would rather come search your own archive, your own index?
BB: I don't like reading on the computer, I never have.
DB: Okay.
BB: I like to write on a computer but not read on it. And what this also does is it gives me all the drafts of every poem I have ever written.
DB: And you do this once a year? You print out everything once a year?
BB: Yes.
DB: Are there dates on the poems themselves?
BB: Yeah.
DB: So you date—and do you put a time? Or do you just—?
BB: I do. Like this one says, "December 10, 1999, Dickinson's birthday and Don is a friend of mine, come to think of it, Friday morning 9:15," and then I'll start talking about what's going on and then start working on lines from a poem, thinking about etymologies—Latin penetralis, inner. penetrari—"to penetrate"—from which comes penetralia. "Penetrate is to enter or force the way into, to grasp the inner meaning of"—you know, that sort of associative thinking. But I do it in writing on the computer, often, and when I'm not doing that I'm walking and doing it in my mind and jotting down notes in a notebook.
DB: Do you have like a schedule to which you try to keep, or is this just kind of a continual work?
BB: Continual. When I'm—in the summer, or on sabbatical (because I was on sabbatical most of year before last), then I'll write every day, all day, as much as I can. I mean, I'm here at my desk, right there or right here, or walking. Often I'll walk for two hours and come back and write for two hours, or something like that.
DB: So, mostly it's here.
BB: I'm a really obsessive writer, so when I'm writing I do it kind of nonstop. But I go long periods where I don't write—that's my kind of schedule.
DB: And usually those correspond to your teaching?
BB: Yeah.
DB: And you teach—is Western on a quarter system?
BB: Mm-hmm.
DB: So, you teach from September to mid June every year?
BB: Late September to early June, yeah.
DB: Alright. So let me kind of backup for a second. We've talked some about your practices now; I'd like to kind of think about different eras in your own career, and your writing practices then, too—and we can kind of relate them a little bit, hopefully. But before that, could you say how long you have been writing? This isn't scare quotes, but—professionally?
BB: My first book was published in 1988, so '98, 2008—twenty-five, twenty-six years.
DB: Could you give kind of a—describe, kind of give a broad arc of your career, just to kind of ground the interview a little?
BB: In terms of what I have written and published?
DB: Yeah. Where you've been, what the projects have been, etc.
BB: Okay. So, I grew up in Macon, Georgia. I started writing poems when I was about twelve, and—really awful, awful poems when I was twelve. But I kept writing all through high school, and went Oberlin College where I took a lot of creative writing classes, majored in English. Then I went to Columbia University MFA program after that, immediately after that. I graduated from there in '82 and I did a series of editorial jobs during the first half of the '80s, writing for alumni magazines and things like that, and other magazines. I worked for a magazine called Good Life, which was a magazine designed to be marketed to the richest people in the country, things like that—1% top, 1% maybe—and ironically it went bankrupt shortly after I started working there.
And then in '86, Wesleyan University Press accepted my first book, Spirituals, and that gave me the kind of jolt I needed, I think, because I just felt this increasingly grotesque disjunction between what I was doing for a living and what I cared about. So I went back and got a PhD at the University of Virginia in American Literature. I did a dissertation in Emily Dickinson, and then while I was in the PhD program I wrote most of my second book, The Creation, which won the Ohio State University Prize and was published in '94.
DB: Who chose that? Was that Charles Wright? Or was that the next one was Charles Wright?
BB: No, that was—I think David Citino who was the judge of that. And I came here to Western in '92, moved out to Bellingham in the fall of '92. In '96, Charles Wright picked my third book, Summer Mystagogia for the Colorado Prize, and then Wesleyan published Signs and Abominations in 2000. Five years later, Lord Brain—a book about cosmology and the mind and the brain and looking at metaphysics through the physicality of the brain and the structures of the cosmos—won the University of Georgia Press competition, was published by them. And then The Corpse Flower, my New And Selected Poems, was published by the University of Washington Press in 2007, I guess. The most recent was Theophobia, which BOA published in 2012.
DB: And from 1992 to now, you've been professor at Western Washington, teaching?
BB: Yeah.
DB: So, I have this kind of broken apart into, like: "composition," "writing," "prewriting," "generatives," "structure," "revising/revision," and then "organizational/archival"—which is more like putting books together, etc.—and I'd like to talk about it in different stages. So if those don't work for your writing process, let me know. We can talk about it differently. But we probably won't even—we'll probably just talk.
So when you first—like, right out of college up until your first book—what was your writing process like then? How were you writing then?
BB: I was working on, as I said, a series of editorial jobs, and I did a lot of writing at work, which was nice because I had jobs working for PR offices at colleges and universities, but they were jobs where there was a huge amount of spare time where there was really nothing to do. I wasn't expected to do anything; there was nothing to be done.
You know that old ad—the Maytag Repair ad? There was an old, famous ad campaign for Maytag washing machines, and the joke of it was that the washing machine never broke down; so they had Maytag Repairs, and the Maytag Repairs people were just really bored, they had nothing to do. So, I had a sign on my desk that said Maytag Repairs. But I had a lot of spare time, so I would write a lot at work on my typewriter—this was before computers. So, I wrote a lot of my first book in those jobs.
DB: So, we can talk about the pre-writing, generative—were you taking notes like you do now? How did you get to the poems, I guess, at that point?
BB: I was typing.
DB: You were just typing?
BB: Yeah, typing. I probably had one of these notebooks here, if you want to look at it. Here is one, and I was printing it out—oh, this was a little bit later, this is '92—but it was printed out on these long rolls of printer paper, you know? Those old-style printer rolls?
DB: With like serrated edges? Yeah.
BB: Yeah. So just doing essentially what I do now—large chunks of prose that would lead to ideas and sort of mull through ideas—but I was typing it on a Selectric typewriter.
DB: Okay. And then printing it out that way. So when you started, you were writing on a typewriter and had a similar mode of kind of generative—did you do walks or anything like that in the early—?
BB: No, I had to be at my desk, so I couldn't.
DB: You had to be at your desk. Would you write lines and then rearrange them at that point? Or were you kind of composing more closely full poems?
BB: Exactly the same way I do it now.
DB: Okay. This could change.
BB: Doesn't change at all, no. I'd write stray lines and then start pulling them together and rearranging. The difference was, it was much more cumbersome to retype it all than it is now—but essentially the same process.
DB: As you progressed in your career, when did you move to a computer?
BB: I think my first computer was probably—did I have a computer in graduate school? I think probably at the end of—no, because I wrote my dissertation on a typewriter. No, I didn't,
BB: I had a computer when I was writing my dissertation in Virginia in the early '90s.
DB: Early '90s?
BB: 1990-1991.
DB: When you were getting your PhD what was your writing style like? Were you writing at home mostly?
BB: Yeah. And I was writing—I was doing long walks then, too.
DB: Okay. Through Charlottesville somewhere? And then was that when you started writing down on the note cards?
BB: No. That's a pretty recent thing.
DB: That's a more recent thing?
BB: Yeah.
DB: So that sort of early—that sort of note taking, walking, was established pretty early. Did anything change, like as you moved to Bellingham? Or was the process fairly similar for prewriting, etc.?
BB: It's been pretty constant.
DB: Pretty constant?
BB: Yeah.
DB: Has it changed by location at all? I guess one big event probably in your writing life is this thing [the small, separate space in which the interview is taking place]. What was it like? When this came into your life—when was this built, this cottage?
BB: I think about seven years ago.
DB: Did your writing practice change very much for it, or was it just made much more useful?
BB: It's easier. This is my flipper. This thing is crucial to my writing. This is the window crank for an old-fashioned window that I had growing up in Macon, Georgia. As a child I started a process of flipping this thing, or doing like this. I call it my "flipper." It's crucial to my writing and I have had it ever since I was a little kid, but as a kid I would throw it when I was thinking—and even as a teenager, I would write mostly by flipping this thing.
There is something about the action, repetitive action of throwing and catching, that's always been really important to generating ideas. It's similar to the kind of rhythm I have when I'm walking, I think—that kind of rhythmic catch and release. So often when I'm writing, all through my life, I have kept this thing with me and I flip it while I'm thinking. Often, I can't think unless I'm doing that. It's a kind of kinetic thing, I think, and when I'm walking, often I have a stick, a stick that I'm flipping or throwing around, too.
DB: Something with the hands almost always, too?
BB: Yeah. So, I lost this thing for a couple of years. Somehow it got lost, and it drove me crazy. Then I found it I was like, "My flipper! It's back!"
DB: That's funny. Within the writing process, do you have certain times when you pick it up? Are you more likely to use it when you are generating work or when you are revising, or does it—?
BB: Every—all times.
DB: All times?
BB: Especially when I'm revising. When I'm revising, I say the poems aloud over and over, always—and often when I'm walking. I can always tell a poem is almost finished because I've come to the point where I've memorized it without trying to—just from saying it aloud so many times. Often when I'm walking, I get to a point where I've got to draft in my mind and mumbling it to myself aloud, while I'm walking, to hear the rhythm of it and the sound of it and the words of it.
When I'm revising or when I'm generating new ideas, I often use this thing. I remember my roommate in college told me, when Suzanne and I were first dating, I would leave her house and come back to my own room in the house where I was renting a room, and I would lie in bed and flip this thing, and he came in and said, "You know, you tell Suzanne you're writing, but really you're just flipping your flipper." I said, "But flipping my flipper's how I write! That's what I'm doing, I'm writing!"
DB: That's fascinating. I guess I'm sort of trying to get—so you will use your flipper in somewhat pensive moments when you are kind of considering what you've written or what you are about to write, but also maybe—I mean, do you do it at your desk ever?
BB: It's kind of hard to do it in a desk, so maybe when I'm sitting or lying down in bed. So, in here, I'll pull the Murphy bed down, sometimes I might look out the skylight, do this and think, and jot down lines.
DB: Yeah. So you were saying earlier, like once you have these lines jotted down, you have the notebooks kind of composed and you also have big chunks of prose in the computer that you've written, too—
DB: —so, how does this jumble become a poem, exactly? Where do you get to the point where you start to rehearse it in your head and start to revise it?
BB: Oh, okay. So, the prose that I write is—I'll find something more recent—is designed to get me, it's just sort of a thinking aloud, and I encourage my students to try this, too. It works really well, for me anyway. So I'll start with just a kind of diary—not like a diary, but just sort of "this is what's happening right now," and then go from that to general ideas and images, fragments. Sometimes I'll make list of words that will take up a page or two. Sometimes I'll—this is my unabridged dictionary that I use—
DB: That you roll the dice—
BB: Obsessively. Yeah. Sometimes I'll roll dice to pick a page in the dictionary and open to that page, and just read that page until something in the words or the etymologies or the definitions trigger something.
DB: What's the edition? What dictionary is that?
BB: This is Webster's Unabridged New Universal. So I'll turn to a particular page—"clean lead," "clean sweep," "clean shaven," and "cleanser," "clean room," "cleaning woman,"" clean energy," "clean cut," "clean bill of health"—I'll read around it until something starts triggering something that's going on emotionally or intellectually right at that moment in my life.
Thinking about cleanliness and I might just start typing and thinking about associating with cleanness and dirt and pollution, and what it means for something to be "clean cut." So, I'll start writing some lines, and then often what I will do is—once I've got some lines or some ideas going, I'll go for a walk, and I will just fill up a whole page with words that sound good with the word "clean."
DB: Okay. How do you determine what sounds good with the word "clean"?
BB: Just associatively. "Clean machine," for example, sounds good to me. I would write on a note card or notebook "clean machine," even though that doesn't mean anything to me. What's a "clean machine'? And walking, I'll start thinking about a "clean machine," just as an example.
So, yes: how do you get from that prose to lines? I'll just read you an example:
Reading Celan: ‘it is time it were time'—which is a line, one of my favorite lines of Celan—"Amen to that. I want to write a ‘Damaged Self-Portrait'"—that's a poem that ended up being in Signs and Abominations—the principle of being to write about myself is I am now through suggested images rather than through narrative or logical progression."
So oftentimes I'll start with that kind of abstract, "this is what I want to do, how I'm going to do it," series of images for myself, for selfhood in general; disconnected images. And then I'll start writing lines:
Rent twin—and there, it's just that "rent" and "twin" sound good together—"Rent twin, gash in the oak trunk, mud sucked on boots/ What comes back comes halve, to crucifix, the awkward joining together of two broken sticks"—just sort of free-associating images and lines and ideas and words that draw each other—for me. And after awhile I will take some of those lines and start walking and thinking about it: what's "mud sucked on boots?" What am I talking about? I'll start building on that.
DB: How do you determine what comes first, what comes later? I guess—how do you build the progression of the poem?
BB: At first I don't worry about that at all. I just let lines accumulate, images accumulate, phrases—until I have a whole series of pages of drafts. Then I'll start worrying about it. I try not to make myself—I know poets who write from the first line on: begin with the first line and then write the second one. Linda Bierds once told me she writes that way, which astonished me because it's so utterly unlike anything I do. But I really try, especially when I write long poems—which a lot of my poems are—not to impose any order on it
BB: until I've got pages and pages of lines. Then I'll print them out. I think I can find an example of—okay; so here I have, like, just pages of lines separated by just asterisks or marks with no attempt at coherence. And at that point, I'll start moving them around: what if I start here? What if I put this here? Sometimes I'll have them all written down on note cards and rearrange the note cards, because I'll have one section, then I'll go through the note cards and say, "what would be interesting after this?" and I'll move that card to the second position and then type it all up together in that order and read it aloud until it starts to sound right.
DB: When you type it up on a computer like that, what do you—I guess I'm wondering where this all resides on your computer. Do you have a folder for notes and lines, and then a folder for, like, poems that are starting to come to fruition?
BB: Would you like to see an example?
DB: Sure.
BB: What I do typically is, within that file where I have all the ruminations and free associations and that kind of stuff—
DB: What do you call that file?
BB: You see—well, I'll show you. Sometimes I'll just call it by the name of the month to make it easier, like "June 2014." But often, I'll give it a title less thematic instead. Like I might call—the thing I was just working on, I might call it "Damaged Self," something like that. I like doing that, except that it's hard then to go back and figure out when that was written. So, I've started just calling them just, "June 2014." So when I got back to print them all out then I—
DB: You know what order to put in there—
BB: I know where, what's what, and I started organizing them by year on my computer. So under "My Documents," I have a file called "Poems." Within it I'll have—I don't know if you can see this—"2011," "2012," "2013," drafts of my book manuscript, All Soul Parts Returned, various other things. Within "2013," I have "Early summer 2013," "Ecclesiastes," "January 2013," "Late Summer 2013," things like that.
DB: Those are the files—those are the folders that will hold the individual poem?
BB: Yeah. So then I have drafts of a poem I was working on called "Speech for a Speed Date." This is a poem I wrote partly by taking the first poem I ever wrote when I was 12 years old and running it through Google Translate, through just about every language that they offer, until it came back completely deformed and defaced—and still, it was a really corny poem called "Light A Single Candle." It became speech—kind of a surrealistic speech for a speed date: "Do you enjoy the hiss of candle wax and cigarette ash? Do your hobbies include a love of what cannot die?" Some of which came out of those translations.
Then I'll have this kind of list of what's going on, and drafts of a poem called "Reading Jesus Again With a New Prescription." You'll see I have a whole bunch of lines that I'm working on, and what I often do is just copy those, and write some prose about them—sort of identifying what I like about it and what's bugging me about it, what I don't like about it—and then paste it back again, move things around. Often, I'll put bold face when this is a revision process, when I get to a place that I don't like or feels clunky, I'll bold face it so that I can come back to it and just say, "What am I going to do to fix that?" Then the next draft I'll cut it or change it or—here's a whole section, it's all in bold face. I think I ended up cutting it. This is a fairly long poem so there are a lot of drafts of it. Then I'll copy it over and over until I get it the way I want it.
DB: So, all drafts are in one file?
BB: Yeah.
DB: And you just keep copying and replacing and bolding parts that you have problems with?
BB: Yeah.
DB: And then as it gets towards the end of the file, it's getting towards its final form.
BB: So, like here I'll have the draft of that "Speech for Speed Date," and then I'll say: "The cling of cigarette ash to candle wax feels a little bland, intensify it"—I'll sort of give myself instructions like that. "Tallow" might be a better word than "candle wax." "Do you enjoy the cling of cigarette ash to tallow?" and various versions of it. You'll see I've got, like: draft, draft, draft—probably ten or more drafts of it in here.
DB: So, I'm interested in the Google Translate stuff. Have you done that before, or it's just the first time?
BB: This is the first time I did that. Well, no, actually I did that partly with one of the poems in Theophobia. It's a poem about the Gospels and a meditation on the gospels. I'm forgetting the title of it right now. I've got it right here somewhere. Yes, a poem called "The Kingdom of God is Not Ushered In With Pump and Exclamations."
What I did with that is I took some of the passages of the Gospels and ran it through Google Translate to see what would happen to it. So they would be partly recognizable from the Gospels, but partly different and estranged. I didn't use exactly the phrasings that came out of Google Translate, but allowed it to shake up the familiar, biblical, canonical sayings in such a way that it became stranger, and gave me ideas for rephrasing things.
DB: Before that have you ever done any similar practices?
BB: Not that I can think of.
DB: Have there been any other computer kind of enhanced ways of composing poems?
BB: Not computer enhanced. A lot of aleatory practices, like the dice I mentioned in sense—in The Corpse Flower called "The Craps Hymnal," where I rolled dice everyday for a period of several months and went to a page in the dictionary, and worked that way.
DB: In The Corpse Flower they have the dice as the—so how did you do that? Did you work with the publisher to do that—to have the dice appear above the title?
BB: I had it in my manuscript.
DB: You did have it in the original?
BB: Somebody who read the manuscript said, "No publisher is ever going to do this. They are not going to reproduce dice on every—" I said, "Yes, they are. They have to. It's part of the poem." University of Washington Press, they were great about it, they agreed to do that.
DB: Good. And you also—is it in that poem, or it's another poem where you have like bolded but shadowed—?
BB: In "The Rotbox."
DB: Yeah. Where did that come from, I guess?
BB: That came from a good friend of mine who is a geologist, and he collects animal bones as part of his research. He's very interested in the physiology of animal skeletons but he had on his property up in the country, this thing he called the rotbox where he would take animal carcasses and allow them to rot over winter, and then have a day in the fall where he would harvest, he called "harvesting a rotbox."
I went with him, and it actually happened to be the day that the war in Afghanistan started. So, I spent the whole morning helping him harvest this rotbox, which is a matter of taking these skeletons out of this big decomposing pit, and cleaning them with bleach and other stuff. It was, I don't remember—cow skulls, I don't know. I'm not sure what it was. So, I spent the whole morning with him doing that and then, as I was driving home, I was just still stinking of decomposition—
DB: Did you volunteer for this job?
BB: He called me up and said, "I'm harvesting the rotbox, you want to come?" I went, "Yeah. Hell yeah." So, our friendship began really because we hardly knew each other at that time. But all the way home from the county, I was listening to the radio and the bombing had started—"Shock and Awe" had started in Afghanistan. I was thinking about things that did decompose, and words and phrases that decompose into other words and phrases.
DB: How were you able to do that on your computer? Were you sort of experimenting with the fonts, and—?
BB: Yeah. I think what I did is used a larger outline font.
DB: Okay.
BB: So that the letters would look hollowed out.
DB: Before the computer, did you ever have inclinations to use, sort of, fonts like that? Or do any sort of things—?
BB: No, I didn't. I'm very interested in some of the visual poets, poets like Ronald Johnson. His early work which is all typewriter-based, but he does some amazing things with the shape of the words and the appearance of the words using the typewriter.
DB: A lot of your poems, especially Signs and Abominations, where you use a lot of punctuation to kind of indicate either definitions coming or stuff like that—some of that is rote, but some of it, it seems, that you made up yourself. Is that—how did that come about, I guess is the question?
BB: I'm using a lot of punctuation in this new manuscript. Let me show you. Punctuation is a kind of separation of sections, but also is a kind of an element of meaning in the poem. So, this poem has a single asterisk for the first section, two for the second, three for the third, and so on. Others have crosses, dividing sections—which mean to suggest that Christian cross, of course, but also the sign of addition, each section being an addition to the previous one.
Let's see what else. One of my readers for this manuscript said they found it distracting, another said they found it exciting. I'm hoping for the exciting. Here I have a kind of version of—this is the one the Bruce Beasley poems. It's kind of a version of the "does not equal" sign, because I'm writing about this geometrical shape, I'm working with the geometrical shapes of punctuation and typography. And that, I suppose—well, you can do that on a typewriter. That's an imported symbol from my computer, a mediated text; so in that way I think...here I'm talking about the Korean letter, which has no sound. You have to put it—I'm learning Korean with my son, who is Korean—it's a letter you have to put in front of a vowel sound, because vowels can't come first in a word in Korean. So, if you begin with a vowel like an "A," you have to put this null of a consonant in front of it. But it also resembles an egg, or a zero. So, I'm working visually with the sound of that. There is a consonant shaped like an egg balanced on its end that stands for nothing, makes no sound, and I'm connecting that to certain hollow geometrical structures and Bruce Beasley sculptures. Does that answer your question?
DB: Yeah, yeah.
BB: This is a poem that's based on Empedocles, the ancient philosopher who believed that in primordial times, there were body parts scattered all over the world, disconnected—hearts and lungs and livers—and that they gradually morphed together and created monstrous, grotesque amalgamation of body parts, until eventually they came to a point where the body parts worked together and formed human beings and animals. So, here I have stray syllables scattered all over the page. That, coming together and trying to form words—like "formal," "chasmal," "malform," "fictile," "fickle," "cavern," "us," "Venus," "knee," "halo"—stray syllables sort of groping together to form words, and by the end of the poem, it goes on—you are left with shape, the omega, and this is also meant to indicate the womb—so a lot of visual shape. By the time the poem gets to the end, this makes perfect sense. The words—the syllables have come together into words, and the words have come together into sentences, and the sentences are coherent units of meaning.
DB: Do you write out the sentences in a more like prose style to make sure that they are working like that? How do you get from the notes, the line notes or the notes in your computer to something that's shaped, I guess is a newer thing?
BB: You'd be terrified with the drafts of that poem, because I have several hundred syllables and in the drafts—the rule of the poem is that once a syllable is introduced, it has to be repeated elsewhere in the poem. It has to keep repeating and recombining with other syllables. So I have pages and pages of syllables in alphabetical order and when they repeat, I would scratch some out. So I have "ac" and it formed "accident" and then it would come back as "accumulate." But any syllable that was introduced that didn't echo somewhere else in the poem, I would have to keep revising until it came back. So, in the beginning it was just a list of syllables—not even words, just syllables.
DB: I guess I'm interested, then—like, your early work is less disjunctively broken. So, when did that come in, and why did that come in?
BB: It started in late '90s, I guess. Signs and Abominations was a big break, I think, in poetics for me. I became much more interested in fragmentation and disruption, and imitating disruptive states of mind and disruptive states of knowledge with disruptions in the poems themselves. Whereas before that, I had been very interested in a kind of well-made poem that was coherent and imagistic and lyrical. I got bored with that mode and wanted to allow the poems to become stranger and more broken, and more intuitive and less logical, less linear.
DB: And it seems like you've kind of gone—you went down that path, and now you've gone down that path further into, oddly, a more kind of ordered shape—a visual shape—but, so how does sound work in that sense, then? You say when you are revising you are reading them out loud—how do you read aloud a poem shaped like an omega?
BB: I have a very particular way of reading it where I try to space out the sounds of the letters that are on either side of the omega, so that that central absence is there, and it's formed by sounds rather than a visual shape on the page.
DB: I guess I'm thinking to some of your Cage references right away when you say that. Is he a figure that came in later to kind of push forward some of those poetics as well or—?
BB: Yeah, Cage did. A lot of his ideas were important, especially when I was doing the aleatory sequence with the dice and things like that. Reading Paul Celan was hugely important. I think I first read Celan in the '90s and he's become a giant, really important figure for me, and largely that his work speaks to me so intensely without me knowing what it's saying on any rational level.
DB: Does that mean you are reading it in the German?
BB: No, but even in translation—it's magnificent to me, but I would be very hard put to say what it means.
DB: I'm sorry, I misunderstood.
BB: Yeah. A version I have been reading that—"Streak in the eyes so that a sign be preserved to drag through darkness, restored to life by sand or ice"—that is magnificently suggestive to me, but I would not be able to paraphrase it. I have been working toward a kind of poetics that's much less paraphraseable.
DB: In the notes and what not, do you think you could trace like a—a poetics, like the progression of your poetics? Like in these notes and in these prose things that you write while you are writing the poems?
BB: Yes.
DB: So, you start to kind of reason with yourself or something like that?
BB: I talk to myself, yeah, which is a way of thinking, but it's a different way of thinking than at least I normally think. You don't talk to yourself—at least I don't talk to myself most of the time when I'm thinking. But when I'm writing these sort of meditations on the computer, I'm literally talking to myself. I'm saying, "I want to do this. Why do I want to do this?" I'm asking myself questions.
DB: So, you are sort of interrogating your own practice while you are practicing?
BB: Yeah, exactly.
DB: And you've been doing that the whole time, pretty much?
BB: Yeah.
DB: Were you taught—were you taught this? I guess it's an interesting practice and I'm wondering where it comes from.
BB: Was I taught it? No. I remember doing it in college a lot. I thought of it then as automatic writing.
DB: Yeah.
BB: And I guess I was introduced to the idea of automatic writing where you just write whatever comes in your mind as a generative practice. For me, automatic writing sort of became a "talking my through" a poem, or into a poem, and it's a practice I have kept. I don't think of it as automatic writing anymore. I think of it as just writing—just the way I write.
DB: One question that I kind of have from a little earlier is when you are doing this writing in prose and then you have the collections of notebooks that were written on the typewriter—so they weren't saved in files like they are now?
BB: That's right.
DB: So, you couldn't go back at the end of the year and print them out. So, how would you print those out?
BB: Daily.
DB: Daily?
BB: Yeah.
DB: Okay. And you collect them daily, too? So, you've been using—
BB: No, it's literary typing. So, on a typewriter I'll just save the pages and bind them into a notebook.
DB: Would you do the same thing—kind of a ritualistic, year-end thing—where you gather them all together, or were they just are coming together?
BB: I would just keep them in a box, I think, until the end of the year, and then bind them up into a notebook.
DB: Yeah. Is this something you do like every New Year's Day?
BB: No. Not in any particular time.
DB: Just at the end of the year sometime you like go, "I should—?"
BB: Usually around the beginning of summer, because I'm sort of looking back on what I've written the year before and have time to focus on things like that.
DB: So, like now would be a time?
BB: Now—I'll probably do the last six months of the last year sometime soon this summer.
DB: Okay. So, we've talked a lot about the kind of composition. We've talked some about the revision. Has the revision changed much over your career? When you introduced this more disjunctive line break, essentially, and got more fragmentary, did the revising process change?
BB: It did in that it used to be much more into clarity, clarity would be a big thing I would revise toward, in terms of driving out of the poem anything that didn't obviously belong to it thematically or imagistically. That's no longer really a concern because there are all kinds of things happening in my poems now that don't obviously belong together. So, it's much more intuitive than that, I guess. But I have a general sense of what I want a poem to be doing—what is in it, what isn't in it, and why—but clarity is not the thing that determines that anymore.
DB: Right. Would you say that you—are you driven by a certain—are they driven by sound, by meaning? What's the driving force of the revision, and has that changed? You've kind of said this—you were moving more towards clarity—but now, is there a sense that the sound is more prominent now, or that you—?
BB: The sound is definitely more prominent now, but also I'm paying much more attention to the shape of words on the page, the visual appearance of the words, and to the—let me show you an example from this.
DB: To be clear, you do work in Microsoft Word predominantly?
BB: Yes. Okay, so this is a poem that was published in The Gettysburg Review that's in the manuscript, and it's a poem about jellyfish, moon jellies in particular. It's called "Such and Such and Such and Such," where I play with the expression "such and such," but also the Buddhist concept of "suchness," which is a term that means "emptiness" in Buddhism, but it also means particularity, radical particularity. The "suchness" of a thing is its particularity, but it's also the awareness that it's empty. That it has no ultimate reality, and that it's changeable.
So I started this poem out eventually by moving the lines around. I can't stop watching the YouTube of these moon jellies, yanking their translucence inside out, over and over, and getting nowhere. So this is a poem that is in four sections because I'm playing with quaternity—"fourness." I have many drafts here, and part of the revision process was condensation—I felt it's too long—so there I wrote, there, "It's not bad,
BB: condense a bit down to thirty-two lines rather than forty." So typing it up is part of whatever else you are doing—
DB: Making a note as to what that revision did in the revision?
BB: Yeah.
DB: Is that something you do?
BB: Always. Then I went through each section, cutting things out, adding things—"some of the lineation feels clunky, I need to read through and adjust, pretty happy with that now"—so, that kind of thing. Revising more for condensation and surprise, I guess—disruption and surprise rather than clarity and consistency.
DB: But still—you said you were working with the four-parts theme.
BB: Yeah.
DB: So, you do impose a certain order on it as well, right? That seems something you do quite a bit.
BB: Yeah.
DB: In terms of different things you do, and then also quotations, etc.
So: we've gone through revision, we've gone through composition a little bit—well, not a little bit, a lot bit. How do these become a book, then, I guess, is the question there?
BB: I've been working on exactly that. This book is called All Soul Parts Returned. I'm still pointing to the title here—I have All Soul Parts. It started—the concept of the book started with a friend who gave me a pamphlet. I was going through some difficult time emotionally about something, I don't remember what it was—but he had somebody hand him a pamphlet that a New Age shaman gave him, and it was a pamphlet that said, "Come to this workshop for $375. You can consult with a shaman who will travel into non-ordinary reality and find your missing soul parts and bring them back to you." It said that the cause of all emotional turmoil, upset, unhappiness was that parts of your soul had broken off and gone away, and they had to be returned and they could only be returned by a professional. The professional travels into a mystical state and finds your soul parts, and the pamphlet had this statement on it: "All soul parts returned for a fee." I found that hilarious.
I said, "That's the problem, my soul parts are gone." But as I started thinking about this poems in conjunction with each other, I realized it made a really, I think, rich metaphor for loss, for grief, for emotional pain, and that it pulled together a lot of the things I was dealing with in this manuscript. Also tonally, this manuscript is much lighter in tone, a lot more humor in it than in my other books.
So the revision process has been one of moving things around and structuring poems in relation to each other. So, I've got three big parts of it. One part is a long poem called "The Mass of the Ordinary," which is a kind of contemporary mass with all the traditional sections of the Catholic mass—the kyrie, the gloria, and agnus dei, and all these parts of the mass—I really have that as one big chunk. It's about ten poems, fairly long poems. I had that all together in the beginning. Then I have a long series called "Praise Song for Schopenhauer," about philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer. It's kind of an argument with Schopenhauer's pessimism.
And like the mass, it's pulling toward orthodoxy and traditional Catholic faith. I'm a converted Catholic, and the Schopenhauer poems that are pulling towards pessimism and nihilism and philosophical despair. Originally, I had started with the mass and ended with the Schopenhauer poem; that wasn't working, because it ended with the book being very despairing in a way I didn't want it to be. So the way I'm doing now is I have broken the mass poems and the Schopenhauer poems up, and they are interspersed all the way through the manuscript as a kind of two tugging, contrasting motifs that are arguing with each other all the way through.
DB: So does the composition of a book like this feel a lot like the composition
DB: of an individual poem? I mean, is it fractal-like, in that sense?
BB: It does, exactly like that.
DB: Has that been the case in your entire career?
BB: Yeah. It feels exactly like a large poem, in that now the individual poems are the stanzas—do to the book what the stanzas do to a poem—which means you can move them around and the poem changes meaning drastically according to where you start and where you end.
DB: Do you change the poems, too, once they are in this order? So you're still working on the poems and you're working on the book at the same time?
BB: I revise my poems to help them illustrate the structure of the book. I have a poem that I wrote—when I was on sabbatical, I wrote a poem—I had to write a report to the provost where you tell them what you did on your sabbatical. And I got the idea that I would write that as a poem. So the poem is called "Report To The Provost On The Progress Of My Leave."
So I decided at one point that this is a poem about losing your soul parts and losing parts of yourself. So I thought what if—and I was talking to a friend of mine, and I said, "Wait, what if I put the leave poem first, because then it begins with the leaving?" And the first line of that, when I revised it, I realized I could move this to the beginning of the poem and thus the beginning of the book was "I've gone missing, the way someone else might go drinking or caroling."
So now the book is called All Soul Parts Returned, and it starts with losing myself, losing control of myself—emotionally, psychologically, spiritually—it starts with sort of losing connection with yourself, and then ends now with coming back of the self. So the way I've got an ending now—and this is still in process, but I think it's going to go this way—it's ending now with a section that says, "I'm here with most of my soul parts. None of us just wishing we were here." So it goes from losing soul parts to regaining them, because I wanted the title All Soul Parts Returned to be ironic, but also to be what happens in the process of the book—so the book being the act of personal shamanism that brings back the missing parts of yourself and reintegrates the self.
DB: So you become the professional, in some way.
BB: Yeah, on returning my own soul parts!
DB: Yeah, that's it.
BB: But I've showed the manuscript to several friends and other poets, and I haven't felt like the overall metaphor I'm working toward is coming through clearly enough. And I think it is partly because this idea of soul part retrieval is so alien to people who aren't in that subculture. So what I'm planning to do now, and I'm planning to start on it next week, even, is a brief lyrical introduction that describes what "soul retrieval" is, and describes, the shamanist's belief—that every time you endure any kind of trauma, a part of your soul leaves you and that your soul diminished because you've lost parts of your soul that are no longer accessible, and if they can be restored, then you'll be restored the wholeness.
But one of the epigraphs I have here—this is an epigraph—it's from a New Age website and it's a "Frequently Asked Questions." One of the questions is, "My soul parts don't like me," and this is from somebody who got their soul parts back, but now find that their soul parts are unhappy to be there. The answer is, "Of course they don't like you, but it's good that you know how they feel. First you betrayed them by sending them away, then you forgot them and left them there. Now that they are back, they discover that you are boring."
DB: That's good.
BB: What I'm trying to get at there is that even if you can get your soul parts back, they may not be happy to be there, because the soul is not a unit but a series of bickering parts.
DB: Yeah. I think it's in Theophobia where you mentioned—was there a website of "Seldomly Asked Questions"?
BB: I did write that out, yeah.
DB: Okay, I thought that was the funniest thing I'd heard in quite a while. I was like—because I'm building a website now for the library, and that would be really good—I've got an FAQ, but what about "Seldomly Asked Questions"—that would be a really funny page. So you seem to use the internet as content and as fodder for poems—starting, obviously, sometime around the early 2000's. Where does the internet lie in kind of your practice? I mean, I've seen printouts in here,
DB: and I see—you definitely used a lot etymology and stuff. Do you go to the internet for that?
BB: I do. I go to the Oxford English OED Online frequently, and I have poems in here that came out of OED definitions that are on the internet. There's a poem, I have in here. It was in The Kenyon Review called "Mean, Mean It," and it came out of—I was teaching a class on "Dreams and Poetry" and we were trying to define what dreams mean and what poems mean. I got the idea in class, "Let's pull up the OED online," and looked at what the word "mean" means. I did that—so I had it up on screen in the classroom, and one of the definitions of "mean" was an archaic definition that it used to mean "to lament or to mourn." So we were talking about even the word "mean" has multiple meanings that it didn't mean to mean, and how dreams are multiple and poems are multiple—but the word "mean," it could be words—even words are so multiple that you can't delimit their flux.
So I kept thinking about that and I was writing a poem called "Mean, Mean It," which is about the idea that meaning has lamentation or mourning lumped into it, because meaning can't be controlled. It can't be packaged, it can't be narrowed down. There is something wonderful about that, but there is something mournful about it, too.
DB: Before the internet became something that you were able to use more easily, what would you turn to to kind of do this sort of work? I mean, were you doing this sort of work? Where you—?
BB: I was, much more in the library than I am now.
DB: Okay. The internet meant leaving the library in some ways?
BB: Yeah. I still spend a lot of time in libraries, but yeah. It allows me to do things right here that I used to have to go to a library for.
DB: How much does research inform the poems? Obviously a huge amount and how does that work in relationship?
BB: I'm usually researching while I'm writing those paragraphs of sort of thinking and then stray lines. I'm often wondering things like—one of my poems I have in this manuscript has the line, "I keep wondering if mass and massacre have some common root." Then I'll go to the internet and search "mass" and "massacre" and copy from the OED—the definitions and the etymologies—and paste them into the document I'm working on, that kind of thing.
Or I'll start thinking about soul retrieval, and I'll go to a whole bunch of soul retrieval websites and see what kind of promises they're making. I find it hilarious that a lot of them don't even do it in person. You send them $350 through PayPal and they claim that they—from their own home in Virginia, or whatever it is—a journey into non-ordinary reality and retrieve your soul parts. And one of the questions is, "Don't you need to be with me in order to bring back my soul parts?" "Oh no! Your soul parts can be brought back to you spiritually;" and, "Is there a difference between soul retrievals that you do in person and ones that you do from a distance?" "Oh no. There is no difference at all." People are actually paying people hundreds of dollars to claim their—return their soul parts, but they have never even met them.
At least if you do it in person, they blow it—they will supposedly blow it into your mouth. They get the soul parts and they kinda blow the soul parts into your lungs.
DB: Did you, as research, get your soul parts returned to you? I guess is my—?
BB: I thought about it, but no I haven't. I don't want to spend that much money.
DB: Maybe you can get a grant?
BB: There is somebody who lives here and teaches at Western who is an academic expert on soul retrieval.
DB: Really?
BB: Right now I'm thinking of going to talk to her, but I'm not sure if I could keep a straight face doing it, because she takes it very serious.
DB: She doesn't offer the internet virtual soul retrieval?
BB: She doesn't do them herself, I don't think. She does train people on how to do it.
DB: Oh wow.
So, I guess one thing you've mentioned in passing a couple of times are other people in the relationship to your process. Where do other people fit in? I know your wife is a poet and a writer, and you have—I'm sure—many poet friends. Are they part of the revision process, or are they more like kind of general book-level process? Where do they come in? Are you corresponding with them?
BB: We read all of each other's work. We tend to read each other's work when we reach the point we call, "exhausting our resources," which means that you've revised enough that there is nothing in the draft that makes you—that you know you could improve. You've reached the point where you've done everything you can to it, and it's time to get somebody else's feedback. Suzanne will read my work, and she's a really great reader, and give me really honest feedback on what's working well and what needs work. And then I have, I don't know, four or five friends that I tend to share my work with. Usually after Suzanne has read it and I've revised it further, I'll send to them.
With the book manuscript, too—this is a stack of different versions of it that three different friends have read, and that Suzanne has read. One of the things I'm doing this week is going through the manuscript with all three or four versions—with marginal comments from three different friends and from Suzanne—and I'm going to compare page by page and see where there are commonalities that they all agreed that something needs more work, where there are contradictions, and think through the contradictions.
DB: Are these people that you work with, are they all poets themselves mostly or—?
BB: Yeah.
DB: Are they the same people who have been there the whole time, or has that changed throughout the course—?
BB: Mostly. Some of them—two or three of them are people I went to graduate school with at Virginia. We had a writing group where we all met once a week while we were at grad school, and we've sort of continued over the years through the internet. One is a new friend, a poet I met who has just read my manuscript for me and I read his manuscript for him and it's been great—but this is new. I have never shared work with him before.
DB: The ways that you've corresponded, I guess, earlier were by mail. Are you still mostly doing—I mean, those were physical objects—that you mostly send the manuscript to them or email the manuscript and then they send you back—?
BB: Email the manuscript and they send me back—
DB: —notes and all that? You can have that through for that. That's nice.
BB: Yeah.
DB: I think that's going to be—
BB: I have over here in my file cabinet a file called "Poems: Feedback from Readers," where I keep all the physical copies of all the poems that have come back from the people I've shown them to, which I use a lot in revising.
DB: I think we are pretty close. I would like to ask, kind of, the blunt question of this research, which is—I don't know, I mean, it's always all over the place—but: do you think anything fundamentally changed when you started to use computers more for your writing, or do you think those practices that you had before are just somehow metaphorically the same in a different kind of context?
BB: I would say it has influenced the content of my poems more than the composition process. It has influenced the context. Computers and internet have influenced the content of my poems a lot, doing a lot with websites, with that kind of radical interconnectivity of associative thinking that the internet suggests. I think that the dawn of the internet probably has changed the way I compose my poetics in certain way, and that it has given permission for more associative, mimetic thinking process that I associate with internet links.
I have a poem called "Hyperlinks" in Signs and Abominations that is a poem about thinking the way the internet thinks, in a way—in that everything reminds you of something else, it takes you to another place, so each line of the poem leaps from one idea to another that's only tangentially related to it. There are certain obsessive themes in that poem having to do with the birth of my son and adoption, and purification and rituals of sort of preparing for fatherhood—but they are oblique and they're associative.
And that, I think, was one of the first poems where I consciously wrote a poem whose thinking was related to the way I think the internet thinks—if we can call the internet a "thinker."
In some ways it is, you know what I mean?
DB: Yeah.
BB: But it hasn't really changed my composition process a whole lot, because I was doing on typewriters what I'm now doing on computers. It's made it easier to cut and paste, and to move things around.
BB: But I often do that on notecards and writing anyway, rather than on the computer—because there is something about writing out the sections of a poem on a card and then moving them around that I find more satisfying even than doing it on the computer. I'm using—especially in my newest poems—a lot of material that's based on the physicality of icons and things that are possible from a computer.
Let me show you some other example. Here's some more shapes that I am using in that poem: there is an X and a Y and then an omega. I'm using here reproductions of the Bruce Beasley's sculptures, which of course, would be possible without the internet, but I'm doing more visual collisions between text and image that is suggested by the internet.
DB: Yeah. Well, that's it.
BB: Okay.
DB: Thank you very much.
BB: Thank you.
DB: That was great.
Devin Becker: Here we are. It's March 18th and this is an interview with Michael Ryan. Okay-the interview kind of has two parts. The first part I just sort of ask about your current practices. It's based on the survey Collier and I did for an article about two years ago of like younger poets and how they work with digital media. So those are meant to be sort of short answer, just about how you save, how you type, stuff like that. Then, we'll kind of talk more about the arc of your career and different ways your process has changed or not changed in accordance with history, technology, culture. So if you don't mind, please state your name, date of birth, and where we are.
Michael Ryan: Michael Ryan, 24th of February 1946, and I believe we're in Irvine, California.
DB: Okay. This is kind of how you work currently. What genres do you work in as a writer?
MR: I write prose and poetry, essays, nonfiction, and mostly poems.
DB: So you're primary genre is poetry then?
MR: Yeah.
DB: I know these answers. Some of these will be repetitive and if it's like, you're like, "Okay, I answered that," just tell me.
MR: That's fine.
DB: Okay. What kinds of devices do you own or have access to for your writing, in terms of computer devices?
MR: I have a desktop computer and an iPad. I don't use the iPad much, but sometimes for internet stuff.
DB: Do you have a desktop computer here? Do you have one also at your office that you work on?
MR: I don't use it.
DB: You don't use it?
MR: Yeah.
DB: Okay. So, that's your main computer for composing?
MR: That's it.
DB: That's it?
MR: Pretty much, yeah.
DB: What operating system are you using?
MR: Microsoft Word.
DB: Is it a PC or a MAC?
MR: It's a PC.
DB: It's a PC, okay. Do you use computers exclusively for your work or do you use both physical and digital environments?
MR: What does that mean?
DB: I mean, do you work on paper and digitally? Do you go back and forth, or are you at the point where you work primarily on the computer?
MR: I draft poems by hand and then I'll go back to the computer and go sometimes back and forth. Prose, I write on the computer.
DB: Okay. At which point-if you're writing by hand-do you move to the computer?
MR: Yeah, it depends. Just it seems to be finished enough to make a typed copy.
DB: Okay. Do you have any prewriting or notes to these things or are they usually-?
MR: Yeah, again, it depends on the piece. They're all very different, but sometimes there are a lot of notes, sometimes there's not much. I don't usually take notes on the computer. I usually will do that by hand.
DB: Do you save those prewriting notes, the physical copies? Do you keep them somewhere or-?
MR: I keep everything, yeah. My papers are at the University of Virginia. Theoretically, someday I should be sending what's accumulated to them.
DB: How do you save your digital files, like your poem files, etc?
MR: I try to do them in terms of the draft numbers. Like, I will save the title. Sometimes, I'll put the date if it seems germane, but I will put numbers so that the first draft that goes on the computer is "1," and so forth.
DB: Do you save them all in one folder? What's the folder system like? Are you saving them in just, like, "Poetry Folder"?
MR: Yeah, no, just one. Currently, it's "Poems 2012-" because that was when I finished my last book of poems. So they're kind of arranged by book.
DB: Once you have the poem on a computer, do you ever print it out to revise it that way?
MR: Yes.
DB: Do you save paper copies of those drafts?
MR: Yeah. Well, usually. I can get sloppy about it, but I try to save most.
DB: How do you do that? Do you put them in files? Do you put them in boxes?
MR: My office is filled with stacks of brown boxes, as you might remember. It's all a big mess and a big pile.
DB: Some lucky archivist someday will have several months of work.
MR: Yeah. Lucky, or perhaps not so lucky.
DB: Were there also like brown bags too, or was it just boxes? I feel like I remember paper bags-?
MR: No, there were not brown bags.
DB: They were boxes? My memory-
MR: That's a screened memory, Devin. You think I'm sloppier that I already am.
DB: I picture you with grisly bags full of your working drafts.
MR: It's pathetic, but not quite that pathetic.
DB: I know. Do you back up your digital copies? Do you put them on a hard drive somewhere else, or any of that?
MR: No, I hope it has a back up system on it-I think it does. I think it backs it up automatically.
DB: Okay. Are you using something like Dropbox or any of those kind of cloud things?
MR: No, I'm not.
DB: Okay. Once you're finished with the poem, how do you save that finished piece? Does that go into a manuscript file? What happens once you feel like the poem is done?
MR: Well again, when it's done, it's just number whatever, "15," of that particular poem, and it just stays in that folder until it's time for a book. And then, I will transfer the latest final draft of everything into some other place, so that it's just the final drafts. Then, there's always galleys and proofread stuff, and so that becomes a separate folder.
DB: Okay. That's the quick digital beginning part of it. Now, we'll kind of talk with larger scope. How long have you been writing professionally, is the first question? By professionally, I mean in a way that you are sort of supporting yourself or that it has led to jobs or something like that.
MR: The first poem I published was in 1970. So, 44 years.
DB: What was your first poem?
MR: Actually, the first published poem that was in my first book was 1970, but before that there were a couple. But the first one and the oldest poem in my New and Selected is a poem called "Hitting Fungoes."
DB: Yeah, I like that one. Would you please describe the arc of your career, like kind of education all the way through what your current kind of position?
MR: I've been teaching all of that time.
DB: I mean, even before that, like your kind of education leading up to that too.
MR: When I went to Notre Dame, there weren't any writing workshops. I was an English major and I was interested in being-I was the editor of the literary magazine at Notre Dame when I was a senior there, and I wrote extremely bad undergraduate poems. I then went to Claremont graduate school and Claremont here, and was going to get a PhD in English and was writing poems all of that time, and decided to leave after three semesters, and dropped out, went to Cambridge, lived with some friends and I worked in a bookstore in Harvard Square.
There's a funny story about after I quit at Claremont. I was sort of a lame duck there. It was during the time of the Cambodia invasion and it was a very charged political time. I had gone through Iowa City and expected that since I was a poet, all the faculty on the workshop would want to read my poems. Kindly, George Starbuck met with me and I handed him a manuscript of poems and he put it in his desk drawer. We just talked for a few minutes. That was it and I left. After I quit the PhD program at Claremont, I got a letter from George Starbuck saying "You're accepted to the workshop. Why don't you apply?"
DB: That's nice.
MR: Wasn't it?
DB: Yeah.
MR: A miracle. Never could happen now, or come close to such a thing. But anyways, he was a sweet man and apparently saw something in my poems. So then I went to Iowa from 19970-1974. I got an MFA there. I couldn't get a job after getting an MFA, so they kindly offered to put me up for another year. I worked in the Iowa Review as a poetry editor. But they said, "If you're going to stay, you have to go back in the PhD program because we have to have a way to give you graduate aid."
So I did that, and worked on the Iowa Review. Still couldn't get a job after the next year. The fourth year, or between that and the summer after my third year, I got a call from the Yale University Press saying I won the Yale Series of Younger Poets, and so I went back to Iowa for a fourth year and finished up my PhD. They put me on the faculty for my last semester there. When I went to Southern Methodist University from there for four years, I then directed the MFA program-which is now at Warren Wilson-while it was at Goddard, and while the director, Ellen Voigt, had her Guggenheim year. I was there two years, I guess. No-one year. And then I went to Princeton for two years, and to Charlottesville, Virginia at the University of Virginia as a visitor, and was also, mostly, at Warren Wilson for all those years. And then came here, and I've been here since 1991-University of California at Irvine.
DB: All right.
MR: Was that too long?
DB: No-that's exactly what I'm looking for. I mean, just sort of, "This is what happened," you know? Now, I'm going to kind of ask you more specifically about your writing practice. I kind of delineated it into like three stages-the first being kind of like compositional prewriting generative stage, the second being the kind of revision stage, and then the third being the kind of organizational archival stage, by which I mean, like, when things are starting to be finished and your putting them into books, and then what you do with those publications and how you kind of work with that archival stuff. Does that make sense? If that matches up with your writing process enough to talk then-
MR: Sort of.
DB: Usually, it will just kind of go, and you'll probably answer questions that I have later, and we'll just go forward. So what I like to talk about is kind of like how you are writing initially in the beginning parts of your career, and then kind of to think about how that changed-if there were sort of significant changes, what those were, and stuff like that.
DB: So, would you please describe kind of your typical compositional practices when you first started writing professionally, like at Iowa, and maybe a little past that area? How were you writing? Were you handwriting? Were you using a typewriter? Did you keep a notebook, things like that?
MR: I don't think I kept a notebook in those days. When I went to Iowa, I was writing five poems a week. It was fun and easy-"Hey! This is easy!" And occasionally changing a word or two, and all by hand. I mean I would have to type it up at some point and that was on a typewriter in those days. A manual typewriter, I think. That changed in my second year there. I guess I just hit a wall and saw that I couldn't write the poem I wanted-or hoped to write-in one draft. And started multiple-drafting much more frequently, almost always. Most of the poems in my first book were written that way, and not the old way.
DB: How did that work, like just nitty-gritty wise?
MR: Well, again, it's always been going back and-I mean, it's mostly handwritten over, and over, and over, and over, and over again, starting from the beginning. I never have been able to do it any other way. First word first. First syllable first. All the way to the end. Sometimes, I will have a whole-in fact, in the happiest times-I will have a whole draft to work from. But there really isn't any way to formalize it because everyone's different. Every single piece I've ever written comes differently, has different problems. William Maxwell said he learned nothing about writing the next novel from writing the last one. It does feel to me sort of like I'm inventing the wheel every time out, and they just don't resemble each other. I have written poems in single drafts-not very often, but-I've also written 250 drafts of a poem and still not finished it, and it ends up in the brown box. I have finished poems that I started 25 years earlier, because for whatever reason-you know, my life is changed, I've changed a little, I hope-and I saw the solution to the problem, that was insoluble. It really is like doing problems, I think. At that stage of composition, at least. The ideas kind of that you get something that compels you. Isn't that how it is? It drives you through to it's finished, and that finish may take a while or not. It might take forms, there can be snags along the way. There can be endings that don't come, but it isn't linear-there are problems that occur. Structural problems, and so forth.
DB: In terms of how this is going, kind of physically-you say you just write a draft and you never go back and cross it out? Or do you write another draft, and another draft, and another draft, all handwritten? I'm just trying to clarify.
MR: No, I will cross things out, or write-in alternatives on the side.
DB: On the one sheet of paper?
MR: Yeah. I don't recopy the whole draft every single time-which I guess is what I indicated before-but not if it's just messing with tweaks. But sometimes the snag will get hit at line-whatever-5. Then, I will start all over again, or at line 25. I just have to have the whole thing in my head at a certain point, but rarely before a whole draft is there. I will go to the computer and type it up, and then it helps to see it printed-out. I don't work on the screen. I print it out and then work on it some more by hand.
DB: Is the way that you do it with the computer now the same way that you used the typewriter?
MR: Essentially. I mean, I guess maybe sometimes I do make little changes on the screen. You know, if I'm typing it up again or something, that will perhaps provoke-probably very minor-changes. Changing an article or-you know.
DB: Yeah. But never anything very substantial.
MR: Well usually not, is my recollection.
DB: And the handwritten composition pieces, where do they exist, physically? Are they in a notebook? Are they on just regular pieces of paper, or-?
MR: They're on yellow-well, actually I do have two things. You're making me see how idiosyncratic I am. I guess everybody probably is. What I do is I take a piece of white typing paper-usually it has something written on the other side of it-I will fold it in half, and I will start writing on one side of it. And, you know, if that goes on-if it's longer than that-I will go to the other side. And then when I have to store them, I will shove them together, you know, in a way that they can be folded-in inside, and the latest one will be on top. But also, I will write on yellow pads, and that'll come into the process. And then there are the typed sheets. It all sounds pretty chaotic when I say it, or really compulsive.
DB: But is it usually that progression? It starts on typing paper, moves to the yellow sheets, and then to the computer?
MR: Well, it varies. Sometimes, there are no yellow sheets. But I will never start composing a poem on the typewriter, or on a computer. Ever. That doesn't happen. It's all by hand. So it always goes that way.
DB: In terms of your prose work, does that start on the computer?
MR: Yeah. For some reason, I can write prose on the computer-and prefer to write it on the computer-because I will change a lot as I am writing. But why that would be specific and, you know, so distinct from one to the other, is a mystery to me. Maybe just because that I originally wrote prose by hand, too. I only stopped writing it by hand, I think, about 20 years ago. I think I wrote Secret Life on the computer.
DB: On the computer?
MR: Maybe when computers came in.
DB: That was sort of what led to more writing?
MR: I think mostly, yeah. That was in the '80s. I had one of those enormous things with a huge processor.
DB: Did you note a difference once you weren't using the typewriter anymore and you moved to the computer?
MR: Well, one great thing about it was that you could make changes, and you didn't have to retype the whole thing, which is what you had to do before that.
DB: And had you composed prose longhand? I mean, did you ever do that?
MR: Yes. Most of the essays in my book of essays, which was published in 2000, were composed longhand.
DB: And those essays, though, were they written earlier? I'm assuming much earlier than 2000?
MR: Quite a few of them were, but maybe the last ones in it were composed on a computer-that's, in fact, likely.
DB: So, the computer came in in kind of the late '80s-did you notice, as computers got more powerful, did anything change then? Or does it feel basically the same since the first time?
MR: Well that first time, before you were born-
DB: No, I was born.
MR: Yeah but they, you know, they were so slow. But at that time, it seemed like magic, just that being able to change it. So yeah, of course it has changed. Everything has accelerated-you can look up stuff, look up definitions of words. I would often write with a dictionary. I never have called a poem finished before I looked up most of the words in the poem. I like to see how the etymologies work in relationship to one another before I call something "finished." Now you can do a lot of that on the computer.
DB: And now have you moved from using physical dictionaries to-?
MR: I still have them. They are next to my chair upstairs. I still like to do that. But yeah, I'm not systematic about it. I'll look up things on the computer, too.
DB: Okay. And so when you first started using the computer, were you also always printing out? You never really worked on the screen even in the early days?
MR: Yes.
DB: So now we're going to move kind of the revision section-we're talking about both, and that's fine.
MR: Okay.
DB: So you spoke some about your revision practices when you first started as being fairly small. What was it prompted this sort of the change to move into a more robust revision strategy?
MR: Well, the poem that I wanted-needed, or could see-to write couldn't be written in a single draft. So I guess I'd get something that felt rich enough, and compelling enough, to keep pounding. And that did seem to create a sort of breakthrough for me.
DB: Did you learn this revision technique? Did other people influence you in developing this, or was it something that you kind of built on your own?
MR: Well, I had been taking workshop at the University of Iowa for a year, but it's not my memory that we ever really spoke about that. And so it was really compelled from the inside-out. It was more that the piece just wouldn't yield, and yet it wasn't going to be thrown away, either-there was something in it. So I don't know-my relationship to the whole enterprise shifted. I just started working more slowly in the sense of not less-probably, in fact, more-it just got finished a lot more slowly. And there were a lot less poems. And now I write very few. I mean I write a lot of poems still, but it seems like 1 out of 100 starts comes to fruition, at most.
DB: Okay. Your style of revision-are you adding, are you subtracting, or are you sort of substituting? Or is it a combination of those?
MR: I'm pushing into it. I'm pushing as far down into it-and as far out-as I can, with attention to all the aspects of poetry as I understand it and hope that the poem embodies, you know? Rich Wilbur said, "My intention in writing a poem is to exhaust the subject." I don't ignore that. I don't ignore-in my own mind, at least-anything. I want everything to be working on eight cylinders, and of course I never achieve that. It's an impossible ideal. But I'm trying to grow into the language. I'm trying to grow deeper into the subject. I'm trying to make the story-if there is one, or one implicit-I'm working with every aspect of it. But it's essentially getting a line that might be a beginning, and that it contains everything else. That's the weird and sort of mystical aspect. It's all in that piece, and it's driving you to complete it.
DB: Yeah, and how do those lines come to you?
MR: Randomly. Sometimes when I'm reading. I was reading this morning and it sparked something and I wrote it down, but it probably will never see the light of day. Or in the middle of the night-I have to get up out of bed and turn on the light, write down the line. But it almost never sees the light of day. I have various repositories for these lines, but it's gotten pretty disorganized, too. I used to be a lot better at keeping them in one place, but I do try to dig it all out and look at it sometimes, especially when I'm dry, or, because of teaching, I haven't been able to work on my writing for a while. So to get started again, I'll just look at all this-what to me is-raw material. But raw material can come from anywhere. It can come from somebody else's writing, too. But it has mostly got to come from my own.
DB: And so, for a line that you wake up in the middle of the night to write down, what do you write it down on?
MR: Well, I can write it in my journal. I keep a journal now, a handwritten journal. Or I can just write it on a piece of folded paper.
DB: How is the journal related to the writing at this point? Have you been doing that your whole career or is that a more recent development?
MR: No, I've been doing that for about the last 15 years. The journal, for me, is a separate enterprise. It's just the kind of vomiting that I probably wouldn't want anybody else to ever read. But there is stuff in it sometimes, you know. I have gone through the exhausting, narcissistic process of rereading the journals sometimes, and right now what I have started doing is I write the journal in black ink and if there's something that I want to remember for writing-prose, poetry-I will underline it in blue, so that I can go back through it and see what those things are.
DB: Okay. So you say that you're still writing a lot, but there are a lot fewer that are coming up to that level. I mean, how has that changed over the course of your career? Were they more kind of bubbling-up, or do you have higher standards at this point?
MR: It's not really standards. I mean, I want it to be as good as it can be, always. So the standard is, you know-that's the standard. Whether or not I ever achieve it-or how often I do-is unfortunately not for me to say. Because I would say that it pretty much either achieves that standard and simultaneously doesn't. So again, it's just my audience for a poem is the poem. What anybody else thinks of it-or even what I think of it-doesn't matter at all. To me, what I want to do is get the poem to come off of the page and become a thing. So, you know, again, whether or not I'm doing that, that's sort of the illusion that I'm under.
DB: How do you know when it's a "thing"?
MR: I don't know. Except I do know. I'm talking like a Zen...
DB: Yes, yes. I mean, it is almost certain.
MR: I mean, I don't really know how to answer that because again, it depends upon the piece, so it's contingent. But I interrogate my work brutally. I would never want anyone to talk to anyone else the way that I talk to my poems. I ask them at every moment, "Are you interesting? Are you interesting? Are you interesting? Is this engaging?" Every nanosecond of the piece, I want it to be-Keats said, in his letters, he wanted "to load every rift with ore." And he was talking about sound, mostly, in that particular context. But that's what I want to do. Every moment provides an opportunity, and you just don't want to lose your attention to that.
DB: Right. Has your definition of "interesting" become slimmer as your practices have been going forward?
MR: I think it has actually become wider. I think I'm a little bit-not much-but a little less obsessive, and a little less tunnel-vision than I was when I was younger. But my taste has not really changed in music, in painting, in poetry. You know, I've discovered new things along the way, but I remember seemingly consistent, and hide-bound.
DB: What role do other people play in your revision process?
MR: Well, I have trusted readers, some of whom I've had for a very, very long time. I think what you want in a reader is somebody who loves your work-and maybe loves you-but will tell you the truth about a piece. Even to the point of saying, "This really doesn't work at all, and belongs in the bone pile," but who will tell you, at every place, what doesn't work for them. And you can get a group of these responses, and you can see which ones are useful. I've changed things because of those responses, but I also have not changed things.
DB: How does that work in a logistical way? Has that changed pretty dramatically?
MR: No it hasn't. It's just a question. I mean, it's like going to a shrink or something, or talking to a friend, or a spouse-it gives you new eyes. You need new eyes. Then you're able to process that response, because it's concrete. It's not abstract. You can only interrogate it so far by yourself, and then you need somebody to tell you, "This is working," or, "This isn't."
DB: Are you now sending these over email?
MR: Yeah.
DB: And before there was email?
MR: Through snail mail.
DB: But it was a similar process?
MR: Same thing.
DB: Do you find the immediacy of email has changed it?
MR: We've become terribly spoiled by the immediacy of email. I mean, you send something off and you expect something is going to come back in the next 3 minutes. If it's something you're particularly looking for, you check your email 712 times a day. It takes a real discipline for me not to do that, because I would spend all my time doing that, otherwise.
DB: So this is the kind of organizational archival portion. How do kind of keep track of all the work that you have, coming from beginning to end? Like, say, just one poem for instance. Do you have many going at the same time, or are you always working on one, and then that comes and you move on to the next?
MR: I never have been able to do more than one thing at a time, ever. And so if I'm working on an essay, that's all I'm working on. If I'm working on a poem, that's all I'm working on. If I'm working on a nonfiction piece, that's all I'm doing. I just don't have the capacity. I might, you know, still have lines of poems in the middle of the night or come to me, and I will write them down, but I don't work on those. I never bring anything to completion, stop this and do this, and go back to that. I just have to totally immerse myself in what I'm doing.
DB: And so, once that becomes version 10, or whatever, on the computer, and then you've moved onto the next, how do those then coalescence into a collection?
MR: Well, I have the final drafts of each of the poems, at a certain point. Most books of poems are about 40 poems, about 50, 60 pages-at least mine are. So, usually somewhere in the 30s, the book will start to take shape. There might be a great number of those that won't make it into the book. Some will seem too weak. I've published quite a few poems in magazines that didn't go into any collection ever. So there is a process of winnowing at that point, and even more revision of individual pieces. But I will take it out of the folder that it's in-you know, it will be X-10, Y-25 or whatever the piece is-and then I'll take the final version and just save it into the book folder. You know, I'm still working in the compositional folder, but it will then be, "These are finished, and these are going to go into a book."
DB: And then when you are putting together the order, when you have maybe all of the poems ready, how do you go about doing that?
MR: Well, they'll all be printed out in their final versions, and I'll mess with them. I'll mess with the paper. I couldn't do it any other way.
DB: Yeah. And do you have any other rituals or things for doing that? Do you put them all out on the wall, or something like that?
MR: I've heard of people who do that-they spread them out on the floor and stuff-but I've never done that. I do make, sometimes, arbitrary decisions. I don't like-though I used them earlier on-sections. I don't do that anymore. I don't think that's in my last work-I should probably check. I mean, my preference is for it to be one thing.
DB: So, some of this collection work hasn't changed-I mean, small things, like not using sections anymore, and things like that. Do you notice any other changes from your earlier career to now?
MR: In terms of?
DB: Composing, say, the book as a whole once you're at that finished stage?
MR: No. I can't really say so. It's, again, a process of trying to realize it as best you can and also to not publish it until it's ready to be published. And I certainly didn't choose to take-it's about 10 years between books of poems,, on the average but I also did write three other books. So, they took some time as well, but I've never been anxious to put something out before I was happy with it.
DB: Okay. So, that's sort of the basic sort of process portion. Is there anything else you think you should mention or we should talk about? I mean this is going to be kind of another short answer portion, like a lot of the computer questions, basically.
MR: Well, no.
DB: That's fine.
MR: I mean there's also infinite subjects to talk about but, you know, I think the most interesting part of this for thinking about making it into a magazine thing was the questions about composition.
DB: Yeah. So, these are kind of the more, I guess, blunter questions about computer use, and I think we mentioned some of these. When did you start using computers on a regular basis? Late 80s?
MR: Probably mid-80s.
DB: Mid-80s?
MR: It was pretty early.
DB: Okay. And how did you have access to a computer? Was it a personal computer?
MR: I bought it.
DB: You bought it?
MR: It cost a lot of money, too. At least I didn't have much at the time.
DB: Yeah. What drove you to make that purchase if it was a larger one?
MR: Friends had told me-who were writers-that, "You've got to do this. This is amazing and wonderful. Do it." The program assistant at Warren Wilson knew computers, and so I could take some tutorials with her, and she showed me how to do it. And a lot of the writers-it's a low-residency program; two weeks every six months-a lot of the writers were going to her at that time.
DB: Did you agree with your friends that it was this great thing to have once you had it?
MR: Again, it was great to be able to change things without typing them all out again-and that's pretty much all you could with it. There was no internet. There was no email. All it was was a word processor.
DB: Did that have any effect on your style, or on your process?
MR: Not that I could track. I wrote letters first on the computer. It was still snail mail and so, I was composing letters on the computer. But I would compose letters on the typewriter, too. I've always done that, and not written letters by hand-I'd always typed them. But I liked being able to-you see me doing this with my fingers. I liked being able to do that. And I think that's what led me to start composing prose on the computer, because it was easier for me write physically.
DB: I know you've been working in rhymed verse, or in formal rhymed verse, since the beginning, but I feel like it's increased more as you've gotten into your later career. That was one of things I was wondering when I was reading your stuff again for this interview. It doesn't seem that the computer really has any play in that-like, I thought there might be an easier way to work with rhyme or something like that, but you're still mostly doing that all on paper?
MR: Yes. But I have looked up-I confess-rhyming pairs. There are rhyming dictionaries online. So, sometimes I've used those just to see what the options are.
DB: Right.
MR: I want to write a rhymed poem as if you don't even know it's rhymed, unless it's purposeful that you do know it's rhymed. So, yes, in that aspect of it. But in terms of composition? No.
DB: Okay. How was your relationship with the computer changed? I guess that's a very weird question, but I guess I'm wondering how you feel about the files themselves? Were you always kind of conscientious about trying to save them, or are they more of means to an end?
MR: I don't really think about that much. I think I've had a few computers crash-I don't remember. Did I ever lose anything? I don't recall. I don't think so. Not poetry, anyway. But what did I do before computers? How did I save stuff? I think just in the folder. And I still do that. I still keep a physical folder of finished poems. I have the poems I finished since This Morning-
DB: This Morning, the book, not-
MR: This Morning, right. Yeah. That would be a lot for me. Since 2012, they are in just a file folder upstairs, the paper copies. The finished book, the final drafts.
DB: Do you have any sort of "dear" feelings for like, say, maybe some of the paper, maybe the hand-written work, or anything like that? Do you try to protect it? Do you kind of give it extra attention in any way?
MR: Well, I do invite it to dinner every once in a while. I take it to the movie when it feels neglected. And I pet it, sometimes. Speak very soft, kind words. Um-no.
DB: The computer has more of a kind of ease of typographical flourishes. Have you ever used any of those options on the computer?
MR: No.
DB: Do you use spell check?
MR: No. But I don't have spell check. I mean, the program will underline something in red if it's misspelled. If it's misspelled, I will correct the spelling, but I don't think I have an automatic-maybe I do? I don't know. I've never used it. I won spelling bees.
DB: When you're writing are you connected? Well, when you write, you kind of compose mostly off the computer. I guess when you're typing it out, are you connected to the internet? Are you using the internet in any way with the poem?
MR: Poem?
DB: Or with prose? I mean, either way?
MR: Well, in the act of writing, again, for the most part, when I'm on the computer for a poem, I'm not composing. I am just typing. And then I might use the internet to look up a word or-I've never really been conscious, particularly, of the process. When I've written prose that involves a reference to something, or I'm trying to think of what the thing is that I want it to refer to, I'll look up stuff. The process of composing? Well, I guess I'm inside of it in the same way. I'm trying to make it rich in all the same ways, except the relationships among the language and structure and what you can do in a poem that you can't in a piece of prose, and vice versa. But yeah, I will. I'll go to something if I need to.
DB: Can you pinpoint a point a time when the internet became more of an important part of your working or writing life?
MR: I don't even really remember very well. We went to France in 1997 and there was no internet. So, that's what-17 years ago? We had no email. I think internet was just kind of beginning, here. I remember a friend of mine, whose wife is a novelist, saying that his wife had sent her novel to her agent over "the wire." That was about that time, and I thought, "My God! That's amazing!" But, yeah-I don't really remember when it came into such a degree that it became something resembling what it is today. It seems like it was a very gradual process.
DB: Do you note, like, in maybe different books, or in your relation with publishers, that there was a difference or a change? I'm guessing your book of essays came out 2000-did you interact with the publisher there online? Did you do that with the selected?
MR: As I recall, there was email very shortly after we came back from France in 1997. So, those last three years of the century, email kind of just started to become the mode of communication. And yes-I was working with a copy editor who lived in San Diego, and we would send things back and forth and to the publisher, which was in Georgia. Yeah, it was all in place by then.
DB: Do you ever worry about the security or, sort of, fixity of the files, the computer files that you have now? Is that a conscious concern, or-?
MR: Like someone would get into it and-?
DB: I guess more like the computer would crash, and you would lose them.
MR: Well, you know, I have paper copies, and recovery methods are pretty sophisticated for hard disks. I have an old laptop in my closet that I thought to get the hard disk transcribed to a newer computer. I just have never done it. It's probably impossible, now-it's way out of date. But outside of that, one, I think, did crash. I've just taken whatever is on the hard disk of the old one and transferred it to the hard disk of the new one, and as I said, I believe this thing has automatic backup on it.
I don't know how they do that but I'm pretty ignorant of all these stuff, and willfully so. It just would suck up too much of my time to learn about it. But I do know writers who are really pretty expert, and probably it ends up using less of your time once you learn it. But I have a physical aversion to reading manuals, so I can't do it. So, I have a computer guy-a very nice guy. If any of us-my wife, my daughter, or I-have any problems, I call him up. He's usually here within a couple of hours.
DB: Okay. How often do you see this gentleman?
MR: Well, only when we have a problem, but he also has that "log me in," I think it's called? So, he has all three of our computers accessed-everything on them-from his office. So, I hope he continues to like me. I overpay him and-
DB: That's probably wise.
MR: Yeah, I think so. He has access to everything on all the computers. So, I'm not sure if that's ridiculous or not, but-
DB: How did you establish this relationship?
MR: He works for the school, but he does this for us privately. So, I met him through his working for the School of Humanities. A very sweet guy.
DB: You talked a little bit about the correspondence changing from snail mail to email. Do you feel like you do more correspondence now with email, or is it about the same throughout your career?
MR: Well, as you know, it's a completely different animal. A lot of emails have no addressee, and no "complimentary close," as we called it in 4th grade-"Sincerely, Michael." People write two, three words, or one sentence for an answer to an immediate question. It's nothing like a letter. You wouldn't write a letter like that.
DB: In terms of like the correspondence you have with writers and things like that, is there a marked change in that correspondence, as well?
MR: When I'm responding to somebody's manuscript, I would say there is no change. So, I will write them a letter, essentially the exact same thing I would have been sent through the mail. But other things, like personal correspondence, tends to be a lot briefer. I mean, I'll still try to be funny in emails. I mean, that's actually the thing I do the most. And I can also send people hilarious stuff from YouTube, or whatever, and I get those back, and sometimes they'll send jokes, or whatever. So, there are changes. There are also similarities, but because it's so much faster and so much easier, you can make it shorter.
DB: In terms of your own sort of reading and thinking, have you found the computer a boon to finding new work, or to finding new writers to read, or anything like that?
MR: I don't like to read off the screen. If I really want to read something-if it's an article in a newspaper or something-I will usually print it out. Also, I'm having some physical problems using computers, and probably heading for a shoulder surgery this summer, so it's not physically comfortable to spend too much time on it. But mostly, even before that, I don't like to read off the screen. I like to read off a page.
DB: What is the difference, do you feel, for yourself?
MR: That's a very good question. I like having a physical thing in my hands to read from. That's native to me. I mean, screens didn't come in any significant way until about 15 years ago. So, I was reading for many years-probably 50 or so-before that happened. I would imagine that kids are perfectly happy reading off the screen. My daughter texts her friends all the time and gets texts and emails, and I don't text anybody. I don't do text, you know. I'm like my grandmother with the telephone.
DB: And then, I guess, sort of a little bit of on teaching, and then just kind of ending. So, have you seen-with the computer rise and all that-has your teaching changed pretty fundamentally, or has it stayed the same?
MR: Oh man. Well, it's a teacher's nightmare, in so far as, you know, you can be contacted any time in the night or day. And you can't live teaching without email. It's not possible anymore. It's just assumed that you're going to get notices from school, you're going to get communications. You just simply would not be able to function. Because when this technology-and this is commonplace-it just makes the other technology completely obsolete. So, the way people communicated with you before-when I was teaching before the advent of all of this stuff-none of those communications would come through those means. And now all of them do.
So, it isn't that you can just stop and get them from other sources, because they don't come from other sources. So, all the emails I get from the chair of the English Department that go out to every member of the English department, they don't appear in my mailbox. Which, before, I would get them every four days that I went into school. The assumption of the timeframe has radically changed and compressed. So, just it's so much more of your attention that it's really necessary for me to limit that. I don't have an iPhone. I have a dumb phone, and I don't want emails following me around all day.
DB: Yeah. I'd like to drop mine off too. Did this kind of, I guess, greater reach of email and the sort of technological stuff that we've been accustomed to, has that changed your writing in anyway? Has that impacted your time? Has that impacted your attention?
MR: I would like to think not, but again, there is an addictive quality to sitting on the computer that I've noticed-that I check my email, and then I'll look at the weather, and then I want to see what the headlines in The New York Times are, and I'm sitting there. And why get up? So it has that quality of really drawing you into being in a relationship with it. There was a survey in The Guardian, which is the newspaper I read every once in a while-well, almost every day I'll look at it-and the question was, "Would you rather give up sex, or your computer for the rest of your life?" And guess what 70% of the people answered.
DB: Sex.
MR: So, if that isn't insane, I don't know what is. Or maybe the two are coterminous for people. But it has really become something radically different.
DB: Do you feel that your students have changed in their kind of cultural, technological understanding or relationships with you, since the rise of the internet?
MR: No, I wouldn't say that. Again, they can contact me at any time.
DB: So, that's a change?
MR: But that's fine with me. I mean, they respect me. I actually contact them more than they contact me, and they are very, very considerate of my time and my attention. So, it's not really a problem. It's just that I think their relationship to technology is very different from mine. They were talking the other day at a pause in the workshop about how many of them are still doing Facebook. I've never done Facebook. I never would do Facebook. Facebook is my worst nightmare. The idea that anybody-you know, I still get emails from strangers and people I used to know, and all this stuff. And I don't want any of that stuff. But they were saying they do Facebook, but for their undergraduates-their students, four years younger-than Facebook is passé. They don't do Facebook. They do whatever-
DB: Some other thing.
MR: So I am very much like my grandmother still screaming into the phone, because the way she had phones-which didn't come until she was pretty old to start with-you had to crank it, and you had to shout into the thing. And so she just kept doing that, even when she didn't have to.
DB: Yeah. Then I think, finally, sort of my blunt ending question-do you have any kind of thoughts as to what really changed with the advent of computers in relationship to writing? I mean, has there been a change in your opinion, or do you see it as something that has simply transferred kind of analog practices into a virtual environment?
MR: Well, I'm not sure that I'm educated enough to answer that question, and the area that it affects that is most important to me is poetry. And in fact, I think there is a great opportunity. Poems, you know-the convention is an artificial convention. But for the last how many hundred years, at least probably 200, maybe even a little more than that, have been published in the form of books. That's just the way poems have primarily appeared. Also, individual poems have, over the last X years, appeared in magazines. I've had a number of poems published only online. Some of those poems have been accompanied by audio versions to the poems. Some of the poems have video versions. It seems to me that, you know, where this all could go, and I have no better idea than anyone else, is-I hope books don't stop existing. It's one of those technologies, like a bicycle, that seems like it will never go out. It's a good technology. But clearly, there also have been published poems that are also being published in other forms.
I have published five books, and yet, there's probably 75, 80, 90-most of the content of my books are on the web right now, without my permission. I mean, they are just there. So anybody who wants to read poems by me, or any other poet, could find them right there, and they won't be in book form. They will be individual poems. For me, poetry is very much an auditory experience. When I am composing, I say them out loud in a kind of quiet voice. I like to read poems out loud. I'd like to hear them read out loud. I think you get a different apprehension of them than just reading them silently. So all that to me is for the good. I like hearing poems online. And I like seeing poets read online, but that's less important to me than being able to hear them. So that could really serve to make poems perhaps less like prose.
DB: Yeah.
MR: Just the technology.
DB: That access to the auditory experience immediately with the printed page.
MR: Yeah. It's very cool, and you can read it and listen to it at the same time if you want.
DB: Yeah, and so when you're composing, you're also reading it out loud, like line by line, as you're writing the words?
MR: I do. I always do that.
DB: You always do that.
MR: It's like a little whisper.
DB: Okay. That's interesting. Okay. I think that's it.
MR: All done?
DB: Yeah. Thank you very much.
MR: Thank you, Devin. That was fun. Fun is important.
DB: Yes, it is.
Devin Becker: Thank you very much for agreeing to do this, Kasey.
Kasey Mohammad: My pleasure. Thanks for coming.
DB: Would you please state, for the camera, your name, your date of birth, and the location we're at right now?
KM: Kasey Silem Mohammad. October 10, 1962. We're at Southern Oregon University in Central Hall.
DB: So, the first section is kind of short-answer. It's meant to get a sense of your digital practices now. So, we'll just kind of go through this and we'll talk more about the composition. So, what genres do you work in?
KM: Poetry.
DB: OK, and that's your primary genre?
KM: Yeah.
DB: What kinds of devices do you own, or have access to for writing?
KM: This laptop, a MacBook. I mean, that's about it, other than whatever scratchpad I might put a note or idea in.
DB: So you use only that one? Do you write on a phone? Do you write on any other things?
KM: Usually not. I mean, the laptop is the main instrument.
DB: The laptop is the main instrument.
KM: Yeah.
DB: And you have an Apple.
KM: Mhmm.
DB: You said you use some note paper sometimes?
KM: I mean, if I'm somewhere and all I have is a piece of scratch paper because I'm in a meeting and I get an idea. But I don't really do that often.
DB: OK, so it's pretty primarily on that computer?
KM: That is mostly it.
DB: OK. Do you ever make pre-writing notes for it, or—?
KM: Because of the kind of writing I do, that usually doesn't come in to play.
DB: Yeah.
KM: Which I think will become clearer when we talk about the actual composition.
DB: OK. In what format do you save your digital files?
KM: Word.
DB: Word doc.
KM: Mhmm.
DB: Do you save individual works as you go along, or do you simply save over what you've written? Do you save drafts?
KM: Oh, no. I don't. I probably should, but I almost never save drafts. I just open up a doc and write over it until I think it's finished.
DB: OK. And what are your naming conventions for your files?
KM: Usually the name of the poem, followed by the file name.
DB: And so, because you don't use drafts, it's just the one?
KM: Yeah. I don't rename it once I've drafted it or anything. It just stays the same.
DB: Do you print out your writing to revise it?
KM: No, not typically.
KM: Well, I mean, I might do that on occasion with something like an essay because it's easier on the eyes. But the poems are usually shorter, and again because of the specific nature of the composition, in some cases, you'll see I can't revise it really well at all if it's not on a computer.
DB: Yeah. Do you ever save any paper copies of interim drafts?
KM: Usually not. I think the only exception to that is maybe I have some paper copies somewhere of something I wrote in college and hope no one ever sees—maybe it's the way they're written. I don't ever bother to try and scribe them digitally.
DB: Do you back up your work?
KM: When I remember, yeah.
DB: And how often do you do that?
KM: Oh, god. I don't know. I probably need to do it right now—excuse me! Really, it's very erratic.
DB: OK. Do you have Dropbox or anything?
KM: You know, I've got a server here on campus. It's a backup server that I save things to. It's very simple. All I'd need to do is drag stuff right now, and I could do it to stop worrying about it. I've also got an external hard drive at home.
DB: And if you're going to archive it, if you're going to back it up, that's where you put the work? And once a poem is finished, do you move it to a different folder?
KM: Yeah, I've gotten kind of lax on it. I need to go in and update it, but typically what it'll be is: I have a folder—a main poetry folder—and within that, if there is a specific categories for certain projects, I'll divide them in to that, like a book project or whatever. And if something is published, typically, I'll put a copy of it in the Published folder, and then there would be like an Ongoing, or In-process, folder.
DB: Yeah. Do you keep print copies of final drafts? Do you print them out?
KM: Not usually.
DB: And how about the media you've been published in? Do you keep the journals in a sort of space?
KM: I do, yeah. I have a shelf full of journals and books.
DB: OK. So, do you have any standard practices for archiving digitally or physically, would you say?
KM: Maybe explain what you mean a little more.
DB: Do you have a certain kind of way you put it on an external hard drive, like you put all your papers, or your books, on a certain shelf and that's kind of like your "archive"?
KM: Yeah. Right, yes. Like I said, I do have a shelf in my living room. It's like most of the journals and books and anthologies I've been published in. And as far as I said for the digital files, yeah, there's usually a "published" folder—which is way behind being updated.
DB: So, have you ever received or sought out information about digital archiving, or any sort of practices in that way?
KM: Not really, no.
DB: OK. Would you be interested in receiving information?
KM: Possibly, yeah.
DB: OK, that was kind of the basics. And so, this gets more to your trajectory as a writer. It starts off kind of getting a larger arc of it. So, how long have you been writing "professionally"?
KM: I'd say since roughly '98 or '99.
DB: And could you kind of give us a sense of the arc of your career over that time period?
KM: Sure. That's when I was just finishing grad school and procrastinating on finishing my dissertation. So, I kind of went back to my long-time interest in contemporary poetry. And I think I had tried to send a few things out to get them published over the years, a few times without any success or sense of direction about it. And then during this time-wasting period, I became aware of electronic journals that were publishing authors I liked. But before that, I hadn't known even how to submit work, you know, to the same journals that would publish the kind of writers I liked. Because, you know, I had tried—for example, 5, 10 years before—to submit to magazines that I knew published language poetry and things like that. And typically I'd get no response, or maybe a slip saying, "Sorry, this journal is no longer in circulation" because the only way I heard about them in the first place was from the library copies. I had no contact with any of the people involved.
KM: So, the internet changed that. I've been published in a few online journals and made contacts with poets that way. And then it was pretty rapid, from an initial chapbook that was published by Kenning Editions—ran by Patrick Durgin—in 2001 called Hovercraft, and then my first book in 2003, Dearhead Nation, from Tougher Disguises Press, edited by James Mets. Then another book that next year by Mike McGhee's Combo Books—A Thousand Devils. A couple books at the end of the decade from Edge, edited by Rod Smith, and lots of journals and anthologies in the middle there. And a few other chapbooks that I've neglected to mention.
DB: And now, the project that you're working on is the "Sonograms"?
KM: That's my chief project, yeah.
DB: OK. But you have other ones going?
KM: Well, that's the one that I consciously think of as a project that I'm in the middle of. Occasionally, I'll write something just on a whim, but yeah, that's the main project.
DB: So, we'll sort of talk about the couple of different steps in the writing process, and then we're going to go through kind of how it was in the early stages of your writing and how it's changed. And so, my kind of way of thinking about it is there's the "compositional" stage—which is where you're kind of creating it—and then you have the "revision" stage. Then you kind of have the "organizational/archival" stage, which is when you're putting it into books and getting it published. So, those are the three stages to talk about, and then how those have changed over the course of time. Sort of like three-by-three.
KM: Sure.
DB: So, when you first started writing—and this is even before you started writing professionally, maybe before when you were trying to find those language poetry journals—what was your composition process? Or, how were you writing? What were you doing?
KM: It's really hard to reconstruct something that long ago. I don't think I have much of a method. I think I was really just kind of feeling around in the dark. So, I took a couple of creative writing classes in junior college. I took one as an undergrad that didn't really work for me. I mean I passed, but it didn't do anything for me. But yeah, I would just occasionally feel inspired to write something. I mean, it was very shapeless.
DB: Yeah. So, how did you come to find the writing that you liked? I mean, to find the language poetry, to find the journals that you were sending out to?
KM: I don't remember what led me to it, but I remember just surfing the web. I think one of the very first journals that caught my attention was Combo by Mike McGhee. They published Clark Coolidge and other language poets and younger poets I hadn't heard of. And at least some of it was online, I think, if I remember correctly. It was like limited digital sampling. And I just emailed them saying, "Hey, I just want to go about submitting work," or something like that. They liked the work, and I was published in there several times. It's the same thing with Kenning, which was also a journal—Patrick Durgin's journal. I think my first publication actually was in Fourteen Hills from San Francisco State. I went to a group reading for the contributors to that issue and met a lot of Bay Area poets. So, I established a connection with—I forget what the original question was now.
DB: Oh, it's fine. That's actually kind of where I'm pushing you. So, your writing styles in the beginning, your ways of composition—they're kind of formless—
KM: Oh, yeah, yeah.
DB: How did they start to progress, then? I mean, what was sort of the next step?
KM: Sure. That's actually pretty easy to answer, because it's kind of, at least so far, been kind of a really distinct, three-stage process.
DB: Oh, great!
KM: Yeah, I can actually answer according to the terms of the question! So, that earliest work—and this would be everything up through the period I'm talking about—was just basically, I don't know how quite to describe it. Organic, or free-hand, you know. Just making stuff up and writing it down. Words would come in to my head, and I would put them on the page. So, typically, I would just type it and it would be like trying to compose a musical piece, or something. Like, what should go after this? How can I complete this rhythm, or set of images? Something like that. And then that began to change with—again, I say 2000, 2001, when I met Gary Sullivan and other members of the Flarf Group—and that itself, that second stage had kind of like two stages. At first, I became acquainted with Gary's writing on an email list that we were both on, and just for a joke he wrote some kind of New Year's poem, or something like that, that he called a "flarf poem." "Flarf" was the invented name for the method. It was basically just writing the stupidest, most shapeless thing you could think of. So it was full of non-sense and obscenities, emphatic noises with no real shape or form other than just, basically, roughly being broken in to lines. He and I and a few other people started doing this just for fun, and we created our own email list just so we could do it. I'm sure the full origin stories out there about—
DB: Just for my clarification—it started on a different email list and then it moved to its own?
KM: That's right. And I guess really it started, if I'm correct—I think this is what Gary related to me—when he sent a poem in to one of those online vanity price things. "Poetry.com." And the short version: he was trying to get rejected. So, he wrote just the stupidest thing he could think of, and it was accepted for consideration for the anthology, which you then pay for if you're actually dumb enough to go through with that. So, that was the origin. Then he just started writing more of them on the email list even after he'd realized he couldn't get rejected, because it was fun. So, a group of us that were on this list, and so eventually, I think it was Drew Gardner who introduced a method in the middle of this shapeless writing of using Google search results. Just going in to the Google page, doing usually a combination search for like two or three terms that you wouldn't expect to see on the same page together and then using that initial search result page as a base from which to collage excerpts. Not following the links, just—
DB: Just the language that shows up in the Google cache?
KM: That's right, yeah. So, my typical process—and this is the second stage, the big second stage where, for 10 years, I basically just wrote Google collages—was I would copy however many pages of the search result page... You know, because I'd click "next page," "next page," "next page" of about ten or a hundred results, and the page would turn in to words, and I'd start chiseling it down. Rearranging it, shuffling the contents, and occasionally cheating a little bit by putting a connector word or something like "and" or "the." Or maybe altering a word that was in just a slightly different grammatical form or something. But that gets back to what we were saying about not doing print revisions because, really, everything's done kind of like refrigerator magnets—just shuffling around. And I guess printing out a page, I could look at the thing and go, "Well, if I brought some of this down here...". But I never did that.
DB: No, right. I mean, it makes sense. It's computer-generated material.
KM: Yeah, and part of the fun of it was using the computer as a kind of canvas.
DB: Yeah.
KM: There was something kind of pleasing about pulling the components around and almost physically moving them around in that digital space.
DB: And when you're copying the page, do you just, say, CTRL+All, grab it and drop it in? Do you get images and what-not with that? Or do you just drag the thing up and just get the text and paste it in?
KM: Yeah. I mean typically, on a Mac, I'd just select the whole page, copy, and paste. I mean, there weren't any images because it was just the result page.
DB: Just the result page, OK.
KM: Right. What you would get was a lot of the, like, red or blue text, or purple text—the URLs and headers and things like that. But typically the first stage of going through the manuscript would be to remove all of that kind of junk-text. I mean it was all junk, but...
DB: Right.
KM: But, yeah, they were just numbers and code, so all I would have left were recognizable words, and maybe numbers.
DB: And in getting rid of that junk-text, were you reading it at the same time, or were you starting to kind of get a sense of what you had gotten? Or was it just kind of a rote "Let's get rid of this and then look at it"?
KM: I think—based on my memory—it would be a rote thing of, just, "First, let's get rid of everything I know is not actual, or in most cases, not useable text." I mean, there might be some little strings of code where I think, "Oh, that's kind of cool just by itself—I'll leave that in," but it was mostly an automatic process of, "Let me reduce it to just letters and black text, as opposed to colored, linked text". And then from that stage—and I don't know how interesting this could possibly be to anybody, but—
DB: I'm interested!
KM: —what would be left after that would be a lot of things like ellipses or dashes, because there'd be partial phrases and then ellipses, and then a beginning of another phrase, and that'd be how the search results would be arranged on the page. So then I might just say, "OK, I might get rid of all or most of the ellipses or dashes." I would also go through—just for the sake of composition—and change case. Select everything and then change case to lowercase just to get rid of all the blocks of caps that were kind of unwieldy. And then later in that process of composition I might change some letters back to caps, but typically, for whatever reason, the default format for the poem would be no caps unless they're required by convention, by which I mean proper names and things like that. I wouldn't capitalize the beginning of a line or anything like that. So, basically, once I was ready to actually start composing the poem I would have however many pages full of lowercase language in black and white.
DB: Yeah. And so for the dashes and ellipses and what-not, would you just do a "find all" and delete them?
KM: Yeah, that would be the quick way. I learned that pretty quickly. I would just, "Find this and replace with nothing" until I'd just have words for the most part, and maybe some numerals.
DB: Yeah. And so that's almost kind of your "pre-writing" stage in some ways, and then you're to the point where you're "composing" the poem, or whatever word you use. I mean, what words do you use?
KM: Yeah. I mean, just because of the nature of the way it was copied on the page, what I'd usually end up with would be something like tercets, or something that looked, on the page, already kind of like tercets. Which is why a lot of the poems—not all of them—end up being in tercets. I would just keep that. And sometimes two lines, sometimes three lines, sometimes longer, and sometimes more longer stanzas. But sometimes just that accidental form would give me kind of a starting point like, "OK, I've got groups of three lines, but I want to move this line from this one up here to this other one and then balance out the other one with the other line or phrase." Like I said, it would be like refrigerator magnets, though sometimes with full phrases instead of just individual words. And in the middle of that process, I'd usually get rid of most of the language—some of the language I couldn't figure out what interesting things I could do with, or that wouldn't be interesting. So, the finished poems might be anywhere from a third of a page to several pages long, but I'd be starting sometimes with, like, ten pages.
DB: And you'd just go and delete, delete, delete?
KM: Mhmm. Rearrange, shuffle.
DB: And so what were the phrases or words, or groupings, that would catch your eye, or catch your ear? I mean, which was it catching?
KM: I'd say earlier in the process it had more to do with the original search terms I used. So, for example, my first book Deer Head Nation involved a bunch of searches that usually included, among other terms, the term "deer head." So, for that, I was obviously motivated to keep deer head a lot of the time so I could keep that theme going. Or, sometimes I would think of a phrase I thought was funny or bizarre and I'd want that to be a title, and I'd want to keep a few instances of those words in the poem. I'd say, I guess, several years further along into the process, I got to the point where I didn't really care if the original search terms showed up at all. I just wanted to create kind of a lyric construct, but one that was limited in its sources to that bank of terms.
DB: What do you think got you to that sort of preference?
KM: No idea.
DB: No idea?
KM: I think just getting bored with the regularity of the earlier process. Which I think worked pretty well for me with some of the original first projects, because they were kind of thematically motivated. You know, the deer head thing was supposed to be kind of a metaphor for imperialism or something, I don't know.
DB: Yeah.
KM: But as I went on, I just really became more concerned with just wanting a verbal shape or sculpture that I found interesting.
DB: And do you find then that those later poems are more "readable"?
KM: Probably not! I mean, that's a good question. I'm laughing, but I mean, you know, one person's definition of "readable" is very different from another's. Because in all honesty, some people would look at it, whether it's an earlier stage or a later stage, and think, "This isn't poetry. This is just spam or something. This is just garbage from the internet." And I don't even think that divide is along the "experimental" or "traditional," necessarily, because, frankly, a lot of the biggest critics of Flarf are experimental poets.
DB: Right.
KM: So, I think it really just has to do with whether a person has the kind of mind that likes "arrangement," in that sense, rather than—let me rephrase that. I think it depends whether someone's drawn to verbal arrangement over-and-above verbal theme. I mean, that's what drew me originally to poets like Clark Coolidge, or other language poets. You know, it didn't matter what it "said" in the traditional sense. I was interested in, like, "Wow! How can you put those words in that place!" So, I don't really know what's readable to the "average person." Because I don't think there is an "average person."
DB: Yeah. I guess—in terms of your own reading, or in terms of your own compositions—when you're making those things, did you find those later poems to be more pleasurable to make? You said there was more of a lyric bent to them.
KM: Yeah, I don't know if other people would see it as lyric, necessarily, but, yeah. I think so. I think, inevitably, it became almost—at least from my perspective—more traditional. Again, I think other people would look at it and say, "You call this traditional?" But I felt like I was kind of going back to the kinds of things that pleased me about older forms of poetry. So, even if the poems themselves have like ridiculous vocabulary and images—you know, junk food, or porn site terminology, or whatever else comes off the internet—I would be looking for rhythm. I'm very influenced by somebody like Clark Coolidge, on that level—kind of like the jazz-influenced mode of composition.
DB: So how are you constructing your lines if you're looking for that sort of rhythm?
KM: I guess the lines are really just determined by the shape of the phrases. I mean, for me, the rhythm comes outward from words. It's not like a pentameter rhythm or something that's determined by a set length. Not in that project. Not in those poems.
DB: When you grabbed a phrase or a few phrases, were those automatically lines, or would you break those into different lines?
KM: It really depends, but usually I do a lot of breaking. I mean, there's a sense on which the whole process is kind of unnecessary, I mean, because ultimately what I was doing was just manipulating the results so much. I mean, I would think all the time that I really didn't need to go to the internet except at the level of just, I think, vocabulary. And maybe beyond that, just for little syntactical clusters, like, "Oh, wow! Look at these four words in a row. I would never have come up with these four words in a row on my own, just trying to think of something." So, what I was looking for was just really a pallet full of colors—colors I couldn't think of by myself, because no human being would think of putting those things in a poem because they're not that. They're something else at that stage.
DB: So, in terms of your revision strategies for these poems, in the early stages you had more—and I'm sort of recapping, here—of an intent towards representing the search in some very fundamental way. And then, later, it started to become you wanting to kind of represent an accumulation and arrangement more lyrically, or more in a way that was kind of traditional, in your traditions of poetry.
KM: But I think the one constant was the importance of the idea that was generated by the search. I don't see the need to mask the method. I think one of the pleasures, for me, of reading other work like that by other people is knowing, "Oh, they did this by using a particular procedure." And I'm still most interested in how the finished work affects me. But the knowledge that it was created in a certain way is something I can't separate, and that I don't want to separate. So, you know, I would frame the work all the way through. If I were to mention it, which I have the occasion to do in the beginning of the book, or whatever—"This was creating using Google search methods"—I think it helps people going in to it with that knowledge. But like you're saying, I didn't necessarily want the search to retain some imprint of all the original conditions of the search. Maybe in the first book, to some extent. For example, in Deer Head Nation, I not only kept a lot more longer clusters—the original syntactic clusters—but I would keep a bunch of ellipses and create visual groupings with them. All these kind of graphic reminders of what the process was. I just felt less inclined to do that as I went on because it didn't seem necessary for the different kinds of poems I was going in to.
DB: Right, right. What about the prose poems in this tradition? How did those come about?
KM: I mean, same thing. But there, the original search terms did remain much more important because, I mean, you have a phrase like "and then she said" or something very fixed and obviously, in order to keep the shape throughout the poem, I'm going to have to keep coming back to that tag. There, the goal is usually to make it seem seamless, like this is the one subject saying something over and over again. So, yeah, that would be an exception. Although, I think I also did some prose poems where I didn't stick that much to whatever original, grammatical framing. I don't remember off hand, how, or which ones, but—
DB: Were these revisions driven by sound? I mean, were you reading them out loud to get a better kind of rhythm or did you have like meanings or themes that you wanted to elicit?
KM: Yeah, that's a good question. I think sound was probably usually at least tied for the primary motivator, there.
DB: What would determine a line break, then, in terms of sound?
KM: That's a difficult question even for like traditional modes of writing, right?
DB: It's an impossible question.
KM: This is one of the things that drives me crazy in workshop when I'm teaching. It's like, on the one hand, wanting people to think about line breaks and what motivates them to do what they do, and on the other hand, getting so tired of getting so bogged-down in completely arbitrary theories of, like, "The Line Break." Because, in some ways, it's like a very important thing, but in some ways it's just totally random. I mean, not in every poem, obviously, and of course, if you're working in a fixed form, it's taken care of. But free-verse or procedural, or other kinds of things where the line breaks are kind of a post-facto consideration—I mean, really, it's just going on my nerve, you know? Just what strikes me at the moment is seeming like a good way to keep the rhythm going, or to create a halt in the rhythm, or to do a little of both depending on where I am in the poem.
DB: So what would be the phrase that you would use? I mean, you said it's "collage," that it's "Google collage". I mean, I've seen "Google sculpt," I've seen "found poetry"—
KM: Yeah, "Google sculpt" is the term I kind of tried to put out there for it.
DB: So that's the one you sort of prefer saying? It's like "Google sculpting"? I mean, sculpting being collage works—
KM: Yeah, I mean "Google collage" works, too.
DB: Do you know what the search terms are for each poem, and is there somewhere where that's recorded?
KM: No. Sometimes I think about that, like, "Why didn't I keep a record of how exactly this came about?" But no, I'm too absent-minded and lazy for that.
DB: You'd probably have to recreate it someday by using a simulator or something.
KM: Oh, you can't! Because, I mean, the internet has completely changed, right?
DB: Yeah.
KM: It's gone forever.
DB: I know—it's so fascinating. So, we've moved from the first stage to the second stage to then the two stages of that, the latter stage of that having run up for about ten years you said?
KM: Something like that, yeah. So, I'm writing just free-form—or however you want to describe it—from '98 to 2000. So that was a very short phase, though the second book, A Thousand Devils, was kind of stuff left over from that stage. So, even though that came out in 2004, most of it had been written quite earlier.
DB: And Hovercraft is also from that stage?
KM: Yeah, that's from that initial stage.
DB: And then the second stage starts with Deer Head Nation?
KM: Mhmm—through Breathalyzer and The Front.
DB: And so this third section, then, is the "sonograms"?
KM: Yeah.
DB: So, how did that project come about?
KM: I should just say, by the way, I'm calling these "stages" just as a convenient way of separating different times. I don't think of it necessarily like, "Oh, this is the, you know, "initiatory" stage and I developed in to this." This is just what I happened to start doing or stop doing.
DB: Yeah—not a compression.
KM: Yeah. So, yeah, Sonograms—I forgot what year. It's been an embarrassingly long time now, because I've been working very slowly on it. I've been a very lazy poet.
DB: The best poets are.
KM: I mean, it would've been finished a long time ago if I kept any schedule. I'm a little over halfway through. I think I started in, I don't know, 2008, or something like that. It was National Poetry month, and I was looking for an idea, just some quick and easy gimmick to allow me to write a poem a day. And I thought I could do something with Shakespeare's sonnets. It's like: go to the internet and find a sonnet, copy it, and paste it in to a Word doc. Then: "Okay—what can I do in the next five or ten minutes using this as my source?" I'd say, "Here, I wrote a poem for this silly tradition." And I'd just start kind of shuffling it and playing with it with my cursor, thinking. And I had been recently impressed by a book by Gregory Bets, which I'm now embarrassingly forgetting the title of. Anyway, it's a book in which he takes a paragraph from a speech and rearranges it multiple times throughout the book just by a letter. So, it's anagrams of the same paragraph. Christian Bök gave me a copy of this—as well as, I think, Gregory Betts, who was with him at the time—and said, "Hey, you'll like this book." And I did. And I thought, "Oh, I want to play around with this," and I suddenly remembered, "Oh, anagrams. Well, OK. This will probably take too long. I'll just start shuffling it around, figuring out ways to break it up." And then I came up with the idea of taking each of the lines and feeding them in to an anagram generator, because that's all that would fit—at the time, it'd be one line. So, I did that, and every time I fed it in, the anagram generator would give me a choice of a bunch of word lists that you could make by rearranging that particular line. I just picked the one I liked the best until I had this poem that was fourteen lines with silly words. So I thought, "Well, OK. There, that's a poem. But, eh, it's not that interesting. I mean, it's kind of cool." And in retrospect, that was another thing I wish I had done, which was save all these initial first stage word lists that I used to create the poems, but I haven't.
DB: The librarian in me is sort of cringing right now.
KM: Well they're just kind of neat poems, like cheap, fake poems on their own. They're just line-by-line anagrams of the original sonnet, but without much syntax or anything. They're just words in a row.
DB: Right.
KM: So, I sat there and thought, "Oh, I'm already ten or fifteen minutes in to it, but it'd be more interesting if I move the letters throughout the poem like Gregory Betts did." So, I did that, and then like four or five hours later, I had been working on these poems for, like, a big chunk of the day. So then I got really hooked on it and started doing a bunch of them. I don't think I kept to the the National Poetry Month schedule, but I did a few of these, and soon it stuck. Now, I'm up to ninety-something, I think. It's embarrassing. Like I said, it's been since 2008—I should have a lot more.
DB: And there are a hundred and—?
KM: A hundred and fifty-four, total. But, yeah, so each poem is just an anagram. And then, I would say, there's a "cheat": I'll use all the letters to create a new poem in iambic pentameter, with the original rhyme scheme—A, B, A, B, etcetera, with three quatrains and a couplet—but then I'll have letters left over. It's almost never a problem that I don't have enough letters, usually, it's just that I can't use them all in the poem. So, I'll use those extra letters to make up a title, but that usually is pretty stupid. The whole poem is stupid, but the title isn't in pentameter or anything. It's just whatever I can do with the leftover letters.
DB: So you started off with the kind of stuff from the anagram generator, and I'm assuming that's not in iambic pentameter?
KM: Right—just words.
DB: So, was that the initial move that first day? You went, like, "Oh, I need to make this match up with the Elizabethan sonnet form"?
KM: Yeah, yeah. That was pretty much it. I think the very first one was the one that's on this little trading card—
DB: Oh, I have that trading card!
KM: Frankly, in fact, it's definitely the worst out of all of them, because it's got sort of a consistence in text and grammar, but it's just complete nonsense. But it was, in fact, technically iambic pentameter, and it technically rhymed. You know, it half rhymed. Then I got much more stringent about it from them on, like, "Oh, I'm going to actually make them construable as meanings even if they are bizarre meanings."
DB: OK. And so from that first one on—from two to wherever you are now—you were like, "Okay, now I'm going to have more structure to them"?
KM: Yeah. I mean, they always have the structure—I may be overstating it. I think the first ones probably, in some ways, are as construable as the others. I think it was just finding my stride for the next few, like, "Oh, I don't have to reach for these, like, half rhymes." Or, I can make that the most determined, kind of fluid part of it, and just then make the absurdities stand out in even more pleasing relief.
DB: I mean, you said they got "better" as you did them, and I'm sort of interested in this from your early Flarf stuff to The Front, too. I mean, I don't know, for my taste, I think it's better. And so, I'm wondering, how do you think of it in that way? Is it just from practice?
KM: I think it really is that simple. I think after the first one or two, I just got more practice working with the pentameter, creating a smoother flow. Really, that's all.
DB: Right. And so now that you're almost at number one hundred, do you have a different way of going about it?
KM: The basic process has stayed exactly the same. I think I changed the generator at one point in the process because I found a better one.
DB: What was the first generator?
KM: I don't remember what the first one was. It was kind of the standard, like the one most people would come to first, I believe. And the way I chose it in the first place was that it was just one that would accommodate an entire line, because not all of them would. Usually, they're better with names, or things like that. But I found one that would take an entire line of iambic pentameter. And then most recently, the one I use now is, I think, the best out of all the ones I've used. It's called "One Across," at oneacross.com.
KM: And it's nice because it's got a little control. I'm sure all the others have probably developed since I've been doing this, too, and they can do a lot of the same things. But, I'll put the basic line in the top box and then I have a little, if I want to, optional box where I can make sure it contains a certain word, if I find a certain word I want to make sure is in it, but I don't like the first few. Because there are sometimes hundreds of options to scroll through. So I can be like, "Make sure it contains lawnmower," you know, or whatever.
DB: So, you can you search and then limit the search in some ways.
KM: Mhmm.
DB: That's interesting. Does it ever produce a perfectly iambic pentameter line that you can use?
KM: I haven't done that yet. I'm sure it's theoretically possible.
DB: Electronic monkeys writing King Lear!
KM: I mean, do you know about the Pentametron? Which is this wonderful Twitter-based website.
DB: No, I do not know about the Pentametron.
KM: It is exactly kind of what you just said. Somebody built a program that just continuously scans Twitter—everybody's Twitter account, apparently—and finds all lines of iambic pentameter. Really, most of them, I'm sure, are accidental. And it finds other lines of iambic pentameter that rhyme with them, and creates this ongoing poem. I can go to it right now—
DB: Yeah.
KM: The one thing about it is it always starts with the oldest part. I wish it were bottom to top so you could always see the most recent.
DB: Yeah.
KM: Oh, here we are. You just go to the Twitter page with that. "Bread cards and sweaty bodies everywhere. The largest arms erect into the air. I'm way excited for the album though, you just a hoe—a stupid, stupid hoe. Tim Duncan is a fucking dinosaur. I'm not a people person anymore. I wanna wear a maxi dress today. I really wanna sleep today away," and so on. It also shows who the original Tweeter was, and it's just random people. So, it's like the greatest poem of the 21st century.
DB: Yeah. Do you know who's behind it?
KM: Oh, I don't know. Whoever it is, I don't know them personally, and I don't remember what their name is.
DB: Yeah. That's fascinating. I know that the New York Times had that one where they'd make little haikus, too. Similar project, not as good. So, getting back—do other people play any roles in all these things? I guess I'm interested in how it was writing to the list serve in that early stage. I mean, in terms of revision and kind of the forces that sort of morphed your poetry—what was that like?
KM: That was great. I think, really, most members of the list would agree that was the most stimulating thing about being on the list—just feeding-off everyone else's excitement and creativity, because it was very much a big hug fest. There was almost nothing critical going on in there, ever. We just try to write stuff to bust each other up. And it would be very responsive—if somebody wrote a poem with farting unicorns, somebody else would write one and expand on that. Like, farting glittery unicorns, you know—the sillier the better. The more obnoxious, the better.
DB: So, that sort of frivolous stuff—the farting unicorns—that sort of silliness was very highly valued on the list serve?
KM: Yeah. I mean, that was kind of the original spirit of Flarf. And I think it's also part of the reason for a lot of the resistance to Flarf from experimental directions. There was a sense that it wasn't taking the struggle seriously enough, or something. Which, you know, I think is what comes out of this, for me, misguided sense that this absolute stone-facedness is necessary at all times. And, there are times where there are legitimate objections, and I'd rather not go in to details. But there are, you know, some poems that upset people.
DB: Right.
KM: And I think it was very upsetting to the people who wrote them that they did upset people, because even though it might seem from the outside like, "Well, weren't you trying to offend people? Weren't you trying to get people upset?" But it was like, "Well, no—not these people."
DB: Right, right.
KM: And I think initially we were very resentful about it. It felt like, "Oh, we're on your side and you're misunderstanding us. These are not racist or sexist or otherwise vile intentions that you're looking at, here." But, I mean, I feel like as time has gone on, I try very hard to be more sympathetic to that response because out of that context that it emerged from, it's easy to see how a poem that mentions certain things in certain tones is almost impossible to separate from a poem that mentions those things in that tone with different intentions. And I think, even past Flarf, things like that are going on right now with some of the younger conceptual writers in this work I really admire, but then I see other poets I really admire feeling deeply hurt by the work they're creating. It's very difficult. I don't have a way to kind of justify any of it, or to put it in to order in my mind.
DB: Yeah, no. It's a tough one. I mean, a lot of your career and a lot of your writing has kind of happened from the internet and on the internet—with the blogging and the commenting—and that seems to have, in some ways, died down a bit?
KM: Yeah, blogging seems to be a thing in the past. For me, anyway.
DB: How did that shape your practice, your writing? You say that you've evolved in some ways about your opinions on some of the content that would be included. Have there been other effects? Could you elaborate more on that?
KM: I'd say what I've evolved in, at first, is not necessarily... I haven't changed my mind about some of the—I don't know what you want to call it—"starting theory". I've tried to become more empathetic and not immediately judge anyone who doesn't get it.
DB: Right.
KM: Or, see, even using a phrase like "doesn't get it" already shows a little residual judgment. There may be more than one way to "get it" in some ways that don't match our intentions, and we need to consider that we're accountable for that.
DB: Right. Well, and so much of the sort of the latter part of Flarf has been sort of the death of Flarf, in some of the blog posts and whatnot. Was that partly the reaction? Just like, "Let it go"? I mean, where does it go from there, I guess, is the question.
KM: I'm not sure how much. I think "Death of Flarf," most of the time, was a phrase we used ourselves just to kind of, like, kill the beast before it killed us, or something. But I think it just ran its course. I think, like any movement, the movement itself had its main value in the way it motivated the members of the movement, and that most of the writers go on to write however they're going to write. And it's influenced by that, but it's not the same. But your original question was about the blogging?
DB: Yeah, and kind of how that influenced your own writing.
KM: I don't know. I think for me, again, the main value of the blogging thing was to bring me in to contact with other poets and having discussions. I think there were a lot of people—in the early aughts, especially—blogging every day, and we were having fun conversations. For whatever reason, people moved on to other platforms, and other projects. And it also ran its course. But I don't know. I mean, I think the main effect was just social.
DB: I guess one question is could you have written the "sonograms" in the way that you're doing without Flarf? What sort of influence was there?
KM: Well, there are certain surface similarities, right? I mean, the idea of the refrigerator magnet process—pasting something into Word and using that as my template. So, yeah, I think in some ways, at least originally, I considered it an extension of Flarf practice. I guess there's no way to say that it is or isn't. There's no definite meaning to that. It is if I say it is, I guess.
DB: Right, right.
KM: But, yeah. It's probably something I wouldn't have done in quite the same way I did it if I hadn't been doing Flarf.
DB: This goes back to some of the questions we were just talking about, but what sort of skills did you learn in doing the Flarf that kind of go into the "sonograms"? What did you come in feeling strong about, and what did you learn?
KM: I think it's what I mentioned earlier—just that approach to arrangement. Finding clusters, finding strings in already existing verbal groups. Kind of being able to sift and sculpt something that was already in front of me.
DB: Yeah. So, I think we've kind of covered some of the general push through composition and revision, but I'm also interested in how you would put together the books, especially if—well, one question before we move in to that. Do you still write in that sort of traditional Flarf way? Are you still grabbing Google responses?
KM: I haven't done it in a long time. I think I did a few kind of like "post-Flarf" Flarf poems for a couple of years after I started doing the "sonograms," but eventually it just—I don't know. I think even the way it's configured on the internet now is such that it doesn't work quite the same way. I couldn't tell you exactly how, but I know the one or two times in the last year I even thought about trying to go back and do it, I thought, "Oh, this isn't the same."
DB: There's a lot more information like, underneath, and on the side. I mean, it's just kind of taken-over in so many ways.
KM: I think, yeah. And part of it is Google has gotten too smart.
DB: Yeah.
KM: Things are grouped according to usefulness, rather than just random occurrence of words.
DB: And who you are, too.
KM: Yeah, it knows me too well, and it's—I don't trust it.
DB: Google will let it appear, and Google will let it disappear. Terrifying. But in those terms, what were you using? Like, how were you composing the books then—like Deer Head Nation and Breathalyzer and The Front? You don't really have sections in those books—they just kind of go through, right?
KM: Really, the only one that's thematically organized in any sense is the first one. I mean, with the whole deer head theme which, like I said, is just a sort of floating metaphor.
DB: Right.
KM: Breathalyzer and The Front are, in all honesty, pretty much interchangeable, in terms of how the poems are chosen or grouped. They're just individual poems. And I actually have a full other manuscript that may or may not get published from that period. It's just been so long now that, even though I actually like some of the poems there, I thought, "Does anybody really want this now? Has the time passed?" It's called Monsters, and tentatively it might come out from Edge Books, but I haven't followed up on my obligations off getting the manuscript in. So, I don't know where I stand with that. I may have screwed it up.
DB: When you were publishing these books, and maybe with Monsters, do you have relationships with the editors where they're revising the shape of the book?
KM: Well, I definitely have a relationship with the editors. But I mean, like Rod Smith for Edge—fantastic editor, fantastic poet. But he's pretty hands-off in terms of the actual creative content. I'd say his input and his helpers' input comes at the level of things like layout.
KM: Yeah.
DB: And then I know you have, also, some e-chapbooks and whatnot. What do you feel about those, and how do you end up with them?
KM: I haven't even looked at them in so long, I can hardly give you a clear answer. I remember some of it was very early Flarf, but again, I haven't looked at it in a long time. I suspect I'd probably just cringe looking at a lot of it. Because I think what was initially exciting about the process is what quickly becomes predictable and crude about it—like, "Oh, look! This text comes off the internet. It smells like the internet! Look at it, you can see internet all over it." It becomes kind of obvious after a while.
DB: Yeah.
KM: But, I don't know. Yeah, I mean that's all so long ago.
DB: And in terms of the digital documents that contain those manuscripts and those books, I mean, are they in a certain spot in your computer somewhere?
KM: I think I just have the original Word documents of them, and then whatever else is out there. Or maybe a .PDF, in a couple of cases.
DB: Do you feel in any way—and this is getting back to the more technical stuff—sort of like "dear" towards them? Or are you like, "These are there, but really, the book's the book"? Like, is there enough value on them that you make sure where they are and that they're valued, etcetera, on a digital format, too?
KM: Well, there's at least that much value—that I know I have copies of them. But beyond that—and again, I'm not trying to be evasive—it's not that I actually am embarrassed, or have strong feeling one way or the other. It's just that I really don't remember that well what's in them.
DB: Okay, yeah.
KM: Because I was just doing so much stuff at that time. I mean, I'm sure if I took a few minutes to look, I'd go, "Oh, yeah! This one. I like this one," or "I don't like this one so much." But I'm trying to even form a mental image right now and—yeah.
DB: So—I do have a few Flarf questions I wanted to make sure I asked, but I think I got through most of them. One of the questions I ask the other people who teach—and you teach, too—is how does this influence the way you teach? What did Flarf teach you that then you tried to teach them, or anything in that sense?
KM: I guess, the single most important thing is just that it has to be fun in some level. I mean, I wouldn't necessarily frame it as "Flarf" in the classroom in this way, but I think one of the first things I try to do in the beginning in the classroom is break down the sense of over-seriousness that sometimes holds people back. So, I'll give them exercises—which people were doing a lot before Flarf—you know: write the worse poem you can. Things like that. Or I might, for a specific exercise, suggest procedure that is relevant to Flarf, but I won't say, "Okay, now we're going to write a Flarf poem." There are, inevitably, times when it comes up, or somebody in the class has heard of Flarf and they say, "What's Flarf?" and the story will get told. But I actually try to hold back on that because too often it results, I think, in exercises that might be fun for the student, and even produce humorous material, but don't necessarily contribute to the kinds of foundational verbal skills that I want people to concentrate on. Or if it does, it doesn't for everyone. For some people, it can be a way to avoid.
DB: Right.
KM: But I guess that's true for everything.
DB: And what are those sort of foundational verbal skills that you're after?
KM: I mean, just really basic conservative things like rhythm, like avoiding clichés. And just writing something where you're not just recycling received notions of what a poem ought to be.
DB: Right, yeah. It's all about kind of getting towards writing something interesting, making something interesting to a reader, right?
KM: And looking in to sources that you might not immediately consider, you know? Encouraging them to read a lot of poetry. Just the really basic things.
DB: Right, right. Just a few more questions. I guess...Eh, no. I think we're good.
KM: Oh, good.
DB: Thanks, Kasey.
KM: Yeah!
DB: That was really great.
KM: It was a pleasure.
DB: Yeah.
KM: Sometimes I'm so croaky—
DB: No, it'll be cool, you know, whenever it shows up. Ah—the off button.
KM: Are we Friends on Facebook?
DB: I don't have a Facebook.
KM: Oh, Okay.
Devin Becker: Let's start this going. This will just catch both of us better.
Amy Gerstler: OK.
DB: [to Gerstler's dogs] Hi, guys! Hi! Do you want to get interviewed, too?
AG: I think they do.
DB: What do you want to be asked about?
AG: Digital bone recovery? Virtual meat?
DB: Did you see all the, like, new fandangled pet things? They can have a plug-in thing where you can teleconference with your pet and give them a treat. It's called, like, iCPooch.
AG: I know they have some things for people who are gone a lot where you can-like your baby, or with your dog-you can watch them.
DB: Right. And this one, apparently, it's like you put it on the ground level and it has kind of like a dispenser.
AG: Unbelievable!
DB: And so you can, like, say, "Come here!" and it gives them a treat.
AG: A robot gives them a treat!
DB: It is something else, for sure. And there's like automatic fetch machines now and all sorts of stuff. I was kind of fascinated.
AG: Wow!
DB: OK, so, this will take an hour, an hour and a half. If you feel-if you need to get a drink of water, you know, or go to the bathroom, it's fine.
AG: OK, same for you.
DB: Yeah, and I have-It's kind of in three sections.
DB: The first section is kind of a more quick, short-answer stuff about what you're doing now.
AG: Oh, OK.
DB: And it's based off the thing that-I don't know-have you met Collier Nogues, who was in my year? She didn't actually-she wasn't in the in the class with us.
AG: No, I don't think so.
DB: But she has a book from Four Way, and she's-
AG: Nice.
DB: Anyway, we did an article earlier that interviewed kind of emerging poets about how they did this. So, these questions are from that. And then we'll talk more about kind of the span of your career and how the processes have changed, or not changed, with the computer. But it's more-I mean, it's not-you don't need to-like if you feel like you need to talk about it, or if you don't, we'll just talk about how you work and how that goes. And then the third one will be kind of a series of questions more about, I guess, your feelings about the computer, and that will be it.
AG: Alright!
DB: Ok, so this is the section where we talk about how you're working, currently. So, if you wouldn't mind stating your name, your date of birth, and where we are right now?
AG: OK. So, my name is Amy Gerstler. I was born on October 24th, 1956, and we're in the area of Los Angeles, California, USA that's called Echo Park, which is close to downtown, close to Dodger's Stadium.
DB: OK. And also joining us is?
AG: Also joining us as guest stars-taking all the glory, as is appropriate-is Ted, the dog, and Gus, the dog.
DB: Yeah, OK. So, what genres do you work in?
AG: I write poetry. I do different kinds of journalism, more in the past than currently, but still some. I used to do a fair amount of art journalism, like reviews and sometimes catalog pieces, and sometimes essays about visual art. And I did other kinds of general journalism.
DB: OK, and what would you say your primary genre is?
AG: And I've written some Non-fiction and a teeny bit of fiction. Sort of.
DB: Alright, so all of them, essentially. Many.
AG: And hybrid stuff, too.
DB: Yeah, but your primary genre is-?
AG: Poetry. And a little bit of non-fiction sometimes in journalism.
DB: OK. What kinds of devices do you have, or own, have access to for your writing? What computer devices?
AG: This laptop is my home computer. And then I have two sort of travel ones. One is a MacBook Air, which is like this but much lighter and thinner. And then one is an iPad mini, which I don't write on that much, but I write on a little, and it's like an iPad but it's a little smaller. It's like kind of purse size.
DB: Yeah. So, you have then-you have three devices on which you kind of write between?
AG: That's right.
DB: How do you share the documents? Do you share documents between the three? Or do you just send them to yourself?
AG: I like tech and I like computers, but I'm not as savvy as I should be. So, I send things to myself via email. That's usually the main way I do it. Sometimes I can plug them in to each other and have them share.
DB: Yeah. And so they're all Macs?
AG: Yes.
DB: And this is your primary device, though, you would say?
AG: Yes.
AG: There's also one at work, but I just use that for work.
DB: OK. You don't use that to actually write?
AG: It's for work.
DB: Yeah. In addition to your own devices, are you using physical-are you using handwriting, or notebooks, or anything?
AG: Sure.
DB: And so, how-what's sort of the ratio between the two?
AG: Ratio?
DB: I mean, how much are you working on kind of the physical formats, versus digital formats, I guess? And we'll get back to this, so, this isn't-we can talk about it later, too.
AG: I think actual writing is almost all on computers now, but note-taking is probably 75% notebook and pen, and 25% take notes on the computer.
DB: At what point would your notes kind of lead in-like, say, a physical note-lead in to a computer document? Do they usually lead to a poem like that, or is that a different-?
AG: Yeah, I often-my sort of poetry practice involves weird, different kinds of research.
DB: Yeah.
AG: And so that's digital because a lot of the research I do now was online, and I often print things out, and then either highlight parts of them and use them or take notes out of books, or take notes off of websites on paper and then input it.
AG: Does that answer the question?
DB: Yeah, and some of these will be a little repetitive, and I hope that doesn't bother you, but it's just the way-
AG: No, not at all! When you're trying to gather data-
DB: Yeah. But we'll talk more about that.
AG: Yeah, yeah. I get that.
DB: OK, cool. In what format do you save your files?
AG: Word .docx
DB: OK. And as you're creating drafts of your-
AG: Unless someone needs a .pdf, or unless someone has an old computer and has to have .doc
DB: OK. And as you're working on individual pieces on your computer, do you save over what you've written, or do you save new drafts for each one? Or is it a combination?
AG: It's a combination.
DB: OK. What are your naming conventions for you files?
AG: The names change, because I was so happy when I realized that you could change the names. Because I start out-and this is more true of poems than anything else-but sometimes I'll start out calling something, you know, "Ostrich Parade," or something, and then by the time I get to the fifth draft, there are no ostriches in it anymore, and I'm going to remember something else in order to be able to find it quickly. So, I will change the name.
DB: So, the title is like a prompt for you own memory intentions?
AG: See, the title is a prompt for find-ability. Quick find-ability.
DB: OK. So it's not necessarily going to be the title. It's just maybe something that-
AG: That's right. Sometimes it is, sometimes it isn't. And sometimes later on, down the line when I actually finally do title the thing, I will change the name again.
DB: Again?
AG: Yeah.
DB: OK. And as you're going through drafts, do you add numbers to the title?
AG: I do if I'm saving drafts. And what determines whether I save drafts is if I want to trash old drafts because I know I don't want to go back to them, if I think I might want to go back to them for some reason.
DB: Do you print out your writing to revise it?
AG: Sometimes, yeah.
DB: Sometimes.
AG: I'll do like a bunch of drafts, just revising on the computer. And then at certain points, I'll print it out and mark it up by hand, and then input the changes.
DB: Do you save any copies? Like, do you save those copies?
AG: No.
DB: No, they're just kind of means to the final product?
AG: Yeah.
DB: OK. Do you often back-up your work, your Word document files?
AG: I have Carbonite.
DB: OK, you do.
AG: Yeah.
DB: So, it's backed-up in the cloud, and it's just a folder on your computer?
AG: I've gone through all different kinds of back-up things. I've had all different kinds of viruses and crashes and-you know.
DB: Yeah. And so do you find this to be-
AG: I got religious about backing up.
DB: OK. So you've had experiences where you've lost-
AG: I've had viruses, and I've had bad computer crashes.
DB: OK. Anything where you lost significant work?
AG: Not so much, but the virus stuff destroyed a computer and was expensive, and really time consuming. And really nerve wracking.
DB: I know. Yeah.
AG: So, it was like, "Ugh! Never again, if possible."
DB: So, you have Carbonite, and they're all saved-do you connect that Carbonite folder to different devices, or you just have a folder on this device?
AG: I just have it on this device, because this is the central one.
DB: That's the central kind of location?
AG: There's nothing on-when I do things on other devices, I make sure they come here, if I care about them.
DB: Yeah, OK. When you say you're finished with the poem, is there a protocol for saving that in a certain place? Do you move it to a different place, or-?
AG: It goes in to a different folder, and I usually print out a hard copy, and I have sort of one of these kind of notebooks that I put it in to.
DB: Yeah. I have seen several-I think Bob Wrigley has that same one. OK. So, you do keep print copies of your final drafts. Are they organized? Are they leading to the next manuscript, essentially?
AG: Yeah, that's why, because that's the form that it's going to be in and delivered in if I'm lucky enough to get something published.
AG: Right now, it's not-I'm not digital books, so I also want to be able to look at it in the form that it's going to exist in, and play with it.
DB: Once they're in that folder, do you still end up going back and revising, or-?
AG: Sure.
DB: OK. And are those usually smaller-I mean, do you ever go back and do large revisions in there, or do you usually kind of like moving lines or changing words, or-?
AG: It depends. I would say moderate revisions and also if you consider getting, you know, tossing poems off the team a "revision," then yeah. Yeah, I do a lot of that.
DB: Yeah. Do you have any sort of standard ways that you-once everything is done and finished-do you have like a standard archiving process, like where you have like a folder you never touch, or a place you keep all of those from before?
AG: Well, yeah, I have those from before, but also, if I'm lucky enough to publish a book, then there's a file here. That's what I send to the publisher.
DB: And you keep that with all your others, in that Carbonite folder with everything else?
AG: Well, Carbonite just backs-up everything, right?
DB: Right, right. Yeah.
AG: And then also allegedly, eventually, there's an actual book. So then it exists in at least three forms.
DB: OK. And do you consider-which one do you consider the kind of final product? Would it be the book, or-?
AG: Yeah, that's what I'm working towards. You know, the book with the cover and-at this point, you know, who knows what the future will bring.
DB: Yeah, I know. Have you ever received or sort out information about methods for working with your digital files or digital archiving?
AG: No. I mean, you know, I've talked to friends about what the best back-up systems are, and I've talked to people in the computer store about this because of aforementioned bad experiences. I wanted to have like five different systems and really be safe.
DB: OK, great. OK, well, that's the sort of "where are you now digitally" part. Just making sure everything is going. And, it is. That's great. [To the dogs] Sorry, I made you get up. You need to get up?
AG: Well he just needs to know what's going on. Don't you, Ted?
DB: Yeah.
AG: You do.
DB: He's such a cool dog.
AG: He is a great guy.
DB: Alright, so, this is more sort of, broadly-speaking. I have two to start, and then I'll explain a few things, and then we'll go forward. So, how long have you been writing professionally? And I know that's a wishy-washy term, but-
AG: No. I mean, I'm fifty-seven and I've been writing-you know, I started publishing, you know, small poems in school magazines, you know, back when I was in college, when I was, you know, 18, 19, 20. So if you start it there, then that amount of years. If you start it when I had, you know, my first chapbook, then it would have been like after I finished college.
DB: OK. Well-and this is kind of, I mean, leading up to the next question, which is kind of a broad question-but could you describe kind of the arc of your career? Like, you know, where it started, when you started to write the poems that you consider your poems, and then kind of how it moves through time up to now?
AG: Well, I published a small chapbook maybe a year or two after I finished college when I was 21. So-
DB: And where were you at college?
AG: I went to Pitzer College, which is one of the Claremont colleges there in California.
DB: And then-and you can talk about like who you studied with or anything like that-but you went from publishing a chapbook and then-? And then your first book was like 1981, or-?
AG: I had that. I was lucky enough to have this guy Dennis Cooper, who was kind of my mentor and friend. He had this wonderful press called Little Ceasar Press, and he did this small chapbook of mine. And then David Trinidad-who's this terrific poet who teaches at Columbia College in Chicago but used to live here for a long time-had a small press called Sherwood Press, and he did another chapbook of mine. And then after that, actually someone who wasn't my friend, who was actually almost a stranger, published an actual non-chapbook. Which is, you know, a book with a thin spine, but an actual spine, rather than staples or stitching.
DB: OK. And what book was that?
AG: That book was called Early Heaven
AG: So, that was the first one that was a little bigger. And then I went on to publish around thirteen books-some of them chapbooks, some of them actual single volumes of poetry. And then some little odd projects like collaborative book with artists, or collaborative book with a fiction writer.
DB: OK. And during this time, were you teaching? Were you working at other-I mean, I guess, how were you supporting your writing?
AG: Well, I was going to be a Speech Pathologist and/or work with autistic kids. I was a child psychology major in college. I was always interested in poetry and loved it, and got to take a couple of classes at Pitzer from this amazing poet-who's not as well-known as he should be and isn't alive anymore-named Burt Myers. But I was kind of on the path to work with kids who had speech problems. But when I graduated from college, I wanted to have some time to work on my poetry because I've just been in school wall-to-wall, like many of us, straight from high school to college. So, I took some time off and I moved to L.A. I was accepted to a speech pathology program at Boston University, but I wanted to meet other writers and I wanted to try to make my writing better. And I started taking odd jobs. I worked for different doctors in the front office and in the back office-washing off instruments, answering phones. And I worked helping take care of a schizophrenic woman. I worked all kinds of funny, odd jobs. And that wanting to improve my writing, and read more, and write more, and learn more about poetry, and come in to contact with other writers kind of turned into my life. So, I'm still trying to make my poetry better and learn more and read more. And somewhere along the way, I got some jobs at a non-profit literary arts center that's called Beyond Baroque, which still exists in Venice. I worked there and in a bunch of different capacities, and at the library-a little tiny library, non-official library. Since you're one of those exalted breeds, a librarian. And I helped with the reading series and events and publicity, and did different jobs there. And then because my friend Dennis Cooper helped me get a little job writing art reviews for this magazine Art Forum, suddenly I was very lucky, and I was writing these monthly art reviews for Art Forum, which didn't pay very much, but it made people think that I was an art critic. So I couldn't get any teaching jobs teaching writing initially, but I did get hired as a kind of art critic. So, I started teaching in art school. And then as I published more and wrote more, and did more different kinds of journalism, I was able to get teaching jobs teaching writing. So, I worked at a bunch of different colleges, and I had a job at a little residency program-a wonderful program-, the writing seminars at Bennington College. So I'd go to Vermont twice a year, and I taught at USC and CalTech, and at my alma mater. I taught at the University of Utah, CalArts. A bunch of different places.
DB: Great. And now, now you're at University of California- Irvine.
AG: Well, I've had this job just for a year, and I was super lucky. I can't believe it-to get that job.
DB: Great. OK. So, that kind of gives us a framework to work in. And then I've sort of divided the sections in to kind of three-like we're talking about the process, and like, the first part, or sort of like the three-part process, the first part being kind of like compositional pre-writing, generative process, the second being revision-sort-of process, and the third, being organizational or archival, the part where you're kind of finishing, putting things in book form, etcetera. And we can talk about it in different ways, but if it works with your style, we'll just-
AG: Yeah, yeah.
AG: I don't have a rubric I need to impose on this.
DB: Good, good. I made one up.
AG: Yeah, well, that structure is a good thing.
DB: OK. And so, what I'm going to ask is sort of like how you work in those structures at the beginning of your career, and maybe how those have changed. So, when you first started writing your sort of more professional work, what were your kind of compositional, pre-writing, note-taking, generative practices at that point?
AG: Well, this now gets to era and what generation I am, because I'm 57, so when I started writing it was typewriters, you know? I took a type a typewriter to college and it moved from-you know, I took typing in high school-and it went kind of quickly during my little time capsule of when I was sort of coming up. From portable typewriters and little cute cases that were sort of like a big lunch box with a little handle, to increasingly kind of complicated electric typewriters. With all their weird accouterments like carbon paper and white out, or weird-they started making typewriters that actually had a correcting tape in them. It was like white and you would type over the letter that you wanted to correct with this white, chalky strip that was in there as part of the typewriter. Before you had to like shove a weird little piece. So, all these kind of very low-tech-viewed in hindsight-ways of dealing with making texts, correcting texts, revising texts, and also copying text. And then to the first sort of big-I remember when, you know, I first got a computer. It was sort of like, you know, I was ZZ Top. I had a tall music system here-it was this big, bulky thing, and there were things that went under the desk. And the printer had like-the print was really ugly looking. Dot-?
DB: Dot matrix.
AG: Dot matrix. And it had these weird strips with holes that you tore. Then to, you know, this sleek, little improved several generations of smaller, better computers and printers.
DB: Yeah, and so, I guess, when you were still working with typewriters and the early computers, how were you creating, let's say, the poems? I mean like were you starting in a notebook and then moving, typing them out? Were you handwriting them and moving to typewriter, or did you start-?
AG: When I started writing poems when I was a kid-before I had access to a typewriter or learned to type-it was, you know, spiral-bound, lined notebooks. And then it kind of moved to typing things, which you'd think would have made me revise a lot, and I did revise, but I love computers. Every time you wanted to change a period, or move texts around, you had to retype everything. And you were sometimes dealing with these crappy kinds of paper like that onion skin-it was erasable, but it was so like thin and fragile and weird-looking, and tactilely bizarre, and kind of see-through-y. And made the poems seem like they were really not substantial. Smeared easily.
DB: So like when you had an idea for a poem, you would go directly to your typewriter and start typing, usually?
AG: I think I would write in notebooks and then at a certain point transfer what I had to the typewriter. Because the typewriter was something-it isn't actually easy to revise on a manual typewriter. I mean, you have to roll the thing out and mark it up. There really isn't an efficient way of marking things out, or inserting a list of possible words you might want to use instead of the word choice that you had. So, I think I would work on it up to a certain point and typing it was sort of like, "Oh, this is kind of an official draft. I really want to-"
DB: OK. So once you hit that point, and then you were starting to take shape to the real thing.
AG: Because typing something now-putting something on the computer makes it ultimately flexible, but it was sort of the opposite with the manual typewriter. It wasn't set in stone, but it was sort of typing it up-
DB: And you're saying, too, that once it was that you got to the typewriter stage, it didn't encourage that much revision because-?
AG: I did and I have old things that are, you know, typed scripts with lots of markings on them-blah, blah, blah-but it's just that revision on a computer is kind of a one-step process, in the sense that it stays within that medium. But in order to revise on a typewriter, you had to roll it out. You had to get a pen, you had to get white out, maybe you had to get an eraser. And then you had to put the changes on a new, clean-
DB: So, you would try to make-I mean, once it got to where you were doing that, it was pretty far along.
AG: Typing something up would be like a milestone every so often when you've been through a few drafts-to see it typed up, and to mark that up.
DB: When did you start to work on computers? And those early computers-did they did they feel like a drastic change?
AG: Oh, having this big machine, figuring out how to use it, and figuring out what it all meant, figuring out what a "word processor" was? You know, and it would have problems, and getting some dim concept of what an operating system was-DOS?-all these different things. And it really divided the sheep from the goats, because there were writers I knew who had the kinds of minds, or still do, that really worked well with computer interface, if that's even the right vocabulary. They just took to it. And there were other people who were always-it was always mysterious to them. It always felt foreign and robotic and bizarre, and they preferred other things, or were just always awkward with it, or always needed a lot of help. Who needed an intermediary helping them with their computer.
DB: And some still have that-
AG: No, I mean, computers are a particular thing, and if you have the kind of mind that works well with them, you can just zoom and you can device-up. And kids now, younger people now-who are born in to various stages of, "Well, it's the most natural thing in the world"-you know, you get your first iPhone when you're 4 months old. It's, you know, a language that they learn. It's a native language for them. But for some of us older people, it was... You were lucky if you were the kind of writer who... And I know people who... The wonderful poetry teacher that I had at Pitzer, Mike Harris, said that he liked the computer, and the typewriter. The feel, the pace, the sound of the keys. It's almost like a musical instrument for some writers. They kind of play it, and-
DB: But for you, that was never-
AG: What I like is I can take a chunk of text and move it up here and it doesn't take me 40 minutes to retype the whole damn thing. And if I don't like it, I can try it down here. And if I want to print out a copy of something as a prose poem, and a copy of it with some line breaks, and look at them next to each other, I can do that in a flash. All that? I couldn't be happier. Because then I'm spending my time reading and writing and revising, and not spending my time [makes typing sound]. "Oh! Now I have to do the whole thing all over again!"
DB: Yeah, so, I guess then, when they did come along you were in that spectrum of people who took to it fairly easily?
AG: I can't say that I'm techno-great, but I like computers.
DB: You didn't employ-I guess, employ's the word-employ an intermediary between you and your computer?
AG: I have friends who are tech-wizzes who I definitely-when I'm like, "How come all my email is now being spit back in to my box that I already downloaded, and I have 695 pieces of email?" You know, when I'm like, "Help!" I do that all the time. Or, "How do you make Word, you know, not turn everything purple, or-?" But I'm probably in the middle, I think of the spectrum. I wish I was one of those people who just understands everything at all levels, and could set up a website, and knows about programming, and can fix my own computer, and speak the lingo. But-I'm attracted to that and I'm interested in it. I'd like to be more conversant, but I can't say that I'm great. But I'm not the super scared, like, "I hate this thing. I have four manual things in the closet because that's what I really prefer."
DB: OK. I guess, can you pinpoint a timeframe when you started with computers? I mean, do you know where you were?
AG: Well, I remember when I was in college, a guy who I'm still friends with-this wonderful guy named Bryan Tucker who's a visual artist and also a very good art writer-he was one of those people who was like, the computer thing, it was like made in the shade for him. When we were in college, there was a computer there, but it took up a whole room, and he would like go in there and make things, and print things out. But there was a while between when I graduated from college in the 70s and when computers were sort of starting to make their way in to writers' lives, like in to their homes. So, I started probably-it would probably be the very beginning of the 80s, maybe, would be my best guess.
DB: Yeah. And I guess, how long did it take you to realize that you had these sort of capabilities that you'd maybe been wanting that you didn't even know, like the ability to move things around? I mean, was that initial, or did that take a couple of generations to where it felt really easy to do all that sort of thing?
AG: Well, some things-there were certain perks that manifested pretty immediately, like just having a copy of the thing and being able to print it out.
DB: Yeah, that was pretty amazing.
AG: Right away, that was like, "This is way better."
AG: And being able to correct things and move them and change them.
DB: And that was immediate, like that was-?
AG: I mean, those are things that rudimentary computers-if memory serves-were able to do.
DB: Yeah, copy and paste being the-
AG: Yeah, you didn't have to like, you know, be the best friend of the Xerox machines always anymore. Right away, that's a life improvement.
DB: OK. And what were you using the Xerox machine for?
AG: If you wanted to send work out-I mean, this is pre-email, right? I mean, this is-You're making me feel such a dinosaur, antique! But that was inevitable.
DB: No, no!
AG: You know, so, if you wanted to apply for a grant, if you wanted to show somebody a copy of something, if you needed to send somebody a copy of something, if you wanted to send out a manuscript, if you wanted to send work to a magazine, all of that involved either carbon paper-yuck-or Xeroxing, right?
DB: OK, so that was kind of an early, organizational sort of work, there. So, you have this sort of beginning stage, you know, where the computer is this kind of revelation. Are there kind of stages between then and now that you could delineate, or is it just sort of a gradual-?
AG: I mean, there are so many wonders as far as I'm concerned, and if I was more tech savvy than I am, I would be conversant with even more wonders. And it's just not for writing, although that may be your topic of interest in data collection here for teaching, too.
DB: Right.
AG: It's unbelievably helpful. [Telephone ringing.] I mean, it's just changed teaching completely, with PowerPoint, email as a way of distributing class materials or communicating with students, and blah, blah, blah. And in terms of writing, every time there would be-the smallness of this, the portability of this, its different capabilities, visual stuff, being able to put visuals, being able to have access to all these typefaces. I mean, it just looks better and better. Now, it's wireless. I don't have to plug everything in to... I mean, to me, the blessings and the bounty are just-for me, I'm not sensing that there's a loss. It's like there might be a downside in terms of polluting the world with what these things are made out of-that they're not recyclable, things like that. And that is a Bad Thing, capital B, capital T. But in terms of making it easier to store, send, revise, read, research, communicate-you know, what's not to like, in my view?
DB: And your poems have such a large, imaginative scope. And I'm wondering, was there a time like when you were first using computers, you know, not so much the internet-how were you generating all those ideas and material at that point?
AG: Dude, libraries!
DB: Libraries, alright!
AG: Libraries, libraries, libraries, and you know, old used book stores, weird old books that I would look at, or magazines. Stuff like that.
DB: And as the internet became more sort of part of one's daily life, did that change?
AG: Yes, I still use libraries, and I still haunt the remaining dusty, old, funky, used bookstores. But even with libraries now, if I'm looking for something specific, I can look online. It just saves time. You know, I don't have to trudge around to all the local libraries looking to see if they have any books on Marie Curie, or if they have a particular title by so-and-so. I can see if it's in the library. I can find out what the library hours are. I can talk to a librarian if I need to.
DB: How do you go from, you know, browsing serendipitously to like having a draft of a poem? What's the process there?
AG: Well, I get ideas for poems, and sometimes they're phrases or sort of topics, or weird feelings, or vocabularies, or I want to write a poem based on the initial sort of generative impulses-"Oh, this has to do with hurricanes and my mother-in-law." You know what I mean? Or something like that. And I love research. Research is, to me, such a rich, poetic, amazing exploration, and is full of the unexpected. Like-this is another thing that relates to sort of digital stuff, at least in my mind-one of the only things I miss about pre-digital is card catalogs, because, thumbing through a card catalog, I would be taken on many more weird tributaries than I get doing a computer search in a library on whatever. You know, I'd be looking up the history of ferns or something, and I'd come across the history of shock treatment, and I'd be like, "Oh, that's way more interesting than ferns. What do we got here?" And then go find that book or something. So, that I kind of regret, the way computer indexes are set up. It's actually a little harder to find things, I think, on topic. But anyway-I'm talking about going off on tangents and research, and I just went off on a tangent.
DB: No, that's fine. I guess one question I have is, you know, I mean, research for a poem seems like it would be different from research for, like, a journalism piece.
AG: It is. It's imaginative research, in a way. And I think the research is done differently and also has different objectives, so you kind of pursue it differently, and you sort of glean different things from it. In researching, like for journalism, you're usually looking for facts and sources, and different kinds of information, and where different kinds of information are, or what the scope of an issue is or the subject is. In poems, it's sometimes really vocabulary, like a certain diction, or bits of color in a kind of structure. And sometimes it's facts that are going to get bent or distorted, or rubbed up against another set of facts, or data, or vocabularies, or made-up stuff. If that makes sense.
DB: No, it does. It makes a lot of sense. And so, I guess, in comparison, then, would you say that, like for your research-your journalism research-do the computers really sort of aid that? Because it has some more specificity, I guess. But you're saying you miss the sort of broader research.
AG: For poetic and literary kind of research, I definitely miss the kind of strolling through the card catalog and all the different little blooming subjects that you would come across. Although, occasionally, in doing any kind of research-even a very sort of scholarly or fact-based project-you would come across something useful but that wasn't something you were looking for specifically, something that you didn't know was going to be there. Whereas that would be serendipitous in a kind of journalistic- or factual-type research, and it would be totally the point in more poetic or literary research may be.
DB: That's interesting to think about.
AG: Although they both partake, I think, of each other. Like sometimes, in doing sort of "poetic" research, if you're really just like, "Yeah, but I need to know five things that bears actually eat for this poem so I can pick one that sounds good," you can find that.
DB: Yeah. So, the sort of final question about this sort of early, generative stage-is there any way that you're working now that is new, that is not different than the way you worked in the past? All this sort of ease of printing and revising, or just sort of generating-the internet, and everything kind of being with you at all times-has that changed your ways of making poems, or-?
AG: Absolutely! It absolutely has. I mean, I go to the library less because there's so many things I can access online, and I can print them out at home, or parts of them. I can, depending on what their security and parameters are like, I can sometimes lift a phrase I want to use out of a website and put it right in to the poem, which is very convenient. And then tinker with it, or whatever. Yeah, there's so many things. I can grab images. I can look at images. If I'm like, "Ah, I wanted to describe a crow's foot, but what does a crow's foot look like?" I can look at an image of a-yeah. And then if I do that, if I'm Googling that or looking at that, it'll also come up like, "Oh, yeah. Crow's foot also means, you know, the lines around your eyes," and then it'll show me images of that. I mean, that'll send me somewhere in the poem.
DB: So, there's a type of serendipity in that, I guess, a little bit, too.
AG: Sure.
DB: Yeah, sort of pun.
AG: But, I mean, in poems, as you well know. The pun is often a welcome fellow. At least in my world.
DB: Yeah, absolutely. I guess I'm sort of interested, personally, in that middle period, like the period, let's say, before Google. Let's say like late 90s. I mean, like, do you remember like what the computer use was like then? I mean, do you feel like it was like a limited kind of expression of itself for you, or you were still using the library and primarily using it more as a composition tool?
AG: It felt kind of a transitional time-like, using both, getting comfortable with email. Because also, doing journalism, that was a big thing-like turning things in that way.
DB: Yeah, so that must have changed. Yeah, that's got to be a big change.
AG: Big, big difference.
DB: Yeah.
AG: And doing edits that way.
DB: Oh, yeah, like going back and forth so you didn't have to-much quicker
AG: Yeah, like almost the whole time that I worked at Art Forum, it was like-well, at the beginning-it was like over the phone, you know, "Blah, blah, blah." And then it would be like somebody would mark something up and send it to you over email, and then you'd go argue with them over the phone. But you wouldn't be sitting there over the phone going, "OK, in paragraph 3, about the middle, this sentence, this word"-you know what I mean? Again-making things much more efficient, speeding things up. And also, it was a lot about-for me, but I don't think I was alone in this-a lot about learning curve. Figuring out how to use the computer, and what you could do with it graphically, also, with poems. Because suddenly, you know, on a typewriter and on the early computers, you couldn't play with typeface, you couldn't play with type size. People who wanted to make concrete poetry or poetry that uses, you know-they really worked hard. You know, all those guys back in the day they worked hard to get that written and then made sure that it went in to print as the artistic, graphic, on-the-page creation that they wanted to make.
DB: I know. They would've loved the internet. They would've loved having these capabilities so much.
AG: I'd like to think of those guys like Apollinaire. They'd be like, "Oh, why wasn't I born!"
DB: I know. I think Marjorie Perloff said something about that, I think. Like why were you-you know? I think everybody was there, and I mean, it hasn't come back. I feel like that ability hasn't, in some ways-I mean, this is side-talk, but. It hasn't expressed itself in ways that-I mean, there's definitely "viz-po" and a lot of interesting stuff, but it hasn't gone to where-there's no movements, or anything, I think, that I can find.
AG: I mean, there's some sort of graphically-there's all that, you know, word-cloud, you know, Wordle, where you can input things. And then there's also people who are, a lot, using different internet or research functions as kind of theme, or structure, or kind of concept. Like kind of conceptual poetry.
DB: Like Flarf.
AG: Yes, and all its sort of grandchildren.
DB: Yeah, right. Absolutely. I know, and those are definitely fascinating. You mentioned the typeface and using that. I mean, did that influence your work?
AG: Well, a little, because I liked to do, you know, what sometimes gets called, you know, "multi-vocal" stuff. And I have a weird fondness for italics. I always have. You can indicate different speakers, different voices, different-you know? I didn't used to be able to use italics, make things bold, make things bigger. You know, make different columns.
DB: Yeah, absolutely.
AG: Suddenly you have-
DB: Magical powers.
AG: Yes, exactly!
DB: Did you ever have those sort of inclinations when you were working with typewriters or in the early days of computers? Were you like kind of, "Oh, I'd really like this to look like that"?
AG: A little bit, yeah. Mostly because I wanted to use italics. I mean, I'm not one of those people who are like, "Yes, I want it all over the page. I like it, you know, coming down like rain. I want to look like an explosion of letters here." I'm not super in to that, but there were small things I wanted to do. And now, you know, not only can you do them, but you can try ten different typefaces or sizes, or you can make it a color.
DB: Right. What part of the process, for you-I mean, what sort of, in the progression, what sort of using the different types of typefaces, or playing around happens? Does it happen more in the early stages, or like are you-maybe in a later revision stage-are you like, "Maybe if I move this here..."-?
AG: Mostly later, because need for that-the poem's alleged need for that-kind of evolves as the poem evolves. I don't often start by saying, "Well, this is going to be about someone who has Alzheimer's. So there's her voice, and here's the voice of the doctor, and then here's the voice of the daughters." It's like, "So, I'm going to need at least three different typefaces," or "going to need to spatially differentiated," or blah, blah, blah. But that might evolve as I'm writing the poem.
DB: Right. So now we move on to, kind of specifically, revision. When you were first starting to write, what were your sort of typical revision practices, just like nitty-gritty? Like how did it work? It sounds like you moved from notebook, usually, to a typewritten thing, made some changes, and then every sort of stage was another typed out piece?
AG: Kind of. And I actually-this is making me remember things-I did a lot of cutting with scissors and taping together with scotch tape. I did more and more and more of that. So, you can't believe how happy I was. And, you know, you'd lose pieces, or the wind would blow them, or the dog would eat them. You know what I mean? And then if you tried to Xerox something like that, they would have these big, gross lines, and it would just look like, "Yay! We're in kindergarten!"
DB: The original cut and paste, really.
AG: Cut-and-paste is called that for a reason! So, I just couldn't have been happier-and I'm pretty clumsy anyway, I'm not a good visual artist that way-to not have to spend the time, to not have to look for the scissors, to not be screwing around with tape and glue, and to be able to flip it back if it didn't look good that way and try it another way, make three versions and look. I'm into it, deeply.
DB: So then, in terms of your revision, the sort of the cut and paste, the copy and paste, the rearranging, has always been, though, pretty fundamental to your practice.
AG: Once I started to realize that-as the late, great David Foster Wallace said, and as many other people have said-that writing is revision, all the way through. Yeah-for me it is. Things change a lot. I often, you know, first start working on something-not that I ever know what I'm doing, but it's really groping and trying things, and additive. And then you get to parts of revision that are more subtractive. And then you kind of go back and forth, and then you get to a certain point where you go, "Oh, now it actually seems like it's turning in to something, so what are the new sort of requirements one needs for this new path that it's taking?"
DB: So, would you say, between those sort of those types of revision-you would say, additive, subtractive and maybe substitutive-do you have a primary-
AG: And research, definitely-pulling things, other elements, once it starts to take shape. You know, like, "Oh, this isn't about autopsies. It's about, you know, my feet. My feet, dead or alive." Suddenly then, it's like, "Oh, OK." Then I'm suddenly looking at podiatrist magazines.
DB: OK. Is there a primary mode you go to? Or it seems like you use-it seems like it's all over the place.
AG: All over the place.
AG: My problem in life.
DB: And then, I guess, when did this kind of writing-this revision realization-start to really influence your own practice? Was it from the beginning, or did it sort of hit at some point?
AG: When I was, you know, a kid and when I was in junior high and high school, I was, you know, laboring under the misapprehension-which is a common one-that, you know, "Oh, I wrote something. How sacred. How lovely. How wonderful." You know, "Ah! You mustn't touch it! It's just kind of like a shrine." But this is not the case, at least not with me. So, once I got in to college, I realized, "Oh, you know, you work on this stuff and you think about it, and maybe you show it to people who you think are smart or interested in the topic, and they might have a suggestion. Or you work on it and then you read some more and you see oh, look at what that person did. This could solve my problem here." And that it's just layers and layers and layers and layers-getting to what the thing might be and then trying to work on the thing and make it into something that could work. That it's all just-writing is revision, because you're constantly making decisions. You know, sort of like perception is revision, and filtering, and choices, and-
DB: That's a good analogy. I like that.
AG: It's a mess, and you're nuts, and you can't attend to everything. And also, as you get older, I think you realize that every poem doesn't have to contain every single thought, feeling, and reaction you've ever had in your life. That, actually, you can get to the universal through the specific. Maybe. If you're lucky.
DB: Do you-I mean, like, so when you go to a piece to revise it, do you have any intentions in mind?
AG: Sure. Sometimes some of them survive the process, and sometimes some of them are, you know, things that end up leading to other things, but end up getting discarded. And sometimes some of them are red herrings, and the thing doesn't end up going anywhere. So, it either goes in the trash, or one line for me gets cannibalized out and goes to something else, and the rest of it goes in the trash.
DB: In terms of kind of what drives your revisions, is it like sound, or structure, or meaning, or is it sort of like a combination?
AG: Hopefully. I hope and pray that it's all of those things. Some people have a good head. You talked to Michael Ryan. He has such a good head for all those things. For the kind of emotional content for form, for sound and music and beat. All of that. I'm not so wonderful. Sometimes a period of revision will be like, "This is just about trying to dig out the idea," and then after it feels like some of that maybe coming out, then sometimes I will have to be like, "OK-you really have to be hearing this now and work on the sound because-"
DB: So, it kind of goes instead-it's sort of like compartmentalized, sometimes?
AG: Yeah. And then, hopefully, once it really gets going, you're able to kind of see, smell, hear, feel, taste what's going on. Or sometimes it'll be like, you work on something for quite a while, and you'll be like, "You know, it might help shape this for it to be in quatrains." Or, "Is this really a prose poem?"
DB: Yeah. That's always an interesting question.
AG: Right. Or, "Since this is about a couple who hates each other, how about couplets?"
DB: Did you learn how to improvise, or did someone else teach you?
AG: Dennis Cooper taught me a lot, and being in some workshops. I mean, that's one of the things that workshops supposed to teach you. I mean, one of the things workshops usually teaches you is how to survive workshops, and how to be in them. But I think things that have taught me about revision are showing work to other people, being in workshops, reading, reading literature, and also sometimes reading craft stuff. And going to lectures, talking to people. And I feel like I learn a lot from teaching. That's one of the real, unbelievable benefits of teaching. I learn a lot from reading students work. I learn a lot from being in workshop with them, seeing how they do it-just being a part of it. Seeing what they're reading. Incredibly helpful. And then I've had a few, you know-Dennis Cooper was an unbelievable mentor. And some other teachers I've had were, you know-when you have a writing teacher usually that, when you get down to it, they can help you learn about your strengths. They can help you work on your process and maybe be less scared. And maybe they can help you figure out how to navigate the literary world and what kinds of writers and stuff you might like-open up stuff like that for you. But I think what maybe they most help you with, often, is revision. Like, Dennis Cooper was such a great mentor to me that I can still sometimes hear him in my head.
DB: Do you? I mean, like, what do you hear?
AG: You know, "Why are you using this word? That's not tight enough." Just things that he would say. One time he said to me-and lots of people have said this other ways, I'm sure-but he was like, "You have to cultivate your obsessions." And I was always a little ashamed of my obsessions. But he was the opposite. His obsessions were like, "Art is our religion!" And he wasn't, like, preaching. He just kind of calmly, quietly said it was what he thought. But these were new ideas to me, and rocked my world in a big way. I was like, "Oh, I'm obsessed with drowning. I could like-instead of thinking that I should just go to the doctor-I can actually read things about it, and write things about it, and pursue it." Or, "I'm obsessed with, like, ancient Egyptian tombs," or something. You know what I mean?
DB: Yeah. No, it's kind of a freedom, right?
AG: Freedom and-I hate this word, but-a permission. Like, "No, that's what artists do."
DB: Right. Well, you don't know until-
AG: Well, no. Well, some people seem to know it instinctually. Some people really do. And there are other, more timid ones of us that need somebody to kind of light a fire under them. And he kind of did that, and a few other people did that for me.
DB: Throughout your writing, have other people played roles? Like, I mean, he seems to have played a role in teaching you how to revise. Have other people played kind of more specific roles in the revision process for you?
AG: Well, I mean, I didn't study writing, unfortunately. You know, I was a Psych major- undergrad. And then when I was much older, I went in to a low-residency writing program in non-fiction. And all the teachers I had there were really great at, you know, taking your copy and going over it, and showing you, "Ah, this is-you're avoiding something here," or, you know, "This is-." Because it wasn't always just like "out, out, out, out." It would be like, "I want to know more about this," or, "I'm so curious about this," or, you know, under currents-things that haven't been mined out of it yet. Or that because it's you-and you're kind of, you know, deep sea fishing in your unconscious-subconscious in a way-that you might need another person to either say, "This is excessive," or, "This isn't the most interesting thing," or "You think this is about, you know, Abraham Lincoln, but it's really about you wanting to have a baby. So, get real to yourself!" You know what I mean?
DB: Yeah.
AG: And sometimes people are wrong, but sometimes you're like, "Oh, god. That. Uh-oh, you're right."
DB: Yeah. And do you have those relationships now with your poetry, or-?
AG: I try to do it for myself, and there are people I show things to now and again. But, you know-and I don't want to sound like Grandma Moses or anything, but-I think, for me, it seems like it gets a little harder when you get older, because everyone is so busy. And, you know, I can't ask my students to look at my work, because it's supposed to be going the other way around. Although I'd like to, but-I mean, a lot of them, or most of them, are really kind of smart and brilliant and, you know. It would be great, but that is not fair.
DB: That could maybe be something different in workshop, though.
AG: Yeah, "It's all about me today!" You know. So, I have a few people I try not to tap very often, and much later in the process. And I try really hard to do it myself, and to come back to things multiple times from multiple angles. Because, you know, when you're younger, you have a lot more friends, and you're all young, and you have a little bit more time, and maybe people aren't locked in to jobs or families, and you're all artists and writers together coming up. And then there's some winnowing. At least this has been my experience-probably other people have a different experience-but some people stop doing it and do something else. Which is cool. Some people get very busy, or you lose touch with them. And then a lot of people have jobs and lives that-you know, they're already reading their students work, and trying to make a living, and trying to keep their life together, and do their own work. So, you know, you're like, "Hey, here's sixty pages of my poem on top of your busy, multi-tasking life. Have fun!"
DB: Enjoy!
AG: And try to get back to me within the next two days!
DB: Right, right.
AG: It's harder.
DB: Right, right. No, that's definitely one of the things. And then, I guess, in terms of when you do get to the part of the process where you're putting together a book-well, this is kind of the third stage, I guess. I mean, how do you go about-I mean, I guess, there's the revision process there, too-putting the collections together? What are your sort of drives, intentions, and has that changed over the course of your career, too?
AG: Well, it's different with different books.
AG: Because they're different animals, right?
DB: Right, yeah.
AG: More or less. For me, if it's a book of poems, some books of poems are sort of like a scrapbook, or a portfolio, or something, and some of them are more thematic, or the book itself has some kind of looser type-in my case, it's usually loose-structure, or trajectory. And even the ones that are kind of a sampler, I spend a fair amount of time trying to figure out, "What's the first poem? What's the last poem? What's the movement? How do they work together? How do some of the last lines of ones feed in to the title or the first line of the next one? What looks good next?" In a way, it's sort of like, though it's not exactly like, interior decoration-you want it to flow, have ups and downs. With me, it's like, "What's the mixture of dark and funny ones?" I mean, you do mini version of that when you're reading, even. And then sometimes it's like, "Oh, this is going to be in sections," and, "Are these sections going to be numbered?" It's basically manuscript construction, right? And if you're dealing with-I mean, I've been really lucky in being able to pick a verse because, you know, it's a funny thing with poems. It's like hardly anybody publishes poems anymore, and if you're lucky enough to get a book of poems published, usually they're not treating it like it's, you know the next big best-seller. They don't have a big investment in it. So, the fact that it's much less a big deal to them has its pros and its cons, but one of the pros is, usually, they're not going to impose a cover on me, because it's not like, "Well, this is going to be a blockbuster, and therefore, we need to have this kind of cover." So, I get to pick covers by artists that I like usually. So, thinking about that, and how the title-the overall title of the book-where that's going to come from.
DB: Yeah. Getting back to kind of the computer thing-how did you learn, like without the computer, and then did it change once you got-?
AG: Well, this is where I need to be more... This is one of many places where I would love to be more tech savvy, because I keep asking friends of mine who are graphic artists, like, "Isn't there a program, or piece of software, where you can layout a book? Like, in a grid?" Because I end up spreading the book out like on the floor, and then putting it together, paging through it, you know? Because, like with what we're talking about at the beginning, I want to be looking at it in a way that's analogous to the final product. But it would be very convenient if I could look at something that showed where each page was and what are the double-page spreads were etcetera. And I haven't found something that works like that, so I'm sitting here getting dog hair all over the pages, and either putting it on the floor or trying to do it on a long table. Things like that.
DB: And is that how you've been doing it for the whole time? So, this has made it easier to move things around and stuff within the document, but in terms of constructing the document, you're still on the floor?
AG: In the dark ages with, you know, lint and dog hair and crumbs. But I'm sure at this point there are multiple programs-there must be-that if I knew how to use them, I could pull the thing together and look at it on a grid, or two grids-something like that. Or scan things in.
DB: You would think Word could just do that. I'm sure it's not that difficult, but they don't do a whole lot.
AG: Yeah. I've not found something that's easy to use, and cheap and available to me that I know of where I can just do that.
DB: Right. I think, yeah-I think most people use InDesign, but that's a $200, $300 program, and it takes learning. It's a learning curve.
AG: Yeah, and I'm always like, "Oh, I could be writing instead of reading this piece of software that I'm only going to use once every three years, when I'm like about to have a book come out. But I should still do it.
DB: I don't know. I mean, it seems to work for you. So, I guess in the process of making this, how do you track the pieces? Do you just keep them in this-you print them out and you put them in these sort of folders? Is that how it's been consistently done?
AG: I do that, and I have a folder of things that I'm currently working on, and I keep sort of looking at that and seeing if I'm reaching critical mass. And then there's ones that are sort of sink to the bottom that I know I'm not going to use unless I get some revelation and I can really clean them up, or if there are others that are contenders.
DB: OK. So, when you're all done with this, like, you're done with the manuscript and stuff, what are your sort of archival-the physical and digital-practices there? I mean, do you put that in a certain box, and put that somewhere?
AG: Well, I make the folder that is the book that I'm going to submit, to see if I can get it published. And in order to have arrived at that, I've printed things out and done my gungy little no-tech, on-the-floor, dogs-walking-over-it, leaves-falling-on-it kind of procedure that I was shame-facedly describing to you moments ago. And so, I end up with a paper copy in a file, at least one. And also at that point, I'm usually trying to bribe a couple of friends in to reading it before I send it off. So, I'm either emailing them, or handing them a copy. I've got a copy. There's a copy of the computer, there's a copy in whatever virtual world my back-up system backs it up into, and eventually there's a copy that's submitted to the publisher.
DB: And then so, say like a few years on, do you still have like those archival copies somewhere on your computer of those manuscripts?
AG: You know, I mean, now I will because the way I used to back-up was just on an external-
DB: External hard drive?
AG: Yeah, just plugged-in. But I have problems with those, and also that if the house burned down, that would burn down, too. But now, with things being backed in to clouds or other people's systems or stuff like that, it's just going to exist there. But when I have a book come out, I just think, "OK, that's it-the book came out."
DB: The book is the thing.
AG: The book is the thing. And then in the floating galaxy of Carbonite, there's also a copy of it, and that's sort of enough.
DB: Right. So I mean, do you have like a different feeling, say about like the printed out manuscript that you worked on, and like the document file on the thing? I mean, does this one feel more dear to you?
AG: I'm not precious about that sort of stuff. People yell at me every once in a while, like, "What? You don't keep your draft?" or, "You don't keep copies?" or, "You don't-?" And I'm like, "My office is this big. I get rid of things so that I have, you know-two writers live in this house, and books are coming in like every moment. It's just a constant battle with the rising swell of, you know, paper avalanches. So, no, I don't keep a lot of the stuff like that, because I'd have room for-
DB: New stuff?
AG: Yeah.
DB: Yeah. OK. So, I have some sort of some general questions about computers, and I'd like to talk a little bit about correspondence and teaching, and that's it. And these maybe a little repetitive, but I think we can get at them really quickly. So, do you think then that with the kind of advent of personal computing, did it affect greatly your writing practices, or your writing style?
AG: Writing practices, for sure. And I think productivity.
DB: And productivity? OK. In terms of style though, do you think that there were definite changes?
AG: Well, it certainly aided and abetted my tendencies towards research, and it quickened and made more efficient, and broadened the range of my research reach, if that makes sense.
DB: Yeah. No, it does. Are there any sort of styles, techniques, or formats that you think you lost from moving to the computers?
AG: Not for me, man. I just gained time, because you just had to retype everything.
DB: I think we've covered a lot of these. I mean, one of the questions is-does the internet play a role in practices?
AG: Yeah.
DB: I'm pretty sure it does. Do you ever disconnect when you're working? Is it ever too much of a distraction for you?
AG: You know, that's not-the thing I do is I just close email.
DB: Oh, OK. So, email is the kind of-?
AG: You know, the way this computer-you know, the way things are set up, it's like, if you're doing any task on the computer, whether it's for school, or if you're working on a poem, or if you're doing research, or whatever, you know, the email thing is like-I always have the sound turned-off. My tech friend makes fun of me, but I'm very weird, and I don't like the noises the computer makes. I find them distracting. But even if you turn off the sound, there's a little box that comes up that not only tells you that you have email, but is like, you know, "The medical quadrant at the University of California-Irvine wants to know if you want to participate in the study of people who have bad skin diseases." You know, this is like flashing in the corner of the thing every-not like I'm so popular or anything, half of it's spam. But still, that is interruptive and distracting, and so, I just turn email off. But I know, for me, I like to do research-and even my use of a dictionary, or use of a thesaurus, or use of a synonym dictionary-all those things are on the internet. So I don't have to, like, go in another room, then run and come back. I can just work with the internet on and the email off.
DB: Right. OK, I'm just going to-usually, this is what happens when you cover most of the things. I just want to catch a few more things. Well, we sort of talked about this really briefly, but are you able to find the files that you're looking for on your computer, like if you're thinking about something?
AG: Usually. Not only because of the naming and the capacity to easily update or change names as much as you want, but also sometimes I can't find a file, but I remember I used the word "artichoke" in that poem. So, you can search for that. Like I'll think, "Oh, OK. Well, god damn it, I can't remember what I named the thing!" I changed the name five times, but then I'll think, "Well, I used the word 'toothache' in there, so, I can search for that."
DB: So, you're trying to look for "toothache"-like, before those capabilities were available like in the 90s, etcetera, were you more specific about your titling? I mean, were there other things that you did then that-?
AG: It still, occasionally, takes me a while to find some things. But mostly, between those two things, I can. And before-I have more stuff on my computer now, I think. Back when it was just titling and I couldn't search for a specific terms or names, there were less things on my computer.
DB: It was mostly for writing, yeah. How do you kind of feel about the security and fixity of your files? Do you worry about them, or do you feel pretty confident in your situation? You've said you had some issues before, so I'm assuming that's really kind of influenced your practice.
AG: Well, if you mean security of the computer in general, I think everyone is pretty freaked out about that. I don't get scared about people stealing my little poems. Because I don't think anyone cares. But in terms of invading my bank account or my personal information or my passwords, or other computer things-you know, contemporary life is a nightmare of losing privacy and being surveilled. The computer is a major source of that. So, I'm just as scared as anyone else.
DB: Yeah. I guess, I'm sort of thinking more mundanely about if you are just worried that your documents will all sort of-you know, Carbonite drops and we lose them. I mean, like, is that something, or do you feel pretty secure at this point? And were there different stages in the writing that you were like much more careful about them than you are now?
AG: Now that you've said, "Oh, Carbonite drops," maybe I'll get another one, too.
DB: No, no-I mean, they're got several different servers.
AG: I mean-I think between my printing stuff out, my computer, my multiple devices, and Carbonite-
DB: No, you're really well set up! As a digital archivist, I can tell you that.
AG: OK, happy to hear. I'm probably more or less OK, and if I'm not OK-
DB: No one's OK.
AG: Yeah-the meteor comes and we're a firing inferno of a planet. Well-nothing I can do about it.
DB: Yeah. But you came to this practice because of-
AG: Bad experiences.
DB: Bad experiences.
AG: Both my own and hearing about other people's.
DB: Yeah. So, I guess, in terms of sort of corresponding with other writers about your writing, did you do a lot of that by like typewriting in paper in the beginning? And then how does that sort of changed over the course? Utterly different?
AG: I mean, I had a postal scale. You know, everything was like weighing stuff, going to the post office, and stamps, and, you know, printing. You know, which was fine, but now, I mean-email is a dream. The only thing that bugs me about-well, there're two things. One is security, and the other is that it's not as reliable. You know, I always think that the next technology is flawless, you know? It's god, it's perfect. But yesterday-it turns out that my server seems to have a problem with Gmail, and will not send. You know, 2/3 of people I know or do business with have Gmail, and so now, "Oh, 10% of things I send to Gmail are not getting there? How fantastic! That's really great!"
DB: Oh, yeah. I know.
AG: So, what's that? But, no, email's, I think, great for writers, for correspondence, for sending people-I mean, going back and forth with revisions. All that.
DB: And do you feel like there's a difference in feel between the ways of communicating, I mean, sort of regular mail versus email?
AG: Well, these are all mediums, right? I mean, yeah, they're mediums, or technologies, or both, and they have their own characteristics. It's not the same as a genre, but no, they require different things of us as producers and consumers, and they have different effects. I find it difficult to believe that anyone would argue with that. So yeah, email has many of the same characteristics but is different from a written letter. And a letter written on a manual typewriter is different from, you know, Charles Dickens dipping his pen, if that's indeed what he did. You know.
DB: I'm sure he did. Yeah. So, are there ways in which you save certain digital correspondence?
AG: Oh, yeah. Some emails I print out, and many I save by leaving them on the computer. And again, since the gods of Carbonites are supposedly looking out for me, it's saved there, too.
DB: But you do do specific things to save specific correspondence sometimes?
AG: Yes.
DB: And the with the physical correspondence-do you save specific things there, too?
AG: Sure. Once-not bragging-but once, I got a little letter from John Ashbury, a tiny one about something, and bet your bottom dollar I saved that.
DB: Yeah.
AG: Or, once I wrote a review of a biography of Frank O'Hara, and his brother like wrote me something, you know, a little card thing. I totally save things like that. Because they're meaningful, not because I think I'm going to sell them on EBay or something.
DB: Right, no, absolutely. So, as computers came in to your work life and into your teaching, did this-I mean, I know that changed dramatically. What do you feel are like the differences between, you know, having the sort of immediate access that we have now versus where you were, before, corresponding more with mailboxes than in person?
AG: For teaching?
DB: For teaching, yeah.
AG: Gosh, I'm not-I mean, I want to take classes and be able to take better advantage of this, but I mean, I have taken to bringing an iPad to class. Because, like we were looking at a-I think it was a Frank O'Hara poem-and it brought up Betty Grable. None of the undergraduates in class, understandably, who Betty Grable was. So, I was able to go dit-dit-dit: here's Betty Grable. You know? Pin-up girl. Here's who she was and here's some biographical information. Or we can look up a word, because there are not books in the classroom. In the old days, I used to sometimes bring a dictionary to class. And I was like, "I can't carry all this stuff!"
DB: So, it's always been important to you, though, to give kind of outside-context in your teaching?
AG: I'm teaching writing, and books, and literature, and English. We need to be able to look stuff up. I mean, you know, that's kind of a given. So, the fact that we can have a dictionary, or people can be arguing about whether, you know, negative capability was something that Keats thought of, or Britney Spears. I can now look it up and say, "Hey."
DB: So, is this the first year you brought the iPad in to the class?
AG: No, I started doing that a few years ago. Or somebody's written a poem based on a painting and-
DB: Yeah, you can look up the painting.
AG: Things like this are really good. And if I was more tech savvy, when I'm lucky enough to be booked in a smart classroom, I could actually project that stuff or material. I want to get to that point where I can do PowerPoint things, or I can project the poem. You know what I mean? Different things like that.
DB: Absolutely, yeah.
AG: So, every aspect of teaching the kinds of things that I teach, you know?
DB: And I guess, you know, this entrance of-
AG: You know, workshop-You know? Everyone sends their poem-
DB: Yeah, by email. I think when I was there, we still had to go drop it in the mailbox.
AG: Right.
DB: Has the entrance of this into the classroom had an effect on your own writing at all?
AG: Entrance of something in the classroom-?
DB: You know, I mean, like all of a sudden you have a device small enough that you can bring in and use in a very powerful way whereas before, it would have been, you know, huffing in that. Like has that affected you, I mean, in your relationships with your students and then your writing? Sort of a bad question, but-
AG: Well, you know, you want the classroom to be a vivid, lively, energetic, productive place. And when I was a little kid, there was a lot of stuff in the classroom. And now, there isn't. The classroom is sort of like a white cube, in a way. So actually, digital stuff, to me, substitutes for, or contains, the idea of having a lot of books, or a lot of pictures, a lot of reference things. In the classroom again, which is really actually important to make something. It's not exactly hands-on in the way that a Chemistry class would be, if you're working with beakers and petri dishes and stuff like that, but it helps connect the things that you're talking about in classroom to the concrete via the digital, I think. And make it real, and make it vivid, and make it connected, and for you to be able to follow ideas and reach out to the connected ideas and see where things are coming from.
DB: And then, I guess in line with that then, do you feel like the students you have now have a different, maybe cultural technical understanding than they used to?
AG: Completely. No, completely. Every generation of them does, and then I do-I mean, I try to fake it and act like I'm all... I bring my iPad to class, even partly, to be like, "OK-I'm a bunch older than you, but don't write me off. I'm actually-." Yeah, exactly. So, "Don't kick me out of the world quite yet."
DB: Yeah, yeah. Is there anything-I mean, I guess the students you're teaching at this time, in this year, are probably more connected than any students ever, right? But are you seeing like a difference in their proclivities, or anything like that?
AG: No, I mean, this is-they have grown up, you know, completely differently. I mean, when I talk to other teachers, you know-this is "duh," everyone knows this-but one of the only downsides is everybody has a computer or a device. I'm very lucky with where I get to teach and what I get to teach. I'm not usually having this problem, but a lot people are having this problem. You know, people are there shopping for shoes, or looking at watches, or talking to their friends, or looking at porn. You know what I mean? And they're like, "Hey, I'm taking notes." And I'm like, "No, you're not! You're not. You're buying electronic cigarettes while we're supposed to be talking about something else." So, there's that thing about computers in the classroom.
DB: So, I mean, like finally-and thank you for your patience in answering all of these-
AG: Oh, sure.
DB: And this is kind of the last sort of-do you have like any sort of broad thoughts about how, you know, the advent of personal computer has affected writing in this period of time-in the period of time that is your kind of writing career?
AG: Well, I kind of think everything with this whole conversation is that-and sadly, I'm not a good synthesizer or summer-upper-but my overwhelming reaction is gratitude. I'm super grateful that it makes it so much quicker, easier, more efficient to research, to connect to libraries, to connect to students and other writers, to correspond-to exchange texts-to get hold of texts. You know, Project Gutenberg, blah, blah, blah, blah, libraries online. Everything. And I'm so incredibly grateful that it makes it easier to keep track of and store documents and images, and exchange them, and to work on things. I do not miss screwing around with white out, having a Selectric typewriter that I can't even lift, having to cut, physically, with scissors and Elmer's glue to try to move text around in a poem or a piece of journalism. Don't miss it. Wouldn't want to have to go back there unless it was to save the Earth from being so polluted that we can't live on it anymore. So, I'm grateful. And I find these things exciting. I don't keep up as much as I should mostly because of time, but I feel incredibly fortunate to live now because of that.
DB: Well, thank you very much. Alright, that is it.
Robert Pinsky: You want me to play to the camera at all or do you want me to play for you?
Devin Becker: Me, it's fine. This isn't like going to go on PBS or anything. It's more archival and then I might make some clips if I ever get a website together, which hopefully will happen. You were saying that you use the word "compose" rather than "write" because you are using a sort of oral and voice-based mechanism, which is your body.
RP: For the rest of, it I do all of the above. I write longhand on paper, I compose on a computer, more process of revising. Like most people, I print out very frequently, scroll over the print out, stare at with the scrolling on the print out is, create another fair draft either in my mind or on the computer. I number my drafts DR1, sometimes DR0 if I know it's not going to last long. I've gone up to DR87. I think in some things I've gone up to DR104 in the file menu.
DB: You are using Microsoft Word when you're using these file names?
RP: I tend to use... I always get mixed up. I think they call it RealOffice for Mac and NeoOffice for Windows. Maybe it's the opposite.
DB: Oh okay, but it is—?
RP: It's basically a word processor like Word.
DB: Okay.
RP: There is also a neat one that I use for difficult things—I don't know why I don't use it on everything, I can't remember—called something called Nisus Writer. I could look at it.
DB: Yeah. I've heard of one called Scrivener.
RP: No, this is, I think, the state of the art. I think this is the one and—yes, Nisus Writer Pro. It's terrific at all kinds of elaborate formatting and indexes. Nisus Pro.
DB: Nisus Pro?
RP: Yeah.
DB: When did you start using that?
RP: A couple of years ago, but I'll juggle them. I'll go through phases for certain purposes, duplex printing on it, non-duplex printing printer. I know how to do it on Word, so I'll open up Word. So in a way, I use all of the above but I'm not loyal to any particular word processor.
DB: Software essentially?
RP: Yeah.
DB: I guess what drove the getting the Nisus? Did somebody tell you about it and you just thought—?
RP: I probably did some web research but there were things that I didn't like about the NeoOffice page numbering and headers and footers. It seemed clumsy to me and none of these programs are super expensive anymore, it used to be a big investment. The best one I have ever used was like Betamax versus VHS. It was excellent, but didn't have enough followers—Word Perfect. Word Perfect was terrific, it was perfect, and that doesn't always win the marketplace.
DB: Not it does not. Word Perfect was in the '90s, I think?
RP: I'm an early computer user, so I probably started using it in the mid-80s. I wrote a computer entertainment in the early '80s.
DB: I know, Mindwheel, correct?
RP: Mindwheel, yeah. I just read a new very informative article about Mindwheel. Although I'm kind of paper tiger in technical things, I don't really know a lot about computers. I've had to do with them and I've used them for a long time.
DB: Since the early 80s?
RP: I think it was 1980 when they asked me to start Mindwheel and you can tell how prehistoric, how early that was, by the brand of the computer that they gave me to write it on. They gave me a computer that was an Atari.
DB: Do you miss the Atari?
RP: No. I still remember that monochrome, yellow, black-on-yellow monitor that weighed more than anybody's big flat screen TV. It was immense. For a long time, anything I wrote to be read on the screen, I wrote on the computer and things I meant to be read off paper, I wrote on paper. The pen or with the nicest machine I have ever owned, an IBM Selectric.
DB: When did you own that?
RP: I had a Selectric in the '70s and the '80s. I often regret that I don't still own one.
RP: It was like a BMW. It was such an excellent machine—that golf ball click-click-click. And then they had that lift-off tape, so you could erase perfectly. Because the ink was so precise that they had a lift-off ribbon and you went to that and back spaced—it lifted the ink off the page. And it was a solid machine. It just did what it was supposed to do so well. There were obvious reasons why electronic, why the computer took over, but this IBM Selectric was a beautiful machine.
DB: It's good. I have not thought of it as a beautiful machine before, but I think that's good to know.
RP: Have you ever used one?
DB: I've never really used it, so I can't say.
RP: It's amazing.
DB: Yeah. Now I kind of want to go and find one. My typewriter experiences have not been very good.
RP: A crappy typewriter is not any fun.
DB: And any ones that I end up looking at or using are out of tune, essentially. So, you are a Windows user primarily but with—?
RP: No. I used to be a Windows user. I'm primarily an iOS Mac user now.
DB: You're primarily an iOS Mac user. That is, then, just a screen that's coming from the MacBook Pro?
RP: Yes it is. Maybe this is the kind of thing you are interested in—I used to go through the whole rigmarole of syncing between my desktop and my laptop. I went through various generations of the best way to do that and now I'm not quite at the totally-cloud web system, but I realized that with a nice external monitor, external keyboard, external mouse, I can use the MacBook Pro as what we used to call the ICU. Then when I'm tired of using that way, I just have to remember to eject the backup and then unplug all that stuff and then I could get on an airplane with it. I'm not syncing it with anything. It's itself.
DB: When you save your files, do you have like a Dropbox account or anything like that?
RP: I do have a Dropbox account.
DB: So, you do have some sort of backup in the cloud?
RP: I have a Dropbox account and I have a 2 TB amazingly small little white brick—
DB: External hard drive?
RP: —that backs up automatically.
DB: How long have you been doing the backup procedures?
RP: For years. And I'd like to vilify the company—it's a sort of a French name—with a backup fail.
DB: Ugh. Really?
RP: My computer broke and the... They're called...
DB: It's not LaCie, is it? No?
RP: It may have been LaCie. Anyway, that can happen too.
DB: What happened there?
RP: Most stories about, "Oh, I lost my book on Yeats," or "Oh, I lost all this"—it's about 79% bullshit. Most of us have given the manuscript to somebody or have earlier drafts somewhere else. It's never pure loss. Like most things in life, it's a matter of degree.
DB: Yes. That's true. So, what was the loss there?
RP: I can't remember.
DB: You can't remember. It wasn't—
RP: I lost a bunch of data. I didn't lose anything that I couldn't recreate or find a different version of somewhere else.
DB: You sort of went through, in your first answer, many of these questions right here. It seems like you've been fairly adept at using a computer for most of the time. Have you sought out any instruction or has it just been something you've taught yourself?
RP: It's mostly something I've taught myself. "Adept" is a relative term compared to all the other writers and poets I know. I guess I'm adept compared to any 15-year-old. I try hard. And, you know, that first encounter—I've always liked gadgets. I never was good in school but I always liked learning a certain kind of thing and I guess I'm the type that tends not to like to read the instructions. I would rather figure it out. If there are two great personality types in the world, I tend to be the type that says, "If I can't figure it out, I don't want to do it." I don't want to have to read the instructions.
I did hang out with programmers when I wrote Mindwheel. As my introduction to computer technology, I did hear a certain amount of jargon. And sometimes, when technology is from a primitive state, you learn more about them than when they are more perfected. At one time, to drive a car, you had to know something about cars. People in the days of the term "hi-fi" had to know something about the process of recorded music. And as they improved the car and they improve recorded music, there's less and less anybody needs to know.
DB: I'm reminded of a story about the early MSN messenger wars. Did you read this? Where the AOL and the MSN people were going back and forth, trying to kind of copy each other's thing. And then the people at AOL started programming in, like, the basic, basic, basic level—called, I think, "operative processing," or something—and it's, like, huge, huge amounts of ones and zeros, essentially.
RP: The thing before assembly language.
DB: Yeah, exactly. So, you are way up there. Can you talk a little bit more about how that came about, how the Mindwheel came about? Were you at like a location that the programmers were near, or did they contact you specifically?
RP: I was sitting in my office at the University of California, Berkeley. I was very glad to be at Berkeley after the—for me, kind of tedious—Wellesley College, where I taught. I found Wellesley wasn't like going to jail, but it was a little New England Women's college. So I was very happy to be at Berkeley and that euphoria lasted for weeks and then Berkeley also came to seem very much like—how can I put this—an English department. And the phone rang and it was somebody named Ihor Wolosenko—the first person and the last person I have known named Ihor—Ihor Wolosenko from Synapse Software. And he said, "I'm looking for a writer to work on a new kind of computer product. Are you familiar with Text Adventures?" I said, "No." He said, "Are you familiar with computers?" I said, "No." He said, "Have you ever heard of a game called Zork?" I said, "No." He said, "It's a text that appears on the screen and you can go North or South or East or West, and you can pick up objects. It's a form of narrative. We have a very superior program. We can become more sophisticated than that. We are interested in serious literal writers who might write text for a game like that. Might you be interested?" I said, "Yes."
It was the first yes I had in the conversation. Synapse was in El Cerrito, which is quite close to Berkeley. I went out there and it was not an English department. There were these weird guys with their shirts half tucked-in. I later learned they lived on Big Macs and Van Houten bars. They slept in the day time and worked at night. They didn't pay for their phone service—they had different ways they could pirate phone service and had little machines that made long distance tones. The words that were most forbidden, it seemed, to them were not racial epithets or sexual terms or scatological terms. The forbidden words were words like nerd. liked them and I wrote up several scenarios for Ihor.
Cable Guy: Television's upstairs?
RP: Yeah, it is. Maybe I should help you find it. There are a couple of rooms up there.
DB: So, we were talking about Mindwheel. You went over to meet the programmers and you liked them quite well.
RP: I wrote up three or four different plots and the most far out one, modeled in a vague way on Dante, the comedian, was you are on a mission to travel through these minds. Four minds. It turns out that minds leave permanent elaborate footprints and records of themselves in what we call the "ether." I can't remember what I call it in the game itself. I always called it a game, and they always called it an "electronic novel." At the beginning Dr. Virgil puts the electrodes in your head and then you travel through the minds of a kind of Shakespeare/Dante figure; a kind of political rock figure, vaguely John Lennon like; a woman who is kind of an Einstein. And then a great dictator, a kind of a Stalin/Hitler/Mussolini mind.
DB: You could chose your own adventure kind of thing?
RP: No. It's more "interactive," they called it. You needed to solve problems. Some of them involved poetry.
DB: Did you come up with the poetry problems?
RP: Yes, or I would adopt ones from 16th century poetry. There was one riddle—you have to free a winged woman from a cage, and the cage is the riddle. It comes from Sir Walter Raleigh's poem "On the Cards and Dice," and it says, "An herald strange, the like was never born, whose very beard is flesh and mouth is horn." You had to solve that riddle. And the Raleigh poem which is there, it's about the Cards and Dice, and it says, "The trump will be heard and dead bones will jump up, will be rattled and men will groan and four kings will be gathered and four queens." So, it sounds like a mystic prophesy, but it's the cards and dice. Then it says they do this until a "herald" calls—"an herald strange, the like was never born, whose very beard is flesh and mouth is horn." I can see your flunking this.
DB: I'm totally flunking this.
RP: They play all night.
DB: Oh!...I'm still flunking this.
RP: Something wakes them up in the morning.
DB: The rooster?
RP: Yeah. The rooster's beard is flesh, his mouth is horned. And the rooster's not born, it's hatched. And that was an insult when I was a kid: you weren't born, you were hatched.
DB: So, you incorporated a lot of things into that. I'm interested in kind of like how that physically happened, too? Did you write that out on your Selectrics and then send them the text?
RP: Selectric didn't appear in it. I wrote it on the Atari.
DB: You wrote it on the Atari? Okay.
RP: As I said, for a good period, I was one of the few people in the country who was writing everything I was writing to read off a screen on a computer, and everything I was writing to read on paper on paper. The Times asked me to review a book of prose by Philip Larkin. I was having a little trouble getting started with it and I had been writing this very fluid Bubble World of computer. I couldn't get started on the Larkin so I decided I'll experiment. I'll see if I can write the lead on the computer, on the monochrome, because it's so much less real than a pen or the typewriter.
I wound up writing a draft of the whole fucking review on the Atari. I can't print it out. They weren't Dot Matrix printers over there at Synapse but I liked visiting Synapse anyway. And I did have—you may never have even seen one of these—I did have the 5.25" floppies.
DB: Oh yeah.
RP: That's why they're called "floppies." Those things were floppy. They were flexible. I'm not sure if email was much used at the time. I didn't email to Synapse. I drove over to El Cerrito, to that office park where Synapse had its offices, right next to an old company named Pixel. I used my 5.25" floppy to print out my book review. And it dawned on me, "You're going to have to get a printer. In fact, you are going to have to get a better computer." So, within, I can't remember, probably a few weeks, I had a jerky, junkie Dot Matrix printer and what we used to call a PC clone—IBM clone—called a Corona. I think it was made in Italy, oddly enough. That was probably 1981, 1980, or something. It was quite early.
DB: You were already on your second computer by early ‘80s?
RP: The first one I owned and the second one I was using.
DB: Second one you were using. Just going back to the impetus for getting that first computer—was it from Synapse?
RP: They gave me the Atari.
DB: They gave you the Atari. Okay.
RP: Yeah.
DB: When you were writing for them, would you—?
RP: It's all electronic. The programmers would take their assembly language and the program they invented—William Mataga and later Cathryn Mataga. William invented this program called BTZ—Better Than Zork. I remember William was the sort of over-programmer, and the personal one—my partner—was Steve Hales. It says on the package of Mindwheel, "Mindwheel: Electronic Novel by Robert Pinsky, writer; William Mataga and Steve Hales, programmers."
The package is a hard cover book. The product is just a floppy. I remember my first conference with Steve. He said, "I want you to describe your world to me," and then we had these interesting philosophical discussions of rooms and space, and scenes and time. Did we think of the scene happening in a room? Or of the room happening in a scene? There were some interesting conversations. Dialogue tables and things like that.
DB: Can we move back a little bit? Before all this, like when you were in your early writing career—would you say it was right around the time when you went to Stanford? When you sort of started writing? I've read some of the interviews and some of the—
RP: Yeah. I thought of myself as a writer when I was at Rutgers as an undergraduate. I was a beatnik wannabe. I was writing. I was writing poems. I was editor of the undergraduate literary magazine.
DB: Oh cool.
RP: So, no. I had a writing life.
DB: Okay, when you were starting off, what were your practices like? Did you keep notebooks?
RP: I have never kept notes. I'm not a note maker. I would get an idea for a poem and I would write it. I remember for awhile I shared an apartment with Alan Cheuse, novelist. He does book reviews for NPR. Alan is a year ahead of me and Alan is a fiction writer. I could remember hearing his typewriter going tick, tick, tick. I was sitting there, maybe with a paper and pen thinking, trying out different phrases in my mind and sort of ending that tick, tick, tick.
DB: Has it been since that time and throughout that you've always kind of felt it as a sort of voiced-oral thing in your head before anything?
RP: I got more and more confident then. But yes. I felt that was my métier. What I could do that I felt not everybody could do had to do with the sounds of sentences like that thing we just watched on TV. The sounds of sentences—the way vowels and consonants work together, the way a short sentence relates to a long sentence.
DB: How did you come to figure out that you could do that better than other people?
RP: Probably in the course of college. But I remember that as a kid I would try to tap out the rhythm of sentences with my fingers. I thought about things like voiced and unvoiced consonants before I knew the word for them. I had been thinking about the difference between the ‘th' in "the" and the ‘th' in thin. "The"—you use your voice box. "Thin"—you don't. I wasn't sure...it seems like a bad habit in a way. But I thought about the sense of words. So, it's not a surprise to me that I was good at it when I discovered there was an art based on such things.
DB: I guess the question is then how you kind of developed? You had that sort of innate talent. What were the steps you took to develop that talent?
RP: Reading. I had great teachers. My freshman English teacher was Paul Fussell, and he asked us to read ABC of Reading by Ezra Pound. I read Yeats and Eliot and Ginsberg and Bishop. And I recognized the way the sounds of words were doing things in those writers. William Carlos Williams and William Butler Yeats and Emily Dickinson. I was less interested in the differences among them than the thing I saw going on in all of them. I was interested by that thing.
DB: Yes. That's such a better way to get into it. When you started to kind of compose the poems and they became more important to you personally but also important to your career and moving forward, what were the ways you were working on them? Were they always kind of appearing in your head? You'd write them down by hand and then type them up for other people? What was the process there?
RP: I've had these ideas floating around in my head for a long time. A certain sense of ideas, like "humble things have histories." "What were the first things you ever saw made out of plastic in your own life?" Cheap shit from Japan after the war—toys mostly. Plastic soldiers, metal soldiers, saw dust soldiers. During a war, you couldn't get them. So I would think about those substances.
Those ideas, that set of ideas about different materials. That's all just thoughts. At the same time, I'd be mixing up my own personal history. The time I left some sawdust soldiers—pressed-wood soldiers—out overnight and they swelled-up. And then a completely other set of ideas that might involve war and the fascination of war. I had an uncle who was in the "Battle of The Bulge." He was a radio man, and I remember being very tiny and being fascinated by his massive boots. He's wearing the boots and I'm on the rug, touching those big boots. And none of that's the poem. That's memories, thoughts, ideas. And then the poem is when you start putting some sounds together. Something unnatural about the way a sawdust soldier will swell in the rain, unlike the boots of my uncle.
It's not an existing poem by the way. I can give a little demo. The poem starts when you start thinking about the vowels and consonants. With "uncle"—you rearrange the consonants. "Unclean" and "calendar." "The calendar of childhood." Then the time between the day that you find out wooden soldiers get ruined and the day that your mother and grandmother both dreamed that Julian was in trouble, and negligent memories of unclean...blah, blah, blah. That's the material.
DB: Yes. That's the material. I guess the purpose of these interviews is kind of to think about how that material becomes the book in all its iterations, and how that has changed over the course of time as to how many computers you think you've owned, how many different writing devices. Stuff like that. If you compose it in your head, does that mean you have whole poems in your head before you write them down?
RP: Sometimes, but more often I'll get enough lines to want to make a draft. So I'll write them down and I'll look at those and recite to myself the different things I've written down, and then I'll decide to type it into a document that I can print out. And then I'll read that over and maybe get a new idea.
DB: What was that like in the early '70s/late '60s?
RP: Pre-computer?
DB: Yeah.
RP: Something came out of the typewriter that has a lot of ballpoint all over it. Now it comes out of a laser printer and it has felt pen in all over it.
DB: When you're actually doing the writing-down, you say you don't really usually use notebooks or anything. What is it you are writing on? Is it just bare paper?
RP: Yeah. My favorite kind of paper is very hard to get. I'm forced to use this because it's very hard to get this. I don't like the lines.
DB: Yeah, that's interesting.
RP: I get that somehow society doesn't take this very seriously anymore. You can get it white, I don't want it white.
DB: You want it yellow?
RP: I want it yellow.
DB: I think that is the best, color-wise—yellow and black, or some sort of yellow as the background is the best.
RP: Yes. Yellow and black is somehow a little more fluid than black and white. Black and white feels sort of legal, or reductive.
DB: Have you been working with blank yellow paper if you can, since—?
RP: Yes. We haven't talked much about prose. I can remember working on prose and going through lots and lots of different processes, technologically. White-out of course. But I can remember before the IBM liftoff, I can remember using—and they even made it double-space, or sort of single-space, I believe—correction tape. So, you could take a passage that you wanted to change and you glue the tape down and you might use a Xerox machine. You would do white out so the tape didn't leave a tell tale grey outline. I can remember kind of thick, palimpsest pages where I had done that on some piece of prose.
DB: And that would build-up and build-up until you got it to...where?
RP: I think with the early drafts of The Situation of Poetry, I was still at that stage of the tape and the white out, and I'm probably forgetting a couple of other things I did to save having to retype something. Now, I've met an editor who said she thinks prose declined—people started writing much more poorly—when the computer made it so easy to insert passages. That it led people—rather than concentrating on editing and cutting and sculpting their prose—to insert. That every sentence got a little bloated.
DB: In terms of that same process, how do you think that affected poetry, and maybe yours specifically?
RP: I think poetry took an unproductive turn when people fell in love with the technology of the typewriter. Charles Olsen wrote very solemnly that with the new poet, you can count the spaces. Proportional spacing came along within a decade or two and made nonsense of that. To me, the graphic thing—people talk about lining endings quite a lot. I always feel, "No, I don't write line endings, I write lines" and it's the whole line. I guess you could say I'm kind of an extremist and very resistant to the visual idea of the poem. Different technologies give people the illusion that poetry is a form of graphics, and I guess for them it is.
For me, 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. There doesn't have to be anybody else around—I'm not talking about poetry readings or performances. I'm talking about things very similar to the Favorite Poem Project videos. So, with technology, the most important thing yet to be done—and it's amazing to me it hasn't been done yet...
I was at Chancellor at the Academy of American Poets and they brought to us, very proudly—first chancellors to see—somebody who had made a program where the words of a poem can scroll and jump around. You see words do that on TV ads every day! It's banal. Why don't they correct the fact that still, I think, FSG won't publish poems in an electronic e-book edition because, somehow, nobody has come up with a way to preserve the integrity of the lines. It seems to me you could get a team of programmers to do that in a couple of days.
DB: I am also baffled by it.
RP: Probably going to happen tomorrow. But at the moment it's in this ridiculous stage where it hasn't happened. On the other hand, Horace didn't have visual lines. They didn't make spaces between the words. They wanted to save parchment or wax or papyrus or stone. Whatever they were using. So, you could figure out where the lines were because the rhythms were so strong.
DB: And you have a very strong sense—you and, like, James McMichaels, sort of, too—have that strong sort of oral sense of poetry and are very dedicated to it. Did that come out of working with Winters? Or did that come out of kind of an innate sense of what you were doing from the beginning?
RP: I think there were some moment when I was reading "Howl" and "Sailing to Byzantium" and Dickinson, and I felt this reality in those things that was different from the reality of Alan's typewriter going staccato. It was different from the reality of reading Ulysses or Dubliners. That was a very powerful reality produced by those rectangular blocks of print and the pages. This was more physical in some way. More bodily, let's say.
So it maybe made me ripe for Winters, and he certainly amplified it by inviting me to learn something about George Gascoigne, Fulke Greville, and Philip Sidney, ?Brohly?. But I think it happened when I was in my late teens still, and, you know, Gingsberg was obsessed by blank verse by Elliot, and he'd give himself these exercises in it. So, it was—as is Williams, in a completely different way—it was free verse that was intensely oral. William calls all those poems "metric figure," and obviously metric figure is about their attempts to write intense rhythms that are not iambic or blank verse.
DB: Yeah, and that move away from that is such an interesting part of the century.
I guess the kind of overarching question that I'm wondering is—and as a digital librarian and someone who is working in the digital new, who can't really remember ever not writing on a computer—when the computer came in, when the Atari came in, and when the screens started appearing in front of you and the ease of those deletions and insertions and re-arrangements became possible, did that change the way you worked? Did that change what you produced?
RP: I don't think it changed what I produced, but I think that it was the beginning of a different kind of archival anxiety. There is the archival anxiety about paperwork being preserved, given some manuscript or somebody else's manuscript being destroyed. I'm of a generation where I save magazines that I have work in—that's the old anxiety. And the new anxiety is the mortality of digital information. I can remember the Library of Congress saying to me that the only way to preserve digital material is to reproduce it. Unlike papyrus, it's mortal. It turns to mush. And that's aside from the fact that the medium keeps changing. The Favorite Poem Project videos—today I talked about somebody who is going to take the original digital tapes and make them into a current high definition format rather than the flash format they're in.
DB: They're in flash?
RP: Yeah, on the website. But the website will be enhanced. You'll to be able to make them full screen. For seven years I was in NewsHour with Jim Lehrer. When Frank Sinatra died, I read passages from Virgil about the death of a singer. When the stock market was in trouble, I read Frost's "Provide, Provide." At the time, the places I recorded those would give me dumps on VHS tape. Where are they? Where is that material? There's a lot of it. I anxious this has gone into the ether. I was a Poetry Editor for Slate for many years. They eventually found poetry was not bringing enough "hits," enough money and ads and things, so they stopped doing it. To preserve it for awhile, there were years when I would do a poem out-of-copyright, a classic poem. I'd do, say, an early poem by Marianne Moore.
DB: It's how I was introduced to Fulke Greville.
RP: So I did those. I was shocked to learn that, unlike almost everything, like all kinds of pornography and ads and stuff, they're gone. They're irretrievable. Those discussions—and so many are with well known poets and critics taking part in them—they're gone. Vanished.
DB: What form? Were they written?
RP: They were in the fray, in the discussion part. I was responding to people.
DB: Oh, the comments actually below.
RP: So, something quite valuable that I put effort into vanished. Well, we all vanish, we all die. And most objects are described, and we don't know how long Shakespeare's reputation will last. You know, there's the large view, but there's also personal, temporal anxiety. One has mixed emotions when, you know—my papers are at Stanford. They bought up to a certain year of paper-papers, but a librarian at Stanford said to me, "I hope you're saving your email. I hope you're saving your electronic emails." There's a new anxiety there. What in there that I wouldn't want quoted will come out in a journal? So, there is the anxiety of what could be lost and the anxiety of what could be preserved that you don't want preserved. There is the anxiety of—the family level is only metaphor for the whole thing. I share some photographs with my great grandparents' generation and these are photographs of your grandparents' generation that you treasure. We all have a camera in our pocket. It shoots video. This little tiny sliver has access to almost all the information there is, and you can create more forthright information with almost no effort at all. Selfies, etcetera.
If you want your grand children to pay any attention to your family photos, you better edit them, because the future generation doesn't want to spend all day listening to grandpa say, "Hiya!" You better think about what time capsule you create. And as I say, that's only a metaphor for the larger question you're dealing with. In one of my poems, "The Forgetting"—
DB: Which book is that in?
RP: In Gulf Music, I say, Ezra Pound praised the emperor who appointed a committee of scholars to choose the advocate who has the 1,000 best Noh dramas and destroy the others for the good of the Noh. Ezra Pound approved of that, the fascist. So I was trying to express ambivalence about the winnowing process and the selecting process. The Library of Congress has to decide which sitcoms it will preserve, which commercials. Some of those commercials and sitcoms may be superior works of art to poetry by people who win the Pulitzer Prize. Who decides?
DB: Librarians.
RP: I guess you do.
DB: I'm right here, talk to me. What do you need? In terms of that winnowing process then, what do you think about your own—I'm sure you have uncollected works and stuff like that? How do you feel towards those now? And where do you store those? Are they in paper? In certain boxes? Are they in the papers at Stanford?
RP: The papers—every so often, I'll accumulate enough and shoot them off to Palo Alto. Electronically, I mean... As it happens, in the last few months, somebody—it happened twice, that a poem of mine that I didn't choose to put in the selected—somebody said to me, "This poem of yours means a lot to me." I remember the poem very well. It's a poem called "The Reasons." This person said, "It's a poem that, when I think about my ethnicity, the way you deal with ethnicity is very important to me." But I felt maybe I shouldn't put in the selected, and I didn't.
Then online, someone I have never met personally pointed to another poem because I'd published it in poetry magazine when I was in my 20s. It was on the Poetry magazine website, and she said how much she liked it. I looked it up and thought, "Pretty good." I'd never put it in any book. I had forgotten it entirely. So, I don't know how that's germane to your question, but it is germane, somehow.
DB: No, I think so.
RP: That there is no ultimate authority for that selection process, the author included.
DB: Ok. So you have these digital files that contain the poem and you've backed them up and you try to make sure they're okay. Do you feel some sort of "dearness" towards them? Or do you feel that they're sort of just a means to something else, somewhere else?
RP: A lot of it is mechanical. A lot of it is in reflecting. I have many, many folders. I'm sort of a quasi-organized person. So, under "Documents" in my hard drive—which is then backed up in my backup drive—under "Documents," there are many, many folders, letters from different years; prose. Probably thirty—I haven't counted them. There is one called "Drafts." In "Drafts," under sub-folders, for most poems there's that "DR1," "DR12," "DR14." I look at it and I sometimes feel the way I told you I feel about the family photographs. Nobody wants all this. Bishop has a poem about the umbrella that was so hard to make and the leather trousers, how they gave them to the local museum. How can anybody want such things? I'm sure she's thinking about drafts and memorabilia and so forth. It's just another anxiety. I can't say I think about it a lot, but I'm ambivalent when I think about all those megabytes of drafts. 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.
DB: So you're saving each poem as a new draft? It's not, like, one poem with many drafts in it? It's just, with each poem, a new file, a new draft?
RP: A new folder. Each poem. Let's say the poem is called "The Mechanical Pencil." Then it'll have a name like "Mech Pencil," with an upper case M and P. So you'll have "Mech Pencil DR1.docx" or "Mech Pencil DR6.docx," "Mech Pencil 47"—and maybe not every single one is saved, but those are, and they're all going into that folder. In the main file, which is the next book—in whatever that folder is, you have the separate poems.
DB: When did you start using this sort of folder system?
RP: I can't remember when I started doing it.
DB: But it's been pretty consistent?
RP: Probably since I started using a computer.
DB: Do you feel like you kind of envision the poems in that way? When you are thinking about them later, does that ever pop into your mind?
RP: When I think about the poem I think about it in my book or as part of my poetry reading. Or, if I'm in a particularly grandiose and hopeful state, I picture somebody reading it the way that people in the Favorite Poem Project—you know, the way Seph Rodney reads Plath's "Nick and the Candlestick."
DB: Yeah. I was watching the South Boston—
RP: Oh, the kid.
DB: John—
RP: John Ulrich.
DB: Yeah, John Ulrich.
RP: He reads Gwendolyn Brooks' "We Real Cool."
DB: I was struck by how much I wanted to know how he's doing. I was interested in him. I mean the poem is great and everything, but it just made me, like—
RP: Last I heard he was doing okay.
DB: I hope so. Good. So, I guess I'm a little unclear as to what your revision process is like. I think I have a sense of how the compositions happen. But then when you have, say, most of the poem ready—like when you're moving from drafts 020 to 021—what are you doing in between there?
RP: Print-out. Write on the printout.
DB: Are you reading it out loud?
RP: See if you have the poem by memory. Turn the light off while going to sleep and try to recite the poem. If you come to a part you don't have memorized, maybe that's the part you need to work on. Not reliably, but sometimes.
DB: Do you have an intention in doing that? Is each poem different, or—?
RP: Yeah. My intention is to make it worth somebody getting by heart, or wanting to read to their friend, or wanting to recite to themselves on a hike or when they are driving—do whatever it is that poems do.
DB: What happens when a poem doesn't realize that? How do you know that a poem is not going to get there?
RP: In my case, you keep working. Very rarely, you abandon it—usually some part of it that's working gets incorporated into the next poem, or into some future poem.
DB: So, you kind of take parts and move them around?
RP: Yes. You use it the way Cubans do parts of sugar lace.
DB: Do other people kind of work into this process?
RP: Yeah, I have friends. Louise sees what I write. Alan sees what I write. And maybe Gail Mazur. Different times of my life there have been different friends—always somebody around. Jim Olson. Sometimes I email things to Jim.
DB: At what stage do these people usually come in?
RP: Fairly late.
DB: To kind of get a reaction or something like that? Was the translation work and using the computer and these sort of processes fundamentally different?
RP: It was rather similar. Felt pen. I would print-out whatever canto I was working on, so: two or three pieces of paper, maybe one piece of paper. I had everything I needed. And then it was the metrical game.
DB: You described that in one of the interviews I've read as sort of intensely pleasurable sort of work. What kept you drawing you back to it?
RP: It's why kids play video games. It's why guys play golf. It's a difficulty that you become addicted to. You become entranced by the difficulty. Like people who need to do the New York Times crossword puzzle every day. It's that part of the mind that loves to solve difficulties—or, let's not say "solve"—engage a certain kind of difficulty. Because the video games offer infinite... You can't ever solve it. You can get better at it, making those consonantal rhyme tercets and pentameters. And always compressing—I use fewer words in that translation than any other translation, prose or verse. Never pad to get a rhyme. Compress to get a rhyme. That was the rule. And it became what a jigsaw puzzle is for somebody who loves jigsaw puzzles. What a video game is for somebody who loves video games. It became absorbing.
DB: How long did that project last?
RP: It was a year to get through the Inferno ones, and almost another year to revise.
DB: I read that you worked on a revision with Frank Bidart some, too?
RP: Yes. We put a lot of effort into that.
DB: So you have the individual poems that you work on, but then how do you get them into a book?
RP: There's a folder called "Book.pms" and it acquires a name, and the book acquires a title, but that's the next book of poems. In that folder right now, there's a file called—I think—"Book29." That is, it's the 29th draft when I bother to have a contents page, which Nisus Writer does very well. A contents page, page numbers, and the order that the poems are in. That order will change, but it's what I have with me if I go somewhere to give a poetry reading, and it's a file. It's a folder.
DB: How do you construct your orders?
RP: I guess it's different for each book. I'm not sure how to answer. It's intuitive.
DB: Does it have some sort of phrasing to it? I mean, is it musical in that sense?
RP: I hope ideas and feelings get introduced. I hope then they get developed and amplified and explained, and then I hope new elements come in, in the course of that process. At the same time, one recognizes that a good number of readers don't read the poems in order—some people like to start in the middle, some people start at the end. But for those who want to see something in the order, Gulf Music starts with a kind of peculiar title poem. It says, "This is not going to be easy. It's going to involve the newspaper, and it's not going to take certain conventional routes for political poetry."
DB: I found the ordering and construction of Gulf Music to be very unusual. I was just sort of thinking about it being just unlike most things that come out now.
RP: I thought about it a lot. I did want to make it something distinctive, and it starts with the most ghazal-like thing in the book.
DB: Yeah. Are you on draft 29 of the current book?
RP: Yes.
DB: Is that where you are at?
RP: Yes.
DB: This is just for me, but do you know when—?
RP: I'm on leave next year. I hope that before the year is over, I'll have the book.
DB: How has teaching influenced the way you write? Has it done much? Or has it sort of been the way that you support the time that you get to do the writing?
RP: It's not an easy question to answer. I'm proud—it's an honorable profession, and I think I've probably helped more people than I've hurt people. And my students seem to be getting something out of what I do as a teacher. I guess they help when I ask them to make anthologies. So, I guess among other things, they help me have a sense of what is currently esteemed. Change has a frightening morbidity—every two or three years the canon is very different.
DB: Has that rate increased in more recent years, now that the internet has kind of made things more available?
RP: I'm not sure. It could be, or it could be just that as I get older I'm more disturbed by it, or delighted by it, or something. But it certainly does suggest that the wheel of fashion spins along pretty well.
DB: I guess there are other questions about your correspondence, and I know you talked about the anxiety of saving emails and stuff like that. But before, were you a big physical letter writer?
RP: I used to write a lot of letters. They used to be a way I would warm up. But I remember when I was working on The Situation of Poetry, I would warm up with a routine where first I'd write a letter or two, maybe three, and that would somehow make me feel I was working. Then, to glide into working on a poem or in that prose project—it was somehow made easier. And, I used to get a lot of letters, and I used to send a lot of letters. I still do once in awhile, but electronic has taken over.
DB: Can you point to a time when that sort of wave overtook?
RP: I think in the late '80s or early '90s. People you think would never adapt to email adapted to email. It became more and more of a lingua franca. And it became the agora, it became where people met. And the generation that only did paper correspondence got old and died, to be blunt about it.
DB: Do you find that it is a different genre?
RP: Different conventions.
DB: Yeah.
RP: I must say that when I see letters I wrote long ago, I wince. I don't like it.
DB: Why not?
RP: It's either naiveté, or there is falseness, or there is clumsiness. To write a good letter, in a way, you have to not think about how you are sounding or looking. It should be ephemeral, it should be at the moment. But then to have it preserved for 20 years? It's a little disturbing.
DB: Do you think that there is more of an awareness of that with email?
RP: I think email is probably more unconscious. I was joking with you about my friend who says scandalous things in emails, and I repeatedly tell him, "Look out!" Things you read in the newspaper where in some business setting or political setting, people get nailed. The email trail. It may be generationally something is changing. I think people say things in email they wouldn't say "in writing" because they don't think of it as having as much permanence, and sometimes it surprises them.
DB: Yeah. My first job out of college as a paralegal, I just looked through email after email for "Hot Docs," as they were called.
RP: And hitting "delete"—
DB: It doesn't do it.
RP: No it doesn't. It doesn't shred it.
DB: So, kind of more overall, do you think the advent of the computer and the rise of the computer in your practice has changed things fundamentally? What if you were still working with your IBM Selectric?
RP: Publication is different. We've been talking about production, and production has changed somewhat for me. Probably not as much as many people. Probably because I've been doing it so long with a computer and because poetry for me is vocal. Publication is in a midst of some kind of tremendous transition. I don't think anybody knows where it's going, exactly. I recently spent a few days in New York. It's pleasing to see the people with a book in the subway, a magazine or a newspaper, but most people who are looking at something are looking at the screen. I'm surprised how many are looking at tablets. Lots are looking at phones—a certain number are playing games, a certain number are checking their email, a certain number are listening to music and looking at something that goes with the music. How many are reading? I don't know. But at the moment, if a magazine tells you they want to put something in their web page rather than print and you feel it as their second level of affection for this—that maybe shifting.
DB: Yeah. I wonder about that too. I feel like it's right on that cusp.
RP: I think it's all very fluent, and we don't know—and I don't think anybody really is quite sure—what's going to happen next. I guess one has to not think about it too much.
DB: Yeah. Unless you have to make those decisions, sure. Your point about the formatting and about them not figuring that out yet—
RP: That's going to happen soon.
DB: But I mean, even in HTML, even if you see your poems get put up there, there are so many easy problems that people just don't know how to fix, because there are so many different levels of expertise.
RP: It used to drive me crazy on Slate when an ad would disrupt a poem.
DB: Yeah. Like break the line in a weird way or something like that? Maybe a famous poem?
RP: Are we almost done?
DB: Yes.
RP: I'm getting a little worn out.
DB: I think we're done.
RP: Good.
DB: Okay. Thank you very much, Robert.
RP: It's great and it was fun. A smart thing to be going into.
DB: We'll see.
end of audio
(Conversation about some of the art around Glück's apartment, and the print she used for the cover of Village Life)
DB: If you would state your name and the location we're at for this interview.
LG: Louise Glück. Glück is spelled with a ü and an umlaut, and the name is Hungarian. We're in Cambridge, Massachusetts in my apartment.
DB: Of course, I know the answers to many of these questions but—what genres do you work in?
LG: Poetry. I have written some essays and some forewords to books when I was judging first book prize contests. But in the main, poetry.
DB: Are you going to collect those essays?
LG: Yeah.
DB: Good, those are so excellent. You worked really hard at them, I know.
LG: I worked so hard, and they ruined ten summers because it made me frantic with anxiety—the idea of trying to serve a new talent and to describe its uniqueness. And, you know, it's a natural offshoot of teaching, which I've loved for years. I loved everything about judging those contests, and I loved working with the poets on their manuscripts. And in the early days before Yale Press was convinced that this was worthwhile, I used to buy a plane ticket for people so they could come here and spend three days working.
DB: Okay.
LG: Then I would make very detailed recommendations, which they were free to not take because the book had won. On the other hand, they weren't free to change the books any which way because I could say, "This is not the book I chose." They could stay exactly as they were, or they could respond to suggestions and work further. Many of them actually felt a great need for that kind of work and they just didn't have somebody who was willing to take that kind of detailed daily interest.
DB: From what I've experienced, it doesn't seem to be a very common thing for the selector to take a real interest after they choose and then they're done—and they get their money and they're on their way.
LG: I think that's sort of how most of them feel and most of them also don't want to read a lot of books. Or in some contests, they're not permitted to. They're sent ten finalists screened by—
DB: Who knows?
LG: It varies. But if these manuscripts are being screened by people whose aesthetic judgment you question, you don't know what you're getting. So I asked to see as many as possible with the understanding that nothing would be thrown out until a winner was chosen because if I didn't find a winner in a hundred manuscripts, I was going to see the next hundred.
DB: Right.
LG: And that was all fun because you didn't have to read each book through to completion, and you didn't have to write a little paragraph evaluating it the way you do for other kinds of things. If you didn't love it, it was unlikely you would choose it. You would put it in the "unlikely" pile—and my living room was filled with piles, identifiable by me—and then at the end, I would read through the piles to see whether something got promoted or demoted. Some years were thrilling, I mean, it was too much stuff. In those years, most of the runners up ended up winning.
DB: Some other—?
LG: Well, later Yale prizes.
DB: Oh okay. You would encourage them to resubmit.
LG: Yeah. Some people would submit like three and four times.
DB: Yeah, that's interesting. I want to know who it is.
LG: Well, we would do that when that's off.
DB: Okay. So what time of year were you usually doing that evaluation?
LG: It worked out very well because a lot of that time, I was just working half time at Yale, not in the spring semester, and I would get the manuscripts in December, right after the semester ended. I tried to give myself a couple of weeks of blank. And then the cartons would start to come from the people who were screening, and Yale allowed the appropriation of a mechanism that I had picked up from Michael Collier when I judged the Bakeless prize that he supervised. He had each poet who was judging choose younger poets to screen. So I chose ten poets and they got paid a pittance, and each of them read a hundred books and sent me ten, and kept ninety. That meant that I had someone to talk to about each of these manuscripts. And sometimes we would talk before they even sent things and they would say, "Well, do you want to see this? I'm on the fence." I had great people screening for me and they were people whose judgments I trusted and who sent me very broadly diverse manuscripts. One thing that I wanted was a series in which the books weren't all alike. And they're not. Anyway, that was great, but it meant that all the prose writing I did for ten years was writing forewords. So I have a stack and a few other essays. It doesn't make as pleasing a collection as the first one but I can't stand the idea that it's just going to go nowhere.
DB: No, I would be very excited to have that book.
LG: Oh well, good. Do you have an idea for a title? Not three words.
DB: Not three words?
LG: Not like "Proofs and Theories," "This and That." Not a clone.
DB: No.
LG: I don't either.
DB: If I think of some options.
LG: Please, I really need it.
DB: Okay.
LG: I'll acknowledge you.
DB: Is it coming out of FSG?
LG: Yeah, but not for awhile.
DB: Not for awhile. You've got this next book.
LG: Yeah.
DB: Okay. Well, that was the first question.
LG: That was the first? What was that about? It wasn't about digital anything!
DB: No, it was just general. I went to AWP this year which was terrifying.
LG: I've never been.
DB: Yeah, you should never go.
LG: That's sort of what I think.
DB: But there was a panel with Richard Siken and—who were the other two?—
LG: Arda Collins?
DB: Arda Collins and—
LG: Fady Joudah?
DB: Exactly, and they were talking. I caught the second half, so I heard Siken talking about his working with you on Crush, which was really funny. He's funny. I didn't know how funny he was. The book is pretty intense but—
LG: Right. And he's a great visual artist.
DB: Oh yeah? Oh! I like that.
LG: I think he's amazing.
DB: Yeah.
LG: He made these envelopes because he thought he was going to be living in Europe, and so he made—that one's wonderful—all of these things. And, you know, the message was the envelope. I don't know how you can frame them.
DB: Yeah, who knows? They're very nice.
LG: Aren't they wonderful?
DB: Yeah. He has another book coming out too.
LG: Yeah, he does, which I saw a long time ago. And Peter Streckfus has a new book, and it's wonderful.
DB: I really love his first book.
LG: I love that book. I love that book and I just think he's an amazement. And Jay Hopler has a new book that he's peddling. Those first three I worked with really closely on the first books, and with Peter and Jay, I worked a lot on the second, too. With Richard, much less. I mean, it's funny because he needed a lot of editing. His poems were way too long, and his stanzas were too long. The lines were too long. But you had to preserve that avalanche sense—that headlong sense—and so it was very hard to figure out. But once he saw a way of approaching the language to edit it and still preserve its character, he was an excellent editor. And he may feel that he just knows how to do it on his own. I mean, we talk on the phone and I saw early versions of a lot of the poems.
DB: Yeah, and Crush has become sort of a phenomenon.
LG: A cult book, I know.
DB: It's interesting. I mean, I remember I first heard about it at Bread Loaf that year. I was there and somebody said like, "Have you read Crush?" I was like, "No, I'm sorry." And then I caught it. We know the MFA students at Idaho, and some of them are teaching it. And the guy who was actually working for me in Digital based the final poem in his thesis off those lines and that sort of stanza style.
LG: Well, a lot of people sound like him. You can see, they read the book and then they can't get out of it.
DB: Yeah, that's the danger.
LG: That's hard.
DB: So your primary genre is poetry, correct? What kinds of devices do you have access to or use for writing?
LG: I have access to an iPad—but I have never written anything on it except a terse email. And I cannot bear reading poems in that form. In fact today, there was a conversation with my publisher because I finally figured out a way—to their satisfaction—to convert their poetry listings to ebooks. The question was, would I give my permission. But I cannot bear reading poems in that form—scrolling down a page. You have no idea how long the thing is. You don't know whether you're in the middle or at the end.
Miranda, who is my "daily editor," not my "big guy" editor, who was a student of mine at Yale—you know, it's very funny. I have all these students now in positions of—I hesitate to say "authority"—but I turn to them for solace and advice all the time. Miranda is quite great and her judgment is wonderful. And she was a wonderful beginning writer, too. Anyway, she said she thought it was a good idea. She said for people who are used to reading in this form, it's not such a violation. But it makes me uneasy. For example, when I was in Stanford and friends would send me drafts of poems as we do—as I do through the mail, or at Stanford, I would give something to a secretary—but I just have to go to someone who can print it out.
DB: Print it out on paper.
LG: Yeah. Well, I have to be able to move my pen around and make notes, first of all. I have to see what it looks like, what the duration is, and I have to be able to read the beginning and the end—I have to have it all in my head. Mainly it's that I don't know how to make notes otherwise. But I have this [iPad] that gives me fantastic pleasure in other ways. I love it and it's an endless amusement. I keep it very near my bed, or on my bed. If I wake in the middle of the night, I turn on the light and I see if anybody is writing to me. I always loved getting mail, and now I have that experience around the clock—except that I check it every four minutes, and I'm so heartbroken when there's no change. It's just that same old email from Amazon or some website that I patronized once. I have a regular old fashioned cell phone. I only got a cell phone about five years ago because I'm taxi-dependent and I needed to be on the street and calling the guy. So it doesn't receive emails or anything like that.
DB: It's a regular iPad? Just, like, the first?
LG: No—
DB: The larger one or the smaller one?
LG: The iPad that I have?
DB: Yeah.
LG: I'll show you, because how it looks is part of its story.
DB: Okay.
LG: Yeah, the little one—I don't know what size this is.
DB: That's the regular size. They have the minis, now. That's the only kind of different size.
LG: What happened was, I went to—some of this has to be off-the-record—this event. I was invited to this thing, the Golden Plate Award, sponsored-by/held-by something called "The Academy of Achievement." I mean, it sounds so spurious and ridiculous, but you showed up and you got $10,000. It was in Washington DC and the hotel was enormously swank—I mean, super swank. So I asked my agent to find out what was the fewest number of days I could go and still collect the fee, and it was one. So I scaled it way back, but then I found out when I arrived that the dinner the night before for the honorees had been in the Chambers of the Supreme Court with the Justices. Just the Justices and the honorees. I could've eaten dinner. This is the part that needs to be off the record.
DB: Okay.
LG: [{off the record}] but anyway, when I arrived, part of my welcome package was this thing [iPad], and it was all programmed with the winners and their bios. The entertainment, the last night when we all got our plates—
DB: You actually got gold plates?
LG: Yeah, I mean, the room was very, very good for a banquet meal. It was extraordinary. I mean, if you squared off this room, this is the whole thing. It certainly wasn't bigger. It might have been a little smaller. So picture an intimate space. I always want people to guess but it's ridiculous—what they are going to guess? It was like seeing Mozart: it was Aretha Franklin.
DB: Really?
LG: Aretha! She was there right where the tulips are. So the whole thing was eerie. Anyway, the guy gave me this [iPad] when I arrived. I said, "Don't give me this. I'm never going to use it. Give it to someone who can make use of it." He said, "I have to give it to you." And I said, "But I won't use it. I don't want it. I'll leave it in the hotel room. Please give it to someone else." He said, "I have to give it to you," and he thrust it at me and then I was holding it, and then I seemed to have it. So I took it to the hotel room and I'd seen how people push the screens so I pushed the screen. Nothing happened. I mean, it wasn't connected to anything, but I thought, "I apparently don't have the gift." So I then brought it home—well actually, I had somebody ship it to me—and then I kept looking at it and thinking, "I guess now that I own this, I should learn how to use it." But I lingered in that state for about six months and then at some point—I have former students from Yale I'm still in touch with, and the Yale students sometimes come up here to work on their stuff, and one did. And I said, "What do I have to do to learn how to use this?" He said, "Well, you need to get Wi-Fi." And I said, "How do I do that? Do I call AT&T? Do I call Comcast?" He said, "Call Comcast." So I called Comcast and they asked me questions I couldn't answer. "Do you have a blank? Do you blank-blank?" I said, "I know nothing. You have to just assume I have nothing."
I thought, "This is not going to work." It wasn't working, so I called the student back and said, "Write me a script. Here's the kinds of things I was asked—tell me what I say." So I went back and I recited my script. Someone came to the house and installed a device. No one had told me that it had this little strobe flickers. And I am epileptic, so I thought, "Oh, this is never going to do." So I called the student again and he said, "You can turn it around. Just turn it so the strobe is facing another direction." And I did, but then I still didn't have an email account, so then someone else came up to work on poems and I got an email. Then, I was so horrified at this transformation that I didn't do anything for another six months!
And then Robert Pinsky—I told him I had an email and he sent me a photo of one of his grandchildren. I opened this little thing and there was a photo. I thought, "Wow." So I learned certain skills. I still can't add an attachment. No, that's not what they are called. An app. I don't know how to add an app, so somebody has to do that when I—
DB: Need an app.
LG: Yeah. Like, I wanted HBO because I couldn't—
DB: HBO To Go?
LG: But then I have all of these names and passwords, and I can never remember what they are. Then they ask me, "You say you want to change your password?" Yes! And they ask me my special secret questions, which make absolutely no sense. "What is your favorite pet's name?" I didn't have pets. I mean, except when I was a child. And they say, "Well, we can't change the question because the person who this is came up with this question." And I think, "How could I? I never would have."
DB: Right.
LG: I still haven't figured that out, but now I try to write down the passwords in my phonebook, because they're such a long list in my head I don't know which one is for which.
DB: Right.
LG: So all that stuff I hate.
DB: Yeah, it's such a daily part of life now. We all dislike it, and when it's new to someone, you also kind of realize how awful some of it is.
LG: I like the adventure of the mail and I like watching a lot of television. And when I had bronchitis this winter it was wonderful, because there it was in bed with me. I didn't have to go anywhere. I didn't have to sit in a chair.
DB: You had it all right there. And you had endless stuff too, right?
LG: Yeah.
DB: You have Netflix?
LG: Everything.
DB: Oh, okay. You're set.
LG: Yeah! And I have another thing—I own Breaking Bad. Because I didn't want to wait for the last season.
DB: Yeah, it's worth it. That was a pretty intense season.
LG: Yeah. Once Gus died, the real spine went out of the show, in my view. But I loved it. I loved that show.
DB: I did too. We just finished that one.
LG: Oh yeah?
DB: Not too long ago, yeah.
LG: What else have you liked?
DB: TV-wise? [To Kristin] What are we watching now?
KRISTIN: The Americans.
DB: The Americans is very good.
LG: Is it good?
DB: Yeah, that's a very good one.
LG: Have you seen Friday Night Lights?
DB: I've watched some of Friday Night Lights, but [to Kristin] you've never seen it, right?
DB: We need to do the whole thing.
LG: You have to start from the beginning.
DB: Yeah. I did it several years ago.
LG: I loved that. I watched that at Stanford this year and I thought it was going to take me five weeks. I thought, "This is going to last me the whole of my Stanford experience. It's going to be great." And I finished in about two weeks, but then I didn't want to watch anything else. It's like when you read a really marvelous book. There was something about—I mean, I can watch things on demand—but there was something about the fact that I could do this anywhere. And if I went to a hotel, I could do it there. It was an amazing discovery for me. And I loved that show. I ended up watching the last season a second time. And then I still didn't want to watch anything else, so I watched the first season, and I was ready. But I have not found a new thing.
DB: Since then?
LG: Since then. Well, it's been a month.
DB: Have you watched The Wire?
LG: Oh, yes. I watched The Wire on TV at Frank's [Frank Bidart] house. Because he has equipment. He has lab-quality equipment.
DB: Well, I'll think of some other ones, for sure.
LG: Okay.
DB: Yeah, we should talk about it.
LG: Yeah, if you think about it, let me know.
DB: I'll let you know—we watch a lot of TV.
LG: Okay. I want a title for my book, and television recommendations.
DB: Okay.
LG: All right, moving along. So far this is a dud of an interview, isn't it? We haven't had any technical discussion.
DB: No, it's good though! It's good. It's about being a person. I've got to kind of adjust on the fly, here, but I think I'll just skip these. Because you don't really write poems on the iPad. You never have them in digital format until they go to your publisher, essentially. And then they will—do you know how they do it?
LG: I send them a typed script, which is kind of harrowing because then I have to proof the digital and be sure there haven't been mistakes. And there are always huge mistakes. I could pay somebody to do it, but it would still be the same problem of having to proof it. I imagine that I'm stuck with that for life, because I cannot imagine typing poems on that board.
DB: So when you send it to FSG, and then someone types—or do they scan it? I mean, do you know how they do it?
LG: No.
DB: Okay. Because I mean, there are ways they should be able to do it—
LG: I can tell you who would know if you want to ask.
DB: Yeah?
LG: Do you want?
DB: Maybe. I don't know.
LG: All right.
DB: I'm just interested—once they do that, then they send it back to you and you make sure that everything is right? I mean, you go back and forth with them with the proofs for quite a bit, right?
LG: Yeah, right.
DB: I remember when I was a student. I think you had—would it have been Vita Nova or Seven Ages you were working on?
LG: I don't know.
DB: You were telling me how you were reading it backwards.
LG: Oh yeah. I still do that. It's horrible, and you need someone to help you.
DB: Right. And your poems are fairly memorized? Almost all of them?
LG: Lots of them.
DB: And especially when you're working in the book—like when you're going back through—you're hearing it?
LG: Your eye makes substitutions, so unless you read it out of order—i.e. backwards—you're going to be doing that.
DB: Okay. That was the first section, but there's not much to it because it's mostly digital. But then this is more practice. So I've kind of delineated the writing process into kind of a three-step sort of thing. So there's the composition, there's the revision, and then there's the sort of the organizational-archival point. And that's just my kind of construction for this interview. If that doesn't make sense to you, we could talk about it in different ways.
LG: It's fine.
DB: I have kind of like the beginning questions, which are kind of to give us an idea about the arc of your career. And this question I'm sure you'll love: How long have you been writing professionally, would you say?
LG: Well, I was trying to write professionally—I've been writing since I was a child. And I had a very high opinion of my early work, so I was sending books out to publishers in my early teens.
DB: Oh really?
LG: Well, they were uniformly rejected. But I did have that intense dream, and I developed—as anybody has to—a very tough skin. I mean, I had enormous vanity, so every time one was rejected, it didn't matter that I was 15 years old. I thought, "I'm never going to write better than this. This is the climax of my vision and no one wants it." That was hard, but I continued to send things out, and when I started working on what became my first book, I was in my late teens. And from the time I was, I think, 23, until it was published, I think, when I was 25—something like that—I had, I think, 28 rejections. A lot, but I had some poems in magazines. But all of that was in place by the time I was, probably, 12.
DB: That sort of the ambition and drive?
LG: Yeah. And then there were long periods of not writing at all that were harrowing—and continue to be harrowing—and I had different mechanisms for trying to get through them. The greatest discovery was teaching. Because I finally learned after the first really lengthy—this is completely off the track of where you want to go, isn't it?
DB: No—my next question is "Describe the arc of your career," so this is pretty much—
LG: Oh all right. Well, the first time that that happened—when the first one had been published—I had pretty much done what was in me to do. I had also evolved a style in which there were no complete sentences. There were just little bullet-like fragments. And every time I thought to write, I could no longer make the sentence so it was going to be grammatical. I could no longer, it struck me, write a sentence. So I realized, there was something about that particular wall that I had hit that had to do with syntax. And I thought, "I have to write poems—like Milton's sonnet on this blindness—that are all one sentence, or as close to that as I can manage." And I couldn't do it. I couldn't do anything that approached it, and I couldn't, at the same time, write fragments anymore.
The more I couldn't write, the more I repudiated the world. I thought that the problem was that I was too worldly, too involved in the world, too diverse in my interests, so I became more and more hermetic and dedicated. I would sit at this—I was living in Provincetown for part of this time, and in New York City—and I would sit in Provincetown at a very beautiful desk that was made for me by my photographer boyfriend with all of these marvelous objects to gaze at, and it was just horrifying. And, you know, on a good day, I would write an article—"The." And on a really good day, there would be a noun—"Tree." But I couldn't get beyond that, and I thought, "I have not consecrated myself sufficiently. There needs to be more foreswearing."
And I had a bed-of-nails kind of life—just sitting in the sort of "soup" of my failure for a year. During that time, I had one or two teaching job offers. In those years, it was much easier because the economy was different then, you know. There weren't all of these MFA programs. And especially if you were female. I had a book out, but I don't know that I would have gotten a tenure-year track job given my spotty education. But I had these offers, and I kept saying, "No, no, no, no," because poets shouldn't teach! I mean, there was that long list of things poet shouldn't do. They should never have children. They shouldn't teach. They shouldn't go out in the world. They couldn't eat. But finally, I was invited to do a colloquium in Vermont. And I hated Provincetown, but I didn't know how—I didn't want to just begin moving in a sort of pin-the-tail-on-the-map kind of way. I was making my living as a secretary, and I could have done that anywhere in that period, but I thought, "I'll just stay here until the future presents itself."
So I went to do this colloquium, partly because John Berryman was there and he was a hero of mine, and I wanted to be able to pay tribute to him. I wanted to say, "You are a great artist and I salute you." Which I did get to say, but he thought I was just, you know, a chick on the make. I didn't know how to say to him, "You don't understand—I've never said these words." In any case, I realized about the minute I got to Vermont, I thought, "I'm supposed to live here." I just instantly loved the place. It was a four-day thing, and there were all these English teachers at Goddard College—a hippie institution with a naked dorm and things like that—and they said, "You should come here and teach." I thought, "Why not? I'm not a poet. I have to face this disastrous fact and make a life." So I said yes. And of course they weren't empowered to offer me a job. They were just drunken English teachers who liked me.
But by then, I had had a sort of epiphany, and I corresponded with two of those people who are my still oldest, dearest friends—Ellen Voigt and prose writer Kathryn Davis. Three days before the semester started, there was a job cobbled together for me for one semester, and I moved to Vermont and I got a room in a rooming house with a bathroom down the hall. The minute I started teaching, I started writing again. I still feel about teaching that it's the most miraculous thing I've ever discovered, because I can't always write, and long periods go by and I don't write. But I can always teach, and I will always meet people who fascinate me and who are doing things, who have minds that go places my mind has never gone. And I won't find that stuff in books by dead people I'm contemporaries—new sounding stuff. It changes me and electrifies me, and to work on material that is still malleable—it was like the experience of working on my own stuff, but I didn't feel competitive. A lot of that was so strange, because I am very competitive by nature, but not with my students, and I wanted those poems to be as great as they could be, in my view. So, still, that has served me very well, especially once I discovered undergraduates, because I could know them for four years, and Williams was nirvana, you know. I got there and I thought, "I'd never been around such smart people." I was terrified, but I also was thrilled. And a lot of those years were years when I couldn't do anything, but then some of them were years when I was writing a blue streak. And it was never, "I teach one semester, and then I write," or, "I teach, and I write in between classes." No—I mean, if I was writing, I would write when I taught. In fact, after the experience in Provincetown at the sacred desk, I have a horror of the special place—the secluded cabin, the writer's retreat. I just can't bear them. I want to be without tools. I often have no pencil and no paper, so I have to borrow them or buy them. But I don't want to presume anything. If there's going to be a line coming into my head, that'll be great.
So the shape has always been periods in the desert—you know, without language—and then work. After I was 50, most of my books were written very fast. Like in six to eight weeks.
DB: Which book did that start with?
LG: The Wild Iris. After that, I thought, "I can do anything. I can fly planes." And I can remember my husband saying, "You are going to really hit the wall very soon," and he was right. I developed neurological symptoms. I had not slept the whole of that summer, practically, and one side of my face started twitching. And I had to teach that fall, and I remember sitting in class like this so that nobody would see that my face was—
DB: Oh, wow.
LG: The neurologist said, "I don't think this is anything. It will probably go away in a couple of months." Which it did. But every so often I think something like that could come back again, you know? I mean, it's weird to write that fast, and you don't have a sense of agency. It's very hard to revise, because you don't remember writing it. You just were sitting there, and then it was. The last two books—Village Life and the new one—were slower, but they were steady, especially Village Life. With the newer one, there were lots of moments when I thought, "This is never going to be a book. I don't know how to put this material together."
DB: If you could think back to before you hit this sort of stride where you were producing books very quickly, what was it like, say, writing House on Marshlands?
LG: Long. It took many years. I revised poems heavily and constantly. One poem, I remember, took two years to write—"For my mother." The opening lines—"It was better when we were together in one body"—I had those lines in my head for a really long time. And at the beginning, I felt very grateful, because I thought, "Oh, two really beautiful lines—this is going to be a poem. This is exciting. I have at least these lines to cling to." And then time went by and nothing happened—no other language attached to that little shard. So those phrases, that language, became a torment. It was the first thing I would hear in the morning and murmured in my head, and the last thing I would hear at night. But it was a chastisement, a torment—"You don't know what I'm for!"
DB: Right.
LG: And I tried to convince myself it was a haiku, you know? I thought, "Well, maybe it's just a very austere, abbreviated poem," but I didn't think that and nobody I showed it to thought that, either. So that took really a very, very, very, very long time to write, and had lots of different approaches, and ended up being a kind of collage of pieces of language from different old poems.
DB: During that time, you just were working on the one poem?
LG: I was for a long time, yeah.
DB: So there weren't other poems coming in and out at this stage? Is that traditionally how you work? It's just one poem, and then the next poem, and then you finish?
LG: Yeah, and then sometimes there will be a massive revision. One edition to an accumulating manuscript makes it clear how the thing should be ordered, and then you see you can make a lot of short, little changes in the other stuff because of this new thing. So some of the books are slower. The earlier books were revised much more—the later books, less. Though there were revisions in all of them, and though most of them preceded, at some point, rapidly from, I would say, Averno on, there were hiatuses. Averno was written in two fast periods.
DB: And is one October? Because that was such a good chapbook, and then—
LG: Yeah. I had "October" and I had "Prism," and I thought, "These two poems can't be in the same book. I mean, they are just complete opposites." Then there were two years when I wrote nothing. I haven't attended to this in recent years, but for many decades, I kept this chart of what I wrote and when, and each year would be written at the top of—no, the years were like that and the months were like that. And if I wrote a poem then I would write its name, and if I wrote nothing, I would write an X.
So when I got depressed, I would take this thing out and I would see all these lines of X's, and then at the end, there would be a little gust, and the little gust would be completely different from what had preceded the X's. So I began to be—I mean, "trust" is a little strong, but—I just figured this is how it goes with me. There's a period usually now after I finish something of being happy, because I don't have to write. I feel kind of on vacation, and I have a sense of secret pleasure because no one has seen it and no one has anything to say about it, but I love it and it's finished. Last year was such a happy year for that reason, because—[neighbor's dog barking in background]—that's on tape!
DB: I'll send you little clips.
LG: Yeah! I'll give it to them. They made me take my plants—I had this beautiful antique trunk in the hall with a Celadon vase of pussy willow.
DB: Yeah, I remember that.
LG: It's still foregrounded in my brain. Anyway—so all the rest of those poems in Averno were written after this two-year gap, and very fast. Really fast. And none of it figured out. I mean, I didn't have "Persephone," I didn't have any of the rigging. I'd been reading a lot of Henning Mankell, and I was trying to put an image from each of his novels in one of my poems.
DB: Oh, okay. Is he a mystery writer?
LG: Yeah, Swedish. I hate travel but I was—
DB: Is this the Nero Wolfe book?
LG: Nero Wolfe? No, that's different. That's Rex Stout. That was from much longer ago. No, Mankell is living.
DB: Okay.
LG: Swedish. Married to one of Ingmar Bergman's daughters.
DB: Wow.
LG: Yeah, and I think he's a genius. I love those books. I think he's a great prose stylist. I would recommend them. Start with One Step Behind, though. Don't start at the beginning, because the first book is not good, and you wouldn't read the rest.
DB: Okay.
LG: But very dreary, compelling. His detective plods ahead and he notices small things that don't make sense and turns them over in his mind, but he's not a fire brand, and he's not handsome. And there's a kind of dreary sameness to his days, but the books are fantastic, in what their notion of "triumph" is. Triumph is persistence, and then it turns into comprehension, you know. A pattern is revealed. I love them. So I was reading those, and I think something of his prose style crept into my poems. I don't know that another person would think that but—
DB: In Averno or—?
LG: In Averno.
DB: Did it transfer through into A Village Life at all or no?
LG: No. That was it.
DB: That was it. That was the book.
LG: Yeah.
DB: Okay. So you had your sort of first period of silence after Firstborn, and until you started teaching at Goddard, was it like that sort of repetition every time? I mean, if you finished a book, you had the pleasure, but then you also had the silence or—?
LG: Sometimes, yeah. With Marshland, there were a lot of silences.
DB: During the composition?
LG: It took about six, seven years. I mean, Firstborn was published in 1968, but it was finished in '66, and House on Marshland was ‘75. I was put in touch with Dan Halpern—who was starting Ecco—by Stanley Kunitz. Stanley said, "This young sport loves your work." I thought I don't want to have to send this out twenty-eight times, and so I thought, "I'll just go with someone Stanley recommends who loves it." So it was published pretty soon after it was done. So that was a very, very long period, but I feel as though Firstborn is just an artifact from another life, and that really my writing life began with House on Marshland. I think, you know, I can see how each book came out of its predecessor after that.
DB: What do you mean by that? Could you point to poems in the previous book that were harbingers of the next, or sort of turns of language? I know you speak in your interviews about how you go through and try to eliminate the language of the one book before you move on to the next.
LG: Yeah, but even in that sense, certain stylistic tics you try to recognize and prohibit—the way I tried to prohibit fragments—they seem like the work of the same person on some sort of journey. I try to make them as different as possible.
DB: I'm interested in what the work of doing that is. I mean, is it that you've just lived with these poems so often that you recognize immediately what the stylistic tics are and that they are easy to do? Or is it that when you read through the book and it's finished, you're like, "Oh I see that, and I see that, and these are the things that I need to really work on eliminating."
LG: I never see it when I'm working on the book.
DB: Yeah, which should be probably suffocating.
LG: Yeah. And so it's only afterward I think, "Well, I can't do that again." And then sometimes you see things like, "Isn't it odd? I've never used a contraction. Ever," and then you think, "Well, I guess I have to figure out how to use a contraction." And that becomes a whole—well, what you realize is that that's quotidian speech. That was what I hadn't used, and so then in order to use contractions and questions, the Delphic voice evaporates, and the human is introduced in its place. That was a hard moment, because a lot of people who admired my work admired it for exactly the thing that was now no longer present.
DB: What period was this?
LG: Triumph of Achilles.
DB: Okay. So coming in Triumph of Achilles, that was one of the tics? Or that was one of the changes that was being made?
LG: Yeah.
DB: Right. So Triumph of Achilles to—what's the next one?
LG: Ararat.
DB: Ararat and then Meadowlands, and then The Wild Iris.
LG: No, other way—Wild Iris, Meadowlands. It's okay. You're pretty current.
DB: I'm pretty close. I've been reading the collected and it's so interesting to kind of like move through time as you're moving through. How did you feel about that, I mean, by publishing the collected poems?
LG: Oh, it surprised me, because I always thought it was a terrible idea. Well, first of all, it's not the collected, and I didn't think of it as that. But it's fifty years of writing. I was initially appalled—and then amazed—at its size, because I thought it would be about three hundred pages long. But then when Miranda said, initially, six hundred and eighty-eight, I said, "No one will buy this! We have to squeeze it. It has to get littler." I thought it was a valedictory gesture. I thought it was suicidal to do. Most of my life, I was repelled by it in principle. The idea of doing it myself was horrifying. I mean, I never read my old books. I have no reason to. But at some point, I had to do something from a bunch of books, where I had to do reading, and I was asked to do more of that. So I was reading through the books, and I didn't hate them. I mean, often, once you finish and you're euphoric, then pretty soon you feel a sense of humiliation and shame. You just don't want to think about what you've just done. So then after that, you don't go back—you're trying to prove you can write by writing something else. Or, you know, the book gets horrible reviews and you have this feeling of "I'll show you. You wait. I'm going to knock your pants off," and of course the people's pants don't come off. But I was reading these old books, and I liked them. I was proud that I wrote them. I remember a couple of years ago—I sometimes do Tarot readings with Dana Levin. Dana's sister is a professional clairvoyant and Dana is very good with cards, and I trust her greatly. So we were doing one—I guess I had done the cards with Dana, but then Dana's sister, Karen the clairvoyant was visiting her, so we had a three-way conversation on my birthday for a birthday present about the reading. Karen asked me questions sort of the way a shrink does, you know, leading questions. She said, "What have you been thinking about?" I said, "Writing." Somehow, it came up that I was very frightened by this pleasure that I was taking in my old work because I feared it meant I would do no new work. Karen said, "I think you have to embrace that. I think that's"—she didn't use words like "path," but, you know—"that's what you have to do. You can't pretend that you're not feeling it. You just must follow that feeling and see where it leads."
So where it led was to a readiness to see these books all put together, which had been proposed earlier. In fact, I was contractually obliged to do it, but I would never have been pressed. And there was always the problem of the fact that Ecco owned most of the books, and Dan Halpern resented—for a very long time, possibly still continuing to this moment—my switching publishers, which I did simply because it's interesting to be elsewhere. I missed the attention.
DB: With which book was it that you moved?
LG: Averno. It was a very inflamed parting, and for a long time, he wouldn't relinquish any of the books he owned. So none of that was possible, but it was fine, because I didn't want it. Then, somehow or another, that was all negotiated, and I did want it. I found it invigorating and generally a very pleasant thing. It made me feel I didn't have to do a big square thing anymore. Anything I did was gravy. And I really like this new book. It's not like anything else that I have done. It's sort of surreal. It has got prose poems in it.
DB: That's going to be a shocker.
LG: I don't think people are going to like it, or understand it. I think of it as very kind of lighthearted, or with a kind of—well, there's a lightness in it, a kind of casual, shrugging bravado that I like. It's not beautiful like certain of the lyric books. But a lot of people think it's terrifying, because a lot of it is about the end of time. But it's not written as a struggle, and it's not written as capitulation. It's written as, "What do you know?" I mean, there are poems in it that are not unlike what you do, you know? That kind of scratching-your-head thing, but a kind of merry bleakness.
DB: Yeah, that's always a pleasurable place to be. Did you find in actually writing those poems that there was a different way—like physically—that you were going after them or anything else?
LG: Well, the last couple of books, I've written a lot of it longhand, which was a great surprise, because everything up until Averno was written on a typewriter. All of the composition.
DB: Including Firstborn?
LG: No, Firstborn was by hand, and then everything from Marshland to Averno was composed on a typewriter. It's one of the reasons that my papers are not valuable, because there will be pages with little scribbles, but usually I just put in a new piece. So if somebody goes through all of these typewritten drafts, unless the person happens to know my work intimately—
DB: Wouldn't know that.
LG: It just looks like a lot of typed poems with no author's hand apparent. I started keeping a journal when I had whiplash, because someone said, "You should start writing about what it feels like, because you'll discover that you're not in as much pain as you think you are." Ha-ha. I mean, I certainly was. But I started this notebook detailing my whiplash symptoms and the agony that they entailed. I always did it in bed at night, reviewing my day, and it became the most crucial piece of my day. That, and listening to the telephone weather forecast, which became Village Life. I figured that out, but it took a long time. So I would listen to the weather forecast, and then I would redial and listen to it again. There was this wonderful voice that would say, "Good evening, Boston," and you would realize that the same thing was going to happen to everybody. You weren't just selected specially to be rained on, you know? Everyone was going to have rain. And it was the first time I actually understood that everyone was going to have something. I mean, all those times I stood in the drug isles of the supermarket, thinking, "Louise, they can't have made all these products just for you. There's a market. Someone else is buying these things." And then I would think, "Yeah, they're buying them, but they only use half, whereas I need ten."
But the weather did make that knowledge present. And meanwhile, I was writing my whiplash symptoms and I would get in a very spacey place, so I started making notes for poems. So as not to interfere or confuse things, I did the poems in the back of the book moving toward the middle, and my pain journal from the front, and then I'd start a new notebook. After the whiplash went away—surprise—there were many other things to complain about in daily life. So this sort of diary of grief, complaint, misery, fear, chronic anxiety—occasional nice things reported—but mainly, the book was sacred to that, and it was a real source of sweetness in my life. Even when I didn't have a bad day, or I didn't have any real pain or I wasn't sick, I felt that I owed it to the book to say the worst. So there would always be that, and then there would be these notes. So I have a whole bunch of these eerie notebooks, and I realized that it was working kind of well. Once I started working on the poem, then I would work on it the way I always had. Only a lot of it was longhand, and the lines were getting differently shaped. The advantage of that was I could also do it when I was commuting. So I had a car service in those years, and Averno was the first thing I did when I was at Yale. I remember working on the poems in the car, and then I would transcribe them into the notebook in the back. At a certain point, each one would have to be, there would be enough material so I had to play that on the typewriter and see how it looked in type.
One fact of working on the typewriter that's either—I don't know whether it's an advantage or not, and I imagine for prose it would be. My prose writer friends all love the computer, but when I get to an impasse or an awkward line, I have to start over. So it's a new sheet of paper, and you have to do the whole thing again, and problems emerge in those retypings, like your fingers will hesitate over something you thought was resolved, and you realize it's not resolved. You realize you have to do something different.
DB: So you were kind of making those revisions in the actual transcription work? They were coming to you almost like a practiced feel of the rhythms?
LG: Yeah, your hands wouldn't type it. You realize something was wrong. Either the line was wrong in how it was lineated—which would be simple to resolve—or the whole trajectory of the poem was awry.
DB: And then you would have to go back and do more.
LG: Yeah.
DB: At that point, would you do more work in the notebook before you went back to the typewriter?
LG: It varied. Then what would happen would be I'd have these typewriter sheets, and I would start working on them, but in the same timeframe.
DB: Okay, so back and forth.
LG: Yeah. They cancelled the weather report, by the way, because of the omnipresence of that.
DB: Absolutely.
KRISTIN: I have to go feed the meter.
DB: Okay, great. Do you have a visitor pass? We parked with a car.
LG: Yeah.
KRISTIN: Sure, I can move closer.
DB: That would be easier and then you could just park right here and then we can give it back to her.
LG: Make sure you're in a legal place.
KRISTIN: Yeah, as long as it is in the permit parking.
LG: Yeah.
KRISTIN: Thanks.
LG: That won't work.
DB: Were there any other things like the weather report for any other books? I mean, did that ever happen before? Were there any sort of other—?
LG: It was Village Life, really, that was—
DB: No other books had like something like a ritual to which you were responding in some sense?
LG: Well, Wild Iris was the garden. I had been reading garden catalogues for two years. I had two years of writing nothing, and all I had read was garden catalogues. Plus, I'd seen when I first moved to Vermont the clairvoyant, who told me I would write five books, and I had written five. Ararat was the fifth. I thought, "That's it," and I thought, "It's obvious, because there's no beauty in Ararat. It's just the whole lyric gift is dribbling away. I read garden catalogues and listened to Don Giovanni for two years, and I thought, "I'm brain dead. Of course I can't write."
DB: And that came in a burst, like in February or something?
LG: No, it was Summer. I started walking around the garden, which had been the only thing that I did. And things were coming out of the ground and I thought, "I'll try and write something about a flower."
DB: Now we have an idea of handwriting to the typewriter and what not. What was it like when you were just typewriting your poems? Would you sit down at your desk or wherever—I mean, the typewriter is kind of a wieldy thing. You have to be one place, wherever you were.
LG: No—it would always be episodic, and it didn't have to be MY typewriter. For example, I remember when I was working on Vita Nova, I remember writing some of those poems on an airplane. I wrote two on one transcontinental flight, and then I got to Irvine and I had to borrow a typewriter. But that was possible. And then I had to work it out on typewriter. But at that particular point, I was really on a roll. Everything was turning into a poem. So I felt I could be anywhere, and I could write with anything. I could write with food coloring.
DB: Charcoal.
LG: Yeah, and I could make actually very crude, like, power points, and I would know how to assemble them.
DB: Oh that's fantastic. So when you're in that sort of stage, are they just coming to you? Are they coming from overheard statements? Or it's all just there, and you're just kind of waiting to release it?
LG: It's nothing overheard. It's just some weird brain corner that suddenly you have access to, and it's like a temporary shelter—it exists for a very short time, and it's not like you think, "I could go back there." You just think.
DB: Do you see any patterns—now that you've had these experiences happen again and again—that sort of anticipate your getting to where that brain corner opens up, or is it mysterious?
LG: No, it's always mysterious. And the last two books have been a little slower in what I felt was a good way, because the stamina called for in that other kind of composition is so extreme. Plus, you don't get a very prolonged experience of immersion. You get a very intense, fast hit, but I really liked the feeling that I had. It was like writing a novel. In Village Life, I had this sound to go to that was like a place and it was accessible. I could get there. It wasn't like this special trick pony. It meant that the composition was a year, which still seems pretty fast, but it's not as fast as six weeks. That was Vita Nova. That was the fastest.
DB: Six weeks was the fastest. How long was Wild Iris?
LG: More like nine weeks, but there were three poems that were written the year before. They just were crap, but once I wrote The Wild Iris, once I wrote the bulk of that book, the crappy poems didn't seem so crappy. Did you know Elizabeth Langston, David and Meredith's daughter?
LG: Did you know David and Meredith at all?
DB: No.
LG: You didn't take a classics class? Well, she's my godchild, and she was, at that point, very little. This was in a period where I was writing nothing, and I said, "Elizabeth, give me a title, or a first line." And I thought, "If Elizabeth asked me to write a poem, I'd have to do it." And she did, and it got used.
DB: What was it?
LG: Red Rose on a Lowly Vine. It didn't get called that, finally, but it was a little song-like valentine of a poem. But then, I mean, if it looks to you like that's your output for two years, it's bad.
DB: Yeah.
LG: But it had a place in that book. Wild Iris was the first book I wrote fast, but it had these three weak-ish poems that became absorbed into it. So I don't know what will happen now. I imagine I'll descend into some abyss and then it's just the question of how much more you get to do. I'm still feeling surprisingly happy with my last one, and I know that until I hate it, nothing is going to happen.
DB: How long have you been finished with it?
LG: It will be a year in September. So it's still a baby.
DB: So, you have a kind of final sense of finality for these things—do you have like a physical sensation when that happens, or is it that your brain stops moving in that direction, and it's off?
LG: Well, you can sometimes have that, but it isn't finished.
DB: Okay.
LG: I mean, that has happened to me a number of times. It always means that there's something that isn't written yet, even though you just can't imagine what it is. Meadowlands was like that. I thought, "I can't write another of these." But it was clear. I was good at putting books together, and I can figure out what each body of work seems to need, but there was no way to put that together. Something was missing, and I thought it was probably some more sonorous tone, but it wasn't that. It was Telemachus was missing.
DB: Oh okay.
LG: And I wrote those poems in, I think, 10 days, and then it was a breeze. I mean, the whole thing came into place.
DB: I like that book.
LG: I like that book, too.
DB: It's very funny.
LG: It's very funny, I know. I think it's a scream. And I like that. I mean, I like tonal variety a lot, and I like it in what I read. But I think with the last two books—I drove people crazy with Village Life, because I had maybe four hundred different orders, and they were all not right.
DB: I could see that being difficult to put together.
LG: I knew where I wanted to start. I knew where I wanted to end, but—
DB: In between?
LG: I think it was a matter, too, of something needing to be added.
DB: Did you learn how to put together books like this? What was your education of that sense?
LG: We learn from the material, and I think I learned from students, too. I think that I'm a very good editor. I always felt if I had stuff on the page, I would have some good instincts. I mean, if there was anything to be gotten out of that material, I would find it. So, a sort of sense of being able to put to use the most pathetic, limited samples of language. But if you just give me some words, it doesn't matter how bad they are—I can do something. And I felt the same about manuscripts. I thought, "If there's a way to put it together, I'll find it." My own books and other people's books, too. I mean, in a way, I'm sure I drive some people crazy because I just look at their manuscripts and I say, "No. Just leave it all to me. You're doing this terribly."
I was that kind of a mother, you know. I would say, "Don't feed yourself, really. You just don't know how to do it. You sit—I'll feed you." People don't like that, and it's also possible that one could be wrong, or that there could be something I miss. But I think it was something that you learn when you write very slowly. You don't have a huge outpouring—you have a small amount that you have to make go as far as you can, so you learn how to move the parts of the poem around. You learn how to be an editor out of a sense of lack, and from that grows a capacity to organize disparate things into something that has a sense of dramatic shape.
DB: And that sense of dramatic shape—is that your intention for most of your collections?
LG: I want the books to seem like that, but it's not as though when I'm working on them I know what it is. I pretty much don't.
DB: When do you get that sense?
LG: When I'm starting to put it together. And then you start seeing these weird overlaps and resonances and echoes that you hadn't planned. Proofing my new book, I see the strangest parallels and language recurrences that—I mean, you could say yes, you have a limited vocabulary and so of course there's going to be a recurrence of these words that you use, because you still remember them—but it's like dreams, you know? Somehow, the mind is making an organization that is beyond what the comprehending or apprehending faculties take-in, initially.
DB: So when you're working just on an individual poem and you're revising it, what's the mode there, when you're going back? Are you deleting, are you substituting, or—whatever the poem needs—you're in service to it?
LG: Yeah. I mean, if I can tell myself that a poem can't be made with just deleting things, that's great. That's two for the price of one. You get the deleted lines—if they're any good—to use somewhere else, and you get a poem. But, oftentimes, you can't just delete. Often, you can take out everything that's weak and transitions that are obvious, but what you then wrecked is the feeling of duration—the poem has become too brisk, and needs to have a feeling of more languorous unfolding. So then that's a problem, because you don't know whether you're supposed to add in the places where you had material before, or were they the wrong places—was that part of the problem? But each poem is its own little task. You know, for a long time, it's a problem you haven't solved, and then it becomes something that you have solved.
DB: Is it the same feeling of finality that you have with a collection that you have with an individual poem? That there's nothing more to be done?
LG: Yeah. But also that it gives you pleasure, that you like the shape that it makes. And you like it better than you thought you ever could. So all these poems you just thought were so cumbersome and that there was no way they could be organized—you just didn't see it. Suddenly, you actually like them again.
DB: Has your mode of revision, has that changed at all over the course, or has it been fairly consistent?
LG: I'm sure it's quite different, but I wouldn't even know how to say. I mean, the poems are so different that it must be that the approach is different.
DB: Right.
LG: I mean, now, I much more like approximation. I like a sense in the poem of not the sort of honed, perfect bon mot, you know, the epigrammatic. I want more of a kind of speech—a sense of casting about for a phrase. I like that feeling. Human-sounding. Ruminative, rather than exalted. But, you know, I think of Averno as—the book has always seemed to me vertical, and some of them seem horizontal. Usually, they alternate, so there will be a kind of awe-to-despair book, followed by panoramic book. But the last two books seemed to me kind of spreading, though they're very different from each other. How many people are you going to do this with?
DB: Ten.
LG: Jesus, you'll be out of your mind.
DB: I know, it's okay. We'll see how it goes. You're number seven? Eight?
LG: Oh! You've done a lot.
DB: Yeah, I've done quite a few.
LG: Does everyone sound different?
DB: Yes. It's very interesting what people want to talk about. I've done people who know me and who don't know me, and so there's some wariness, and sometimes there's not. Sometimes the people who know me are more wary of the questions. Honestly, the questions haven't really been asked, but you've answered them without my asking them, so that's good. It's a good sign, I think.
LG: I hope so. Well, we could do it again if you don't have anything to use.
DB: No, I think there's plenty. So, when you're revising are you reading them out loud to yourself? Is it part of your craft as some of the other writers have said?
LG: I keep trying to make this point in poetry readings. I hear with my eyes. I mean, the experience of reading a poem—for me, with my eyes—contains an oral experience. And when I hear it, I feel angry. I feel that there's an obstacle between me and the it of the poem. And the obstacle is the reader, who is determining and deploying emphasis. Also, the form, which is turning a kind of web-like experience into a narrative—everything goes by once. And the argument made is, "Yes, but then you can't hear it." But I don't hear it when it's read to me, and I don't moderate to myself. I hear it in my head, though, and I hum it in my head.
DB: You can hear almost, like, musical notes, or tones?
LG: I can hear rhythmic structures. I remember with Meadowlands, I had this sense of the book—it was the only time I had this—I felt I had a whole book in my head. I just didn't have a single word. But what I had was rhythmic alternations. I had shapes that were clustered, and then some more open shapes—it was almost as though it was a musical line, and I would hear the rising and the falling. I would hear choral parts. I even tried to annotate it in some way so that I could follow it, but it was like a hum. I heard somebody say—a thinker of some kind, not a poet—something about the way a child learns speech lying in its cradle and hearing the shapes made by the speech that surrounds it. It doesn't understand words yet, but it understands. And for me, poems have been like that. I mean, I remember reading—when I was really, really young—not baby poems, but great poems. Shakespeare's songs. And I'm sure I had no idea what was being talked of—none—but I felt I was getting something out of those poems. I could hear "Fear no more the heat of the sun." I could hear the grandeur of that. The rhythm. I mean, somebody could turn it into an act of scanning the line, but that makes it so kind of plodding. But I did hear things that way, but with my eyes. I mean, my eyes turn what I see not into argument or a reasoned thing. A lot of that stuff I miss. What is the poem saying? I often have no idea. But I know how it sounds.
DB: Because sound's a sort of intelligent communication, too.
LG: Yeah.
DB: That's really fascinating.
LG: Well, I'm sure there must be a lot of people who write who have this. Who feel that sound comes to them visually.
DB: It's almost synesthesia, right? It's close to that sort of description, but it's not—not quite, really, but it's an interesting correlation.
LG: Yeah.
DB: I know you work with fellow poets on your poems, correct? I mean, you're sending stuff to certain readers, etc., but do you work on individual poems at individual times, or is it usually in a collection?
LG: Everything I write goes out. I want someone to look at it, preferably right away—like, now.
DB: And who are those people? Have they been the same people for a long time?
LG: They change. I mean, it's certain periods, certain people. Sometimes, you'll feel these poems—if they're ever going to be understood by anyone—will be understood by X. And you're usually right—when X says, "This won't do," you trust it, because the person is basically on the side of the work. Whereas if you show it to somebody who, from the outset, says, "This is just a disaster"—you know, it's too late to unwrite it. It's going to get written, and you could suppress it if you wanted, but—so, it's shifted. I mean, there are certain people who have been constant for a very long time. Kathy Davis has been stratospherically helpful, and I like working on her novels. I learned a lot from working on prose.
DB: What have you learned?
LG: You learn moving around much bigger pieces. I mean, Kathy's books—it's not so much a question of that. But there have been books where I've felt, "There are too many characters—these two could be conflated." Other times, I felt things were in the wrong order, or that too much time was spent on a particular thing. But with my former husband—who was a quite terrific prose writer—it was often a question of really moving around blocks of prose, the way you would in a poem. You'd move a line in the poem, but in prose, you would move a paragraph, or two paragraphs. So I learned it's like weight training. I could move bigger masses, and it was very useful. I mean, I don't think I would have written Ararat without that. And I think if I hadn't written Ararat, I would have stalled out as a certain kind of lyric poet.
DB: Right. I have some questions about why you chose not to use a computer.
LG: Well, I'm epileptic and I learned, but I didn't like looking at the screen. The early computers, it was said, were not good for epileptics.
DB: Okay.
LG: I didn't like it. I liked paper. I liked pages. I love typewriters.
DB: What do you love about typewriters?
LG: Doesn't everyone love typewriters?
DB: I don't know.
LG: I don't know.
DB: Is it a sound thing? Is it a feel thing?
LG: No. Actually, since burning my hand, I don't type anywhere near as well, because I don't have perfect feeling in that finger. But it was a sense of how, sort of slovenly, handwriting became form. I don't get that on the screen. I don't see lines on the screen quite the same way, and I don't feel as though I'm making the letter. Well, often I'm not—I'm making the wrong letter. But I don't know why I like it.
DB: But it has been such a consistent part of every book, I guess?
LG: Yeah.
DB: We get to skip all these computer questions—it's fun! So, you correspond with many people?
LG: Yeah. Well, I used to be a much better letter writer.
DB: Has that changed quite a bit, with receiving and sending out? Has that been computerized, or—?
LG: Yeah, it has changed a little. But long before I had my little red friend, I had stopped writing letters the way I once did. I mean, there was a period in my life when—even like ten, twelve years ago—I just wrote lots of letters to lots of people, and I loved getting letters back, and I loved writing letters. And then that stopped. I don't know why it stopped. But it wasn't because of that. What I have noticed with this [iPad] is I have, now, a correspondence with my first husband, with whom I would exchange letters every two years or something—very formal letters. Then there was a period in which he needed somebody to confide in who was far away, and so we had a little period of much more intense exchange. Very short. I saw him and met his current wife. I saw him for the first time in thirty-eight years last summer, and we liked each other. I thought his wife was just great. It's helpful to kind of substitute for a phone call when you don't feel like making a phone call, and it gives people a chance that they would have with a letter but not a phone call to respond when they are ready to and not have a moment forced upon them in which they have to react. So I have very happy thoughts about this, it just has nothing to do with writing. And then, I think, it was a big moment when I switched from longhand to the typewriter. Maybe it would be equally transforming to switch to a computer. But not an iPad. I mean, I would need a real keyboard. But I can't use a mouse still. I can't. When I see that little thing, it makes me very skiddish and upset.
Devin Becker: Well, let's put that right there. And that one, it has like an auto level, so that should work and I can see it. So that's nice. Usually I get really nervous about thirty minutes in. Is it going? One time, one wasn't going, which really made me anxious. That's why I have two.
Stephanie Strickland: So these are the questions?
DB: Yeah, these are the questions and it's pretty open-ended. There are sort of a couple of parts to it. The first part is the very sort of meant to be quickly going through your current practices for your digital files. It's a survey that I've done online with a bunch of emerging writers, and that I'm asking all the participants in this as well, and then we'll talk kind of specifically about your writing processes for probably the majority. There are questions about computing and computers. Usually we cover those, but sometimes, I go through those a little bit too if we have gone through those things and I want to ask a few more. Does that sound okay? Do you have to go somewhere or anything? Everyone has been an hour and fifteen to an hour and forty-five, right in there. So if you would please state for the recording devices your name and our location.
SS: It's Stephanie Strickland, New York City.
DB: Okay. In this section, I ask what you write and what you use to write it. This is about how you compose currently. What genres do you write in?
SS: I do books of poetry and I write critical essays, and I write—I make—usually collaboratively born digital works.
DB: Okay. Would you say you have a primary genre?
SS: Poetry.
DB: What kind of devices do you own or have access to for your writing?
SS: Pens, pencils. There's four computing devices in this one room. I keep an old XP machine going—with difficulty, these days. I liked Word 2003. I managed to get that and Word 2007 on that machine, and then I have a little small Acer, which is underneath there, which is actually probably the most advanced, but again, it's Word 2007 is on there that I write with, and it's for travel. And then since the last thing I made was an app for iPad, I was forced to buy an iPad—I had to show the thing on it! So that's over there, a mini.
DB: A mini? That's what I have.
SS: But I do not write on it.
DB: You don't write on it, right?
SS: No.
DB: Okay. So, the operating systems you're using are mostly Windows?
SS: XP and Windows 7.
DB: Do you work on the different devices? And how do you work between—I guess, if you have all these devices, what is your style for going between them?
SS: Well, if I'm generating new material, I will certainly do a certain amount of writing by hand. I capture, at various points, the material in a word processing program. The one I work with most intuitively is Word 2003. I'm annoyed at all the extra ridiculous functionality.
DB: At least there is no clippie, right?
SS: Yeah, I mean there's too much—it's not directed for what I want to do, and it doesn't handle other things—like Photoshop would—that it says that it will do.
DB: Yeah.
SS: But nonetheless, it's not supported anymore as with so much of the software that I once used. So I capture it at different points, certainly capturing it online is much better for sharing it and editing it to a degree, but it's not particularly good for through-line.
DB: What do you mean by that?
SS: Well, if you're writing something long with a complex argument, I think it's much easier to have it in front of you on paper and read it out, because it's very easy to go into a "collage-y" kind of style with stuff that's going to be published online. It's harder to get a really consecutive—long, consecutive argument made, I think, or a thought, and it's not fluid enough to do poetry. I mean, it restricts you way too much in terms of formatting compared to what you can do on a page by hand in terms of how you want to scratch things out or put something right in—
SS: there's no arrow, insert, none of that. So it's neither—so there's a loss from both perspectives, but obviously from the point of organizing it and sharing it and necessarily sending it on for publishing these days and everything, it has to be done in—yeah. Long, long ago, I got used to doing that. It took me a long time to get there, though, because I started on a manual typewriter and then getting an IBM typewriter was a big thing, you know.
DB: Yeah.
SS: Just like I've used many, many writing technologies.
DB: I mean that's really the impetus for this. I was just thinking about the thing I did earlier, then I started thinking about writers like yourself who have been writing over this course—this is a very interesting time for writing poetry.
SS: Well, I need those little balls on the IBM Selectric. That was like this huge thing that you could erase with an erase thing, that you don't have to pull the page out and start all over again. On the other hand, there was a discipline about that. So each technology actually gave rise to a certain kind of poetry and a certain kind of mistake. These characteristic mistakes people make in email or characteristic word substitutions that you do that you never did on the page—
—anyway, so I don't think that story has really been told because it shifts so rapidly, because you went from email to texting, to this to that, you know, and each one of those things has a different—and then Facebook sits up there and shifts its interface like monthly or whatever it does, you know, and that gives rise to a whole new thing. In the meantime, whatever a person might have wanted to do is kind of knocked out of their head because they are left wrestling with the interface.
DB: Yeah that's a good point. So in terms of going between your paperwork and going to the digital, what are those—what steps are—
SS: It's different. Every single project is completely different because I do a lot of—like, if I'm doing a conference presentation (there were a couple of conferences that we're going to do something with) I would tend to generate something and send it to my partner, what do they want to say about it, you know, and then we get together face to face and deal with that or whatever.
Like the last really big new book I did, Dragon Logic, the way I wrote that was, for probably six months, every morning, I had some paper notebooks and things. I was looking through old notes and things. And I would sit and I would write, every morning, for maybe three or four hours and at the end of the morning, I would go and type it up—I mean input it.
I did not look at it again. The next day, I would start completely fresh and I did that to the point that I had no idea how it had begun actually. And some—maybe six months later—I sort of came to the end of that, and then it was a matter of looking back and like—"what is it?"—you know? So then there was a long period of making a unity of some kind out of it. That shifted, that had made maybe two or three major shifts in understanding as I go through it, but I really liked it because it was very new to me to go back and look at—I mean, I really had no idea what it was.
DB: You don't know, yeah.
SS: It was a long period of writing and sometimes I've gone to writing colonies and written straight through for a long, long, long time, and not input it until I came back from there. But then there was a time when you would—I still had a car at that time, and I wasn't living in the city—and I put my IBM Selectric or whatever in, and would carry it out, or I would rent a computer to have at that place because I wanted the print out, and I still want the print out. It still looks different to me on paper than it does on the screen and you want to know both those aspects.
SS: And then there came the time when no one did that anymore. You couldn't really rent a computer or rent—it was the same time you would go to make presentations wherever you went. The university had a computer there in a room with a stage and you needed a technician to come and fix up all the, whatever—and then they didn't anymore because everyone was expected to bring their laptop and to have one and travel with it. I had a lot of problems with my hands from when I first started doing digital work and I travel really, really light so that made me really angry that I had to—
DB: To carry—
SS: And I wouldn't. I would borrow somebody's or something like that. So there was like all these phases of what you had to do, the way to do it, and so it was different for every book.
DB: When you're working—like, for Dragon Logic, when you were working on paper in the mornings, what were you working on? What were your materials? Was it just that notebook?
SS: It was a bigger notebook than that, probably, a pen with wet ink—wettish ink, not like ballpoint—that has a flow to it, but again because of my hands, to have the least effort of writing. I like a big, like, engineering notebook with graph paper. Often, I had bigger ones like this. It was like a green graph on it. Yeah, I don't like just lined pages. This makes an overall page better, but still—
DB: It has some sort of volume to it. That book has such interesting volume. So then how do you save that stuff? Do you just keep it and once you're finished with the notebook, do you store it somewhere or do you send it?
SS: Put it in a box.
DB: Put in a box over there? Most of your prewriting and your notes are all in notebooks like that?
SS: You would hope! But no, they are not. There's a lot of loose paper, there's a lot of, well, it can be anything because it's whatever I happen to pull up at that exact moment. It can be stuff I wrote down at different times and happened to bring it together. And there were so many versions for a while, and then you sort of drown in versions and then you get tired of that. And then came the time when I decided I needed to use the back of everything, for ecological reasons. I really feel sorry for the people that do [study this later], because now there's a version of a thing and you look on the back and you have no idea when that thing on the back—I mean, if you think the front and the back were done at the same time, they never were.
DB: No? Good, now we have that on record.
SS: But you know, and they have no relation to each other, but I can just see somebody—because they're on the same paper, and they are saying that it will, and I'm like... And the other thing I do that's crazy is that I have some notebooks and then sometimes I go through the exact same notebook again and write into it so that it's actually a palimpsest of two different things that happen and there's no way that you would know—from the outside.
DB: Why do you do that?
SS: Because I want to—I go back and see, is there, does it still have the pull for me that it did, the things that I wrote down at that time, because there are things that tend to be continually magnetizing for me. I like to see—like I've never kept a diary in the sense of a personal diary or like a diary of what happened with my kids' behavior or whatever. I've never done that kind of a thing. I have like a horror of that like I have a horror of lined pages—but I have, there's just—sometimes, something just gets to me and I just need to write it down, so it's just these magnetizing things sort of, right? Maybe some image or something that had a—
DB: That came back?
SS: Yeah, there's like a—I remember seeing once an image of a Viking boat that I actually did go get to see in Norway, but this was just on the cover of a thing and it was the keel and the shape of the thing, and it was just in a kind of turquoise blue kind of thing and it was like, you know, it could have been a company's annual report or something—the cover—it had nothing to do with what was in there but there's this image. It's just like, "Ah" you know.
DB: Striking.
SS: In a zillion ways, that was important to me, which I don't necessarily know how, you know? So I have pictures pulled off like that. No, it's not organized.
DB: Okay, good luck future researcher.
SS: Yeah, good luck.
DB: It sounds like you kind of write—in Dragon Logic, it isn't really individual works, it is a collection but it's also kind of, you know—and some of your other books as well—are not quite made of individual works, but then when you're working, when you move stuff over to the computer, do you—
SS: Well, what do you mean not made individual? I mean, there are individual poems, but they are related. There's a whole meaning to the book.
DB: Right, yeah and it just sounds like with your notebooks—I'm just interested in how you organize that once it moves on to a digital space?
SS: I'm really good at that. I do that for lots of other people's books, too. I see unities, I see structures. I think I think in structures. I wanted to be an architect at one time.
DB: That makes sense.
SS: So, do you know the sort of math side of things and beautiful side of things of whatever you work on are not different for me exactly—
DB: Right.
SS: — so that the structure is often what I see. Do you know? It resonates, there's some kind of resonance here. So I see that and then it becomes what's the best way in, but that's for print because then in a digital work, there's not an "in" in the same way, right? In other words, there's an access often to all parts of it at once, you know in some kinds though I generally provide a default path through as well as a more open thing. So I think that's probably why that kind of work was so interesting to me, starting with True North, which has those five integrally [related] poems—the True North poems are sort of used to divide up the book—but really, they are supposed to be at the center of a moving pole, like the sun going around, so...how do you tell where True North is? You're answering that one question and then the rest of the things would be around in a sort of spherical space, which really should be an installation.
DB: Yeah.
SS: Or true three-dimensions, which of course you're not going to get, but anyway.
DB: Someday there will be holographs.
SS: Yeah, yeah, right.
DB: Just in terms of the nitty gritty though, I mean like, when you have a file on the computer, what is it called? Is it called the title of the poem or do you have large files full of many things?
SS: Well, at some point it's the name of the poem, or it's a name that references the name of the poem. For a long time, I will do revisions within that file with the date at the top of what—of which revision that is. Though, sometimes when I'm doing many, many revisions in one day, that gets a little lost. Then, at the point of a manuscript, there's a whole file that's an entire manuscript and those will have dates or something, you know, called "1, 2, 3," or something. They will be distinguished in some ways to which version they are of the whole manuscript.
SS: I don't just put a whole lot of stuff together—I mean, that doesn't belong together—like in one file. I have kind of an elaborate folder system which, having worked in libraries, I'm pretty comfortable dealing with elaborate folders and so I know where I think—but increasingly, it's like, "Where did I put that?" because there are too many places to put certain things. Is it under the conference that I'm going to give? Is it under essays and talks? Is it under whatever—and the search capability within Windows is pathetic, so not better on Macs to my—though I'm not as well acquainted with them. That's a little annoying that I can't—and I mean, Google, I try to find—you know the book called The Burnt Book by Marc "hyphen" something [Marc-Alain Ouaknin]... . Anyway, I thought it was Kinin, I had O-U-A-K right. I had "Marc" right, I had "Burn" right, and I go on Amazon, go in "Books", say French, or Jewish, whatever—could not find it. Right? I mean, seriously! And then it didn't make what I thought was the obvious—do you know how it usually—"Did you mean?" It was terrible. Anyway, I finally got it in Bing after trying a zillion different things, but I mean like—
SS: it should be better by now, that kind of thing should be way better by now. Any published book should be in Google books. Give me a break! Anyway, I'm not happy with "Search."
DB: Okay. In general. And as a librarian, I think I can understand your problems with that. Just to be clear, when you are doing an individual poem and you put the date at the top, do you have like a version and then another version at another page with a new date, or something like that?
SS: Yes, so that could be fifty pages long.
DB: But it's one poem?
SS: But it's one poem, or whatever. Increasingly you're farther away from the one, and then you could just—"I can't deal with this poem anymore." What's useful is often a version really near the beginning, and then you pick something from the middle, it's under the end of the file, and then you can find your way, kind of, because you forget what you, you know, whatever. Yeah. I do it like that, and then eventually it's what you either call "Final Version" or "the version sent to so and so" or, you know, like that, to try and have a clean copy folder as well as the working folder.
DB: Okay, so you have the working draft and then you can push it into a different folder that's more finalized.
SS: More like "to send out," or something like that.
DB: Okay. During this time, are you printing out those to revise them as well?
SS: Well, you print them out. You don't print out everything. At a certain point, you'll print it out.
DB: Do you save any of the paper copies of those printouts?
SS: Yeah, but it's not big—right? I was very happy when Duke was willing to take [inaudible 00:21:53] but that's not easy either because of this thing of going back to the notebooks and things and what you do and you don't want to send out. I did send off things like the galleys and things, the manuscripts and stuff like that. Some of the time, it just seems crazy if there's just too many versions, and those all from before were all printed on very fine paper for the back. So I just turn them over and use them for—
DB : There you go. Oh man, that's going to be fun. How did you develop your sort of writing style, or that revision style, on the computer? Did you start out on the computer doing it like that? How has it grown into doing that?
SS: I don't know. It was always like that. I mean, I was extremely aware with every shift in software, every shift in functionality. It just kind of hits me, what I've lost and what I've gained, if anything. So, I always needed to see it both ways. So, I think from the beginning I printed it out and then from the time I had trouble with my hands—which was in 1995, when I first started using Storyspace in a beta version that erased all your links every eleventh save...that was the flaw. I didn't know! It was the first time I used software. I thought I must be doing something wrong. So, it was just terrible. Anyway, I couldn't keep doing it. I couldn't keep working—so there was a whole period of becoming sort of a little more ergonomically aware of working with computers and they've changed so much, you know, as many different ways as possible, you shift off to use different—you know, your eyes get really tired of being on a computer or your hand or whatever.
DB: Right. Currently how are you backing up your work?
SS: Well, I try to make that the main thing. I back that up onto a flash drive and then I have this sync toy stuff that Microsoft makes for its computers. So I have that on there, and so I sync that onto there. That works okay.
SS: Then I have a little wallet backup drive that I try to put from there onto that, but it doesn't work as well. It was working fine and now they just updated so I'm having trouble with that at the moment, but eventually that sort of works. So it's on there, and there, and there, and then the Acer
SS: I just kind of put the files on that I—I made one big copy from there, but I don't really keep it updated and everything because it's just the files I really need to work with when I'm travelling.
DB: Are there any sort of standard, I mean, are you like backing up like every five months or something? Is there sort of regularity to it or it's just sort of this—?
SS: I note on my overall "To Do" document when I last did it. I do it at least every two weeks, but if I did a lot of work I would do it. I mean, you know, if there was a whole lot of stuff that I wrote or something, and if I'm doing that, it will kind of be on little flash drives between the computers as I move, I like to work on it here or whatever.
DB: Do you ever email it to yourself, or anything like that? Maybe like a copy of the recent manuscript or anything?
SS: No.
DB: Okay.
SS: It used to be a lot of other ways. Do you remember those Iomega things, those drives? Do you remember those things?
DB: Like the zip drives?
SS: Yeah. It used to be zip drive—there used to be a thousand ways.
DB: On this trip, I went and visited the Beineke and met with their born-digital archivist. They have like a computer stack with all the different old things that slide in, they built it themselves. It was really kind of cool to see all that forensic material, to look at those things. What about your older media?
SS: I mostly just got rid of it. It just annoyed me! It was just so much to come between you and your work. And then, when I first started working and collaborating with Marjorie Luesebrink, she was using ToolBook. I mean, people don't even know about ToolBook. Inevitably, each new version of the software would be worse. I mean, there was more functionality in the beginning, right? And then they would just knock it down. Those of us who used Director and Flash, we've been hit hard.
DB: Yeah, Flash especially. But what's Director?
SS: Director is shockwave files. Do you know shockwave files?
DB: Oh, okay.
SS: Director was beautiful, most of the e-literature pieces that I liked the best were made in Director.
DB: So, is that sort of your ideal software environment for—?
SS: Well, it was, I mean, it doesn't produce stuff for miniature mobile devices, right? But yes, the work that I thought was really beautiful was done in that. And then, Macromedia was fine. Adobe—when Adobe bought Macromedia, it didn't—between Adobe buying Macromedia and Steve Jobs not—I understand flash is, and memory hog and all that when we moved to— but between those two things, those were very creative things, you know, and they haven't been really replaced. The HTML 5 and JavaScript doesn't do it the same way. I mean, people are trying to do it, so the thing is, they'll make an app. So, yeah—that whole thing just annoys me, that it's under the control of so few software, I mean, so few computer or software companies, you know, what you can do or what's supposed to be done and the way things are supposed to look. It was such an open—so much to explore and so much did get explored and has disappeared because of the inability to access it.
SS: We've lost like a generation of design intelligence is what you might even say. Because people were exploring that and there wasn't enough time for other people to see it or think about it or whatever before the thing had shifted and moved on. So that all made me very annoyed and it seemed to me that nobody cared about the exploratory side of it—which they should have! Google and Apple, they have enough money to care about the exploratory side of it, Microsoft too.
DB: I think so.
SS: Do you know what I mean? They should be running huge, like IBM did or like Bell Labs did, huge exploratory—right?
DB: Yeah. I guess a question from that—what made you stick with it?
SS: Well, it's just the architectural part—I mean, the possibilities are just so great with respect to time and performativity and— —reach, and it's an international art form, the last of which was maybe concrete poetry. You know? We need to communicate. The world's problems are global, whether climatologic or poverty or what have you, right? Water, whatever; resources, survival. So, you need to speak—you know, I can't speak to 500 people, you know what I mean?
SS: I just think you should explore what you care about in a medium that does have a reach, and there are difficulties with that. This generator that Nick [Montfort] and I made, which was translated into Polish—I never learned more about English, or Polish, or computation than trying to translate it. You know?
SS: It brings up aspects of your language you never think about, because you never think about how it's different than Polish, for instance. And then they're trying to read your thing, and they're trying to read, in this case, too, Melville and Dickinson, because the work Sea and Spar Between was based on that. They are trying to deal with that and if it's not a good translation of Dickinson in Polish and then what—how do you—you know? It's really intense. Not only is it international, but it's a very intense investigation and evaluation of your basic materials. What you are working with, too—so you get to know your own stuff better, and you get to know somebody else better. I think that's a minimum of what we are going to need?
DB: Yeah. That's a really good point. So when did you do the translation into Polish?
SS: Oh, we didn't do it—these two Polish people did it. It was done by last—last year, Paris in October, I guess? Early October, whatever; September, October. The ELO [Electronic Literature Organization] meeting was in Paris and it was presented there. They gave a paper on it and we gave a paper on it, which will come out in this French journal Formaroute in June, or whatever. And it had been—they started doing it pretty soon after it was published—I think they started working at it—[32:52]—and Nick had run into one of these guys, I think at a translation conference in Paris that [Inaudible 32:51] had run or whatever and so it would have been in the works, but it just was a long—that was a long email exchange. This is the question, and how would you answer it, and how would they answer it, and all that.
DB: Did they keep the JavaScript specifically and then sort of substitute words within the eraser?
SS: No. You have to modify the code as well as the—
DB: The whole thing because of the syntax—
SS: Yes, you have to modify the code as well as the—that was always so interesting, you know, because you think the code is international or something but it's not. It's very language specific, what you normally can do, and so it's interesting.
DB: Yeah, that's fascinating. I'd like to talk kind of more on a grander—or, not grander, but a longer scale about your sort of career as a writer and if you could kind of describe that arc. Like when did you start kind of writing really seriously—poetry—and then what was the move like from your first books into writing into born-digital pieces and stuff like that? If you could just give a kind of broad outline of that?
SS: My father was an engineer. He had absolutely no use for words. Words were used by con-men, lawyers and advertising men. That's it. Whereas the real world, right, was reliable and whatever, he could build anything or sail anything or fix anything or whatever. So, it was like that. Though, my grandmother was a great reader and so forth, so there was that kind of thing but in my education, I didn't have any. I mean, I read a lot of literature but there was no point in it that I had any creative writing, anything like that.
SS: So, I got married when I was still in college and I had three kids in five years, and putting my husband through graduate school, all that kind of stuff—or helping to put him through graduate school.
SS: So, I didn't really start to write until I was home with no money, taking care of three children, you know, kind of "I can't move." [My] resource is only the radio really, kind of. I started to write then, but I did not value it, really. Then, at one point I went home for Christmas and my brother had brought a friend—I remember I was sitting with this youngest child in my arms and this and that, talking late at night, only lights of the Christmas tree around—and it just all of a sudden became clear to me that this friend of his wrote poems and was not tearing them up. It was like, "Oh!"
SS: By that time, my older children were in school in Yonkers, and Sarah Lawrence had these writing programs. So I started to take programs there and in exchange, to pay for them, I worked in the library there—which I didn't have any library training, either, but that's all right. And eventually they wanted me to get the library training, and I got the library training by offering Pratt students—Pratt had courses in Westchester and all around, right and Sarah Lawrence had this computer, and this was really early computer lab stuff—I would teach the computer classes to the Pratt people up there to pay for the Pratt classes. And I was asked to—well, they wanted to automate—the librarian wanted to automate the library. This was a tiny little library, but a beautiful one. So, no one knew what that was—I mean, they had OC-LC, right? They had that, right? But it was like: get a catalog, get a circulation system showing that sort of list they may have here—so I said, "Sure." Why not?
DB: Yeah. That sounds fun.
SS: Seriously! And it was like, you're reading this stuff like—
DB: And this was like early ‘80s?
SS: Yeah, really early ‘80s. It was like—this is like "The Washington Library Authority System," or "Hennepin Headings" or—you know? It was like, "What's the right way to go?" You would do FTP downloads of ERIC databases and stuff like that. There were some digitized stuff to know, but it was really not—you know—
DB: Yeah, that was really early.
SS: So anyway, that's how I sort of became aware of those kinds of issues. Oh, and in the meantime, I had gotten my MFA and all that at Sarah Lawrence—but I really didn't send out sub—I mean, I had the children I was raising and a full time job and stuff like that. So, I was writing and then I somehow became aware—probably through Poets & Writers, you know—of McDowell, and Yaddo and stuff like that, and so I sent stuff off to there, and that was like the first time that I really had time to write at length, to do that. That was like amazing for me. That was very valuable for me.
SS: I think it must have been early '90s that the first book was published, I think? It might have been. And then, some of the next few won some prizes and things like that. I won a CAP—CAPS was like a New York State grant, the old name for New York State, I think—and I got this newsletter from them, and that's where I first found out about Society for Literature and Science, which is now Society for Literature, Science and the Arts. I thought, you know, that sounds like something I'd be interested in, that was Kate Hayles who had sort of founded that.
SS: So, I went—I started to go to those conferences, those meetings. And it was there that there was this notice about the NEH seminars—which, if you are not an academic, you don't hear about these things. But I looked, and it turned out—so Kate offered her first one of these in 1995. And it was about electronic literature but it was like
SS: Hypertext Fiction, or whatever, and I'm like, "What? Why?" Because that's all there was kind of, at the time, you know? I had gotten involved with founding the Hudson Valley Writers' Center—some friends, people that I knew up at [upstate]—which was a poetry thing. So anyway, I went and looked at the guidelines for this thing. It turns out that you could apply as an independent scholar for any one of these things—and I'm an employed person, right? My whole application was, "You can't seriously only be offering this to academics and fiction people. You really need someone from poetry and someone from the public arts side of things." So, that's how I got into that thing. That was international. We had two computers for—it was maybe 15 of us? We had one Mac and one Windows computer for everybody to do all their work on, so we were working around the clock. It was a wonderful course. We did MOOS. We did all kinds of stuff. No one really knows what those are anymore, but—
DB: Wait, what? MOOS?
SS: MOOS. Online—like, you build rooms and you enter it textually, it's all textual and that kind of thing and those kind of games. Everything was of course new. We went and saw wonderful digital art builders, a lot of wonderful art being made in Pasadena—the Art Center [College] of Design, that place? And we went to SIGGRAPH—SIGGRAPH was just mind blowing and all that stuff. There were a few things on CDs—Uncle Buddy's Funhouse and Judy Malloy, there was a few, and the Eastgate hyperfiction things. And he'd just done this beta StorySpace for Windows, which was made available to Kate.
SS: And I'd done—my first thing, my project, was supposed to be some bibliography or something. I got that done in one second; then she said, "Why don't you—?" Oh, and I had just written True North as a print thing, as a paper thing, and I'd sent it—I don't know who sent it—somebody sent it to Mark Bernstein, who liked it. He himself likes science and everything, and so he was really into like, "Let's make a hypertext file out of it." So that's when I started working with the [Storyspace software]—which was just—because it had this error, and I kept reporting errors. I didn't know if there were errors or I didn't know how to use it, or what. Then it turned out to be this really terrible thing, which—you know—you get nervous and you save more often and it's an awful feeling—
DB: Every 11th time, it just deleted the links?
SS: Yeah, it just destroyed your links. Anyway, we finally got it done and I sent it in, and that was great. He is going to publish it. Then he told me he had to make a version for Mac, which would—and the affordances of the Mac were completely different, I mean completely different. There were like two completely different things. Fortunately, Deena Larsen—who had been working with him in Mac forever—she and I got together at Marjorie's house in California. She showed me some of the stuff that you needed to do with that...but that was just traumatic, really. It was a traumatic way to go.
SS: But maybe Marjorie [Luesebrink] was not—Marjorie and I then did stuff together. One of the things—which doesn't work anymore, the only one of my things that really doesn't work anymore (unless you have Netscape or whatever, or something)—we made a version of a poem that was in True North, the last poem in True North. But from then on, I was just—that was it, and I wanted to do digital work, and so from the time I did V: Wave Son.nets/ Losing L'una on, a digital component was part of the vision of the whole thing. And slippingglimpse was just purely a digital thing, though it got included along with the—well, no, no, the very, very first piece I did was The Ballad of Sand and Harry Soot.
SS: That was right after True North, because we had the Cyber Mountain conference that Deena [Larsen] organized the next year, and I had that ready for that. I remembered bringing it to that.
DB: In what form did you bring it?
SS: It's in HTML, a web thing. So, everything else except for the app—the most recent app, which I don't know if you have, but there is—
DB: I do.
SS: —Vniverse.
DB: Yeah. I have been looking at it this week, it's great.
SS: —it's for the browser. Not the same on all browsers, but pretty playable.
DB: The Ballad—didn't you win a contest with that one in print first?
SS: No—oh, yes, I did! That was The Boston Review's—yes, I had written that.
DB: Because I read they had that Heather McHugh thing—
SS: Yeah, that's the thing. But when I wrote it, though I wrote it in print, it was written almost as a response to the whole experience of the NEH session, because it was like—it was just a whole response to this silicon world, carbon based world. Like how they were clashing with each other or how not, or their attraction to each other, or whatever. It was prompted by my reaction to what had happened at a computer. I wrote it in print. It's the length it is because whatever font size or whatever I had, it had to be ten pages for The Boston Review, so ten pages in some format. So, it was sent off for that. But then it was a natural thing to do it, because I wanted to have the images—because there were so many things—
DB: What programming languages do you feel comfortable in?
SS: I don't feel comfortable in any. I mean, I work with—I collaborate with other people and in a lot of different ways and I've been through a lot of different things with them. My role is always to want something that supposedly can't be done, and then—that's why I like to work face-to-face, and almost always have, with the person. Because you need to just fool around with it and these glitchy funny things happen, and it's great. If you have a good collaborator or a very simpatico collaborator, you are both sitting there agreeing that it's great, or whatever. And I actually love that process. I'm trying to think, in the cases of working with Marjorie and Cynthia, I was doing all of the linguistic stuff. We were doing interface design together—I mean, basically that was it: "how can we make this happen? This is the effect we want to have happen." Marjorie had—before Photoshop—and again, it was so easy. We used to have these applets from Italy, this designer in Italy. It was so easy to look at things and put things together. We had just a wonderful time. She had been in this NEH seminar as well.
DB: With you as well?
SS: Yeah.
DB: Who are you speaking about?
SS: M.D. Coverley is what she writes under. Her name is Marjorie Luesebrink. She was president of the ELO for a while until she gave that up—Community College in Irvine, and lives in Newport Beach. So, we used to go to SIGGRAPH together. We still go to all these conferences together. We're still very close friends. But we were discovering—anyway, her ToolBook thing was so great and she was so great visually. We just had different things to contribute to it, and different designs, and if you look at stuff she wrote, her own stuff, it is a much different—you would never confuse it—but it's like, we each had an influence, you know?
SS: So, those were those things and then with Cynthia—with Cynthia it was great, because I went to IDP and Noah Wardrip-Fruin took me there, and I just said, "Were any of the students there interested in poetry, doing poetry?" and Cynthia was. She was very literate.
SS: She had an engineering degree from Colombia—in the country Colombia—and she's moved on to completely other things, too, but we did these two, we did the Vniverse and the slippingglimpse. So there were two people that wanted to, and it was really clear, Cynthia was the person, we were going to do this. And we had a lot of fun with Vniverse, and slippingglimpse came because I went to a talk on—Catherine Bateson, and Paul Ryan was there showing some of those videos, not the ones we actually ended up using but some that are sort of similar, water videos—and he used the word "chreod," which I had never heard, and went up to ask him about it, and I bought his Video Mind, Earth Mind thing, and I read through the book and there was a diagram in it that's wrong—and it turns out that he and Cynthia were both teaching at The New School—and so I approached him, and I said, "We can fix this up for you. We can make a little program that that will make this right and we'd love to use some of your—" So, it was great. I came to his house and we looked at the all the colored ones, the ones that I've used (though, those are ten of about fifty or so). But a lot of things—like, I had to become a lawyer and draw up a kind of contract for us to use it and stuff like that? And at one point he said, "Yes, you could use them"—Cynthia needed them in a certain form and he wasn't really processing in this digital form, there was this one guy working for him who was, and all that—and this guy calls me up one night about 6 o'clock and says, "Which ones do you want?" On the phone, right? So, you know, you look at those water things—it's not "the one with the water," you can't say "the one that's green," you know—so, I've often said that was the most difficult linguistic job I ever had to do was to describe—without any notes, without any—just a visual memory, ten of these things from fifty that look really similar.
DB: Yeah, that's funny.
SS: But then he loved it, he really loved that work and they showed—he died just recently, and in his memorial things they showed those things. He was a great guy. We both had that ecological—and Cynthia has gone on to do a lot of work educating people around the—she's part of Occupy, and this education for the 99% kind of thing, including she takes groups of students to South America and so on. So she does intend to make—and she also has a career as a photographer—so, I mean, people go off in these different directions from these things. Then the thing with Nick is that he had a sabbatical, and he wanted to do a lot of collaborations and he came to me, and I had never done a generator—generator was so different from anything I had ever done and I wasn't really sure that was such a good idea. But he persuaded me, and so there was a lot of—he would travel here, I would travel there. That was the hardest.
SS: Like with Cynthia, she's in New York, we could just sit down. Marjorie, I would go visit her and would just sit down and do it. Nick was a little harder to get together and do it, but we did it and then it was super—there's been a lot of interest in that, a lot of critical work about it, and people that wanted to translate it, and then we presented it—the Emily Dickinson Society wanted to do it, you know, we did it there—and we did this subsequent little generator called Duels-Duets, a collaboration. After that I worked with Ian, and then Ian is in New York too, so we've done a couple. We've done one about libraries, called House of Trust, which is going to be published in Volta in August.
DB: That's up though, right?
SS: You can go to House of Trust and see it, yeah. Have you seen it?
DB: Yeah. I was looking at it this morning. It's got the library.
SS: It's all about libraries!
DB: So, in these processes—when you are collaborating—do you have the kind of traditional divisions between your labor? Are you, like, pre-writing, generating like you do in a notebook, and then you move to like a place where you're kind of composing and then revising and then finishing? Are there those stages or is it different?
SS: Well, in some cases the poem pre-existed. So, we knew what we were working with.
DB: So, you had the content.
SS: We have that content, but that content is very small compared to how to design the interface.
SS: So, I usually have a vision, just like with True North. It's a vision that's impossible, short of an installation—though, at one point when I was at Georgia Tech, the graduate student who was doing the Techno Poetry Festival with me—we really were going to do it. We looked into—you know, we wanted to have the stars like sensors that came down, and you would move among them and it releases the text, and it would be mirrored—and there would be water on the floor, or Mylar on the floor...I mean, we thought about it, right? So I would have a vision about it, but there would be—it's a learning process. Like with Nick. It's like, "I want this ocean. I want you to fall off the ocean." So, okay, we can make a torus out of it, or whatever. In other words, it's a negotiation to find out what you would do in the programming to have the effect of what you need to have.
DB: Of what you are envisioning?
SS: Yes, of what you are envisioning. And then, he's a poet himself, and we both liked and, by chance, had access to the Lexicon databases for both of those poets—this is a post-digital humanities project. We were looking through what words are interesting, what are not, and then just generating the template phrases, do you know? We would talk about this and what do we want to put back and what order do we want the words to be arranged—so alphabetic mostly, but fast fish loose fish, because we wanted them close together, or at the end, you know—? So it's this whole understanding of the way you are doing this, and then of course going on from that: the cut to fit the tool-spun course, which was like a meta piece. So, getting into all those questions was like a sort of a different thing. And then, I wanted—well, he did it on Python, Nick works in Python first to kind of sketch it, and then it was put into the—Nick is, you know, if you see his other generators, he's not into color, he's not into—right? I had to fight to get the blue.
DB: That's a good win.
SS: I kept throwing all these metaphor things on it. So, I did all that stuff about the number of fish in the sea, and all that. You kind of get the blue thing, but you learn so much from—you learn about each program, but as well—it's different sensibilities that you bring, you know? So, Nick and I couldn't have been more different, and at the same time we will always love exactly the same things. They are mathematical, they are poetic, they are structural. The same things will just—and we both agree that it is not trivial whether or not there is a hyphen between Moby and Dick.
SS: You get far enough away, you say, "Oh my God! They're like identical, they're twins." But when you are right there it's very different. It's much more opportunistic than what you are suggesting. It's like, "What do we have access to? What can we do in the time we have? With the time that we have to get together, how would this work?" Like we both love Dickinson and Melville, so we just start out a generator—"What"—and then, like, with the Duels-Duets, there was a conference, an ELO conference, and the name of the panel was Duels-Duets, or something. It was people that work collaboratively, right? And so we had worked with—
SS: —it was like I was just aware of all the things that were different, because with Cynthia and Marjorie it was much more we were all doing the same thing as we went along, much more negotiation. Because generators—I don't think that way, you know? So, it was about the negotiations and stuff like that. But then we had that thing, and so—I mean—we did that on the train and over lunch, just throwing in those things and I wanted it really realistic. I wanted some of the things that actually do happen—you know? You run out of time, and that's the reality of these collaborations. It's not like some ten-year project where every detail—I might love that, but it's not a medium that—
DB: That rewards you.
SS: No, not at all. And so, it's how much can you get done in the time, and you hope to God that you think of the right thing at the moment that the person is able to implement it, and that you have this whole other thing that's really important to do, skip your mind or whatever and—
SS: People were brought into those discussions too, like the young man who designed the cover for the Spring Gun edition and so on. So it's different aspects of—do you know?
DB: Yeah.
SS: And since I don't love social media or mobile whatever, I definitely need to hear from people who are using it about the way it needs to be used. You don't want it to be—you know—
DB: Yeah. How did you develop your sense of design—sense of what you could envision?
SS: I don't know. From the time I was a kid, really, I wanted to be an architect.
DB: You wanted sort of a structural—from the beginning?
SS: I did, and I'm sure seeing my father build things and stuff all the time was like—it was just more—I don't know. And I don't know why that would particularly apply but I have helped lots of people put manuscripts together. I mean, if I see a whole bunch of poems, I just—some people have a sense for that particular thing and some other people are different; their best thing is at the poem level or at some other level, critical level or whatever, but the place that I seem to operate pretty well is that putting the structure together thing.
DB: What do you see at that level? What are you after?
SS: I don't know. It's just—I hear something as well as see something. Online it's often a visual thing, but in the manuscript it's like there's this leading tone—like, "How are we going to get in, what's going to lead to this?" and "Do not bore me by putting this next to this because I don't—"
SS: You know what I mean, that there's like a—it's not an arc. Do you know what I mean? It's not like a theatrical thing.
DB: Okay. You're not thinking of a dramatic arc or anything like that?
SS: No, not really, because that's not often what's the best—I've done a lot of editing, I mean, as an editor at Slapering Hol Press: "What is this manuscript really about? What does it really do better than anything else at the heart of it?" That has to come out. So how do you introduce the person to that—the reader? And then how do you complicate it in an interesting way, and how do you pace it so that the person—it's like a reading pace, right?
DB: Right, right.
SS: And will there be any use to divisions? Will there be use to the naming of divisions? Is it better to suppress that? I don't know. It's just something about the individuality of the work that will suggest—or will suggest, "This is great, but this thing just doesn't go there." And I always ask people to send me all the outtakes, too, because often those do go there and sometimes they took them out because it was too close to the bone or they didn't quite—whatever. Stuff like that.
DB: Yeah, yeah. When you're working on, say, your own poem—an individual poem—are you revising towards a sound in that way, too? Or do you hear a tone?
SS: I don't know if I revise towards a sound but I certainly read it out loud. It's certainly not just a visual thing. It may be conceptual, but it's not conceptual without reference to the other sensory modalities. So for sure it has to read right—in my mouth.
DB: Yeah, in your mouth.