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

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Devin Becker: Let's start this going. This will just catch both of us better.
Amy Gerstler: OK.
DB: [to Gerstler's dogs] Hi, guys! Hi! Do you want to get interviewed, too?
AG: I think they do.
DB: What do you want to be asked about?
AG: Digital bone recovery? Virtual meat?
DB: Did you see all the, like, new fandangled pet things? They can have a plug-in thing where you can teleconference with your pet and give them a treat. It's called, like, iCPooch.
AG: I know they have some things for people who are gone a lot where you can-like your baby, or with your dog-you can watch them.
DB: Right. And this one, apparently, it's like you put it on the ground level and it has kind of like a dispenser.
AG: Unbelievable!
DB: And so you can, like, say, "Come here!" and it gives them a treat.
AG: A robot gives them a treat!
DB: It is something else, for sure. And there's like automatic fetch machines now and all sorts of stuff. I was kind of fascinated.
AG: Wow!
DB: OK, so, this will take an hour, an hour and a half. If you feel-if you need to get a drink of water, you know, or go to the bathroom, it's fine.
AG: OK, same for you.
DB: Yeah, and I have-It's kind of in three sections.
DB: The first section is kind of a more quick, short-answer stuff about what you're doing now.
AG: Oh, OK.
DB: And it's based off the thing that-I don't know-have you met Collier Nogues, who was in my year? She didn't actually-she wasn't in the in the class with us.
AG: No, I don't think so.
DB: But she has a book from Four Way, and she's-
AG: Nice.
DB: Anyway, we did an article earlier that interviewed kind of emerging poets about how they did this. So, these questions are from that. And then we'll talk more about kind of the span of your career and how the processes have changed, or not changed, with the computer. But it's more-I mean, it's not-you don't need to-like if you feel like you need to talk about it, or if you don't, we'll just talk about how you work and how that goes. And then the third one will be kind of a series of questions more about, I guess, your feelings about the computer, and that will be it.
AG: Alright!
DB: Ok, so this is the section where we talk about how you're working, currently. So, if you wouldn't mind stating your name, your date of birth, and where we are right now?
AG: OK. So, my name is Amy Gerstler. I was born on October 24th, 1956, and we're in the area of Los Angeles, California, USA that's called Echo Park, which is close to downtown, close to Dodger's Stadium.
DB: OK. And also joining us is?
AG: Also joining us as guest stars-taking all the glory, as is appropriate-is Ted, the dog, and Gus, the dog.
DB: Yeah, OK. So, what genres do you work in?
AG: I write poetry. I do different kinds of journalism, more in the past than currently, but still some. I used to do a fair amount of art journalism, like reviews and sometimes catalog pieces, and sometimes essays about visual art. And I did other kinds of general journalism.
DB: OK, and what would you say your primary genre is?
AG: And I've written some Non-fiction and a teeny bit of fiction. Sort of.
DB: Alright, so all of them, essentially. Many.
AG: And hybrid stuff, too.
DB: Yeah, but your primary genre is-?
AG: Poetry. And a little bit of non-fiction sometimes in journalism.
DB: OK. What kinds of devices do you have, or own, have access to for your writing? What computer devices?
AG: This laptop is my home computer. And then I have two sort of travel ones. One is a MacBook Air, which is like this but much lighter and thinner. And then one is an iPad mini, which I don't write on that much, but I write on a little, and it's like an iPad but it's a little smaller. It's like kind of purse size.
DB: Yeah. So, you have then-you have three devices on which you kind of write between?
AG: That's right.
DB: How do you share the documents? Do you share documents between the three? Or do you just send them to yourself?
AG: I like tech and I like computers, but I'm not as savvy as I should be. So, I send things to myself via email. That's usually the main way I do it. Sometimes I can plug them in to each other and have them share.
DB: Yeah. And so they're all Macs?
AG: Yes.
DB: And this is your primary device, though, you would say?
AG: Yes.
AG: There's also one at work, but I just use that for work.
DB: OK. You don't use that to actually write?
AG: It's for work.
DB: Yeah. In addition to your own devices, are you using physical-are you using handwriting, or notebooks, or anything?
AG: Sure.
DB: And so, how-what's sort of the ratio between the two?
AG: Ratio?
DB: I mean, how much are you working on kind of the physical formats, versus digital formats, I guess? And we'll get back to this, so, this isn't-we can talk about it later, too.
AG: I think actual writing is almost all on computers now, but note-taking is probably 75% notebook and pen, and 25% take notes on the computer.
DB: At what point would your notes kind of lead in-like, say, a physical note-lead in to a computer document? Do they usually lead to a poem like that, or is that a different-?
AG: Yeah, I often-my sort of poetry practice involves weird, different kinds of research.
DB: Yeah.
AG: And so that's digital because a lot of the research I do now was online, and I often print things out, and then either highlight parts of them and use them or take notes out of books, or take notes off of websites on paper and then input it.
AG: Does that answer the question?
DB: Yeah, and some of these will be a little repetitive, and I hope that doesn't bother you, but it's just the way-
AG: No, not at all! When you're trying to gather data-
DB: Yeah. But we'll talk more about that.
AG: Yeah, yeah. I get that.
DB: OK, cool. In what format do you save your files?
AG: Word .docx
DB: OK. And as you're creating drafts of your-
AG: Unless someone needs a .pdf, or unless someone has an old computer and has to have .doc
DB: OK. And as you're working on individual pieces on your computer, do you save over what you've written, or do you save new drafts for each one? Or is it a combination?
AG: It's a combination.
DB: OK. What are your naming conventions for you files?
AG: The names change, because I was so happy when I realized that you could change the names. Because I start out-and this is more true of poems than anything else-but sometimes I'll start out calling something, you know, "Ostrich Parade," or something, and then by the time I get to the fifth draft, there are no ostriches in it anymore, and I'm going to remember something else in order to be able to find it quickly. So, I will change the name.
DB: So, the title is like a prompt for you own memory intentions?
AG: See, the title is a prompt for find-ability. Quick find-ability.
DB: OK. So it's not necessarily going to be the title. It's just maybe something that-
AG: That's right. Sometimes it is, sometimes it isn't. And sometimes later on, down the line when I actually finally do title the thing, I will change the name again.
DB: Again?
AG: Yeah.
DB: OK. And as you're going through drafts, do you add numbers to the title?
AG: I do if I'm saving drafts. And what determines whether I save drafts is if I want to trash old drafts because I know I don't want to go back to them, if I think I might want to go back to them for some reason.
DB: Do you print out your writing to revise it?
AG: Sometimes, yeah.
DB: Sometimes.
AG: I'll do like a bunch of drafts, just revising on the computer. And then at certain points, I'll print it out and mark it up by hand, and then input the changes.
DB: Do you save any copies? Like, do you save those copies?
AG: No.
DB: No, they're just kind of means to the final product?
AG: Yeah.
DB: OK. Do you often back-up your work, your Word document files?
AG: I have Carbonite.
DB: OK, you do.
AG: Yeah.
DB: So, it's backed-up in the cloud, and it's just a folder on your computer?
AG: I've gone through all different kinds of back-up things. I've had all different kinds of viruses and crashes and-you know.
DB: Yeah. And so do you find this to be-
AG: I got religious about backing up.
DB: OK. So you've had experiences where you've lost-
AG: I've had viruses, and I've had bad computer crashes.
DB: OK. Anything where you lost significant work?
AG: Not so much, but the virus stuff destroyed a computer and was expensive, and really time consuming. And really nerve wracking.
DB: I know. Yeah.
AG: So, it was like, "Ugh! Never again, if possible."
DB: So, you have Carbonite, and they're all saved-do you connect that Carbonite folder to different devices, or you just have a folder on this device?
AG: I just have it on this device, because this is the central one.
DB: That's the central kind of location?
AG: There's nothing on-when I do things on other devices, I make sure they come here, if I care about them.
DB: Yeah, OK. When you say you're finished with the poem, is there a protocol for saving that in a certain place? Do you move it to a different place, or-?
AG: It goes in to a different folder, and I usually print out a hard copy, and I have sort of one of these kind of notebooks that I put it in to.
DB: Yeah. I have seen several-I think Bob Wrigley has that same one. OK. So, you do keep print copies of your final drafts. Are they organized? Are they leading to the next manuscript, essentially?
AG: Yeah, that's why, because that's the form that it's going to be in and delivered in if I'm lucky enough to get something published.
AG: Right now, it's not-I'm not digital books, so I also want to be able to look at it in the form that it's going to exist in, and play with it.
DB: Once they're in that folder, do you still end up going back and revising, or-?
AG: Sure.
DB: OK. And are those usually smaller-I mean, do you ever go back and do large revisions in there, or do you usually kind of like moving lines or changing words, or-?
AG: It depends. I would say moderate revisions and also if you consider getting, you know, tossing poems off the team a "revision," then yeah. Yeah, I do a lot of that.
DB: Yeah. Do you have any sort of standard ways that you-once everything is done and finished-do you have like a standard archiving process, like where you have like a folder you never touch, or a place you keep all of those from before?
AG: Well, yeah, I have those from before, but also, if I'm lucky enough to publish a book, then there's a file here. That's what I send to the publisher.
DB: And you keep that with all your others, in that Carbonite folder with everything else?
AG: Well, Carbonite just backs-up everything, right?
DB: Right, right. Yeah.
AG: And then also allegedly, eventually, there's an actual book. So then it exists in at least three forms.
DB: OK. And do you consider-which one do you consider the kind of final product? Would it be the book, or-?
AG: Yeah, that's what I'm working towards. You know, the book with the cover and-at this point, you know, who knows what the future will bring.
DB: Yeah, I know. Have you ever received or sort out information about methods for working with your digital files or digital archiving?
AG: No. I mean, you know, I've talked to friends about what the best back-up systems are, and I've talked to people in the computer store about this because of aforementioned bad experiences. I wanted to have like five different systems and really be safe.
DB: OK, great. OK, well, that's the sort of "where are you now digitally" part. Just making sure everything is going. And, it is. That's great. [To the dogs] Sorry, I made you get up. You need to get up?
AG: Well he just needs to know what's going on. Don't you, Ted?
DB: Yeah.
AG: You do.
DB: He's such a cool dog.
AG: He is a great guy.
DB: Alright, so, this is more sort of, broadly-speaking. I have two to start, and then I'll explain a few things, and then we'll go forward. So, how long have you been writing professionally? And I know that's a wishy-washy term, but-
AG: No. I mean, I'm fifty-seven and I've been writing-you know, I started publishing, you know, small poems in school magazines, you know, back when I was in college, when I was, you know, 18, 19, 20. So if you start it there, then that amount of years. If you start it when I had, you know, my first chapbook, then it would have been like after I finished college.
DB: OK. Well-and this is kind of, I mean, leading up to the next question, which is kind of a broad question-but could you describe kind of the arc of your career? Like, you know, where it started, when you started to write the poems that you consider your poems, and then kind of how it moves through time up to now?
AG: Well, I published a small chapbook maybe a year or two after I finished college when I was 21. So-
DB: And where were you at college?
AG: I went to Pitzer College, which is one of the Claremont colleges there in California.
DB: And then-and you can talk about like who you studied with or anything like that-but you went from publishing a chapbook and then-? And then your first book was like 1981, or-?
AG: I had that. I was lucky enough to have this guy Dennis Cooper, who was kind of my mentor and friend. He had this wonderful press called Little Ceasar Press, and he did this small chapbook of mine. And then David Trinidad-who's this terrific poet who teaches at Columbia College in Chicago but used to live here for a long time-had a small press called Sherwood Press, and he did another chapbook of mine. And then after that, actually someone who wasn't my friend, who was actually almost a stranger, published an actual non-chapbook. Which is, you know, a book with a thin spine, but an actual spine, rather than staples or stitching.
DB: OK. And what book was that?
AG: That book was called Early Heaven
AG: So, that was the first one that was a little bigger. And then I went on to publish around thirteen books-some of them chapbooks, some of them actual single volumes of poetry. And then some little odd projects like collaborative book with artists, or collaborative book with a fiction writer.
DB: OK. And during this time, were you teaching? Were you working at other-I mean, I guess, how were you supporting your writing?
AG: Well, I was going to be a Speech Pathologist and/or work with autistic kids. I was a child psychology major in college. I was always interested in poetry and loved it, and got to take a couple of classes at Pitzer from this amazing poet-who's not as well-known as he should be and isn't alive anymore-named Burt Myers. But I was kind of on the path to work with kids who had speech problems. But when I graduated from college, I wanted to have some time to work on my poetry because I've just been in school wall-to-wall, like many of us, straight from high school to college. So, I took some time off and I moved to L.A. I was accepted to a speech pathology program at Boston University, but I wanted to meet other writers and I wanted to try to make my writing better. And I started taking odd jobs. I worked for different doctors in the front office and in the back office-washing off instruments, answering phones. And I worked helping take care of a schizophrenic woman. I worked all kinds of funny, odd jobs. And that wanting to improve my writing, and read more, and write more, and learn more about poetry, and come in to contact with other writers kind of turned into my life. So, I'm still trying to make my poetry better and learn more and read more. And somewhere along the way, I got some jobs at a non-profit literary arts center that's called Beyond Baroque, which still exists in Venice. I worked there and in a bunch of different capacities, and at the library-a little tiny library, non-official library. Since you're one of those exalted breeds, a librarian. And I helped with the reading series and events and publicity, and did different jobs there. And then because my friend Dennis Cooper helped me get a little job writing art reviews for this magazine Art Forum, suddenly I was very lucky, and I was writing these monthly art reviews for Art Forum, which didn't pay very much, but it made people think that I was an art critic. So I couldn't get any teaching jobs teaching writing initially, but I did get hired as a kind of art critic. So, I started teaching in art school. And then as I published more and wrote more, and did more different kinds of journalism, I was able to get teaching jobs teaching writing. So, I worked at a bunch of different colleges, and I had a job at a little residency program-a wonderful program-, the writing seminars at Bennington College. So I'd go to Vermont twice a year, and I taught at USC and CalTech, and at my alma mater. I taught at the University of Utah, CalArts. A bunch of different places.
DB: Great. And now, now you're at University of California- Irvine.
AG: Well, I've had this job just for a year, and I was super lucky. I can't believe it-to get that job.
DB: Great. OK. So, that kind of gives us a framework to work in. And then I've sort of divided the sections in to kind of three-like we're talking about the process, and like, the first part, or sort of like the three-part process, the first part being kind of like compositional pre-writing, generative process, the second being revision-sort-of process, and the third, being organizational or archival, the part where you're kind of finishing, putting things in book form, etcetera. And we can talk about it in different ways, but if it works with your style, we'll just-
AG: Yeah, yeah.
AG: I don't have a rubric I need to impose on this.
DB: Good, good. I made one up.
AG: Yeah, well, that structure is a good thing.
DB: OK. And so, what I'm going to ask is sort of like how you work in those structures at the beginning of your career, and maybe how those have changed. So, when you first started writing your sort of more professional work, what were your kind of compositional, pre-writing, note-taking, generative practices at that point?
AG: Well, this now gets to era and what generation I am, because I'm 57, so when I started writing it was typewriters, you know? I took a type a typewriter to college and it moved from-you know, I took typing in high school-and it went kind of quickly during my little time capsule of when I was sort of coming up. From portable typewriters and little cute cases that were sort of like a big lunch box with a little handle, to increasingly kind of complicated electric typewriters. With all their weird accouterments like carbon paper and white out, or weird-they started making typewriters that actually had a correcting tape in them. It was like white and you would type over the letter that you wanted to correct with this white, chalky strip that was in there as part of the typewriter. Before you had to like shove a weird little piece. So, all these kind of very low-tech-viewed in hindsight-ways of dealing with making texts, correcting texts, revising texts, and also copying text. And then to the first sort of big-I remember when, you know, I first got a computer. It was sort of like, you know, I was ZZ Top. I had a tall music system here-it was this big, bulky thing, and there were things that went under the desk. And the printer had like-the print was really ugly looking. Dot-?
DB: Dot matrix.
AG: Dot matrix. And it had these weird strips with holes that you tore. Then to, you know, this sleek, little improved several generations of smaller, better computers and printers.
DB: Yeah, and so, I guess, when you were still working with typewriters and the early computers, how were you creating, let's say, the poems? I mean like were you starting in a notebook and then moving, typing them out? Were you handwriting them and moving to typewriter, or did you start-?
AG: When I started writing poems when I was a kid-before I had access to a typewriter or learned to type-it was, you know, spiral-bound, lined notebooks. And then it kind of moved to typing things, which you'd think would have made me revise a lot, and I did revise, but I love computers. Every time you wanted to change a period, or move texts around, you had to retype everything. And you were sometimes dealing with these crappy kinds of paper like that onion skin-it was erasable, but it was so like thin and fragile and weird-looking, and tactilely bizarre, and kind of see-through-y. And made the poems seem like they were really not substantial. Smeared easily.
DB: So like when you had an idea for a poem, you would go directly to your typewriter and start typing, usually?
AG: I think I would write in notebooks and then at a certain point transfer what I had to the typewriter. Because the typewriter was something-it isn't actually easy to revise on a manual typewriter. I mean, you have to roll the thing out and mark it up. There really isn't an efficient way of marking things out, or inserting a list of possible words you might want to use instead of the word choice that you had. So, I think I would work on it up to a certain point and typing it was sort of like, "Oh, this is kind of an official draft. I really want to-"
DB: OK. So once you hit that point, and then you were starting to take shape to the real thing.
AG: Because typing something now-putting something on the computer makes it ultimately flexible, but it was sort of the opposite with the manual typewriter. It wasn't set in stone, but it was sort of typing it up-
DB: And you're saying, too, that once it was that you got to the typewriter stage, it didn't encourage that much revision because-?
AG: I did and I have old things that are, you know, typed scripts with lots of markings on them-blah, blah, blah-but it's just that revision on a computer is kind of a one-step process, in the sense that it stays within that medium. But in order to revise on a typewriter, you had to roll it out. You had to get a pen, you had to get white out, maybe you had to get an eraser. And then you had to put the changes on a new, clean-
DB: So, you would try to make-I mean, once it got to where you were doing that, it was pretty far along.
AG: Typing something up would be like a milestone every so often when you've been through a few drafts-to see it typed up, and to mark that up.
DB: When did you start to work on computers? And those early computers-did they did they feel like a drastic change?
AG: Oh, having this big machine, figuring out how to use it, and figuring out what it all meant, figuring out what a "word processor" was? You know, and it would have problems, and getting some dim concept of what an operating system was-DOS?-all these different things. And it really divided the sheep from the goats, because there were writers I knew who had the kinds of minds, or still do, that really worked well with computer interface, if that's even the right vocabulary. They just took to it. And there were other people who were always-it was always mysterious to them. It always felt foreign and robotic and bizarre, and they preferred other things, or were just always awkward with it, or always needed a lot of help. Who needed an intermediary helping them with their computer.
DB: And some still have that-
AG: No, I mean, computers are a particular thing, and if you have the kind of mind that works well with them, you can just zoom and you can device-up. And kids now, younger people now-who are born in to various stages of, "Well, it's the most natural thing in the world"-you know, you get your first iPhone when you're 4 months old. It's, you know, a language that they learn. It's a native language for them. But for some of us older people, it was... You were lucky if you were the kind of writer who... And I know people who... The wonderful poetry teacher that I had at Pitzer, Mike Harris, said that he liked the computer, and the typewriter. The feel, the pace, the sound of the keys. It's almost like a musical instrument for some writers. They kind of play it, and-
DB: But for you, that was never-
AG: What I like is I can take a chunk of text and move it up here and it doesn't take me 40 minutes to retype the whole damn thing. And if I don't like it, I can try it down here. And if I want to print out a copy of something as a prose poem, and a copy of it with some line breaks, and look at them next to each other, I can do that in a flash. All that? I couldn't be happier. Because then I'm spending my time reading and writing and revising, and not spending my time [makes typing sound]. "Oh! Now I have to do the whole thing all over again!"
DB: Yeah, so, I guess then, when they did come along you were in that spectrum of people who took to it fairly easily?
AG: I can't say that I'm techno-great, but I like computers.
DB: You didn't employ-I guess, employ's the word-employ an intermediary between you and your computer?
AG: I have friends who are tech-wizzes who I definitely-when I'm like, "How come all my email is now being spit back in to my box that I already downloaded, and I have 695 pieces of email?" You know, when I'm like, "Help!" I do that all the time. Or, "How do you make Word, you know, not turn everything purple, or-?" But I'm probably in the middle, I think of the spectrum. I wish I was one of those people who just understands everything at all levels, and could set up a website, and knows about programming, and can fix my own computer, and speak the lingo. But-I'm attracted to that and I'm interested in it. I'd like to be more conversant, but I can't say that I'm great. But I'm not the super scared, like, "I hate this thing. I have four manual things in the closet because that's what I really prefer."
DB: OK. I guess, can you pinpoint a timeframe when you started with computers? I mean, do you know where you were?
AG: Well, I remember when I was in college, a guy who I'm still friends with-this wonderful guy named Bryan Tucker who's a visual artist and also a very good art writer-he was one of those people who was like, the computer thing, it was like made in the shade for him. When we were in college, there was a computer there, but it took up a whole room, and he would like go in there and make things, and print things out. But there was a while between when I graduated from college in the 70s and when computers were sort of starting to make their way in to writers' lives, like in to their homes. So, I started probably-it would probably be the very beginning of the 80s, maybe, would be my best guess.
DB: Yeah. And I guess, how long did it take you to realize that you had these sort of capabilities that you'd maybe been wanting that you didn't even know, like the ability to move things around? I mean, was that initial, or did that take a couple of generations to where it felt really easy to do all that sort of thing?
AG: Well, some things-there were certain perks that manifested pretty immediately, like just having a copy of the thing and being able to print it out.
DB: Yeah, that was pretty amazing.
AG: Right away, that was like, "This is way better."
AG: And being able to correct things and move them and change them.
DB: And that was immediate, like that was-?
AG: I mean, those are things that rudimentary computers-if memory serves-were able to do.
DB: Yeah, copy and paste being the-
AG: Yeah, you didn't have to like, you know, be the best friend of the Xerox machines always anymore. Right away, that's a life improvement.
DB: OK. And what were you using the Xerox machine for?
AG: If you wanted to send work out-I mean, this is pre-email, right? I mean, this is-You're making me feel such a dinosaur, antique! But that was inevitable.
DB: No, no!
AG: You know, so, if you wanted to apply for a grant, if you wanted to show somebody a copy of something, if you needed to send somebody a copy of something, if you wanted to send out a manuscript, if you wanted to send work to a magazine, all of that involved either carbon paper-yuck-or Xeroxing, right?
DB: OK, so that was kind of an early, organizational sort of work, there. So, you have this sort of beginning stage, you know, where the computer is this kind of revelation. Are there kind of stages between then and now that you could delineate, or is it just sort of a gradual-?
AG: I mean, there are so many wonders as far as I'm concerned, and if I was more tech savvy than I am, I would be conversant with even more wonders. And it's just not for writing, although that may be your topic of interest in data collection here for teaching, too.
DB: Right.
AG: It's unbelievably helpful. [Telephone ringing.] I mean, it's just changed teaching completely, with PowerPoint, email as a way of distributing class materials or communicating with students, and blah, blah, blah. And in terms of writing, every time there would be-the smallness of this, the portability of this, its different capabilities, visual stuff, being able to put visuals, being able to have access to all these typefaces. I mean, it just looks better and better. Now, it's wireless. I don't have to plug everything in to... I mean, to me, the blessings and the bounty are just-for me, I'm not sensing that there's a loss. It's like there might be a downside in terms of polluting the world with what these things are made out of-that they're not recyclable, things like that. And that is a Bad Thing, capital B, capital T. But in terms of making it easier to store, send, revise, read, research, communicate-you know, what's not to like, in my view?
DB: And your poems have such a large, imaginative scope. And I'm wondering, was there a time like when you were first using computers, you know, not so much the internet-how were you generating all those ideas and material at that point?
AG: Dude, libraries!
DB: Libraries, alright!
AG: Libraries, libraries, libraries, and you know, old used book stores, weird old books that I would look at, or magazines. Stuff like that.
DB: And as the internet became more sort of part of one's daily life, did that change?
AG: Yes, I still use libraries, and I still haunt the remaining dusty, old, funky, used bookstores. But even with libraries now, if I'm looking for something specific, I can look online. It just saves time. You know, I don't have to trudge around to all the local libraries looking to see if they have any books on Marie Curie, or if they have a particular title by so-and-so. I can see if it's in the library. I can find out what the library hours are. I can talk to a librarian if I need to.
DB: How do you go from, you know, browsing serendipitously to like having a draft of a poem? What's the process there?
AG: Well, I get ideas for poems, and sometimes they're phrases or sort of topics, or weird feelings, or vocabularies, or I want to write a poem based on the initial sort of generative impulses-"Oh, this has to do with hurricanes and my mother-in-law." You know what I mean? Or something like that. And I love research. Research is, to me, such a rich, poetic, amazing exploration, and is full of the unexpected. Like-this is another thing that relates to sort of digital stuff, at least in my mind-one of the only things I miss about pre-digital is card catalogs, because, thumbing through a card catalog, I would be taken on many more weird tributaries than I get doing a computer search in a library on whatever. You know, I'd be looking up the history of ferns or something, and I'd come across the history of shock treatment, and I'd be like, "Oh, that's way more interesting than ferns. What do we got here?" And then go find that book or something. So, that I kind of regret, the way computer indexes are set up. It's actually a little harder to find things, I think, on topic. But anyway-I'm talking about going off on tangents and research, and I just went off on a tangent.
DB: No, that's fine. I guess one question I have is, you know, I mean, research for a poem seems like it would be different from research for, like, a journalism piece.
AG: It is. It's imaginative research, in a way. And I think the research is done differently and also has different objectives, so you kind of pursue it differently, and you sort of glean different things from it. In researching, like for journalism, you're usually looking for facts and sources, and different kinds of information, and where different kinds of information are, or what the scope of an issue is or the subject is. In poems, it's sometimes really vocabulary, like a certain diction, or bits of color in a kind of structure. And sometimes it's facts that are going to get bent or distorted, or rubbed up against another set of facts, or data, or vocabularies, or made-up stuff. If that makes sense.
DB: No, it does. It makes a lot of sense. And so, I guess, in comparison, then, would you say that, like for your research-your journalism research-do the computers really sort of aid that? Because it has some more specificity, I guess. But you're saying you miss the sort of broader research.
AG: For poetic and literary kind of research, I definitely miss the kind of strolling through the card catalog and all the different little blooming subjects that you would come across. Although, occasionally, in doing any kind of research-even a very sort of scholarly or fact-based project-you would come across something useful but that wasn't something you were looking for specifically, something that you didn't know was going to be there. Whereas that would be serendipitous in a kind of journalistic- or factual-type research, and it would be totally the point in more poetic or literary research may be.
DB: That's interesting to think about.
AG: Although they both partake, I think, of each other. Like sometimes, in doing sort of "poetic" research, if you're really just like, "Yeah, but I need to know five things that bears actually eat for this poem so I can pick one that sounds good," you can find that.
DB: Yeah. So, the sort of final question about this sort of early, generative stage-is there any way that you're working now that is new, that is not different than the way you worked in the past? All this sort of ease of printing and revising, or just sort of generating-the internet, and everything kind of being with you at all times-has that changed your ways of making poems, or-?
AG: Absolutely! It absolutely has. I mean, I go to the library less because there's so many things I can access online, and I can print them out at home, or parts of them. I can, depending on what their security and parameters are like, I can sometimes lift a phrase I want to use out of a website and put it right in to the poem, which is very convenient. And then tinker with it, or whatever. Yeah, there's so many things. I can grab images. I can look at images. If I'm like, "Ah, I wanted to describe a crow's foot, but what does a crow's foot look like?" I can look at an image of a-yeah. And then if I do that, if I'm Googling that or looking at that, it'll also come up like, "Oh, yeah. Crow's foot also means, you know, the lines around your eyes," and then it'll show me images of that. I mean, that'll send me somewhere in the poem.
DB: So, there's a type of serendipity in that, I guess, a little bit, too.
AG: Sure.
DB: Yeah, sort of pun.
AG: But, I mean, in poems, as you well know. The pun is often a welcome fellow. At least in my world.
DB: Yeah, absolutely. I guess I'm sort of interested, personally, in that middle period, like the period, let's say, before Google. Let's say like late 90s. I mean, like, do you remember like what the computer use was like then? I mean, do you feel like it was like a limited kind of expression of itself for you, or you were still using the library and primarily using it more as a composition tool?
AG: It felt kind of a transitional time-like, using both, getting comfortable with email. Because also, doing journalism, that was a big thing-like turning things in that way.
DB: Yeah, so that must have changed. Yeah, that's got to be a big change.
AG: Big, big difference.
DB: Yeah.
AG: And doing edits that way.
DB: Oh, yeah, like going back and forth so you didn't have to-much quicker
AG: Yeah, like almost the whole time that I worked at Art Forum, it was like-well, at the beginning-it was like over the phone, you know, "Blah, blah, blah." And then it would be like somebody would mark something up and send it to you over email, and then you'd go argue with them over the phone. But you wouldn't be sitting there over the phone going, "OK, in paragraph 3, about the middle, this sentence, this word"-you know what I mean? Again-making things much more efficient, speeding things up. And also, it was a lot about-for me, but I don't think I was alone in this-a lot about learning curve. Figuring out how to use the computer, and what you could do with it graphically, also, with poems. Because suddenly, you know, on a typewriter and on the early computers, you couldn't play with typeface, you couldn't play with type size. People who wanted to make concrete poetry or poetry that uses, you know-they really worked hard. You know, all those guys back in the day they worked hard to get that written and then made sure that it went in to print as the artistic, graphic, on-the-page creation that they wanted to make.
DB: I know. They would've loved the internet. They would've loved having these capabilities so much.
AG: I'd like to think of those guys like Apollinaire. They'd be like, "Oh, why wasn't I born!"
DB: I know. I think Marjorie Perloff said something about that, I think. Like why were you-you know? I think everybody was there, and I mean, it hasn't come back. I feel like that ability hasn't, in some ways-I mean, this is side-talk, but. It hasn't expressed itself in ways that-I mean, there's definitely "viz-po" and a lot of interesting stuff, but it hasn't gone to where-there's no movements, or anything, I think, that I can find.
AG: I mean, there's some sort of graphically-there's all that, you know, word-cloud, you know, Wordle, where you can input things. And then there's also people who are, a lot, using different internet or research functions as kind of theme, or structure, or kind of concept. Like kind of conceptual poetry.
DB: Like Flarf.
AG: Yes, and all its sort of grandchildren.
DB: Yeah, right. Absolutely. I know, and those are definitely fascinating. You mentioned the typeface and using that. I mean, did that influence your work?
AG: Well, a little, because I liked to do, you know, what sometimes gets called, you know, "multi-vocal" stuff. And I have a weird fondness for italics. I always have. You can indicate different speakers, different voices, different-you know? I didn't used to be able to use italics, make things bold, make things bigger. You know, make different columns.
DB: Yeah, absolutely.
AG: Suddenly you have-
DB: Magical powers.
AG: Yes, exactly!
DB: Did you ever have those sort of inclinations when you were working with typewriters or in the early days of computers? Were you like kind of, "Oh, I'd really like this to look like that"?
AG: A little bit, yeah. Mostly because I wanted to use italics. I mean, I'm not one of those people who are like, "Yes, I want it all over the page. I like it, you know, coming down like rain. I want to look like an explosion of letters here." I'm not super in to that, but there were small things I wanted to do. And now, you know, not only can you do them, but you can try ten different typefaces or sizes, or you can make it a color.
DB: Right. What part of the process, for you-I mean, what sort of, in the progression, what sort of using the different types of typefaces, or playing around happens? Does it happen more in the early stages, or like are you-maybe in a later revision stage-are you like, "Maybe if I move this here..."-?
AG: Mostly later, because need for that-the poem's alleged need for that-kind of evolves as the poem evolves. I don't often start by saying, "Well, this is going to be about someone who has Alzheimer's. So there's her voice, and here's the voice of the doctor, and then here's the voice of the daughters." It's like, "So, I'm going to need at least three different typefaces," or "going to need to spatially differentiated," or blah, blah, blah. But that might evolve as I'm writing the poem.
DB: Right. So now we move on to, kind of specifically, revision. When you were first starting to write, what were your sort of typical revision practices, just like nitty-gritty? Like how did it work? It sounds like you moved from notebook, usually, to a typewritten thing, made some changes, and then every sort of stage was another typed out piece?
AG: Kind of. And I actually-this is making me remember things-I did a lot of cutting with scissors and taping together with scotch tape. I did more and more and more of that. So, you can't believe how happy I was. And, you know, you'd lose pieces, or the wind would blow them, or the dog would eat them. You know what I mean? And then if you tried to Xerox something like that, they would have these big, gross lines, and it would just look like, "Yay! We're in kindergarten!"
DB: The original cut and paste, really.
AG: Cut-and-paste is called that for a reason! So, I just couldn't have been happier-and I'm pretty clumsy anyway, I'm not a good visual artist that way-to not have to spend the time, to not have to look for the scissors, to not be screwing around with tape and glue, and to be able to flip it back if it didn't look good that way and try it another way, make three versions and look. I'm into it, deeply.
DB: So then, in terms of your revision, the sort of the cut and paste, the copy and paste, the rearranging, has always been, though, pretty fundamental to your practice.
AG: Once I started to realize that-as the late, great David Foster Wallace said, and as many other people have said-that writing is revision, all the way through. Yeah-for me it is. Things change a lot. I often, you know, first start working on something-not that I ever know what I'm doing, but it's really groping and trying things, and additive. And then you get to parts of revision that are more subtractive. And then you kind of go back and forth, and then you get to a certain point where you go, "Oh, now it actually seems like it's turning in to something, so what are the new sort of requirements one needs for this new path that it's taking?"
DB: So, would you say, between those sort of those types of revision-you would say, additive, subtractive and maybe substitutive-do you have a primary-
AG: And research, definitely-pulling things, other elements, once it starts to take shape. You know, like, "Oh, this isn't about autopsies. It's about, you know, my feet. My feet, dead or alive." Suddenly then, it's like, "Oh, OK." Then I'm suddenly looking at podiatrist magazines.
DB: OK. Is there a primary mode you go to? Or it seems like you use-it seems like it's all over the place.
AG: All over the place.
AG: My problem in life.
DB: And then, I guess, when did this kind of writing-this revision realization-start to really influence your own practice? Was it from the beginning, or did it sort of hit at some point?
AG: When I was, you know, a kid and when I was in junior high and high school, I was, you know, laboring under the misapprehension-which is a common one-that, you know, "Oh, I wrote something. How sacred. How lovely. How wonderful." You know, "Ah! You mustn't touch it! It's just kind of like a shrine." But this is not the case, at least not with me. So, once I got in to college, I realized, "Oh, you know, you work on this stuff and you think about it, and maybe you show it to people who you think are smart or interested in the topic, and they might have a suggestion. Or you work on it and then you read some more and you see oh, look at what that person did. This could solve my problem here." And that it's just layers and layers and layers and layers-getting to what the thing might be and then trying to work on the thing and make it into something that could work. That it's all just-writing is revision, because you're constantly making decisions. You know, sort of like perception is revision, and filtering, and choices, and-
DB: That's a good analogy. I like that.
AG: It's a mess, and you're nuts, and you can't attend to everything. And also, as you get older, I think you realize that every poem doesn't have to contain every single thought, feeling, and reaction you've ever had in your life. That, actually, you can get to the universal through the specific. Maybe. If you're lucky.
DB: Do you-I mean, like, so when you go to a piece to revise it, do you have any intentions in mind?
AG: Sure. Sometimes some of them survive the process, and sometimes some of them are, you know, things that end up leading to other things, but end up getting discarded. And sometimes some of them are red herrings, and the thing doesn't end up going anywhere. So, it either goes in the trash, or one line for me gets cannibalized out and goes to something else, and the rest of it goes in the trash.
DB: In terms of kind of what drives your revisions, is it like sound, or structure, or meaning, or is it sort of like a combination?
AG: Hopefully. I hope and pray that it's all of those things. Some people have a good head. You talked to Michael Ryan. He has such a good head for all those things. For the kind of emotional content for form, for sound and music and beat. All of that. I'm not so wonderful. Sometimes a period of revision will be like, "This is just about trying to dig out the idea," and then after it feels like some of that maybe coming out, then sometimes I will have to be like, "OK-you really have to be hearing this now and work on the sound because-"
DB: So, it kind of goes instead-it's sort of like compartmentalized, sometimes?
AG: Yeah. And then, hopefully, once it really gets going, you're able to kind of see, smell, hear, feel, taste what's going on. Or sometimes it'll be like, you work on something for quite a while, and you'll be like, "You know, it might help shape this for it to be in quatrains." Or, "Is this really a prose poem?"
DB: Yeah. That's always an interesting question.
AG: Right. Or, "Since this is about a couple who hates each other, how about couplets?"
DB: Did you learn how to improvise, or did someone else teach you?
AG: Dennis Cooper taught me a lot, and being in some workshops. I mean, that's one of the things that workshops supposed to teach you. I mean, one of the things workshops usually teaches you is how to survive workshops, and how to be in them. But I think things that have taught me about revision are showing work to other people, being in workshops, reading, reading literature, and also sometimes reading craft stuff. And going to lectures, talking to people. And I feel like I learn a lot from teaching. That's one of the real, unbelievable benefits of teaching. I learn a lot from reading students work. I learn a lot from being in workshop with them, seeing how they do it-just being a part of it. Seeing what they're reading. Incredibly helpful. And then I've had a few, you know-Dennis Cooper was an unbelievable mentor. And some other teachers I've had were, you know-when you have a writing teacher usually that, when you get down to it, they can help you learn about your strengths. They can help you work on your process and maybe be less scared. And maybe they can help you figure out how to navigate the literary world and what kinds of writers and stuff you might like-open up stuff like that for you. But I think what maybe they most help you with, often, is revision. Like, Dennis Cooper was such a great mentor to me that I can still sometimes hear him in my head.
DB: Do you? I mean, like, what do you hear?
AG: You know, "Why are you using this word? That's not tight enough." Just things that he would say. One time he said to me-and lots of people have said this other ways, I'm sure-but he was like, "You have to cultivate your obsessions." And I was always a little ashamed of my obsessions. But he was the opposite. His obsessions were like, "Art is our religion!" And he wasn't, like, preaching. He just kind of calmly, quietly said it was what he thought. But these were new ideas to me, and rocked my world in a big way. I was like, "Oh, I'm obsessed with drowning. I could like-instead of thinking that I should just go to the doctor-I can actually read things about it, and write things about it, and pursue it." Or, "I'm obsessed with, like, ancient Egyptian tombs," or something. You know what I mean?
DB: Yeah. No, it's kind of a freedom, right?
AG: Freedom and-I hate this word, but-a permission. Like, "No, that's what artists do."
DB: Right. Well, you don't know until-
AG: Well, no. Well, some people seem to know it instinctually. Some people really do. And there are other, more timid ones of us that need somebody to kind of light a fire under them. And he kind of did that, and a few other people did that for me.
DB: Throughout your writing, have other people played roles? Like, I mean, he seems to have played a role in teaching you how to revise. Have other people played kind of more specific roles in the revision process for you?
AG: Well, I mean, I didn't study writing, unfortunately. You know, I was a Psych major- undergrad. And then when I was much older, I went in to a low-residency writing program in non-fiction. And all the teachers I had there were really great at, you know, taking your copy and going over it, and showing you, "Ah, this is-you're avoiding something here," or, you know, "This is-." Because it wasn't always just like "out, out, out, out." It would be like, "I want to know more about this," or, "I'm so curious about this," or, you know, under currents-things that haven't been mined out of it yet. Or that because it's you-and you're kind of, you know, deep sea fishing in your unconscious-subconscious in a way-that you might need another person to either say, "This is excessive," or, "This isn't the most interesting thing," or "You think this is about, you know, Abraham Lincoln, but it's really about you wanting to have a baby. So, get real to yourself!" You know what I mean?
DB: Yeah.
AG: And sometimes people are wrong, but sometimes you're like, "Oh, god. That. Uh-oh, you're right."
DB: Yeah. And do you have those relationships now with your poetry, or-?
AG: I try to do it for myself, and there are people I show things to now and again. But, you know-and I don't want to sound like Grandma Moses or anything, but-I think, for me, it seems like it gets a little harder when you get older, because everyone is so busy. And, you know, I can't ask my students to look at my work, because it's supposed to be going the other way around. Although I'd like to, but-I mean, a lot of them, or most of them, are really kind of smart and brilliant and, you know. It would be great, but that is not fair.
DB: That could maybe be something different in workshop, though.
AG: Yeah, "It's all about me today!" You know. So, I have a few people I try not to tap very often, and much later in the process. And I try really hard to do it myself, and to come back to things multiple times from multiple angles. Because, you know, when you're younger, you have a lot more friends, and you're all young, and you have a little bit more time, and maybe people aren't locked in to jobs or families, and you're all artists and writers together coming up. And then there's some winnowing. At least this has been my experience-probably other people have a different experience-but some people stop doing it and do something else. Which is cool. Some people get very busy, or you lose touch with them. And then a lot of people have jobs and lives that-you know, they're already reading their students work, and trying to make a living, and trying to keep their life together, and do their own work. So, you know, you're like, "Hey, here's sixty pages of my poem on top of your busy, multi-tasking life. Have fun!"
DB: Enjoy!
AG: And try to get back to me within the next two days!
DB: Right, right.
AG: It's harder.
DB: Right, right. No, that's definitely one of the things. And then, I guess, in terms of when you do get to the part of the process where you're putting together a book-well, this is kind of the third stage, I guess. I mean, how do you go about-I mean, I guess, there's the revision process there, too-putting the collections together? What are your sort of drives, intentions, and has that changed over the course of your career, too?
AG: Well, it's different with different books.
AG: Because they're different animals, right?
DB: Right, yeah.
AG: More or less. For me, if it's a book of poems, some books of poems are sort of like a scrapbook, or a portfolio, or something, and some of them are more thematic, or the book itself has some kind of looser type-in my case, it's usually loose-structure, or trajectory. And even the ones that are kind of a sampler, I spend a fair amount of time trying to figure out, "What's the first poem? What's the last poem? What's the movement? How do they work together? How do some of the last lines of ones feed in to the title or the first line of the next one? What looks good next?" In a way, it's sort of like, though it's not exactly like, interior decoration-you want it to flow, have ups and downs. With me, it's like, "What's the mixture of dark and funny ones?" I mean, you do mini version of that when you're reading, even. And then sometimes it's like, "Oh, this is going to be in sections," and, "Are these sections going to be numbered?" It's basically manuscript construction, right? And if you're dealing with-I mean, I've been really lucky in being able to pick a verse because, you know, it's a funny thing with poems. It's like hardly anybody publishes poems anymore, and if you're lucky enough to get a book of poems published, usually they're not treating it like it's, you know the next big best-seller. They don't have a big investment in it. So, the fact that it's much less a big deal to them has its pros and its cons, but one of the pros is, usually, they're not going to impose a cover on me, because it's not like, "Well, this is going to be a blockbuster, and therefore, we need to have this kind of cover." So, I get to pick covers by artists that I like usually. So, thinking about that, and how the title-the overall title of the book-where that's going to come from.
DB: Yeah. Getting back to kind of the computer thing-how did you learn, like without the computer, and then did it change once you got-?
AG: Well, this is where I need to be more... This is one of many places where I would love to be more tech savvy, because I keep asking friends of mine who are graphic artists, like, "Isn't there a program, or piece of software, where you can layout a book? Like, in a grid?" Because I end up spreading the book out like on the floor, and then putting it together, paging through it, you know? Because, like with what we're talking about at the beginning, I want to be looking at it in a way that's analogous to the final product. But it would be very convenient if I could look at something that showed where each page was and what are the double-page spreads were etcetera. And I haven't found something that works like that, so I'm sitting here getting dog hair all over the pages, and either putting it on the floor or trying to do it on a long table. Things like that.
DB: And is that how you've been doing it for the whole time? So, this has made it easier to move things around and stuff within the document, but in terms of constructing the document, you're still on the floor?
AG: In the dark ages with, you know, lint and dog hair and crumbs. But I'm sure at this point there are multiple programs-there must be-that if I knew how to use them, I could pull the thing together and look at it on a grid, or two grids-something like that. Or scan things in.
DB: You would think Word could just do that. I'm sure it's not that difficult, but they don't do a whole lot.
AG: Yeah. I've not found something that's easy to use, and cheap and available to me that I know of where I can just do that.
DB: Right. I think, yeah-I think most people use InDesign, but that's a $200, $300 program, and it takes learning. It's a learning curve.
AG: Yeah, and I'm always like, "Oh, I could be writing instead of reading this piece of software that I'm only going to use once every three years, when I'm like about to have a book come out. But I should still do it.
DB: I don't know. I mean, it seems to work for you. So, I guess in the process of making this, how do you track the pieces? Do you just keep them in this-you print them out and you put them in these sort of folders? Is that how it's been consistently done?
AG: I do that, and I have a folder of things that I'm currently working on, and I keep sort of looking at that and seeing if I'm reaching critical mass. And then there's ones that are sort of sink to the bottom that I know I'm not going to use unless I get some revelation and I can really clean them up, or if there are others that are contenders.
DB: OK. So, when you're all done with this, like, you're done with the manuscript and stuff, what are your sort of archival-the physical and digital-practices there? I mean, do you put that in a certain box, and put that somewhere?
AG: Well, I make the folder that is the book that I'm going to submit, to see if I can get it published. And in order to have arrived at that, I've printed things out and done my gungy little no-tech, on-the-floor, dogs-walking-over-it, leaves-falling-on-it kind of procedure that I was shame-facedly describing to you moments ago. And so, I end up with a paper copy in a file, at least one. And also at that point, I'm usually trying to bribe a couple of friends in to reading it before I send it off. So, I'm either emailing them, or handing them a copy. I've got a copy. There's a copy of the computer, there's a copy in whatever virtual world my back-up system backs it up into, and eventually there's a copy that's submitted to the publisher.
DB: And then so, say like a few years on, do you still have like those archival copies somewhere on your computer of those manuscripts?
AG: You know, I mean, now I will because the way I used to back-up was just on an external-
DB: External hard drive?
AG: Yeah, just plugged-in. But I have problems with those, and also that if the house burned down, that would burn down, too. But now, with things being backed in to clouds or other people's systems or stuff like that, it's just going to exist there. But when I have a book come out, I just think, "OK, that's it-the book came out."
DB: The book is the thing.
AG: The book is the thing. And then in the floating galaxy of Carbonite, there's also a copy of it, and that's sort of enough.
DB: Right. So I mean, do you have like a different feeling, say about like the printed out manuscript that you worked on, and like the document file on the thing? I mean, does this one feel more dear to you?
AG: I'm not precious about that sort of stuff. People yell at me every once in a while, like, "What? You don't keep your draft?" or, "You don't keep copies?" or, "You don't-?" And I'm like, "My office is this big. I get rid of things so that I have, you know-two writers live in this house, and books are coming in like every moment. It's just a constant battle with the rising swell of, you know, paper avalanches. So, no, I don't keep a lot of the stuff like that, because I'd have room for-
DB: New stuff?
AG: Yeah.
DB: Yeah. OK. So, I have some sort of some general questions about computers, and I'd like to talk a little bit about correspondence and teaching, and that's it. And these maybe a little repetitive, but I think we can get at them really quickly. So, do you think then that with the kind of advent of personal computing, did it affect greatly your writing practices, or your writing style?
AG: Writing practices, for sure. And I think productivity.
DB: And productivity? OK. In terms of style though, do you think that there were definite changes?
AG: Well, it certainly aided and abetted my tendencies towards research, and it quickened and made more efficient, and broadened the range of my research reach, if that makes sense.
DB: Yeah. No, it does. Are there any sort of styles, techniques, or formats that you think you lost from moving to the computers?
AG: Not for me, man. I just gained time, because you just had to retype everything.
DB: I think we've covered a lot of these. I mean, one of the questions is-does the internet play a role in practices?
AG: Yeah.
DB: I'm pretty sure it does. Do you ever disconnect when you're working? Is it ever too much of a distraction for you?
AG: You know, that's not-the thing I do is I just close email.
DB: Oh, OK. So, email is the kind of-?
AG: You know, the way this computer-you know, the way things are set up, it's like, if you're doing any task on the computer, whether it's for school, or if you're working on a poem, or if you're doing research, or whatever, you know, the email thing is like-I always have the sound turned-off. My tech friend makes fun of me, but I'm very weird, and I don't like the noises the computer makes. I find them distracting. But even if you turn off the sound, there's a little box that comes up that not only tells you that you have email, but is like, you know, "The medical quadrant at the University of California-Irvine wants to know if you want to participate in the study of people who have bad skin diseases." You know, this is like flashing in the corner of the thing every-not like I'm so popular or anything, half of it's spam. But still, that is interruptive and distracting, and so, I just turn email off. But I know, for me, I like to do research-and even my use of a dictionary, or use of a thesaurus, or use of a synonym dictionary-all those things are on the internet. So I don't have to, like, go in another room, then run and come back. I can just work with the internet on and the email off.
DB: Right. OK, I'm just going to-usually, this is what happens when you cover most of the things. I just want to catch a few more things. Well, we sort of talked about this really briefly, but are you able to find the files that you're looking for on your computer, like if you're thinking about something?
AG: Usually. Not only because of the naming and the capacity to easily update or change names as much as you want, but also sometimes I can't find a file, but I remember I used the word "artichoke" in that poem. So, you can search for that. Like I'll think, "Oh, OK. Well, god damn it, I can't remember what I named the thing!" I changed the name five times, but then I'll think, "Well, I used the word 'toothache' in there, so, I can search for that."
DB: So, you're trying to look for "toothache"-like, before those capabilities were available like in the 90s, etcetera, were you more specific about your titling? I mean, were there other things that you did then that-?
AG: It still, occasionally, takes me a while to find some things. But mostly, between those two things, I can. And before-I have more stuff on my computer now, I think. Back when it was just titling and I couldn't search for a specific terms or names, there were less things on my computer.
DB: It was mostly for writing, yeah. How do you kind of feel about the security and fixity of your files? Do you worry about them, or do you feel pretty confident in your situation? You've said you had some issues before, so I'm assuming that's really kind of influenced your practice.
AG: Well, if you mean security of the computer in general, I think everyone is pretty freaked out about that. I don't get scared about people stealing my little poems. Because I don't think anyone cares. But in terms of invading my bank account or my personal information or my passwords, or other computer things-you know, contemporary life is a nightmare of losing privacy and being surveilled. The computer is a major source of that. So, I'm just as scared as anyone else.
DB: Yeah. I guess, I'm sort of thinking more mundanely about if you are just worried that your documents will all sort of-you know, Carbonite drops and we lose them. I mean, like, is that something, or do you feel pretty secure at this point? And were there different stages in the writing that you were like much more careful about them than you are now?
AG: Now that you've said, "Oh, Carbonite drops," maybe I'll get another one, too.
DB: No, no-I mean, they're got several different servers.
AG: I mean-I think between my printing stuff out, my computer, my multiple devices, and Carbonite-
DB: No, you're really well set up! As a digital archivist, I can tell you that.
AG: OK, happy to hear. I'm probably more or less OK, and if I'm not OK-
DB: No one's OK.
AG: Yeah-the meteor comes and we're a firing inferno of a planet. Well-nothing I can do about it.
DB: Yeah. But you came to this practice because of-
AG: Bad experiences.
DB: Bad experiences.
AG: Both my own and hearing about other people's.
DB: Yeah. So, I guess, in terms of sort of corresponding with other writers about your writing, did you do a lot of that by like typewriting in paper in the beginning? And then how does that sort of changed over the course? Utterly different?
AG: I mean, I had a postal scale. You know, everything was like weighing stuff, going to the post office, and stamps, and, you know, printing. You know, which was fine, but now, I mean-email is a dream. The only thing that bugs me about-well, there're two things. One is security, and the other is that it's not as reliable. You know, I always think that the next technology is flawless, you know? It's god, it's perfect. But yesterday-it turns out that my server seems to have a problem with Gmail, and will not send. You know, 2/3 of people I know or do business with have Gmail, and so now, "Oh, 10% of things I send to Gmail are not getting there? How fantastic! That's really great!"
DB: Oh, yeah. I know.
AG: So, what's that? But, no, email's, I think, great for writers, for correspondence, for sending people-I mean, going back and forth with revisions. All that.
DB: And do you feel like there's a difference in feel between the ways of communicating, I mean, sort of regular mail versus email?
AG: Well, these are all mediums, right? I mean, yeah, they're mediums, or technologies, or both, and they have their own characteristics. It's not the same as a genre, but no, they require different things of us as producers and consumers, and they have different effects. I find it difficult to believe that anyone would argue with that. So yeah, email has many of the same characteristics but is different from a written letter. And a letter written on a manual typewriter is different from, you know, Charles Dickens dipping his pen, if that's indeed what he did. You know.
DB: I'm sure he did. Yeah. So, are there ways in which you save certain digital correspondence?
AG: Oh, yeah. Some emails I print out, and many I save by leaving them on the computer. And again, since the gods of Carbonites are supposedly looking out for me, it's saved there, too.
DB: But you do do specific things to save specific correspondence sometimes?
AG: Yes.
DB: And the with the physical correspondence-do you save specific things there, too?
AG: Sure. Once-not bragging-but once, I got a little letter from John Ashbury, a tiny one about something, and bet your bottom dollar I saved that.
DB: Yeah.
AG: Or, once I wrote a review of a biography of Frank O'Hara, and his brother like wrote me something, you know, a little card thing. I totally save things like that. Because they're meaningful, not because I think I'm going to sell them on EBay or something.
DB: Right, no, absolutely. So, as computers came in to your work life and into your teaching, did this-I mean, I know that changed dramatically. What do you feel are like the differences between, you know, having the sort of immediate access that we have now versus where you were, before, corresponding more with mailboxes than in person?
AG: For teaching?
DB: For teaching, yeah.
AG: Gosh, I'm not-I mean, I want to take classes and be able to take better advantage of this, but I mean, I have taken to bringing an iPad to class. Because, like we were looking at a-I think it was a Frank O'Hara poem-and it brought up Betty Grable. None of the undergraduates in class, understandably, who Betty Grable was. So, I was able to go dit-dit-dit: here's Betty Grable. You know? Pin-up girl. Here's who she was and here's some biographical information. Or we can look up a word, because there are not books in the classroom. In the old days, I used to sometimes bring a dictionary to class. And I was like, "I can't carry all this stuff!"
DB: So, it's always been important to you, though, to give kind of outside-context in your teaching?
AG: I'm teaching writing, and books, and literature, and English. We need to be able to look stuff up. I mean, you know, that's kind of a given. So, the fact that we can have a dictionary, or people can be arguing about whether, you know, negative capability was something that Keats thought of, or Britney Spears. I can now look it up and say, "Hey."
DB: So, is this the first year you brought the iPad in to the class?
AG: No, I started doing that a few years ago. Or somebody's written a poem based on a painting and-
DB: Yeah, you can look up the painting.
AG: Things like this are really good. And if I was more tech savvy, when I'm lucky enough to be booked in a smart classroom, I could actually project that stuff or material. I want to get to that point where I can do PowerPoint things, or I can project the poem. You know what I mean? Different things like that.
DB: Absolutely, yeah.
AG: So, every aspect of teaching the kinds of things that I teach, you know?
DB: And I guess, you know, this entrance of-
AG: You know, workshop-You know? Everyone sends their poem-
DB: Yeah, by email. I think when I was there, we still had to go drop it in the mailbox.
AG: Right.
DB: Has the entrance of this into the classroom had an effect on your own writing at all?
AG: Entrance of something in the classroom-?
DB: You know, I mean, like all of a sudden you have a device small enough that you can bring in and use in a very powerful way whereas before, it would have been, you know, huffing in that. Like has that affected you, I mean, in your relationships with your students and then your writing? Sort of a bad question, but-
AG: Well, you know, you want the classroom to be a vivid, lively, energetic, productive place. And when I was a little kid, there was a lot of stuff in the classroom. And now, there isn't. The classroom is sort of like a white cube, in a way. So actually, digital stuff, to me, substitutes for, or contains, the idea of having a lot of books, or a lot of pictures, a lot of reference things. In the classroom again, which is really actually important to make something. It's not exactly hands-on in the way that a Chemistry class would be, if you're working with beakers and petri dishes and stuff like that, but it helps connect the things that you're talking about in classroom to the concrete via the digital, I think. And make it real, and make it vivid, and make it connected, and for you to be able to follow ideas and reach out to the connected ideas and see where things are coming from.
DB: And then, I guess in line with that then, do you feel like the students you have now have a different, maybe cultural technical understanding than they used to?
AG: Completely. No, completely. Every generation of them does, and then I do-I mean, I try to fake it and act like I'm all... I bring my iPad to class, even partly, to be like, "OK-I'm a bunch older than you, but don't write me off. I'm actually-." Yeah, exactly. So, "Don't kick me out of the world quite yet."
DB: Yeah, yeah. Is there anything-I mean, I guess the students you're teaching at this time, in this year, are probably more connected than any students ever, right? But are you seeing like a difference in their proclivities, or anything like that?
AG: No, I mean, this is-they have grown up, you know, completely differently. I mean, when I talk to other teachers, you know-this is "duh," everyone knows this-but one of the only downsides is everybody has a computer or a device. I'm very lucky with where I get to teach and what I get to teach. I'm not usually having this problem, but a lot people are having this problem. You know, people are there shopping for shoes, or looking at watches, or talking to their friends, or looking at porn. You know what I mean? And they're like, "Hey, I'm taking notes." And I'm like, "No, you're not! You're not. You're buying electronic cigarettes while we're supposed to be talking about something else." So, there's that thing about computers in the classroom.
DB: So, I mean, like finally-and thank you for your patience in answering all of these-
AG: Oh, sure.
DB: And this is kind of the last sort of-do you have like any sort of broad thoughts about how, you know, the advent of personal computer has affected writing in this period of time-in the period of time that is your kind of writing career?
AG: Well, I kind of think everything with this whole conversation is that-and sadly, I'm not a good synthesizer or summer-upper-but my overwhelming reaction is gratitude. I'm super grateful that it makes it so much quicker, easier, more efficient to research, to connect to libraries, to connect to students and other writers, to correspond-to exchange texts-to get hold of texts. You know, Project Gutenberg, blah, blah, blah, blah, libraries online. Everything. And I'm so incredibly grateful that it makes it easier to keep track of and store documents and images, and exchange them, and to work on things. I do not miss screwing around with white out, having a Selectric typewriter that I can't even lift, having to cut, physically, with scissors and Elmer's glue to try to move text around in a poem or a piece of journalism. Don't miss it. Wouldn't want to have to go back there unless it was to save the Earth from being so polluted that we can't live on it anymore. So, I'm grateful. And I find these things exciting. I don't keep up as much as I should mostly because of time, but I feel incredibly fortunate to live now because of that.
DB: Well, thank you very much. Alright, that is it.
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: 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.
(Conversation about some of the art around Glück's apartment, and the print she used for the cover of Village Life)
DB: If you would state your name and the location we're at for this interview.
LG: Louise Glück. Glück is spelled with a ü and an umlaut, and the name is Hungarian. We're in Cambridge, Massachusetts in my apartment.
DB: Of course, I know the answers to many of these questions but—what genres do you work in?
LG: Poetry. I have written some essays and some forewords to books when I was judging first book prize contests. But in the main, poetry.
DB: Are you going to collect those essays?
LG: Yeah.
DB: Good, those are so excellent. You worked really hard at them, I know.
LG: I worked so hard, and they ruined ten summers because it made me frantic with anxiety—the idea of trying to serve a new talent and to describe its uniqueness. And, you know, it's a natural offshoot of teaching, which I've loved for years. I loved everything about judging those contests, and I loved working with the poets on their manuscripts. And in the early days before Yale Press was convinced that this was worthwhile, I used to buy a plane ticket for people so they could come here and spend three days working.
DB: Okay.
LG: Then I would make very detailed recommendations, which they were free to not take because the book had won. On the other hand, they weren't free to change the books any which way because I could say, "This is not the book I chose." They could stay exactly as they were, or they could respond to suggestions and work further. Many of them actually felt a great need for that kind of work and they just didn't have somebody who was willing to take that kind of detailed daily interest.
DB: From what I've experienced, it doesn't seem to be a very common thing for the selector to take a real interest after they choose and then they're done—and they get their money and they're on their way.
LG: I think that's sort of how most of them feel and most of them also don't want to read a lot of books. Or in some contests, they're not permitted to. They're sent ten finalists screened by—
DB: Who knows?
LG: It varies. But if these manuscripts are being screened by people whose aesthetic judgment you question, you don't know what you're getting. So I asked to see as many as possible with the understanding that nothing would be thrown out until a winner was chosen because if I didn't find a winner in a hundred manuscripts, I was going to see the next hundred.
DB: Right.
LG: And that was all fun because you didn't have to read each book through to completion, and you didn't have to write a little paragraph evaluating it the way you do for other kinds of things. If you didn't love it, it was unlikely you would choose it. You would put it in the "unlikely" pile—and my living room was filled with piles, identifiable by me—and then at the end, I would read through the piles to see whether something got promoted or demoted. Some years were thrilling, I mean, it was too much stuff. In those years, most of the runners up ended up winning.
DB: Some other—?
LG: Well, later Yale prizes.
DB: Oh okay. You would encourage them to resubmit.
LG: Yeah. Some people would submit like three and four times.
DB: Yeah, that's interesting. I want to know who it is.
LG: Well, we would do that when that's off.
DB: Okay. So what time of year were you usually doing that evaluation?
LG: It worked out very well because a lot of that time, I was just working half time at Yale, not in the spring semester, and I would get the manuscripts in December, right after the semester ended. I tried to give myself a couple of weeks of blank. And then the cartons would start to come from the people who were screening, and Yale allowed the appropriation of a mechanism that I had picked up from Michael Collier when I judged the Bakeless prize that he supervised. He had each poet who was judging choose younger poets to screen. So I chose ten poets and they got paid a pittance, and each of them read a hundred books and sent me ten, and kept ninety. That meant that I had someone to talk to about each of these manuscripts. And sometimes we would talk before they even sent things and they would say, "Well, do you want to see this? I'm on the fence." I had great people screening for me and they were people whose judgments I trusted and who sent me very broadly diverse manuscripts. One thing that I wanted was a series in which the books weren't all alike. And they're not. Anyway, that was great, but it meant that all the prose writing I did for ten years was writing forewords. So I have a stack and a few other essays. It doesn't make as pleasing a collection as the first one but I can't stand the idea that it's just going to go nowhere.
DB: No, I would be very excited to have that book.
LG: Oh well, good. Do you have an idea for a title? Not three words.
DB: Not three words?
LG: Not like "Proofs and Theories," "This and That." Not a clone.
DB: No.
LG: I don't either.
DB: If I think of some options.
LG: Please, I really need it.
DB: Okay.
LG: I'll acknowledge you.
DB: Is it coming out of FSG?
LG: Yeah, but not for awhile.
DB: Not for awhile. You've got this next book.
LG: Yeah.
DB: Okay. Well, that was the first question.
LG: That was the first? What was that about? It wasn't about digital anything!
DB: No, it was just general. I went to AWP this year which was terrifying.
LG: I've never been.
DB: Yeah, you should never go.
LG: That's sort of what I think.
DB: But there was a panel with Richard Siken and—who were the other two?—
LG: Arda Collins?
DB: Arda Collins and—
LG: Fady Joudah?
DB: Exactly, and they were talking. I caught the second half, so I heard Siken talking about his working with you on Crush, which was really funny. He's funny. I didn't know how funny he was. The book is pretty intense but—
LG: Right. And he's a great visual artist.
DB: Oh yeah? Oh! I like that.
LG: I think he's amazing.
DB: Yeah.
LG: He made these envelopes because he thought he was going to be living in Europe, and so he made—that one's wonderful—all of these things. And, you know, the message was the envelope. I don't know how you can frame them.
DB: Yeah, who knows? They're very nice.
LG: Aren't they wonderful?
DB: Yeah. He has another book coming out too.
LG: Yeah, he does, which I saw a long time ago. And Peter Streckfus has a new book, and it's wonderful.
DB: I really love his first book.
LG: I love that book. I love that book and I just think he's an amazement. And Jay Hopler has a new book that he's peddling. Those first three I worked with really closely on the first books, and with Peter and Jay, I worked a lot on the second, too. With Richard, much less. I mean, it's funny because he needed a lot of editing. His poems were way too long, and his stanzas were too long. The lines were too long. But you had to preserve that avalanche sense—that headlong sense—and so it was very hard to figure out. But once he saw a way of approaching the language to edit it and still preserve its character, he was an excellent editor. And he may feel that he just knows how to do it on his own. I mean, we talk on the phone and I saw early versions of a lot of the poems.
DB: Yeah, and Crush has become sort of a phenomenon.
LG: A cult book, I know.
DB: It's interesting. I mean, I remember I first heard about it at Bread Loaf that year. I was there and somebody said like, "Have you read Crush?" I was like, "No, I'm sorry." And then I caught it. We know the MFA students at Idaho, and some of them are teaching it. And the guy who was actually working for me in Digital based the final poem in his thesis off those lines and that sort of stanza style.
LG: Well, a lot of people sound like him. You can see, they read the book and then they can't get out of it.
DB: Yeah, that's the danger.
LG: That's hard.
DB: So your primary genre is poetry, correct? What kinds of devices do you have access to or use for writing?
LG: I have access to an iPad—but I have never written anything on it except a terse email. And I cannot bear reading poems in that form. In fact today, there was a conversation with my publisher because I finally figured out a way—to their satisfaction—to convert their poetry listings to ebooks. The question was, would I give my permission. But I cannot bear reading poems in that form—scrolling down a page. You have no idea how long the thing is. You don't know whether you're in the middle or at the end.
Miranda, who is my "daily editor," not my "big guy" editor, who was a student of mine at Yale—you know, it's very funny. I have all these students now in positions of—I hesitate to say "authority"—but I turn to them for solace and advice all the time. Miranda is quite great and her judgment is wonderful. And she was a wonderful beginning writer, too. Anyway, she said she thought it was a good idea. She said for people who are used to reading in this form, it's not such a violation. But it makes me uneasy. For example, when I was in Stanford and friends would send me drafts of poems as we do—as I do through the mail, or at Stanford, I would give something to a secretary—but I just have to go to someone who can print it out.
DB: Print it out on paper.
LG: Yeah. Well, I have to be able to move my pen around and make notes, first of all. I have to see what it looks like, what the duration is, and I have to be able to read the beginning and the end—I have to have it all in my head. Mainly it's that I don't know how to make notes otherwise. But I have this [iPad] that gives me fantastic pleasure in other ways. I love it and it's an endless amusement. I keep it very near my bed, or on my bed. If I wake in the middle of the night, I turn on the light and I see if anybody is writing to me. I always loved getting mail, and now I have that experience around the clock—except that I check it every four minutes, and I'm so heartbroken when there's no change. It's just that same old email from Amazon or some website that I patronized once. I have a regular old fashioned cell phone. I only got a cell phone about five years ago because I'm taxi-dependent and I needed to be on the street and calling the guy. So it doesn't receive emails or anything like that.
DB: It's a regular iPad? Just, like, the first?
LG: No—
DB: The larger one or the smaller one?
LG: The iPad that I have?
DB: Yeah.
LG: I'll show you, because how it looks is part of its story.
DB: Okay.
LG: Yeah, the little one—I don't know what size this is.
DB: That's the regular size. They have the minis, now. That's the only kind of different size.
LG: What happened was, I went to—some of this has to be off-the-record—this event. I was invited to this thing, the Golden Plate Award, sponsored-by/held-by something called "The Academy of Achievement." I mean, it sounds so spurious and ridiculous, but you showed up and you got $10,000. It was in Washington DC and the hotel was enormously swank—I mean, super swank. So I asked my agent to find out what was the fewest number of days I could go and still collect the fee, and it was one. So I scaled it way back, but then I found out when I arrived that the dinner the night before for the honorees had been in the Chambers of the Supreme Court with the Justices. Just the Justices and the honorees. I could've eaten dinner. This is the part that needs to be off the record.
DB: Okay.
LG: [{off the record}] but anyway, when I arrived, part of my welcome package was this thing [iPad], and it was all programmed with the winners and their bios. The entertainment, the last night when we all got our plates—
DB: You actually got gold plates?
LG: Yeah, I mean, the room was very, very good for a banquet meal. It was extraordinary. I mean, if you squared off this room, this is the whole thing. It certainly wasn't bigger. It might have been a little smaller. So picture an intimate space. I always want people to guess but it's ridiculous—what they are going to guess? It was like seeing Mozart: it was Aretha Franklin.
DB: Really?
LG: Aretha! She was there right where the tulips are. So the whole thing was eerie. Anyway, the guy gave me this [iPad] when I arrived. I said, "Don't give me this. I'm never going to use it. Give it to someone who can make use of it." He said, "I have to give it to you." And I said, "But I won't use it. I don't want it. I'll leave it in the hotel room. Please give it to someone else." He said, "I have to give it to you," and he thrust it at me and then I was holding it, and then I seemed to have it. So I took it to the hotel room and I'd seen how people push the screens so I pushed the screen. Nothing happened. I mean, it wasn't connected to anything, but I thought, "I apparently don't have the gift." So I then brought it home—well actually, I had somebody ship it to me—and then I kept looking at it and thinking, "I guess now that I own this, I should learn how to use it." But I lingered in that state for about six months and then at some point—I have former students from Yale I'm still in touch with, and the Yale students sometimes come up here to work on their stuff, and one did. And I said, "What do I have to do to learn how to use this?" He said, "Well, you need to get Wi-Fi." And I said, "How do I do that? Do I call AT&T? Do I call Comcast?" He said, "Call Comcast." So I called Comcast and they asked me questions I couldn't answer. "Do you have a blank? Do you blank-blank?" I said, "I know nothing. You have to just assume I have nothing."
I thought, "This is not going to work." It wasn't working, so I called the student back and said, "Write me a script. Here's the kinds of things I was asked—tell me what I say." So I went back and I recited my script. Someone came to the house and installed a device. No one had told me that it had this little strobe flickers. And I am epileptic, so I thought, "Oh, this is never going to do." So I called the student again and he said, "You can turn it around. Just turn it so the strobe is facing another direction." And I did, but then I still didn't have an email account, so then someone else came up to work on poems and I got an email. Then, I was so horrified at this transformation that I didn't do anything for another six months!
And then Robert Pinsky—I told him I had an email and he sent me a photo of one of his grandchildren. I opened this little thing and there was a photo. I thought, "Wow." So I learned certain skills. I still can't add an attachment. No, that's not what they are called. An app. I don't know how to add an app, so somebody has to do that when I—
DB: Need an app.
LG: Yeah. Like, I wanted HBO because I couldn't—
DB: HBO To Go?
LG: But then I have all of these names and passwords, and I can never remember what they are. Then they ask me, "You say you want to change your password?" Yes! And they ask me my special secret questions, which make absolutely no sense. "What is your favorite pet's name?" I didn't have pets. I mean, except when I was a child. And they say, "Well, we can't change the question because the person who this is came up with this question." And I think, "How could I? I never would have."
DB: Right.
LG: I still haven't figured that out, but now I try to write down the passwords in my phonebook, because they're such a long list in my head I don't know which one is for which.
DB: Right.
LG: So all that stuff I hate.
DB: Yeah, it's such a daily part of life now. We all dislike it, and when it's new to someone, you also kind of realize how awful some of it is.
LG: I like the adventure of the mail and I like watching a lot of television. And when I had bronchitis this winter it was wonderful, because there it was in bed with me. I didn't have to go anywhere. I didn't have to sit in a chair.
DB: You had it all right there. And you had endless stuff too, right?
LG: Yeah.
DB: You have Netflix?
LG: Everything.
DB: Oh, okay. You're set.
LG: Yeah! And I have another thing—I own Breaking Bad. Because I didn't want to wait for the last season.
DB: Yeah, it's worth it. That was a pretty intense season.
LG: Yeah. Once Gus died, the real spine went out of the show, in my view. But I loved it. I loved that show.
DB: I did too. We just finished that one.
LG: Oh yeah?
DB: Not too long ago, yeah.
LG: What else have you liked?
DB: TV-wise? [To Kristin] What are we watching now?
KRISTIN: The Americans.
DB: The Americans is very good.
LG: Is it good?
DB: Yeah, that's a very good one.
LG: Have you seen Friday Night Lights?
DB: I've watched some of Friday Night Lights, but [to Kristin] you've never seen it, right?
DB: We need to do the whole thing.
LG: You have to start from the beginning.
DB: Yeah. I did it several years ago.
LG: I loved that. I watched that at Stanford this year and I thought it was going to take me five weeks. I thought, "This is going to last me the whole of my Stanford experience. It's going to be great." And I finished in about two weeks, but then I didn't want to watch anything else. It's like when you read a really marvelous book. There was something about—I mean, I can watch things on demand—but there was something about the fact that I could do this anywhere. And if I went to a hotel, I could do it there. It was an amazing discovery for me. And I loved that show. I ended up watching the last season a second time. And then I still didn't want to watch anything else, so I watched the first season, and I was ready. But I have not found a new thing.
DB: Since then?
LG: Since then. Well, it's been a month.
DB: Have you watched The Wire?
LG: Oh, yes. I watched The Wire on TV at Frank's [Frank Bidart] house. Because he has equipment. He has lab-quality equipment.
DB: Well, I'll think of some other ones, for sure.
LG: Okay.
DB: Yeah, we should talk about it.
LG: Yeah, if you think about it, let me know.
DB: I'll let you know—we watch a lot of TV.
LG: Okay. I want a title for my book, and television recommendations.
DB: Okay.
LG: All right, moving along. So far this is a dud of an interview, isn't it? We haven't had any technical discussion.
DB: No, it's good though! It's good. It's about being a person. I've got to kind of adjust on the fly, here, but I think I'll just skip these. Because you don't really write poems on the iPad. You never have them in digital format until they go to your publisher, essentially. And then they will—do you know how they do it?
LG: I send them a typed script, which is kind of harrowing because then I have to proof the digital and be sure there haven't been mistakes. And there are always huge mistakes. I could pay somebody to do it, but it would still be the same problem of having to proof it. I imagine that I'm stuck with that for life, because I cannot imagine typing poems on that board.
DB: So when you send it to FSG, and then someone types—or do they scan it? I mean, do you know how they do it?
LG: No.
DB: Okay. Because I mean, there are ways they should be able to do it—
LG: I can tell you who would know if you want to ask.
DB: Yeah?
LG: Do you want?
DB: Maybe. I don't know.
LG: All right.
DB: I'm just interested—once they do that, then they send it back to you and you make sure that everything is right? I mean, you go back and forth with them with the proofs for quite a bit, right?
LG: Yeah, right.
DB: I remember when I was a student. I think you had—would it have been Vita Nova or Seven Ages you were working on?
LG: I don't know.
DB: You were telling me how you were reading it backwards.
LG: Oh yeah. I still do that. It's horrible, and you need someone to help you.
DB: Right. And your poems are fairly memorized? Almost all of them?
LG: Lots of them.
DB: And especially when you're working in the book—like when you're going back through—you're hearing it?
LG: Your eye makes substitutions, so unless you read it out of order—i.e. backwards—you're going to be doing that.
DB: Okay. That was the first section, but there's not much to it because it's mostly digital. But then this is more practice. So I've kind of delineated the writing process into kind of a three-step sort of thing. So there's the composition, there's the revision, and then there's the sort of the organizational-archival point. And that's just my kind of construction for this interview. If that doesn't make sense to you, we could talk about it in different ways.
LG: It's fine.
DB: I have kind of like the beginning questions, which are kind of to give us an idea about the arc of your career. And this question I'm sure you'll love: How long have you been writing professionally, would you say?
LG: Well, I was trying to write professionally—I've been writing since I was a child. And I had a very high opinion of my early work, so I was sending books out to publishers in my early teens.
DB: Oh really?
LG: Well, they were uniformly rejected. But I did have that intense dream, and I developed—as anybody has to—a very tough skin. I mean, I had enormous vanity, so every time one was rejected, it didn't matter that I was 15 years old. I thought, "I'm never going to write better than this. This is the climax of my vision and no one wants it." That was hard, but I continued to send things out, and when I started working on what became my first book, I was in my late teens. And from the time I was, I think, 23, until it was published, I think, when I was 25—something like that—I had, I think, 28 rejections. A lot, but I had some poems in magazines. But all of that was in place by the time I was, probably, 12.
DB: That sort of the ambition and drive?
LG: Yeah. And then there were long periods of not writing at all that were harrowing—and continue to be harrowing—and I had different mechanisms for trying to get through them. The greatest discovery was teaching. Because I finally learned after the first really lengthy—this is completely off the track of where you want to go, isn't it?
DB: No—my next question is "Describe the arc of your career," so this is pretty much—
LG: Oh all right. Well, the first time that that happened—when the first one had been published—I had pretty much done what was in me to do. I had also evolved a style in which there were no complete sentences. There were just little bullet-like fragments. And every time I thought to write, I could no longer make the sentence so it was going to be grammatical. I could no longer, it struck me, write a sentence. So I realized, there was something about that particular wall that I had hit that had to do with syntax. And I thought, "I have to write poems—like Milton's sonnet on this blindness—that are all one sentence, or as close to that as I can manage." And I couldn't do it. I couldn't do anything that approached it, and I couldn't, at the same time, write fragments anymore.
The more I couldn't write, the more I repudiated the world. I thought that the problem was that I was too worldly, too involved in the world, too diverse in my interests, so I became more and more hermetic and dedicated. I would sit at this—I was living in Provincetown for part of this time, and in New York City—and I would sit in Provincetown at a very beautiful desk that was made for me by my photographer boyfriend with all of these marvelous objects to gaze at, and it was just horrifying. And, you know, on a good day, I would write an article—"The." And on a really good day, there would be a noun—"Tree." But I couldn't get beyond that, and I thought, "I have not consecrated myself sufficiently. There needs to be more foreswearing."
And I had a bed-of-nails kind of life—just sitting in the sort of "soup" of my failure for a year. During that time, I had one or two teaching job offers. In those years, it was much easier because the economy was different then, you know. There weren't all of these MFA programs. And especially if you were female. I had a book out, but I don't know that I would have gotten a tenure-year track job given my spotty education. But I had these offers, and I kept saying, "No, no, no, no," because poets shouldn't teach! I mean, there was that long list of things poet shouldn't do. They should never have children. They shouldn't teach. They shouldn't go out in the world. They couldn't eat. But finally, I was invited to do a colloquium in Vermont. And I hated Provincetown, but I didn't know how—I didn't want to just begin moving in a sort of pin-the-tail-on-the-map kind of way. I was making my living as a secretary, and I could have done that anywhere in that period, but I thought, "I'll just stay here until the future presents itself."
So I went to do this colloquium, partly because John Berryman was there and he was a hero of mine, and I wanted to be able to pay tribute to him. I wanted to say, "You are a great artist and I salute you." Which I did get to say, but he thought I was just, you know, a chick on the make. I didn't know how to say to him, "You don't understand—I've never said these words." In any case, I realized about the minute I got to Vermont, I thought, "I'm supposed to live here." I just instantly loved the place. It was a four-day thing, and there were all these English teachers at Goddard College—a hippie institution with a naked dorm and things like that—and they said, "You should come here and teach." I thought, "Why not? I'm not a poet. I have to face this disastrous fact and make a life." So I said yes. And of course they weren't empowered to offer me a job. They were just drunken English teachers who liked me.
But by then, I had had a sort of epiphany, and I corresponded with two of those people who are my still oldest, dearest friends—Ellen Voigt and prose writer Kathryn Davis. Three days before the semester started, there was a job cobbled together for me for one semester, and I moved to Vermont and I got a room in a rooming house with a bathroom down the hall. The minute I started teaching, I started writing again. I still feel about teaching that it's the most miraculous thing I've ever discovered, because I can't always write, and long periods go by and I don't write. But I can always teach, and I will always meet people who fascinate me and who are doing things, who have minds that go places my mind has never gone. And I won't find that stuff in books by dead people I'm contemporaries—new sounding stuff. It changes me and electrifies me, and to work on material that is still malleable—it was like the experience of working on my own stuff, but I didn't feel competitive. A lot of that was so strange, because I am very competitive by nature, but not with my students, and I wanted those poems to be as great as they could be, in my view. So, still, that has served me very well, especially once I discovered undergraduates, because I could know them for four years, and Williams was nirvana, you know. I got there and I thought, "I'd never been around such smart people." I was terrified, but I also was thrilled. And a lot of those years were years when I couldn't do anything, but then some of them were years when I was writing a blue streak. And it was never, "I teach one semester, and then I write," or, "I teach, and I write in between classes." No—I mean, if I was writing, I would write when I taught. In fact, after the experience in Provincetown at the sacred desk, I have a horror of the special place—the secluded cabin, the writer's retreat. I just can't bear them. I want to be without tools. I often have no pencil and no paper, so I have to borrow them or buy them. But I don't want to presume anything. If there's going to be a line coming into my head, that'll be great.
So the shape has always been periods in the desert—you know, without language—and then work. After I was 50, most of my books were written very fast. Like in six to eight weeks.
DB: Which book did that start with?
LG: The Wild Iris. After that, I thought, "I can do anything. I can fly planes." And I can remember my husband saying, "You are going to really hit the wall very soon," and he was right. I developed neurological symptoms. I had not slept the whole of that summer, practically, and one side of my face started twitching. And I had to teach that fall, and I remember sitting in class like this so that nobody would see that my face was—
DB: Oh, wow.
LG: The neurologist said, "I don't think this is anything. It will probably go away in a couple of months." Which it did. But every so often I think something like that could come back again, you know? I mean, it's weird to write that fast, and you don't have a sense of agency. It's very hard to revise, because you don't remember writing it. You just were sitting there, and then it was. The last two books—Village Life and the new one—were slower, but they were steady, especially Village Life. With the newer one, there were lots of moments when I thought, "This is never going to be a book. I don't know how to put this material together."
DB: If you could think back to before you hit this sort of stride where you were producing books very quickly, what was it like, say, writing House on Marshlands?
LG: Long. It took many years. I revised poems heavily and constantly. One poem, I remember, took two years to write—"For my mother." The opening lines—"It was better when we were together in one body"—I had those lines in my head for a really long time. And at the beginning, I felt very grateful, because I thought, "Oh, two really beautiful lines—this is going to be a poem. This is exciting. I have at least these lines to cling to." And then time went by and nothing happened—no other language attached to that little shard. So those phrases, that language, became a torment. It was the first thing I would hear in the morning and murmured in my head, and the last thing I would hear at night. But it was a chastisement, a torment—"You don't know what I'm for!"
DB: Right.
LG: And I tried to convince myself it was a haiku, you know? I thought, "Well, maybe it's just a very austere, abbreviated poem," but I didn't think that and nobody I showed it to thought that, either. So that took really a very, very, very, very long time to write, and had lots of different approaches, and ended up being a kind of collage of pieces of language from different old poems.
DB: During that time, you just were working on the one poem?
LG: I was for a long time, yeah.
DB: So there weren't other poems coming in and out at this stage? Is that traditionally how you work? It's just one poem, and then the next poem, and then you finish?
LG: Yeah, and then sometimes there will be a massive revision. One edition to an accumulating manuscript makes it clear how the thing should be ordered, and then you see you can make a lot of short, little changes in the other stuff because of this new thing. So some of the books are slower. The earlier books were revised much more—the later books, less. Though there were revisions in all of them, and though most of them preceded, at some point, rapidly from, I would say, Averno on, there were hiatuses. Averno was written in two fast periods.
DB: And is one October? Because that was such a good chapbook, and then—
LG: Yeah. I had "October" and I had "Prism," and I thought, "These two poems can't be in the same book. I mean, they are just complete opposites." Then there were two years when I wrote nothing. I haven't attended to this in recent years, but for many decades, I kept this chart of what I wrote and when, and each year would be written at the top of—no, the years were like that and the months were like that. And if I wrote a poem then I would write its name, and if I wrote nothing, I would write an X.
So when I got depressed, I would take this thing out and I would see all these lines of X's, and then at the end, there would be a little gust, and the little gust would be completely different from what had preceded the X's. So I began to be—I mean, "trust" is a little strong, but—I just figured this is how it goes with me. There's a period usually now after I finish something of being happy, because I don't have to write. I feel kind of on vacation, and I have a sense of secret pleasure because no one has seen it and no one has anything to say about it, but I love it and it's finished. Last year was such a happy year for that reason, because—[neighbor's dog barking in background]—that's on tape!
DB: I'll send you little clips.
LG: Yeah! I'll give it to them. They made me take my plants—I had this beautiful antique trunk in the hall with a Celadon vase of pussy willow.
DB: Yeah, I remember that.
LG: It's still foregrounded in my brain. Anyway—so all the rest of those poems in Averno were written after this two-year gap, and very fast. Really fast. And none of it figured out. I mean, I didn't have "Persephone," I didn't have any of the rigging. I'd been reading a lot of Henning Mankell, and I was trying to put an image from each of his novels in one of my poems.
DB: Oh, okay. Is he a mystery writer?
LG: Yeah, Swedish. I hate travel but I was—
DB: Is this the Nero Wolfe book?
LG: Nero Wolfe? No, that's different. That's Rex Stout. That was from much longer ago. No, Mankell is living.
DB: Okay.
LG: Swedish. Married to one of Ingmar Bergman's daughters.
DB: Wow.
LG: Yeah, and I think he's a genius. I love those books. I think he's a great prose stylist. I would recommend them. Start with One Step Behind, though. Don't start at the beginning, because the first book is not good, and you wouldn't read the rest.
DB: Okay.
LG: But very dreary, compelling. His detective plods ahead and he notices small things that don't make sense and turns them over in his mind, but he's not a fire brand, and he's not handsome. And there's a kind of dreary sameness to his days, but the books are fantastic, in what their notion of "triumph" is. Triumph is persistence, and then it turns into comprehension, you know. A pattern is revealed. I love them. So I was reading those, and I think something of his prose style crept into my poems. I don't know that another person would think that but—
DB: In Averno or—?
LG: In Averno.
DB: Did it transfer through into A Village Life at all or no?
LG: No. That was it.
DB: That was it. That was the book.
LG: Yeah.
DB: Okay. So you had your sort of first period of silence after Firstborn, and until you started teaching at Goddard, was it like that sort of repetition every time? I mean, if you finished a book, you had the pleasure, but then you also had the silence or—?
LG: Sometimes, yeah. With Marshland, there were a lot of silences.
DB: During the composition?
LG: It took about six, seven years. I mean, Firstborn was published in 1968, but it was finished in '66, and House on Marshland was ‘75. I was put in touch with Dan Halpern—who was starting Ecco—by Stanley Kunitz. Stanley said, "This young sport loves your work." I thought I don't want to have to send this out twenty-eight times, and so I thought, "I'll just go with someone Stanley recommends who loves it." So it was published pretty soon after it was done. So that was a very, very long period, but I feel as though Firstborn is just an artifact from another life, and that really my writing life began with House on Marshland. I think, you know, I can see how each book came out of its predecessor after that.
DB: What do you mean by that? Could you point to poems in the previous book that were harbingers of the next, or sort of turns of language? I know you speak in your interviews about how you go through and try to eliminate the language of the one book before you move on to the next.
LG: Yeah, but even in that sense, certain stylistic tics you try to recognize and prohibit—the way I tried to prohibit fragments—they seem like the work of the same person on some sort of journey. I try to make them as different as possible.
DB: I'm interested in what the work of doing that is. I mean, is it that you've just lived with these poems so often that you recognize immediately what the stylistic tics are and that they are easy to do? Or is it that when you read through the book and it's finished, you're like, "Oh I see that, and I see that, and these are the things that I need to really work on eliminating."
LG: I never see it when I'm working on the book.
DB: Yeah, which should be probably suffocating.
LG: Yeah. And so it's only afterward I think, "Well, I can't do that again." And then sometimes you see things like, "Isn't it odd? I've never used a contraction. Ever," and then you think, "Well, I guess I have to figure out how to use a contraction." And that becomes a whole—well, what you realize is that that's quotidian speech. That was what I hadn't used, and so then in order to use contractions and questions, the Delphic voice evaporates, and the human is introduced in its place. That was a hard moment, because a lot of people who admired my work admired it for exactly the thing that was now no longer present.
DB: What period was this?
LG: Triumph of Achilles.
DB: Okay. So coming in Triumph of Achilles, that was one of the tics? Or that was one of the changes that was being made?
LG: Yeah.
DB: Right. So Triumph of Achilles to—what's the next one?
LG: Ararat.
DB: Ararat and then Meadowlands, and then The Wild Iris.
LG: No, other way—Wild Iris, Meadowlands. It's okay. You're pretty current.
DB: I'm pretty close. I've been reading the collected and it's so interesting to kind of like move through time as you're moving through. How did you feel about that, I mean, by publishing the collected poems?
LG: Oh, it surprised me, because I always thought it was a terrible idea. Well, first of all, it's not the collected, and I didn't think of it as that. But it's fifty years of writing. I was initially appalled—and then amazed—at its size, because I thought it would be about three hundred pages long. But then when Miranda said, initially, six hundred and eighty-eight, I said, "No one will buy this! We have to squeeze it. It has to get littler." I thought it was a valedictory gesture. I thought it was suicidal to do. Most of my life, I was repelled by it in principle. The idea of doing it myself was horrifying. I mean, I never read my old books. I have no reason to. But at some point, I had to do something from a bunch of books, where I had to do reading, and I was asked to do more of that. So I was reading through the books, and I didn't hate them. I mean, often, once you finish and you're euphoric, then pretty soon you feel a sense of humiliation and shame. You just don't want to think about what you've just done. So then after that, you don't go back—you're trying to prove you can write by writing something else. Or, you know, the book gets horrible reviews and you have this feeling of "I'll show you. You wait. I'm going to knock your pants off," and of course the people's pants don't come off. But I was reading these old books, and I liked them. I was proud that I wrote them. I remember a couple of years ago—I sometimes do Tarot readings with Dana Levin. Dana's sister is a professional clairvoyant and Dana is very good with cards, and I trust her greatly. So we were doing one—I guess I had done the cards with Dana, but then Dana's sister, Karen the clairvoyant was visiting her, so we had a three-way conversation on my birthday for a birthday present about the reading. Karen asked me questions sort of the way a shrink does, you know, leading questions. She said, "What have you been thinking about?" I said, "Writing." Somehow, it came up that I was very frightened by this pleasure that I was taking in my old work because I feared it meant I would do no new work. Karen said, "I think you have to embrace that. I think that's"—she didn't use words like "path," but, you know—"that's what you have to do. You can't pretend that you're not feeling it. You just must follow that feeling and see where it leads."
So where it led was to a readiness to see these books all put together, which had been proposed earlier. In fact, I was contractually obliged to do it, but I would never have been pressed. And there was always the problem of the fact that Ecco owned most of the books, and Dan Halpern resented—for a very long time, possibly still continuing to this moment—my switching publishers, which I did simply because it's interesting to be elsewhere. I missed the attention.
DB: With which book was it that you moved?
LG: Averno. It was a very inflamed parting, and for a long time, he wouldn't relinquish any of the books he owned. So none of that was possible, but it was fine, because I didn't want it. Then, somehow or another, that was all negotiated, and I did want it. I found it invigorating and generally a very pleasant thing. It made me feel I didn't have to do a big square thing anymore. Anything I did was gravy. And I really like this new book. It's not like anything else that I have done. It's sort of surreal. It has got prose poems in it.
DB: That's going to be a shocker.
LG: I don't think people are going to like it, or understand it. I think of it as very kind of lighthearted, or with a kind of—well, there's a lightness in it, a kind of casual, shrugging bravado that I like. It's not beautiful like certain of the lyric books. But a lot of people think it's terrifying, because a lot of it is about the end of time. But it's not written as a struggle, and it's not written as capitulation. It's written as, "What do you know?" I mean, there are poems in it that are not unlike what you do, you know? That kind of scratching-your-head thing, but a kind of merry bleakness.
DB: Yeah, that's always a pleasurable place to be. Did you find in actually writing those poems that there was a different way—like physically—that you were going after them or anything else?
LG: Well, the last couple of books, I've written a lot of it longhand, which was a great surprise, because everything up until Averno was written on a typewriter. All of the composition.
DB: Including Firstborn?
LG: No, Firstborn was by hand, and then everything from Marshland to Averno was composed on a typewriter. It's one of the reasons that my papers are not valuable, because there will be pages with little scribbles, but usually I just put in a new piece. So if somebody goes through all of these typewritten drafts, unless the person happens to know my work intimately—
DB: Wouldn't know that.
LG: It just looks like a lot of typed poems with no author's hand apparent. I started keeping a journal when I had whiplash, because someone said, "You should start writing about what it feels like, because you'll discover that you're not in as much pain as you think you are." Ha-ha. I mean, I certainly was. But I started this notebook detailing my whiplash symptoms and the agony that they entailed. I always did it in bed at night, reviewing my day, and it became the most crucial piece of my day. That, and listening to the telephone weather forecast, which became Village Life. I figured that out, but it took a long time. So I would listen to the weather forecast, and then I would redial and listen to it again. There was this wonderful voice that would say, "Good evening, Boston," and you would realize that the same thing was going to happen to everybody. You weren't just selected specially to be rained on, you know? Everyone was going to have rain. And it was the first time I actually understood that everyone was going to have something. I mean, all those times I stood in the drug isles of the supermarket, thinking, "Louise, they can't have made all these products just for you. There's a market. Someone else is buying these things." And then I would think, "Yeah, they're buying them, but they only use half, whereas I need ten."
But the weather did make that knowledge present. And meanwhile, I was writing my whiplash symptoms and I would get in a very spacey place, so I started making notes for poems. So as not to interfere or confuse things, I did the poems in the back of the book moving toward the middle, and my pain journal from the front, and then I'd start a new notebook. After the whiplash went away—surprise—there were many other things to complain about in daily life. So this sort of diary of grief, complaint, misery, fear, chronic anxiety—occasional nice things reported—but mainly, the book was sacred to that, and it was a real source of sweetness in my life. Even when I didn't have a bad day, or I didn't have any real pain or I wasn't sick, I felt that I owed it to the book to say the worst. So there would always be that, and then there would be these notes. So I have a whole bunch of these eerie notebooks, and I realized that it was working kind of well. Once I started working on the poem, then I would work on it the way I always had. Only a lot of it was longhand, and the lines were getting differently shaped. The advantage of that was I could also do it when I was commuting. So I had a car service in those years, and Averno was the first thing I did when I was at Yale. I remember working on the poems in the car, and then I would transcribe them into the notebook in the back. At a certain point, each one would have to be, there would be enough material so I had to play that on the typewriter and see how it looked in type.
One fact of working on the typewriter that's either—I don't know whether it's an advantage or not, and I imagine for prose it would be. My prose writer friends all love the computer, but when I get to an impasse or an awkward line, I have to start over. So it's a new sheet of paper, and you have to do the whole thing again, and problems emerge in those retypings, like your fingers will hesitate over something you thought was resolved, and you realize it's not resolved. You realize you have to do something different.
DB: So you were kind of making those revisions in the actual transcription work? They were coming to you almost like a practiced feel of the rhythms?
LG: Yeah, your hands wouldn't type it. You realize something was wrong. Either the line was wrong in how it was lineated—which would be simple to resolve—or the whole trajectory of the poem was awry.
DB: And then you would have to go back and do more.
LG: Yeah.
DB: At that point, would you do more work in the notebook before you went back to the typewriter?
LG: It varied. Then what would happen would be I'd have these typewriter sheets, and I would start working on them, but in the same timeframe.
DB: Okay, so back and forth.
LG: Yeah. They cancelled the weather report, by the way, because of the omnipresence of that.
DB: Absolutely.
KRISTIN: I have to go feed the meter.
DB: Okay, great. Do you have a visitor pass? We parked with a car.
LG: Yeah.
KRISTIN: Sure, I can move closer.
DB: That would be easier and then you could just park right here and then we can give it back to her.
LG: Make sure you're in a legal place.
KRISTIN: Yeah, as long as it is in the permit parking.
LG: Yeah.
KRISTIN: Thanks.
LG: That won't work.
DB: Were there any other things like the weather report for any other books? I mean, did that ever happen before? Were there any sort of other—?
LG: It was Village Life, really, that was—
DB: No other books had like something like a ritual to which you were responding in some sense?
LG: Well, Wild Iris was the garden. I had been reading garden catalogues for two years. I had two years of writing nothing, and all I had read was garden catalogues. Plus, I'd seen when I first moved to Vermont the clairvoyant, who told me I would write five books, and I had written five. Ararat was the fifth. I thought, "That's it," and I thought, "It's obvious, because there's no beauty in Ararat. It's just the whole lyric gift is dribbling away. I read garden catalogues and listened to Don Giovanni for two years, and I thought, "I'm brain dead. Of course I can't write."
DB: And that came in a burst, like in February or something?
LG: No, it was Summer. I started walking around the garden, which had been the only thing that I did. And things were coming out of the ground and I thought, "I'll try and write something about a flower."
DB: Now we have an idea of handwriting to the typewriter and what not. What was it like when you were just typewriting your poems? Would you sit down at your desk or wherever—I mean, the typewriter is kind of a wieldy thing. You have to be one place, wherever you were.
LG: No—it would always be episodic, and it didn't have to be MY typewriter. For example, I remember when I was working on Vita Nova, I remember writing some of those poems on an airplane. I wrote two on one transcontinental flight, and then I got to Irvine and I had to borrow a typewriter. But that was possible. And then I had to work it out on typewriter. But at that particular point, I was really on a roll. Everything was turning into a poem. So I felt I could be anywhere, and I could write with anything. I could write with food coloring.
DB: Charcoal.
LG: Yeah, and I could make actually very crude, like, power points, and I would know how to assemble them.
DB: Oh that's fantastic. So when you're in that sort of stage, are they just coming to you? Are they coming from overheard statements? Or it's all just there, and you're just kind of waiting to release it?
LG: It's nothing overheard. It's just some weird brain corner that suddenly you have access to, and it's like a temporary shelter—it exists for a very short time, and it's not like you think, "I could go back there." You just think.
DB: Do you see any patterns—now that you've had these experiences happen again and again—that sort of anticipate your getting to where that brain corner opens up, or is it mysterious?
LG: No, it's always mysterious. And the last two books have been a little slower in what I felt was a good way, because the stamina called for in that other kind of composition is so extreme. Plus, you don't get a very prolonged experience of immersion. You get a very intense, fast hit, but I really liked the feeling that I had. It was like writing a novel. In Village Life, I had this sound to go to that was like a place and it was accessible. I could get there. It wasn't like this special trick pony. It meant that the composition was a year, which still seems pretty fast, but it's not as fast as six weeks. That was Vita Nova. That was the fastest.
DB: Six weeks was the fastest. How long was Wild Iris?
LG: More like nine weeks, but there were three poems that were written the year before. They just were crap, but once I wrote The Wild Iris, once I wrote the bulk of that book, the crappy poems didn't seem so crappy. Did you know Elizabeth Langston, David and Meredith's daughter?
LG: Did you know David and Meredith at all?
DB: No.
LG: You didn't take a classics class? Well, she's my godchild, and she was, at that point, very little. This was in a period where I was writing nothing, and I said, "Elizabeth, give me a title, or a first line." And I thought, "If Elizabeth asked me to write a poem, I'd have to do it." And she did, and it got used.
DB: What was it?
LG: Red Rose on a Lowly Vine. It didn't get called that, finally, but it was a little song-like valentine of a poem. But then, I mean, if it looks to you like that's your output for two years, it's bad.
DB: Yeah.
LG: But it had a place in that book. Wild Iris was the first book I wrote fast, but it had these three weak-ish poems that became absorbed into it. So I don't know what will happen now. I imagine I'll descend into some abyss and then it's just the question of how much more you get to do. I'm still feeling surprisingly happy with my last one, and I know that until I hate it, nothing is going to happen.
DB: How long have you been finished with it?
LG: It will be a year in September. So it's still a baby.
DB: So, you have a kind of final sense of finality for these things—do you have like a physical sensation when that happens, or is it that your brain stops moving in that direction, and it's off?
LG: Well, you can sometimes have that, but it isn't finished.
DB: Okay.
LG: I mean, that has happened to me a number of times. It always means that there's something that isn't written yet, even though you just can't imagine what it is. Meadowlands was like that. I thought, "I can't write another of these." But it was clear. I was good at putting books together, and I can figure out what each body of work seems to need, but there was no way to put that together. Something was missing, and I thought it was probably some more sonorous tone, but it wasn't that. It was Telemachus was missing.
DB: Oh okay.
LG: And I wrote those poems in, I think, 10 days, and then it was a breeze. I mean, the whole thing came into place.
DB: I like that book.
LG: I like that book, too.
DB: It's very funny.
LG: It's very funny, I know. I think it's a scream. And I like that. I mean, I like tonal variety a lot, and I like it in what I read. But I think with the last two books—I drove people crazy with Village Life, because I had maybe four hundred different orders, and they were all not right.
DB: I could see that being difficult to put together.
LG: I knew where I wanted to start. I knew where I wanted to end, but—
DB: In between?
LG: I think it was a matter, too, of something needing to be added.
DB: Did you learn how to put together books like this? What was your education of that sense?
LG: We learn from the material, and I think I learned from students, too. I think that I'm a very good editor. I always felt if I had stuff on the page, I would have some good instincts. I mean, if there was anything to be gotten out of that material, I would find it. So, a sort of sense of being able to put to use the most pathetic, limited samples of language. But if you just give me some words, it doesn't matter how bad they are—I can do something. And I felt the same about manuscripts. I thought, "If there's a way to put it together, I'll find it." My own books and other people's books, too. I mean, in a way, I'm sure I drive some people crazy because I just look at their manuscripts and I say, "No. Just leave it all to me. You're doing this terribly."
I was that kind of a mother, you know. I would say, "Don't feed yourself, really. You just don't know how to do it. You sit—I'll feed you." People don't like that, and it's also possible that one could be wrong, or that there could be something I miss. But I think it was something that you learn when you write very slowly. You don't have a huge outpouring—you have a small amount that you have to make go as far as you can, so you learn how to move the parts of the poem around. You learn how to be an editor out of a sense of lack, and from that grows a capacity to organize disparate things into something that has a sense of dramatic shape.
DB: And that sense of dramatic shape—is that your intention for most of your collections?
LG: I want the books to seem like that, but it's not as though when I'm working on them I know what it is. I pretty much don't.
DB: When do you get that sense?
LG: When I'm starting to put it together. And then you start seeing these weird overlaps and resonances and echoes that you hadn't planned. Proofing my new book, I see the strangest parallels and language recurrences that—I mean, you could say yes, you have a limited vocabulary and so of course there's going to be a recurrence of these words that you use, because you still remember them—but it's like dreams, you know? Somehow, the mind is making an organization that is beyond what the comprehending or apprehending faculties take-in, initially.
DB: So when you're working just on an individual poem and you're revising it, what's the mode there, when you're going back? Are you deleting, are you substituting, or—whatever the poem needs—you're in service to it?
LG: Yeah. I mean, if I can tell myself that a poem can't be made with just deleting things, that's great. That's two for the price of one. You get the deleted lines—if they're any good—to use somewhere else, and you get a poem. But, oftentimes, you can't just delete. Often, you can take out everything that's weak and transitions that are obvious, but what you then wrecked is the feeling of duration—the poem has become too brisk, and needs to have a feeling of more languorous unfolding. So then that's a problem, because you don't know whether you're supposed to add in the places where you had material before, or were they the wrong places—was that part of the problem? But each poem is its own little task. You know, for a long time, it's a problem you haven't solved, and then it becomes something that you have solved.
DB: Is it the same feeling of finality that you have with a collection that you have with an individual poem? That there's nothing more to be done?
LG: Yeah. But also that it gives you pleasure, that you like the shape that it makes. And you like it better than you thought you ever could. So all these poems you just thought were so cumbersome and that there was no way they could be organized—you just didn't see it. Suddenly, you actually like them again.
DB: Has your mode of revision, has that changed at all over the course, or has it been fairly consistent?
LG: I'm sure it's quite different, but I wouldn't even know how to say. I mean, the poems are so different that it must be that the approach is different.
DB: Right.
LG: I mean, now, I much more like approximation. I like a sense in the poem of not the sort of honed, perfect bon mot, you know, the epigrammatic. I want more of a kind of speech—a sense of casting about for a phrase. I like that feeling. Human-sounding. Ruminative, rather than exalted. But, you know, I think of Averno as—the book has always seemed to me vertical, and some of them seem horizontal. Usually, they alternate, so there will be a kind of awe-to-despair book, followed by panoramic book. But the last two books seemed to me kind of spreading, though they're very different from each other. How many people are you going to do this with?
DB: Ten.
LG: Jesus, you'll be out of your mind.
DB: I know, it's okay. We'll see how it goes. You're number seven? Eight?
LG: Oh! You've done a lot.
DB: Yeah, I've done quite a few.
LG: Does everyone sound different?
DB: Yes. It's very interesting what people want to talk about. I've done people who know me and who don't know me, and so there's some wariness, and sometimes there's not. Sometimes the people who know me are more wary of the questions. Honestly, the questions haven't really been asked, but you've answered them without my asking them, so that's good. It's a good sign, I think.
LG: I hope so. Well, we could do it again if you don't have anything to use.
DB: No, I think there's plenty. So, when you're revising are you reading them out loud to yourself? Is it part of your craft as some of the other writers have said?
LG: I keep trying to make this point in poetry readings. I hear with my eyes. I mean, the experience of reading a poem—for me, with my eyes—contains an oral experience. And when I hear it, I feel angry. I feel that there's an obstacle between me and the it of the poem. And the obstacle is the reader, who is determining and deploying emphasis. Also, the form, which is turning a kind of web-like experience into a narrative—everything goes by once. And the argument made is, "Yes, but then you can't hear it." But I don't hear it when it's read to me, and I don't moderate to myself. I hear it in my head, though, and I hum it in my head.
DB: You can hear almost, like, musical notes, or tones?
LG: I can hear rhythmic structures. I remember with Meadowlands, I had this sense of the book—it was the only time I had this—I felt I had a whole book in my head. I just didn't have a single word. But what I had was rhythmic alternations. I had shapes that were clustered, and then some more open shapes—it was almost as though it was a musical line, and I would hear the rising and the falling. I would hear choral parts. I even tried to annotate it in some way so that I could follow it, but it was like a hum. I heard somebody say—a thinker of some kind, not a poet—something about the way a child learns speech lying in its cradle and hearing the shapes made by the speech that surrounds it. It doesn't understand words yet, but it understands. And for me, poems have been like that. I mean, I remember reading—when I was really, really young—not baby poems, but great poems. Shakespeare's songs. And I'm sure I had no idea what was being talked of—none—but I felt I was getting something out of those poems. I could hear "Fear no more the heat of the sun." I could hear the grandeur of that. The rhythm. I mean, somebody could turn it into an act of scanning the line, but that makes it so kind of plodding. But I did hear things that way, but with my eyes. I mean, my eyes turn what I see not into argument or a reasoned thing. A lot of that stuff I miss. What is the poem saying? I often have no idea. But I know how it sounds.
DB: Because sound's a sort of intelligent communication, too.
LG: Yeah.
DB: That's really fascinating.
LG: Well, I'm sure there must be a lot of people who write who have this. Who feel that sound comes to them visually.
DB: It's almost synesthesia, right? It's close to that sort of description, but it's not—not quite, really, but it's an interesting correlation.
LG: Yeah.
DB: I know you work with fellow poets on your poems, correct? I mean, you're sending stuff to certain readers, etc., but do you work on individual poems at individual times, or is it usually in a collection?
LG: Everything I write goes out. I want someone to look at it, preferably right away—like, now.
DB: And who are those people? Have they been the same people for a long time?
LG: They change. I mean, it's certain periods, certain people. Sometimes, you'll feel these poems—if they're ever going to be understood by anyone—will be understood by X. And you're usually right—when X says, "This won't do," you trust it, because the person is basically on the side of the work. Whereas if you show it to somebody who, from the outset, says, "This is just a disaster"—you know, it's too late to unwrite it. It's going to get written, and you could suppress it if you wanted, but—so, it's shifted. I mean, there are certain people who have been constant for a very long time. Kathy Davis has been stratospherically helpful, and I like working on her novels. I learned a lot from working on prose.
DB: What have you learned?
LG: You learn moving around much bigger pieces. I mean, Kathy's books—it's not so much a question of that. But there have been books where I've felt, "There are too many characters—these two could be conflated." Other times, I felt things were in the wrong order, or that too much time was spent on a particular thing. But with my former husband—who was a quite terrific prose writer—it was often a question of really moving around blocks of prose, the way you would in a poem. You'd move a line in the poem, but in prose, you would move a paragraph, or two paragraphs. So I learned it's like weight training. I could move bigger masses, and it was very useful. I mean, I don't think I would have written Ararat without that. And I think if I hadn't written Ararat, I would have stalled out as a certain kind of lyric poet.
DB: Right. I have some questions about why you chose not to use a computer.
LG: Well, I'm epileptic and I learned, but I didn't like looking at the screen. The early computers, it was said, were not good for epileptics.
DB: Okay.
LG: I didn't like it. I liked paper. I liked pages. I love typewriters.
DB: What do you love about typewriters?
LG: Doesn't everyone love typewriters?
DB: I don't know.
LG: I don't know.
DB: Is it a sound thing? Is it a feel thing?
LG: No. Actually, since burning my hand, I don't type anywhere near as well, because I don't have perfect feeling in that finger. But it was a sense of how, sort of slovenly, handwriting became form. I don't get that on the screen. I don't see lines on the screen quite the same way, and I don't feel as though I'm making the letter. Well, often I'm not—I'm making the wrong letter. But I don't know why I like it.
DB: But it has been such a consistent part of every book, I guess?
LG: Yeah.
DB: We get to skip all these computer questions—it's fun! So, you correspond with many people?
LG: Yeah. Well, I used to be a much better letter writer.
DB: Has that changed quite a bit, with receiving and sending out? Has that been computerized, or—?
LG: Yeah, it has changed a little. But long before I had my little red friend, I had stopped writing letters the way I once did. I mean, there was a period in my life when—even like ten, twelve years ago—I just wrote lots of letters to lots of people, and I loved getting letters back, and I loved writing letters. And then that stopped. I don't know why it stopped. But it wasn't because of that. What I have noticed with this [iPad] is I have, now, a correspondence with my first husband, with whom I would exchange letters every two years or something—very formal letters. Then there was a period in which he needed somebody to confide in who was far away, and so we had a little period of much more intense exchange. Very short. I saw him and met his current wife. I saw him for the first time in thirty-eight years last summer, and we liked each other. I thought his wife was just great. It's helpful to kind of substitute for a phone call when you don't feel like making a phone call, and it gives people a chance that they would have with a letter but not a phone call to respond when they are ready to and not have a moment forced upon them in which they have to react. So I have very happy thoughts about this, it just has nothing to do with writing. And then, I think, it was a big moment when I switched from longhand to the typewriter. Maybe it would be equally transforming to switch to a computer. But not an iPad. I mean, I would need a real keyboard. But I can't use a mouse still. I can't. When I see that little thing, it makes me very skiddish and upset.
Devin Becker: Let's make this kind of official. Would you please state your name, your date of birth, and the location where we are for the camera?
Robert Wrigley: I am Robert Wrigley. I was born February 27, 1951. We are sitting in my little studio building, which is called "Stanza," one of the two Italian words—the lesser Italian word—for "room," on Moscow Mountain, not far...well, 6 miles north of Moscow, Idaho.
DB: And how long have you been writing in this spot?
RW: I built this building in 2002. So, 11 years in this space.
DB: So, here are the sort of quick and dirty questions. What genres do you work in?
RW: Poetry almost exclusively. Every now and then I'm sort forced to commit prose, like a craft lecture or something, and I've got a bunch of those that some day, people keep telling me, I should make a book out of. But mostly I'm just not interested. I'd rather write poems.
DB: What kind of devices do you own or have access to for your writing?
RW: Meaning electronic devices?
DB: Either or.
RW: Most fundamentally, of course, is the computer. I have one laptop. That's my private computer, which sometimes I compose on. Always I compose prose on the computer. I can't imagine being a prose writer and writing in long hand, but some people do. Beyond that, I have pencils and pens and note books.
DB: Okay. What's your operating system, what type of device do you use?
RW: I have a Mac. What is it, a Macbook Air? And I no longer have an external hard drive. Back when I had a PC I had an external hard drive where I backed up everything from the hard drive of the computer onto an external drive. Now, I put things into the cloud, the iCloud. I back stuff up on Mozy just to keep track. Theoretically, at least, I've never had to go retrieve anything. But, theoretically, it's "safe" out there.
DB: Yeah, that is definitely some of the questions. Do you work on a device at the university at all or is it just the one device? Do you ever move things from one device to the other?
RW: No. I try to keep what I write—the poems themselves—away from university machines, just because the university owns the machine and I really don't want anything that I own on that university machine.
DB: How do you save your pre-writing or your notes?
RW: I print off a lot of things. There's a pile of drafts back here that in fact need to be moved to a box, but I haven't brought the new box up from the house. Usually, a box will take two years to fill and then it goes into storage in the basement until somebody offers me enough money for it. And then they can have all the boxes.
DB: All the boxes. Do you save the drafts of your individual works as you go along or do you save it as one poem or do you put them all together or do you save over?
RW: I don't put them all together. It seems to me that it would probably be a good idea to do something like that, and if I were to do something like that, if someone comes along and wants my papers, they would be a lot happier if I had them organized in some way. But basically, the pile—which is not very evenly stacked—is pretty much the way they go into the box. So I will work on a poem, print off a draft, put a date on it and the number. I'm just pulling the one off the top—this is a little draft of a poem called "Goodbye to the River" which I have no memory of. But this draft was composed on the 15th of October 2013, and it's draft number two. So, I do have a sort of—
DB: So you do have a system.
RW: I do have a system. And I suppose if someone were really interested and would go through the boxes, which ultimately have a year on them—or a period of years on them if it takes me awhile to fill one—someone could go through and actually find the poems under certain title and put them in order, in the order in which they came into being. Although sometimes I change tittles, so I don't know what that does to the—
DB: The poor future researcher that has to—
RW: Well, it will keep said researcher, should he or she ever exist, busy.
DB: Yes.
RW: Well through tenure.
DB: Yeah. So you were just saying you back up your work by using a Mozy folder, which backs up your work to the server and all your poems are in one location. How do you save a work that's been published? Do you put it in a different place?
RW: I do. I have this which is sort of the in-process folder—a little "thesis binder," they're called at Harvard. In the back go all the poems that have been published with the name of the magazine on it and in front are the ones that are still in progress.
DB: This is sort of a general question. Have you ever received or sought out information about methods for kind of "best practices" for digital archiving?
RW: I never have, and probably I should. I talked to Daniel Orozco a lot who is so frightened of losing things that he backs everything up on a jump drive. I think maybe two; he uses Mozy, he uses one other backup service as well, prints things. He's anal all about it and I can't really blame him. He's a prose writer, though they lose... you lose a file there, you could lose hundreds of pages.
DB: Right. I think that was one of the interesting things we saw was that there were a lot of—not, maybe, to Orozco's extent, but—people who would do that. But then the issue becomes, for them, a lot of times, what's what and which version is which and the kind of mess of that. I mean, you think your files will be difficult, but his files will be...because there is not a date on them, there is no handwriting, there is no indication this is...it's going to be kind of like, "What?"
RW: You know how when you save something in, say, Microsoft Word? When you save it it gives you a date, but then you resave it, you modify it, you resave it and it's completely new dates, so the old date goes away. I found that I couldn't rely on that at all. I had to put a pencil date or a pen date on the corner of the draft just so I knew which was which and when was what. And I think that's important. I don't know that that's important. Whereas, in the notebook, it starts with a date and every page is dated, so I know exactly. I can go back into the notebooks, which I do with some regularity, just to sift-through and see if I missed anything. If there is some piece that I might resurrect and make use of, I know exactly when I first put it down.
DB: Ok. That was sort of the precursor, although basically the same questions are coming back, but this is going to be kind of more overarching on your practice over time. How long have you been writing professionally, in which I mean something that was sort of either your main focus or something that was supporting you financially?
RW: Really, I guess I would say since 1972, which is when I was in fact an undergraduate student. I got discharged from the army in 1971, got drafted, went back to college, and within a matter of a few months was waylaid by poetry. I didn't want to be a poet. I didn't really have a whole lot of use for poetry. I took the class on a kind of lark, thinking how hard can it be? It doesn't have go very far across the page, and from what I could tell, it doesn't have to rhyme anymore. You don't have to have any kind of regular meter. As far as I could tell, most people couldn't figure out what it meant anyway, so I can do that. I can get three credits that way. I walked into the class and I got absolutely waylaid, and that was 1972, which was 41 years ago.
DB: Where was that?
RW: Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville.
DB: Who was your first professor?
RW: My first poetry professor was a man by the name of Clyde Fixmer, who is still alive, pushing 80, was really kind of a failed poet. I'd never want him to hear me say that, of course, but he's published I think two or three books and they've all been self-published. He never really had the belly for the getting out into the—I don't know what else do you call it—the marketplace; the literary world. He couldn't bare rejection. And I figured out early on, and as far as I knew it for a long time, rejection was, like...that's what happened.
Although, the first poem I ever sent out got accepted. The first batch of poems I ever sent out, I got something accepted. I got, like, hooked on that part of it too. But publication, as you know, publication is not the same thing as writing. They may be almost entirely unrelated.
DB: Yes. That kind of gets us started. The next question is sort of, like, could you give a sort of general description of the arc of your career starting with this portion versus the next? Let me go push this one more time.
RW: Does it automatically take pictures? Or—
DB: No. This is recording. I'm going to do it twice. It just stops because it fills up really fast. It's a higher resolution thing, and then this one is definitely... So to get back to the sort of the general, the large arc of your career, and how that's kind of taken you through the scenes.
RW: I'm a product of the creative writing industry. I wanted to be a writer. I wanted to write novels. I wanted to write novels that sold a lot of copies, made me a lot of money. I wanted to live in the South of France. I'm serious about this, Devin—you have to believe me—as serious as a 21-year old could have been. I wanted drive in Aston Martin and live in the South of France and date super models; it seemed like a perfectly appropriate and maybe even attainable career goal. I was an idiot, I didn't know anything.
But then I got waylaid by poetry, and I think that I discovered or realized that whatever sort of disposition I have is suited to poetry and not so much to prose, and certainly not to fiction. I have, in fact, published a couple of short stories, years ago—25 years ago I think was the most recent one—but they never made me happy, not like writing a poem did. Anyway, I got way laid and got real keen on poetry and began haunting the library of my alma mater in the department of the skinny books.
I looked into graduate school and discovered there was this degree called Master of Fine Arts, in which there were 11 programs in the country that offered that degree in 1972, I think, and one in Canada, and applied to a number of programs, wound up going to Montana, fell in love with living in this part of the world and really have never stopped in terms of writing nor of living in this part of the world. So, I got kind of waylaid by geography and poetry simultaneously. The arc of my career aesthetically is a completely other kind of thing.
DB: This is more of just sort of like place, person, kind of general overview of where you were, what happened.
RW: When I went to Montana I got to study with Madeline DeFrees, John Hansen, and probably most famously, Richard Hugo. Dick Hugo and Madeline DeFrees, particularly, were just enormously important to me in terms of the craft of the poetry and I don't think my notion of the line is, for me, separable from what I learned from, say, Madeline DeFrees. Dick was a completely other kind of teacher, but a magnificent teacher. He could make you see what you were doing right and what you were doing wrong with a phrase. And that was a great thing.
DB: So you went from Montana and then where did you go next? It was LCSC? Or—
RW: I went back to my alma mater where I was an adjunct for a year and applied for jobs as close to Missoula, Montana as I could find. The first job that I got was down at LCSC in 1977. I was sabbatical replacement for a year, but they loved me and tried immediately make a tenure track position for me, which they offered me and I turned down, because I had an NEA and I didn't want a job. But I wound up working, teaching a couple of classes for that year and then I started tenure track on a job that was really kind of...that I held for 22 years, that was not a great job for a poet because the teaching load was 4-4 for a long time. And then, somehow, I convinced them that I should have a 3-3 load, and then, ultimately, Kim and I split the job and each taught 2-2. And that was fine. That was great. But then the position opened up here, and the only other place I was really interested or would have been interested in going would have been Montana. But I love Moscow and I love Idaho, and I have been there for a long time. So when this job came along, I snapped it up.
DB: In what year was that?
RW: 1999 was my first year at U of I.
DB: How long had the MFA program been here?
RW: I think it was three years old then. I think ‘96 was the first year they admitted students, maybe ‘97. I can't remember now. So it's still a pretty young program, really.
DB: You have been here for...?
RW: For most of it.
DB: Most of it, yeah. So, you've been here since then, basically in the same position, same job, and over this time you've written... Can you kind of talk about... You've written, like, seven books?
RW: Let's see—‘99, the year I was hired, I published Reign of Snakes. The year I was hired here, I published Reign of Snakes. So, since Reign of Snakes, although it was written while I was teaching at LC, I've published Reign of Snakes, Lives of the Animals, Earthly Meditations, Beautiful Country and now Anatomy of Melancholy. Five books since I've been at U of I.
DB: Okay. That's sort of the general overview, and then I'd like to kind of start about your writing process, generally. I've got it kind of broken into three portions; one being kind of the compositional spot, like pre-writing, notes, kind of the development of the work into its first draft. And then the next being sort of revisional, like "How do you revise?," etcetera. We'll talk, and that will be kind of the next thing. And then the third process being the organizational archival. If that doesn't make sense with your writing process, we can talk about it differently. That's just how I've them set up here.
RW: We'll see how it goes. It sounds fine to me.
DB: Okay. So when you first started writing, when you were first, maybe, in Montana, and in the first stages of your career, how did go about writing a poem? How did you get the idea? How did you pre-write? Did you draft, etcetera? That's sort of my first question.
RW: I've always—and I don't know where—I have piles of them... These little fellows, these Moleskine. However one pronounces that, I can never tell. I probably have 250 of these piled somewhere. I think they're in a box in the house, and they're just the places where, when I get an idea or an image occurs to me, or a phrase, or I see some phrase, I make a note. I make that first note, so that when I come out here or wherever I go, wherever it was I was happily doing the writing, anywhere along the way, which is sometimes at a kitchen table, you never knew... Back years ago, I didn't have a space to write it.
I had this, one of the most recent couple of these, to just consult, just to sort of trip on the switch. Sometimes though, you exhaust those things or nothing in the little notebook interests me, so I just come out, and that's why there is this pile of books here on the futon. They were all books I've pulled down—well, there's a little pile that I brought back from Italy. Not Italy; England. I'll just come out and I'll look at the shelves and pull a book off the shelves, almost at random. Sometimes I have no idea what book it is I'm reaching for, it's just something about the color that will appeal to me and I'll open it up, thumb through it, look for a poem or look for a word, a title, a phrase—anything that just turns on a switch that just gets me started. Mostly it has always seemed to me that the only way I can get started is to just start putting words on paper, so that's what when I turn to this notebook. It seems far less effective to me to sit down at the computer and try to begin composing when I don't have anything in particular on my mind. Whereas in the notebook itself, I can doodle. I can write a phrase. I can just sort of noodle around, you know, the way a musician would noodle around with a musical phrase, to see where it leads me. I've always believed that writing begets writing. The more I noodle around, something eventually is going to interest me. Something eventually is going to find a way to connect with the next thing, the next word, the next phrase, or a kind of move toward an idea. I hate using the word "idea," though, talking about poems, because people always ask things like—and they tend to be people who have never really written before, or who are at the beginning of trying to write—they'll say, "Where do you get your ideas for poems?" I always want to say, "What ideas? Where?" Because they tend not to come from ideas, they tend to come from words or phrases or images or something I've seen outside the window. That's why...who was it? Ed Hirsch came out here. I showed him my space. He sat at the desk and said, "I couldn't write here. All I'd do is look out the window." Well, it's true, I spend a lot of time looking out the window, but that's just my way of inviting what was outside into the poems. Those kinds of things are what occur to me as language. Somehow, the lens of the writing studio, the lens that is my eyes and imagination and language can convert what it is I see into some kind of a phrase that's useful and I can build with.
DB: Okay. You move from the Moleskine notebooks into this notebook. Could you describe what the notebook is?
RW: Yeah. What do they call these? This is the "Gemstone Collection" and this is mostly what I've been using for the last 20 years. I was teaching at the University of Oregon for a year and the graduate students bought me one of these, and I loved it so much that I've been buying these ever since. That's when I really start getting movement toward a poem to happen, and it used to be, as I said, whole poems would happen in those notebooks. Now, it can be a stanza, it can be 20, 30, or 50 lines, if it's a longer thing.
When I'll get impatient with the sort of the slowness of the process writing—I always write in pencil—I'll go to the computer. Or, I'll get stopped. I won't know where to go. I mean, you know what this is like. You're just, "What's the next thing that happens in this poem? I don't know." Somehow converting the hand written text to text on the computer screen—and it was with a typewriter, even before—can allow you to see things about its structure or about its movement that you might not have seen while you were in the midst of it. It's almost like the handwriting became something that swallowed me and I had to escape from the handwriting and put things down on the computer screen, let's say, in order to have some sense of what might come next.
DB: Before you were using the computer, you were using the typewriter in a similar manner?
RW: Yeah. I had an IBM Selectric. I guess even before that, I had some other kind of electric typewriter. I would type it up as far as I could go and then wait and see what would happen. Usually what that meant was that I'd take the poem out of the typewriter, as far as it went, and write it back down long hand in the note book but it would look different. It shaped it differently. Because looking at it on the screen gives it the appearance more of a kind of permanence, which is dangerous, I think. It would have been dangerous for me in the beginning, I think, to compose on a word processor or a typewriter because it might have given me this inclination toward a particular kind of structure that in fact would not have been as interesting or as evocative to me.
Now, I'm perfectly comfortable just looking at lines on the computer screen and saying, "Wait a minute, why are these lines the way they are?" And I am a compulsive syllable counter, even if, ultimately, in revisions, I wind up excising syllables or adding syllables. I like, composing say, a decasyllabic just to force me into manipulating syntax, to keep the right margin mattering, and somehow finding that way of moving the poem down the page.
DB: First question is when did you start using a computer to do these things? Secondly, was there anything that changed when you moved from typewriter to a computer? Was there a different feeling or a different sort of—? I mean you've said a little bit about this.
RW: Yeah. I think that in the beginning, and this probably would have been, let's see... I got my first computer in the Fall of 1995. This is the sort of computer that had a—which I still have; it still works—a Compaq, a little tiny "laptop," as we called them then, that had a minimal hard drive. I think I nearly filled it up. But I think I kind of used it, really, as just a sort of glorified typewriter with a little screen. It is black and white screen and there was nothing special as a piece of technology. I used it as a not so special piece of technology, kind of like a typewriter except that you can save it and go back to it, and find it just the way you left it and not have to type it completely in or not have to go from the typing sheet back to the notebook.
There is a kind of step that gets left out. That was the first time I started leaving out the step of writing by hand then going to the computer and then going back to the typewriter, then going back from type-written sheet to long hand. In a way I suppose the best thing I could have, the thing I thought was best about that part of the process, when the computer came along, was that it saved time. I could immediately just look at it on the screen, go back to longhand and then add what I had written in longhand onto whatever I had already saved on the computer.
But it kept me from writing everything back down and for a long time, I wondered about, "What I'm I missing there? What might I have not seen that I would have seen if I had been writing in longhand?" I used to say things like, "The reason I keep writing longhand or printing actually, I print the stuff, is that it allows me to feel the shapes of the letters themselves." It allows you to dispense words incrementally and syllables, not that the typewriter or the computer is any different except that it is. You sort of hear the syllables more when you are writing it out longhand and you certainly feel them more when you are writing longhand.
Eventually, I began to see that and I think Kim was part of what helped me see that. She just said, "That's just silly. Why would that really change anything?" You know, you're right. It doesn't change much of anything. I began to be a whole lot more comfortable then with just moving from—in sort of one fell swoop—from the handwritten text, to the text on the computer, which I would then print out and then do extensive revisions on. Arrows, things crossed out—that sort of thing. Whole sections crossed out.
DB: Okay. I guess we can kind of move into sort of talking about revision generally then. You are talking about how you do revision now in the computer and the differences between you moving back and forth more with the typewriter. I guess, what were your practices when you first started? How did you kind of learn how to revise?
RW: That's a really good question. I tell the students, the graduate students, because they hate to revise. I said, "You can't hate to revise, you have to love to revise because that's, like, most of the job." If you hate to revise, it's like hating writing, because that's what writing is. I like to tell them my own experience, which was that when in the beginning, as it were, I didn't realize it but I preferred to have written to writing. I really loved the finished product, or what I perceived as the finished product, which is to say, the "file" draft of the poem. That's the part I loved most.
Somewhere along the line, I began to prefer the process to the product because that's the place where all the excitement happens. That's the place where you surprise yourself. The process of revision is certainly made so much more fluid and swift with the computer than it ever could have been with writing longhand and then moving to the computer. It's so easy to drag and drop, to cut and paste with a computer that it is sort of staggering to try to remember what it was like getting together a book manuscript.
My first book manuscript that Penguin published, that was all typed on a typewriter without page numbers, which are then penciled in. I thought about winding it all in the typewriter, typing-in page numbers, but I thought, "This is insane, it'll drive me nuts." I had handwritten page numbers on it when I put together that book manuscript. And now of course it's just such a breeze that a computer will automatically do all that stuff for you. I don't think that it changes much about the way I compose, but there are some, I think... That is a big bug.
There are some great advantages about seeing it on the screen in the computer. There is a poem in Anatomy of Melancholy that is...let me find it. It's called "Earthquake Light." Let's see. It's one, two, three, four, five, six, seven...eight tercets. So, it's 24 lines. Originally, in the first draft of this poem, was the only draft of this poem that was in six quatrains. Not much was different about it. If you look at it, when it was divided into quatrains, more or less the same structure that it is now, the first quatrain ended with a period. That is to say the period at the end of what is now line one, stanza two. I looked at it on the page, on the computer screen for a long time before I realized that, "Wait a minute, I sort of liked the idea that the first quatrain ends with a period, which sort of establishes this undeniable hardness of the quatrain as a structural unit."
But then I thought to myself, "What happens if I break this into tercets because it the same number of lines. I can break it into a different number of tercets and still have the poem be comprised of the same number of lines." It changed everything about the poem, having that poem broken into tercets instead of quatrains. That was so easy to do and so easy to examine, to test, with a computer. Let me just backspace here, space here, return here—I just did that, looked at that: "Okay. Bingo!" That sort of thing I think is one of the great things that that part of the technology of the computer helps to facilitate. It allows you to see those possibilities. Shit, if I'd have had to completely retype the thing in tercets, would have I done it? Probably. I would have done it, but it would have been a much more arduous thing, and it might have not occurred to me simply because the little voice in my head would have said, "You don't want to type that again." That, I think, is one of the great things about the technology.
DB: I guess what sort of mode is your revision? There is a phrase in one of the books I'm reading: "What is your primary mode of textual change as an English woman?" She was sort of describing sort of T.S. Eliot versus Pound; T.S Eliot being the sort of subtractive and Pound being sort of creative and more and more... or there is also a sort of substitute sort of mode as well. Does one of those fit your mode or is it...?
RW: Oh, I'm subtractive. Absolutely. If she weren't so old and weren't taking care of my father 24/7, I would have my mother who always embroidered, embroider me a little sample that I can hang on the wall that says, "Cutting is virtue" because it is, and I think I may be part of the lineage of poets who sometimes can't shut up. I love Dryden, I love Pope but I can only take them for about 100, 200 lines of time and I got to go lie down because they just did not know when to be quiet. They did not know when to shut up and they needn't have to. Who I'm I to talk about them that way? Except for the fact that I look at—even in poems of Pope's—and think, "If this had been cut by about a third, it would just be a lot more friendly." It would just be a lot less boring quite honestly. It may not have been boring. It is not still boring to a lot of people, but I think it's one of the reasons that people like Pope probably aren't read—except by academics—as they once might have been, because there is just so much of it. Maybe being sort of in that lineage or of that sort that people tell me all the time, "You write long poems." No, I don't! The longest poem I've ever written has been like 400 lines—that's puny, but I've cut... The longest poem in Beautiful Country is 220 some odd lines, and it was 800 lines long in early draft. Most of those, I would print off a long draft and then just start cutting. And I cut 600 lines.
DB: Which poem is that?
RW: It's called "American Fear."
DB: Okay. When you are revising is there an intension behind the revision and along with that, are you revising towards... like is it driven by sound? Is it driven by theme? Is it driven by structure of the poem in general or by meaning?
RW: Certainly sound figures into it. Basically, I'll see or hear opportunities to let the poem go someplace else it might not have gone basically because I hear a particular sound that appeals to me or see the possibility of substituting a word in a subsequent line. It can pick up that sound. I call them "sound linkages." A lot of people do, I think Ellen Bryant Voigt was the first person I ever heard use that term. Sound is for me a compositional tool. I have something called the rule of the rhyme. When I make a sound that I particularly like or feel is evocative in a line, I want to make that sound again within the first three or four syllables of the subsequent line just to see where the poem goes, just to see where that sound takes me inside the poem. I forgot the original question, how the hell I got here.
DB: Is there an intention behind the revision or you just sort of follow?
RW: I think in sort of the most fundamental way I'm looking for clarity without clarity, but with a kind of evocative simplicity. I don't want poems to be boilable down to a kind of theme and I'm not interested in poems that can be said to be "about" something. Sure, they are about something, but what they are really about is something much more than that particular something. What I'm looking for is to get at that particular something, not so much the thing as the other thing. Tony Earley, the fiction, nonfiction writer talks about all great writing being about the thing and the other thing. It's the other thing that interests me a whole lot more than the thing. In the drafting process, I'm dealing with the thing. In the revision process, when I get seriously down to revision, I'm dealing with the other thing. How can I make what this poem is after? That "what" is frequently several different "whats". So, how can I make those things all work together?
DB: Has your relationship to that sort of idea changed over your course of writing or has it been somewhat constant in that? Like, once you heard him talk about it, you are like, "Oh right. That's what I've been doing."
RW: Hold on to say okay. Ask the question again?
DB: You are talking about the thing and the other thing. Is that something that once he said that to you, you sort of realized that's what you've been doing all along or is it something that you came to be practicing and before you were doing something else?
RW: I think it was something I've been doing all along without really having that sort of a simple way of explaining it or a simple way of seeing it. But I was always after that. I mean, I was interviewed by a young woman in Scotland who asked me if I could talk about what she said were my two or three dominant themes and I said, "I'm sorry, but I don't know what those are." And we wound up with the long edge talking about my discomfort with the idea of theme, because it's just the way it sort of circumscribing what the poem is after, drawing the line about what the possibilities of the poem might be, a line around that, and I'm not interested in that. I'm interested in the poem being as big as it can possibly be, having as many possible readings, if you will, as it can have. Maybe as many possible readings as there are readers.
DB: What role do other people play in the process of your revision? Do they play a role?
RW: Not a whole lot. Kim is my principal reader and she knows me so well that she can tell when she needs to be supportive and can tell when she needs to be mean. Sometimes, you just need to have a kick in the pants. But she's also the one who says, "Okay, here's where you need to open it up, right here, right in this spot," and she's almost invariably correct. "Oh yeah, you're right. I need to develop that spot. I need to go somewhere else. I need to bring some other kind of image, some other kind of a reference." The poem, as Dick Hugo would say, is...you need to write off the subject in that spot, he would say. I always call it "Just bring in a Buick," which is my own figure for it but that's what I do. Just find something extraneous—seemingly extraneous—to bring into the poem so I can open it up here.
DB: Okay. So you don't, like, send your poems to other writers or have anything like that?
RW: I have a couple of friends that I will send poems to on occasion. Dorianne Laux has looked at poems for me, and Henry Carlile, who lives over in Portland, a wonder poet. On a couple of occasions, Phil Levine has looked at some things for me. But mostly no. I don't have that kind of network of other writers.
DB: And in these sort of unusual circumstances, what drives you to sort of send a poem outside?
RW: It will be a poem that, for some reason or another, I'm uncertain of. The example that occurs to me is that a long sequence of poems called "Earthly Meditations," which originally appeared as kind of little prefatory sections in each of the four parts, and then a fifth envoy, sort of the organizing poems in the book Reign of Snakes, which is a very sound driven, intensely meditative poem that I wrote. I was on a Guggenheim when I wrote that book and that was the last poem—that big poem that went into the book because something is missing. I knew something was missing, but I didn't know what it was. And right in the middle of the book was this other long sequence, called "Reign of Snakes."
I had this one poem which was actually the first part of "Earthly Meditations." I took it in to show it to Kim and she said, "Okay, the stanza here needs to go, but you might want to consider just writing more of this and see, because I don't feel it's done." So I wrote—it was 500 some odd lines long, this sequence—over the course of, like, two weeks. While I would do it, I would go out and I played Dylan Thomas on the CD player. I'd just listened to him say all this "gorgeous nonsense" as Auden called it. Or I'd read Plath, or I'd read The Book of Nightmares. Mostly, if there was a model for that poem, it was Roethke's "North American" sequence, a very much nature-driven sort of thing, and highly musical.
And then when I finished it, I knew what I wanted to do with it, and use it as sections throughout the book. Actually, that was Kim's idea too. I couldn't write without her. I didn't really trust the poem.
It was not like anything else I've ever written so I sent it to Dorianne, Henry, and Phil, and a couple of other people, just to find out, one of whom, Henry—who was a student of Roethke's—it was too close to Roethke for him. He didn't want me to do it. Everybody else said, "This is the best thing you've ever written. You just got to keep writing more like that." People keep telling me to go back and get that voice again and do more. I keep saying, "I've already done it. I don't want to do that anymore." But I do have those people. I hadn't used any of them. Henry, a couple of times, since, but that's about it. I have this writer in residence, who is extremely helpful.
DB: So you're talking a little bit about how this goes into a book and everything. I guess I'm wondering if you can sort of delineate a difference between how you revise an individual piece and how you revise a collection of works, and maybe talk a little bit about how that has changed over the course of your career?
RW: Yeah, you know, it's such an ongoing thing with individual pieces. A lot of times, I'll publish a poem in a magazine and I'll go back in and think, "I want to change this," and I'll change something. I'll fiddle with things a little bit. I don't think there is anything particularly holy about the fact that it appeared in print in one way—I can tinker with it. But then I find, when I start assembling a book—I mean, I still do this the old fashioned way; I don't think there's any other way—get all the poems I think might comprise the poem, and I lay them out on the floor. But then that act of laying them out on the floor and finding, say, "Okay, this batch of 10, 12 poems sort of goes together - You can see there's some connective tissue between them."
Then I've got to go back and start making—I have a system of little arrows and checks and numbers and so forth that show me opportunities to tie those poems together. If I write as in, say, Anatomy of Melancholy—a book that is into four sections—then I have to find a way to connect the sections together so that the assemblage of the sections is part of the assemblage of the whole, of course, but the assemblage of the whole and the sections they're in becomes, also, part of the revision of the individual poems as I find ways to stitch those things together into the larger fabric.
DB: Okay. That has been consistent throughout, you think?
RW: Oh yeah, oh yeah. Certainly from my second book. My first book—which Copper Canyon published in 1979—was my MFA thesis, basically, and when I find copies in bookstores, I buy them. I'm not embarrassed by it, but boy—it's really beginning work. I think in the Selected Poems, I used maybe three poems, and even then, I think I could have left them out and it wouldn't hurt anything, but my editor said, "No, no. You've got to have something." Beginning though with the second book, Moon in a Mason Jar, that's been absolutely the way I've operated. It's gotten complicated with two of the books. My third book, What My Father Believed, and Beautiful Country, are volumes not divided into sections so that in each of them, it seems more all of a piece, somehow, and those required a lot more movement. I don't know how I could have done it without the computer, moving poems in different locations throughout the text and finding ways to maintain a kind of a seamlessness, but not a kind of overwhelming sense of there being an arc, because really, it is a collection of poems. If there is an arc—boy, it's a very pale arc, at least in those two books of mine.
DB: You said something about a system of arrows and numbers. I was wondering if you could maybe go into the nitty-gritty of that?
RW: Well, it has to do with page numbers ,overall. I'll have the draft and I'll put page numbers on them. I'll just have an asterisk and 7, which will mean, "Look for the asterisk on page 7," or a check and 118—"Look at 118." And I'll have another check so there are a couple of spots in a couple of poems that correspond that can allow me to make a stitch here that connects those two things. So across two or 50 pages, there's a kind of communication that's going on through the whole of the manuscript.
DB: And you just combine them all into one Word document on your computer?
RW: Mm-hmm. And before then, when it had to be typed up, it was really hard. So I had to do a lot of penciling-of-things-in. Somewhere, in those many boxes in the closet, in the basement, are drafts, work sheets—whatever you want to call them—versions of all of the books since Moon in a Mason Jar that sort of show that process, how that came about.
DB: Now that you do use a computer, do you find yourself making any changes in the collection once it's into a bigger file?
RW: Absolutely.
DB: Okay.
RW: It never really stops. Well, with Anatomy of Melancholy, I thought I had it exactly the way I wanted it, but the first poem in the published book used to be the last poem in the published book, and the last poem in the published book used to be the first. And they were that way because there's a kind of chronology there, in a way—the last poem in the book happens before the first poem in the book, if you know what I mean. So, chronologically, it seemed better that what is now the last poem happened first.
But I got to working on it and realizing that a lot of it had to do with form, too. The last poem of the book is a sonnet as it stands now, which seemed like a great way into the book, but in fact, it seems to me like a much better way out of the book. So I still make those kinds of changes and I drag my poor copy editor crazy at Penguin because I'm always, "Okay I changed this. You're right. That comma is probably confusing." Or, "I don't have a comma there, but by the way, I've added two more lines," or "I've taken out a line in it." And where does this ever stop, I think.
DB: So we're sort of on to how you organize—you move in from revision. You're always revising, but then you're also sort of moving into organizing the collection. Then, I guess once you're at that point that you've got published collections, you've got published poems, how do you kind of keep track of all of this stuff? Do you do it on the computer? Before the computer, I'm sure it was a little different than it is now. Or maybe that hasn't changed at all?
RW: I don't think it has changed at all. I mean, there was a time when I would create a file on the computer that was nothing but poems that had been published in magazines, say. And then I just got away from that and sort of went old fashioned on myself and just started writing it down and keeping them in the file. I don't know why I did that. It just seems like it was a lot easier to get to the hard copy somehow and look at them and read them than it was to call up individual poems out of a whole other file. To that extent, I guess, I discovered that I prefer the old and seemingly laborious manual method with seriously analog notation and keeping track of things. I mean, there's no doubt that for me, it has got to be a combination of the two. Even still, I've got pencils all over the place because that's what I need to write in these things with.
DB: Your other folder there that you called a thesis folder?
RW: Mm-hmm.
DB: When did you start using those? How did that come about?
RW: That was in Montana. Madeline DeFrees gave all her students one of those, which is a very sweet thing. I loved it. Rodney Jones actually talks about these things. The Harvard calls them "thesis binders." You can buy them in the bookstore in Harvard, and you can buy them in the bookstore in Montana, but I've had to order these online. They're also called "spring binders."
At Montana when I was in graduate school, if you didn't have a spring binder to keep your poems in, you just weren't shit. I mean, it was just spring binder, man. "I don't have one." "Oh..." So I got sort of interested in that particular thing way back then, and I've got, well, in those boxes, hundreds of them, and I've got a couple of old ones here—that one, held together with duct tape. That's a big one. I think that's one Kim retired from a prose manuscript so that I could do the selected poems, because it was sort of a fatty in comparison.
DB: How does it work? Does it clip in individual pages?
RW: No, it's got metal in here. This is not new. You have to squeeze it, so it's just a piece of metal in the spine.
DB: Oh okay.
RW: Then it's got this little—
DB: And then it's just individual pieces of paper made into a book?
RW: Yeah. It's just a pile. There's no particular order in this. These are all prose poems in stanzas, which is not possible, but I did it. And then back in the back, there's about that maybe poems that have already been published, and there might be few more in journals. Yeah, that's my filing. That's either things that have been published and therefore might be serviceable in a collection somewhere down the road or poems that are still under construction, and then there is kind of an intermediary thing although they are all jumbled together. I don't know which is which. I have to keep... See, I don't do this on a computer—
DB: Yeah—
RW: This is my submission notebook, where I submitted things, and acceptances. I've been doing that for years. I started in 1995 and, most recently, I sent a batch—where did I send those—the Georgia Review and Smithsonian.
DB: Okay. So we are going to go back here. We've seen the thesis binder, and you have then, like, years of them over there, and those are years of notebooks and years of thesis binders? How are you sort of organizing them, are you just sort of sticking them in one place?
RW: They're not in any, well, they are in a kind of order. They go most recent to the oldest on the bottom of the pile, but they get shuffled because I go back and pull them out. It really is a kind of storage, kind of information retrieval system, which just happens to be handwritten and old fashioned, because I love going back. I can go 25 years and pull out a notebook and sometimes make discoveries, you know? "This was interesting. How come I didn't finish this one?" More often than not, I wasn't capable of finishing it. I'd gotten on to something I didn't quite have the knowhow or the resourcefulness to find a way out of. Now, either I do or I've convinced myself I do. So, I get it back out and go to work on it.
DB: So, then the difference between—there're boxes as well, right?
RW: By the time I put stuff in boxes, that's pretty well committed to book. I'm not much interested in pulling things out. But that's one of the reasons why I have this tray down here—this wooden tray where things go in, then I'll bring another one of those manuscript boxes out. It usually holds 10 reams of paper. Before these things—this pile of thing—goes in to that box, I go through it poem by poem, or draft by draft. I don't organize them but I look for something—"Oh yeah, I forgot about this." Because sometimes it will be—I know it's on the computer somewhere but I don't even remember it.
If I just go to Word and open, it's just chaos, it's just a whole lot of files. Some of them are not called that anymore but I can do a search. I can type a line and do a search and find it somewhere. But I would not even remember what it might have been called unless I find something in this batch before it goes in the box. I try not to lose anything but keeping track of it, it's hard. I write a lot.
DB: How do you name your files and your folders and how do you organize your stuff on the computer?
RW: Minimally.
DB: Minimally? First line?
RW: Usually just the title and sometimes I'll have—I've got, like, just a poem called "Ant," and I've got "Ant 1," "Ant 2," "Ant 3," because I'm not sure which of those drafts I prefer. I kind of like something about them all. It maybe that eventually I'll get to a final version of that poem called "Ant" and eliminate the others, or I'll print them off, put them in a box, and eliminate them from the hard drive—just get rid of them so they don't clutter up or get in the way. But I'm not all that resourceful with the computer. I think that a lot of people are much more resourceful with it as a tool. I don't tend to do a lot of organization. It's just where I store individual poems for the most part.
So there is a poem under a particular title and that's it. Or, there is a manuscript under a particular title. Although now—and this has got particularly strange, because so many magazines are accepting submissions online—you find you have to assemble another file consisting of three or four or five poems to send, which also gets complicated. You have this other whole set of files. So I have individual poems here—I have batches of poems that have been submitted over here and after awhile, I'll just dump those.
DB: Just get rid of them?
RW: Yeah. I still got the other, I still got the poems.
DB: So the poem itself is the kind of master file, so to speak?
RW: Yes.
DB: Okay. You don't ever have like "Ant 2" or "Ant Revised" or anything like that?
RW: No. When I lose track of—I mean, most of these are two or three drafts. That's number one, number three. Mostly these first drafts are still around here but you can get back in here and find like four, five, seven, eight.
Then you go back from here and there will be, you know, draft number 22. And eventually, once I decide that that's done and it goes into computer as a kind of final draft, that's just the final poem as it stands there and I'll eliminate anything else that existed along the way, just to keep the old hard drive from being cluttered up, and just to make it easier to find things when I need them.
DB: No, that's one of the bigger challenges, trying to figure out what was done and how you did it. It's kind of bringing us to the end of this section of questions and I have some sort of more pointed questions about computer use and correspondence. I guess overall, do you see any distinct stages in your writing process? Do you see, over the course of your career, do you see, like, distinct shifts or do you sort of see it as a gradual change, or not change, sort of staying the same at some point?
RW: I think there was one huge sort of shift and that was when I moved from—actually, when I changed publishers. My second two books came from the University of Illinois Press and I had this kind of story book thing that happened. I gave a reading at a writer's conference at which there were—the president of Viking was there and the director of publicity, who is now my editor, who is famous. He edited Eat, Pray, Love. He's T. C. Boyle's editor, Paul Slovak. He was there and I gave this reading and the president of Viking came up and said, "Do you have a book?" I said, "Well, I got a start on one. I'm working on one." He goes, "Send me what you got." I sent him six poems and a title of what I perceived the book—this book—and three weeks later, I had an offer and a contract in an envelope and a delivery date. I called and I got the delivery date extended to six months, and bingo I was on.
That's sort of been the way I've worked with Penguin ever since—when I know what the book is going to be, when I have this sort of abstract, but never the less certain sense, that this is what the book is going to be, this is how it's going to work, what's it going to revolve around. This is what the title is. I'll send the editor an email and say, "Well, this is the book. It's going to be called Anatomy of Melancholy and Other Poems. I'd like to deliver in spring of 2012." "Okay," he says, and then they send me a contract. It's a pretty good deal but it's sort of a big shift because from that point on, I've not had to worry about finding a publisher, and that's just a great luxury.
I cannot pay attention to so much of the sort of the professional part of it. Where I tell my students, "Your writing is your life. Your publishing is your career. You live your life, you manage your career." Sometimes those things get so tangled up and for some people, they get tangled up, I think, much to their detriment, both on the life side—maybe less so on the career side—but they get it all knotted together. Not that way. I've just been lucky enough that it hasn't worked that way for me.
DB: Right. What book was this?
RW: That was called In the Bank of Beautiful Sins. That was the first one I did with Penguin. I've done six books.
DB: I guess my one question with that is does it seem—I mean, I want to use the word "organic" here—was it more organic when you just kind of wrote until you had a book and then presented it? Or actually is it different now that you kind of know that you are guaranteed, basically, of publishing it?
RW: Yeah.
DB: It's sort of a dumb word for this, but it—
RW: No, I know what you mean. Although I think that there's something even more organic for me about having the vision of what the book is in advance even before I've written some of the poems that are going to comprise that book, because it completely changes my focus. Once I know. I mean, people ask me now, "Are you working on a book?" "No, I'm just writing poems." That's a very serious distinction for me, and I'm not in any hurry to know what the next book is. I just published one less than a year ago, right? So, April? So, it's like seven months old. It's going to be a year or two before I begin to have some sense, and even then, I might just say, "I really don't need to be any hurry." Although Random House is now Penguin Random House and nobody knows what that means.
Random House publishes Billy Collins and nobody else. Putnam publishes Linda Bierds and Cornelius Eady and nobody else. Penguin's got a huge list. Knopf's a got a huge list. There is one publisher need for poetry lists: what's going to happen? I have no control over that, so I'm just going to keep doing what I do, and if things change? Bummer. Either that or not, I don't know, it might be fine. But I do think that it really has been, and it was that first incidence of seeing, "I got this great opportunity. Penguin wants to publish a book of mine. I can make this move to a New York house and I don't have a book manuscript yet, but if I can promise to have this book manuscript called this in such and such date, I'll have it." And it works so well for me. My first three books were Penguin, and all won prizes, but have cooled off. That they still love me but, still, I need to win another prize, I guess. Doing the best I can.
DB: That's an interesting point. I mean, when you have these deadlines, is it in some ways just that much more generative? You can't really have a block.
RW: No. My colleague, Brandon Schrand, says, "There is no such thing as writer's block." If you call a plumber, he's not going to tell you "I got plumber's block. I can't help you." We ought to be able to be as professional about it as a plumber is. I mean, that's facetious, of course, but Bill Stafford always used to say, "If you can't write, lower your standards." That's actually tremendously good advice too, because you lower your standards and it can open up in so many different ways. You don't really lower your standards. You quit trying to second guess yourself. You quit sitting down trying to write a great poem because that's a recipe for disaster.
DB: Absolutely, yeah. This sort of last group of questions is more specifically about computers and some of it is going to be repetitive. So if you've answered most of it you don't need to do more, but just do me the favor of repeating yourself if you don't mind. I think we can answer some of these. You began using computers on a regular basis—?
RW: Mid 90s.
DB: Mid 90s. You started using them basically just for like as almost as a typewriter. How did that sort of change? Were there things that became part of your life that you did more with the computer?
RW: I really did not start actively composing and composing—sometimes the bulk of the poem. And occasionally—this has not happened too very often—the prose poems. I just pointed out that prose poem in stanzas had to be composed on the computer, the whole of it. By which I mean I set the margins and allowed the word processing to determine where the ends of the lines were, but that also required that I not sort of run the line on too far before I begin what I felt was another stanza. My students accuse me of hating prose poems. I don't hate prose poems I just don't see the point. Which is probably ignorant of me.
There are prose poems I love but again, I've never really been interested in writing one until I sort of gave myself this challenge. "What if I allowed the computer to determine where the lines end but still found a way to make its structure appear as though it was verse and not prose?" That's what I did.
I think however when I first started trying to compose or do the bulk of the composition on the computer was after I was in this little space, which probably would have been somewhere around late 2008, maybe, and I started out just on a kind of a lark. "What happens if I come up here and sit down and make a poem in lines on the word processor?" I think I was on sabbatical then, too, as I am now. That would have been 2007. I didn't have much luck. I didn't have much luck making actual poems until all of a sudden, I did. That's when I decided to sort of convert myself to part time writing long hand and part time writing on the computer, and I've been very comfortable with that ever since.
DB: So about 2007?
RW: About 2007, I think that's when I really got started on it.
DB: You are sort of talking about this but I guess, are there any sort of techniques or formats that you were able to—well, you already sort of said this but—I guess these are the more sort of pressing questions. Do you think your using the computer has given you advantages over previous styles of writing? Conversely, what sort of disadvantages do you see?
RW: I don't see any disadvantages really. I have sort of worries about what it might do but at this point I can't quite bring myself to go back, mainly because I'm having, it seems like I'm having good luck, and part of that may just be that I've got to that point in my life in my career as a writer where I know a lot of tricks. I know how to trick myself. I know how to get going. I know how to get out of a lot of tight spaces. I know how to surprise myself or how to do those things that might lead me to surprise myself. I can do that on the computer and I can do that, I can get somewhere faster or so it seems. It might be an illusion but I don't think that it is.
If there is a disadvantage, I don't have—let me grab one of these. I don't know when this was... 1996. You can see, I don't do—I mean, look how neat that is. There is not a lot of—then there's a little bit more crossing out and stuff. I don't know what this is. There is a big chunk cut and sometimes there is a little bit more and all those kinds of things, but I don't—the major revisions even here probably began when I started converting it to a type print document. But I miss this sometimes. I go back and look and think, "How cool is this? This is sort of an interesting thing to have."
I'm not producing this anymore. And I worry about that. No one knows. If you're writing in hopes that your poems will last, that makes you pretty normal, but there is no guarantee. Everybody hopes that they might write something that might last, but you just don't know. You just do the best you can. But if there is a point at which one's work draws the attention of some kind of a scholar or somebody who is willing to study what you've done, documents like that are going to be really, really interesting because it was put on the page by the hand of the poet rather than just ignited electronically.
DB: So, there is no thought being sort of expressed on the electronic document?
RW: No. Some of the margins—in my own marginalia, on my own poems, there is a big question mark, but then there's other times, there's like notes. "Tools, tools!" I just saw a couple of others—"Egad!" I'll just pick it up and I don't know what it says. I don't have my glasses on. But yeah, making notes to myself. Sometimes notes in frustration. You know, "This is idiotic." I don't know what this says, I don't have my glasses. "Jesus!" Oh yeah, "Jesus! Just saw a truck get hit by the train!"
DB: Oh wow. Wait, Jesus did?
RW: No. I did. Jesus as in "Jesus!"
DB: You got somebody in one of your books being Christ, right?
RW: Yeah. There is Lucifer Doula, when his brother, Jesus Christ was born then.
DB: That makes more sense. I guess this is sort of simple, maybe overly simple, but does the internet play a role in any of your writing practices? Is that connected to the internet?
RW: Yeah. When I built the thing in 2002 I put an Ethernet cable, buried an Ethernet cable out. I am wired out here but I try to not stay connected very often because it's such an easy distraction. On the other hand, Kim and I enjoyed Scotland so much, I've been trying to get her to apply to go to the Castle at Hawthorne. Rochelle has been there. But then it turns out you can't—they don't want you to go as a couple and there is no internet. And Kim said, "Forget it" because she's a prose writer and she said—oh, and the NSA must have a file five feet thick on her because she wrote a novel about... She's downloaded maps of all the oil fields and pipelines in the Middle East. I mean, of course they're watching her. But all that came through the internet. It's a useful thing and I still use it every now and then. If I do wind up submitting a poem... I just sent a poem—right before we left for UK—to Paul Muldoon. You know, the only way to submit to the New Yorker is electronically. They're not interested in paper anymore.
DB: Even all the mainstream contests now are almost exclusively—
RW: That's good somehow.
DB: It makes it a lot easier for everyone, I think.
RW: I think so. I don't worry about the book disappearing and going to eBooks much. And if it does, all these books of mine are going to be worth a fortune. That's the way I look at it.
DB: We sort of talked about this, but when do you consider a piece of writing finished? Have these machines changed your sort of option on that regard?
RW: I think that it's just the same as the type print. I don't consider anything complete until I print it off and then send it off into the world. But when I did the selected poems both here and in the UK, I made some changes. Not big changes, but I made some changes here and there in poems. So, I don't consider them sacred ever. But mostly, when I'm ready to put it in a book it's finished. I'm just not going to mess with it anymore.
I had this talk with Terrance Hayes, whom I've known for a long time, since—well, he was never a wee boy, he was nine foot tall, anyway—he didn't want to read poems out of books at Albra. And we were both in England with Dennis Nurkse and Kathy Pollard—they were really the four Americans there. I said, "Yeah, I know what you mean." But I said, "But I got this Brit book. I've got to read from the book because the publisher is here. He wants to move copies." And he goes, "Yeah, you're right." He doesn't have a British publisher, so they shipped Penguin books over there. He goes, "I want people to buy it, otherwise they're going to ship them all back." So, we had to read poems from the books, and as he said to me—and I understand this absolutely at readings—"I'm not really interested in reading those poems." It's like once that book is out there, run along. I'm interested in reading and sharing what I'm working on and sort of testing it in reading situations.
DB: How do you feel about the security and fixity of your files? You have the backup. Does that pretty much alleviate most of your worries and you don't—?
RW: Yeah, I did. On this book shelf here there is a little piece of wood that functions as a book-stop, and it didn't use to have that. I had a big marble book end which I was sitting right here, I had my feet on the desk as I was reading and I heard something slide. I just turned just to see this 12-lb marble book end just crush on the laptop. I managed to get the hard drive up and retrieve everything, the hard drive was fine. It didn't hurt it, it just killed the mechanism. I'm not too worried about it. And then I also print things off relentlessly. Every time I get through a draft, and which is why I fill up so many cartons of paper. North Texas, those people who buy so many piles of writer's papers—especially Western writers—pay by the pound. So, you feel me? You aren't going to pay me anything for my electronic files. No, I'm printing these off. The paper is heavy.
DB: That's funny. I guess you talked about having an external hard drive before. What was that process like and were you more concerned about crashes and what not in the earlier days of computers?
RW: I think I was. I'm less concerned with the Mac. Somehow it seems, you know, I never have any issues with it. Whereas PC sometimes seem to kind of odd or they would be afflicted by some bug. That worried me so I had this 3/4 TB hard drive that, every time I came out here, I just plugged it in and it was on automatic backup. It backed up all my photographs as well as music and mostly all my files. While it was plugged in, it would backup every hour. It would just backup all my Word files. I still got that, I have to plug it in but it won't work on the Mac. I have to plug it in to a PC somewhere. It's out here somewhere. Every now and then I think I need to go buy an external drive for the Mac too just so I can back things up that way but then I don't because I do have a lot of paper. I got stuff in the cloud and I got stuff in Mozy so I feel pretty sanguine about the possibilities of me being able to retrieve something.
Now if a forest fire rips through when I'm gone and burns up the computer and all my boxes of poems and everything, then its Mozy or the cloud and that's it. And every place in the woods in this part of Idaho burns. It's not if, it's when. It hasn't been here in a long time but could be next July, August, or September, or October. Which concerns me, yes. That does concern me and I'd especially like to move all those boxes out of the closet if I get the write offer.
DB: Cedar closet, too?
RW: I need a vault.
DB: I have just a few more questions. I want to talk a little bit about correspondence and then a little bit about teaching. Do you correspond much now with other writers? I guess we'll talk about teaching a little bit.
RW: I do, and I miss—let's see. That's a letter from Phil Levine. He wrote me because I wrote him. And I've got a file in there, probably 1.5-inch thick, of letters from Phil Levine. That's almost all letters. But I probably write 10 letters, 12 letters a year now. I've got a few people who are really willing correspondents and write back. They still like the idea of letters. And I do too—I love getting letters. It's not like getting an email. But most of the correspondence is via email anymore, and I try to print those off.
I've got two or three letters from Billy Collins. I've known Billy for a long time too, but our correspondence over the last decade has been entirely electronic. All these abbreviated little snippets, which are hilarious, because he's very funny, tremendously witty, and he's especially good in letters, too, as well as in poems. So we have a great deal of fun. But they're all these little short snippets, which I find myself compelled to come out and print off—the whole thread of the thing, one email at a time—to snatch a page that long. But I want to save those things. Something about saving them electronically doesn't seem like saving them on paper.
DB: When did email start to become the sort of primary mode of correspondence?
RW: Probably around the turn of the millennium, I think, for me. It was so exciting at first being able to communicate so quickly. But then you realize what's missing. I can go back and look at—I got letters from Gwendolyn Brooks, I've got letters from James Dickey, Richard Hugo. I've got this wonderful file of letters which, if a forest fire burns through, they're gone too, I'm thinking.
DB: Bring those in, we'll scan them for you.
RW: But I do. A lot of the communications. I've got a file on one of my two email addresses. I get a lot of writerly emails on the U of I account because that's the easiest one to find. I've got a Gmail account that I just kind of keep private. That's my business file, and my personal file, or my personal email. I save all those communications from other poets, other writers but I don't print all of them off. Some I do. Some seem important enough to print off, others don't.
DB: That's your kind of line? If it's something that you kind of hold dear, you print?
RW: Yeah. If I get a particularly great letter. I published a poem in the New Yorker—well, it's in that issue up there, the Obama issue with O over the Lincoln Memorial. I've never had a response to a poem like that. It's a poem called "It's a Beautiful Country." Shit—what is it called?—"Exxon." I got 140-some odd emails from a lot of people I know. A lot of poets I know of but don't really know. A lot of strangers—vets, amputees. All of them positive. And all of that stuff, you know, I print it off. I've got a whole file of just those kinds of things. Just to have that kind of response to a poem... You gotta save that in hard copy, I guess is what I'm saying. I couldn't just leave those sort of loose on the net.
DB: Because they are not—
RW: Right. They're probably no more permanent now, given that I live in place that's likely going to have a forest fire, but they seem that way to me now. And it's easy enough to look at them if I should want to, which I have not.
DB: Did you have letters come to you when you were younger that were not email? Did that happen?
RW: Oh yeah. I've always got a couple of files in there just called "Fan Mail," where you get letters from people you don't know. But also sometimes I think that's the difference between two files, is one is people I know who sent me terrific poems and such and such, or then poems from complete strangers. I got another pile called "Crank"—I've gotten like four or five anonymous letters from some person who hates me in Boise. I don't know what's up with that. But I'm really kind of delighted by them. You can always tell—there's no return address, it's from Boise. It's always like, "Oh, it's that asshole again! What have you got to say this time?"
DB: That's kind of exciting.
RW: I told Phil Levine about it and he said, "You know you're getting somewhere if people hate you."
DB: Yeah. Has your style of writing these correspondences—I mean, once email became part of it, did it change your letter writing, too, or has it—?
RW: Well I mean it made letter writing almost go away. And I wrote a lot of letters. Letters were kind of the way I warmed up when I would get into my writing space here. Or in Leonor, I had another shack very similar to this, and it was how I warmed up—I'd write a letter to somebody, sometimes to my mom, but most often it was just another poet, another poet friend. I'd write him a letter, talk to him about poems, and maybe send him a couple of poems. When email came along—there's something about putting a poem as an attachment to send to somebody that seems like more of a violation. If you put it folded in an envelope with a letter, it's a much friendlier, more intimate kind of gesture than email is.
DB: Yeah. I understand what you are saying, but also it's surprising because in some way that should make it much more easily available for you to write to your friends and send poems.
RW: And of course it does. The last few times I've sent poems off to other people—I think I sent something to David Baker a few years ago just to get some feedback, and I sent those email. Last time I sent poems to anybody else to look at who was not Kim, I think I sent them email. So it's very easy to do that, it's convenient, but it's not as intimate. Or it doesn't seem as intimate. And why is it less intimate?
DB: I didn't actually ask you one question. I was interested in your sort of routine. Like, do you come out here in the mornings? Is there like set times or is it whenever? Or what's your schedule like?
RW: It's mostly whenever I can. I have long days, I teach Tuesdays and Thursdays. When I took this job, that was my understanding—my teaching schedule will be Tuesday and Thursdays. I teach Tuesdays and Thursdays. I'm usually in by 9. I almost always have a night class, so I put in like 12-13 hours on campus Tuesday and Thursday. Wednesday tends to be my campus day when I'm just doing regular office hours and hopefully, if I'm on a committee, I can get them to schedule meetings on Wednesday. If they don't want to do Wednesday I'll do Friday, but I'd rather have, theoretically, Monday and Friday. That's when I write. I get out here between 9 and 10—it varies. It depends on what else is going on through the year. If it's cold weather, I'll build the fire, get it warmed up, and maybe do a little email work to catch up, and then get started. And go in for lunch about noonish, 12:30. Between 12:30 and 1, I come back out and stay until about 5. That's pretty much been my routine really for a long time now, for 20 years. It's a pretty good way to work. It's a luxury to have time. It's an even greater luxury to be on sabbatical, or—as I envision it when I retire—permanent sabbatical. We'll see about that. We'll see how that works.
DB: So, I guess the last, sort of, questions. With teaching and the sort of advent of the computer coming into your teaching, how did that sort of change your day to day life? There is much more access to you, but there is also sort of more barriers. I don't know?
RW: On the negative side, yeah. You're available. You are sort of at the end of this electronic tether. You can't get away from students that way, but my students tend to be pretty aware of what I'm up to. But there are certain things they just got to know about, and sometimes, "Can we meet tomorrow? I know you're coming. I know you've got office hours. I don't know if you've got any time between 2 and 3. If I can stop by could we look at these two poems?" There is an attachment with a couple of poems.
That's the downside—that they don't have to call you, they don't have to make an appointment or come by. They can just ask you and there you are at home, and you respond, and I do. It's also great though, because they can do that and it's a whole lot more convenient. "Sure. I've got the poems now. I could read them tonight. I'll talk to you about them tomorrow, come in at 2:30." So it's both. Mostly I think it's positive. Mostly I think it's good. I'm on sabbatical, and Kim is not on sabbatical. She worked out being gone for 13 days while we went to the UK. When we were at Aldborough, all she did was correspondence with her students. She was doing it, like, while we were there for four days. She did nothing but. She never did get to see much of Aldborough because of that and everybody else at the festival thought my wife was a myth because she only came out once.
DB: Do you see like the sort of—I mean call them what you will, but—the more computer adept, those who have been raised, the "digital natives" or whatever, have they sort of changed your relationship to computers? Their sort of comfort and use of it, has that sort of done anything to your own teaching or your own sort of writing in that way?
RW: Teaching maybe in so far as... What I love, especially in graduate classes—especially in things like the techniques class, which I'm teaching in the spring in which we'll be talking about a different volume of contemporary poetry every week—we'll have a good 2.5-3-hour discussion about this book of poems. How the book works, how the individual poems work, how this particular poet does his or her work. It'll be great, it'll be invigorating and I'll come home and I'll immediately think of like 37 different things I should have said or ways to connect things that they said and sort of bind to our conversation together. And the email—I'll just do a class email and just, with bullets, say "Here's this and this and this." I can add two or three links—the things they need to consider.
That was one of the great things about the internet. I taught—I don't remember what the class was called. It was an American Lit class. English 570. Studies in American and English literature, I think it was. But anyway, 20th Century. And I taught Hart Crane. I taught "The Bridge" and they both despised Hart Crane because it's not easy and it's a failed epic, God bless him. But we had a wonderful discussion about what qualifies his failure and ambition and so forth, and I was able to send them the follow up email that tried to bind the class discussion together with all sorts of references and links to other things they could read about Crane. I mean, it's a great pedagogical tool that way.
DB: Right. I think I've exhausted it. Unless you have any other—? I think we've covered pretty much everything I want to cover and we have a good sense of your writing process. Is there anything that you—I mean you're writing letters in the earlier part of your career to get warmed up was sort of interesting to me. Do you do anything specifically to get warmed up now? Do you read?
RW: Actually I write sonnets.
DB: You write sonnets?
RW: Yeah. I probably have 100 sonnets. I think I've published 2 in books. But I love the form. The form is very friendly to me and they're mostly sort of hybridized. I like the Italian octave. I like ABBA, ABBA, and the kind of Shakespearian couplet at the end, or at least a kind of couplet and rhyme at the end. I'll sit down and I'll spend the first two hours just kind of messing around with a sonnet. I don't really need—it's like with a sonnet, I don't need an idea. I just start putting words on paper. It will have to do with the frost, it will have to do with the—I think it's gone. Anyway, I can see sort of the paper, but a bald-faced Hornet's nest about this big around up on the tree, and I think I've gotten three or four what I call "wind sprint sonnets" out of that thing. Just looking up and watching the hornets going about. Which, at some point this winter, I need to take the shotgun out and blast it out of the tree, out of the way, because next year it'll be this big. So, I don't want that.
DB: Where did you write those down on? In a notebook or are they—?
RW: Well no, I just sat down on a computer and started writing them down.
DB: Those are in the computer?
RW: Yeah. It loosens me up, get things going and sometimes I'll get halfway into it, I'll get 13 lines into one and then I'll feel a sort of desperation and I'll just finish it off somehow with a rhyme. It's not a successful poem. Like I said, I've only used—if I've got a 100, I've only used two. But it gets the wheels turning, and then I can turn here and I can start writing down lines. And it's often, not always, but something, some phrase or word out of that little sonnet—"wind sprint" as I called it—will be like, "Oh wait, there's a real poem in that phrase." So, I'll start from that. It's great. Great fun too. I do love sonnets. I should probably try to find them all. No, I won't. It's in the boxes, in the boxes, in the boxes.
DB: The future scholars will have many chores.
RW: Yeah, see if you can find them and see how many of them don't suck. I think there's two.
DB: There's two maybe. Thank you very much.
RW: It's my pleasure, Devin. It's great to get to meet you and—
DB: Yeah. I'm sorry I've been sort of reclusive I guess.
RW: No, it's okay. You've got, like, a job and stuff, too.
DB: Yeah, I do. A 9-5 and all that.
RW: Yeah.
DB: I think it'll be okay.
Devin Becker: Thank you very much for agreeing to do this, Kasey.
Kasey Mohammad: My pleasure. Thanks for coming.
DB: Would you please state, for the camera, your name, your date of birth, and the location we're at right now?
KM: Kasey Silem Mohammad. October 10, 1962. We're at Southern Oregon University in Central Hall.
DB: So, the first section is kind of short-answer. It's meant to get a sense of your digital practices now. So, we'll just kind of go through this and we'll talk more about the composition. So, what genres do you work in?
KM: Poetry.
DB: OK, and that's your primary genre?
KM: Yeah.
DB: What kinds of devices do you own, or have access to for writing?
KM: This laptop, a MacBook. I mean, that's about it, other than whatever scratchpad I might put a note or idea in.
DB: So you use only that one? Do you write on a phone? Do you write on any other things?
KM: Usually not. I mean, the laptop is the main instrument.
DB: The laptop is the main instrument.
KM: Yeah.
DB: And you have an Apple.
KM: Mhmm.
DB: You said you use some note paper sometimes?
KM: I mean, if I'm somewhere and all I have is a piece of scratch paper because I'm in a meeting and I get an idea. But I don't really do that often.
DB: OK, so it's pretty primarily on that computer?
KM: That is mostly it.
DB: OK. Do you ever make pre-writing notes for it, or—?
KM: Because of the kind of writing I do, that usually doesn't come in to play.
DB: Yeah.
KM: Which I think will become clearer when we talk about the actual composition.
DB: OK. In what format do you save your digital files?
KM: Word.
DB: Word doc.
KM: Mhmm.
DB: Do you save individual works as you go along, or do you simply save over what you've written? Do you save drafts?
KM: Oh, no. I don't. I probably should, but I almost never save drafts. I just open up a doc and write over it until I think it's finished.
DB: OK. And what are your naming conventions for your files?
KM: Usually the name of the poem, followed by the file name.
DB: And so, because you don't use drafts, it's just the one?
KM: Yeah. I don't rename it once I've drafted it or anything. It just stays the same.
DB: Do you print out your writing to revise it?
KM: No, not typically.
KM: Well, I mean, I might do that on occasion with something like an essay because it's easier on the eyes. But the poems are usually shorter, and again because of the specific nature of the composition, in some cases, you'll see I can't revise it really well at all if it's not on a computer.
DB: Yeah. Do you ever save any paper copies of interim drafts?
KM: Usually not. I think the only exception to that is maybe I have some paper copies somewhere of something I wrote in college and hope no one ever sees—maybe it's the way they're written. I don't ever bother to try and scribe them digitally.
DB: Do you back up your work?
KM: When I remember, yeah.
DB: And how often do you do that?
KM: Oh, god. I don't know. I probably need to do it right now—excuse me! Really, it's very erratic.
DB: OK. Do you have Dropbox or anything?
KM: You know, I've got a server here on campus. It's a backup server that I save things to. It's very simple. All I'd need to do is drag stuff right now, and I could do it to stop worrying about it. I've also got an external hard drive at home.
DB: And if you're going to archive it, if you're going to back it up, that's where you put the work? And once a poem is finished, do you move it to a different folder?
KM: Yeah, I've gotten kind of lax on it. I need to go in and update it, but typically what it'll be is: I have a folder—a main poetry folder—and within that, if there is a specific categories for certain projects, I'll divide them in to that, like a book project or whatever. And if something is published, typically, I'll put a copy of it in the Published folder, and then there would be like an Ongoing, or In-process, folder.
DB: Yeah. Do you keep print copies of final drafts? Do you print them out?
KM: Not usually.
DB: And how about the media you've been published in? Do you keep the journals in a sort of space?
KM: I do, yeah. I have a shelf full of journals and books.
DB: OK. So, do you have any standard practices for archiving digitally or physically, would you say?
KM: Maybe explain what you mean a little more.
DB: Do you have a certain kind of way you put it on an external hard drive, like you put all your papers, or your books, on a certain shelf and that's kind of like your "archive"?
KM: Yeah. Right, yes. Like I said, I do have a shelf in my living room. It's like most of the journals and books and anthologies I've been published in. And as far as I said for the digital files, yeah, there's usually a "published" folder—which is way behind being updated.
DB: So, have you ever received or sought out information about digital archiving, or any sort of practices in that way?
KM: Not really, no.
DB: OK. Would you be interested in receiving information?
KM: Possibly, yeah.
DB: OK, that was kind of the basics. And so, this gets more to your trajectory as a writer. It starts off kind of getting a larger arc of it. So, how long have you been writing "professionally"?
KM: I'd say since roughly '98 or '99.
DB: And could you kind of give us a sense of the arc of your career over that time period?
KM: Sure. That's when I was just finishing grad school and procrastinating on finishing my dissertation. So, I kind of went back to my long-time interest in contemporary poetry. And I think I had tried to send a few things out to get them published over the years, a few times without any success or sense of direction about it. And then during this time-wasting period, I became aware of electronic journals that were publishing authors I liked. But before that, I hadn't known even how to submit work, you know, to the same journals that would publish the kind of writers I liked. Because, you know, I had tried—for example, 5, 10 years before—to submit to magazines that I knew published language poetry and things like that. And typically I'd get no response, or maybe a slip saying, "Sorry, this journal is no longer in circulation" because the only way I heard about them in the first place was from the library copies. I had no contact with any of the people involved.
KM: So, the internet changed that. I've been published in a few online journals and made contacts with poets that way. And then it was pretty rapid, from an initial chapbook that was published by Kenning Editions—ran by Patrick Durgin—in 2001 called Hovercraft, and then my first book in 2003, Dearhead Nation, from Tougher Disguises Press, edited by James Mets. Then another book that next year by Mike McGhee's Combo Books—A Thousand Devils. A couple books at the end of the decade from Edge, edited by Rod Smith, and lots of journals and anthologies in the middle there. And a few other chapbooks that I've neglected to mention.
DB: And now, the project that you're working on is the "Sonograms"?
KM: That's my chief project, yeah.
DB: OK. But you have other ones going?
KM: Well, that's the one that I consciously think of as a project that I'm in the middle of. Occasionally, I'll write something just on a whim, but yeah, that's the main project.
DB: So, we'll sort of talk about the couple of different steps in the writing process, and then we're going to go through kind of how it was in the early stages of your writing and how it's changed. And so, my kind of way of thinking about it is there's the "compositional" stage—which is where you're kind of creating it—and then you have the "revision" stage. Then you kind of have the "organizational/archival" stage, which is when you're putting it into books and getting it published. So, those are the three stages to talk about, and then how those have changed over the course of time. Sort of like three-by-three.
KM: Sure.
DB: So, when you first started writing—and this is even before you started writing professionally, maybe before when you were trying to find those language poetry journals—what was your composition process? Or, how were you writing? What were you doing?
KM: It's really hard to reconstruct something that long ago. I don't think I have much of a method. I think I was really just kind of feeling around in the dark. So, I took a couple of creative writing classes in junior college. I took one as an undergrad that didn't really work for me. I mean I passed, but it didn't do anything for me. But yeah, I would just occasionally feel inspired to write something. I mean, it was very shapeless.
DB: Yeah. So, how did you come to find the writing that you liked? I mean, to find the language poetry, to find the journals that you were sending out to?
KM: I don't remember what led me to it, but I remember just surfing the web. I think one of the very first journals that caught my attention was Combo by Mike McGhee. They published Clark Coolidge and other language poets and younger poets I hadn't heard of. And at least some of it was online, I think, if I remember correctly. It was like limited digital sampling. And I just emailed them saying, "Hey, I just want to go about submitting work," or something like that. They liked the work, and I was published in there several times. It's the same thing with Kenning, which was also a journal—Patrick Durgin's journal. I think my first publication actually was in Fourteen Hills from San Francisco State. I went to a group reading for the contributors to that issue and met a lot of Bay Area poets. So, I established a connection with—I forget what the original question was now.
DB: Oh, it's fine. That's actually kind of where I'm pushing you. So, your writing styles in the beginning, your ways of composition—they're kind of formless—
KM: Oh, yeah, yeah.
DB: How did they start to progress, then? I mean, what was sort of the next step?
KM: Sure. That's actually pretty easy to answer, because it's kind of, at least so far, been kind of a really distinct, three-stage process.
DB: Oh, great!
KM: Yeah, I can actually answer according to the terms of the question! So, that earliest work—and this would be everything up through the period I'm talking about—was just basically, I don't know how quite to describe it. Organic, or free-hand, you know. Just making stuff up and writing it down. Words would come in to my head, and I would put them on the page. So, typically, I would just type it and it would be like trying to compose a musical piece, or something. Like, what should go after this? How can I complete this rhythm, or set of images? Something like that. And then that began to change with—again, I say 2000, 2001, when I met Gary Sullivan and other members of the Flarf Group—and that itself, that second stage had kind of like two stages. At first, I became acquainted with Gary's writing on an email list that we were both on, and just for a joke he wrote some kind of New Year's poem, or something like that, that he called a "flarf poem." "Flarf" was the invented name for the method. It was basically just writing the stupidest, most shapeless thing you could think of. So it was full of non-sense and obscenities, emphatic noises with no real shape or form other than just, basically, roughly being broken in to lines. He and I and a few other people started doing this just for fun, and we created our own email list just so we could do it. I'm sure the full origin stories out there about—
DB: Just for my clarification—it started on a different email list and then it moved to its own?
KM: That's right. And I guess really it started, if I'm correct—I think this is what Gary related to me—when he sent a poem in to one of those online vanity price things. "Poetry.com." And the short version: he was trying to get rejected. So, he wrote just the stupidest thing he could think of, and it was accepted for consideration for the anthology, which you then pay for if you're actually dumb enough to go through with that. So, that was the origin. Then he just started writing more of them on the email list even after he'd realized he couldn't get rejected, because it was fun. So, a group of us that were on this list, and so eventually, I think it was Drew Gardner who introduced a method in the middle of this shapeless writing of using Google search results. Just going in to the Google page, doing usually a combination search for like two or three terms that you wouldn't expect to see on the same page together and then using that initial search result page as a base from which to collage excerpts. Not following the links, just—
DB: Just the language that shows up in the Google cache?
KM: That's right, yeah. So, my typical process—and this is the second stage, the big second stage where, for 10 years, I basically just wrote Google collages—was I would copy however many pages of the search result page... You know, because I'd click "next page," "next page," "next page" of about ten or a hundred results, and the page would turn in to words, and I'd start chiseling it down. Rearranging it, shuffling the contents, and occasionally cheating a little bit by putting a connector word or something like "and" or "the." Or maybe altering a word that was in just a slightly different grammatical form or something. But that gets back to what we were saying about not doing print revisions because, really, everything's done kind of like refrigerator magnets—just shuffling around. And I guess printing out a page, I could look at the thing and go, "Well, if I brought some of this down here...". But I never did that.
DB: No, right. I mean, it makes sense. It's computer-generated material.
KM: Yeah, and part of the fun of it was using the computer as a kind of canvas.
DB: Yeah.
KM: There was something kind of pleasing about pulling the components around and almost physically moving them around in that digital space.
DB: And when you're copying the page, do you just, say, CTRL+All, grab it and drop it in? Do you get images and what-not with that? Or do you just drag the thing up and just get the text and paste it in?
KM: Yeah. I mean typically, on a Mac, I'd just select the whole page, copy, and paste. I mean, there weren't any images because it was just the result page.
DB: Just the result page, OK.
KM: Right. What you would get was a lot of the, like, red or blue text, or purple text—the URLs and headers and things like that. But typically the first stage of going through the manuscript would be to remove all of that kind of junk-text. I mean it was all junk, but...
DB: Right.
KM: But, yeah, they were just numbers and code, so all I would have left were recognizable words, and maybe numbers.
DB: And in getting rid of that junk-text, were you reading it at the same time, or were you starting to kind of get a sense of what you had gotten? Or was it just kind of a rote "Let's get rid of this and then look at it"?
KM: I think—based on my memory—it would be a rote thing of, just, "First, let's get rid of everything I know is not actual, or in most cases, not useable text." I mean, there might be some little strings of code where I think, "Oh, that's kind of cool just by itself—I'll leave that in," but it was mostly an automatic process of, "Let me reduce it to just letters and black text, as opposed to colored, linked text". And then from that stage—and I don't know how interesting this could possibly be to anybody, but—
DB: I'm interested!
KM: —what would be left after that would be a lot of things like ellipses or dashes, because there'd be partial phrases and then ellipses, and then a beginning of another phrase, and that'd be how the search results would be arranged on the page. So then I might just say, "OK, I might get rid of all or most of the ellipses or dashes." I would also go through—just for the sake of composition—and change case. Select everything and then change case to lowercase just to get rid of all the blocks of caps that were kind of unwieldy. And then later in that process of composition I might change some letters back to caps, but typically, for whatever reason, the default format for the poem would be no caps unless they're required by convention, by which I mean proper names and things like that. I wouldn't capitalize the beginning of a line or anything like that. So, basically, once I was ready to actually start composing the poem I would have however many pages full of lowercase language in black and white.
DB: Yeah. And so for the dashes and ellipses and what-not, would you just do a "find all" and delete them?
KM: Yeah, that would be the quick way. I learned that pretty quickly. I would just, "Find this and replace with nothing" until I'd just have words for the most part, and maybe some numerals.
DB: Yeah. And so that's almost kind of your "pre-writing" stage in some ways, and then you're to the point where you're "composing" the poem, or whatever word you use. I mean, what words do you use?
KM: Yeah. I mean, just because of the nature of the way it was copied on the page, what I'd usually end up with would be something like tercets, or something that looked, on the page, already kind of like tercets. Which is why a lot of the poems—not all of them—end up being in tercets. I would just keep that. And sometimes two lines, sometimes three lines, sometimes longer, and sometimes more longer stanzas. But sometimes just that accidental form would give me kind of a starting point like, "OK, I've got groups of three lines, but I want to move this line from this one up here to this other one and then balance out the other one with the other line or phrase." Like I said, it would be like refrigerator magnets, though sometimes with full phrases instead of just individual words. And in the middle of that process, I'd usually get rid of most of the language—some of the language I couldn't figure out what interesting things I could do with, or that wouldn't be interesting. So, the finished poems might be anywhere from a third of a page to several pages long, but I'd be starting sometimes with, like, ten pages.
DB: And you'd just go and delete, delete, delete?
KM: Mhmm. Rearrange, shuffle.
DB: And so what were the phrases or words, or groupings, that would catch your eye, or catch your ear? I mean, which was it catching?
KM: I'd say earlier in the process it had more to do with the original search terms I used. So, for example, my first book Deer Head Nation involved a bunch of searches that usually included, among other terms, the term "deer head." So, for that, I was obviously motivated to keep deer head a lot of the time so I could keep that theme going. Or, sometimes I would think of a phrase I thought was funny or bizarre and I'd want that to be a title, and I'd want to keep a few instances of those words in the poem. I'd say, I guess, several years further along into the process, I got to the point where I didn't really care if the original search terms showed up at all. I just wanted to create kind of a lyric construct, but one that was limited in its sources to that bank of terms.
DB: What do you think got you to that sort of preference?
KM: No idea.
DB: No idea?
KM: I think just getting bored with the regularity of the earlier process. Which I think worked pretty well for me with some of the original first projects, because they were kind of thematically motivated. You know, the deer head thing was supposed to be kind of a metaphor for imperialism or something, I don't know.
DB: Yeah.
KM: But as I went on, I just really became more concerned with just wanting a verbal shape or sculpture that I found interesting.
DB: And do you find then that those later poems are more "readable"?
KM: Probably not! I mean, that's a good question. I'm laughing, but I mean, you know, one person's definition of "readable" is very different from another's. Because in all honesty, some people would look at it, whether it's an earlier stage or a later stage, and think, "This isn't poetry. This is just spam or something. This is just garbage from the internet." And I don't even think that divide is along the "experimental" or "traditional," necessarily, because, frankly, a lot of the biggest critics of Flarf are experimental poets.
DB: Right.
KM: So, I think it really just has to do with whether a person has the kind of mind that likes "arrangement," in that sense, rather than—let me rephrase that. I think it depends whether someone's drawn to verbal arrangement over-and-above verbal theme. I mean, that's what drew me originally to poets like Clark Coolidge, or other language poets. You know, it didn't matter what it "said" in the traditional sense. I was interested in, like, "Wow! How can you put those words in that place!" So, I don't really know what's readable to the "average person." Because I don't think there is an "average person."
DB: Yeah. I guess—in terms of your own reading, or in terms of your own compositions—when you're making those things, did you find those later poems to be more pleasurable to make? You said there was more of a lyric bent to them.
KM: Yeah, I don't know if other people would see it as lyric, necessarily, but, yeah. I think so. I think, inevitably, it became almost—at least from my perspective—more traditional. Again, I think other people would look at it and say, "You call this traditional?" But I felt like I was kind of going back to the kinds of things that pleased me about older forms of poetry. So, even if the poems themselves have like ridiculous vocabulary and images—you know, junk food, or porn site terminology, or whatever else comes off the internet—I would be looking for rhythm. I'm very influenced by somebody like Clark Coolidge, on that level—kind of like the jazz-influenced mode of composition.
DB: So how are you constructing your lines if you're looking for that sort of rhythm?
KM: I guess the lines are really just determined by the shape of the phrases. I mean, for me, the rhythm comes outward from words. It's not like a pentameter rhythm or something that's determined by a set length. Not in that project. Not in those poems.
DB: When you grabbed a phrase or a few phrases, were those automatically lines, or would you break those into different lines?
KM: It really depends, but usually I do a lot of breaking. I mean, there's a sense on which the whole process is kind of unnecessary, I mean, because ultimately what I was doing was just manipulating the results so much. I mean, I would think all the time that I really didn't need to go to the internet except at the level of just, I think, vocabulary. And maybe beyond that, just for little syntactical clusters, like, "Oh, wow! Look at these four words in a row. I would never have come up with these four words in a row on my own, just trying to think of something." So, what I was looking for was just really a pallet full of colors—colors I couldn't think of by myself, because no human being would think of putting those things in a poem because they're not that. They're something else at that stage.
DB: So, in terms of your revision strategies for these poems, in the early stages you had more—and I'm sort of recapping, here—of an intent towards representing the search in some very fundamental way. And then, later, it started to become you wanting to kind of represent an accumulation and arrangement more lyrically, or more in a way that was kind of traditional, in your traditions of poetry.
KM: But I think the one constant was the importance of the idea that was generated by the search. I don't see the need to mask the method. I think one of the pleasures, for me, of reading other work like that by other people is knowing, "Oh, they did this by using a particular procedure." And I'm still most interested in how the finished work affects me. But the knowledge that it was created in a certain way is something I can't separate, and that I don't want to separate. So, you know, I would frame the work all the way through. If I were to mention it, which I have the occasion to do in the beginning of the book, or whatever—"This was creating using Google search methods"—I think it helps people going in to it with that knowledge. But like you're saying, I didn't necessarily want the search to retain some imprint of all the original conditions of the search. Maybe in the first book, to some extent. For example, in Deer Head Nation, I not only kept a lot more longer clusters—the original syntactic clusters—but I would keep a bunch of ellipses and create visual groupings with them. All these kind of graphic reminders of what the process was. I just felt less inclined to do that as I went on because it didn't seem necessary for the different kinds of poems I was going in to.
DB: Right, right. What about the prose poems in this tradition? How did those come about?
KM: I mean, same thing. But there, the original search terms did remain much more important because, I mean, you have a phrase like "and then she said" or something very fixed and obviously, in order to keep the shape throughout the poem, I'm going to have to keep coming back to that tag. There, the goal is usually to make it seem seamless, like this is the one subject saying something over and over again. So, yeah, that would be an exception. Although, I think I also did some prose poems where I didn't stick that much to whatever original, grammatical framing. I don't remember off hand, how, or which ones, but—
DB: Were these revisions driven by sound? I mean, were you reading them out loud to get a better kind of rhythm or did you have like meanings or themes that you wanted to elicit?
KM: Yeah, that's a good question. I think sound was probably usually at least tied for the primary motivator, there.
DB: What would determine a line break, then, in terms of sound?
KM: That's a difficult question even for like traditional modes of writing, right?
DB: It's an impossible question.
KM: This is one of the things that drives me crazy in workshop when I'm teaching. It's like, on the one hand, wanting people to think about line breaks and what motivates them to do what they do, and on the other hand, getting so tired of getting so bogged-down in completely arbitrary theories of, like, "The Line Break." Because, in some ways, it's like a very important thing, but in some ways it's just totally random. I mean, not in every poem, obviously, and of course, if you're working in a fixed form, it's taken care of. But free-verse or procedural, or other kinds of things where the line breaks are kind of a post-facto consideration—I mean, really, it's just going on my nerve, you know? Just what strikes me at the moment is seeming like a good way to keep the rhythm going, or to create a halt in the rhythm, or to do a little of both depending on where I am in the poem.
DB: So what would be the phrase that you would use? I mean, you said it's "collage," that it's "Google collage". I mean, I've seen "Google sculpt," I've seen "found poetry"—
KM: Yeah, "Google sculpt" is the term I kind of tried to put out there for it.
DB: So that's the one you sort of prefer saying? It's like "Google sculpting"? I mean, sculpting being collage works—
KM: Yeah, I mean "Google collage" works, too.
DB: Do you know what the search terms are for each poem, and is there somewhere where that's recorded?
KM: No. Sometimes I think about that, like, "Why didn't I keep a record of how exactly this came about?" But no, I'm too absent-minded and lazy for that.
DB: You'd probably have to recreate it someday by using a simulator or something.
KM: Oh, you can't! Because, I mean, the internet has completely changed, right?
DB: Yeah.
KM: It's gone forever.
DB: I know—it's so fascinating. So, we've moved from the first stage to the second stage to then the two stages of that, the latter stage of that having run up for about ten years you said?
KM: Something like that, yeah. So, I'm writing just free-form—or however you want to describe it—from '98 to 2000. So that was a very short phase, though the second book, A Thousand Devils, was kind of stuff left over from that stage. So, even though that came out in 2004, most of it had been written quite earlier.
DB: And Hovercraft is also from that stage?
KM: Yeah, that's from that initial stage.
DB: And then the second stage starts with Deer Head Nation?
KM: Mhmm—through Breathalyzer and The Front.
DB: And so this third section, then, is the "sonograms"?
KM: Yeah.
DB: So, how did that project come about?
KM: I should just say, by the way, I'm calling these "stages" just as a convenient way of separating different times. I don't think of it necessarily like, "Oh, this is the, you know, "initiatory" stage and I developed in to this." This is just what I happened to start doing or stop doing.
DB: Yeah—not a compression.
KM: Yeah. So, yeah, Sonograms—I forgot what year. It's been an embarrassingly long time now, because I've been working very slowly on it. I've been a very lazy poet.
DB: The best poets are.
KM: I mean, it would've been finished a long time ago if I kept any schedule. I'm a little over halfway through. I think I started in, I don't know, 2008, or something like that. It was National Poetry month, and I was looking for an idea, just some quick and easy gimmick to allow me to write a poem a day. And I thought I could do something with Shakespeare's sonnets. It's like: go to the internet and find a sonnet, copy it, and paste it in to a Word doc. Then: "Okay—what can I do in the next five or ten minutes using this as my source?" I'd say, "Here, I wrote a poem for this silly tradition." And I'd just start kind of shuffling it and playing with it with my cursor, thinking. And I had been recently impressed by a book by Gregory Bets, which I'm now embarrassingly forgetting the title of. Anyway, it's a book in which he takes a paragraph from a speech and rearranges it multiple times throughout the book just by a letter. So, it's anagrams of the same paragraph. Christian Bök gave me a copy of this—as well as, I think, Gregory Betts, who was with him at the time—and said, "Hey, you'll like this book." And I did. And I thought, "Oh, I want to play around with this," and I suddenly remembered, "Oh, anagrams. Well, OK. This will probably take too long. I'll just start shuffling it around, figuring out ways to break it up." And then I came up with the idea of taking each of the lines and feeding them in to an anagram generator, because that's all that would fit—at the time, it'd be one line. So, I did that, and every time I fed it in, the anagram generator would give me a choice of a bunch of word lists that you could make by rearranging that particular line. I just picked the one I liked the best until I had this poem that was fourteen lines with silly words. So I thought, "Well, OK. There, that's a poem. But, eh, it's not that interesting. I mean, it's kind of cool." And in retrospect, that was another thing I wish I had done, which was save all these initial first stage word lists that I used to create the poems, but I haven't.
DB: The librarian in me is sort of cringing right now.
KM: Well they're just kind of neat poems, like cheap, fake poems on their own. They're just line-by-line anagrams of the original sonnet, but without much syntax or anything. They're just words in a row.
DB: Right.
KM: So, I sat there and thought, "Oh, I'm already ten or fifteen minutes in to it, but it'd be more interesting if I move the letters throughout the poem like Gregory Betts did." So, I did that, and then like four or five hours later, I had been working on these poems for, like, a big chunk of the day. So then I got really hooked on it and started doing a bunch of them. I don't think I kept to the the National Poetry Month schedule, but I did a few of these, and soon it stuck. Now, I'm up to ninety-something, I think. It's embarrassing. Like I said, it's been since 2008—I should have a lot more.
DB: And there are a hundred and—?
KM: A hundred and fifty-four, total. But, yeah, so each poem is just an anagram. And then, I would say, there's a "cheat": I'll use all the letters to create a new poem in iambic pentameter, with the original rhyme scheme—A, B, A, B, etcetera, with three quatrains and a couplet—but then I'll have letters left over. It's almost never a problem that I don't have enough letters, usually, it's just that I can't use them all in the poem. So, I'll use those extra letters to make up a title, but that usually is pretty stupid. The whole poem is stupid, but the title isn't in pentameter or anything. It's just whatever I can do with the leftover letters.
DB: So you started off with the kind of stuff from the anagram generator, and I'm assuming that's not in iambic pentameter?
KM: Right—just words.
DB: So, was that the initial move that first day? You went, like, "Oh, I need to make this match up with the Elizabethan sonnet form"?
KM: Yeah, yeah. That was pretty much it. I think the very first one was the one that's on this little trading card—
DB: Oh, I have that trading card!
KM: Frankly, in fact, it's definitely the worst out of all of them, because it's got sort of a consistence in text and grammar, but it's just complete nonsense. But it was, in fact, technically iambic pentameter, and it technically rhymed. You know, it half rhymed. Then I got much more stringent about it from them on, like, "Oh, I'm going to actually make them construable as meanings even if they are bizarre meanings."
DB: OK. And so from that first one on—from two to wherever you are now—you were like, "Okay, now I'm going to have more structure to them"?
KM: Yeah. I mean, they always have the structure—I may be overstating it. I think the first ones probably, in some ways, are as construable as the others. I think it was just finding my stride for the next few, like, "Oh, I don't have to reach for these, like, half rhymes." Or, I can make that the most determined, kind of fluid part of it, and just then make the absurdities stand out in even more pleasing relief.
DB: I mean, you said they got "better" as you did them, and I'm sort of interested in this from your early Flarf stuff to The Front, too. I mean, I don't know, for my taste, I think it's better. And so, I'm wondering, how do you think of it in that way? Is it just from practice?
KM: I think it really is that simple. I think after the first one or two, I just got more practice working with the pentameter, creating a smoother flow. Really, that's all.
DB: Right. And so now that you're almost at number one hundred, do you have a different way of going about it?
KM: The basic process has stayed exactly the same. I think I changed the generator at one point in the process because I found a better one.
DB: What was the first generator?
KM: I don't remember what the first one was. It was kind of the standard, like the one most people would come to first, I believe. And the way I chose it in the first place was that it was just one that would accommodate an entire line, because not all of them would. Usually, they're better with names, or things like that. But I found one that would take an entire line of iambic pentameter. And then most recently, the one I use now is, I think, the best out of all the ones I've used. It's called "One Across," at oneacross.com.
KM: And it's nice because it's got a little control. I'm sure all the others have probably developed since I've been doing this, too, and they can do a lot of the same things. But, I'll put the basic line in the top box and then I have a little, if I want to, optional box where I can make sure it contains a certain word, if I find a certain word I want to make sure is in it, but I don't like the first few. Because there are sometimes hundreds of options to scroll through. So I can be like, "Make sure it contains lawnmower," you know, or whatever.
DB: So, you can you search and then limit the search in some ways.
KM: Mhmm.
DB: That's interesting. Does it ever produce a perfectly iambic pentameter line that you can use?
KM: I haven't done that yet. I'm sure it's theoretically possible.
DB: Electronic monkeys writing King Lear!
KM: I mean, do you know about the Pentametron? Which is this wonderful Twitter-based website.
DB: No, I do not know about the Pentametron.
KM: It is exactly kind of what you just said. Somebody built a program that just continuously scans Twitter—everybody's Twitter account, apparently—and finds all lines of iambic pentameter. Really, most of them, I'm sure, are accidental. And it finds other lines of iambic pentameter that rhyme with them, and creates this ongoing poem. I can go to it right now—
DB: Yeah.
KM: The one thing about it is it always starts with the oldest part. I wish it were bottom to top so you could always see the most recent.
DB: Yeah.
KM: Oh, here we are. You just go to the Twitter page with that. "Bread cards and sweaty bodies everywhere. The largest arms erect into the air. I'm way excited for the album though, you just a hoe—a stupid, stupid hoe. Tim Duncan is a fucking dinosaur. I'm not a people person anymore. I wanna wear a maxi dress today. I really wanna sleep today away," and so on. It also shows who the original Tweeter was, and it's just random people. So, it's like the greatest poem of the 21st century.
DB: Yeah. Do you know who's behind it?
KM: Oh, I don't know. Whoever it is, I don't know them personally, and I don't remember what their name is.
DB: Yeah. That's fascinating. I know that the New York Times had that one where they'd make little haikus, too. Similar project, not as good. So, getting back—do other people play any roles in all these things? I guess I'm interested in how it was writing to the list serve in that early stage. I mean, in terms of revision and kind of the forces that sort of morphed your poetry—what was that like?
KM: That was great. I think, really, most members of the list would agree that was the most stimulating thing about being on the list—just feeding-off everyone else's excitement and creativity, because it was very much a big hug fest. There was almost nothing critical going on in there, ever. We just try to write stuff to bust each other up. And it would be very responsive—if somebody wrote a poem with farting unicorns, somebody else would write one and expand on that. Like, farting glittery unicorns, you know—the sillier the better. The more obnoxious, the better.
DB: So, that sort of frivolous stuff—the farting unicorns—that sort of silliness was very highly valued on the list serve?
KM: Yeah. I mean, that was kind of the original spirit of Flarf. And I think it's also part of the reason for a lot of the resistance to Flarf from experimental directions. There was a sense that it wasn't taking the struggle seriously enough, or something. Which, you know, I think is what comes out of this, for me, misguided sense that this absolute stone-facedness is necessary at all times. And, there are times where there are legitimate objections, and I'd rather not go in to details. But there are, you know, some poems that upset people.
DB: Right.
KM: And I think it was very upsetting to the people who wrote them that they did upset people, because even though it might seem from the outside like, "Well, weren't you trying to offend people? Weren't you trying to get people upset?" But it was like, "Well, no—not these people."
DB: Right, right.
KM: And I think initially we were very resentful about it. It felt like, "Oh, we're on your side and you're misunderstanding us. These are not racist or sexist or otherwise vile intentions that you're looking at, here." But, I mean, I feel like as time has gone on, I try very hard to be more sympathetic to that response because out of that context that it emerged from, it's easy to see how a poem that mentions certain things in certain tones is almost impossible to separate from a poem that mentions those things in that tone with different intentions. And I think, even past Flarf, things like that are going on right now with some of the younger conceptual writers in this work I really admire, but then I see other poets I really admire feeling deeply hurt by the work they're creating. It's very difficult. I don't have a way to kind of justify any of it, or to put it in to order in my mind.
DB: Yeah, no. It's a tough one. I mean, a lot of your career and a lot of your writing has kind of happened from the internet and on the internet—with the blogging and the commenting—and that seems to have, in some ways, died down a bit?
KM: Yeah, blogging seems to be a thing in the past. For me, anyway.
DB: How did that shape your practice, your writing? You say that you've evolved in some ways about your opinions on some of the content that would be included. Have there been other effects? Could you elaborate more on that?
KM: I'd say what I've evolved in, at first, is not necessarily... I haven't changed my mind about some of the—I don't know what you want to call it—"starting theory". I've tried to become more empathetic and not immediately judge anyone who doesn't get it.
DB: Right.
KM: Or, see, even using a phrase like "doesn't get it" already shows a little residual judgment. There may be more than one way to "get it" in some ways that don't match our intentions, and we need to consider that we're accountable for that.
DB: Right. Well, and so much of the sort of the latter part of Flarf has been sort of the death of Flarf, in some of the blog posts and whatnot. Was that partly the reaction? Just like, "Let it go"? I mean, where does it go from there, I guess, is the question.
KM: I'm not sure how much. I think "Death of Flarf," most of the time, was a phrase we used ourselves just to kind of, like, kill the beast before it killed us, or something. But I think it just ran its course. I think, like any movement, the movement itself had its main value in the way it motivated the members of the movement, and that most of the writers go on to write however they're going to write. And it's influenced by that, but it's not the same. But your original question was about the blogging?
DB: Yeah, and kind of how that influenced your own writing.
KM: I don't know. I think for me, again, the main value of the blogging thing was to bring me in to contact with other poets and having discussions. I think there were a lot of people—in the early aughts, especially—blogging every day, and we were having fun conversations. For whatever reason, people moved on to other platforms, and other projects. And it also ran its course. But I don't know. I mean, I think the main effect was just social.
DB: I guess one question is could you have written the "sonograms" in the way that you're doing without Flarf? What sort of influence was there?
KM: Well, there are certain surface similarities, right? I mean, the idea of the refrigerator magnet process—pasting something into Word and using that as my template. So, yeah, I think in some ways, at least originally, I considered it an extension of Flarf practice. I guess there's no way to say that it is or isn't. There's no definite meaning to that. It is if I say it is, I guess.
DB: Right, right.
KM: But, yeah. It's probably something I wouldn't have done in quite the same way I did it if I hadn't been doing Flarf.
DB: This goes back to some of the questions we were just talking about, but what sort of skills did you learn in doing the Flarf that kind of go into the "sonograms"? What did you come in feeling strong about, and what did you learn?
KM: I think it's what I mentioned earlier—just that approach to arrangement. Finding clusters, finding strings in already existing verbal groups. Kind of being able to sift and sculpt something that was already in front of me.
DB: Yeah. So, I think we've kind of covered some of the general push through composition and revision, but I'm also interested in how you would put together the books, especially if—well, one question before we move in to that. Do you still write in that sort of traditional Flarf way? Are you still grabbing Google responses?
KM: I haven't done it in a long time. I think I did a few kind of like "post-Flarf" Flarf poems for a couple of years after I started doing the "sonograms," but eventually it just—I don't know. I think even the way it's configured on the internet now is such that it doesn't work quite the same way. I couldn't tell you exactly how, but I know the one or two times in the last year I even thought about trying to go back and do it, I thought, "Oh, this isn't the same."
DB: There's a lot more information like, underneath, and on the side. I mean, it's just kind of taken-over in so many ways.
KM: I think, yeah. And part of it is Google has gotten too smart.
DB: Yeah.
KM: Things are grouped according to usefulness, rather than just random occurrence of words.
DB: And who you are, too.
KM: Yeah, it knows me too well, and it's—I don't trust it.
DB: Google will let it appear, and Google will let it disappear. Terrifying. But in those terms, what were you using? Like, how were you composing the books then—like Deer Head Nation and Breathalyzer and The Front? You don't really have sections in those books—they just kind of go through, right?
KM: Really, the only one that's thematically organized in any sense is the first one. I mean, with the whole deer head theme which, like I said, is just a sort of floating metaphor.
DB: Right.
KM: Breathalyzer and The Front are, in all honesty, pretty much interchangeable, in terms of how the poems are chosen or grouped. They're just individual poems. And I actually have a full other manuscript that may or may not get published from that period. It's just been so long now that, even though I actually like some of the poems there, I thought, "Does anybody really want this now? Has the time passed?" It's called Monsters, and tentatively it might come out from Edge Books, but I haven't followed up on my obligations off getting the manuscript in. So, I don't know where I stand with that. I may have screwed it up.
DB: When you were publishing these books, and maybe with Monsters, do you have relationships with the editors where they're revising the shape of the book?
KM: Well, I definitely have a relationship with the editors. But I mean, like Rod Smith for Edge—fantastic editor, fantastic poet. But he's pretty hands-off in terms of the actual creative content. I'd say his input and his helpers' input comes at the level of things like layout.
KM: Yeah.
DB: And then I know you have, also, some e-chapbooks and whatnot. What do you feel about those, and how do you end up with them?
KM: I haven't even looked at them in so long, I can hardly give you a clear answer. I remember some of it was very early Flarf, but again, I haven't looked at it in a long time. I suspect I'd probably just cringe looking at a lot of it. Because I think what was initially exciting about the process is what quickly becomes predictable and crude about it—like, "Oh, look! This text comes off the internet. It smells like the internet! Look at it, you can see internet all over it." It becomes kind of obvious after a while.
DB: Yeah.
KM: But, I don't know. Yeah, I mean that's all so long ago.
DB: And in terms of the digital documents that contain those manuscripts and those books, I mean, are they in a certain spot in your computer somewhere?
KM: I think I just have the original Word documents of them, and then whatever else is out there. Or maybe a .PDF, in a couple of cases.
DB: Do you feel in any way—and this is getting back to the more technical stuff—sort of like "dear" towards them? Or are you like, "These are there, but really, the book's the book"? Like, is there enough value on them that you make sure where they are and that they're valued, etcetera, on a digital format, too?
KM: Well, there's at least that much value—that I know I have copies of them. But beyond that—and again, I'm not trying to be evasive—it's not that I actually am embarrassed, or have strong feeling one way or the other. It's just that I really don't remember that well what's in them.
DB: Okay, yeah.
KM: Because I was just doing so much stuff at that time. I mean, I'm sure if I took a few minutes to look, I'd go, "Oh, yeah! This one. I like this one," or "I don't like this one so much." But I'm trying to even form a mental image right now and—yeah.
DB: So—I do have a few Flarf questions I wanted to make sure I asked, but I think I got through most of them. One of the questions I ask the other people who teach—and you teach, too—is how does this influence the way you teach? What did Flarf teach you that then you tried to teach them, or anything in that sense?
KM: I guess, the single most important thing is just that it has to be fun in some level. I mean, I wouldn't necessarily frame it as "Flarf" in the classroom in this way, but I think one of the first things I try to do in the beginning in the classroom is break down the sense of over-seriousness that sometimes holds people back. So, I'll give them exercises—which people were doing a lot before Flarf—you know: write the worse poem you can. Things like that. Or I might, for a specific exercise, suggest procedure that is relevant to Flarf, but I won't say, "Okay, now we're going to write a Flarf poem." There are, inevitably, times when it comes up, or somebody in the class has heard of Flarf and they say, "What's Flarf?" and the story will get told. But I actually try to hold back on that because too often it results, I think, in exercises that might be fun for the student, and even produce humorous material, but don't necessarily contribute to the kinds of foundational verbal skills that I want people to concentrate on. Or if it does, it doesn't for everyone. For some people, it can be a way to avoid.
DB: Right.
KM: But I guess that's true for everything.
DB: And what are those sort of foundational verbal skills that you're after?
KM: I mean, just really basic conservative things like rhythm, like avoiding clichés. And just writing something where you're not just recycling received notions of what a poem ought to be.
DB: Right, yeah. It's all about kind of getting towards writing something interesting, making something interesting to a reader, right?
KM: And looking in to sources that you might not immediately consider, you know? Encouraging them to read a lot of poetry. Just the really basic things.
DB: Right, right. Just a few more questions. I guess...Eh, no. I think we're good.
KM: Oh, good.
DB: Thanks, Kasey.
KM: Yeah!
DB: That was really great.
KM: It was a pleasure.
DB: Yeah.
KM: Sometimes I'm so croaky—
DB: No, it'll be cool, you know, whenever it shows up. Ah—the off button.
KM: Are we Friends on Facebook?
DB: I don't have a Facebook.
KM: Oh, Okay.
Devin Becker: 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 g