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

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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. And has that been, like, the case ever since you started?
SS: I think so. I was trained on nursery rhymes.
DB: Yeah, right. So it's always the sound—
SS: Yeah, I think so.
DB: Well then, something like The Red Virgin which is indexical, right, in it's—how did you—did you put your stamp on that?
SS: Well, the thing is—when I was first reading Simone Weil I was very upset about the way people responded to her, because either they couldn't stand her religious side or they couldn't stand her political side, and they would name the other one as the whatever—you know—
DB: Right.
SS: No one would see her as like one person—that one person could have these sides, and she could come from that. And I read The Visions of Simone Machard—Brecht's play?—I think is the best work that has been done about her, as a fiction work. There were some other plays and things about her that I thought were unbearably reductionist.
DB: Yeah.
SS: So I did not want that, and so from that point of view I wanted a lot of materials. You know—some documentary materials, I wanted to cover certain things, and I wanted to use her language. So pretty much, stuff was named the way it was. But then, from that point of view—of how are you going to put them together—it was exactly the fact that there were so many people who had so many different takes on it. So yes, it's almost indexical because—and this was a consideration wherever you started—I wanted you to be able to start anywhere.
SS: The poems are written that way: so that, if her brother is named, no matter where you start, you'll know it's her brother in some way. Things aren't dropped in. You can make sense of it. It's written so you can make sense of it from wherever you start. You'll have a different impression depending on where you start, and that was part of the point, right? But I think most people will read it straight through. Part of the point was like it's just impossible the number—and again, this is seeing things in the round sort of, that you read and you read and you read, or you have people who are supposedly sympathetic like Robert Coles, you know? Which in his own way was just most reductive of all.
DB: Right, Right.
SS: And it was interesting to me that the Italian woman—her biography was so much less reductive—that Italian woman psychiatrist, than Coles, and stuff like that?
DB: Oh, okay, yeah.
SS: So is it the way a woman reads it? Is it the way that if you're coming from the political side, if you're coming from the religious side? All these people have too many irons in the fire, right? So I wanted to tell it the way I read it from the documents—I tried to keep it as accurate as far as I was able to. I mean, I didn't make stuff up. In fact, after I'd done it in the year—year and a half, whatever—of putting it together and I stopped reading about her, you know? And I'm like, "Somebody's going to publish some book that completely overturns this whole thing. They'll find out that whatever, this and that..." Right? That didn't happen actually, but I did have that worry for a while: "Let me go out and read all these other books—"
DB: Yeah.
SS: So and I didn't feel it was bad. But what I also realized was, like, I could get at a lot of things, but I couldn't really get at her thinking. So you have more of that in Losing L'una.
SS: You have more of that in-depth stuff where you try to talk about some of her thinking, and a long line of people trying to think in odd ways, you know?
DB: Yeah.
SS: So that was a return to that. But yeah, that indexical thing there in that sense that the book had come out of—
DB: Reactions—?
SS: —to this polarized assessment of her.
DB: Yeah, yeah, right. If you had, at that time, already taken the class with Katherine Hayles, do you think you would have tried to represent that in a digital fashion?
SS: Well, possibly, yeah, possibly. There is one little essay called "Seven-League Boots" where I talk—which is a hypertext essay from long, long ago, and she's in there, she's quoted in there in a way. Possibly, yeah.
DB: And had she just been an interest of yours for most of your adult life?
SS: Well it's very funny because I was—oh, I've lost the name. There was this bookstore in Midtown—a wonderful bookstore in midtown, now gone—and I was in the Philosophy section or something, looking at all brown and gray books—and one pink book. So I took this one pink book which turned out to be a biography of her, and that's how I got started. And then it turned out at that at Sarah Lawrence we had most of her work because there was a man there who was teaching her. I didn't know it at that time, I hadn't heard of her. I just loved the way she wrote. She was a woman who knew her own mind. She wrote with an authority. And I was really tired of—well, I mean, there would be these things: "Oh yeah for a woman, she's sort of a good philosopher." I mean, this was the whole timbre of the 70's and 80's, and I could not—
DB: Right, right.
SS: —women's minds were not well respected. And I just loved the way she wrote. I had a lot of trouble—I mean, again, she let the software pass through all these things. She was doing this political stuff, the factory work and all that, then all of a sudden that's the end of her life in her notebooks—which I think is totally unfair. I mean we judge her on basis of her student notes and notebooks that were never published, and notebooks that didn't include all the mathematics and stuff she'd put in there.
DB: Yeah.
SS: But you know, when she started going into folklore and stuff like that, I'm like "Whoa wait, you know—bridge too far right?" But then you know, then I eventually caught up with her. But no, still, it's just riveting. The way she writes is just riveting to me. I was just angry that people couldn't see. I just thought that the points of view that were brought to criticize her were just not adequate to what she was, and so that just kind of made me mad.
DB: Is anger one of the common emotions from which you write?
SS: I don't know. It's stimulating. It's like—anger with love, right?
DB: Right, right.
SS: I just loved it so much, I mean I really admired it so much and it just didn't seem fair—just hadn't been—
DB: Yeah.
SS: Anyway. Though a lot of people have told me that that's helped them write biographical or life or memoir things, you know—as a way to do that.
DB: Yeah. I was struck by how contemporary it seemed. In preparing for this, just reading it and thinking about, in the last decade, all the kind of focused, thematic books—
SS: Yeah, on people's lives and stuff—
DB: Yeah. And documentary, "Poetry of Witness" and all that, and I was like, "This is 1993."
SS: Long ago, yeah.
DB: And this is really, you know—that's good.
SS: Yeah.
DB: As I expected, you've totally blown up all my questions—but it's good, it's good. But I do want to get a little bit more at the revision, and sort of the prewriting and revision process for you—of your—
SS: I would never do anything I would call "pre-writing."
DB: Okay. Well that's—
SS: I don't even know what that is.
DB: I guess in like the compositional mode. So when you sit down with your notebooks, I would consider that sort of—
SS: You'll see there's not one, there's three.
DB: Yeah, okay.
SS: In fact, there might be a date—that this might say "14 May 2013" and the next date in it might be "20 May 2014." So it might be a year later, right?
DB: Right.
SS: And it's like, in the meantime, I went to these conferences and took notes, and they're like kind of lying around here. And do I have a chance to get back and look at them? No—because I started to read Meillassoux and I just wrote a paper about Simone Weil and Meillassoux. That was good. But why is it somebody writes something, or is solicited to do something or whatever—and this was religion or literature or, like, Fanny Howe or something—Fanny Howe and I will go to Simone Weil Society, right? And then, but Romana Huk is at Notre Dame and I published at Notre Dame and so I wind up talking to Steve Tulsa—something, whatever, right? I don't even know how I got on Meillassoux, I really don't. I guess—I can't remember, but I was talking to a lot of people about Meillassoux, and then he writes The Number and the Siren, which is like—my God, this book. Do you know this book?
DB: No I don't.
SS: It's about Mallarmé's Un Coup de Dés and it's the best book of literary criticism I ever read in my whole life!
DB: Wow.
SS: It's so amazing! So then I'm reading this, and then I realize, "Oh my God, all of his philosophy comes out of the way he's talking about this poem!" So it's like the poem—it's Mallarmé' is driving Meillassoux, right? And in the case of Simone Weil, The Iliad really was driving—you know what I mean? And I'm like "Oh this is interesting. Everybody does it the other way, but you know? So yes, then—I do that, or I do some other part, and I still haven't gone back over the notes—from the conference from four years ago or whatever, right?
DB: Yeah.
SS: But there's kind of, a set of things which is where I'm about to start to write, you know; there's a kind of notebooks like that, and there's other notebooks that are kind of "math-y" or whatever kind of thing, and there might be some that are like "semi-philosophical-literary blah-blah," and I mean they just have different things and there's no real control over them, so at any given moment there's a list of things to do and things that I write at the back of it, or whatever. And they have to be small enough so I can carry around and write on the bus or wherever I happen to be, or if I'm at NYU or whatever.
DB: Yeah.
SS: I'm part of this program and I get access to the Columbia and NYU libraries, which is great—through the New York Public library, that's the program. So, you know, it's very opportunistic: where things are. I mean, it's like, there's a conference and somebody says, "Do you want to do—be on the panel about something?" Or, "Let's make this work," but then all of a sudden—or whatever.
SS: And you know, a third of those things never happen.
DB: Right. I guess I'm wondering, then, how all this "not-controlled-work" and note taking and everything then becomes a poem or poetry?
SS: Well, after a while, it just comes to a head or something. Do you know what I mean?
DB: Yeah.
SS: So it's like, obviously in the case of where somebody says, "Be on a panel or be a paper or we need to do this or whatever"—you know. Or, you do something, you make an app and then you talk about what is it to translate from one form of software to another, or something, but also to sort of kind of make sense—
DB: Yeah.
SS: Or you do this thing, like Sea and Spar, and then somebody wants something for a special issue of Digital Humanities Quarterly and you say, "Okay, we're going to make a paper that's running code." Because that's what people don't do. They don't look at the code and we want to talk about this and that—but those things take time.
DB: Oh yeah, absolutely.
SS: So you're off doing that and so you get a little bit deflected from where you were with here, right? And then somebody does whatever. So, it's not completely uncontrolled.
DB: Yeah, not uncontrolled.
SS: Yeah, but—you see these suitcases. So, see this suitcase? This is like a Meillassoux suitcase, then there's a Karen Barad thing so the whole—there's a lot of stuff going on now in my mind where I'm Karen Barad.
DB: Okay.
SS: So that's kind of this thing here—
DB: Yeah.
SS: And then these are three talks that I have to be writing on—
DB: Oh man, you're busy.
SS: —remember including that archive, is a talk at the Beinecke in the archive. This is for a Slovakian magazine, and that's the archive. Oh yeah, I have to be in some kind of feminist cyber panel or whatever kind of thing.
DB: Okay.
SS: This is the paper I have to give in June, which I'm waiting for Ian to come and finish with—I mean, so, those are all the readings, like—so mostly since the two books came out this year I did a lot of readings. And that's it: when you're doing a lot of readings, you're writing the things for the readings, the script for the readings, and stuff like that. So, it's not—but see, these notes are still here from when ELC 2 came out, and we were talking about that—you know, which—I haven't cleared that out or anything. It's between controlled and uncontrolled.
DB: Right, okay, okay. But are there ever times when all of a sudden you're like "I need to write this book now."
SS: Yeah—and the trouble with that is, I had four grandchildren in the last ten years, and do a lot of babysitting in the first, the pre-school years. For my granddaughters—my son was teaching at Columbia when they were little, so I was going there, both parents working, right? Now he's at Duke, but now my other son has little boys who are almost 3 and 5, and my daughter has been ill for twenty-five years and her care takes a lot of time. So there's, like, things that just—yes. And it used to be that the colonies were the answer to that: to apply and go there. Now I don't have a car, everything I have to carry—and now I have to bring all these little piles I just showed you—
DB: You're not going to have a travelling filing cabinet or something?
SS: It's just, that doesn't work so well anymore.
DB: Yeah.
SS: And yet, if I'm right here, then everything is "on call," kind of, in a lot of ways.
DB: Sure.
SS: So that just gets harder, right? But definitely that happens, in trying to work out how to get the time to do that, becomes an issue and—what can I say?
DB: Do you have any new book projects that are closer?
SS: Well, one thing is—well, I have new poems. I don't necessarily know that they're a book thing. I've thought about doing a "new and selected" kind of thing, which I haven't done, right?
DB: I was thinking about that on the walk over here—like, what a "selected" for you would look like. It would be really fascinating.
SS: Yeah, because it's so weird, right?
DB: Yeah!
SS: It's just so different.
DB: Yeah, yeah. It really is. It's a whole—
SS: —it's very different, so—but whether or not that's a good idea, I don't know. I just don't know.
DB: Yeah.
SS: It's hard to know where is the best place to put your time. I mean, also, I'm on the board of the ELO and they're doing a lot—
DB: That's a lot of time.
SS: —a lot of stuff is going on with that, actually it's a lot of work. We are really expanding in a lot of ways and—so it's just—
DB: No.
SS: Yes, I'd love a whole—you know—if the day were twice as long?
DB: Then that day would be—
SS: Or if you just had a place to go, you know? But then again, the place to go is—in a way, I guess it's good to go and take nothing with you. But actually, I really want be in touch with these things. I do work off things, you know?
DB: Yeah, absolutely.
SS: And I do like the collaborative process. I think everything has to become more collaborative, really. I think that's the stuff I'm most interested in: how can we make our—not meld our minds, but have different streams of expertise and interests—we have to learn to talk better to each other, I think.
DB: Yeah.
SS: To solve something. And then, because I do have these grandchildren, it's like, "What is the most important thing?" And born quite late to my children, right? So I won't see them for such a long time—right?—more. So what's the most important thing for me to be doing with them, and all? You know? It's a question.
DB: Yeah. And then, so, were there times in your life where you weren't so busy that you would—?
SS: No.
DB: No?
SS: My mother had cancer.
DB: Oh.
SS: My mother had lung cancer and was ill for twenty years, and for each of those years we were told she had a year left to live.
DB: Wow!
SS: And my best friend had terminal cancer for the last two and a half years, and for the last year and a half of that she's in hospice and I was going out every month to spend a week with her because it was hospice in her home.
DB: Right.
SS: So it's been a lot of long term care things that I've actually been involved with, and doing a lot of things at the same time, but those times like the Yaddo, MacDowell, Djerassi, Ragdale—those were really, really wonderful times. I really have to keep that memory of an island of time, and how do you find it and how do you make it for yourself?
DB: Right, right. You know, I mean—this may be a bad question, but has the caretaking entered into your—I mean, like, have you thought or started to think about that?
SS: It's hard to know. I mean, there's one specific poem, it was in the Best American Poetry this year—"Introductions"—which mentions, in one of its stanzas, my daughter—
DB: Okay.
SS: And I kind of—in Give the Body Back there's a mother-daughter poem—my mother. But it feels exploitive when you're so up close to people who are really ill and you're dealing with it all the time. It's such a demand to be present to them when you are in contact with them that the writing demand is for distance. Do you see what I mean?
DB: Yeah, I do.
SS: And I don't find those compatible, but I'm certain that underneath almost everything I care about in the way I think about it is this understanding that there needs to be space for these people who don't have the same chances, and "this is all well and good but have you thought"—you know, that sort of thing, right?
DB: Yeah.
SS: And I think that's another reason that Simone Weil's thought appeals to me also, because she was always, always understanding that—where people were, really.
DB: Right. No, I think I can see that relationship, strongly. In terms of your correspondence and your e-mail and stuff like that, did you start out writing regular letters with your work and sending stuff back and forth, and then moved to kind of considering it via e-mail? I know this is an abrupt shift, but—
SS: You mean when you're sending poems out?
DB: Yeah. Well, I mean like in your revision process, do you have trusted readers? Do you have people that are helping you?
SS: Long ago, in the 70's—like, during the MFA program and stuff like that, there were some groups of people who were, like, we've known each other. So there was a little bit of that, not so much.
DB: Yeah.
SS: I have one very dear friend, Nancy Knutson who had been in the program with me, she also wrote fiction, and for a long time, every Sunday morning she was in—she moved to New Mexico—we'd call each other up and talk about poems back and forth. Rachel Loden is another person that at times we'd exchange work. She's doing different kind of work now, so—
DB: Yeah.
SS: It's been a long time. Sometimes I send stuff to Denise Duhamel who is also a dear friend, but mostly, after it's almost sort of done.
DB: Very close, okay.
SS: Yeah. So then, I have a friend in Ireland—I have friends that I correspond with but not in the sense of sending poems, which used to be in paper letters and now it's been mainly supplanted by e-mail.
DB: Yeah. And has that changed—has that made any difference to you?
SS: It hasn't made a difference in the friendships.
DB: Right.
SS: And the thing about the poems is that—you see, some people get Give the Body Back, and The Red Virgin, and so on, and then they're just not going to get parts of Dragon Logic and there's an even stronger divide amongst people who just don't get, and they don't want to get, electronic or born-digital literature.
DB: Right, right.
SS: And I'm pretty much really deeply in both worlds, and they just don't get it. I mean they don't get each other and it's very hard with e-literature because it changes so much that unless you're deeply in it, it's hard to learn it. You know what I mean? You have to really—it takes a lot. Of all the things—so if you're not already in the middle of a "net kind of life"—which, the younger you are, you are, right?
DB: Right.
SS: So it's like I talk to lots of young [people]—
DB: Yeah. That's great!
SS: But my old [friends]—you know what I mean? There's like this sharp division, right?
DB: Right.
SS: So it's not like you can really ask of these—if both these things are in your mind—there are not so many people you can go to, because they're not going to get half of it, one way or another, right?
DB: Yeah.
SS: Though I think that the younger people do get it much more. I mean, I feel like they and I are living in the same world more than—although, I do not have a cell phone, and I must be the only person that anybody knows (or very close to the only person anybody knows) who doesn't have a cell phone, and I get a lot of flak for it. But I just—there are some things I just take a stand against. The social media thing, I understand there are some uses for it, but insofar as these people—insofar as parents holding their children's hands or pushing a carriage are not responding to that child's face?
DB: It happens, I know. I know.
SS: That bothers me.
DB: Yeah.
SS: So I think that the way that face-to-face is cut off by the use of social media? I mean two people go to a restaurant and look at their phones? You know?
DB: I know.
SS: That seems a real loss to me.
DB: Yeah. It's very pronounced in New York City. I mean, I've been noticing it—I've only been here a day and I've been noticing it way more than I do out West, but I don't know. Also, I see a lot less people.
SS: Yeah, right, right, right.
DB: So, I just have a few more questions, and these are kind of about—not feeling, I guess, but—do you have, in terms of the media and the files that you've saved and created over the years, do you have sort of dear feelings towards those? I mean, what is the work? I guess, is the question. Where is it? And what do you feel protective of, or do you feel protective of anything?
SS: Well, you're glad for books. Books are going to last longer than almost anything else, in the last 20 years.
DB: Yeah.
SS: I love books. I do love books. I really strongly feel the limitations insofar as being a creative writer, because I do have some kind of a three-dimensional vision or hope or wish and I see it in digital art and I see it in lots of projects. And they can easily be literary to me, and they're not.
DB: Yeah.
SS: But I would never not want books. You could see that. The minute you start to do digital work, there's a certain way—in the same way that, if you're a theater person—that you have to let something go. Even more than you let a manuscript go. Today's performance was today's performance, and that won't come back. Even if you videotaped it, it really doesn't come back. That's what, you know, plus, videotape does not—so there's something like that: when you realize, and then you realize that in fact, no one may ever read it the way you meant it to be read because, at least for my generation, everybody made their own interface, there was no time to get canonical interfaces for various kinds of work or, you know, genres didn't precipitate out—not enough time for all that. So there's a certain loss there, right?
SS: I have no idea. I think that the best way probably at the moment to save digital stuff is to have some video or something of somebody using it, plus people's notes, interview them about what they intended or whatever, save the code if you can, and adding emulation migration. All of it is so burdensome, you know? It's really hard. On the other hand, I do send some email. There are a few folders that I've designated to go to Duke. I definitely don't want all my email to go to Duke, right? But it's very—because you don't even know—I mean, I also purge my email. Not that that does any good; but like I don't save, you know, but so I try to just keep working—only working stuff, and if it's done, it's gone. Now I pay a price for that sometimes because I might want to go back and look at it, you know, but on balance—like file maintenance is huge, and I want to be able to find what I need. You see, I do a lot of different things. So to find what I need is already a problem. So I don't want tons and tons and tons of stuff around and I'm not like those, you know, got to document every day of their life and their dry cleaning ticket and everything, I'm like, "Christ!" So I don't want that.
SS: I would hope that there's some place or memory or some collection—some server somewhere—that some of this stuff can be seen and saved in some form. This whole idea, the signup kind of erase history altogether, and like—what is history? We're just nothing but a moving front. I think that's a huge loss, and I think—I'm not invested in people saving every revision. I'm not. Do you know? In some cases it might be interesting to see some of the things, but basically, the books—
DB: Yeah, the books.
SS: The books and the notebooks between them I think would be more interesting than seeing every page of every—do you know? That seems very fetishistic to me, in a weird way. Yeah, it could have gone another, whatever—but it didn't. And I'm not saying the right thing turned out or anything. I think I've said "opportunistic" to you a lot. But I think you can way overdo it, and on the other hand, I'm not like, "whatever"...you know? I am invested to a degree. I don't think you could ever work in a library and not feel that way—
DB: Yeah.
SS: —and especially these things that got saved that nobody wanted at the time, and later you were so glad to find out that somebody saved? I really appreciate that about libraries, too. So people who want to do that kind of work, I really honor that.
DB: Last question: when you send stuff to Duke, like when you're sending digital stuff, how does that work?
SS: Well, there's a digital librarian—this guy.
DB: This guy!
SS: They both changed! Unfortunately, Willis is leaving to go to the Newberry, so the two guys I worked with so far—first the digital one left, and now Willis has left, he's the other one—but they've been replaced, right? So once a year I tell him which email files, right? And they go to do the email files. And they have my—I mean, they have the stuff online.
DB: Yeah, so they have archived that themselves.
SS: Yeah, they archived that themselves. And then I don't do a—I put a lot of stuff in a box. I sort of try to include a paper that says very roughly what's in there. But I can't—to do—to really go through and catalogue the stuff, or something, it's like it's that or see my grandchildren, or do my work, you know? And of the three, it's like—no.
DB: Somebody else will do that.
SS: It's like, I try to give a little bit of an indication, but it's not wonderful. But anyway, I haven't sent it off for a while. I was good for a while, I sent a lot of stuff out, but getting the two books out and the things out, you get a little lull from that to then send the stuff. The online stuff is really accessible in a lot of ways, actually, and my website—which has kind of stayed up in its form for a really long time. Again, I think the design was good.
DB: It is! That's an amazing part of it.
SS: 2002, right?
DB: Yeah.
SS: So I think it has held up, and I think you can get at quite a lot of stuff too. None of the Facebook-type stuff, like, "This is my dog or this is my lunch" or whatever. But the stuff about the work.
DB: That's the important stuff. Well, thanks a lot.
SS: Okay.
DB: I think we've got a good—
SS: This is something called a technical interview?
DB: That was a technical interview. Welcome to the technical interview!
[end of audio]
Devin Becker: OK, So, if you would please state for the camera your name, your date of birth, and where we are?
Nance Van Winckel: OK, I'm Nance van Winckel and I was born October 24th, 1951. We are in Liberty Lake, Washington.
DB: OK, and you've been living here for?
NVW: I've been in this area since 1990.
NVW: But my husband and I just moved out here to this little condo in '07
DB: OK, and by the way, it's a beautiful, beautiful view of the lake.
DB: OK, so here's the sort of digital and physical sort of question, but… So, what genres do you work in as a writer?
NVW: Poetry, primarily, but also I write short stories.
DB: What kinds of devices do you own or have access to for writing?
NVW: Well, for writing… Electronic devices, you mean?
DB: Yeah, yeah, that's what I mean.
NVW: Yeah, I work on 3 different computers. This big iMac here that I use and then I have a laptop Mac, and then I also have an iPad.
DB: OK, and you write on the iPad?
NVW: I have a keyboard extension for it.
DB: And what program do you use to write in? Do you just write in like notes or…?
NVW: I use Pages on the app
DB: Oh, you use Pages.
NVW: I email it to myself, and then I move it in to Word.
NVW: I use that one when I'm on the road.
DB: When you're on the road, it's just the iPad…?
NVW: Yeah
DB: And you're on the road quite a bit?
NVW: When I go to Vermont-
DB: OK, when you go to Vermont-
NVW: --when I'm doing any kind of traveling
DB: You don't travel with the laptop. You just travel with the iPad?
NVW: Yeah, I don't really take the laptop with me. I have an older laptop and it's pretty heavy.
DB: Yeah, they seriously are.
DB: OK, So you have 3 devices. And you are a Mac user?
NVW: Yeah, I'm clueless with PC-clueless.
DB: Would you call one of these devices you primary device?
NVW: This one
DB: That iMac?
NVW: Uh-hmm
DB: OK, and then so, how do you… (You sort of said this but) How do you manage your files between your devices? You email them to yourself?
NVW: Yes. With the iPad I email files to myself (Do I do it any other way?). With the laptop, I have put things on a memory stick and moved things back and forth that way. When I have to give a presentation in Vermont and I have been doing a lot of powerpoint things lately with art, text and art. I bring a memory stick and use that to set up at the college. They have all good Macs and a good tech person who will help me get set up.
DB: So for your work, now, do you work exclusively on computers, or do you kind of go between the physical and digital environments at all?
NVW: I work in longhand, on yellow legal tablets, or just whatever. I have different notebooks that I have. That's what all these notebooks are here; these are my various writing projects in process. They each get their own little notebook.
NVW: I worked longhand for… Gosh, I don't know-at least 3 or 4 more drafts, at least. Sometimes more like 10 or 12. It just depends. Some things give me more groove than others before I will type something.
DB: And we're going to come back to that.
DB: What's the transition from the notebook into the digital? Do you type it out yourself?
NVW: Yeah.
DB: OK, and is that a moment of revision for you usually, or is it--?
NVW: Yeah, yeah
DB: OK, and …
NVW: And then once I get it in to a document, I'll probably revise it again a number of times.
NVW: I'm doing different revision operations (Maybe we're going to go with this?)
DB: We're definitely going to talk about revision more in depth. Yeah, that sort of like locating the practice now and then we'll see where we're at with that. So, these are the questions that, professionally, I'm interested in.
DB: So, how do you then save these notebooks in your pre-writing and all that? I mean, is there a… Do you just keep them in a box somewhere, or…?
NVW: This is 'they.'
DB: This is it, OK. But like your older ones, like ones with finished projects?
NVW: They're all down there on a shelf.
DB: They're all down there on a shelf?
NVW: Yeah
DB: OK, and then for your extra digital files, how do you save those? Do you save them just as Word docs?
NVW: Yeah, I save them as Word docs and then when I'm done with them and the books are published, then I just put them on a back-up disk and take them off my hard drive here.
DB: OK, do you print out your writing to revise it?
NVW: Often when it gets to the computer stage, not so much.
NVW: I'm just working on the screen for quite a while.
DB: And then a sort of last section on this is: how do you back up your work and (as you say) when you're finished with something, you put it on an external hard drive. Is that your digital archival back-up?
NVW: Right
DB: OK, and you don't use any Cloud-based systems like Dropbox or Google Drive, or anything like that?
NVW: Yeah, I do use Dropbox but… Not really so much for backup, but to send things to people.
DB: To send things and share things, and...
NVW: Yeah
DB: OK, are files saved in more than one location then?
NVW: Well, I do have a back-up drive and-
DB: So, on the hard drive on the computer and then in the back-up drive as well?
NVW: Yeah
DB: Do you keep print copies of your final drafts, or…?
NVW: Oh, yeah
DB: OK, so that you have a paper archive as well?
NVW: Yes
DB: What do you do? How do you keep that? Just in the boxes like the notebooks kind of, or…?
NVW: Yeah, they're usually with the notebooks. I just, once I print them out, I do some final kind of tinkering usually with the galleys. I'll keep a copy of the galleys when they book's actually coming out, and that gets filed with the notebooks then-when I'm done with it.
DB: OK, and this is kind of just a quick question from me, personally, and librarians but… Have you ever received or sort out information about methods for digital archiving activities, like best practices?
DB: No, OK. And would you be interested in information about that?
NVW: You know, maybe. I was thinking about that the other day. A couple of… I was thinking about making a book of selected stories from my 4 books of stories--
DB: Oh, yeah
NVW: --And realizing that my first 2 books of stories, I don't know if I can access the computer files of them anymore. They're like on floppy disks, or zip-disk, or something.
DB: Oh, yeah. A zip-disk
NVW: I don't know if I could. You know? Does that mean I'm going to have to retype those suckers, or what?
DB: There's usually a way to get them
NVW: Yeah, if I could even find them.
DB: Yeah, yeah. So, there's always that question
NVW: There's that, yes. You know, when we moved out here… Yeah, so that would be a major task-to locate and … So, I could probably use some help with that
DB: OK, yeah, and that's definitely something typical of that period, especially the 90s with all the different word processing softwares and all the different ways of saving them sort of put people Yeah, what do you do?)'
DB: So, that was a sort of quick beginning
DB: (I'm just going to check this to make sure… It looks like…)
DB: How long have you been writing in a more professional capacity, in a way that was sort of feeding you or giving you some sort of assistance…? When do think that you started writing as a vocation? Or as something that led to something that would be your vocation, which is probably teaching?
NVW: I guess since graduate school. I went to graduate school and I thought I would just do that for a year that was my plan. I would go to graduate school in creative writing for a year and then I would go to medical school. I had been a pre-med major all through college but when I got to graduate school I was totally happy doing my writing thing and I never looked back. So I started my so-called practice there where I worked every day on my writing. That was 1975.
DB: And where was that?
NVW: I went to the University of Denver.
DB: And was that a one year program?
NVW: No I actually stayed the regular two years.
DB: So you stayed 2 years and got your mfa. My next question is how would you describe the arc of your career? Where went from there and then elaborate?
NVW: From there, I taught. I got my first teaching job at Marymount College of Kansas, now defunct. So I taught there for three years and then I got a job at Lake Forest College, which is just north of Chicago, and I taught there for 11 years, and then I came out here in 1990, and I've been here ever since.
DB: And you retired from ..
NVW: I retired from Eastern (Washington) in '07, but I'm continuing to teach at Vermont College.
DB: So now we're going to get to the specific writing practices generally, and I have it delimited into three stages: a drafting/prewriting/notebook stage, and then an organizational stage, and then an archival/storage stage. And I'd like to go through and ask you about your practices by stage, and talk about those stage by stage.
NVW: That makes sense.
DB: I'd like to start by talking about the ways you draft and create your work initially. So what is your typical compositional practice? And what I'm interested in here is, when you first started writing how were you generating and composing your writing at that point?
NVW: So yeah, early on - one of the things that's different now- is that early on I would probably just work on "a" poem, so I would write. I would have a page in my notebook, and there were lines, and I would move things around on the page, and then I would have another page in the notebook with a different poem. But over the years I've started working on maybe two or three poems almost kind of simultaneously, on the same page, which feels kind of nutty, but what I was experiencing that led me this way was that a lot of times things would be coming to me - images, lines --- that didn't seem to belong to the poem I thought I was working on. So I realize it might be helpful to not confine myself. So that's why that was one of the main transitions. I think that happened maybe half-way along. In the late-eighties or so I started experimenting with that and I liked it. I liked having just a page with a poem one margin, and another going down another margin, and one going across the bottom. Something like that.
DB: On one notebook page?
NVW: Yeah, on one page. And then a lot of times what would happen is - I didn't like one or two or all three of them, and eventually one of those poems would kind of gel and get its own page.
DB: It's own page in the notebook?
NVW: Yeah.
DB: Could you put that at a certain book, or was that just sort of gradual?
NVW: I think where I really started experimenting with that was a book called Beside Ourselves.
DB: That was 2003 or something
NVW: Yeah, that was really also the first book that was more a deliberate series.
DB: Yeah, I think I kind of figure out where that happened, and see that.
NVW: And then I liked that. I like working in series so much when I was writing that book that I also just decided I wanted to keep moving in that direction. I liked those series poems. And they maybe leant themselves more to that practice with several poems happening at the same time in early draft stages.
DB: How is that different than your fiction writing?
NVW: I don't really see a lot of similarities between writing stories and writing poems in terms of the drafting process … well, in terms of anything. Stories are really different. One of the first things I learned about writing stories in the drafting process is "oh! it kind of helps to know a few things about what happens in this story" unlike a poem where you're just kind of launching into the unknown. It seemed helpful to have a few scenes in mind. What some of the lines of tension, story lines, almost, not an outline, but I would often write down four or five sentences that would later become scenes.
DB: And that would happen in the notebook?
NVW: Yeah. Or just a scrap of paper in the car when I'm driving.
DB: And then did you grab those scraps of paper and put them in a notebook. Did you accumulate that detritus of composition …
NVW: Once I write the scene I throw out the piece of paper.
DB: So it's gone. That's gone.
NVW: But then my process in making stories would be - I try to write a scene a day or so in the initial drafting phase and then I just try to stay with that scene. Blow out the edges. Often it's like three times as long as it's going to actually be in the final story. Usually compressing, compressing, compressing, but initially I kind of move around, see what's happening in the periphery, sort of stay in one scene at a time and I don't worry about the order. I'm not writing the first scene first. I often start with the middle scene. I kind of know I'm writing the middle scene. I move around the chronology of the story because I have these lists. And often when I'm working on one scene I think of another scene and then I'll just write it on another sheet of paper, again, a sentence that'll prompt me so I don't forget. The process is very different [from writing poems]. When a story is happening, when I'm getting an early draft. It comes really fast. I hate it, I hate it, I hate it. Because it takes all my time. I've been known to cancel classes - I'll say I'm sorry I can't come in today.
DB: That's dedication.
NVW: Because I feel like I'm going to lose it.
DB: So when you said it's happening it feels like it's come to you, and it's not inspiration, it's accumulation?
NVW: So much is going on. I go out and I take a walk every afternoon in this park. It's actually part of my writing process. I take a walk in the afternoon, and it's like 'shut up' I'm just trying to take a walk!' People are talking in my head. It feels like this overpowering thing when I'm working on a story. It just comes over me and wakes me up in the morning. People wake me up in the morning. They are chattering away. It's very unnerving. I often push back at a story until I am really sure that I have quite a few of the building blocks in place. Because otherwise it just seems like a struggle and a fight. And it's going to occupy - it takes me like 10 ten-hour days in a row for a story.
DB: And this is all hand-written too?
NVW: Yes.
DB: Does your hand cramp up?
NVW: No.
DB: I guess your thinking and then you're writing down and then you're thinking.
NVW: Yeah. I don't know about the hand but the brain ..
NVW: And then, it's so much… Because I don't… I don't know how other writers do this but because I'm not writing the scenes in order, I'm kind of deliberately writing them out of order. I write the scene I see most clearly in my mind first and I'm not worrying about where it's going to go. Then I just put the whole thing away for a long time-that initial mess of a draft-and worry later about kind of arranging the scenes. I'm often moving things around not based on when they happened but what's more interesting to come next.
DB: OK, and so when did… Were you studying fiction as well as poetry in your graduate school? When did you start to write these stories?
NVW: I did take up a fiction writing class in grad school. I was in the poetry group but we had to take a fiction class, and I was terrible. I was terrible at it because I didn't have any sense of what made a story. But when I started teaching, especially when I moved to Lake Forest College, they thought, "well any poet can teach fiction writing. It's debatable if we can get a fiction writer who can teach poetry." So, they hired thinking that I could figure it out.
NVW: So, I think I just accidentally taught myself to write fiction by trying to help my students make their stories better and trying to diagnose: 'What does this story need?'
NVW: I remember so many days walking to my fiction writing class and trying to think about what I was going to say to this writer about her story-how to address its troubles-and I realized that I was internalizing all of this. And then the first time I got a sabbatical, I remember I was driving into Chicago for a little adventure for the day (and I was so happy I had this sabbatical I was going to work on poems, of course) and I got this idea for a story. I remember I was just writing on my car seat while I'm driving-just this little note to myself about what the story-kind of just a synopsis, like one sentence of what it would be. By the time I got in to Chicago, I had 5 story synopses written on this piece of paper, and then I just came home. That's what I did for my whole sabbatical-I wrote a bunch of stories and that was the 1st book of stories. Limited Lifetime Warranty, it was called.
DB: Yeah, and what year was that?
NVW: I think that was like 1983 or so.
DB: OK, and so you've been… Stories kind of happened to you. And they've been similar the whole time that you've been writing?
NVW: Uh-hmm'
DB: Have poems, in similar ways, come upon you? Or is it a different process than that?
NVW: Poems are more like a daily practice for me. I like poems. They don't… For me, they're more about sound and imagery, voice. Who's talking in my poems-They're often some part of me that I didn't really know it was there. You know, some aspect of personality that I'm kind of exploring who uses a language a different way maybe than my ordinary daily life self.
NVW: So, I like that kind of quick pop of a poem.
DB: Do you start mostly with a line or an image, or does it change?
NVW: I like a line with an image in it.
NVW: I like… One time I was writing an article about Charles Wright's poetry (I really like Charles Wright), and I said something in there in the review about: "the hand of the image in the glove of sound." I took that out of the review because I thought that sounded a little precious or something, but for me I like that kind of thought… They're sort of indivisible.
NVW: They come together.
NVW: But I remember talking to Charles one time and I asked him a lot of the same questions you're asking me about composition because I was taking him to the airport after our reading and I'm plugging him for everything he can tell me about how he works. He says, 'Well, you know, after I do 3 or 4 drafts then I'll turn it over to my ear.'
NVW: I liked that.
NVW: He said, 'I drive around town and do errands-go in the store, stuff like that and I memorize the poem I'm working on and then I just start moving the words and the lines around, and then I start moving the lines and the stanzas around. Just kind of trying to figure out. I'm listening to the sonic values.
NVW: I liked that. I'm doing that.
DB: So, I guess that's a good space to move on to revision. I mean, so when you're revising a poem, are you revising mostly by sound, or the sonic values, or are there different stages?
NVW: Well, you know, every poem just presents different troubles to me. I guess these are some of the questions I have to ask myself (but this is just for me. I don't know that these would be other people's problems by any means but). I'm asking myself, 'Who the heck is talking at this part? Who is this person?' Because sometimes I just- And I mean that in a physical, literal way. I have to see a figure almost. You know, maybe it's me, but it's me when I'm 12, or it's me with big, red hair.
NVW: So, I'm asking: Who is this person? Where is she, or he-sometimes I think I'm in a kind of gender shift. I like that because I was a real tomboy as a little kid. I think I kind of squashed that little tomboy down and he likes to come back and say things once in a while. He's a little bit of a sassy, snotty kid. And I like him!
NVW: So, who is she; where are we in the poem? I need to get located in time and space. And what the heck is going on? What dramatically is happening in the poem? A lot of times I'll have a fix on one or the other of these questions and am really feeling unclear about the others.
NVW: So, I kind of know questions to ask myself, and that's what I do in the really early stages of drafting a poem and trying to figure out the answers to some of those.
DB: And how do these questions translate into the basic physical manifestation of your writing? Are you still in your notebooks working with this?
NVW: Yes, still in notebooks
DB: And are you writing these questions in the pages, or…?
NVW: No, no I'm just… What I'm doing is I'm just giving my imagination a chore, a task. I'm staring in to space and trying to see: where is the set; where is this unfolding? Trying to give myself-
DB: I'm interested in this material, and I'm realizing-
NVW: That's right, you're a poet, too.
DB: But I mean it's also like, [writing] happens so much up here [in the head]. It doesn't happen on the page-it doesn't happen. It happens a lot, a lot just going to the store and thinking about things, listening to your own sounds, which is another hard thing to document, or to sort of record.
NVW: Yeah, and see, none of this takes place with fiction. With fiction, you sort of have that. You got all that as you walk in to the first scene.
DB: Right, well then, what is your mode when you're revising a story? Like how do you work through the drafts of a story?
NVW: Well, with a story I'm really I really think a lot more: why does this happen? or why did this happen? (in the past tense). I ask myself a lot of questions about motivation, with characters, on what their relationships are like; how did they get to this moment. I'm often trying to think about some details or back story.
NVW: Again, all these things--it's really helped to have heard myself ask my students these questions for the last 30 years because they're kind of in there.
DB: I bet.
NVW: Yeah, the questions to ask yourself- But I think what I'm mainly doing once I have addressed some of these questions, mainly have to do with interiority, and psychology of people. In revision, I'm just trying to get the story to move along. I'm really paying most attention to the pace, and I think in that regard, now poetry and fiction maybe have a little more similarities when you get to that stage of revision where you're really starting to tighten.
NVW: (Are we there now? Is that what we're talking about?)
DB: (Yeah, absolutely)
DB: (OK)
NVW: So then with a poem, I slash mercilessly. I'm a slasher, and I move things around, but often when I'm moving around, I've got too many lines on the landscape, on a row here. I've got 10 lines about the freaking place where we are, that's boring. But sometimes I won't cut them-I'll just take 4 of them and put them in a different place. I don't worry too much about like how to get back there because that's easy to do later.
NVW: Same in fiction, I'm really thinking about pacing. I'm thinking about- The opening of the story, I'll just start with a scene that we're going to catch back up to in the middle because it's got some interesting dialogue or something interesting that's going on with the characters. I'm going to start there and then circle back, and then catch back up to it midway through the story, 'Oh, here's where that scene comes.'
NVW: That's typical for me to move around like that. So, I'm just going, 'OK, we've got to see the dialogue. Now, we're going to have: how did these all start. Now, we're going to have a scene where we've got some dream or some thinking. Now we're going to go back to dialogue.' I'm just kind of having some syncopation of pacing things.
DB: And that kind of happens throughout your books, too, right? Not only within the story but within a collection of stories- there's sort of that same repetition of images, repetition of scenes. Or not repetitions, but kind of allusions to the same place and time and space.
DB: So .. When you're revising the entire book, or when you're putting together the book itself, is that also happening?
NVW: Yes.
DB: OK, so have these modes of revision that sort of focus on pacing, the moving around and changes, have these changed over the course of your career? When you were first starting out writing, did you have to come to this kind of way of revising, or was it there from the beginning?
NVW: No, it's been a slow, gradual process.
DB: OK, and then in the beginning … Were you doing it more by the book, so to speak …?
NVW: Oh, gosh. I don't know how I was doing anything at the beginning. You know, my first book of poems, I had help. I've never had an editor again like I had with my very first book.
NVW: Larry Lieberman at the University of Illinois Press. He weeded out some of the weaker poems but also helped me to shape up some new things I was working on, and put them in. Helped me with the arrangement and, you know, I've never had help like that again. But that was very instructive to me. He would write me these interesting little letters where he would explain why he thought this ought to go here, this go there, and this stanza needed to be gone, this was stupid …
NVW: It was just so helpful to have somebody be such a close reader with me. I've never had that again, ever.
DB: So, do people play a role in your revision process now, or is it pretty much just you?
NVW: Well, my husband reads everything and he's a really, really tough critic-really, really tough.
DB: That's good to have.
NVW: It's very good, but… he's a smart reader and he also kind of know what I'm capable of, and if I don't measure up, he'll tell me.
DB: Yeah, so you don't… you're not corresponding with other writers with poems, or…?
NVW: I have a couple of fiction writer friends that I have shared work with. A novel… I had a 2-book contract with the book of stories before this one, and they wanted the second thing to be a novel-the publisher who I told you they decided they were going to go quit fiction
DB: Right, right
NVW: --fiction. They wanted the 2nd book to be a novel. So, I tried three times to write a novel, and I got 200 pages in three times. I showed a couple of those books to friends who are fiction writers and they confirmed for me what I thought was true. The way I phrase I phrase it to myself is: they didn't have a big enough engine.
NVW: I like short stories-
DB: I know. I'm not-
NVW: I like the go-cart.
DB: I like short stories, too. I was struck though in Quake … I was reading that and I thought… I mean, it read to me and felt to me a lot like the way that Jennifer Egan's Visit by the Goon Squad worked, in that separate stories were all kind of investigating certain kinds of dilemmas and interesting kinds of metaphorical or metaphysical ideas.
NVW: Well, thank you. I like that Goon Squad book, too.
DB: Yeah, well, I mean, what if she'd called this a novel… I mean, I was just wondering. It's not…
DB: Anyway, there's just… It's just very arbitrary, but it seems like you composed them very much kind of separately but they are related, right? I mean, they're linked stories.
NVW: Yeah, they've all been linked.
DB: Yeah
NVW: I really love all the different possibilities of ways to link stories, but in terms of the engine, I like a little small engine that I feel like I can fix what's wrong-with the little, small engine.
DB: Yeah, I get that.
NVW: And I don't know if I could… The novel thing, it's kind of overwhelming for me to think about how much you have to sustain; how much it needs to drive the big novel.
DB: Right
NVW: I love novels. I love reading them, but I'm intimidated by the arc, how huge it needs to be, and how much (maybe) you need to know before you sit down.
DB: Right, there's a certain research part of it.
DB: Does your writing entail any sort of research, historical or otherwise…?
NVW: Yeah, Quake was a good example. I loved doing all that research on the gypsy culture and the country-I just loved that, and that just really fed my stories when I was working on it. And this new book that has a dinosaur dig in it, that was really fun. My husband and I went on a dig in Montana. That's part of the research for that. It was fun.
DB: Did they just have that like dinosaur versus dinosaur discovery, or something, this summer? Did you see this?
NVW: Eh-hmm
DB: Like this private digger found these perfectly reserved fossils of like a tyrannosaurus rex or like stegosaurus like right next to each other, they must've died like mid-fight. And they sold… Like instead of giving it to the Smithsonian, they sold it at auction for some ridiculous price.
NVW: Really?
DB: There was some sort of debate about that.
NVW: Just like a couple of femurs or something, or a couple of… Or the whole--?
DB: The whole
NVW: --the whole features? Wow!
DB: I mean, it was just like an insane find in the Montana's bone district.
NVW: Well, what I understood was… This isn't pertaining to your thing but what I heard was that all those glacial floods (what happened) and they basically washed all these bones over. So, there'd be like this giant bone bed of 20 different species just because they've been washed by the flood like that at the same place.
DB: You probably know more of that. I just thought that was sort of exciting. '
DB: I guess a couple more questions about revisions. One of the like… I've been reading this book called The Work of Revision which is really an interesting book kind of tracing the history of revision from the Romantic up to the Modernist Period, and then kind of like how textual criticism works with it. She was… Her name… Hannah Sullivan wrote it, and she was sort of delineating kind of three modes of revision. One being a creative or additive, like Joyce adding all this stuff to Ulysses, and then this sort of excisive or subtractive way that you seem to do, and then there's that sort of substitution. And I'm wondering is there a primary mode between those three that you used for your revision or is it a combination?
NVW: I would say I really kind of start with the accretion first, and then go in to the subtraction. And then probably this substitution is like a tinkering I do at the very end.
DB: OK, and physically, where do these processes happen? I mean, when you're taking something away, does that happen in the notebook, or does that happen on the computer, or does it happen in both spaces?
NVW: Usually, I've excised much of what I'm going to take out before I type it up.
NVW: So, I probably-as I said, I probably do 2 or 3 handwritten drafts and I'll actually rip the notebook page out. I have notebooks and notebooks where I have a big X through the page so that I do not get confused that I'm actually done with this version, and now if I look hard enough in the notebook, there is a later version of these poems. But I throw the old, ripped up pages in the back of the notebook, and there's a newer version somewhere in there. But the older ones are fatter and often… I'm also experimenting with line break, then too, with the shaping issues…
DB: So, just to confirm, you're doing that in the notebook?
NVW: In the notebook still.
NVW: And then I feel like when I move it to the computer, I'm sort of getting to a place where I want to look at it… There's something that… I'm sure you're going to hear this with lots of writers my age-that there's something about when you type it up that starts to make it look permanent, especially for me in terms of the shape of the poem, the line lengths especially in a poem. I'm less inclined to fiddle with line lengths once I've got it on the computer. I do that. For some reason it still feels easier for me to do it on the page because like I just stick my slashes in there.
DB: OK, so once they're actually broken in to lines on the computer, then it seems… You don't feel like you have that freedom to do--?
NVW: Well, I do. I do.
DB: Right
NVW: I do experiment or something. I'll go, 'Oh, this is 15 lines. That's so close to a sonnet. Why don't I help it along?' You know?
DB: Yeah
NVW: So, then-
DB: You feel like there should be another term for a 15-line poem.
NVW: Yes'
DB: OK, so and then at that point, are the poems ordered into the way you'd like them in the book?
NVW: Oh, no. Never
DB: OK, so how's that… What's that process like?
NVW: That's just another process of just printing out all the poems and just living with them. That takes, I don't know maybe a year, two, maybe even longer sometimes of experimenting with sections, you know, the arrangement. I'm working right now on a book of prose poems-just really struggling with what's it even going to be in this book, sorting-
DB: So, there's a number… So, once you get to the computer, are you putting like all the poems from one notebook in one word file say, or you're putting them in individually?
NVW: No, I don't put… Each poem is its own file until I really start to make the book as a book.
DB: So, just technically, then you call that file whatever the title of the poem is?
NVW: Yeah
DB: And then save it in a folder with…?
NVW: My folder is called "Poems."
DB: No, that's fine
NVW: I know, and there are some subfolders in there like-
DB: OK, for a book would you make a subfolder then, or…?
NVW: Oh, then each book gets its own file then.
NVW: Yeah
DB: OK, but… So the poems are kind of in one big folder, and then as they accumulate in to a book then they'll be one file.
NVW: Exactly, and when they get published then I put them in another file called "Published Poems."
NVW: So, I don't get confused in sending stuff out still.
DB: Yeah
NVW: And then there's some old… You know, I've files called "Poem '08" that are just like…I'm probably not going to do anything with them now, but they're still sitting there.
DB: They're still in there, somewhere.
DB: OK, and is that the same-Does that same sort of transfer happen with fiction, too?
NVW: Yeah, I mean I've got a file in there just called "Stories In Process." I don't know if they're going to be a book.
DB: You're sort of figuring them out.
NVW: Yeah'
DB: So, we'll get back to the computer stuff a little bit more. Let me just sort of talk a little bit-move from revision and talk a little bit more about kind of organizational (and we're already kind of taking about it-these things all sort of mesh in but…).
DB: So, I mean… OK, with the computer then, you know, you move from your notebook and then you type it up. That sort of moment of revision for you, too?
NVW: Uh-hmm
DB: And then you have several other different moments of revision when it's on the computer, but some of those happen on paper because you print them out?
NVW: Right
DB: And then that arrangement happens physically usually first?
NVW: I'll look at it on… I'll come back to it over a period of a couple of weeks on the computer then (once it's on the computer file) and look at it, probably tinker with it a little bit more before, and then I'll start sending it out probably.
NVW: So, fairly soon after I type it up-maybe a month, 2 months. There comes a point where I feel like I'm making it worse. My tinkering's starting to make it worse. That's the only thing that stops me.
NVW: And then I start sending it out, and if the-
DB: Are we talking about the entire book right now, or are we--?
NVW: No, just individual poems
DB: Just the individual… OK, yeah
NVW: --and if it comes back rejected, often I'll tinker with it a little bit more and send it back out again in a week.
DB: OK, so you use the sort of publication and submission process as a sort of revision prompt?
NVW: I do, I do.
DB: OK, that's interesting.
DB: And then, so they come together in one file as your book thing and then you send that out to publishers. Is that a similar sort of thing- if it's rejected then you revise again, or is it once it's in that file, once you've got it there, you just sort of want to give it a space?
NVW: I'll probably revise it a little bit more if it comes back rejected, but usually once it gets in book form, it seems sort of subtle to me and often (this may also be the case)… the reason for that being that I've probably moved on to another book and all.
DB: OK, another notebook that will then become a book, or…?
NVW: Yeah, yeah… No, an actual-I'm actually compiling another book at that point when I start sending one out.
DB: So, how many books do you usually have going, or how many projects at one time do you usually have going?
NVW: Well, I almost always have a book of poems in process that I'm working on like I said right now I'm working on trying to shape up this book of prose poems, and then I almost always have a book of fiction that's sort of in process-right now, I'm working on a e-book novel, novella thing. And then I'm doing the Photoems now. So…
NVW: In terms of like publishing individual pieces now, I'm really doing those a lot. '
DB: OK, and then so, in terms of just saving and archiving your work (we talked a little bit about this), you keep your notebooks basically in boxes on the shelves, and then your files are in a folder and they stay in the same folder, and then you put them to an external drive at some point.
DB: Is there any other archival or back-up procedures that you go through for your work, or is that pretty much it?
NVW: I guess that's pretty much it. I mean, my publishers I think have copies, you know. They have pdfs of everything.
DB: Right, right
NVW: So…
DB: You rely on them?
NVW: I rely on them-that those are not going to go away.
DB: Sure
NVW: I don't think they will, will they? They won't go away, will they?
DB: Yeah, that's…
NVW: Because that's what they send me to proof now.
NVW: Yeah
DB: OK, and they used to send you galleys or printed copies?
NVW: Yeah
DB: OK, do you do much revision at that stage, or is that much more type of--?
NVW: No, they don't want you to.
DB: OK, so then I guess one question more and then I want to talk about kind of computers specifically but… Do you see kind of in this talking that is there… Was there sort of … Can you kind of delineate stages of your own writing over the course of your, you know, the years you've been writing sort of professionally? Do you see distinct stages, or do you think it's just been kind of a gradual…?
NVW: You mean that's where things have just changed dramatically?
DB: Or like, you know, it could've changed like a couple of years, but I mean, would you say there are stages, or would you see it kind of similar? And if there were anything that kind of prompted some of these changes, what were those (I guess is what I'm kind of going with this)?
NVW: Well, I think it's mostly been gradual. I've grown more comfortable doing some revision work on the computer and especially with the fiction, and maybe because fiction still feels like a newer form to me. One shift that has felt a little bit more dramatic with composing is that I have found myself, when I'm working on short stories, actually doing some new composing work right here while I'm sitting. Like I'll be working on a story thinking… I'm typing in from my notebook…
NVW: Actually I remember working on this one story and I had written something-a note to myself in my notebook that said, 'Flush out her dream right here,' and I had forgotten to do that. So, I remember sitting here doing it while I was typing in the story in to my Word file, and I though what I wrote was OK. It sort of freed me up then to do that more frequently-to let myself do some of the initial composing although I still kind of like have a little cue what it's going to be. Like there's a little whole that I forgot to do, and I have a note to myself in the notebook to do that.
DB: Good, and does that… I guess, how… What's the difference in feel between, I guess-dare I describe it as-2-handed writing versus 1-handed writing?
NVW: Yeah, one of the things I like about doing it on the computer is that I can close my eyes which is really odd but I like it. So, it seems to lend itself to… not to dialogue or action, but to real kind of interior moments where I'm in a character's mind and I want to replicate her thinking process. Like I said, the first time I ever tried it was where I kind of tried to render a dream that the character had had. So, I closed my eyes (and of course, we can type with our eyes closed but I can't write with my eyes closed).
DB: OK, it'll be really illegible.
NVW: Yeah
DB: Huh, that's fascinating.
DB: OK, so then in terms of computers, generally, when did they enter in to your writing process?
NVW: Well, I remember when I moved to Lake Forest College… (I knew you were going to ask me this. I was trying to think about this the other day) We got these… I wish I could remember… KayPros
DB: KayPros? OK?
NVW: Have you heard of those?
DB: No
NVW: Oh my God. They were these huge, gray boxes. They were given to us - this must have been 1980-right around there, 1980 - At Lake Forest College, all the faculty got these KayPro computer things, and really all they did was word processing but I liked them. I remember a lot of the faculty were complaining but I like them because I was moving from this electric typewriter, or something, and this machine was so much easier to do corrections and everything. So, I took to the computer right away. I really liked it.
DB: In 1980?
NVW: Yeah
DB: Wow, OK, that's very early I think.
NVW: Well, I can remember the exact year.
DB: But somewhere… I mean, you started teaching in Lake Forest in?
NVW: In '79
DB: So, it's….
NVW: It was right around there-when we first moved there.
DB: Yeah
NVW: And that's all they did. They didn't do… There was no internet, or…
DB: Right, right, right.
NVW: Yeah
DB: So, you were just word processing and… Did this… Well, the advent of this computer and then maybe like the kind of more… the prevalence of computers kind of like change your writing practices pretty drastically eventually, or…?
NVW: Well, you know, the academic world- I don't know if I hadn't been in the Academy, if I would have the same relationship with technology as I do because everywhere I went to teach, I was presented with a new computer when I walked in the door. And it's nice because, you know, Apple made its money by habituating, habitualizing people (What's the word I'm trying to say?)-
DB: No, I think…
NVW: --to their technology. That's how they became so great, you know-get all these freshmen hooked on Apples when they're in college because they're in the labs and then the next thing you know, you've got generations out there…
DB: Right
NVW: So, anyway, I'm a total Mac person. I love them. They seem really intuitive to me to use them-but I've grown up with them. I mean-
DB: So then… I guess, what about the software that you use? Did you start with the sort of basic word processing, then did you move to an Apple word processing software, or was it like Word Perfect or…? Do you remember? I mean… I can't even name them.
NVW: Oh, gosh. I'm not going to be able to remember all the different program names, but… Yeah…
DB: And now are you using Microsoft Word?
NVW: Yeah
DB: OK, but you're also using Pages?
NVW: Yeah
DB: So, you're moving between software. Has that been a newer thing since the iPad, or…?
NVW: Yeah, I may get a new iPad pretty soon, and I don't know if I want to buy another Microsoft Word.
DB: Yeah, Pages seems to…
NVW: And it's fine.
DB: Yeah
NVW: It moves in to Word just fine.
DB: Right
NVW: But I learned Photoshop when I was the magazine editor. I edited Willow Springs for about 6 years, and so that was in 1990. I took over the editorship of that magazine when I came out to Eastern. They were doing the magazine with… Oh, my gosh. There was no computer technology. The woman who had done it before me was like-she was into the light board thing, which I had learned in college, in journalism class. You know, with the sticky, peel-y things?
NVW: Do you actually know this stuff?
DB: I think I saw this in high school in my journalism class. So, yeah.
NVW: And I could not believe they had no computer program or anything. So, a guy in the journalism department gave me a copy page maker to put on the computer, and I instantly fell in love with it. I just, 'Oh, I love this."
NVW: I love doing the art for the magazine. I did the covers. You know, I mean I found the art and made the covers myself because there was nobody else to do it.
DB: Right
NVW: And so, I learned PageMaker at the very beginning when it was just out, and as you probably know, that became Photoshop.
DB: Right
NVW: So, I just kind of stayed with it all these years, and now-
DB: So, essentially, you've been using Photoshop for 20 years. Wow, that's awesome.
NVW: I buy every other Photoshop. That's been my MO. I don't try to keep up with every single new one. So, I'm on 5 now, but I will probably get 7 when it comes out.'
DB: I'm a little worried that they're not going to do that anymore. They seem to be moving to that like subscription basis.
NVW: Really?
DB: Yeah
NVW: How do you mean?
DB: You know, we buy it a lot for the digital computers, and I'm starting to hear that they're… You know, they're offering it now so you can basically pay monthly fee and get Photoshop, or get InDesign, or get the Design Suite.
DB: So, I'm not sure how often-if they're going to be selling those like Student/Teacher kind of like Editions anymore.
DB: Or if they're going to be charging a subscription fee which in my mind is going to be way more expensive especially because we have so many copies. It might be cheaper, overall, for an individual but…
NVW: Interesting
DB: Yeah
DB: So, I'm not sure. I'm not actually positive about that but I sort of have heard on the wind that that might become around.
NVW: Wow, that would be…
DB: I don't know-
NVW: Hey, it's a tax write-off. So…
DB: Yeah, there you go.
DB: So, you were pretty familiar with computers from pretty much most of your professional career, As they became more prevalent at large, does that affect… I mean, I guess, it affected probably your correspondence with your editors and what-not with things like that.
NVW: Exactly
DB: Did that affect anything in the way that you write? Did it start to feel different, you writing feel different?
NVW: It felt more constant, I guess. Like my students at Vermont College, they want to send me their work everything online now. I feel like I cannot get away from sitting here, you know, 10 hours, 12 hours a day.
DB: Yeah
NVW: That part, I don't like as much. I like reading, you know, in a comfy chair and I feel like we're moving away from that now, that that's becoming less. You know, and I'm writing e-books myself now, so I'm a culprit, too.
DB: Right, right
NVW: But I can read my iPad in a comfy chair.
DB: Yes, yes, you can.
NVW: I still like reading in bed but once I discovered that I can read my iPad in bed, I was happy. '
DB: I'm sort of interested to- I guess in sort of typographical, or graphical things. And I mean, you are familiar with PageMaker. Did any of that like ability of the computer adjust or…? I mean like I think in Quake with those breaks that were kind of like little lines-like little jagged lines (I don't know where those came from)-if that was a computer thing, or…? Do you know what I'm talking about?
NVW: The section breaks?
DB: Like the breaks within the stories, that would be like… Yeah, like section breaks that had kind of…?
NVW: I think that might have been the designer, the book designer.
DB: Oh, that was the book designer.
NVW: Yeah
DB: OK, but did any of that influence your writing? I mean, did you start to… I mean, you obviously work with fonts and design aspects and layout. Did that influence anything with your poems? I mean, I know they also… You know, a lot of them have… At least the earlier ones some of them would move kind of tab by tab, and then I mean there's other different sort of strategies in the earlier poems, too. But they're… I don't know. I guess…
NVW: I'm trying to think about what you're asking me because I'm just not remembering if there's any particular way that that changed in my writing itself.
DB: Yeah, I mean I don't think it was a… I don't know if I can say that it was, but I guess
DB: When you're writing in your notebook (Maybe that's the way to get)-when you're writing in your notebook, are you writing with some sort of indentation, Or other things like that? Are you pretty much writing down the left margin? Does that sort of layout thing transfer in to the computer, or…?
NVW: Right, right. You know, what little experimenting I've done along those lines with poems, I've done on the computer screen. '
NVW: I mean, that's I think my… I know we're going to talk about this later. What I'm doing now, I'm doing this altered book pages.
DB: Right
NVW: I don't know if I showed any of those because those are locked files. But I'm doing these altered book pages, and that's where all of everything I know about Photoshop And my poetry is finally coming together in to something that feels more, I don't know, my own.
DB: Yeah
NVW: Different
DB: Yeah, so… And we can talk about that. I mean, what… So, it that different from the Photoems?
NVW: Yes
DB: And it's… What sort of formatting do you use …?
NVW: I'll show you
DB: Yeah, I'd love to see
NVW: So, I put these online. I've been… This is mainly what I've been publishing lately. I've found this old encyclopedia up here from the '30s and I've been scanning the pages-especially pages that have a lot of graphic material in them. (Let me just show…)
NVW: I put them on this website but in a locked gallery because this is how I share them in with editors. So, let's see. I'll try to find the encyclopedia once I… Let's look at this right here.
DB: So, ZenFolio. Is it like a web service kind of?
NVW: Yeah, this is really for a photographer's website but I just like it because it has really clean look, and their slideshow mode is really nice.
DB: Yes
NVW: So, this is the book I'm doing with my husband right now, and these are his illustrations.
NVW: (So, I can actually put this in a slideshow. You can see the…)
NVW: So, this is my fiction project that I'm-
DB: This is the novella?
NVW: This is, yeah. This, I will only… I haven't shared this with any editors yet because I'm only just putting this online. (That's a section divider page)
DB: (I can see that now)
NVW: This is called Pull for Stop, and then the story goes like this. So, these are Rick's pieces and then I have this little story that goes with these characters in the book here. Each page, I think of it as a little like flash fiction. So, I kind of think of them as linked flash fictions.
DB: And they're relating in some way to the image?
NVW: Oh, yeah
NVW: So, that's that book. And I was telling you about the encyclopedia, and that's Book of No Ledge.
NVW: So, this is how I send them out now to editors. I'll probably send like 2 or 3 of these pieces in, you know, the online submission or whatever. And then I send them a link to this.
DB: To the whole…?
NVW: To this gallery, and the password that they need to access it because it's a locked gallery. That way I can kind of track on how many people are looking (editors are looking) at my stuff at the same time. And then when somebody takes a piece, I put these little asterisks. (This is my screwed-up thing) So, they kind of realize all those are out of commission then.
DB: Sure
NVW: So, that's what… So, now I'm kind of actually putting a poem. (I hate all the sales stuff in here, but) Then I'm kind of replacing the text that was here in the encyclopedia with a poem.
DB: And so, you'll do that in Photoshop. Like you'll erase the text and you'll… Are you trying to match the font in some way it looks like? Or…?
NVW: Yeah, yeah, I am.
DB: And those are kind of images from the text originally?
NVW: Yes, actually they're from like 3 different pages in the text, and then I colorize them, too.
DB: Those are cool. That's like a really neat project.
NVW: It's really been fun. I like doing that. You can see I've kind of done a little bit of erasure stuff right here-
DB: Yeah, yeah
NVW: And then this part is my poem over here. So, I like…
NVW: (I should put these in slideshow so they'll come out larger, see them better)
NVW: But I kind of like having a mix of what was the encyclopedia language with Nance talk, kind of. I like going back and forth, so that's… This has been where I've really started to use the technology much more than I was before. So, I have all these little… This is the straight encyclopedia-Nance stuff, and I hope they kind of talk back and forth to each other-the language.
DB: Yeah, I know. I see what you're saying.
NVW: My language here and their language
DB: Well, it sort of like-it contextualizes it and sort of de-contextualizes it. Yeah…
NVW: Yeah, this is my little conversation with Proust. I've been reading Proust this year. Me and Proust are on a time-out right now.
NVW: Anyway, so that's what they look like. I like the pages from the encyclopedia that have all this graphic material so I can kind of take what was , you know… What do I have? I put all these kind of romance words around. In this one: timber wolf love nips, must axle me
NVW: But a person would have to sort of go in there and look a little bit. That's the thing.
DB: Yeah, I mean it's like you need it. It pays to pay attention, right?
NVW: So, that's where things have sort of evolved, computer-wise, for me. '
DB: And how's that… I mean, what's the… Does it feel different, or does it seem like it's the same creative process for you? I mean, it's visual and textual, so, there's that. But in terms of using the computer to make, is that a change?
NVW: Well, so the way I've been, I have some really interesting, different ways that I've been doing these that has never been even remotely like working on the poems or the stories. So, I'll print out first the original scans in black and white, and that's what I carry around in my little notebook. I'm still fixated to the notebook there.
DB: Right
NVW: So, I'm carrying those around in the notebook, and then I just actually start scribbling on the pages-scribbling stuff out. One of the things that I'm kind of doing with this book project-with the encyclopedia-is: this is my version of a collected poems of Nance Van Winckel.
NVW: So, I'm kind of mining some of my early poems because I-
DB: OH, that's really fascinating.
NVW: --The idea of doing a collected or selected, or something, is kind of boring to me actually. But this made it more interesting to do because I'll just pull out, 'Oh, I always like this stanza.' So…
DB: Yeah, yeah
NVW: I like this stanza." and then I just "Forget the rest of that poem," you know.
DB: Right
NVW: But these 5 lines I like. So, I'll sprinkle them in there and it's been fun to kind of find the visual material that I think they fit with.
DB: Yeah
NVW: So, anyway-
DB: And with the, you know, wealth of human knowledge form 1930 and the wealth of poems-
NVW: Exactly
DB: Yeah
NVW: And, you know, I feel like I'm kind of talking… I had… I sense one of the things that's going on in this project is that I'm talking back to history in a way and saying, 'No, that's not right,' and I like that. I like that versus-
DB: And I guess in some way the software allows you more purchase on making those deletions and adjustments-
NVW: Exactly
DB: --than it would have in like just crossing out, or a light board for instance.
NVW: Yeah, and the erasure thing that a lot of people are doing, that seems like… You know, I'm good friends with Mary Ruefle-doing that amazing erasure stuff. So I feel like "unless I could one-up Mary Ruefle …" I'm not doing that. I'm not going there.
DB: I know
NVW: There are people who are doing that so much better.
DB: Yeah, I've always been a fan of that Radi Os, the Paradise Lost deletion by Ronald Johnson which I didn't like… And I like… Who did one? Like Jonathan Safran Foer did it, and I was like, 'Oh, no.'
NVW: He did it?
DB: Yeah, he did some…
NVW: Really?
DB: I don't know. He bugs me anyway.
NVW: Yeah, a lot… Maybe too many people jumped on the erasure band wagon
DB: It's fun, but I mean, it's hard really to do it. I mean, in the way that Mary Ruefle does it. It's really, really hard. I mean like… Yeah
NVW: Here's what Mary Ruefle says, 'The way I do it is, I look at the page and then pretty soon, if I just stare at it for a while, a few words float up.'
NVW: Good, OK
DB: That's hilarious
DB: It's good to be-to have that happen would be fantastic.
NVW: It really would--a few words float up
DB: (Let me think here)
DB: I feel like we've answered a lot of these questions in the course of it. Yeah…
DB: Oh, can you find your files? Like if you're looking for a certain poem on your computer, do you have difficulty locating them, or is your organization is such that you pretty much know where things are?
NVW: I have lost things, yeah. Almost every week, I have little battle because I can't remember what I called something, or…
DB: Yeah, do you worry at all about the security or sort of fixity of these digital files?
DB: No. That's good
NVW: You mean somebody else accessing them, or something? That kind of security?
DB: Or, I mean the kind of fidelity of them, I guess. I mean, you do say that you have floppy disks and old WordPerfect that you can't access. Is that a concern to you, or you just think that would kind of take care of itself?
NVW: It's not a concern to me-maybe it should be.
DB: No, I actually don't think you should be, but… And I'm the one who should know that. So…
NVW: OK, good
DB: But I mean, there's definitely things that we can do. But I mean, it's one of those things that I think…
DB: Well, I guess the other question is, have the changes in computers… I mean like, you know, probably in the late '90s, early '90s, computers crashed much more often and you were more likely to lose work. Did that influence the way that you work on computers, or was that…? Or have you pretty much kept the same strategies?
NVW: I have pretty much kept the same strategies. You know, I've never had a really bad thing happen where I've lost a harddrive or anything like that.
DB: You're so lucky
NVW: I know, I know. And it's because of all the Macs.
DB: That's hilarious. They got you-they got you there.
NVW: They do. I just love all their products. I do. '
DB: So, a few questions about correspondence and teaching (although I think we've covered some of that), and then we'll talk about Photoons. Then that would be it.
DB: So, have you ever corresponded very much in like physical letters? Is that ever been a portion…? Or are they… I mean, related to your writing. I don't need to know like personal correspondence (not so much), but I mean like writing-wise, career-wise, is that ever a concern?
NVW: Oh, physical letters, I've… Well, like I was telling you with that first book of poems, I've kept all the letters that he wrote to me about revision. I don't know, they just… They're very dear to me that somebody took that kind of time with me.
NVW: And then I have a good friend who's a poet. I think I mentioned her to you.
DB: Yeah
NVW: Jennifer Boyden. And she really loves the physical letters, and I've kept all her letters that she's written me over the years.
DB: Great.
NVW: Because they're just so beautiful
DB: Awesome
NVW: And it just always seems like just the idea that somebody is writing this JUST to me, you know, this three page letter with her thoughts and ruminations about things and they're just so beautifully written; that she would take the time to do that, you know, it seems like a treasure thing because it's a passing, but do I do it … ?
DB: Do you have any similar feelings for any emails? Do you have emails that you would feel dear about?
NVW: I do keep some emails I have, you know, files with emails that I keep from certain people.
DB: And then, a sort of corollary to that, do you feel like a, and this is an odd question, but do you have any sort of feelings towards your digital files about like your poems? Are they dear to you maybe in the same way a notebook would be dear to you or…?
NVW: No, the notebook is dear-er
DB: OK, yeah.
NVW: I don't know why, that's weird.
DB: You touch it. A big part of it, I think. I mean, I don't know. It's one of those things. I don't know if that will change, like if someone never had like the physical in the future. If they'll have this special folder on their desktop… That just seems odd to me. '
NVW: You know, I try to be careful that I've always got a hard copy somewhere of the material that I'm working on. Like this book that I'm doing with my husband.
DB: OK, so that's some of the images I guess.
NVW: And there they all are.
DB: Oh wow, those are nicely printed.
NVW: To finish that thought about just being careful: Because if things go awry here, I really don't want to lose the work completely.
DB: Right
NVW: So I try to make sure that I have a hard copy. It might not always be the most recent copy--
DB: Yeah
NVW: --But there's a copy.
DB: Right
NVW: So, with this book, I did all of the arranging of it. I stuck them on that wall in the hallway.
NVW: All the pages were on that wall and I had little sticky things on the back and I was moving them around to make the sections of the book, but it was up there for like three months.
DB: Yeah, three months? So, would you come home and see them and make a few changes or would it be like a dedicated time you'd go to it?
NVW: Well, I was at that stage where the book where I had all these pages, but I wasn't exactly sure how I was going to arrange the chronology, again, of the story. So, I started experimenting with different orders of things, by trying the sections on the wall that way. Yeah, moving them around. So before, each page had its own file in there, and now, they have sections too. I think there are five sections in the book.
DB: OK, and those came from the wall?
NVW: Yes!
NVW: But I could not figure out a way to look at that many pages on the screen at one time. I mean actually see the print. So I felt like the technology wasn't allowing me to see the big picture the way I needed to.
DB: Need a big touch screen.
NVW: Yes!
DB: I'm sure they're coming, or I'm sure they're here, you just haven't seen them yet.
NVW: That's it exactly!
DB: You need a big wall that's a computer.
NVW: Yes! And if Mac makes it, I'm buying it.
DB: There you go.
NVW: It's going to be a million dollars.
DB: Yeah, that would definitely be expensive. '
DB: We did talk a little about your teaching and that you do correspond by email with your students mostly. Is that now?
NVW: If they insist on sending me their work as attachments and everything, I'll read it that way. I don't mind doing it with the poets, but with the fiction people, I would much, much rather they send me their work in the mail. And usually they're OK with it.
DB: So you can kind of take it and not have to be connected …
NVW: Exactly
DB: Yeah
NVW: I just do not like writing my comments with the blackboard program or any of those. The college has that available to us and I have done track changes in Word. I know how to use that OK. I just like to scribble in the margins.
DB: So in that aspect of your work and your life, you would just ultimately prefer physical correspondence in total?
NVW: Yeah'
DB: OK, yeah. I guess the other thing with like, writing and distraction, I guess, is like are you connected to the internet when you're writing? Do you ever have to like disconnect, turn off your Wi-Fi or something? Is that a problem or concern for you? Or do you use it, like are you looking things up while you're writing at all?
NVW: Oh well that's a good question. I don't like to be disconnected from the net anymore.
DB: Yeah
NVW: It's terrible. I like to check in with my peeps all the time now. And yeah, I use the dictionary on here all the time because it's just so much faster.
DB: Yeah, so it's a tool, and whatever writing space you're in, be it notebook or not, you're still using your computer as a tool to assist you.
NVW: Yeah, and I mean I've always got something going on that's like you know, right now, I'm talking to agents and if they email me, if I see an email come in while I'm actually working on something, I got to go see if that is from my agent.
DB: Right, right. And that distraction point of it is not a real concern for you? I mean, you are producing quite a bit.
NVW: It was more when I was younger, but I guess maybe I'm learning how to disconnect from it and go back to my work pretty fast then.
DB: Has there been something you've found to help… I mean like if you're distinguishing between your younger working and now…?
NVW: I guess maybe it's like a lot of younger people, I'm just more used to being attached to it. I'll be doing something on my iPad, communicating with somebody or talking on Facebook or whatever, while Rick and I are watching a movie at night. So there's much more multitasking.
DB: You've learned a sort of way of compartmentalizing it that seems pretty seamless--
NVW: Yeah
DB: And the last question about teaching: When you've had now, you're probably getting students who've grown up only with a computer, right?
NVW: Yes
DB: Has that changed your relationship to the way? Has that sort of changed your idea about what it does, its effects, anything like that?
NVW: Well, it's changed to the sense that when students talk to me about their own composing process, and of course they do everything on the computer, they don't ever, a lot of them, write anything at all in longhand.
DB: Yeah
NVW: I don't even know if they can. And so I'm OK with that. I feel like I sort of made my peace that people are perfectly able to write, to find a good composition process that works for them that doesn't have to do with paper and pens at all. So, I'm accepting of that. You know, I don't try to like, shove my process off or say to someone, "Have you ever thought you might like to write it on a piece of paper first?"
NVW: What, you know, why? that's - -I know, I know that I'm hanging onto something that's -
DB: If you would -
NVW: -the pen... The pen and paper to me, um, they have some, there's something else between the eye and the hand and the page.
NVW: And I still feel that when I'm working, especially on poems, that there's something happening between the eye and the fingers and the page. It's very tactile that I'm hanging on to that, which I like.
DB: And so you would say, I mean for those that are only composing on the computer and not ever going to handwriting, or never using handwriting at all, that's what they're missing, that sort of hand-eye coordination.
NVW: I don't know. I don't think they necessarily are missing it. I think they've probably learned or are learning to do a step in the composing process. You know, maybe that thing where you're writing with your eyes closed. I mean, that they grow up with that, and so they get the same whatever imaginative connection with the keyboard.
DB: Do you find that they're as open to revision as maybe an older student?
NVW: Well, they can be made to... They can... That's just part of the learning process.
DB: Right, so you don't think it's anything distinct to this generation?
NVW: I think they just have to... Many of them, some of them get it right away, that revising can actually make a work better.
DB: Yeah
NVW: I've been working with this woman right now who came in saying that she doesn't like to revise because she likes to sit down and write everything out really fast in one big draft.
DB: Right
NVW: And her stuff is a mess! And so it's my personal mission with her to help her to come to believe that actually revising or working on some other manner, you know, like maybe having writing a scene at a time -
DB: Right
NVW: -would benefit the work. But she's very young and it's her first. She didn't even have an undergraduate degree in writing so, she's starting at square one.'
DB: OK, well, the last kind of group of questions I have are about the Photoems and, um, but I guess you have a number of different... I was thinking of these as being your sort of primary computer assisted project, but you have several going at the same time, so you use, including the collected, uh, your novella, are there other projects as well? OK, and are they, um, are they supplanting your fiction and poetry writing or are they sort of just 'in addition to'?
NVW: I'm wrestling with this question myself.
NVW: I think the poetry right now, new poetry, is kind of going into the these altered book pages that I'm doing. I have four, four of those projects going on right now.
NVW: And, um, I am working on a book of regular poems (those prose poems).
NVW: But all the fiction I'm working on right now are all e-books now. I've just completed a novella, not this one, but a different one that's an e-book that's um in the form of a scrapbook form, photograph album.
NVW: And that's the one I'm trying to talk to agents about.
DB: OK, OK. And they're going to... And you have only, you don't expect any physical form at all, you just...
NVW: This is the question that we are trying to work through. I don't care about seeing it as a print book. Um, but apparently publishers don't want to take a book unless it can also have it as a print book, because they don't make any money on e-books -
DB: Yes
NVW: - so -
DB: You can blame Amazon, right?
NVW: Yeah, so an agent doesn't want to take me on as a client unless I am doing the print book. And the e-book is the sort of bonus.
NVW: So that's what we're kind of going around and around about and I then think, "Well, maybe I'll just go out there and do it on my own, or try to do it with an e-book publisher who is just doing that." So I'm just trying... I'm just … I am just... This is all new to me, new territory and I'm just trying to navigate it myself right now. I don't know what I'm doing.
DB: But in terms of like the process and the composition and everything, it still seems pretty much, you know, computer or non-computer, like it's still like the kind of - Well, I mean the computer's a big part of it, but still writing the notebook and pushing it in, or is it a lot of that still happening - Are the e-books happening on the computer?
NVW: No, I'm still writing the text part in the notebook.
DB: OK. Um, how does the sort of visual aspect relate back to your writing especially sort of maybe... I mean you use a lot of imagery in your poems and in your fiction, but now you are actually using images -
NVW: Yes!
DB: - so what's that feel like? I mean are you using them in the same ways you used imagery or is it a totally different...?
NVW: Well, I mean, you hit it right on t…he head That's it exactly, I mean everything I loved about poetry, you know, the image thing - now I'm making actual images. And, you know, I'm putting a little bit of text in there, and you know, now I'm starting to wrestle with well that's too much text.
NVW: You know, it's... Everything that's happening now has gotten to be less, less, and less text. I'm trying to find the right balance between the visual component on the piece and that sort of means minimal text, I think, so that they don't fight each other.
DB: I mean, so what is like... How do you find the right language for that? I mean that seems like a different, almost a different thing than writing poetry.
NVW: Yeah, yeah. I mean...
DB: It's like placing...
NVW: This is what, for me, when I turn 60 and I'm doing this work, it's made it exciting again, like when I was 20.
DB: Yeah
NVW: Because I am... Language has gotten, it's been refreshed by this new sort of interjection of the actual visual material in the same location with the text.
DB: Right
NVW: And it's made it like a brand new thing for me and I'm just, I don't know, I feel like I'm, "Oh good. Now I can get through to my 80s OK without being bored."
DB: Now, if you didn't... So kind of two part question, if you didn't have that facility with the computer that you have and that you developed from working with PageMaker and/or if you just had not worked with a computer, do you think you would've turned to visual art in a physical format?
NVW: No, it would've been too much to learn, I think. I mean, it still feels like a lot to learn. I mean, I take classes every week. I'm taking online classes. I mean, I still can't get how to do text on a path. What's wrong with me?! I can't make my paths good.
DB: Yeah, I am no Photoshop expert.
NVW: Yeah, well anyways I take these little online classes through Photoshop.
DB: Do you take any... I mean, your husband's an artist, do you take any sort of art instruction as well I mean -
NVW: Yes. Oh, yes. From him. Yeah, and I've been taking like regular college classes, too.
NVW: When I taught at Bucknell for a semester - when they asked me to come out there, I said, "Well, yes, I'll come. But, do you think it'll be alright if I sat in on an art class while I'm there? " I wanted to take some kind of photography class. But, they weren't offering anything so I took a film editing class instead. But, anyway I just, I felt like I just needed to be in that environment with visual artists where they're talking about composition - because that's, I was starting at the path, the beginning place - just composition and design.
NVW: And my husband comes in, I invite him to come home early a couple nights and month and I supply him with some wine. He sits here and I show him the pieces that I'm working on, some of these Photoems or whatever.
NVW: And I'll say, "Just, if you don't like a piece, just tell me and we'll move on."
NVW: So this is what he'll do, he'll go, "Next." But then, when he likes a piece he'll explain to me what he thinks is working and it's all about composition and design. And that's what I needed -
DB: And so that's a big part of your education, too.
NVW: That's what I needed to learn.
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: 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.
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
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.
[NOTE: The first four minutes of this interview were not captured on video and as such won't be linked out here. They are available on the audio recording however, which can be accessed here: http://ctrl-shift.org/ohms-viewer/viewer.php?cachefile=armantrout.xml
Devin Becker: And there we go with that. This could be a good set up.
So, three parts to the interview. First part will be kind of how you're working now, with the computer and back and forth—kind of a brief short-answer questions. This comes out of a survey a colleague of mine and I did with a lot of kind of emerging poets about three years ago. It was like an online survey just to see how people are saving and organizing their work.
So that will be kind of a couple of pages, but fairly quick.
And then we'll talk kind of more overarchingly about your professional career and about how the processes for you have changed, have not changed with. Some idea, you know, with some sort of focus on how the computer impacted that.
Then, we'll talk a little bit about the computer in general, and a little bit about correspondence and teaching, and ask a few plunk questions at the end just to see what you think about computers—which is such a large question—but it gets somewhat repetitive at times. So, if you think you've answered already, say, "Skip it," or you know, "Let's go."
Rae Armantrout: About how long will it take?
DB: It'll take about an hour and fifteen minutes.
DB: And if, you know, need a break at any time, no problem.
DB: So, yeah.
So, can we begin?
RA: Sure.
DB: If you wouldn't mind stating your name, your date of birth, and the location we're at right now.
RA: OK. Ray Armantrout (1:29), April 13th, 1947, and we are at my home in Norman Heights, San Diego.
DB: Alright. So, I'm going to first ask about how you compose currently. So what genres do you work in?
RA: Mostly poetry.
DB: Mostly poetry.
RA: Once in a while I write an essay, but mostly poetry.
DB: OK. And what kind of devices—what kind of computer devices—do you own or have access to for your writing?
RA: Well, really just two. I have an iPad and I have a Dell computer upstairs.
RA: Oh, and I have one at work, too. Also a Dell.
DB: Do you use the one at work very often for actually writing?
RA: Actually, no. So...
DB: No, OK.
So, the operating systems are—you've got a Mac, and you have a PC?
RA: Uh-hmm.
DB: And do you work on one of these devices primarily?
RA: Well, actually, I probably work primarily in this old school device called "notebook" where I, you know, fill pages with illegible text, and then once I start to think that my text is coming together, very often I'll do a version of it—just type it into the iPad. And I can show you. I'll send it to myself. Sometimes, I'll send it to my friend, Ron Silliman (2:54). And you know, I mean, I like to know how he'll respond to it—but it's also kind of a lazy way of saving a record of it.
DB: Yeah, yeah.
RA: Because I send it to myself, too.
And then once I've done that a bit, and I have several versions, I'll go upstairs and start working on the computer.
DB: Oh, OK.
So, you've answered my next question—you're working between notebooks and digital devices—?
RA: Uh-hmm.
DB: —and is there ever a point where you print out the poem?
RA: Oh, yeah.
DB: OK. Will that be at a point, like, after you've reached your upstairs computer?
RA: Yeah, yeah.
RA: I mean, I've got—well, I don't know how many versions I've got that I could show—I don't know. Are you interested in seeing printout versions, versions on here of anything I've been working on recently? Because we could do that.
Let's see.
These...these might not be versions, but I could find versions. How do you want to do that?
DB: Well, I think right now we can just talk about it and then at the end, I've got a camera, too. I can just take some pictures of that, and have it kind of as photographs—
RA: Sure.
DB: —which I think that's probably the best way.
So and then, how do you save your pre-writing, your notes there?
RA: I have a bunch of these filling up my shelves. Right now, I have way too many. A couple of times, I've sold or donated my papers to archives including Stanford and also at UC-San Diego. And when I do, I also include these.
DB: You include those?
RA: Hmm
DB: OK. How many? Do you have any idea how many you've probably gone through?
RA: Hundreds.
DB: Hundreds?
RA: Maybe thousands.
DB: OK. Do you always go for the same kind of size?
RA: Yeah, pretty much.
DB: Pretty much?
RA: I'd like it to be able to fit in my purse because I take it with me, and sometimes I write at a café, or, you know, someplace out in the world. So, I want to be able to stick it in my purse—
DB: Right.
RA: —-riding the airplane, or whatever.
So, it's nice if it's about this size, and it's nice if it's flexible.
RA: And it's nice if it's not expensive.
DB: Yeah, yeah because you have to buy so many of them.
So, in terms of your digital files, what format do you usually work in?
RA: .docx.
DB: OK, .docx.
As you're working in those formats, do you save drafts of the individual documents, or do you save over those drafts?
RA: I mostly save over, which is not a good idea. But sometimes I have printed out drafts, and I save drafts. I probably do not save all of them, which is not great, but I save a number of them and then eventually, I'll probably give them to the library.
DB: OK. And then you're emailing them back?
RA: Yeah.
DB: So, that's sort of a draft as well?
RA: Yeah.
DB: And what are your naming conventions for your files?
RA: I just name it—I mean—whatever the title of the poem.
DB: Whatever the title is?
RA: Yeah.
DB: And then if it's a draft?
RA: I number them. Sometimes, I'll have, you know, "such-and-such a title one," "such-and-such a title two,"... But when it gets too confusing, sometimes I'll just erase the old ones. So, I'm not a very good curator of my own history that way.
DB: Yeah? And you do save some paper copies of those drafts?
RA: Yeah.
Do you back up your digital files any way?
RA: Not as much as I should. I mean, I do have a back up on a zip drive, but I haven't backed-up for several months. So, I'm careless.
DB: And then when you're sending these emails back and forth, is it like a Gmail or some sort of something like that?
RA: Yeah.
DB: So, you could go back and find them that way in some way?
RA: Yeah, yes.
DB: So, you're not using Dropbox or any other Cloud-based—?
RA: No. I have Dropbox, but I am not using it for this. I'm using it for a class that I've been teaching with someone.
RA: But, I could use it that way. I mean, it's something to think about.
DB: Yeah.
As a digital archivist, I might have some suggestions. Do you ever have files saved in more than one location?
RA: No. Well, the zip drive and the computer hard drive.
DB: Yeah.
RA: That would be it.
RA: And paper. That would be it.
DB: And then when you're finished with a piece, how do you—is there anything special that you do for that file?
RA: No, I pretty much know which is the finest—the final version. And if I start to get confused, like I say, I just erase the others, which is probably a bad idea, but—
DB: And then what about the final version—like the books and the journals—do you save those?
RA: Well, what happens—this is what I do:
RA: I'm going to take these out because these new papers are not very significant. Those are copies that I took with me to give a reading somewhere. So that's why they're loose.
RA: But this is the manuscript that I'm working on now. These are really old-fashioned. These are called thesis binders. This one is all beaten up. But you can't really even buy them. You used to be able to buy them in stationary stores.
DB: Yeah.
RA: Lyn Hejinian (8:26) in Berkeley knows. I guess she has a whole bunch of them. I don't think even she can get them anymore, but she doesn't use them anymore and she has a big stack, and so, she sends them to me.
DB: Oh, that's nice.
RA: So, this is really old school. But the way I use it is, it helps me order—not only keep the poems for the manuscript, but I order the manuscript this way. I mean, I kind of decide what reads well by trying the poems out in different places—
RA: —within this manuscript so that I don't do that thing you hear about writers doing about spreading the pages all over the floor, or all over the walls, or something.
DB: Yeah
RA: Because I've already been deciding as I went along by where I place them in this thesis binder.
DB: OK. And so, will you be working on many poems at the same time?
RA: No, not usually.
RA: Almost never. I'm kind of, you know, obsessive when I start something. I just work on it until I finish it. I mean, once in a while I give up on something for a while and set it aside, and go on to something else, and then go back to it. But I'm not actively working on two things at a time.
DB: OK. And so, just to be clear then, if you finish a piece, you would then go to your—you would print it out and then take it to this thesis binder, put it in a place where you think it may fit—
RA: Yes
DB: —with the rest that are working, and then once you have what you would—how do you know when you have a collection, then?
RA: Well, it used to be that I had a collection when I had enough poems for a book, but it seems as
RA: if I'm writing more now. So, I get to make some more choices—I get to cut things—cut a manuscript down, save some things for later. So, I get to make some decisions about how the poems work with each other and it's kind of intuitive
DB: OK. Have you ever received or sought out information about methods for digitally archiving your work?
RA: No.
DB: No? OK. Those are the short answer. And I think we did cover kind of the "nuts-and-bolts" of your current practice, so that's good. So, in this section, we're going to kind of talk about sort of three areas of your writing talk about the different stages
RA: Sure.
DB: So, how long have you been writing professionally, is the question?
RA: Well you know—for poets, that's a hard question.
DB: Yeah. How long have you been—
RA: Taking it seriously?
DB: Yeah, maybe that's the better way of putting it.
RA: Since I was a senior in college, really.
RA: I think I had my first poem published in a national magazine shortly after I graduated from college, and then I just continued to publish in magazines. I had my first book was published when I was thirty, and I've been publishing books ever since. And I suppose that now you could say, or—hmm, when would it—? If by a professional, you mean somebody who actually makes money and has a reputation, I guess I've been in that category maybe for twenty-five years, or something.
DB: OK, I think I should change the question.
RA: For poets.
DB: Yeah. Would you please describe, kind of, the arc of your career? Like where you started? I would say—
(Phone rings)
DB: Wait for a second. If you need to answer that, it's fine.
RA: Yeah, let me hear who it is.
DB: Sure.
RA: Probably I don't need to answer, but if it's someone I really want to talk to—
Bad timing.
DB: It's OK.
RA: It ought to pick up after this, or maybe they'll give up. Of course I didn't answer. It's probably a sales call anyway.
DB: Yeah.
RA: OK, what were you saying?
DB: OK. So, if you wouldn't mind describing the arc of your career from when you started sort of seriously writing until now, just sort of a general overview. So, you know, just to start the interview.
RA: Alright.
I was interested in poetry since childhood. My mother read poetry to me. I wrote when I was a little kid, then I kind of stopped for a while. And then I started again in college and I was reading the poet Denise Levertov (13:37).
Oh, and I—I grew up here in San Diego, actually, and then I went to San Diego State for two years, and I was reading the poet Denise Levertov. And then I transferred to Berkeley, and she was teaching there. So, I took a class with her, and through that experience, I met my friend Ron Silliman (13:56), who's a poet—the one I send poems to, who's still a friend of mine. And then I came back here, and then I moved to San Francisco to go to grad school and he was living there. And through him and also through the grad program, I met other poets. And there was—you know, San Francisco is a good literary town. So, there was quite a community of poets in San Francisco, and I eventually was friends with poets who became—came to be known as the "Language Poets" (scare quotes), the West Coast Language poets anyway, which would include Barret Watten, and Bob Perelman, and Lyn Hejinian, and Kit Robinson, and Ron Silliman and Carla Harryman (14:41), among others.
And I went to a lot of readings series and participated in small press publications, and had a very active literary life—like I said, publishing magazines and journals—and
my first publisher was someone that we knew there. It was called the Figures Press and his name was Jeff Young. And so, that book came out in an edition of a very small press—an edition of five hundred copies, which—I gave a lot of them away to my friends and such.
And then at the end of the seventies (this was in the seventies) At the end of the seventies, I got pregnant and it just didn't seem like we were going to be able to keep living in San Francisco and raise a kid because, kind of like now—I guess it's more extreme now—but there was gentrification and yuppification going on then. And suddenly the rents were getting out of reach for us (especially if we had a kid, because you can't be so hand-to-mouth with a kid). And then my mother lived here and was willing to babysit and also Chuck got an offer of a job here that would have benefits and health insurance and all. So, we ended up back here. I was not very happy to come back here because then (and this is going to get to a topic that you like), then that was really isolating. Because that was before email, right?
DB: Yeah, yeah.
RA: That was even before I had a computer. So, it just felt like, you know, kind of falling off a cliff. I mean, there were some poets here and I got to know them gradually—Jerome Rothenberg, and David Anton (16:22), and Michael Davidson—but not that many people of my generation really.
So, I had lengthy correspondences actually on paper with the people back in San Francisco—not all of them but some of them. I can't believe it now, how much time we spent writing long letters out by hand, or typing them on typewriters.
DB: Yeah.
RA: It seems surreal now that everything goes so fast. I mean, who would do that? But we did. And so, some of those letters are in archives now.
And meanwhile, I kept sending work out to journals. Lyn Hejinian (17:03) in the Bay Area had a small press and she published my second book which was a chap book called The Invention of Hunger.
DB: And what press is that?
RA: It was Tuumba, T-U-U-M-B-A. Kind of, you know, a letterpress. And then, my third book—which was my second full-length book–-was published by Burning Deck in Providence.
DB: Yeah.
RA: So, that was my first kind of, you know, outside my immediate coterie publication.
DB: Yeah
RA: Still a small press, but—
—and then I started publishing with the Los Angeles publisher Sun and Moon, who also published people like Lyn Hejinian and Charles Bernstein (17:50). You know, it was a very active press then. It changed—he changed it to Green Integer, and I do have a book out on Green Integer, too—but the focus became, for him, became more re-publishing classics that had, you know, gone off copyright.
So, about that time, fortuitously, I got picked up by Wesleyan. At that time I was already fairly well known, at least, in the kind of small press world. I'd been in some anthologies. But I think that being published by Wesleyan and having a selected come out with them in 2001 really kind of gave my career, so to speak, a boost, and things have just picked up since then including my pace of writing. So that, since 2001—
—well, in 2001, I published two books. I published one with Green Integer called the Pretext, and then the selected with Wesleyan, which was called Veil. And then in 2004, I had Up to Speed. In 2007, I had Next Life. In 2009, I had Burst. In 2011, I had Money Shot. And then in 2013, I had Just Sayings.
So, yeah.
DB: Yeah.
RA: A spurt.
DB: Yeah, that's great.
And then during that time, were you supporting yourself by teaching, mostly?
RA: Yeah. When we first came down here, Chuck was one of the managers of the bookstore at San Diego State, and I got, about a year after we got here, I got a part-time teaching job at UC San Diego. At first, it was kind of on and off, and then after that, it was regular but adjunct.
I did that for many years. It wasn't until the early 2000s that I got a, you know, "real" tenured job at UCSD.
DB: OK. So, I guess, we want to kind of move in to talking about the different "spots" of processes for you and how it changed over the course of your career. So, in terms of like when you first started writing seriously and were kind of doing the pre-writing, the generative work for these poems, how did that look? What was the process for that?
RA: Well, I think, I always used a notebook. You know, I couldn't tell you exactly what the notebooks looked like way back then, but I always wrote by hand. I think I wrote by hand then—I'm sure I did longer, took me longer to write a poem, and it also stayed in the hand-written phase longer because back then, when you left the hand-written phase, you had to go to a typewriter. You're too young to know about typewriters, but they were enormously irritating because if you made any mistakes, you had to either start over or put whiteout on it, or you know, etcetera. And then, you would make a copy. I mean, you would print it out and if you wanted another copy, you'd have to type it again. I mean, right?
DB: Yeah.
RA: So, I mean, there's a limit to that.
So, you would kind of just do without when you thought you had pretty much finished version. You might be wrong, but you know...
DB: Yeah.
RA: Still.
DB: When you were working in the notebook, was it usually in a certain spot? Or could that be wherever you were? Was it just—
RA: Well, it would—I did it a lot at home, but sometimes outside.
DB: Outside. And was it something where you—had a line or an idea that then you would write down?
RA: Yeah, I mean, I often start that way—then, and still, you know. I can—just something that I hear or see, sort of peaks my interest. It could be something I read, and I'll write down a passage, or I'll write down something I overhear someone say, or even on television, I could hear something that I write down.
And I kind of collect those things like a magpie until something starts to take off.
DB: OK. And in the beginning part of your career, then, how—at what point would you go to the typewriter? Like when would you kind of feel like, "OK, this really needs to be typed?"
RA: Well, I guess, when I thought it was good enough to keep and good enough to maybe send a copy to someone to see what they thought, either an editor or a friend. So, that's pretty far along.
DB: Yeah.
So, would you—were you doing revisions within the notebook as well?
RA: Uh-hmm.
DB: And what type of revisions did it sort of start as? I mean, was it—would you just be crossing out and rewriting? Or would you—?
RA: I don't know if I would cross out. I think I would just, you know, go to another page and rewrite.
DB: OK. So, when did the computer start to enter in to this process?
RA: Let's see. When did I first get a computer?
The first thing I got was one of those IBM Selectrics that was sort of computerized, where you could make—you could save, and make a number of copies. But shortly after I got that, I was able to get my first computer. So, that became sort of redundant instantly.
I'm trying to think what year it was. I mean, it was probably only...when did...you tell me. When did desktops with word processing become available? It wasn't a Word. It was like Word Perfect, or Word—
DB: Word computers.
RA: Yeah.
DB: So, like mid-80's sort of?
RA: Yeah, maybe—
DB: —later than that?
RA: —later, maybe. Yeah. I think I got that Selectric in the mid-80's, maybe, you know—I probably got the computer by the late-80's, and I don't think I got internet until—there wasn't internet that you could get until the early 90's, probably.
DB: Yeah
RA: It's incredible now, to think!
DB: Yeah.
How did—so, how did that first computer come about? I mean, did you know a friend who had a computer and then go after that, or how'd you—?
RA: Yeah. I think, again, Ron Silliman (23:56) who worked in the computer industry—he worked as a marketer in the computer industry—he had one. I mean, he didn't live near me at that point, but we were in touch and he had one before I did.
But I guess, you know, really, I mean everyone was getting it at about the same time.
DB: Uh-hmm. So, you got a computer
RA: I don't remember. I mean, I guess it was gradual. I still, like I say, work in notebooks but I am sure that I started going from the notebook to the computer sooner than I would have on a typewriter, I am sure. But I don't have a clear memory of it.
What I do have a clear memory of is how the internet changed things. Because then you could send someone something and say, "What do you think? I don't know about this last line, what do you think?"
I mean, you could have that kind of conversation.
DB: Yeah.
RA: And if you do that in a letter—which I did, but by the time you got the letter back you'd already made up your mind—
DB: Right, right. So, in the early part when you were sending these by letters, you did that only a little bit and it didn't—how did you establish—?
RA: I think I did. I mean, I would type something up and send it, usually to a couple of people—two or three people—and I would get responses back. But it certainly—I mean, now we're so used to kind of this instant dialogue, instant gratification. Sometimes I think that that's, you know, maybe that's why I'm writing faster now. Really, it is the stimulation of that.
Because I'm still not—I guess, I'm insecure enough that I'm not comfortable in saying something is finished until somebody has said that they at least think it's interesting. I mean, it doesn't always have to be Ron. Sometimes I send it to somebody else, but I have to have, like, somebody's approval—not a 100% approval but, like, somebody has to think, "Oh, this is OK"—before I'll put it in a book. So that's sort of an integral part of the process. So obviously, if you could do that and get an answer in a day or two, well, you know.
DB: Yeah.
RA: Right.
DB: Right.
RA: So then I decide, at that point, whether I still need to revise.
DB: So, in the—like when the internet first starts coming and you start working, and kind of sending these things back and forth—was it just Ron Silliman (26:31) who was your kind of partner?
RA: No.
DB: Few more?
RA: I use to send them to more people. Lyn Hejinian, at first, and Bob Perelman, at first, and Lydia Davis, the fiction writer—she's a friend of mine. And later, Fanny Howe, too.
Now, I mostly just send them to Ron, and once in a while, to Lydia. Very rarely to Lyn Hejinian, but still once in a while, like maybe twice a year.
So, kind of that number of people has sort of shrunk.
DB: So you're looking for some sort of affirmation?
RA: Yeah
DB: Interesting, yeah. Do they give like specific line feedback? Or do they usually just give sort of—
RA: Ron does.
RA: I mean, it all—I could show you. This, I guess, is the kind of—my screen is dirty—kind of thing you might want to see.
So, let me go to my "Mail," and I'll go to my—
DB: Sure.
RA: —"Sent Mail," and you can see some of these.
Oh, this actually has to do with the internet.
I sent Ron a poem that mentions messages I was getting—it's actually in a poem from mileage.com—that I thought were funny. Well, so, Ron writes back. He said, "Not sure you need the Q and A at the end"—I had a sort of "interviewing myself" bit at the end—"Not sure you need the Q and A at the end, but other than the problems with the url"—he thought that since I was saying Mileage.com, which he says is a phishing site —he thought that, if that was ever published in an online journal, and somebody hit on it, clicked it, that I could be in trouble for that, which I don't know if that's true. He says, "You know that mileage.com is a phishing site. It sends malware to your PC if you follow through." And then I, at some point, wrote back. I said, "I don't do that."
RA: So, you know, that's just some of the kinds of—so there I am, there I am sending something to him and having a correspondence with him.
Let's see.
Here I am sending something to myself, just to kind of preserve it. Same poem but it has a different title with that point—there is mileage.com lit up.
DB: Oh, yeah!
RA: Yeah, because it lights up if you—it doesn't on my computer, but it does if you do it on the iPad.
DB: It does it in Apple.
RA: Yeah.
DB: Right! So, did you write that on your iPad?
RA: Well, like always, I started here and I moved it to the iPad, and then I moved it to the computer—-but I was sending—I think I start writing—usually, I write in the morning, sitting over there. And I don't want to be running up and down the stairs, so then after I'll just go, "You know, this looks good enough to kind of type." So, I'll type it here. And if I don't yet feel like sharing it with someone, I'll just send it to myself because that's a way of saving it.
DB: And that's when you could move it to your—
RA: Yeah
DB: —other computer?
RA: Uh-hmm.
DB: And so when did you start using the iPad?
RA: Gee, again, I got an iPhone maybe three years ago, and I got the iPad maybe two years ago. I don't know. Time's a blur.
DB: Okay. So—
RA: It's an old one, though.
DB: So it's been a couple years, two or three years. Did you ever work on the iPhone, too?
RA: No, too tiny.
DB: Too small of a typing format.
So then, back to the revision correspondence. Do you think that—why do you think that Ron Silliman (30:29) has kind of been the constant of all that?
RA: Well, because he's very confident about what he says, first of all, and he's also very specific. He doesn't always say why he thinks what he thinks, which drives me crazy, but he gives me something to bounce off.
DB: Yeah, and is he very prompt in responding?
RA: Often. Not always. Sometimes it's right away, sometimes it's not for days, depends on how busy he is.
DB: Yeah, and does he reciprocate? Does he send you things over?
RA: He never has. He doesn't like to do that. Other people have.
So, you know, that's fine with me, but—he writes really, really long, kind of book-length things, and he doesn't revise much. He doesn't revise like I do. He just has a different kind of practice, and he seems to be very invested in his own certainty about things more than I am. But some other people will send me things. Lydia Davis sends me things and Fanny Howe (31:25) once in awhile sends me things.
DB: And how did you kind of develop your revision process, from the beginning, I guess?
RA: Well, I guess, I was just always looking for the best word, for instance, and it didn't always come to me right away. But also I will just get parts of things and I know that they're not finished, you know, and then I just try to see what can connect and I'll go one way, one direction and try to connect, you know, B to A. And then B doesn't quite connect to A, so then I'll go on to C and see if that connects to A.
DB: And has that been pretty constant throughout?
RA: Yeah.
Have there been any big changes in the way you've approached kind of pushing the poem to its finished state throughout the time?
RA: Well, I bet there have, but you know, I was as much of a stranger to my twenty-four year-old self as you are, almost.
DB: Well, you did mention, though, that with the internet and with email becoming more—giving more easily available correspondence—you did start to speed up in the work. And do you think that's the only reason, or do you think it also has something to do with maybe moving onto more of a national scene?
RA: It could be that. It could be knowing that I have a supporting publisher. It could be just practice, you know, just that I have a better idea of what works now, you know—what works for me.
DB: Yeah.
And I know you don't—I think in one of your other interviews you said you don't really have, like, any intentions in revising your work, but are there primary things for different pieces that you're driven by? Like, are some driven more by sound, some driven more by meaning, some driven more by connecting the parts to the whole or disconnecting the parts to the whole?
RA: All of those things equally, you know. I mean, I am very interested in sound, and sounds—certain sounds can really bother me, or I could get stuck on one certain sound. So yeah, meaning is important to me, too. In terms of connecting parts because, as you know, if you've looked at my work, it often—
DB: —in sections?
RA: —in sections.
DB: Yeah, absolutely.
RA: And so, the sections might be written on different days; often are. And they often come from different sources or different inspirations, and—so then, the question is how they link in. And you kind of—at least if you're me, I shouldn't say "you", but "I"—want there to be some kind of possible perceptible connection, but I also want it to be surprising. I want it to kind of go somewhere that you didn't expect it to go, or that I didn't expect it to go. So, sometimes the first thing I come up with is too obvious and sometimes what I come up with is too random. It's like Goldilocks and the Three Bears.
DB: Has that sort of looking for that surprising turn, or idea, been a constant throughout? I mean, has that been something that's been driving you since you started writing?
RA: I've probably become more conscious of it, but I think so, yeah.
DB: And how do—so, could you talk a little bit about how, as you say, a lot of your poems are in sections and how those sections kind of come to be a whole? I mean, could there be several different days, and then in between those different sections become different poems?
RA: Sometimes that happens, yeah. I mean—
DB: Is it just a—do you just start to see connections? Does it—?
RA: Yeah, and sometimes I have an idea of what I want vaguely, but I don't know exactly where I'm going to get it or what the specifics are. But I—sometimes I have just a gut feeling about the direction that I want to go, and other times I don't, and then I just have to be surprised and just know that I want something and should keep my eyes open for it.
DB: And do you—I mean, there's a certain point where you say within the emails that you get some sort of affirmation. But then personally, when do you feel like a sense of, "Oh! That's surprising!" Is there like an "Aha!" moment?
RA: Yeah, sure.
Yeah, you have to please yourself first.
DB: Yeah.
RA: And I think one reason that I tend to send poems out is that I will be dissatisfied and fool with things forever unless somebody goes, "Hey, that's good."
DB: Yeah.
RA: I mean, I'll go, "Maybe it's not good. Maybe I should do something else." So, you know, I think that's why I need somebody to give me a kind of endpoint and say, "Cut it out now."
DB: Yeah.
RA: I mean, sometimes I know, but sometimes I can be insecure and just fiddle.
DB: Right. And then I guess is there any way—do you, once the poem kind of reaches the thesis binder stage, is there any time that you start to see the ways those are working and go back and revise there? Or once it's there it's usually kind of off limits?
RA: Well, I wouldn't say it's off limits, but I don't usually revise them, but I have. I mean it has happened that I've suddenly seen how something could be better and, you know, gone away from it, gone back to it and went, "Oh that could be better."
But I would say that's, you know, maybe one time in twenty.
DB: So they're more rare.
RA: Yeah.
DB: And when did you start using the thesis binders?
RA: Long time ago—maybe twenty, twenty-five years ago. They used to be easy to find, but now, like I said, they're antique—old school.
DB: Yeah, and before, when you were first putting your first collections together, how did that work? How was that looking?
RA: I might have had one even then. Because everyone used to. This is what used to happen. People—everyone used to bring these to a reading and just read from them. I don't even do that anymore because they're too heavy to carry. I just print them out. But that's what people used to do, so, everyone had one.
So we've talked about how the other people—
Is there any other role that other people play in the process of your revisions? Are there any other people that are important to those, to the kind of finding the finish pieces?
RA: Well, I think not really except sometimes my editor gives me a little bit of guidance—not about individual poems but about the order of poems within the manuscript. I usually think I know, but sometimes she has a different idea that she runs by me and we consider that.
And then, sort of moving on to the organizational— what I call organizational/archival—and we've kind of covered some of this, but when you were first—so in the early days before the computers, when you kind of hit that, what would you say a final piece is? You'd send it out, would you also keep a printed page?
RA: Oh, sure.
And that would be in—
RA: In thesis binders.
DB: —and how would you communicate with your publisher with those?
RA: I suppose we had to communicate by snail mail, how else was there?
DB: Right, and so you would collect those all—would you make a copy of it before you send it off?
RA: Oh, yeah. I probably Xeroxed it. I mean, there were Xerox machines.
DB: Yeah, OK.
And once things were published, and things, did you start to kind of keep an archive—and archive of your work at that point? I mean, did you have boxes with your papers in it even at the beginning, or did that start to come more gradually?
RA: That came more gradually. I mean, I wish that I had kept my letters right from the beginning, because I had letters from George Oppen (39:10) and I had letter from Robert Creeley (39:12). It really took me awhile to realize that this was going to be worth anything.
DB: Yeah.
RA: It took seeing some of my friend—the way some of my friends took it seriously, like Lyn Hejinian (39:27), and organized things, and treated it as if it was all worthwhile.
DB: Yeah.
RA: But I didn't, you know, I didn't come from an intellectual family or background, and so it wasn't natural really for me, and I had to learn it.
DB: I'm interested in that, and like how did—so, the lessons were just from watching them do that, or were they from the conversations? I mean, did you just sort of notice that Lyn Hejinian (40:00) sort of had, like, kept things better?
RA: Well, I think at some point she sold her papers and I went, "Oh, people sell their papers and they get money." And also I would notice that she wrote letters as if she was writing for an archive. I mean, she would kind of give you the back story that you already knew, and I'm going, "What? Who is she talking to?" The archive!
DB: I never thought of that as being one of the correspondents, but that's a good point.
Yeah, and so, I guess—
RA: I still don't do that. But I think email has pretty much ended that for most people. Now, people just shoot off emails and so I don't know what's happening to archives.
DB: Yeah, I know, right? I mean, is there any way you try to save your emails? Are there any that you—?
RA: I have saved emails, and even printed them out and given them to libraries, but I just—I think Ron saves everything. So, everything I send to him gets saved. That's how I look at it. He's my archivist.
I mean, I only—you know, there's only so much space in my house.
DB: Oh, yeah.
RA: I know you can save things on your hard drive and give your hard drive to a library, but God knows what's on my hard drive. So, so far I've just—what I do now is, if there's anything that seems especially interesting or valuable, I'll print it out and keep it.
DB: And did you—like when you first started writing the emails back and forth, and kind of like general correspondence, what was the sort of tenor of those? Did it still feel more like a letter? I mean, did you notice a gradual change?
RA: Yeah. I mean, sure, letters were letters and—I should go look up my old letters. I could go to an archive and look at them.
Yeah, I think you would talk about various things—how your life was going and then you would say, "And by the way I wrote this" include it—but you would be catching up. Sure, now we catch up all the time, you know.
DB: Right, so, kind of constantly. Are you on any social media things?
RA: I'm on Facebook.
DB: You do Facebook.
RA: And I'm also on Twitter, but I don't tweet much.
DB: Just follow whatever's going on?
RA: A few things, yeah.
DB: A little bit?
RA: Yeah, but sure, I'm on Facebook and that's how I get some of my news.
DB: Yeah, yeah.
Do you remember your first email? Or any of that sort of thing? Sort of nostalgic, but—?
RA: I don't remember my first email. I remember that Ron said that I had "ramped up quickly." That was flattering, so I remember it.
DB: Were you first given an email because of your work—because of UCSD? Was that your first?
RA: No, I got it on my own and when my son was still living here, and he helped me set everything up. I mean, you know, he was probably fourteen or something. So that's why I have a really stupid—I mean, my university address—I guess you wrote me at my university address? Or did you write me—?
DB: Yeah, I think both. You gave me the other one because you were traveling.
RA: Which is really stupid because it's "RAEA100900." I shouldn't say that anything my son said was stupid, but he was only about fourteen and I guess he thought that was—I feel like I'm James Bond or something with that email address, but whatever.
DB: Let me see here—
So, I mean, it seems to me like, in sort of talking about the progression, that the main difference—the main change—has really just been the kind of speed with which email allows you to kind of get to a point where you think things are solid enough for a collection.
RA: Yeah
DB: Is there anything else you can think of that really changed as technology changed, or do you feel like for the most part—not that the type writer and computer are the same—but that the relationship between the notebook and those sort of typing procedures were similar?
RA: Well, I was never a great typist, so I was always making mistakes. So, it was always frustrating. Of course sometimes I hate my computer, too. I mean, it's not a question of the typing issue, but just—you know, we all hate our computers.
DB: Yeah.
RA: They're slow. Whatever. Sometimes I'm yelling at my computer, "What did you just do?" You know, it'll lose a document and I'll go, "What? I did what? It's gone!" You know?
DB: Yeah.
RA: So, I have kind of an adversarial relationship with it, but I use it all the time.
DB: And if you lost something, then you would go back—what would be your first move?
RA: Well, supposedly you can hit—I think it's CTRL-X—and get it back, but that doesn't work very well for me.
DB: Would you go back to an email? I mean like if you—?
RA: Well, if I sent an email, sure.
DB: What does the revision, if it's just you on your upstairs computer, what does that revision look like? I mean, are you moving things around a lot or are you—is it more just sort of reading and then deleting and inserting new words?