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

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gerstler1
Devin Becker: Let's start this going. This will just catch both of us better.
[00:00:00]
gerstler2
Amy Gerstler: OK.
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DB: [to Gerstler's dogs] Hi, guys! Hi! Do you want to get interviewed, too?
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AG: I think they do.
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DB: What do you want to be asked about?
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AG: Digital bone recovery? Virtual meat?
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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.
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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.
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DB: Right. And this one, apparently, it's like you put it on the ground level and it has kind of like a dispenser.
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AG: Unbelievable!
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DB: And so you can, like, say, "Come here!" and it gives them a treat.
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AG: A robot gives them a treat!
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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.
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AG: Wow!
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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.
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AG: OK, same for you.
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DB: Yeah, and I have-It's kind of in three sections.
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AG: OK.
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DB: The first section is kind of a more quick, short-answer stuff about what you're doing now.
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AG: Oh, OK.
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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.
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AG: No, I don't think so.
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DB: But she has a book from Four Way, and she's-
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AG: Nice.
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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.
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AG: Alright!
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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?
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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.
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DB: OK. And also joining us is?
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AG: Also joining us as guest stars-taking all the glory, as is appropriate-is Ted, the dog, and Gus, the dog.
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DB: Yeah, OK. So, what genres do you work in?
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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.
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DB: OK, and what would you say your primary genre is?
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AG: And I've written some Non-fiction and a teeny bit of fiction. Sort of.
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DB: Alright, so all of them, essentially. Many.
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AG: And hybrid stuff, too.
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DB: Yeah, but your primary genre is-?
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AG: Poetry. And a little bit of non-fiction sometimes in journalism.
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DB: OK. What kinds of devices do you have, or own, have access to for your writing? What computer devices?
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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.
[00:03:51]
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DB: Yeah. So, you have then-you have three devices on which you kind of write between?
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AG: That's right.
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DB: How do you share the documents? Do you share documents between the three? Or do you just send them to yourself?
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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.
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DB: Yeah. And so they're all Macs?
[00:05:03]
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AG: Yes.
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DB: And this is your primary device, though, you would say?
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AG: Yes.
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DB: OK.
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AG: There's also one at work, but I just use that for work.
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DB: OK. You don't use that to actually write?
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AG: It's for work.
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DB: Yeah. In addition to your own devices, are you using physical-are you using handwriting, or notebooks, or anything?
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AG: Sure.
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DB: And so, how-what's sort of the ratio between the two?
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AG: Ratio?
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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.
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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.
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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-?
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AG: Yeah, I often-my sort of poetry practice involves weird, different kinds of research.
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DB: Yeah.
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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.
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DB: OK.
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AG: Does that answer the question?
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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-
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AG: No, not at all! When you're trying to gather data-
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DB: Yeah. But we'll talk more about that.
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AG: Yeah, yeah. I get that.
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DB: OK, cool. In what format do you save your files?
[00:07:19]
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AG: Word .docx
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DB: OK. And as you're creating drafts of your-
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AG: Unless someone needs a .pdf, or unless someone has an old computer and has to have .doc
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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?
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AG: It's a combination.
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DB: OK. What are your naming conventions for you files?
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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.
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DB: So, the title is like a prompt for you own memory intentions?
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AG: See, the title is a prompt for find-ability. Quick find-ability.
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DB: OK. So it's not necessarily going to be the title. It's just maybe something that-
[00:08:46]
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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.
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DB: Again?
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AG: Yeah.
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DB: OK. And as you're going through drafts, do you add numbers to the title?
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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.
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DB: Do you print out your writing to revise it?
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AG: Sometimes, yeah.
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DB: Sometimes.
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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.
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DB: Do you save any copies? Like, do you save those copies?
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AG: No.
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DB: No, they're just kind of means to the final product?
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AG: Yeah.
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DB: OK. Do you often back-up your work, your Word document files?
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AG: I have Carbonite.
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DB: OK, you do.
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AG: Yeah.
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DB: So, it's backed-up in the cloud, and it's just a folder on your computer?
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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.
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DB: Yeah. And so do you find this to be-
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AG: I got religious about backing up.
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DB: OK. So you've had experiences where you've lost-
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AG: I've had viruses, and I've had bad computer crashes.
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DB: OK. Anything where you lost significant work?
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AG: Not so much, but the virus stuff destroyed a computer and was expensive, and really time consuming. And really nerve wracking.
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DB: I know. Yeah.
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AG: So, it was like, "Ugh! Never again, if possible."
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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?
[00:10:53]
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AG: I just have it on this device, because this is the central one.
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DB: That's the central kind of location?
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AG: There's nothing on-when I do things on other devices, I make sure they come here, if I care about them.
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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-?
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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.
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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?
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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.
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DB: OK.
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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.
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DB: Once they're in that folder, do you still end up going back and revising, or-?
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AG: Sure.
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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-?
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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.
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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?
[00:12:40]
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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.
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DB: And you keep that with all your others, in that Carbonite folder with everything else?
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AG: Well, Carbonite just backs-up everything, right?
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DB: Right, right. Yeah.
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AG: And then also allegedly, eventually, there's an actual book. So then it exists in at least three forms.
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DB: OK. And do you consider-which one do you consider the kind of final product? Would it be the book, or-?
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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.
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DB: Yeah, I know. Have you ever received or sort out information about methods for working with your digital files or digital archiving?
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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.
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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?
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AG: Well he just needs to know what's going on. Don't you, Ted?
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DB: Yeah.
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AG: You do.
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DB: He's such a cool dog.
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AG: He is a great guy.
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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-
[00:14:46]
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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.
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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?
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AG: Well, I published a small chapbook maybe a year or two after I finished college when I was 21. So-
[00:16:03]
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DB: And where were you at college?
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AG: I went to Pitzer College, which is one of the Claremont colleges there in California.
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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-?
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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.
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DB: OK. And what book was that?
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AG: That book was called Early Heaven
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DB: OK.
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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.
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DB: OK. And during this time, were you teaching? Were you working at other-I mean, I guess, how were you supporting your writing?
[00:18:19]
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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.
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DB: Great. And now, now you're at University of California- Irvine.
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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.
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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-
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AG: Yeah, yeah.
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DB: OK.
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AG: I don't have a rubric I need to impose on this.
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DB: Good, good. I made one up.
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AG: Yeah, well, that structure is a good thing.
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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?
[00:22:47]
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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-?
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DB: Dot matrix.
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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.
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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-?
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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.
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DB: So like when you had an idea for a poem, you would go directly to your typewriter and start typing, usually?
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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-"
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DB: OK. So once you hit that point, and then you were starting to take shape to the real thing.
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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-
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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-?
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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-
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DB: So, you would try to make-I mean, once it got to where you were doing that, it was pretty far along.
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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.
[00:29:31]
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DB: When did you start to work on computers? And those early computers-did they did they feel like a drastic change?
[00:29:38]
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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.
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DB: And some still have that-
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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-
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DB: But for you, that was never-
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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!"
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DB: Yeah, so, I guess then, when they did come along you were in that spectrum of people who took to it fairly easily?
[00:33:00]
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AG: I can't say that I'm techno-great, but I like computers.
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DB: You didn't employ-I guess, employ's the word-employ an intermediary between you and your computer?
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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."
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DB: OK. I guess, can you pinpoint a timeframe when you started with computers? I mean, do you know where you were?
[00:34:25]
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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.
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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?
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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.
gerstler187
DB: Yeah, that was pretty amazing.
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AG: Right away, that was like, "This is way better."
gerstler189
DB: OK.
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AG: And being able to correct things and move them and change them.
gerstler191
DB: And that was immediate, like that was-?
gerstler192
AG: I mean, those are things that rudimentary computers-if memory serves-were able to do.
gerstler193
DB: Yeah, copy and paste being the-
gerstler194
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.
gerstler195
DB: OK. And what were you using the Xerox machine for?
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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.
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DB: No, no!
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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?
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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-?
[00:37:25]
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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.
[00:37:50]
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DB: Right.
gerstler202
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?
gerstler203
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?
[00:40:09]
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AG: Dude, libraries!
gerstler205
DB: Libraries, alright!
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AG: Libraries, libraries, libraries, and you know, old used book stores, weird old books that I would look at, or magazines. Stuff like that.
gerstler207
DB: And as the internet became more sort of part of one's daily life, did that change?
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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.
gerstler209
DB: How do you go from, you know, browsing serendipitously to like having a draft of a poem? What's the process there?
gerstler210
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.
[00:41:52]
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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.
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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.
[00:44:06]
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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.
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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.
gerstler215
DB: That's interesting to think about.
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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.
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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-?
[00:47:00]
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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.
gerstler219
DB: So, there's a type of serendipity in that, I guess, a little bit, too.
[00:48:22]
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AG: Sure.
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DB: Yeah, sort of pun.
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AG: But, I mean, in poems, as you well know. The pun is often a welcome fellow. At least in my world.
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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?
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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.
gerstler225
DB: Yeah, so that must have changed. Yeah, that's got to be a big change.
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AG: Big, big difference.
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DB: Yeah.
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AG: And doing edits that way.
gerstler229
DB: Oh, yeah, like going back and forth so you didn't have to-much quicker
gerstler230
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.
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DB: I know. They would've loved the internet. They would've loved having these capabilities so much.
[00:51:25]
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AG: I'd like to think of those guys like Apollinaire. They'd be like, "Oh, why wasn't I born!"
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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.
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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.
gerstler235
DB: Like Flarf.
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AG: Yes, and all its sort of grandchildren.
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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?
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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.
gerstler239
DB: Yeah, absolutely.
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AG: Suddenly you have-
gerstler241
DB: Magical powers.
gerstler242
AG: Yes, exactly!
gerstler243
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"?
gerstler244
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.
gerstler245
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..."-?
[00:54:07]
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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.
gerstler247
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?
[00:55:05]
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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!"
gerstler249
DB: The original cut and paste, really.
gerstler250
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.
gerstler251
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.
[00:56:49]
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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?"
gerstler253
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-
gerstler254
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.
gerstler255
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.
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AG: All over the place.
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DB: OK.
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AG: My problem in life.
gerstler259
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?
gerstler260
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-
[00:59:00]
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DB: That's a good analogy. I like that.
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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.
gerstler263
DB: Do you-I mean, like, so when you go to a piece to revise it, do you have any intentions in mind?
[01:00:49]
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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.
gerstler265
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?
gerstler266
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-"
gerstler267
DB: So, it kind of goes instead-it's sort of like compartmentalized, sometimes?
gerstler268
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?"
gerstler269
DB: Yeah. That's always an interesting question.
gerstler270
AG: Right. Or, "Since this is about a couple who hates each other, how about couplets?"
gerstler271
DB: Did you learn how to improvise, or did someone else teach you?
[01:03:16]
gerstler272
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.
[01:03:29]
gerstler273
DB: Do you? I mean, like, what do you hear?
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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?
[01:05:22]
gerstler275
DB: Yeah. No, it's kind of a freedom, right?
gerstler276
AG: Freedom and-I hate this word, but-a permission. Like, "No, that's what artists do."
gerstler277
DB: Right. Well, you don't know until-
gerstler278
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.
gerstler279
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?
[01:06:53]
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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?
gerstler281
DB: Yeah.
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AG: And sometimes people are wrong, but sometimes you're like, "Oh, god. That. Uh-oh, you're right."
gerstler283
DB: Yeah. And do you have those relationships now with your poetry, or-?
gerstler284
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.
gerstler285
DB: That could maybe be something different in workshop, though.
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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!"
gerstler287
DB: Enjoy!
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AG: And try to get back to me within the next two days!
gerstler289
DB: Right, right.
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AG: It's harder.
gerstler291
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?
[01:10:52]
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AG: Well, it's different with different books.
gerstler293
DB: OK.
gerstler294
AG: Because they're different animals, right?
gerstler295
DB: Right, yeah.
gerstler296
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.
gerstler297
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-?
[01:13:56]
gerstler298
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.
gerstler299
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?
[01:15:09]
gerstler300
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.
gerstler301
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.
gerstler302
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.
gerstler303
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.
gerstler304
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.
gerstler305
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?
[01:16:23]
gerstler306
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.
gerstler307
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?
[01:16:58]
gerstler308
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.
gerstler309
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?
[01:18:29]
gerstler310
AG: You know, I mean, now I will because the way I used to back-up was just on an external-
gerstler311
DB: External hard drive?
gerstler312
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."
gerstler313
DB: The book is the thing.
gerstler314
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.
gerstler315
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?
[01:19:20]
gerstler316
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-
gerstler317
DB: New stuff?
gerstler318
AG: Yeah.
gerstler319
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?
[01:20:18]
gerstler320
AG: Writing practices, for sure. And I think productivity.
gerstler321
DB: And productivity? OK. In terms of style though, do you think that there were definite changes?
gerstler322
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.
gerstler323
DB: Yeah. No, it does. Are there any sort of styles, techniques, or formats that you think you lost from moving to the computers?
[01:21:20]
gerstler324
AG: Not for me, man. I just gained time, because you just had to retype everything.
gerstler325
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?
gerstler326
AG: Yeah.
gerstler327
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?
gerstler328
AG: You know, that's not-the thing I do is I just close email.
gerstler329
DB: Oh, OK. So, email is the kind of-?
gerstler330
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.
gerstler331
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?
[01:23:40]
gerstler332
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."
gerstler333
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-?
[01:24:34]
gerstler334
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.
gerstler335
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.
[01:25:15]
gerstler336
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.
gerstler337
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?
gerstler338
AG: Now that you've said, "Oh, Carbonite drops," maybe I'll get another one, too.
gerstler339
DB: No, no-I mean, they're got several different servers.
gerstler340
AG: I mean-I think between my printing stuff out, my computer, my multiple devices, and Carbonite-
gerstler341
DB: No, you're really well set up! As a digital archivist, I can tell you that.
gerstler342
AG: OK, happy to hear. I'm probably more or less OK, and if I'm not OK-
gerstler343
DB: No one's OK.
gerstler344
AG: Yeah-the meteor comes and we're a firing inferno of a planet. Well-nothing I can do about it.
gerstler345
DB: Yeah. But you came to this practice because of-
gerstler346
AG: Bad experiences.
gerstler347
DB: Bad experiences.
gerstler348
AG: Both my own and hearing about other people's.
gerstler349
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?
[01:27:13]
gerstler350
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!"
gerstler351
DB: Oh, yeah. I know.
gerstler352
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.
gerstler353
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?
[01:28:47]
gerstler354
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.
gerstler355
DB: I'm sure he did. Yeah. So, are there ways in which you save certain digital correspondence?
[01:29:52]
gerstler356
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.
gerstler357
DB: But you do do specific things to save specific correspondence sometimes?
gerstler358
AG: Yes.
gerstler359
DB: And the with the physical correspondence-do you save specific things there, too?
gerstler360
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.
gerstler361
DB: Yeah.
[01:30:49]
gerstler362
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.
gerstler363
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?
[01:31:17]
gerstler364
AG: For teaching?
gerstler365
DB: For teaching, yeah.
gerstler366
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!"
gerstler367
DB: So, it's always been important to you, though, to give kind of outside-context in your teaching?
[01:32:28]
gerstler368
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."
gerstler369
DB: So, is this the first year you brought the iPad in to the class?
gerstler370
AG: No, I started doing that a few years ago. Or somebody's written a poem based on a painting and-
gerstler371
DB: Yeah, you can look up the painting.
gerstler372
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.
gerstler373
DB: Absolutely, yeah.
gerstler374
AG: So, every aspect of teaching the kinds of things that I teach, you know?
gerstler375
DB: And I guess, you know, this entrance of-
gerstler376
AG: You know, workshop-You know? Everyone sends their poem-
gerstler377
DB: Yeah, by email. I think when I was there, we still had to go drop it in the mailbox.
gerstler378
AG: Right.
gerstler379
DB: Has the entrance of this into the classroom had an effect on your own writing at all?
gerstler380
AG: Entrance of something in the classroom-?
gerstler381
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-
gerstler382
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.
[01:34:39]
gerstler383
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?
[01:36:23]
gerstler384
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."
gerstler385
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?
gerstler386
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.
[01:37:08]
gerstler387
DB: So, I mean, like finally-and thank you for your patience in answering all of these-
[01:37:58]
gerstler388
AG: Oh, sure.
gerstler389
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?
gerstler390
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.
gerstler391
DB: Well, thank you very much. Alright, that is it.
gluck1
(Conversation about some of the art around Glück's apartment, and the print she used for the cover of Village Life)
gluck2
DB: If you would state your name and the location we're at for this interview.
0:00:00
gluck3
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.
gluck4
DB: Of course, I know the answers to many of these questions but—what genres do you work in?
gluck5
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.
gluck6
DB: Are you going to collect those essays?
0:00:45
gluck7
LG: Yeah.
gluck8
DB: Good, those are so excellent. You worked really hard at them, I know.
gluck9
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.
gluck10
DB: Okay.
gluck11
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.
gluck12
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.
gluck13
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—
gluck14
DB: Who knows?
gluck15
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.
gluck16
DB: Right.
gluck17
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.
gluck18
DB: Some other—?
gluck19
LG: Well, later Yale prizes.
gluck20
DB: Oh okay. You would encourage them to resubmit.
gluck21
LG: Yeah. Some people would submit like three and four times.
gluck22
DB: Yeah, that's interesting. I want to know who it is.
gluck23
LG: Well, we would do that when that's off.
gluck24
DB: Okay. So what time of year were you usually doing that evaluation?
gluck25
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.
gluck26
DB: No, I would be very excited to have that book.
0:06:54
gluck27
LG: Oh well, good. Do you have an idea for a title? Not three words.
gluck28
DB: Not three words?
gluck29
LG: Not like "Proofs and Theories," "This and That." Not a clone.
gluck30
DB: No.
gluck31
LG: I don't either.
gluck32
DB: If I think of some options.
gluck33
LG: Please, I really need it.
gluck34
DB: Okay.
gluck35
LG: I'll acknowledge you.
gluck36
DB: Is it coming out of FSG?
gluck37
LG: Yeah, but not for awhile.
gluck38
DB: Not for awhile. You've got this next book.
gluck39
LG: Yeah.
gluck40
DB: Okay. Well, that was the first question.
gluck41
LG: That was the first? What was that about? It wasn't about digital anything!
gluck42
DB: No, it was just general. I went to AWP this year which was terrifying.
gluck43
LG: I've never been.
gluck44
DB: Yeah, you should never go.
gluck45
LG: That's sort of what I think.
gluck46
DB: But there was a panel with Richard Siken and—who were the other two?—
gluck47
LG: Arda Collins?
gluck48
DB: Arda Collins and—
gluck49
LG: Fady Joudah?
gluck50
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—
gluck51
LG: Right. And he's a great visual artist.
gluck52
DB: Oh yeah? Oh! I like that.
0:08:19
gluck53
LG: I think he's amazing.
gluck54
DB: Yeah.
gluck55
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.
gluck56
DB: Yeah, who knows? They're very nice.
gluck57
LG: Aren't they wonderful?
gluck58
DB: Yeah. He has another book coming out too.
gluck59
LG: Yeah, he does, which I saw a long time ago. And Peter Streckfus has a new book, and it's wonderful.
gluck60
DB: I really love his first book.
gluck61
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.
gluck62
DB: Yeah, and Crush has become sort of a phenomenon.
gluck63
LG: A cult book, I know.
gluck64
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.
0:11:09
gluck65
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.
gluck66
DB: Yeah, that's the danger.
gluck67
LG: That's hard.
gluck68
DB: So your primary genre is poetry, correct? What kinds of devices do you have access to or use for writing?
0:11:48
gluck69
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.
gluck70
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.
gluck71
DB: Print it out on paper.
gluck72
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.
0:14:35
gluck73
DB: It's a regular iPad? Just, like, the first?
gluck74
LG: No—
gluck75
DB: The larger one or the smaller one?
gluck76
LG: The iPad that I have?
gluck77
DB: Yeah.
gluck78
LG: I'll show you, because how it looks is part of its story.
gluck79
DB: Okay.
gluck80
LG: Yeah, the little one—I don't know what size this is.
gluck81
DB: That's the regular size. They have the minis, now. That's the only kind of different size.
gluck82
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.
gluck83
DB: Okay.
gluck84
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—
gluck85
DB: You actually got gold plates?
gluck86
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.
gluck87
DB: Really?
gluck88
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."
gluck89
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!
gluck90
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—
gluck91
DB: Need an app.
gluck92
LG: Yeah. Like, I wanted HBO because I couldn't—
gluck93
DB: HBO To Go?
gluck94
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."
gluck95
DB: Right.
gluck96
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.
gluck97
DB: Right.
gluck98
LG: So all that stuff I hate.
gluck99
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.
gluck100
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.
0:25:07
gluck101
DB: You had it all right there. And you had endless stuff too, right?
gluck102
LG: Yeah.
gluck103
DB: You have Netflix?
gluck104
LG: Everything.
gluck105
DB: Oh, okay. You're set.
gluck106
LG: Yeah! And I have another thing—I own Breaking Bad. Because I didn't want to wait for the last season.
gluck107
DB: Yeah, it's worth it. That was a pretty intense season.
0:25:47
gluck108
LG: Yeah. Once Gus died, the real spine went out of the show, in my view. But I loved it. I loved that show.
gluck109
DB: I did too. We just finished that one.
gluck110
LG: Oh yeah?
gluck111
DB: Not too long ago, yeah.
gluck112
LG: What else have you liked?
gluck113
DB: TV-wise? [To Kristin] What are we watching now?
gluck114
KRISTIN: The Americans.
gluck115
DB: The Americans is very good.
gluck116
LG: Is it good?
gluck117
DB: Yeah, that's a very good one.
gluck118
LG: Have you seen Friday Night Lights?
gluck119
DB: I've watched some of Friday Night Lights, but [to Kristin] you've never seen it, right?
gluck120
KRISTIN: No.
gluck121
DB: We need to do the whole thing.
gluck122
LG: You have to start from the beginning.
gluck123
DB: Yeah. I did it several years ago.
gluck124
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.
gluck125
DB: Since then?
gluck126
LG: Since then. Well, it's been a month.
gluck127
DB: Have you watched The Wire?
gluck128
LG: Oh, yes. I watched The Wire on TV at Frank's [Frank Bidart] house. Because he has equipment. He has lab-quality equipment.
gluck129
DB: Well, I'll think of some other ones, for sure.
gluck130
LG: Okay.
gluck131
DB: Yeah, we should talk about it.
gluck132
LG: Yeah, if you think about it, let me know.
gluck133
DB: I'll let you know—we watch a lot of TV.
gluck134
LG: Okay. I want a title for my book, and television recommendations.
gluck135
DB: Okay.
gluck136
LG: All right, moving along. So far this is a dud of an interview, isn't it? We haven't had any technical discussion.
gluck137
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?
gluck138
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.
gluck139
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?
gluck140
LG: No.
gluck141
DB: Okay. Because I mean, there are ways they should be able to do it—
gluck142
LG: I can tell you who would know if you want to ask.
gluck143
DB: Yeah?
gluck144
LG: Do you want?
gluck145
DB: Maybe. I don't know.
gluck146
LG: All right.
gluck147
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?
gluck148
LG: Yeah, right.
gluck149
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?
gluck150
LG: I don't know.
gluck151
DB: You were telling me how you were reading it backwards.
gluck152
LG: Oh yeah. I still do that. It's horrible, and you need someone to help you.
gluck153
DB: Right. And your poems are fairly memorized? Almost all of them?
gluck154
LG: Lots of them.
gluck155
DB: And especially when you're working in the book—like when you're going back through—you're hearing it?
gluck156
LG: Your eye makes substitutions, so unless you read it out of order—i.e. backwards—you're going to be doing that.
0:29:59
gluck157
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.
gluck158
LG: It's fine.
gluck159
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?
gluck160
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.
0:30:46
gluck161
DB: Oh really?
gluck162
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.
gluck163
DB: That sort of the ambition and drive?
gluck164
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?
gluck165
DB: No—my next question is "Describe the arc of your career," so this is pretty much—
gluck166
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.
0:33:17
gluck167
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."
gluck168
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."
0:35:44
gluck169
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.
gluck170
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.
gluck171
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.
gluck172
DB: Which book did that start with?
0:42:59
gluck173
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—
gluck174
DB: Oh, wow.
gluck175
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."
gluck176
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?
0:44:57
gluck177
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!"
gluck178
DB: Right.
gluck179
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.
gluck180
DB: During that time, you just were working on the one poem?
gluck181
LG: I was for a long time, yeah.
gluck182
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?
gluck183
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.
gluck184
DB: And is one October? Because that was such a good chapbook, and then—
gluck185
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.
gluck186
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!
0:49:24
gluck187
DB: I'll send you little clips.
0:50:37
gluck188
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.
gluck189
DB: Yeah, I remember that.
gluck190
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.
gluck191
DB: Oh, okay. Is he a mystery writer?
gluck192
LG: Yeah, Swedish. I hate travel but I was—
gluck193
DB: Is this the Nero Wolfe book?
gluck194
LG: Nero Wolfe? No, that's different. That's Rex Stout. That was from much longer ago. No, Mankell is living.
gluck195
DB: Okay.
gluck196
LG: Swedish. Married to one of Ingmar Bergman's daughters.
gluck197
DB: Wow.
gluck198
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.
gluck199
DB: Okay.
gluck200
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—
0:52:40
gluck201
DB: In Averno or—?
gluck202
LG: In Averno.
gluck203
DB: Did it transfer through into A Village Life at all or no?
gluck204
LG: No. That was it.
gluck205
DB: That was it. That was the book.
gluck206
LG: Yeah.
gluck207
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—?
gluck208
LG: Sometimes, yeah. With Marshland, there were a lot of silences.
gluck209
DB: During the composition?
gluck210
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.
gluck211
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.
0:55:52
gluck212
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.
gluck213
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."
gluck214
LG: I never see it when I'm working on the book.
gluck215
DB: Yeah, which should be probably suffocating.
gluck216
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.
gluck217
DB: What period was this?
gluck218
LG: Triumph of Achilles.
gluck219
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?
gluck220
LG: Yeah.
gluck221
DB: Right. So Triumph of Achilles to—what's the next one?
gluck222
LG: Ararat.
gluck223
DB: Ararat and then Meadowlands, and then The Wild Iris.
gluck224
LG: No, other way—Wild Iris, Meadowlands. It's okay. You're pretty current.
gluck225
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?
gluck226
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."
gluck227
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.
gluck228
DB: With which book was it that you moved?
gluck229
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.
1:03:41
gluck230
DB: That's going to be a shocker.
gluck231
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.
gluck232
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?
1:06:05
gluck233
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.
gluck234
DB: Including Firstborn?
gluck235
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—
gluck236
DB: Wouldn't know that.
gluck237
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."
gluck238
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.
gluck239
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.
gluck240
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?
gluck241
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.
gluck242
DB: And then you would have to go back and do more.
gluck243
LG: Yeah.
gluck244
DB: At that point, would you do more work in the notebook before you went back to the typewriter?
gluck245
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.
gluck246
DB: Okay, so back and forth.
gluck247
LG: Yeah. They cancelled the weather report, by the way, because of the omnipresence of that.
gluck248
DB: Absolutely.
gluck249
KRISTIN: I have to go feed the meter.
gluck250
DB: Okay, great. Do you have a visitor pass? We parked with a car.
gluck251
LG: Yeah.
gluck252
KRISTIN: Sure, I can move closer.
gluck253
DB: That would be easier and then you could just park right here and then we can give it back to her.
gluck254
LG: Make sure you're in a legal place.
gluck255
KRISTIN: Yeah, as long as it is in the permit parking.
gluck256
LG: Yeah.
gluck257
KRISTIN: Thanks.
gluck258
LG: That won't work.
gluck259
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—?
gluck260
LG: It was Village Life, really, that was—
gluck261
DB: No other books had like something like a ritual to which you were responding in some sense?
gluck262
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."
1:15:12
gluck263
DB: And that came in a burst, like in February or something?
gluck264
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."
gluck265
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.
gluck266
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.
gluck267
DB: Charcoal.
gluck268
LG: Yeah, and I could make actually very crude, like, power points, and I would know how to assemble them.
gluck269
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?
gluck270
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.
1:18:15
gluck271
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?
gluck272
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.
gluck273
DB: Six weeks was the fastest. How long was Wild Iris?
gluck274
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?
gluck275
LG: Did you know David and Meredith at all?
1:20:46
gluck276
DB: No.
gluck277
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.
gluck278
DB: What was it?
gluck279
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.
gluck280
DB: Yeah.
gluck281
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.
gluck282
DB: How long have you been finished with it?
gluck283
LG: It will be a year in September. So it's still a baby.
gluck284
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?
1:22:54
gluck285
LG: Well, you can sometimes have that, but it isn't finished.
gluck286
DB: Okay.
gluck287
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.
gluck288
DB: Oh okay.
gluck289
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.
gluck290
DB: I like that book.
gluck291
LG: I like that book, too.
gluck292
DB: It's very funny.
gluck293
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.
gluck294
DB: I could see that being difficult to put together.
gluck295
LG: I knew where I wanted to start. I knew where I wanted to end, but—
gluck296
DB: In between?
gluck297
LG: I think it was a matter, too, of something needing to be added.
gluck298
DB: Did you learn how to put together books like this? What was your education of that sense?
gluck299
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."
gluck300
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.
gluck301
DB: And that sense of dramatic shape—is that your intention for most of your collections?
1:27:55
gluck302
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.
gluck303
DB: When do you get that sense?
gluck304
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.
gluck305
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?
1:29:24
gluck306
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.
gluck307
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?
gluck308
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.
gluck309
DB: Has your mode of revision, has that changed at all over the course, or has it been fairly consistent?
gluck310
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.
gluck311
DB: Right.
gluck312
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?
gluck313
DB: Ten.
gluck314
LG: Jesus, you'll be out of your mind.
gluck315
DB: I know, it's okay. We'll see how it goes. You're number seven? Eight?
gluck316
LG: Oh! You've done a lot.
gluck317
DB: Yeah, I've done quite a few.
gluck318
LG: Does everyone sound different?
gluck319
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.
gluck320
LG: I hope so. Well, we could do it again if you don't have anything to use.
gluck321
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?
gluck322
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.
gluck323
DB: You can hear almost, like, musical notes, or tones?
gluck324
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.
1:36:20
gluck325
DB: Because sound's a sort of intelligent communication, too.
1:39:13
gluck326
LG: Yeah.
gluck327
DB: That's really fascinating.
gluck328
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.
gluck329
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.
gluck330
LG: Yeah.
gluck331
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?
gluck332
LG: Everything I write goes out. I want someone to look at it, preferably right away—like, now.
gluck333
DB: And who are those people? Have they been the same people for a long time?
gluck334
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.
gluck335
DB: What have you learned?
gluck336
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.
gluck337
DB: Right. I have some questions about why you chose not to use a computer.
1:43:05
gluck338
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.
gluck339
DB: Okay.
gluck340
LG: I didn't like it. I liked paper. I liked pages. I love typewriters.
gluck341
DB: What do you love about typewriters?
gluck342
LG: Doesn't everyone love typewriters?
gluck343
DB: I don't know.
gluck344
LG: I don't know.
gluck345
DB: Is it a sound thing? Is it a feel thing?
gluck346
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.
gluck347
DB: But it has been such a consistent part of every book, I guess?
gluck348
LG: Yeah.
gluck349
DB: We get to skip all these computer questions—it's fun! So, you correspond with many people?
gluck350
LG: Yeah. Well, I used to be a much better letter writer.
gluck351
DB: Has that changed quite a bit, with receiving and sending out? Has that been computerized, or—?
gluck352
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.
1:45:22
strickland1
Devin Becker: Well, let's put that right there. And that one, it has like an auto level, so that should work and I can see it. So that's nice. Usually I get really nervous about thirty minutes in. Is it going? One time, one wasn't going, which really made me anxious. That's why I have two.
0:00:00
strickland2
Stephanie Strickland: So these are the questions?
strickland3
DB: Yeah, these are the questions and it's pretty open-ended. There are sort of a couple of parts to it. The first part is the very sort of meant to be quickly going through your current practices for your digital files. It's a survey that I've done online with a bunch of emerging writers, and that I'm asking all the participants in this as well, and then we'll talk kind of specifically about your writing processes for probably the majority. There are questions about computing and computers. Usually we cover those, but sometimes, I go through those a little bit too if we have gone through those things and I want to ask a few more. Does that sound okay? Do you have to go somewhere or anything? Everyone has been an hour and fifteen to an hour and forty-five, right in there. So if you would please state for the recording devices your name and our location.
strickland4
SS: It's Stephanie Strickland, New York City.
strickland5
DB: Okay. In this section, I ask what you write and what you use to write it. This is about how you compose currently. What genres do you write in?
strickland6
SS: I do books of poetry and I write critical essays, and I write—I make—usually collaboratively born digital works.
strickland7
DB: Okay. Would you say you have a primary genre?
strickland8
SS: Poetry.
strickland9
DB: What kind of devices do you own or have access to for your writing?
strickland10
SS: Pens, pencils. There's four computing devices in this one room. I keep an old XP machine going—with difficulty, these days. I liked Word 2003. I managed to get that and Word 2007 on that machine, and then I have a little small Acer, which is underneath there, which is actually probably the most advanced, but again, it's Word 2007 is on there that I write with, and it's for travel. And then since the last thing I made was an app for iPad, I was forced to buy an iPad—I had to show the thing on it! So that's over there, a mini.
strickland11
DB: A mini? That's what I have.
strickland12
SS: But I do not write on it.
strickland13
DB: You don't write on it, right?
strickland14
SS: No.
strickland15
DB: Okay. So, the operating systems you're using are mostly Windows?
strickland16
SS: XP and Windows 7.
strickland17
DB: Do you work on the different devices? And how do you work between—I guess, if you have all these devices, what is your style for going between them?
strickland18
SS: Well, if I'm generating new material, I will certainly do a certain amount of writing by hand. I capture, at various points, the material in a word processing program. The one I work with most intuitively is Word 2003. I'm annoyed at all the extra ridiculous functionality.
[00:03:09]
strickland19
DB: At least there is no clippie, right?
strickland20
SS: Yeah, I mean there's too much—it's not directed for what I want to do, and it doesn't handle other things—like Photoshop would—that it says that it will do.
strickland21
DB: Yeah.
strickland22
SS: But nonetheless, it's not supported anymore as with so much of the software that I once used. So I capture it at different points, certainly capturing it online is much better for sharing it and editing it to a degree, but it's not particularly good for through-line.
strickland23
DB: What do you mean by that?
strickland24
SS: Well, if you're writing something long with a complex argument, I think it's much easier to have it in front of you on paper and read it out, because it's very easy to go into a "collage-y" kind of style with stuff that's going to be published online. It's harder to get a really consecutive—long, consecutive argument made, I think, or a thought, and it's not fluid enough to do poetry. I mean, it restricts you way too much in terms of formatting compared to what you can do on a page by hand in terms of how you want to scratch things out or put something right in—
strickland25
SS: there's no arrow, insert, none of that. So it's neither—so there's a loss from both perspectives, but obviously from the point of organizing it and sharing it and necessarily sending it on for publishing these days and everything, it has to be done in—yeah. Long, long ago, I got used to doing that. It took me a long time to get there, though, because I started on a manual typewriter and then getting an IBM typewriter was a big thing, you know.
[00:05:00]
strickland26
DB: Yeah.
strickland27
SS: Just like I've used many, many writing technologies.
strickland28
DB: I mean that's really the impetus for this. I was just thinking about the thing I did earlier, then I started thinking about writers like yourself who have been writing over this course—this is a very interesting time for writing poetry.
strickland29
SS: Well, I need those little balls on the IBM Selectric. That was like this huge thing that you could erase with an erase thing, that you don't have to pull the page out and start all over again. On the other hand, there was a discipline about that. So each technology actually gave rise to a certain kind of poetry and a certain kind of mistake. These characteristic mistakes people make in email or characteristic word substitutions that you do that you never did on the page—
[00:05:52]
strickland30
—anyway, so I don't think that story has really been told because it shifts so rapidly, because you went from email to texting, to this to that, you know, and each one of those things has a different—and then Facebook sits up there and shifts its interface like monthly or whatever it does, you know, and that gives rise to a whole new thing. In the meantime, whatever a person might have wanted to do is kind of knocked out of their head because they are left wrestling with the interface.
strickland31
DB: Yeah that's a good point. So in terms of going between your paperwork and going to the digital, what are those—what steps are—
strickland32
SS: It's different. Every single project is completely different because I do a lot of—like, if I'm doing a conference presentation (there were a couple of conferences that we're going to do something with) I would tend to generate something and send it to my partner, what do they want to say about it, you know, and then we get together face to face and deal with that or whatever.
strickland33
Like the last really big new book I did, Dragon Logic, the way I wrote that was, for probably six months, every morning, I had some paper notebooks and things. I was looking through old notes and things. And I would sit and I would write, every morning, for maybe three or four hours and at the end of the morning, I would go and type it up—I mean input it.
strickland34
I did not look at it again. The next day, I would start completely fresh and I did that to the point that I had no idea how it had begun actually. And some—maybe six months later—I sort of came to the end of that, and then it was a matter of looking back and like—"what is it?"—you know? So then there was a long period of making a unity of some kind out of it. That shifted, that had made maybe two or three major shifts in understanding as I go through it, but I really liked it because it was very new to me to go back and look at—I mean, I really had no idea what it was.
[00:07:56]
strickland35
DB: You don't know, yeah.
strickland36
SS: It was a long period of writing and sometimes I've gone to writing colonies and written straight through for a long, long, long time, and not input it until I came back from there. But then there was a time when you would—I still had a car at that time, and I wasn't living in the city—and I put my IBM Selectric or whatever in, and would carry it out, or I would rent a computer to have at that place because I wanted the print out, and I still want the print out. It still looks different to me on paper than it does on the screen and you want to know both those aspects.
strickland37
SS: And then there came the time when no one did that anymore. You couldn't really rent a computer or rent—it was the same time you would go to make presentations wherever you went. The university had a computer there in a room with a stage and you needed a technician to come and fix up all the, whatever—and then they didn't anymore because everyone was expected to bring their laptop and to have one and travel with it. I had a lot of problems with my hands from when I first started doing digital work and I travel really, really light so that made me really angry that I had to—
[00:09:24]
strickland38
DB: To carry—
strickland39
SS: And I wouldn't. I would borrow somebody's or something like that. So there was like all these phases of what you had to do, the way to do it, and so it was different for every book.
strickland40
DB: When you're working—like, for Dragon Logic, when you were working on paper in the mornings, what were you working on? What were your materials? Was it just that notebook?
strickland41
SS: It was a bigger notebook than that, probably, a pen with wet ink—wettish ink, not like ballpoint—that has a flow to it, but again because of my hands, to have the least effort of writing. I like a big, like, engineering notebook with graph paper. Often, I had bigger ones like this. It was like a green graph on it. Yeah, I don't like just lined pages. This makes an overall page better, but still—
strickland42
DB: It has some sort of volume to it. That book has such interesting volume. So then how do you save that stuff? Do you just keep it and once you're finished with the notebook, do you store it somewhere or do you send it?
strickland43
SS: Put it in a box.
strickland44
DB: Put in a box over there? Most of your prewriting and your notes are all in notebooks like that?
strickland45
SS: You would hope! But no, they are not. There's a lot of loose paper, there's a lot of, well, it can be anything because it's whatever I happen to pull up at that exact moment. It can be stuff I wrote down at different times and happened to bring it together. And there were so many versions for a while, and then you sort of drown in versions and then you get tired of that. And then came the time when I decided I needed to use the back of everything, for ecological reasons. I really feel sorry for the people that do [study this later], because now there's a version of a thing and you look on the back and you have no idea when that thing on the back—I mean, if you think the front and the back were done at the same time, they never were.
strickland46
DB: No? Good, now we have that on record.
strickland47
SS: But you know, and they have no relation to each other, but I can just see somebody—because they're on the same paper, and they are saying that it will, and I'm like... And the other thing I do that's crazy is that I have some notebooks and then sometimes I go through the exact same notebook again and write into it so that it's actually a palimpsest of two different things that happen and there's no way that you would know—from the outside.
strickland48
DB: Why do you do that?
[00:13:07]
strickland49
SS: Because I want to—I go back and see, is there, does it still have the pull for me that it did, the things that I wrote down at that time, because there are things that tend to be continually magnetizing for me. I like to see—like I've never kept a diary in the sense of a personal diary or like a diary of what happened with my kids' behavior or whatever. I've never done that kind of a thing. I have like a horror of that like I have a horror of lined pages—but I have, there's just—sometimes, something just gets to me and I just need to write it down, so it's just these magnetizing things sort of, right? Maybe some image or something that had a—
strickland50
DB: That came back?
strickland51
SS: Yeah, there's like a—I remember seeing once an image of a Viking boat that I actually did go get to see in Norway, but this was just on the cover of a thing and it was the keel and the shape of the thing, and it was just in a kind of turquoise blue kind of thing and it was like, you know, it could have been a company's annual report or something—the cover—it had nothing to do with what was in there but there's this image. It's just like, "Ah" you know.
strickland52
DB: Striking.
strickland53
SS: In a zillion ways, that was important to me, which I don't necessarily know how, you know? So I have pictures pulled off like that. No, it's not organized.
strickland54
DB: Okay, good luck future researcher.
strickland55
SS: Yeah, good luck.
strickland56
DB: It sounds like you kind of write—in Dragon Logic, it isn't really individual works, it is a collection but it's also kind of, you know—and some of your other books as well—are not quite made of individual works, but then when you're working, when you move stuff over to the computer, do you—
strickland57
SS: Well, what do you mean not made individual? I mean, there are individual poems, but they are related. There's a whole meaning to the book.
strickland58
DB: Right, yeah and it just sounds like with your notebooks—I'm just interested in how you organize that once it moves on to a digital space?
strickland59
SS: I'm really good at that. I do that for lots of other people's books, too. I see unities, I see structures. I think I think in structures. I wanted to be an architect at one time.
strickland60
DB: That makes sense.
strickland61
SS: So, do you know the sort of math side of things and beautiful side of things of whatever you work on are not different for me exactly—
strickland62
DB: Right.
strickland63
SS: — so that the structure is often what I see. Do you know? It resonates, there's some kind of resonance here. So I see that and then it becomes what's the best way in, but that's for print because then in a digital work, there's not an "in" in the same way, right? In other words, there's an access often to all parts of it at once, you know in some kinds though I generally provide a default path through as well as a more open thing. So I think that's probably why that kind of work was so interesting to me, starting with True North, which has those five integrally [related] poems—the True North poems are sort of used to divide up the book—but really, they are supposed to be at the center of a moving pole, like the sun going around, so...how do you tell where True North is? You're answering that one question and then the rest of the things would be around in a sort of spherical space, which really should be an installation.
strickland64
DB: Yeah.
[00:17:02]
strickland65
SS: Or true three-dimensions, which of course you're not going to get, but anyway.
strickland66
DB: Someday there will be holographs.
strickland67
SS: Yeah, yeah, right.
strickland68
DB: Just in terms of the nitty gritty though, I mean like, when you have a file on the computer, what is it called? Is it called the title of the poem or do you have large files full of many things?
strickland69
SS: Well, at some point it's the name of the poem, or it's a name that references the name of the poem. For a long time, I will do revisions within that file with the date at the top of what—of which revision that is. Though, sometimes when I'm doing many, many revisions in one day, that gets a little lost. Then, at the point of a manuscript, there's a whole file that's an entire manuscript and those will have dates or something, you know, called "1, 2, 3," or something. They will be distinguished in some ways to which version they are of the whole manuscript.
strickland70
SS: I don't just put a whole lot of stuff together—I mean, that doesn't belong together—like in one file. I have kind of an elaborate folder system which, having worked in libraries, I'm pretty comfortable dealing with elaborate folders and so I know where I think—but increasingly, it's like, "Where did I put that?" because there are too many places to put certain things. Is it under the conference that I'm going to give? Is it under essays and talks? Is it under whatever—and the search capability within Windows is pathetic, so not better on Macs to my—though I'm not as well acquainted with them. That's a little annoying that I can't—and I mean, Google, I try to find—you know the book called The Burnt Book by Marc "hyphen" something [Marc-Alain Ouaknin]... . Anyway, I thought it was Kinin, I had O-U-A-K right. I had "Marc" right, I had "Burn" right, and I go on Amazon, go in "Books", say French, or Jewish, whatever—could not find it. Right? I mean, seriously! And then it didn't make what I thought was the obvious—do you know how it usually—"Did you mean?" It was terrible. Anyway, I finally got it in Bing after trying a zillion different things, but I mean like—
strickland71
SS: it should be better by now, that kind of thing should be way better by now. Any published book should be in Google books. Give me a break! Anyway, I'm not happy with "Search."
[00:20:00]
strickland72
DB: Okay. In general. And as a librarian, I think I can understand your problems with that. Just to be clear, when you are doing an individual poem and you put the date at the top, do you have like a version and then another version at another page with a new date, or something like that?
strickland73
SS: Yes, so that could be fifty pages long.
strickland74
DB: But it's one poem?
strickland75
SS: But it's one poem, or whatever. Increasingly you're farther away from the one, and then you could just—"I can't deal with this poem anymore." What's useful is often a version really near the beginning, and then you pick something from the middle, it's under the end of the file, and then you can find your way, kind of, because you forget what you, you know, whatever. Yeah. I do it like that, and then eventually it's what you either call "Final Version" or "the version sent to so and so" or, you know, like that, to try and have a clean copy folder as well as the working folder.
strickland76
DB: Okay, so you have the working draft and then you can push it into a different folder that's more finalized.
strickland77
SS: More like "to send out," or something like that.
strickland78
DB: Okay. During this time, are you printing out those to revise them as well?
strickland79
SS: Well, you print them out. You don't print out everything. At a certain point, you'll print it out.
strickland80
DB: Do you save any of the paper copies of those printouts?
strickland81
SS: Yeah, but it's not big—right? I was very happy when Duke was willing to take [inaudible 00:21:53] but that's not easy either because of this thing of going back to the notebooks and things and what you do and you don't want to send out. I did send off things like the galleys and things, the manuscripts and stuff like that. Some of the time, it just seems crazy if there's just too many versions, and those all from before were all printed on very fine paper for the back. So I just turn them over and use them for—
strickland82
DB : There you go. Oh man, that's going to be fun. How did you develop your sort of writing style, or that revision style, on the computer? Did you start out on the computer doing it like that? How has it grown into doing that?
strickland83
SS: I don't know. It was always like that. I mean, I was extremely aware with every shift in software, every shift in functionality. It just kind of hits me, what I've lost and what I've gained, if anything. So, I always needed to see it both ways. So, I think from the beginning I printed it out and then from the time I had trouble with my hands—which was in 1995, when I first started using Storyspace in a beta version that erased all your links every eleventh save...that was the flaw. I didn't know! It was the first time I used software. I thought I must be doing something wrong. So, it was just terrible. Anyway, I couldn't keep doing it. I couldn't keep working—so there was a whole period of becoming sort of a little more ergonomically aware of working with computers and they've changed so much, you know, as many different ways as possible, you shift off to use different—you know, your eyes get really tired of being on a computer or your hand or whatever.
[00:22:44]
strickland84
DB: Right. Currently how are you backing up your work?
strickland85
SS: Well, I try to make that the main thing. I back that up onto a flash drive and then I have this sync toy stuff that Microsoft makes for its computers. So I have that on there, and so I sync that onto there. That works okay.
strickland86
SS: Then I have a little wallet backup drive that I try to put from there onto that, but it doesn't work as well. It was working fine and now they just updated so I'm having trouble with that at the moment, but eventually that sort of works. So it's on there, and there, and there, and then the Acer
[00:24:35]
strickland87
SS: I just kind of put the files on that I—I made one big copy from there, but I don't really keep it updated and everything because it's just the files I really need to work with when I'm travelling.
[00:25:00]
strickland88
DB: Are there any sort of standard, I mean, are you like backing up like every five months or something? Is there sort of regularity to it or it's just sort of this—?
strickland89
SS: I note on my overall "To Do" document when I last did it. I do it at least every two weeks, but if I did a lot of work I would do it. I mean, you know, if there was a whole lot of stuff that I wrote or something, and if I'm doing that, it will kind of be on little flash drives between the computers as I move, I like to work on it here or whatever.
strickland90
DB: Do you ever email it to yourself, or anything like that? Maybe like a copy of the recent manuscript or anything?
strickland91
SS: No.
strickland92
DB: Okay.
strickland93
SS: It used to be a lot of other ways. Do you remember those Iomega things, those drives? Do you remember those things?
strickland94
DB: Like the zip drives?
strickland95
SS: Yeah. It used to be zip drive—there used to be a thousand ways.
strickland96
DB: On this trip, I went and visited the Beineke and met with their born-digital archivist. They have like a computer stack with all the different old things that slide in, they built it themselves. It was really kind of cool to see all that forensic material, to look at those things. What about your older media?
[00:26:16]
strickland97
SS: I mostly just got rid of it. It just annoyed me! It was just so much to come between you and your work. And then, when I first started working and collaborating with Marjorie Luesebrink, she was using ToolBook. I mean, people don't even know about ToolBook. Inevitably, each new version of the software would be worse. I mean, there was more functionality in the beginning, right? And then they would just knock it down. Those of us who used Director and Flash, we've been hit hard.
strickland98
DB: Yeah, Flash especially. But what's Director?
strickland99
SS: Director is shockwave files. Do you know shockwave files?
strickland100
DB: Oh, okay.
strickland101
SS: Director was beautiful, most of the e-literature pieces that I liked the best were made in Director.
strickland102
DB: So, is that sort of your ideal software environment for—?
strickland103
SS: Well, it was, I mean, it doesn't produce stuff for miniature mobile devices, right? But yes, the work that I thought was really beautiful was done in that. And then, Macromedia was fine. Adobe—when Adobe bought Macromedia, it didn't—between Adobe buying Macromedia and Steve Jobs not—I understand flash is, and memory hog and all that when we moved to— but between those two things, those were very creative things, you know, and they haven't been really replaced. The HTML 5 and JavaScript doesn't do it the same way. I mean, people are trying to do it, so the thing is, they'll make an app. So, yeah—that whole thing just annoys me, that it's under the control of so few software, I mean, so few computer or software companies, you know, what you can do or what's supposed to be done and the way things are supposed to look. It was such an open—so much to explore and so much did get explored and has disappeared because of the inability to access it.
strickland104
SS: We've lost like a generation of design intelligence is what you might even say. Because people were exploring that and there wasn't enough time for other people to see it or think about it or whatever before the thing had shifted and moved on. So that all made me very annoyed and it seemed to me that nobody cared about the exploratory side of it—which they should have! Google and Apple, they have enough money to care about the exploratory side of it, Microsoft too.
strickland105
DB: I think so.
strickland106
SS: Do you know what I mean? They should be running huge, like IBM did or like Bell Labs did, huge exploratory—right?
strickland107
DB: Yeah. I guess a question from that—what made you stick with it?
strickland108
SS: Well, it's just the architectural part—I mean, the possibilities are just so great with respect to time and performativity and— —reach, and it's an international art form, the last of which was maybe concrete poetry. You know? We need to communicate. The world's problems are global, whether climatologic or poverty or what have you, right? Water, whatever; resources, survival. So, you need to speak—you know, I can't speak to 500 people, you know what I mean?
strickland109
SS: I just think you should explore what you care about in a medium that does have a reach, and there are difficulties with that. This generator that Nick [Montfort] and I made, which was translated into Polish—I never learned more about English, or Polish, or computation than trying to translate it. You know?
[00:30:44]
strickland110
SS: It brings up aspects of your language you never think about, because you never think about how it's different than Polish, for instance. And then they're trying to read your thing, and they're trying to read, in this case, too, Melville and Dickinson, because the work Sea and Spar Between was based on that. They are trying to deal with that and if it's not a good translation of Dickinson in Polish and then what—how do you—you know? It's really intense. Not only is it international, but it's a very intense investigation and evaluation of your basic materials. What you are working with, too—so you get to know your own stuff better, and you get to know somebody else better. I think that's a minimum of what we are going to need?
strickland111
DB: Yeah. That's a really good point. So when did you do the translation into Polish?
strickland112
SS: Oh, we didn't do it—these two Polish people did it. It was done by last—last year, Paris in October, I guess? Early October, whatever; September, October. The ELO [Electronic Literature Organization] meeting was in Paris and it was presented there. They gave a paper on it and we gave a paper on it, which will come out in this French journal Formaroute in June, or whatever. And it had been—they started doing it pretty soon after it was published—I think they started working at it—[32:52]—and Nick had run into one of these guys, I think at a translation conference in Paris that [Inaudible 32:51] had run or whatever and so it would have been in the works, but it just was a long—that was a long email exchange. This is the question, and how would you answer it, and how would they answer it, and all that.
strickland113
DB: Did they keep the JavaScript specifically and then sort of substitute words within the eraser?
strickland114
SS: No. You have to modify the code as well as the—
strickland115
DB: The whole thing because of the syntax—
strickland116
SS: Yes, you have to modify the code as well as the—that was always so interesting, you know, because you think the code is international or something but it's not. It's very language specific, what you normally can do, and so it's interesting.
strickland117
DB: Yeah, that's fascinating. I'd like to talk kind of more on a grander—or, not grander, but a longer scale about your sort of career as a writer and if you could kind of describe that arc. Like when did you start kind of writing really seriously—poetry—and then what was the move like from your first books into writing into born-digital pieces and stuff like that? If you could just give a kind of broad outline of that?
strickland118
SS: My father was an engineer. He had absolutely no use for words. Words were used by con-men, lawyers and advertising men. That's it. Whereas the real world, right, was reliable and whatever, he could build anything or sail anything or fix anything or whatever. So, it was like that. Though, my grandmother was a great reader and so forth, so there was that kind of thing but in my education, I didn't have any. I mean, I read a lot of literature but there was no point in it that I had any creative writing, anything like that.
[00:33:55]
strickland119
SS: So, I got married when I was still in college and I had three kids in five years, and putting my husband through graduate school, all that kind of stuff—or helping to put him through graduate school.
strickland120
SS: So, I didn't really start to write until I was home with no money, taking care of three children, you know, kind of "I can't move." [My] resource is only the radio really, kind of. I started to write then, but I did not value it, really. Then, at one point I went home for Christmas and my brother had brought a friend—I remember I was sitting with this youngest child in my arms and this and that, talking late at night, only lights of the Christmas tree around—and it just all of a sudden became clear to me that this friend of his wrote poems and was not tearing them up. It was like, "Oh!"
strickland121
SS: By that time, my older children were in school in Yonkers, and Sarah Lawrence had these writing programs. So I started to take programs there and in exchange, to pay for them, I worked in the library there—which I didn't have any library training, either, but that's all right. And eventually they wanted me to get the library training, and I got the library training by offering Pratt students—Pratt had courses in Westchester and all around, right and Sarah Lawrence had this computer, and this was really early computer lab stuff—I would teach the computer classes to the Pratt people up there to pay for the Pratt classes. And I was asked to—well, they wanted to automate—the librarian wanted to automate the library. This was a tiny little library, but a beautiful one. So, no one knew what that was—I mean, they had OC-LC, right? They had that, right? But it was like: get a catalog, get a circulation system showing that sort of list they may have here—so I said, "Sure." Why not?
strickland122
DB: Yeah. That sounds fun.
[00:37:22]
strickland123
SS: Seriously! And it was like, you're reading this stuff like—
strickland124
DB: And this was like early ‘80s?
strickland125
SS: Yeah, really early ‘80s. It was like—this is like "The Washington Library Authority System," or "Hennepin Headings" or—you know? It was like, "What's the right way to go?" You would do FTP downloads of ERIC databases and stuff like that. There were some digitized stuff to know, but it was really not—you know—
strickland126
DB: Yeah, that was really early.
strickland127
SS: So anyway, that's how I sort of became aware of those kinds of issues. Oh, and in the meantime, I had gotten my MFA and all that at Sarah Lawrence—but I really didn't send out sub—I mean, I had the children I was raising and a full time job and stuff like that. So, I was writing and then I somehow became aware—probably through Poets & Writers, you know—of McDowell, and Yaddo and stuff like that, and so I sent stuff off to there, and that was like the first time that I really had time to write at length, to do that. That was like amazing for me. That was very valuable for me.
strickland128
SS: I think it must have been early '90s that the first book was published, I think? It might have been. And then, some of the next few won some prizes and things like that. I won a CAP—CAPS was like a New York State grant, the old name for New York State, I think—and I got this newsletter from them, and that's where I first found out about Society for Literature and Science, which is now Society for Literature, Science and the Arts. I thought, you know, that sounds like something I'd be interested in, that was Kate Hayles who had sort of founded that.
[00:38:55]
strickland129
SS: So, I went—I started to go to those conferences, those meetings. And it was there that there was this notice about the NEH seminars—which, if you are not an academic, you don't hear about these things. But I looked, and it turned out—so Kate offered her first one of these in 1995. And it was about electronic literature but it was like
[00:39:32]
strickland130
SS: Hypertext Fiction, or whatever, and I'm like, "What? Why?" Because that's all there was kind of, at the time, you know? I had gotten involved with founding the Hudson Valley Writers' Center—some friends, people that I knew up at [upstate]—which was a poetry thing. So anyway, I went and looked at the guidelines for this thing. It turns out that you could apply as an independent scholar for any one of these things—and I'm an employed person, right? My whole application was, "You can't seriously only be offering this to academics and fiction people. You really need someone from poetry and someone from the public arts side of things." So, that's how I got into that thing. That was international. We had two computers for—it was maybe 15 of us? We had one Mac and one Windows computer for everybody to do all their work on, so we were working around the clock. It was a wonderful course. We did MOOS. We did all kinds of stuff. No one really knows what those are anymore, but—
[00:40:00]
strickland131
DB: Wait, what? MOOS?
strickland132
SS: MOOS. Online—like, you build rooms and you enter it textually, it's all textual and that kind of thing and those kind of games. Everything was of course new. We went and saw wonderful digital art builders, a lot of wonderful art being made in Pasadena—the Art Center [College] of Design, that place? And we went to SIGGRAPH—SIGGRAPH was just mind blowing and all that stuff. There were a few things on CDs—Uncle Buddy's Funhouse and Judy Malloy, there was a few, and the Eastgate hyperfiction things. And he'd just done this beta StorySpace for Windows, which was made available to Kate.
strickland133
SS: And I'd done—my first thing, my project, was supposed to be some bibliography or something. I got that done in one second; then she said, "Why don't you—?" Oh, and I had just written True North as a print thing, as a paper thing, and I'd sent it—I don't know who sent it—somebody sent it to Mark Bernstein, who liked it. He himself likes science and everything, and so he was really into like, "Let's make a hypertext file out of it." So that's when I started working with the [Storyspace software]—which was just—because it had this error, and I kept reporting errors. I didn't know if there were errors or I didn't know how to use it, or what. Then it turned out to be this really terrible thing, which—you know—you get nervous and you save more often and it's an awful feeling—
[00:42:14]
strickland134
DB: Every 11th time, it just deleted the links?
strickland135
SS: Yeah, it just destroyed your links. Anyway, we finally got it done and I sent it in, and that was great. He is going to publish it. Then he told me he had to make a version for Mac, which would—and the affordances of the Mac were completely different, I mean completely different. There were like two completely different things. Fortunately, Deena Larsen—who had been working with him in Mac forever—she and I got together at Marjorie's house in California. She showed me some of the stuff that you needed to do with that...but that was just traumatic, really. It was a traumatic way to go.
[00:43:15]
strickland136
SS: But maybe Marjorie [Luesebrink] was not—Marjorie and I then did stuff together. One of the things—which doesn't work anymore, the only one of my things that really doesn't work anymore (unless you have Netscape or whatever, or something)—we made a version of a poem that was in True North, the last poem in True North. But from then on, I was just—that was it, and I wanted to do digital work, and so from the time I did V: Wave Son.nets/ Losing L'una on, a digital component was part of the vision of the whole thing. And slippingglimpse was just purely a digital thing, though it got included along with the—well, no, no, the very, very first piece I did was The Ballad of Sand and Harry Soot.
strickland137
SS: That was right after True North, because we had the Cyber Mountain conference that Deena [Larsen] organized the next year, and I had that ready for that. I remembered bringing it to that.
[00:45:00]
strickland138
DB: In what form did you bring it?
strickland139
SS: It's in HTML, a web thing. So, everything else except for the app—the most recent app, which I don't know if you have, but there is—
strickland140
DB: I do.
strickland141
SS: —Vniverse.
strickland142
DB: Yeah. I have been looking at it this week, it's great.
strickland143
SS: —it's for the browser. Not the same on all browsers, but pretty playable.
strickland144
DB: The Ballad—didn't you win a contest with that one in print first?
strickland145
SS: No—oh, yes, I did! That was The Boston Review's—yes, I had written that.
strickland146
DB: Because I read they had that Heather McHugh thing—
strickland147
SS: Yeah, that's the thing. But when I wrote it, though I wrote it in print, it was written almost as a response to the whole experience of the NEH session, because it was like—it was just a whole response to this silicon world, carbon based world. Like how they were clashing with each other or how not, or their attraction to each other, or whatever. It was prompted by my reaction to what had happened at a computer. I wrote it in print. It's the length it is because whatever font size or whatever I had, it had to be ten pages for The Boston Review, so ten pages in some format. So, it was sent off for that. But then it was a natural thing to do it, because I wanted to have the images—because there were so many things—
strickland148
DB: What programming languages do you feel comfortable in?
strickland149
SS: I don't feel comfortable in any. I mean, I work with—I collaborate with other people and in a lot of different ways and I've been through a lot of different things with them. My role is always to want something that supposedly can't be done, and then—that's why I like to work face-to-face, and almost always have, with the person. Because you need to just fool around with it and these glitchy funny things happen, and it's great. If you have a good collaborator or a very simpatico collaborator, you are both sitting there agreeing that it's great, or whatever. And I actually love that process. I'm trying to think, in the cases of working with Marjorie and Cynthia, I was doing all of the linguistic stuff. We were doing interface design together—I mean, basically that was it: "how can we make this happen? This is the effect we want to have happen." Marjorie had—before Photoshop—and again, it was so easy. We used to have these applets from Italy, this designer in Italy. It was so easy to look at things and put things together. We had just a wonderful time. She had been in this NEH seminar as well.
strickland150
DB: With you as well?
strickland151
SS: Yeah.
strickland152
DB: Who are you speaking about?
strickland153
SS: M.D. Coverley is what she writes under. Her name is Marjorie Luesebrink. She was president of the ELO for a while until she gave that up—Community College in Irvine, and lives in Newport Beach. So, we used to go to SIGGRAPH together. We still go to all these conferences together. We're still very close friends. But we were discovering—anyway, her ToolBook thing was so great and she was so great visually. We just had different things to contribute to it, and different designs, and if you look at stuff she wrote, her own stuff, it is a much different—you would never confuse it—but it's like, we each had an influence, you know?
strickland154
SS: So, those were those things and then with Cynthia—with Cynthia it was great, because I went to IDP and Noah Wardrip-Fruin took me there, and I just said, "Were any of the students there interested in poetry, doing poetry?" and Cynthia was. She was very literate.
strickland155
SS: She had an engineering degree from Colombia—in the country Colombia—and she's moved on to completely other things, too, but we did these two, we did the Vniverse and the slippingglimpse. So there were two people that wanted to, and it was really clear, Cynthia was the person, we were going to do this. And we had a lot of fun with Vniverse, and slippingglimpse came because I went to a talk on—Catherine Bateson, and Paul Ryan was there showing some of those videos, not the ones we actually ended up using but some that are sort of similar, water videos—and he used the word "chreod," which I had never heard, and went up to ask him about it, and I bought his Video Mind, Earth Mind thing, and I read through the book and there was a diagram in it that's wrong—and it turns out that he and Cynthia were both teaching at The New School—and so I approached him, and I said, "We can fix this up for you. We can make a little program that that will make this right and we'd love to use some of your—" So, it was great. I came to his house and we looked at the all the colored ones, the ones that I've used (though, those are ten of about fifty or so). But a lot of things—like, I had to become a lawyer and draw up a kind of contract for us to use it and stuff like that? And at one point he said, "Yes, you could use them"—Cynthia needed them in a certain form and he wasn't really processing in this digital form, there was this one guy working for him who was, and all that—and this guy calls me up one night about 6 o'clock and says, "Which ones do you want?" On the phone, right? So, you know, you look at those water things—it's not "the one with the water," you can't say "the one that's green," you know—so, I've often said that was the most difficult linguistic job I ever had to do was to describe—without any notes, without any—just a visual memory, ten of these things from fifty that look really similar.
[00:50:00]
strickland156
DB: Yeah, that's funny.
[00:52:21]
strickland157
SS: But then he loved it, he really loved that work and they showed—he died just recently, and in his memorial things they showed those things. He was a great guy. We both had that ecological—and Cynthia has gone on to do a lot of work educating people around the—she's part of Occupy, and this education for the 99% kind of thing, including she takes groups of students to South America and so on. So she does intend to make—and she also has a career as a photographer—so, I mean, people go off in these different directions from these things. Then the thing with Nick is that he had a sabbatical, and he wanted to do a lot of collaborations and he came to me, and I had never done a generator—generator was so different from anything I had ever done and I wasn't really sure that was such a good idea. But he persuaded me, and so there was a lot of—he would travel here, I would travel there. That was the hardest.
strickland158
SS: Like with Cynthia, she's in New York, we could just sit down. Marjorie, I would go visit her and would just sit down and do it. Nick was a little harder to get together and do it, but we did it and then it was super—there's been a lot of interest in that, a lot of critical work about it, and people that wanted to translate it, and then we presented it—the Emily Dickinson Society wanted to do it, you know, we did it there—and we did this subsequent little generator called Duels-Duets, a collaboration. After that I worked with Ian, and then Ian is in New York too, so we've done a couple. We've done one about libraries, called House of Trust, which is going to be published in Volta in August.
strickland159
DB: That's up though, right?
strickland160
SS: You can go to House of Trust and see it, yeah. Have you seen it?
strickland161
DB: Yeah. I was looking at it this morning. It's got the library.
strickland162
SS: It's all about libraries!
strickland163
DB: So, in these processes—when you are collaborating—do you have the kind of traditional divisions between your labor? Are you, like, pre-writing, generating like you do in a notebook, and then you move to like a place where you're kind of composing and then revising and then finishing? Are there those stages or is it different?
[00:54:28]
strickland164
SS: Well, in some cases the poem pre-existed. So, we knew what we were working with.
strickland165
DB: So, you had the content.
strickland166
SS: We have that content, but that content is very small compared to how to design the interface.
strickland167
SS: So, I usually have a vision, just like with True North. It's a vision that's impossible, short of an installation—though, at one point when I was at Georgia Tech, the graduate student who was doing the Techno Poetry Festival with me—we really were going to do it. We looked into—you know, we wanted to have the stars like sensors that came down, and you would move among them and it releases the text, and it would be mirrored—and there would be water on the floor, or Mylar on the floor...I mean, we thought about it, right? So I would have a vision about it, but there would be—it's a learning process. Like with Nick. It's like, "I want this ocean. I want you to fall off the ocean." So, okay, we can make a torus out of it, or whatever. In other words, it's a negotiation to find out what you would do in the programming to have the effect of what you need to have.
[00:55:00]
strickland168
DB: Of what you are envisioning?
strickland169
SS: Yes, of what you are envisioning. And then, he's a poet himself, and we both liked and, by chance, had access to the Lexicon databases for both of those poets—this is a post-digital humanities project. We were looking through what words are interesting, what are not, and then just generating the template phrases, do you know? We would talk about this and what do we want to put back and what order do we want the words to be arranged—so alphabetic mostly, but fast fish loose fish, because we wanted them close together, or at the end, you know—? So it's this whole understanding of the way you are doing this, and then of course going on from that: the cut to fit the tool-spun course, which was like a meta piece. So, getting into all those questions was like a sort of a different thing. And then, I wanted—well, he did it on Python, Nick works in Python first to kind of sketch it, and then it was put into the—Nick is, you know, if you see his other generators, he's not into color, he's not into—right? I had to fight to get the blue.
strickland170
DB: That's a good win.
strickland171
SS: I kept throwing all these metaphor things on it. So, I did all that stuff about the number of fish in the sea, and all that. You kind of get the blue thing, but you learn so much from—you learn about each program, but as well—it's different sensibilities that you bring, you know? So, Nick and I couldn't have been more different, and at the same time we will always love exactly the same things. They are mathematical, they are poetic, they are structural. The same things will just—and we both agree that it is not trivial whether or not there is a hyphen between Moby and Dick.
[00:57:22]
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SS: You get far enough away, you say, "Oh my God! They're like identical, they're twins." But when you are right there it's very different. It's much more opportunistic than what you are suggesting. It's like, "What do we have access to? What can we do in the time we have? With the time that we have to get together, how would this work?" Like we both love Dickinson and Melville, so we just start out a generator—"What"—and then, like, with the Duels-Duets, there was a conference, an ELO conference, and the name of the panel was Duels-Duets, or something. It was people that work collaboratively, right? And so we had worked with—
strickland173
SS: —it was like I was just aware of all the things that were different, because with Cynthia and Marjorie it was much more we were all doing the same thing as we went along, much more negotiation. Because generators—I don't think that way, you know? So, it was about the negotiations and stuff like that. But then we had that thing, and so—I mean—we did that on the train and over lunch, just throwing in those things and I wanted it really realistic. I wanted some of the things that actually do happen—you know? You run out of time, and that's the reality of these collaborations. It's not like some ten-year project where every detail—I might love that, but it's not a medium that—
strickland174
DB: That rewards you.
[00:59:38]
strickland175
SS: No, not at all. And so, it's how much can you get done in the time, and you hope to God that you think of the right thing at the moment that the person is able to implement it, and that you have this whole other thing that's really important to do, skip your mind or whatever and—
strickland176
SS: People were brought into those discussions too, like the young man who designed the cover for the Spring Gun edition and so on. So it's different aspects of—do you know?
01:00:00]
strickland177
DB: Yeah.
strickland178
SS: And since I don't love social media or mobile whatever, I definitely need to hear from people who are using it about the way it needs to be used. You don't want it to be—you know—
strickland179
DB: Yeah. How did you develop your sense of design—sense of what you could envision?
strickland180
SS: I don't know. From the time I was a kid, really, I wanted to be an architect.
[01:00:28]
strickland181
DB: You wanted sort of a structural—from the beginning?
strickland182
SS: I did, and I'm sure seeing my father build things and stuff all the time was like—it was just more—I don't know. And I don't know why that would particularly apply but I have helped lots of people put manuscripts together. I mean, if I see a whole bunch of poems, I just—some people have a sense for that particular thing and some other people are different; their best thing is at the poem level or at some other level, critical level or whatever, but the place that I seem to operate pretty well is that putting the structure together thing.
strickland183
DB: What do you see at that level? What are you after?
strickland184
SS: I don't know. It's just—I hear something as well as see something. Online it's often a visual thing, but in the manuscript it's like there's this leading tone—like, "How are we going to get in, what's going to lead to this?" and "Do not bore me by putting this next to this because I don't—"
strickland185
SS: You know what I mean, that there's like a—it's not an arc. Do you know what I mean? It's not like a theatrical thing.
strickland186
DB: Okay. You're not thinking of a dramatic arc or anything like that?
strickland187
SS: No, not really, because that's not often what's the best—I've done a lot of editing, I mean, as an editor at Slapering Hol Press: "What is this manuscript really about? What does it really do better than anything else at the heart of it?" That has to come out. So how do you introduce the person to that—the reader? And then how do you complicate it in an interesting way, and how do you pace it so that the person—it's like a reading pace, right?
strickland188
DB: Right, right.
strickland189
SS: And will there be any use to divisions? Will there be use to the naming of divisions? Is it better to suppress that? I don't know. It's just something about the individuality of the work that will suggest—or will suggest, "This is great, but this thing just doesn't go there." And I always ask people to send me all the outtakes, too, because often those do go there and sometimes they took them out because it was too close to the bone or they didn't quite—whatever. Stuff like that.
[01:02:33]
strickland190
DB: Yeah, yeah. When you're working on, say, your own poem—an individual poem—are you revising towards a sound in that way, too? Or do you hear a tone?
strickland191
SS: I don't know if I revise towards a sound but I certainly read it out loud. It's certainly not just a visual thing. It may be conceptual, but it's not conceptual without reference to the other sensory modalities. So for sure it has to read right—in my mouth.
strickland192
DB: Yeah, in your mouth. And has that been, like, the case ever since you started?
strickland193
SS: I think so. I was trained on nursery rhymes.
strickland194
DB: Yeah, right. So it's always the sound—
strickland195
SS: Yeah, I think so.
strickland196
DB: Well then, something like The Red Virgin which is indexical, right, in it's—how did you—did you put your stamp on that?
strickland197
SS: Well, the thing is—when I was first reading Simone Weil I was very upset about the way people responded to her, because either they couldn't stand her religious side or they couldn't stand her political side, and they would name the other one as the whatever—you know—
[01:04:12]
strickland198
DB: Right.
strickland199
SS: No one would see her as like one person—that one person could have these sides, and she could come from that. And I read The Visions of Simone Machard—Brecht's play?—I think is the best work that has been done about her, as a fiction work. There were some other plays and things about her that I thought were unbearably reductionist.
strickland200
DB: Yeah.
strickland201
SS: So I did not want that, and so from that point of view I wanted a lot of materials. You know—some documentary materials, I wanted to cover certain things, and I wanted to use her language. So pretty much, stuff was named the way it was. But then, from that point of view—of how are you going to put them together—it was exactly the fact that there were so many people who had so many different takes on it. So yes, it's almost indexical because—and this was a consideration wherever you started—I wanted you to be able to start anywhere.
[01:05:00]
strickland202
SS: The poems are written that way: so that, if her brother is named, no matter where you start, you'll know it's her brother in some way. Things aren't dropped in. You can make sense of it. It's written so you can make sense of it from wherever you start. You'll have a different impression depending on where you start, and that was part of the point, right? But I think most people will read it straight through. Part of the point was like it's just impossible the number—and again, this is seeing things in the round sort of, that you read and you read and you read, or you have people who are supposedly sympathetic like Robert Coles, you know? Which in his own way was just most reductive of all.
strickland203
DB: Right, Right.
strickland204
SS: And it was interesting to me that the Italian woman—her biography was so much less reductive—that Italian woman psychiatrist, than Coles, and stuff like that?
strickland205
DB: Oh, okay, yeah.
[01:06:35]
strickland206
SS: So is it the way a woman reads it? Is it the way that if you're coming from the political side, if you're coming from the religious side? All these people have too many irons in the fire, right? So I wanted to tell it the way I read it from the documents—I tried to keep it as accurate as far as I was able to. I mean, I didn't make stuff up. In fact, after I'd done it in the year—year and a half, whatever—of putting it together and I stopped reading about her, you know? And I'm like, "Somebody's going to publish some book that completely overturns this whole thing. They'll find out that whatever, this and that..." Right? That didn't happen actually, but I did have that worry for a while: "Let me go out and read all these other books—"
strickland207
DB: Yeah.
strickland208
SS: So and I didn't feel it was bad. But what I also realized was, like, I could get at a lot of things, but I couldn't really get at her thinking. So you have more of that in Losing L'una.
strickland209
SS: You have more of that in-depth stuff where you try to talk about some of her thinking, and a long line of people trying to think in odd ways, you know?
[01:07:38]
strickland210
DB: Yeah.
strickland211
SS: So that was a return to that. But yeah, that indexical thing there in that sense that the book had come out of—
strickland212
DB: Reactions—?
strickland213
SS: —to this polarized assessment of her.
strickland214
DB: Yeah, yeah, right. If you had, at that time, already taken the class with Katherine Hayles, do you think you would have tried to represent that in a digital fashion?
strickland215
SS: Well, possibly, yeah, possibly. There is one little essay called "Seven-League Boots" where I talk—which is a hypertext essay from long, long ago, and she's in there, she's quoted in there in a way. Possibly, yeah.
strickland216
DB: And had she just been an interest of yours for most of your adult life?
strickland217
SS: Well it's very funny because I was—oh, I've lost the name. There was this bookstore in Midtown—a wonderful bookstore in midtown, now gone—and I was in the Philosophy section or something, looking at all brown and gray books—and one pink book. So I took this one pink book which turned out to be a biography of her, and that's how I got started. And then it turned out at that at Sarah Lawrence we had most of her work because there was a man there who was teaching her. I didn't know it at that time, I hadn't heard of her. I just loved the way she wrote. She was a woman who knew her own mind. She wrote with an authority. And I was really tired of—well, I mean, there would be these things: "Oh yeah for a woman, she's sort of a good philosopher." I mean, this was the whole timbre of the 70's and 80's, and I could not—
[01:08:47]
strickland218
DB: Right, right.
strickland219
SS: —women's minds were not well respected. And I just loved the way she wrote. I had a lot of trouble—I mean, again, she let the software pass through all these things. She was doing this political stuff, the factory work and all that, then all of a sudden that's the end of her life in her notebooks—which I think is totally unfair. I mean we judge her on basis of her student notes and notebooks that were never published, and notebooks that didn't include all the mathematics and stuff she'd put in there.
strickland220
DB: Yeah.
strickland221
SS: But you know, when she started going into folklore and stuff like that, I'm like "Whoa wait, you know—bridge too far right?" But then you know, then I eventually caught up with her. But no, still, it's just riveting. The way she writes is just riveting to me. I was just angry that people couldn't see. I just thought that the points of view that were brought to criticize her were just not adequate to what she was, and so that just kind of made me mad.
[01:10:13]
strickland222
DB: Is anger one of the common emotions from which you write?
strickland223
SS: I don't know. It's stimulating. It's like—anger with love, right?
strickland224
DB: Right, right.
strickland225
SS: I just loved it so much, I mean I really admired it so much and it just didn't seem fair—just hadn't been—
strickland226
DB: Yeah.
strickland227
SS: Anyway. Though a lot of people have told me that that's helped them write biographical or life or memoir things, you know—as a way to do that.
strickland228
DB: Yeah. I was struck by how contemporary it seemed. In preparing for this, just reading it and thinking about, in the last decade, all the kind of focused, thematic books—
strickland229
SS: Yeah, on people's lives and stuff—
strickland230
DB: Yeah. And documentary, "Poetry of Witness" and all that, and I was like, "This is 1993."
strickland231
SS: Long ago, yeah.
strickland232
DB: And this is really, you know—that's good.
strickland233
SS: Yeah.
strickland234
DB: As I expected, you've totally blown up all my questions—but it's good, it's good. But I do want to get a little bit more at the revision, and sort of the prewriting and revision process for you—of your—
strickland235
SS: I would never do anything I would call "pre-writing."
strickland236
DB: Okay. Well that's—
strickland237
SS: I don't even know what that is.
strickland238
DB: I guess in like the compositional mode. So when you sit down with your notebooks, I would consider that sort of—
[01:12:03]
strickland239
SS: You'll see there's not one, there's three.
strickland240
DB: Yeah, okay.
strickland241
SS: In fact, there might be a date—that this might say "14 May 2013" and the next date in it might be "20 May 2014." So it might be a year later, right?
strickland242
DB: Right.
strickland243
SS: And it's like, in the meantime, I went to these conferences and took notes, and they're like kind of lying around here. And do I have a chance to get back and look at them? No—because I started to read Meillassoux and I just wrote a paper about Simone Weil and Meillassoux. That was good. But why is it somebody writes something, or is solicited to do something or whatever—and this was religion or literature or, like, Fanny Howe or something—Fanny Howe and I will go to Simone Weil Society, right? And then, but Romana Huk is at Notre Dame and I published at Notre Dame and so I wind up talking to Steve Tulsa—something, whatever, right? I don't even know how I got on Meillassoux, I really don't. I guess—I can't remember, but I was talking to a lot of people about Meillassoux, and then he writes The Number and the Siren, which is like—my God, this book. Do you know this book?
strickland244
DB: No I don't.
strickland245
SS: It's about Mallarmé's Un Coup de Dés and it's the best book of literary criticism I ever read in my whole life!
strickland246
DB: Wow.
[01:13:16]
strickland247
SS: It's so amazing! So then I'm reading this, and then I realize, "Oh my God, all of his philosophy comes out of the way he's talking about this poem!" So it's like the poem—it's Mallarmé' is driving Meillassoux, right? And in the case of Simone Weil, The Iliad really was driving—you know what I mean? And I'm like "Oh this is interesting. Everybody does it the other way, but you know? So yes, then—I do that, or I do some other part, and I still haven't gone back over the notes—from the conference from four years ago or whatever, right?
strickland248
DB: Yeah.
strickland249
SS: But there's kind of, a set of things which is where I'm about to start to write, you know; there's a kind of notebooks like that, and there's other notebooks that are kind of "math-y" or whatever kind of thing, and there might be some that are like "semi-philosophical-literary blah-blah," and I mean they just have different things and there's no real control over them, so at any given moment there's a list of things to do and things that I write at the back of it, or whatever. And they have to be small enough so I can carry around and write on the bus or wherever I happen to be, or if I'm at NYU or whatever.
strickland250
DB: Yeah.
strickland251
SS: I'm part of this program and I get access to the Columbia and NYU libraries, which is great—through the New York Public library, that's the program. So, you know, it's very opportunistic: where things are. I mean, it's like, there's a conference and somebody says, "Do you want to do—be on the panel about something?" Or, "Let's make this work," but then all of a sudden—or whatever.
[01:14:38]
strickland252
SS: And you know, a third of those things never happen.
[01:15:00]
strickland253
DB: Right. I guess I'm wondering, then, how all this "not-controlled-work" and note taking and everything then becomes a poem or poetry?
strickland254
SS: Well, after a while, it just comes to a head or something. Do you know what I mean?
strickland255
DB: Yeah.
strickland256
SS: So it's like, obviously in the case of where somebody says, "Be on a panel or be a paper or we need to do this or whatever"—you know. Or, you do something, you make an app and then you talk about what is it to translate from one form of software to another, or something, but also to sort of kind of make sense—
strickland257
DB: Yeah.
[01:15:42]
strickland258
SS: Or you do this thing, like Sea and Spar, and then somebody wants something for a special issue of Digital Humanities Quarterly and you say, "Okay, we're going to make a paper that's running code." Because that's what people don't do. They don't look at the code and we want to talk about this and that—but those things take time.
strickland259
DB: Oh yeah, absolutely.
strickland260
SS: So you're off doing that and so you get a little bit deflected from where you were with here, right? And then somebody does whatever. So, it's not completely uncontrolled.
strickland261
DB: Yeah, not uncontrolled.
strickland262
SS: Yeah, but—you see these suitcases. So, see this suitcase? This is like a Meillassoux suitcase, then there's a Karen Barad thing so the whole—there's a lot of stuff going on now in my mind where I'm Karen Barad.
strickland263
DB: Okay.
strickland264
SS: So that's kind of this thing here—
strickland265
DB: Yeah.
strickland266
SS: And then these are three talks that I have to be writing on—
strickland267
DB: Oh man, you're busy.
strickland268
SS: —remember including that archive, is a talk at the Beinecke in the archive. This is for a Slovakian magazine, and that's the archive. Oh yeah, I have to be in some kind of feminist cyber panel or whatever kind of thing.
[01:16:48]
strickland269
DB: Okay.
strickland270
SS: This is the paper I have to give in June, which I'm waiting for Ian to come and finish with—I mean, so, those are all the readings, like—so mostly since the two books came out this year I did a lot of readings. And that's it: when you're doing a lot of readings, you're writing the things for the readings, the script for the readings, and stuff like that. So, it's not—but see, these notes are still here from when ELC 2 came out, and we were talking about that—you know, which—I haven't cleared that out or anything. It's between controlled and uncontrolled.
strickland271
DB: Right, okay, okay. But are there ever times when all of a sudden you're like "I need to write this book now."
strickland272
SS: Yeah—and the trouble with that is, I had four grandchildren in the last ten years, and do a lot of babysitting in the first, the pre-school years. For my granddaughters—my son was teaching at Columbia when they were little, so I was going there, both parents working, right? Now he's at Duke, but now my other son has little boys who are almost 3 and 5, and my daughter has been ill for twenty-five years and her care takes a lot of time. So there's, like, things that just—yes. And it used to be that the colonies were the answer to that: to apply and go there. Now I don't have a car, everything I have to carry—and now I have to bring all these little piles I just showed you—
strickland273
DB: You're not going to have a travelling filing cabinet or something?
strickland274
SS: It's just, that doesn't work so well anymore.
strickland275
DB: Yeah.
strickland276
SS: And yet, if I'm right here, then everything is "on call," kind of, in a lot of ways.
strickland277
DB: Sure.
strickland278
SS: So that just gets harder, right? But definitely that happens, in trying to work out how to get the time to do that, becomes an issue and—what can I say?
strickland279
DB: Do you have any new book projects that are closer?
strickland280
SS: Well, one thing is—well, I have new poems. I don't necessarily know that they're a book thing. I've thought about doing a "new and selected" kind of thing, which I haven't done, right?
strickland281
DB: I was thinking about that on the walk over here—like, what a "selected" for you would look like. It would be really fascinating.
[01:19:38]
strickland282
SS: Yeah, because it's so weird, right?
strickland283
DB: Yeah!
strickland284
SS: It's just so different.
strickland285
DB: Yeah, yeah. It really is. It's a whole—
strickland286
SS: —it's very different, so—but whether or not that's a good idea, I don't know. I just don't know.
strickland287
DB: Yeah.
strickland288
SS: It's hard to know where is the best place to put your time. I mean, also, I'm on the board of the ELO and they're doing a lot—
strickland289
DB: That's a lot of time.
strickland290
SS: —a lot of stuff is going on with that, actually it's a lot of work. We are really expanding in a lot of ways and—so it's just—
strickland291
DB: No.
strickland292
SS: Yes, I'd love a whole—you know—if the day were twice as long?
strickland293
DB: Then that day would be—
strickland294
SS: Or if you just had a place to go, you know? But then again, the place to go is—in a way, I guess it's good to go and take nothing with you. But actually, I really want be in touch with these things. I do work off things, you know?
strickland295
DB: Yeah, absolutely.
strickland296
SS: And I do like the collaborative process. I think everything has to become more collaborative, really. I think that's the stuff I'm most interested in: how can we make our—not meld our minds, but have different streams of expertise and interests—we have to learn to talk better to each other, I think.
strickland297
DB: Yeah.
strickland298
SS: To solve something. And then, because I do have these grandchildren, it's like, "What is the most important thing?" And born quite late to my children, right? So I won't see them for such a long time—right?—more. So what's the most important thing for me to be doing with them, and all? You know? It's a question.
strickland299
DB: Yeah. And then, so, were there times in your life where you weren't so busy that you would—?
[01:21:33]
strickland300
SS: No.
strickland301
DB: No?
strickland302
SS: My mother had cancer.
strickland303
DB: Oh.
strickland304
SS: My mother had lung cancer and was ill for twenty years, and for each of those years we were told she had a year left to live.
strickland305
DB: Wow!
strickland306
SS: And my best friend had terminal cancer for the last two and a half years, and for the last year and a half of that she's in hospice and I was going out every month to spend a week with her because it was hospice in her home.
strickland307
DB: Right.
strickland308
SS: So it's been a lot of long term care things that I've actually been involved with, and doing a lot of things at the same time, but those times like the Yaddo, MacDowell, Djerassi, Ragdale—those were really, really wonderful times. I really have to keep that memory of an island of time, and how do you find it and how do you make it for yourself?
strickland309
DB: Right, right. You know, I mean—this may be a bad question, but has the caretaking entered into your—I mean, like, have you thought or started to think about that?
strickland310
SS: It's hard to know. I mean, there's one specific poem, it was in the Best American Poetry this year—"Introductions"—which mentions, in one of its stanzas, my daughter—
strickland311
DB: Okay.
strickland312
SS: And I kind of—in Give the Body Back there's a mother-daughter poem—my mother. But it feels exploitive when you're so up close to people who are really ill and you're dealing with it all the time. It's such a demand to be present to them when you are in contact with them that the writing demand is for distance. Do you see what I mean?
strickland313
DB: Yeah, I do.
strickland314
SS: And I don't find those compatible, but I'm certain that underneath almost everything I care about in the way I think about it is this understanding that there needs to be space for these people who don't have the same chances, and "this is all well and good but have you thought"—you know, that sort of thing, right?
strickland315
DB: Yeah.
strickland316
SS: And I think that's another reason that Simone Weil's thought appeals to me also, because she was always, always understanding that—where people were, really.
strickland317
DB: Right. No, I think I can see that relationship, strongly. In terms of your correspondence and your e-mail and stuff like that, did you start out writing regular letters with your work and sending stuff back and forth, and then moved to kind of considering it via e-mail? I know this is an abrupt shift, but—
strickland318
SS: You mean when you're sending poems out?
strickland319
DB: Yeah. Well, I mean like in your revision process, do you have trusted readers? Do you have people that are helping you?
strickland320
SS: Long ago, in the 70's—like, during the MFA program and stuff like that, there were some groups of people who were, like, we've known each other. So there was a little bit of that, not so much.
strickland321
DB: Yeah.
strickland322
SS: I have one very dear friend, Nancy Knutson who had been in the program with me, she also wrote fiction, and for a long time, every Sunday morning she was in—she moved to New Mexico—we'd call each other up and talk about poems back and forth. Rachel Loden is another person that at times we'd exchange work. She's doing different kind of work now, so—
[01:25:08]
strickland323
DB: Yeah.
strickland324
SS: It's been a long time. Sometimes I send stuff to Denise Duhamel who is also a dear friend, but mostly, after it's almost sort of done.
strickland325
DB: Very close, okay.
strickland326
SS: Yeah. So then, I have a friend in Ireland—I have friends that I correspond with but not in the sense of sending poems, which used to be in paper letters and now it's been mainly supplanted by e-mail.
strickland327
DB: Yeah. And has that changed—has that made any difference to you?
strickland328
SS: It hasn't made a difference in the friendships.
strickland329
DB: Right.
strickland330
SS: And the thing about the poems is that—you see, some people get Give the Body Back, and The Red Virgin, and so on, and then they're just not going to get parts of Dragon Logic and there's an even stronger divide amongst people who just don't get, and they don't want to get, electronic or born-digital literature.
strickland331
DB: Right, right.
strickland332
SS: And I'm pretty much really deeply in both worlds, and they just don't get it. I mean they don't get each other and it's very hard with e-literature because it changes so much that unless you're deeply in it, it's hard to learn it. You know what I mean? You have to really—it takes a lot. Of all the things—so if you're not already in the middle of a "net kind of life"—which, the younger you are, you are, right?
strickland333
DB: Right.
strickland334
SS: So it's like I talk to lots of young [people]—
strickland335
DB: Yeah. That's great!
strickland336
SS: But my old [friends]—you know what I mean? There's like this sharp division, right?
strickland337
DB: Right.
strickland338
SS: So it's not like you can really ask of these—if both these things are in your mind—there are not so many people you can go to, because they're not going to get half of it, one way or another, right?
[01:27:27]
strickland339
DB: Yeah.
strickland340
SS: Though I think that the younger people do get it much more. I mean, I feel like they and I are living in the same world more than—although, I do not have a cell phone, and I must be the only person that anybody knows (or very close to the only person anybody knows) who doesn't have a cell phone, and I get a lot of flak for it. But I just—there are some things I just take a stand against. The social media thing, I understand there are some uses for it, but insofar as these people—insofar as parents holding their children's hands or pushing a carriage are not responding to that child's face?
strickland341
DB: It happens, I know. I know.
strickland342
SS: That bothers me.
strickland343
DB: Yeah.
strickland344
SS: So I think that the way that face-to-face is cut off by the use of social media? I mean two people go to a restaurant and look at their phones? You know?
strickland345
DB: I know.
strickland346
SS: That seems a real loss to me.
strickland347
DB: Yeah. It's very pronounced in New York City. I mean, I've been noticing it—I've only been here a day and I've been noticing it way more than I do out West, but I don't know. Also, I see a lot less people.
strickland348
SS: Yeah, right, right, right.
strickland349
DB: So, I just have a few more questions, and these are kind of about—not feeling, I guess, but—do you have, in terms of the media and the files that you've saved and created over the years, do you have sort of dear feelings towards those? I mean, what is the work? I guess, is the question. Where is it? And what do you feel protective of, or do you feel protective of anything?
strickland350
SS: Well, you're glad for books. Books are going to last longer than almost anything else, in the last 20 years.
strickland351
DB: Yeah.
strickland352
SS: I love books. I do love books. I really strongly feel the limitations insofar as being a creative writer, because I do have some kind of a three-dimensional vision or hope or wish and I see it in digital art and I see it in lots of projects. And they can easily be literary to me, and they're not.
strickland353
DB: Yeah.
[01:30:00]
strickland354
SS: But I would never not want books. You could see that. The minute you start to do digital work, there's a certain way—in the same way that, if you're a theater person—that you have to let something go. Even more than you let a manuscript go. Today's performance was today's performance, and that won't come back. Even if you videotaped it, it really doesn't come back. That's what, you know, plus, videotape does not—so there's something like that: when you realize, and then you realize that in fact, no one may ever read it the way you meant it to be read because, at least for my generation, everybody made their own interface, there was no time to get canonical interfaces for various kinds of work or, you know, genres didn't precipitate out—not enough time for all that. So there's a certain loss there, right?
strickland355
SS: I have no idea. I think that the best way probably at the moment to save digital stuff is to have some video or something of somebody using it, plus people's notes, interview them about what they intended or whatever, save the code if you can, and adding emulation migration. All of it is so burdensome, you know? It's really hard. On the other hand, I do send some email. There are a few folders that I've designated to go to Duke. I definitely don't want all my email to go to Duke, right? But it's very—because you don't even know—I mean, I also purge my email. Not that that does any good; but like I don't save, you know, but so I try to just keep working—only working stuff, and if it's done, it's gone. Now I pay a price for that sometimes because I might want to go back and look at it, you know, but on balance—like file maintenance is huge, and I want to be able to find what I need. You see, I do a lot of different things. So to find what I need is already a problem. So I don't want tons and tons and tons of stuff around and I'm not like those, you know, got to document every day of their life and their dry cleaning ticket and everything, I'm like, "Christ!" So I don't want that.
[01:31:02]
strickland356
SS: I would hope that there's some place or memory or some collection—some server somewhere—that some of this stuff can be seen and saved in some form. This whole idea, the signup kind of erase history altogether, and like—what is history? We're just nothing but a moving front. I think that's a huge loss, and I think—I'm not invested in people saving every revision. I'm not. Do you know? In some cases it might be interesting to see some of the things, but basically, the books—
strickland357
DB: Yeah, the books.
[01:33:16]
strickland358
SS: The books and the notebooks between them I think would be more interesting than seeing every page of every—do you know? That seems very fetishistic to me, in a weird way. Yeah, it could have gone another, whatever—but it didn't. And I'm not saying the right thing turned out or anything. I think I've said "opportunistic" to you a lot. But I think you can way overdo it, and on the other hand, I'm not like, "whatever"...you know? I am invested to a degree. I don't think you could ever work in a library and not feel that way—
strickland359
DB: Yeah.
strickland360
SS: —and especially these things that got saved that nobody wanted at the time, and later you were so glad to find out that somebody saved? I really appreciate that about libraries, too. So people who want to do that kind of work, I really honor that.
strickland361
DB: Last question: when you send stuff to Duke, like when you're sending digital stuff, how does that work?
strickland362
SS: Well, there's a digital librarian—this guy.
strickland363
DB: This guy!
strickland364
SS: They both changed! Unfortunately, Willis is leaving to go to the Newberry, so the two guys I worked with so far—first the digital one left, and now Willis has left, he's the other one—but they've been replaced, right? So once a year I tell him which email files, right? And they go to do the email files. And they have my—I mean, they have the stuff online.
strickland365
DB: Yeah, so they have archived that themselves.
strickland366
SS: Yeah, they archived that themselves. And then I don't do a—I put a lot of stuff in a box. I sort of try to include a paper that says very roughly what's in there. But I can't—to do—to really go through and catalogue the stuff, or something, it's like it's that or see my grandchildren, or do my work, you know? And of the three, it's like—no.
[01:35:00]
strickland367
DB: Somebody else will do that.
strickland368
SS: It's like, I try to give a little bit of an indication, but it's not wonderful. But anyway, I haven't sent it off for a while. I was good for a while, I sent a lot of stuff out, but getting the two books out and the things out, you get a little lull from that to then send the stuff. The online stuff is really accessible in a lot of ways, actually, and my website—which has kind of stayed up in its form for a really long time. Again, I think the design was good.
strickland369
DB: It is! That's an amazing part of it.
strickland370
SS: 2002, right?
strickland371
DB: Yeah.
strickland372
SS: So I think it has held up, and I think you can get at quite a lot of stuff too. None of the Facebook-type stuff, like, "This is my dog or this is my lunch" or whatever. But the stuff about the work.
strickland373
DB: That's the important stuff. Well, thanks a lot.
strickland374
SS: Okay.
strickland375
DB: I think we've got a good—
strickland376
SS: This is something called a technical interview?
strickland377
DB: That was a technical interview. Welcome to the technical interview!
strickland378
[end of audio]
[01:36:43]
wrigley1
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?
wrigley2
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.
wrigley3
DB: And how long have you been writing in this spot?
wrigley4
RW: I built this building in 2002. So, 11 years in this space.
wrigley5
DB: So, here are the sort of quick and dirty questions. What genres do you work in?
wrigley6
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.
wrigley7
DB: What kind of devices do you own or have access to for your writing?
wrigley8
RW: Meaning electronic devices?
wrigley9
DB: Either or.
wrigley10
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.
wrigley11
DB: Okay. What's your operating system, what type of device do you use?
wrigley12
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.
wrigley13
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?
wrigley14
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.
wrigley15
DB: How do you save your pre-writing or your notes?
[00:02:53]
wrigley16
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.
wrigley17
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?
wrigley18
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—
wrigley19
DB: So you do have a system.
wrigley20
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—
wrigley21
DB: The poor future researcher that has to—
wrigley22
RW: Well, it will keep said researcher, should he or she ever exist, busy.
wrigley23
DB: Yes.
wrigley24
RW: Well through tenure.
wrigley25
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?
[00:05:00]
wrigley26
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.
wrigley27
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?
wrigley28
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.
wrigley29
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?"
wrigley30
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.
wrigley31
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?
[00:07:53]
wrigley32
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.
wrigley33
DB: Where was that?
wrigley34
RW: Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville.
wrigley35
DB: Who was your first professor?
wrigley36
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.
wrigley37
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.
wrigley38
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.
wrigley39
RW: Does it automatically take pictures? Or—
wrigley40
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.
wrigley41
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.
wrigley42
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.
wrigley43
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.
wrigley44
DB: This is more of just sort of like place, person, kind of general overview of where you were, what happened.
wrigley45
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.
wrigley46
DB: So you went from Montana and then where did you go next? It was LCSC? Or—
[00:14:25]
wrigley47
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.
wrigley48
DB: In what year was that?
wrigley49
RW: 1999 was my first year at U of I.
wrigley50
DB: How long had the MFA program been here?
wrigley51
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.
wrigley52
DB: You have been here for...?
wrigley53
RW: For most of it.
wrigley54
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?
wrigley55
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.
wrigley56
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.
[00:16:58]
wrigley57
RW: We'll see how it goes. It sounds fine to me.
wrigley58
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.
wrigley59
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.
[00:18:00]
wrigley60
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.
wrigley61
DB: Okay. You move from the Moleskine notebooks into this notebook. Could you describe what the notebook is?
wrigley62
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.
wrigley63
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.
wrigley64
DB: Before you were using the computer, you were using the typewriter in a similar manner?
[00:23:23]
wrigley65
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.
wrigley66
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.
wrigley67
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.
wrigley68
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.
wrigley69
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.
wrigley70
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.
wrigley71
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.
wrigley72
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?
[00:28:31]
wrigley73
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.
wrigley74
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.
wrigley75
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.
wrigley76
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."
wrigley77
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.
wrigley78
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...?
[00:33:55]
wrigley79
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.
wrigley80
DB: Which poem is that?
wrigley81
RW: It's called "American Fear."
wrigley82
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?
wrigley83
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.
wrigley84
DB: Is there an intention behind the revision or you just sort of follow?
wrigley85
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?
wrigley86
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."
wrigley87
RW: Hold on to say okay. Ask the question again?
wrigley88
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?
wrigley89
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.
wrigley90
DB: What role do other people play in the process of your revision? Do they play a role?
[00:40:55]
wrigley91
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.
wrigley92
DB: Okay. So you don't, like, send your poems to other writers or have anything like that?
wrigley93
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.
wrigley94
DB: And in these sort of unusual circumstances, what drives you to sort of send a poem outside?
wrigley95
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."
wrigley96
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.
wrigley97
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.
wrigley98
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.
wrigley99
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?
[00:45:40]
wrigley100
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."
wrigley101
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.
wrigley102
DB: Okay. That has been consistent throughout, you think?
wrigley103
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.
[00:48:00]
wrigley104
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?
wrigley105
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.
[00:49:25]
wrigley106
DB: And you just combine them all into one Word document on your computer?
wrigley107
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.
[00:50:10]
wrigley108
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?
wrigley109
RW: Absolutely.
wrigley110
DB: Okay.
wrigley111
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.
wrigley112
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.
wrigley113
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?
[00:52:22]
wrigley114
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.
[00:52:57]
wrigley115
DB: Your other folder there that you called a thesis folder?
wrigley116
RW: Mm-hmm.
wrigley117
DB: When did you start using those? How did that come about?
wrigley118
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."
wrigley119
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.
wrigley120
DB: How does it work? Does it clip in individual pages?
wrigley121
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.
wrigley122
DB: Oh okay.
wrigley123
RW: Then it's got this little—
wrigley124
DB: And then it's just individual pieces of paper made into a book?
wrigley125
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—
wrigley126
DB: Yeah—
wrigley127
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.
wrigley128
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?
wrigley129
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.
wrigley130
DB: So, then the difference between—there're boxes as well, right?
[00:58:50]
wrigley131
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.
wrigley132
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.
wrigley133
DB: How do you name your files and your folders and how do you organize your stuff on the computer?
[01:00:09]
wrigley134
RW: Minimally.
wrigley135
DB: Minimally? First line?
wrigley136
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.
wrigley137
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.
wrigley138
DB: Just get rid of them?
wrigley139
RW: Yeah. I still got the other, I still got the poems.
wrigley140
DB: So the poem itself is the kind of master file, so to speak?
wrigley141
RW: Yes.
wrigley142
DB: Okay. You don't ever have like "Ant 2" or "Ant Revised" or anything like that?
wrigley143
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.
wrigley144
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.
wrigley145
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?
[01:03:06]
wrigley146
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.
wrigley147
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.
wrigley148
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.
wrigley149
DB: Right. What book was this?
wrigley150
RW: That was called In the Bank of Beautiful Sins. That was the first one I did with Penguin. I've done six books.
wrigley151
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?
wrigley152
RW: Yeah.
wrigley153
DB: It's sort of a dumb word for this, but it—
wrigley154
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.
wrigley155
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.
wrigley156
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.
[01:09:23]
wrigley157
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.
wrigley158
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—?
[01:10:20]
wrigley159
RW: Mid 90s.
wrigley160
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?
wrigley161
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.
wrigley162
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.
wrigley163
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.
wrigley164
DB: So about 2007?
wrigley165
RW: About 2007, I think that's when I really got started on it.
wrigley166
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?
wrigley167
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.
wrigley168
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."
wrigley169
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.
wrigley170
DB: So, there is no thought being sort of expressed on the electronic document?
wrigley171
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!"
wrigley172
DB: Oh wow. Wait, Jesus did?
[01:17:49]
wrigley173
RW: No. I did. Jesus as in "Jesus!"
wrigley174
DB: You got somebody in one of your books being Christ, right?
wrigley175
RW: Yeah. There is Lucifer Doula, when his brother, Jesus Christ was born then.
wrigley176
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?
[01:18:09]
wrigley177
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.
wrigley178
DB: Even all the mainstream contests now are almost exclusively—
wrigley179
RW: That's good somehow.
wrigley180
DB: It makes it a lot easier for everyone, I think.
wrigley181
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.
wrigley182
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?
[01:20:20]
wrigley183
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.
wrigley184
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.
wrigley185
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—?
[01:22:14]
wrigley186
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.
wrigley187
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?
wrigley188
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.
wrigley189
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.
wrigley190
DB: Cedar closet, too?
wrigley191
RW: I need a vault.
wrigley192
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.
[01:25:50]
wrigley193
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.
wrigley194
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.
wrigley195
DB: When did email start to become the sort of primary mode of correspondence?
[01:27:35]
wrigley196
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.
wrigley197
DB: Bring those in, we'll scan them for you.
wrigley198
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.
wrigley199
DB: That's your kind of line? If it's something that you kind of hold dear, you print?
wrigley200
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.
[01:28:56]
wrigley201
DB: Because they are not—
wrigley202
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.
wrigley203
DB: Did you have letters come to you when you were younger that were not email? Did that happen?
wrigley204
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?"
wrigley205
DB: That's kind of exciting.
[01:31:12]
wrigley206
RW: I told Phil Levine about it and he said, "You know you're getting somewhere if people hate you."
wrigley207
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—?
wrigley208
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.
wrigley209
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.
wrigley210
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?
wrigley211
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?
[01:33:07]
wrigley212
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.
wrigley213
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?
[01:34:59]
wrigley214
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.
wrigley215
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.
wrigley216
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?
[01:36:50]
wrigley217
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.
wrigley218
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.
wrigley219
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?
[01:39:04]
wrigley220
RW: Actually I write sonnets.
wrigley221
DB: You write sonnets?
wrigley222
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.
wrigley223
DB: Where did you write those down on? In a notebook or are they—?
wrigley224
RW: Well no, I just sat down on a computer and started writing them down.
wrigley225
DB: Those are in the computer?
wrigley226
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.
wrigley227
DB: The future scholars will have many chores.
wrigley228
RW: Yeah, see if you can find them and see how many of them don't suck. I think there's two.
wrigley229
DB: There's two maybe. Thank you very much.
wrigley230
RW: It's my pleasure, Devin. It's great to get to meet you and—
wrigley231
DB: Yeah. I'm sorry I've been sort of reclusive I guess.
wrigley232
RW: No, it's okay. You've got, like, a job and stuff, too.
wrigley233
DB: Yeah, I do. A 9-5 and all that.
wrigley234
RW: Yeah.
wrigley235
DB: I think it'll be okay.
mcmichael1
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.
0:00:00
mcmichael2
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.
mcmichael3
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.
mcmichael4
First questions— and these are meant to be kind of short answer, basically—what genres do you work in as a writer?
mcmichael5
James McMichael: Only poetry
mcmichael6
DB: OK
mcmichael7
What kind of devices do you own or have access to for writing?
mcmichael8
JM: Just this machine
mcmichael9
DB: Just that computer, and what operating system do you use on it?
mcmichael10
JM: I don't know.
mcmichael11
DB: Is it a Windows computer?
mcmichael12
JM: I think so.
mcmichael13
DB: I'm pretty sure it is.
mcmichael14
JM: I know almost nothing about it
mcmichael15
DB: OK
mcmichael16
And you work on that device primarily, and that's where your files are stored as well?
mcmichael17
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.
mcmichael18
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?
mcmichael19
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.
mcmichael20
DB: Great!
mcmichael21
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?
mcmichael22
JM: They're there and I can find them alphabetically.
mcmichael23
DB: OK, OK
mcmichael24
So, are these files then primarily for your publishing sake, or...? I mean, do you...
mcmichael25
JM: Only for composition.
mcmichael26
DB: Only for composition?
mcmichael27
JM: Yeah, right
mcmichael28
DB: Do you print them out and revise them from the computer?
mcmichael29
JM: Sometimes.
mcmichael30
DB: Sometimes.
mcmichael31
What are your naming conventions for those files?
mcmichael32
JM: Usually the date.
mcmichael33
DB: The date.
mcmichael34
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.
mcmichael35
DB: Oh, great!
mcmichael36
JM: So, that'll be that in addition to the date.
mcmichael37
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?
mcmichael38
JM: I'd write over what's there, and then I would get probably a different number—you know, that document number.
mcmichael39
DB: Yeah, OK
mcmichael40
So, it'd be like my example here—"The Wasteland.1" and then "The Wasteland2". That kind of thing?
mcmichael41
JM: Yeah, that kind of thing.
mcmichael42
DB: OK
mcmichael43
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?
mcmichael44
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.
mcmichael45
DB: Like you don't have an external hard-drive, or some other box that you put them?
mcmichael46
JM: There's this blue thing down there—whatever that is.
mcmichael47
DB: Oh, yeah! That's it, that it.
mcmichael48
JM: That's it.
mcmichael49
DB: OK
mcmichael50
When you get to like a final draft, or something, is there another protocol for that sort of file, or...?
mcmichael51
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.
(5:00)
mcmichael52
DB: OK, yeah, yeah
mcmichael53
And your tech--what's the relationship between you and your tech?
mcmichael54
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.
mcmichael55
DB: Good!
mcmichael56
And you guys like consult with him like when you get a new machine? Or... How does that relationship work?
mcmichael57
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.
mcmichael58
DB: OK, and he just checks to make sure everything is working and backing up, and that sort of thing?
mcmichael59
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.
mcmichael60
DB: How long has that relationship been going on?
mcmichael61
JM: I think like 8 year maybe, something like that. He had worked for another company, and now he's on his own.
mcmichael62
DB: Yeah, kind of his own consulting firm or something—great!
mcmichael63
DB: And did you seek him out, or did you know him? I mean...
mcmichael64
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...
mcmichael65
DB: Great, great!
mcmichael66
JM: His confidence inspiring. You know, we really count on—
mcmichael67
DB: That's the biggest thing!
mcmichael68
JM: We're very grateful for him
mcmichael69
DB: Yeah, yeah
mcmichael70
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.
mcmichael71
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.
0:06:54
mcmichael72
JM: I published my first poem 53 years ago.
mcmichael73
DB: OK
mcmichael74
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?
mcmichael75
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.
mcmichael76
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.
mcmichael77
DB: And this is?
mcmichael78
JM: This was in 1971 that the book turned up—but it got me tenure!
mcmichael79
DB: This is the "Against the Falling Evil"?.
mcmichael80
JM: Against the Falling Evil
mcmichael81
DB: OK
mcmichael82
JM: Yeah
mcmichael83
DB: It had some good poems. It had the Vegetables
mcmichael84
JM: It had the Vegetables in it, and
mcmichael85
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.
(10:00)
mcmichael86
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.
mcmichael87
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.
mcmichael88
DB: And since then, you've published 3 books?
mcmichael89
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.
mcmichael90
DB: If You Can Tell. Do you know when that's coming up?
mcmichael91
JM: I'm guessing it'll be within the next 2 years
mcmichael92
DB: Great, great! That was good.
mcmichael93
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.
0:12:50
mcmichael94
JM: I understand the 1st two of those—they seem perfectly clear, but what would the archival...?
mcmichael95
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.
mcmichael96
JM: I guess I asked because that's going on all the time in what I think of as the 1st two stages.
mcmichael97
DB: OK, so maybe we'll just address them in the 1st two stages, and it's not that...
mcmichael98
JM: Yeah
mcmichael99
DB: Maybe I have a couple of questions from that section but they won't be much.
mcmichael100
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—
mcmichael101
DB: No, that makes total sense to me.
mcmichael102
[That'll be
mcmichael103
(15:00) a good shot—just my neck]
[00:15:00]
mcmichael104
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.
mcmichael105
JM: Yes
mcmichael106
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?
mcmichael107
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?
mcmichael108
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.
mcmichael109
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.
mcmichael110
DB: Great!
mcmichael111
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.
mcmichael112
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...
mcmichael113
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
0:18:46
mcmichael114
(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.
[00:20:00]
mcmichael115
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.
mcmichael116
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?
mcmichael117
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?
mcmichael118
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.
mcmichael119
DB: And in terms of simply... Were you drafting by hand, or...?
0:23:15
mcmichael120
JM: By hand—all of it by hand
mcmichael121
DB: All of it by hand
mcmichael122
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..."
mcmichael123
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.
mcmichael124
DB: Yeah, yeah
mcmichael125
So, essentially though, all of your books except this last one have followed the similar process of—
mcmichael126
JM: Yes
mcmichael127
DB: Could you kind of detail that in kind of like step-by-step process?
0:24:45
mcmichael128
JM: Yeah
mcmichael129
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.
[00:25:00]
mcmichael130
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.
mcmichael131
DB: And in doing that, in kind of getting to that point, is that all done on loose notebook paper?
mcmichael132
JM: On long-hand.
mcmichael133
DB: Long-hand.
mcmichael134
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!
mcmichael135
DB: It didn't matter.
mcmichael136
JM: It didn't matter.
mcmichael137
DB: Yeah
mcmichael138
So, what would one of those pieces of paper look like?
mcmichael139
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.
mcmichael140
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.
mcmichael141
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?
mcmichael142
JM: Yes, yeah
mcmichael143
And never minded that activity—never minded it.
mcmichael144
DB: Did you find that in typing that, were you actively making changes at that time, or not so much?
mcmichael145
JM: Not so much.
mcmichael146
DB: OK
mcmichael147
And then once you had that object, would you go back and read it to yourself, or read it out loud?
mcmichael148
JM: Yes, yeah
mcmichael149
DB: And then you would start the revision process on that type-written document?
mcmichael150
JM: I'd wait 'til the next day. It would, more often than not, not look so good the next day.
mcmichael151
DB: Yes, yes
mcmichael152
So, would you save these sheets of paper on which you were long-hand composing?
mcmichael153
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.
[00:30:00]
mcmichael154
DB: OK
mcmichael155
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.
mcmichael156
DB: Right
mcmichael157
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?
0:30:50
mcmichael158
JM: If I could find it.
mcmichael159
DB: If you could find it.
mcmichael160
JM: And if I couldn't, then it probably needed to disappear.
mcmichael161
DB: Just that part, or...?
mcmichael162
JM: Just that part.
mcmichael163
DB: OK, but once you kind of had a structure of a general poem, though, it usually stayed?
mcmichael164
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.
mcmichael165
DB: So, essentially, you are writing (I don't know if you can) chronologically or...?
mcmichael166
JM: It is chronologically.
mcmichael167
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?
0:34:22
mcmichael168
JM: Yep, yep
mcmichael169
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?
mcmichael170
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.
mcmichael171
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?
mcmichael172
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.
mcmichael173
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.
mcmichael174
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.
mcmichael175
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?
mcmichael176
JM: Yeah
mcmichael177
DB: I mean, in your writing and in your reading, taking notes...
mcmichael178
JM: All the time.
mcmichael179
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?
0:37:59
mcmichael180
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.
mcmichael181
DB: So, the cards, you had them in just like regular card... Would you flip through them like a card catalog kind of, or...?
mcmichael182
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.
mcmichael183
(40:00)
[00:40:00]
mcmichael184
DB: Do you mind grabbing one of those and just kind of showing how you would do that?
mcmichael185
JM: No
mcmichael186
DB: [Hopefully, we'll get it in the frame.]
mcmichael187
JM: Let's see if I can find some pages here where I've gone—
mcmichael188
DB: Or I can take pictures of these, if you don't mind.
mcmichael189
JM: Not at all.
mcmichael190
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.
mcmichael191
DB: OK
mcmichael192
And that's your response to it. OK, I got it. So, how do you index them?
mcmichael193
JM: Just by title and... Let's see. I've got some of those pages here.
mcmichael194
DB: OK
mcmichael195
And indexed by title of work that you're reading?
mcmichael196
JM: Now, where did they go? See, I should know where they are, Devin ... But I had the sheets.
mcmichael197
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.
mcmichael198
DB: OK, good
mcmichael199
JM: I hope so.
mcmichael200
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.
mcmichael201
DB: Oh, OK. So you know you can go back and find the work you're thinking about for whatever you are doing.
mcmichael202
JM: Right
mcmichael203
DB: OK
mcmichael204
That's fascinating.
mcmichael205
OK, just to remind me then...
mcmichael206
JM: [You're very patient.]
mcmichael207
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...]
mcmichael208
JM: [Would she be smelling Rufus on you?]
mcmichael209
DB: [I don't know. Maybe? Maybe on these jeans.]
mcmichael210
JM: [Yeah]
mcmichael211
DB: [I'm admitting my jeans are not super clean!]
mcmichael212
So, the index cards—were they cards that you were working—?
mcmichael213
JM: They were cards.
mcmichael214
DB: OK, and that's what...
mcmichael215
JM: Shall I... I think... I don't know if I have them. She may have moved those.
mcmichael216
She moved them somewhere. I don't know where they've gone.
mcmichael217
DB: Well, we can find them and take pictures later.
mcmichael218
JM: OK
mcmichael219
Michelle [Latiolais] wanted one. I gave her one. She framed it.
mcmichael220
DB: Oh, that's awesome!
mcmichael221
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?
mcmichael222
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.
mcmichael223
DB: Right
mcmichael224
JM: I can't make a connection. There's just some kind of break—something gets suggested and I can never reconstruct it.
mcmichael225
DB: OK, wow!
mcmichael226
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.
[00:45:00]
mcmichael227
DB: How do you choose the books that you're reading?
mcmichael228
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
mcmichael229
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.
mcmichael230
DB: Great!
mcmichael231
So, you mentioned Amazon. Are you using the recommendations that Amazon provides you, or are you finding a book from another book?
mcmichael232
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.
mcmichael233
DB: OK, that's good.
mcmichael234
Most people are not ahead of them ...
mcmichael235
JM: But they're not bad at it.
mcmichael236
DB: Oh, no. They've got pretty powerful algorithms.
mcmichael237
JM: It's their job.
mcmichael238
DB: Yes, it's what they do
mcmichael239
So, going back, you said... Then, so every book except this last book was composed in long-hand and on a typewriter.
mcmichael240
JM: Yes
mcmichael241
DB: What's the change then for this final—the last book here?
mcmichael242
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.
0:48:00
mcmichael243
So, it couldn't have been an easier shift from that technology to this one, I don't think.
mcmichael244
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?
mcmichael245
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.
[00:50:00]
mcmichael246
DB: OK
0:50:13
mcmichael247
One thing, I guess, I might... So, in the composition stage, do you still do like strikethroughs in that?
mcmichael248
JM: Yeah. I work pretty much the way I've worked before.
mcmichael249
DB: You just transferred those processes on the computer?
mcmichael250
JM: Yes
mcmichael251
DB: Did it take some time to figure how to do that--?
mcmichael252
JM: No
mcmichael253
DB: --or was it fairly intuitive?
mcmichael254
JM: Yeah
mcmichael255
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.
mcmichael256
DB: So explain that a little bit. The non-invasive part—do you feel like the letter was a more invasive...?
mcmichael257
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.
mcmichael258
DB: Yeah
mcmichael259
And do those feel different now? I mean, is it sort of a more difficult to get up, to write that letter?
mcmichael260
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.
mcmichael261
DB: I guess, in keeping with this latest work, when you went back to revise the poems, that was a fairly similar process, too?
mcmichael262
JM: I think it was exactly.
mcmichael263
DB: Exactly the same?
mcmichael264
JM: Yeah
mcmichael265
DB: OK
mcmichael266
DB: And then kind of a general question about your revision process, and this is one that I kind of... And this is a little bit repetitive. So, are the revisions driven by sound, by meaning, by theme, by structure? Are these all kind of intertwining?
0:52:45
mcmichael267
JM: I think they are.
mcmichael268
DB: OK
mcmichael269
JM: You know, it has to be—it just has to be. What can your ear bear here? And if it can bear it, is it saying what it has to be saying?
mcmichael270
DB: So, that's kind of step 1 and step 2 for your revisions?
mcmichael271
JM: Yeah, and they're probably inseparable.
mcmichael272
DB: Right, right
mcmichael273
Do other people play a process in your revisions or in your working?
mcmichael274
JM: Yes, they do.
mcmichael275
DB: OK, how so?
mcmichael276
JM: I'll send then drafts and get responses from them that are almost always helpful. And they're helpful in terms less of my being able to meet what they might have preferred to having what they've said to me help me prefer what happens once I make the revisions.
mcmichael277
DB: OK, and have those people stayed the same throughout your career, or they've changed somewhat?
mcmichael278
JM: They've... Yeah, there've been a couple who are new in the last 4 or 5 years on this most recent books—colleagues.
mcmichael279
DB: And how will that process work? Will you now email them a section whereas before you might send them a letter with the section, or...?
mcmichael280
JM: Yeah, it's easier. This makes it a lot easier to do and (55:00) then, of course, I get work from other people in this form, too, and I like that. I've liked it... I mean, I haven't taught now for a year and a half, but I've really liked the way the computer makes it possible to re-lineate poems that I've gotten from students—just to give them a sense of how I hear what they're doing with the lines. It's been a help. It's been a help to me. I haven't seen much evidence that it means anything at all to them.
[00:55:00]
mcmichael281
DB: No, I can tell you from experience. It's a lesson--it's a valuable lesson.
mcmichael282
JM: Oh, good
mcmichael283
DB: Definitely!
mcmichael284
JM: Well, you may be the only one.
mcmichael285
DB: Sometimes it's difficult in the lessons learned but definitely valuable.
mcmichael286
[OK, let me look at this for one second. Do you want to take a break by any chance?]
mcmichael287
JM: [I'm fine. Now you want to take a break!]
mcmichael288
DB: [She's tired of these questions]
mcmichael289
DB: So, how did you keep track of all these things? I mean, I guess, with the computer if fairly... You have one file with all of them in it?
0:56:19
mcmichael290
JM: Yes
mcmichael291
DB: And before that, did you just have them in a binder, or...?
mcmichael292
JM: Just loose pages probably.
mcmichael293
DB: Just loose pages.
mcmichael294
JM: With a clip probably.
mcmichael295
DB: OK, and with that... As you got the manuscript more towards where you wanted, that would just grow bigger and bigger?
mcmichael296
JM: Yeah
mcmichael297
DB: So, it's a fairly easy way to do that.
mcmichael298
JM: Yeah
mcmichael299
DB: So it wasn't like some of the other writers, like they have these special notebooks; they have kind of like a process where they move from notebook to this, to this? That wasn't...?
mcmichael300
JM: No
mcmichael301
DB: That part of the writing was never that...?
mcmichael302
JM: No
mcmichael303
DB: And those files and that sort of ephemera, it's never....It doesn't seem that it was that dear to you?
0:57:25
mcmichael304
JM: No
mcmichael305
DB: And it's still not?
mcmichael306
JM: No
mcmichael307
DB: OK
mcmichael308
Do you know... Have you ever thought why?
mcmichael309
JM: All I care about is the product--that's all I care about.
mcmichael310
DB: And when do you... What do you consider the product?
mcmichael311
JM: The poem that I can't make any better.
mcmichael312
DB: OK
mcmichael313
Do you... I guess, in the same way in the computer? How do you feel about computer files? Do you try to... Do you have much sort of sense of trying to maintain them and keep them, or are they just sort of means to getting it to that point?
mcmichael314
JM: They're the Work In Progress. At the most recent stage, if I'm going to get on an airplane I'll send what I've got on the book as a whole to a couple of people. They'll understand why I did it. So, that would be one of the later things that I would do before I got on the car to take us to the airport.
mcmichael315
DB: OK, yeah
mcmichael316
JM: It's egomaniacal, you know, in its way.
mcmichael317
DB: Yeah
mcmichael318
But, I mean, it's also your work.
mcmichael319
JM: It's my work.
mcmichael320
DB: Yeah
mcmichael321
So, the product (the poem)—where does it exist? Is it in the book? Is it in the printed out page? I mean, I know you're very strong proponent of the aural poem... I guess that's sort of a larger question, but where is it?
mcmichael322
JM: I guess it's in the book.
mcmichael323
DB: It's in the book?
mcmichael324
JM: Yeah
mcmichael325
DB: OK
mcmichael326
JM: And I would want form, which in my case is the line and the stanza, to instruct a reader of that book on how I hear the phrases and the sentences.
mcmichael327
DB: Right, right
mcmichael328
Do you ever record yourself doing this? Have you ever like recorded yourself reading a book, or has anybody ever asked you to do that?
mcmichael329
JM: I did read... Somebody recorded All of Capacity. Matt Nelson did it. Some years ago, I was asked to do some for one of those New York poetry societies, or... I can't remember what the others are, but I did. I have recorded some things. I've liked doing it, but it's only been when somebody's asked me for a recording.
mcmichael330
(1:00:00)
[01:00:00]
mcmichael331
DB: I think that would be a valuable thing.
mcmichael332
[Let me just look through these. I think, we've gone... We've actually organically answered some of these questions I have, so that's nice.]
mcmichael333
DB: This is a little off, but has the internet changed the way that you do any of this process? Has the kind of availability of all these extra information allowed you to maybe find books, or find ideas and research online in a way that changed anything for your writing?
1:00:22
mcmichael334
JM: I'm so bad at this that Amazon has like been the only resource that I've been helped by. I'm sure there's lots else there, but it hasn't served me. I'll google some things but not much.
mcmichael335
DB: Not much
mcmichael336
Do you... I mean, why do you feel like you're bad at it, I guess, is a question. Is it something... But it's something that... I mean, is it something that you feel like kind of naturally, inherently, bad at, or...?
mcmichael337
JM: Yes, I feel naturally, inherently bad at it.
mcmichael338
DB: And at the times that you have sort of attempted to teach yourself, it's just not something that come naturally, and not something that you've needed?
mcmichael339
JM: I think, yeah. I think if I had needed it more I'd probably would've availed myself of it more and taught myself how to do it. I guess, yeah—I haven't felt the need of it.
mcmichael340
DB: Yeah, yeah
mcmichael341
Again, where do your files and folders kind of reside on your computer? Are they... Do you have like a folder for that book with all the drafts, or is it just one document?
mcmichael342
JM: Just one document.
mcmichael343
DB: Just one document.
mcmichael344
JM: Just the most recent.
mcmichael345
DB: OK, and that's how it works for almost everything?
mcmichael346
JM: Yes
mcmichael347
DB: OK
mcmichael348
JM: And I think that would be related to what you probably remember—if I'm seeing students revisions, I'm interested in the one that they feel is the strongest, and I'm not going to compare it to earlier things. I wouldn't want... I want them to be making that call, and that's what I want them to hear from me back about.
mcmichael349
DB: Right, right
mcmichael350
DB: How do you... I mean, you've sort of spoken about this in describing your earlier practices. How did you get that acumen in sort of being able to tell? I mean, it's just...
1:01:51
mcmichael351
JM: I don't know. Just listening to a lot of great, great music, I think. I mean, that would make more sense to me than anything else.
mcmichael352
DB: Hmm...
mcmichael353
OK, and what was the... Is there a progression of music that you listen to ever?
mcmichael354
JM: Yes, yes
mcmichael355
DB: Can you talk a little bit about that?
mcmichael356
JM: I think I was helped immeasurably by what I listened to when I was 12 and 13 just in a really bad way, and that was first jazz from the early '50s that got to be more and more exclusively black jazz, or black musicians. And that got me through high school, and then I had other things to do once I went to college. It kind of was suspended pretty much all the way through my undergraduate work, and my graduate work, then it came back once I had the job here.
mcmichael357
So, in the late '60s, it was the popular music—rock mostly—and The Stones and Hendrix were kind of at the top of that list. Then Hendrix was dead and The Stones weren't what they had been. At that point, I had a need for music that got to me, and there wasn't any more of it coming from jazz or rock, so then I started learning classical, learning the literature of
mcmichael358
(1:05:00) classical music, and it's had hold of me since November of 1973. You know, I feel that it's trained my ear to be what it is. I don't know how it's done that but it's been elemental to me.
[01:05:00]
mcmichael359
DB: Did you take any formal education?
mcmichael360
JM: No, no
mcmichael361
DB: Just listening?
mcmichael362
JM: I just listened.
mcmichael363
DB: And where would you find... How would you find new things? What was your progress there?
mcmichael364
JM: From composers and from artists both. So, going at it both ways
mcmichael365
DB: Yeah
mcmichael366
Have there been particular composers, or artists, at times that you listen to more? I mean like is there... Does it move forward, or...?
mcmichael367
JM: It's been Mahler and Beethoven at the top, and then Brahms and Bach. Loads of others but Mahler and Beethoven most of all.
mcmichael368
DB: I mean, you based one of your stanzaic forms on the... Who was it? Was it—
1:06:10
mcmichael369
JM: Well, Schoenberg, whom I'm not that crazy about but the 12-tone system suggested to me a stanzaic progression in which if I've got (as I had in the two most recent books) 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5 line stanzas—the 12-tone system in which he would not come back to a note until he had used the other eleven [on the] scale suggested to me a form in which I would not interrupt the progression of 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 until I'd exhausted all of those five. And then I would begin the next sequence with another number and try to have that second sequence be as varied from the first as I could be, and then continue that all the way through.
mcmichael370
That's not to say that I wouldn't wind up having a 3, 2, 1, 4, 5 sequence somewhere else in the poem, but I'd want it to be removed by several other sequences.
mcmichael371
DB: Right
mcmichael372
JM: So, variety is one of the models but that was the form.
mcmichael373
DB: And how did you... Did you pick that up by listening, or was that from a reading? I mean, are you reading about this as well, or...?
mcmichael374
JM: No. I mean, I just knew what the 12-tone system was and knew no more about it than that.
mcmichael375
DB: OK, but it—
mcmichael376
JM: It's just in one sentence thing. So that suggested itself to me. I began it with a poem I wrote about Greenland called "T"he World At Large." There, I was working with 1, 2, 3, and 4—I stopped at 4 there. And then the next time, I was in to Capacity. In that book, I added a 5-line stanza.
mcmichael377
DB: Capacious stanza.
mcmichael378
JM: It was more capacious.
mcmichael379
DB: Great!
mcmichael380
JM: I would say, too, that when I think back about moving from the late '60s when I was writing poems I didn't like, weren't very good, into the early '70s, I think there's a non-accidental relationship between the forms I was working with having been as short as a 3-minute take and a sonata form, or a scherzo trio form, or an adagio, or something like that that the lengths of it (the units I was working on ) got larger when I was listening to pieces of music that were 8-9 minutes to ½ an hour long.
1:08:35
mcmichael381
DB: Right, that makes a lot of sense.
mcmichael382
And you're listening to this classical piece. Was it a very active listening? I mean, is it usually like you're alone with the music? Is it a head-... Do you listen to it on
mcmichael383
(01:10:00) headphones?
[01:10:00]
mcmichael384
JM: Both
mcmichael385
DB: Both
mcmichael386
JM: A lot of it. You know, I spend a lot of time with it.
mcmichael387
DB: Yeah, and are you ever writing while that's on?
mcmichael388
JM: No
mcmichael389
DB: You give the attention to the music?
mcmichael390
JM: Yeah
mcmichael391
DB: OK, and that's still a part of your process now?
mcmichael392
JM: Yeah
mcmichael393
DB: That's fascinating!
mcmichael394
DB: OK, I have a little bit, a few more questions—a little bit on teaching—and then just kind of the blunt ending questions.
1:10:32
mcmichael395
You just speak about this with the computer kind of changing your relationship with your students. You can kind of rely in their poems to show them how you hear them. Is there any other ways that you've seen this computer sort of age adjusting, or affecting, your teaching and working with students?
mcmichael396
JM: I don't think so. It's made it all more efficient in terms of not having to go to the mailbox to get the copies, but to just come here and here's their poems. I like that. I think they like it, too.
mcmichael397
DB: Right, right
mcmichael398
Do you see, in your later students, that there's like an increased technological or cultural understanding that affected their work, or...?
mcmichael399
JM: No
mcmichael400
DB: [inaudible 01:11:26]
mcmichael401
That's fine with me.
mcmichael402
JM: I mean, except that I think there's a probably a proclivity for exotic words that they trust Google will help you with. I think that's happened.
mcmichael403
DB: Yeah, yeah
mcmichael404
JM: I don't... That's not necessarily a gain, but it's not terrible either.
mcmichael405
DB: Yeah, yeah. No, that's not bad.
mcmichael406
So, I guess, I just have like the kind of blunt questions. I mean, this sort of the frame of my thing (of my study) is - what changes happened with this rise of personal computer. I mean, for you, it seems like maybe not that many. Do you have any opinions on kind of how...? Is there a change in feel, change in structure, or...?
mcmichael407
JM: I like what's personal about this medium in that way that I've described already. I like the contact this machine gives me with people. I feel it's certainly more immediate. I think it's increased the contact that I have with people who are spread around the world. It's been more important to me since I don't go in to school and run in to people that I have conversations with. And I like the fact that it's this keyboard that connects me with them, and this keyboard that connects me with strangers who might read my poems. I like that about this—a lot. I like it a lot. I like it all the more now that when the phone rings, 90% of the time (even though I've asked not to be called by telemarketers) it's telemarketers.
mcmichael408
DB: Yeah, because most of your conversations that are important now are on the computer.
mcmichael409
JM: Yeah
mcmichael410
DB: And then, I guess, has that changed the poems? Has that--?
mcmichael411
JM: I don't think so.
mcmichael412
DB: No, OK
mcmichael413
JM: But I can't know that. I mean, it might well have.
mcmichael414
DB: I mean, it's interesting to me. I guess just thinking of the Ulysses class, and just like thinking about that connection with people with being so integral to thinking about that book and about what you were talking about. And I wanted—
mcmichael415
JM: My favorite class, ever.
mcmichael416
DB: That was a great class.
mcmichael417
JM: I mean, just by miles and miles.
mcmichael418
DB: Good, good. I'm glad I was in it.
mcmichael419
JM: I'm glad you were, too.
mcmichael420
DB: I think... I guess... But I mentioned... I mean, it is in a sense a very good democratic object—
mcmichael421
JM: It is.
mcmichael422
DB: --and I guess I can see your relationship to it in that way. And I guess, it would be left for others to comment how that may have broached this.
mcmichael423
OK, well thank you very much, Jim.
mcmichael424
JM: Oh, it's been so good.
mcmichael425
DB: That's great!
mcmichael426
JM: You're so good at this. You really are.
mohammad1
Devin Becker: Thank you very much for agreeing to do this, Kasey.
mohammad2
Kasey Mohammad: My pleasure. Thanks for coming.
mohammad3
DB: Would you please state, for the camera, your name, your date of birth, and the location we're at right now?
mohammad4
KM: Kasey Silem Mohammad. October 10, 1962. We're at Southern Oregon University in Central Hall.
mohammad5
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?
mohammad6
KM: Poetry.
mohammad7
DB: OK, and that's your primary genre?
mohammad8
KM: Yeah.
mohammad9
DB: What kinds of devices do you own, or have access to for writing?
mohammad10
KM: This laptop, a MacBook. I mean, that's about it, other than whatever scratchpad I might put a note or idea in.
mohammad11
DB: So you use only that one? Do you write on a phone? Do you write on any other things?
mohammad12
KM: Usually not. I mean, the laptop is the main instrument.
mohammad13
DB: The laptop is the main instrument.
mohammad14
KM: Yeah.
mohammad15
DB: And you have an Apple.
mohammad16
KM: Mhmm.
mohammad17
DB: You said you use some note paper sometimes?
mohammad18
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.
mohammad19
DB: OK, so it's pretty primarily on that computer?
mohammad20
KM: That is mostly it.
mohammad21
DB: OK. Do you ever make pre-writing notes for it, or—?
mohammad22
KM: Because of the kind of writing I do, that usually doesn't come in to play.
mohammad23
DB: Yeah.
mohammad24
KM: Which I think will become clearer when we talk about the actual composition.
mohammad25
DB: OK. In what format do you save your digital files?
mohammad26
KM: Word.
mohammad27
DB: Word doc.
mohammad28
KM: Mhmm.
mohammad29
DB: Do you save individual works as you go along, or do you simply save over what you've written? Do you save drafts?
mohammad30
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.
mohammad31
DB: OK. And what are your naming conventions for your files?
mohammad32
KM: Usually the name of the poem, followed by the file name.
mohammad33
DB: And so, because you don't use drafts, it's just the one?
mohammad34
KM: Yeah. I don't rename it once I've drafted it or anything. It just stays the same.
mohammad35
DB: Do you print out your writing to revise it?
mohammad36
KM: No, not typically.
mohammad37
DB: OK.
mohammad38
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.
mohammad39
DB: Yeah. Do you ever save any paper copies of interim drafts?
mohammad40
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.
mohammad41
DB: Do you back up your work?
mohammad42
KM: When I remember, yeah.
mohammad43
DB: And how often do you do that?
mohammad44
KM: Oh, god. I don't know. I probably need to do it right now—excuse me! Really, it's very erratic.
mohammad45
DB: OK. Do you have Dropbox or anything?
mohammad46
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.
mohammad47
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?
[00:04:40]
mohammad48
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.
mohammad49
DB: Yeah. Do you keep print copies of final drafts? Do you print them out?
mohammad50
KM: Not usually.
mohammad51
DB: And how about the media you've been published in? Do you keep the journals in a sort of space?
mohammad52
KM: I do, yeah. I have a shelf full of journals and books.
mohammad53
DB: OK. So, do you have any standard practices for archiving digitally or physically, would you say?
mohammad54
KM: Maybe explain what you mean a little more.
mohammad55
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"?
mohammad56
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.
mohammad57
DB: So, have you ever received or sought out information about digital archiving, or any sort of practices in that way?
mohammad58
KM: Not really, no.
mohammad59
DB: OK. Would you be interested in receiving information?
mohammad60
KM: Possibly, yeah.
mohammad61
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"?
mohammad62
KM: I'd say since roughly '98 or '99.
mohammad63
DB: And could you kind of give us a sense of the arc of your career over that time period?
[00:06:55]
mohammad64
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.
mohammad65
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.
mohammad66
DB: And now, the project that you're working on is the "Sonograms"?
mohammad67
KM: That's my chief project, yeah.
mohammad68
DB: OK. But you have other ones going?
mohammad69
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.
mohammad70
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.
mohammad71
KM: Sure.
mohammad72
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?
[00:09:40]
mohammad73
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.
mohammad74
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?
mohammad75
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.
mohammad76
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—
mohammad77
KM: Oh, yeah, yeah.
mohammad78
DB: How did they start to progress, then? I mean, what was sort of the next step?
mohammad79
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.
mohammad80
DB: Oh, great!
mohammad81
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—
mohammad82
DB: Just for my clarification—it started on a different email list and then it moved to its own?
mohammad83
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—
mohammad84
DB: Just the language that shows up in the Google cache?
mohammad85
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.
mohammad86
DB: No, right. I mean, it makes sense. It's computer-generated material.
mohammad87
KM: Yeah, and part of the fun of it was using the computer as a kind of canvas.
mohammad88
DB: Yeah.
mohammad89
KM: There was something kind of pleasing about pulling the components around and almost physically moving them around in that digital space.
mohammad90
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?
mohammad91
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.
mohammad92
DB: Just the result page, OK.
mohammad93
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...
mohammad94
DB: Right.
mohammad95
KM: But, yeah, they were just numbers and code, so all I would have left were recognizable words, and maybe numbers.
mohammad96
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"?
mohammad97
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—
mohammad98
DB: I'm interested!
mohammad99
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.
mohammad100
DB: Yeah. And so for the dashes and ellipses and what-not, would you just do a "find all" and delete them?
[00:19:03]
mohammad101
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.
mohammad102
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?
mohammad103
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.
mohammad104
DB: And you'd just go and delete, delete, delete?
mohammad105
KM: Mhmm. Rearrange, shuffle.
mohammad106
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?
mohammad107
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.
mohammad108
DB: What do you think got you to that sort of preference?
mohammad109
KM: No idea.
mohammad110
DB: No idea?
mohammad111
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.
mohammad112
DB: Yeah.
mohammad113
KM: But as I went on, I just really became more concerned with just wanting a verbal shape or sculpture that I found interesting.
mohammad114
DB: And do you find then that those later poems are more "readable"?
mohammad115
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.
mohammad116
DB: Right.
mohammad117
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."
[00:23:00]
mohammad118
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.
mohammad119
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.
[00:24:00]
mohammad120
DB: So how are you constructing your lines if you're looking for that sort of rhythm?
mohammad121
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.
mohammad122
DB: When you grabbed a phrase or a few phrases, were those automatically lines, or would you break those into different lines?
mohammad123
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.
mohammad124
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.
mohammad125
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.
mohammad126
DB: Right, right. What about the prose poems in this tradition? How did those come about?
mohammad127
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—
mohammad128
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?
[00:28:58]
mohammad129
KM: Yeah, that's a good question. I think sound was probably usually at least tied for the primary motivator, there.
mohammad130
DB: What would determine a line break, then, in terms of sound?
mohammad131
KM: That's a difficult question even for like traditional modes of writing, right?
mohammad132
DB: It's an impossible question.
mohammad133
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.
mohammad134
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"—
mohammad135
KM: Yeah, "Google sculpt" is the term I kind of tried to put out there for it.
mohammad136
DB: So that's the one you sort of prefer saying? It's like "Google sculpting"? I mean, sculpting being collage works—
mohammad137
KM: Yeah, I mean "Google collage" works, too.
mohammad138
DB: Do you know what the search terms are for each poem, and is there somewhere where that's recorded?
[00:31:00]
mohammad139
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.
mohammad140
DB: You'd probably have to recreate it someday by using a simulator or something.
mohammad141
KM: Oh, you can't! Because, I mean, the internet has completely changed, right?
mohammad142
DB: Yeah.
mohammad143
KM: It's gone forever.
mohammad144
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?
mohammad145
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.
mohammad146
DB: And Hovercraft is also from that stage?
mohammad147
KM: Yeah, that's from that initial stage.
mohammad148
DB: And then the second stage starts with Deer Head Nation?
mohammad149
KM: Mhmm—through Breathalyzer and The Front.
mohammad150
DB: And so this third section, then, is the "sonograms"?
mohammad151
KM: Yeah.
mohammad152
DB: So, how did that project come about?
[00:32:11]
mohammad153
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.
mohammad154
DB: Yeah—not a compression.
mohammad155
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.
mohammad156
DB: The best poets are.
mohammad157
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.
mohammad158
DB: The librarian in me is sort of cringing right now.
[00:35:00]
mohammad159
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.
mohammad160
DB: Right.
mohammad161
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.
mohammad162
DB: And there are a hundred and—?
mohammad163
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.
mohammad164
DB: So you started off with the kind of stuff from the anagram generator, and I'm assuming that's not in iambic pentameter?
[00:37:03]
mohammad165
KM: Right—just words.
mohammad166
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"?
mohammad167
KM: Yeah, yeah. That was pretty much it. I think the very first one was the one that's on this little trading card—
mohammad168
DB: Oh, I have that trading card!
mohammad169
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."
mohammad170
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"?
mohammad171
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.
mohammad172
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?
[00:38:35]
mohammad173
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.
mohammad174
DB: Right. And so now that you're almost at number one hundred, do you have a different way of going about it?
mohammad175
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.
mohammad176
DB: What was the first generator?
mohammad177
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.
mohammad178
DB: OK.
[00:40:00]
mohammad179
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.
mohammad180
DB: So, you can you search and then limit the search in some ways.
mohammad181
KM: Mhmm.
mohammad182
DB: That's interesting. Does it ever produce a perfectly iambic pentameter line that you can use?
mohammad183
KM: I haven't done that yet. I'm sure it's theoretically possible.
mohammad184
DB: Electronic monkeys writing King Lear!
mohammad185
KM: I mean, do you know about the Pentametron? Which is this wonderful Twitter-based website.
mohammad186
DB: No, I do not know about the Pentametron.
mohammad187
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—
mohammad188
DB: Yeah.
mohammad189
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.
mohammad190
DB: Yeah.
mohammad191
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.
mohammad192
DB: Yeah. Do you know who's behind it?
mohammad193
KM: Oh, I don't know. Whoever it is, I don't know them personally, and I don't remember what their name is.
mohammad194
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?
mohammad195
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.
mohammad196
DB: So, that sort of frivolous stuff—the farting unicorns—that sort of silliness was very highly valued on the list serve?
mohammad197
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.
mohammad198
DB: Right.
mohammad199
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."
mohammad200
DB: Right, right.
mohammad201
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.
[00:44:43]
mohammad202
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?
mohammad203
KM: Yeah, blogging seems to be a thing in the past. For me, anyway.
mohammad204
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?
mohammad205
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.
mohammad206
DB: Right.
mohammad207
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.
mohammad208
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.
[00:47:13]
mohammad209
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?
mohammad210
DB: Yeah, and kind of how that influenced your own writing.
mohammad211
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.
[00:48:06]
mohammad212
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?
mohammad213
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.
mohammad214
DB: Right, right.
mohammad215
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.
mohammad216
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?
mohammad217
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.
mohammad218
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?
[00:49:45]
mohammad219
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."
mohammad220
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.
mohammad221
KM: I think, yeah. And part of it is Google has gotten too smart.
mohammad222
DB: Yeah.
mohammad223
KM: Things are grouped according to usefulness, rather than just random occurrence of words.
mohammad224
DB: And who you are, too.
mohammad225
KM: Yeah, it knows me too well, and it's—I don't trust it.
mohammad226
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?
mohammad227
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.
mohammad228
DB: Right.
mohammad229
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.
mohammad230
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?
mohammad231
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.
mohammad232
DB: OK.
mohammad233
KM: Yeah.
mohammad234
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?
mohammad235
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.
mohammad236
DB: Yeah.
mohammad237
KM: But, I don't know. Yeah, I mean that's all so long ago.
mohammad238
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?
[00:53:22]
mohammad239
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.
mohammad240
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?
mohammad241
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.
mohammad242
DB: Okay, yeah.
mohammad243
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.
mohammad244
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?
[00:54:34]
mohammad245
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.
mohammad246
DB: Right.
mohammad247
KM: But I guess that's true for everything.
mohammad248
DB: And what are those sort of foundational verbal skills that you're after?
mohammad249
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.
mohammad250
DB: Right, yeah. It's all about kind of getting towards writing something interesting, making something interesting to a reader, right?
mohammad251
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.
mohammad252
DB: Right, right. Just a few more questions. I guess...Eh, no. I think we're good.
mohammad253
KM: Oh, good.
mohammad254
DB: Thanks, Kasey.
mohammad255
KM: Yeah!
mohammad256
DB: That was really great.
mohammad257
KM: It was a pleasure.
mohammad258
DB: Yeah.
mohammad259
KM: Sometimes I'm so croaky—
mohammad260
DB: No, it'll be cool, you know, whenever it shows up. Ah—the off button.
mohammad261
KM: Are we Friends on Facebook?
mohammad262
DB: I don't have a Facebook.
mohammad263
KM: Oh, Okay.
ryan1
Devin Becker: Here we are. It's March 18th and this is an interview with Michael Ryan. Okay-the interview kind of has two parts. The first part I just sort of ask about your current practices. It's based on the survey Collier and I did for an article about two years ago of like younger poets and how they work with digital media. So those are meant to be sort of short answer, just about how you save, how you type, stuff like that. Then, we'll kind of talk more about the arc of your career and different ways your process has changed or not changed in accordance with history, technology, culture. So if you don't mind, please state your name, date of birth, and where we are.
[00:00:00]
ryan2
Michael Ryan: Michael Ryan, 24th of February 1946, and I believe we're in Irvine, California.
ryan3
DB: Okay. This is kind of how you work currently. What genres do you work in as a writer?
ryan4
MR: I write prose and poetry, essays, nonfiction, and mostly poems.
ryan5
DB: So you're primary genre is poetry then?
ryan6
MR: Yeah.
ryan7
DB: I know these answers. Some of these will be repetitive and if it's like, you're like, "Okay, I answered that," just tell me.
ryan8
MR: That's fine.
ryan9
DB: Okay. What kinds of devices do you own or have access to for your writing, in terms of computer devices?
ryan10
MR: I have a desktop computer and an iPad. I don't use the iPad much, but sometimes for internet stuff.
ryan11
DB: Do you have a desktop computer here? Do you have one also at your office that you work on?
ryan12
MR: I don't use it.
ryan13
DB: You don't use it?
ryan14
MR: Yeah.
ryan15
DB: Okay. So, that's your main computer for composing?
ryan16
MR: That's it.
ryan17
DB: That's it?
ryan18
MR: Pretty much, yeah.
ryan19
DB: What operating system are you using?
ryan20
MR: Microsoft Word.
ryan21
DB: Is it a PC or a MAC?
ryan22
MR: It's a PC.
ryan23
DB: It's a PC, okay. Do you use computers exclusively for your work or do you use both physical and digital environments?
ryan24
MR: What does that mean?
ryan25
DB: I mean, do you work on paper and digitally? Do you go back and forth, or are you at the point where you work primarily on the computer?
ryan26
MR: I draft poems by hand and then I'll go back to the computer and go sometimes back and forth. Prose, I write on the computer.
ryan27
DB: Okay. At which point-if you're writing by hand-do you move to the computer?
ryan28
MR: Yeah, it depends. Just it seems to be finished enough to make a typed copy.
ryan29
DB: Okay. Do you have any prewriting or notes to these things or are they usually-?
ryan30
MR: Yeah, again, it depends on the piece. They're all very different, but sometimes there are a lot of notes, sometimes there's not much. I don't usually take notes on the computer. I usually will do that by hand.
ryan31
DB: Do you save those prewriting notes, the physical copies? Do you keep them somewhere or-?
ryan32
MR: I keep everything, yeah. My papers are at the University of Virginia. Theoretically, someday I should be sending what's accumulated to them.
ryan33
DB: How do you save your digital files, like your poem files, etc?
[00:04:06]
ryan34
MR: I try to do them in terms of the draft numbers. Like, I will save the title. Sometimes, I'll put the date if it seems germane, but I will put numbers so that the first draft that goes on the computer is "1," and so forth.
ryan35
DB: Do you save them all in one folder? What's the folder system like? Are you saving them in just, like, "Poetry Folder"?
ryan36
MR: Yeah, no, just one. Currently, it's "Poems 2012-" because that was when I finished my last book of poems. So they're kind of arranged by book.
ryan37
DB: Once you have the poem on a computer, do you ever print it out to revise it that way?
[00:05:02]
ryan38
MR: Yes.
ryan39
DB: Do you save paper copies of those drafts?
ryan40
MR: Yeah. Well, usually. I can get sloppy about it, but I try to save most.
ryan41
DB: How do you do that? Do you put them in files? Do you put them in boxes?
ryan42
MR: My office is filled with stacks of brown boxes, as you might remember. It's all a big mess and a big pile.
ryan43
DB: Some lucky archivist someday will have several months of work.
ryan44
MR: Yeah. Lucky, or perhaps not so lucky.
ryan45
DB: Were there also like brown bags too, or was it just boxes? I feel like I remember paper bags-?
ryan46
MR: No, there were not brown bags.
ryan47
DB: They were boxes? My memory-
ryan48
MR: That's a screened memory, Devin. You think I'm sloppier that I already am.
ryan49
DB: I picture you with grisly bags full of your working drafts.
ryan50
MR: It's pathetic, but not quite that pathetic.
ryan51
DB: I know. Do you back up your digital copies? Do you put them on a hard drive somewhere else, or any of that?
ryan52
MR: No, I hope it has a back up system on it-I think it does. I think it backs it up automatically.
ryan53
DB: Okay. Are you using something like Dropbox or any of those kind of cloud things?
ryan54
MR: No, I'm not.
ryan55
DB: Okay. Once you're finished with the poem, how do you save that finished piece? Does that go into a manuscript file? What happens once you feel like the poem is done?
ryan56
MR: Well again, when it's done, it's just number whatever, "15," of that particular poem, and it just stays in that folder until it's time for a book. And then, I will transfer the latest final draft of everything into some other place, so that it's just the final drafts. Then, there's always galleys and proofread stuff, and so that becomes a separate folder.
ryan57
DB: Okay. That's the quick digital beginning part of it. Now, we'll kind of talk with larger scope. How long have you been writing professionally, is the first question? By professionally, I mean in a way that you are sort of supporting yourself or that it has led to jobs or something like that.
ryan58
MR: The first poem I published was in 1970. So, 44 years.
[00:07:55]
ryan59
DB: What was your first poem?
ryan60
MR: Actually, the first published poem that was in my first book was 1970, but before that there were a couple. But the first one and the oldest poem in my New and Selected is a poem called "Hitting Fungoes."
ryan61
DB: Yeah, I like that one. Would you please describe the arc of your career, like kind of education all the way through what your current kind of position?
ryan62
MR: I've been teaching all of that time.
ryan63
DB: I mean, even before that, like your kind of education leading up to that too.
ryan64
MR: When I went to Notre Dame, there weren't any writing workshops. I was an English major and I was interested in being-I was the editor of the literary magazine at Notre Dame when I was a senior there, and I wrote extremely bad undergraduate poems. I then went to Claremont graduate school and Claremont here, and was going to get a PhD in English and was writing poems all of that time, and decided to leave after three semesters, and dropped out, went to Cambridge, lived with some friends and I worked in a bookstore in Harvard Square.
ryan65
There's a funny story about after I quit at Claremont. I was sort of a lame duck there. It was during the time of the Cambodia invasion and it was a very charged political time. I had gone through Iowa City and expected that since I was a poet, all the faculty on the workshop would want to read my poems. Kindly, George Starbuck met with me and I handed him a manuscript of poems and he put it in his desk drawer. We just talked for a few minutes. That was it and I left. After I quit the PhD program at Claremont, I got a letter from George Starbuck saying "You're accepted to the workshop. Why don't you apply?"
ryan66
DB: That's nice.
ryan67
MR: Wasn't it?
ryan68
DB: Yeah.
ryan69
MR: A miracle. Never could happen now, or come close to such a thing. But anyways, he was a sweet man and apparently saw something in my poems. So then I went to Iowa from 19970-1974. I got an MFA there. I couldn't get a job after getting an MFA, so they kindly offered to put me up for another year. I worked in the Iowa Review as a poetry editor. But they said, "If you're going to stay, you have to go back in the PhD program because we have to have a way to give you graduate aid."
[00:10:57]
ryan70
So I did that, and worked on the Iowa Review. Still couldn't get a job after the next year. The fourth year, or between that and the summer after my third year, I got a call from the Yale University Press saying I won the Yale Series of Younger Poets, and so I went back to Iowa for a fourth year and finished up my PhD. They put me on the faculty for my last semester there. When I went to Southern Methodist University from there for four years, I then directed the MFA program-which is now at Warren Wilson-while it was at Goddard, and while the director, Ellen Voigt, had her Guggenheim year. I was there two years, I guess. No-one year. And then I went to Princeton for two years, and to Charlottesville, Virginia at the University of Virginia as a visitor, and was also, mostly, at Warren Wilson for all those years. And then came here, and I've been here since 1991-University of California at Irvine.
ryan71
DB: All right.
ryan72
MR: Was that too long?
ryan73
DB: No-that's exactly what I'm looking for. I mean, just sort of, "This is what happened," you know? Now, I'm going to kind of ask you more specifically about your writing practice. I kind of delineated it into like three stages-the first being kind of like compositional prewriting generative stage, the second being the kind of revision stage, and then the third being the kind of organizational archival stage, by which I mean, like, when things are starting to be finished and your putting them into books, and then what you do with those publications and how you kind of work with that archival stuff. Does that make sense? If that matches up with your writing process enough to talk then-
[00:13:31]
ryan74
MR: Sort of.
ryan75
DB: Usually, it will just kind of go, and you'll probably answer questions that I have later, and we'll just go forward. So what I like to talk about is kind of like how you are writing initially in the beginning parts of your career, and then kind of to think about how that changed-if there were sort of significant changes, what those were, and stuff like that.
ryan76
DB: So, would you please describe kind of your typical compositional practices when you first started writing professionally, like at Iowa, and maybe a little past that area? How were you writing? Were you handwriting? Were you using a typewriter? Did you keep a notebook, things like that?
ryan77
MR: I don't think I kept a notebook in those days. When I went to Iowa, I was writing five poems a week. It was fun and easy-"Hey! This is easy!" And occasionally changing a word or two, and all by hand. I mean I would have to type it up at some point and that was on a typewriter in those days. A manual typewriter, I think. That changed in my second year there. I guess I just hit a wall and saw that I couldn't write the poem I wanted-or hoped to write-in one draft. And started multiple-drafting much more frequently, almost always. Most of the poems in my first book were written that way, and not the old way.
[00:15:00]
ryan78
DB: How did that work, like just nitty-gritty wise?
ryan79
MR: Well, again, it's always been going back and-I mean, it's mostly handwritten over, and over, and over, and over, and over again, starting from the beginning. I never have been able to do it any other way. First word first. First syllable first. All the way to the end. Sometimes, I will have a whole-in fact, in the happiest times-I will have a whole draft to work from. But there really isn't any way to formalize it because everyone's different. Every single piece I've ever written comes differently, has different problems. William Maxwell said he learned nothing about writing the next novel from writing the last one. It does feel to me sort of like I'm inventing the wheel every time out, and they just don't resemble each other. I have written poems in single drafts-not very often, but-I've also written 250 drafts of a poem and still not finished it, and it ends up in the brown box. I have finished poems that I started 25 years earlier, because for whatever reason-you know, my life is changed, I've changed a little, I hope-and I saw the solution to the problem, that was insoluble. It really is like doing problems, I think. At that stage of composition, at least. The ideas kind of that you get something that compels you. Isn't that how it is? It drives you through to it's finished, and that finish may take a while or not. It might take forms, there can be snags along the way. There can be endings that don't come, but it isn't linear-there are problems that occur. Structural problems, and so forth.
[00:16:10]
ryan80
DB: In terms of how this is going, kind of physically-you say you just write a draft and you never go back and cross it out? Or do you write another draft, and another draft, and another draft, all handwritten? I'm just trying to clarify.
[00:18:32]
ryan81
MR: No, I will cross things out, or write-in alternatives on the side.
ryan82
DB: On the one sheet of paper?
ryan83
MR: Yeah. I don't recopy the whole draft every single time-which I guess is what I indicated before-but not if it's just messing with tweaks. But sometimes the snag will get hit at line-whatever-5. Then, I will start all over again, or at line 25. I just have to have the whole thing in my head at a certain point, but rarely before a whole draft is there. I will go to the computer and type it up, and then it helps to see it printed-out. I don't work on the screen. I print it out and then work on it some more by hand.
ryan84
DB: Is the way that you do it with the computer now the same way that you used the typewriter?
ryan85
MR: Essentially. I mean, I guess maybe sometimes I do make little changes on the screen. You know, if I'm typing it up again or something, that will perhaps provoke-probably very minor-changes. Changing an article or-you know.
ryan86
DB: Yeah. But never anything very substantial.
ryan87
MR: Well usually not, is my recollection.
ryan88
DB: And the handwritten composition pieces, where do they exist, physically? Are they in a notebook? Are they on just regular pieces of paper, or-?
[00:20:28]
ryan89
MR: They're on yellow-well, actually I do have two things. You're making me see how idiosyncratic I am. I guess everybody probably is. What I do is I take a piece of white typing paper-usually it has something written on the other side of it-I will fold it in half, and I will start writing on one side of it. And, you know, if that goes on-if it's longer than that-I will go to the other side. And then when I have to store them, I will shove them together, you know, in a way that they can be folded-in inside, and the latest one will be on top. But also, I will write on yellow pads, and that'll come into the process. And then there are the typed sheets. It all sounds pretty chaotic when I say it, or really compulsive.
ryan90
DB: But is it usually that progression? It starts on typing paper, moves to the yellow sheets, and then to the computer?
ryan91
MR: Well, it varies. Sometimes, there are no yellow sheets. But I will never start composing a poem on the typewriter, or on a computer. Ever. That doesn't happen. It's all by hand. So it always goes that way.
ryan92
DB: In terms of your prose work, does that start on the computer?
[00:22:13]
ryan93
MR: Yeah. For some reason, I can write prose on the computer-and prefer to write it on the computer-because I will change a lot as I am writing. But why that would be specific and, you know, so distinct from one to the other, is a mystery to me. Maybe just because that I originally wrote prose by hand, too. I only stopped writing it by hand, I think, about 20 years ago. I think I wrote Secret Life on the computer.
[00:22:16]
ryan94
DB: On the computer?
ryan95
MR: Maybe when computers came in.
ryan96
DB: That was sort of what led to more writing?
ryan97
MR: I think mostly, yeah. That was in the '80s. I had one of those enormous things with a huge processor.
ryan98
DB: Did you note a difference once you weren't using the typewriter anymore and you moved to the computer?
ryan99
MR: Well, one great thing about it was that you could make changes, and you didn't have to retype the whole thing, which is what you had to do before that.
ryan100
DB: And had you composed prose longhand? I mean, did you ever do that?
ryan101
MR: Yes. Most of the essays in my book of essays, which was published in 2000, were composed longhand.
ryan102
DB: And those essays, though, were they written earlier? I'm assuming much earlier than 2000?
ryan103
MR: Quite a few of them were, but maybe the last ones in it were composed on a computer-that's, in fact, likely.
ryan104
DB: So, the computer came in in kind of the late '80s-did you notice, as computers got more powerful, did anything change then? Or does it feel basically the same since the first time?
[00:24:23]
ryan105
MR: Well that first time, before you were born-
ryan106
DB: No, I was born.
ryan107
MR: Yeah but they, you know, they were so slow. But at that time, it seemed like magic, just that being able to change it. So yeah, of course it has changed. Everything has accelerated-you can look up stuff, look up definitions of words. I would often write with a dictionary. I never have called a poem finished before I looked up most of the words in the poem. I like to see how the etymologies work in relationship to one another before I call something "finished." Now you can do a lot of that on the computer.
ryan108
DB: And now have you moved from using physical dictionaries to-?
ryan109
MR: I still have them. They are next to my chair upstairs. I still like to do that. But yeah, I'm not systematic about it. I'll look up things on the computer, too.
ryan110
DB: Okay. And so when you first started using the computer, were you also always printing out? You never really worked on the screen even in the early days?
ryan111
MR: Yes.
ryan112
DB: So now we're going to move kind of the revision section-we're talking about both, and that's fine.
ryan113
MR: Okay.
ryan114
DB: So you spoke some about your revision practices when you first started as being fairly small. What was it prompted this sort of the change to move into a more robust revision strategy?
[00:26:40]
ryan115
MR: Well, the poem that I wanted-needed, or could see-to write couldn't be written in a single draft. So I guess I'd get something that felt rich enough, and compelling enough, to keep pounding. And that did seem to create a sort of breakthrough for me.
ryan116
DB: Did you learn this revision technique? Did other people influence you in developing this, or was it something that you kind of built on your own?
ryan117
MR: Well, I had been taking workshop at the University of Iowa for a year, but it's not my memory that we ever really spoke about that. And so it was really compelled from the inside-out. It was more that the piece just wouldn't yield, and yet it wasn't going to be thrown away, either-there was something in it. So I don't know-my relationship to the whole enterprise shifted. I just started working more slowly in the sense of not less-probably, in fact, more-it just got finished a lot more slowly. And there were a lot less poems. And now I write very few. I mean I write a lot of poems still, but it seems like 1 out of 100 starts comes to fruition, at most.
ryan118
DB: Okay. Your style of revision-are you adding, are you subtracting, or are you sort of substituting? Or is it a combination of those?
[00:28:39]
ryan119
MR: I'm pushing into it. I'm pushing as far down into it-and as far out-as I can, with attention to all the aspects of poetry as I understand it and hope that the poem embodies, you know? Rich Wilbur said, "My intention in writing a poem is to exhaust the subject." I don't ignore that. I don't ignore-in my own mind, at least-anything. I want everything to be working on eight cylinders, and of course I never achieve that. It's an impossible ideal. But I'm trying to grow into the language. I'm trying to grow deeper into the subject. I'm trying to make the story-if there is one, or one implicit-I'm working with every aspect of it. But it's essentially getting a line that might be a beginning, and that it contains everything else. That's the weird and sort of mystical aspect. It's all in that piece, and it's driving you to complete it.
ryan120
DB: Yeah, and how do those lines come to you?
ryan121
MR: Randomly. Sometimes when I'm reading. I was reading this morning and it sparked something and I wrote it down, but it probably will never see the light of day. Or in the middle of the night-I have to get up out of bed and turn on the light, write down the line. But it almost never sees the light of day. I have various repositories for these lines, but it's gotten pretty disorganized, too. I used to be a lot better at keeping them in one place, but I do try to dig it all out and look at it sometimes, especially when I'm dry, or, because of teaching, I haven't been able to work on my writing for a while. So to get started again, I'll just look at all this-what to me is-raw material. But raw material can come from anywhere. It can come from somebody else's writing, too. But it has mostly got to come from my own.
ryan122
DB: And so, for a line that you wake up in the middle of the night to write down, what do you write it down on?
[00:31:36]
ryan123
MR: Well, I can write it in my journal. I keep a journal now, a handwritten journal. Or I can just write it on a piece of folded paper.
ryan124
DB: How is the journal related to the writing at this point? Have you been doing that your whole career or is that a more recent development?
ryan125
MR: No, I've been doing that for about the last 15 years. The journal, for me, is a separate enterprise. It's just the kind of vomiting that I probably wouldn't want anybody else to ever read. But there is stuff in it sometimes, you know. I have gone through the exhausting, narcissistic process of rereading the journals sometimes, and right now what I have started doing is I write the journal in black ink and if there's something that I want to remember for writing-prose, poetry-I will underline it in blue, so that I can go back through it and see what those things are.
[00:32:02]
ryan126
DB: Okay. So you say that you're still writing a lot, but there are a lot fewer that are coming up to that level. I mean, how has that changed over the course of your career? Were they more kind of bubbling-up, or do you have higher standards at this point?
ryan127
MR: It's not really standards. I mean, I want it to be as good as it can be, always. So the standard is, you know-that's the standard. Whether or not I ever achieve it-or how often I do-is unfortunately not for me to say. Because I would say that it pretty much either achieves that standard and simultaneously doesn't. So again, it's just my audience for a poem is the poem. What anybody else thinks of it-or even what I think of it-doesn't matter at all. To me, what I want to do is get the poem to come off of the page and become a thing. So, you know, again, whether or not I'm doing that, that's sort of the illusion that I'm under.
ryan128
DB: How do you know when it's a "thing"?
ryan129
MR: I don't know. Except I do know. I'm talking like a Zen...
ryan130
DB: Yes, yes. I mean, it is almost certain.
ryan131
MR: I mean, I don't really know how to answer that because again, it depends upon the piece, so it's contingent. But I interrogate my work brutally. I would never want anyone to talk to anyone else the way that I talk to my poems. I ask them at every moment, "Are you interesting? Are you interesting? Are you interesting? Is this engaging?" Every nanosecond of the piece, I want it to be-Keats said, in his letters, he wanted "to load every rift with ore." And he was talking about sound, mostly, in that particular context. But that's what I want to do. Every moment provides an opportunity, and you just don't want to lose your attention to that.
ryan132
DB: Right. Has your definition of "interesting" become slimmer as your practices have been going forward?
[00:35:45]
ryan133
MR: I think it has actually become wider. I think I'm a little bit-not much-but a little less obsessive, and a little less tunnel-vision than I was when I was younger. But my taste has not really changed in music, in painting, in poetry. You know, I've discovered new things along the way, but I remember seemingly consistent, and hide-bound.
ryan134
DB: What role do other people play in your revision process?
[00:36:33]
ryan135
MR: Well, I have trusted readers, some of whom I've had for a very, very long time. I think what you want in a reader is somebody who loves your work-and maybe loves you-but will tell you the truth about a piece. Even to the point of saying, "This really doesn't work at all, and belongs in the bone pile," but who will tell you, at every place, what doesn't work for them. And you can get a group of these responses, and you can see which ones are useful. I've changed things because of those responses, but I also have not changed things.
ryan136
DB: How does that work in a logistical way? Has that changed pretty dramatically?
[00:37:28]
ryan137
MR: No it hasn't. It's just a question. I mean, it's like going to a shrink or something, or talking to a friend, or a spouse-it gives you new eyes. You need new eyes. Then you're able to process that response, because it's concrete. It's not abstract. You can only interrogate it so far by yourself, and then you need somebody to tell you, "This is working," or, "This isn't."
ryan138
DB: Are you now sending these over email?
ryan139
MR: Yeah.
ryan140
DB: And before there was email?
ryan141
MR: Through snail mail.
ryan142
DB: But it was a similar process?
ryan143
MR: Same thing.
ryan144
DB: Do you find the immediacy of email has changed it?
ryan145
MR: We've become terribly spoiled by the immediacy of email. I mean, you send something off and you expect something is going to come back in the next 3 minutes. If it's something you're particularly looking for, you check your email 712 times a day. It takes a real discipline for me not to do that, because I would spend all my time doing that, otherwise.
ryan146
DB: So this is the kind of organizational archival portion. How do kind of keep track of all the work that you have, coming from beginning to end? Like, say, just one poem for instance. Do you have many going at the same time, or are you always working on one, and then that comes and you move on to the next?
[00:39:14]
ryan147
MR: I never have been able to do more than one thing at a time, ever. And so if I'm working on an essay, that's all I'm working on. If I'm working on a poem, that's all I'm working on. If I'm working on a nonfiction piece, that's all I'm doing. I just don't have the capacity. I might, you know, still have lines of poems in the middle of the night or come to me, and I will write them down, but I don't work on those. I never bring anything to completion, stop this and do this, and go back to that. I just have to totally immerse myself in what I'm doing.
ryan148
DB: And so, once that becomes version 10, or whatever, on the computer, and then you've moved onto the next, how do those then coalescence into a collection?
ryan149
MR: Well, I have the final drafts of each of the poems, at a certain point. Most books of poems are about 40 poems, about 50, 60 pages-at least mine are. So, usually somewhere in the 30s, the book will start to take shape. There might be a great number of those that won't make it into the book. Some will seem too weak. I've published quite a few poems in magazines that didn't go into any collection ever. So there is a process of winnowing at that point, and even more revision of individual pieces. But I will take it out of the folder that it's in-you know, it will be X-10, Y-25 or whatever the piece is-and then I'll take the final version and just save it into the book folder. You know, I'm still working in the compositional folder, but it will then be, "These are finished, and these are going to go into a book."
[00:40:36]
ryan150
DB: And then when you are putting together the order, when you have maybe all of the poems ready, how do you go about doing that?
[00:42:08]
ryan151
MR: Well, they'll all be printed out in their final versions, and I'll mess with them. I'll mess with the paper. I couldn't do it any other way.
ryan152
DB: Yeah. And do you have any other rituals or things for doing that? Do you put them all out on the wall, or something like that?
ryan153
MR: I've heard of people who do that-they spread them out on the floor and stuff-but I've never done that. I do make, sometimes, arbitrary decisions. I don't like-though I used them earlier on-sections. I don't do that anymore. I don't think that's in my last work-I should probably check. I mean, my preference is for it to be one thing.
ryan154
DB: So, some of this collection work hasn't changed-I mean, small things, like not using sections anymore, and things like that. Do you notice any other changes from your earlier career to now?
ryan155
MR: In terms of?
ryan156
DB: Composing, say, the book as a whole once you're at that finished stage?
ryan157
MR: No. I can't really say so. It's, again, a process of trying to realize it as best you can and also to not publish it until it's ready to be published. And I certainly didn't choose to take-it's about 10 years between books of poems,, on the average but I also did write three other books. So, they took some time as well, but I've never been anxious to put something out before I was happy with it.
ryan158
DB: Okay. So, that's sort of the basic sort of process portion. Is there anything else you think you should mention or we should talk about? I mean this is going to be kind of another short answer portion, like a lot of the computer questions, basically.
[00:44:33]
ryan159
MR: Well, no.
ryan160
DB: That's fine.
ryan161
MR: I mean there's also infinite subjects to talk about but, you know, I think the most interesting part of this for thinking about making it into a magazine thing was the questions about composition.
ryan162
DB: Yeah. So, these are kind of the more, I guess, blunter questions about computer use, and I think we mentioned some of these. When did you start using computers on a regular basis? Late 80s?
ryan163
MR: Probably mid-80s.
ryan164
DB: Mid-80s?
ryan165
MR: It was pretty early.
ryan166
DB: Okay. And how did you have access to a computer? Was it a personal computer?
ryan167
MR: I bought it.
ryan168
DB: You bought it?
ryan169
MR: It cost a lot of money, too. At least I didn't have much at the time.
ryan170
DB: Yeah. What drove you to make that purchase if it was a larger one?
ryan171
MR: Friends had told me-who were writers-that, "You've got to do this. This is amazing and wonderful. Do it." The program assistant at Warren Wilson knew computers, and so I could take some tutorials with her, and she showed me how to do it. And a lot of the writers-it's a low-residency program; two weeks every six months-a lot of the writers were going to her at that time.
ryan172
DB: Did you agree with your friends that it was this great thing to have once you had it?
ryan173
MR: Again, it was great to be able to change things without typing them all out again-and that's pretty much all you could with it. There was no internet. There was no email. All it was was a word processor.
ryan174
DB: Did that have any effect on your style, or on your process?
ryan175
MR: Not that I could track. I wrote letters first on the computer. It was still snail mail and so, I was composing letters on the computer. But I would compose letters on the typewriter, too. I've always done that, and not written letters by hand-I'd always typed them. But I liked being able to-you see me doing this with my fingers. I liked being able to do that. And I think that's what led me to start composing prose on the computer, because it was easier for me write physically.
ryan176
DB: I know you've been working in rhymed verse, or in formal rhymed verse, since the beginning, but I feel like it's increased more as you've gotten into your later career. That was one of things I was wondering when I was reading your stuff again for this interview. It doesn't seem that the computer really has any play in that-like, I thought there might be an easier way to work with rhyme or something like that, but you're still mostly doing that all on paper?
[00:47:54]
ryan177
MR: Yes. But I have looked up-I confess-rhyming pairs. There are rhyming dictionaries online. So, sometimes I've used those just to see what the options are.
ryan178
DB: Right.
ryan179
MR: I want to write a rhymed poem as if you don't even know it's rhymed, unless it's purposeful that you do know it's rhymed. So, yes, in that aspect of it. But in terms of composition? No.
ryan180
DB: Okay. How was your relationship with the computer changed? I guess that's a very weird question, but I guess I'm wondering how you feel about the files themselves? Were you always kind of conscientious about trying to save them, or are they more of means to an end?
[00:49:11]
ryan181
MR: I don't really think about that much. I think I've had a few computers crash-I don't remember. Did I ever lose anything? I don't recall. I don't think so. Not poetry, anyway. But what did I do before computers? How did I save stuff? I think just in the folder. And I still do that. I still keep a physical folder of finished poems. I have the poems I finished since This Morning-
ryan182
DB: This Morning, the book, not-
ryan183
MR: This Morning, right. Yeah. That would be a lot for me. Since 2012, they are in just a file folder upstairs, the paper copies. The finished book, the final drafts.
ryan184
DB: Do you have any sort of "dear" feelings for like, say, maybe some of the paper, maybe the hand-written work, or anything like that? Do you try to protect it? Do you kind of give it extra attention in any way?
ryan185
MR: Well, I do invite it to dinner every once in a while. I take it to the movie when it feels neglected. And I pet it, sometimes. Speak very soft, kind words. Um-no.
ryan186
DB: The computer has more of a kind of ease of typographical flourishes. Have you ever used any of those options on the computer?
[00:51:15]
ryan187
MR: No.
ryan188
DB: Do you use spell check?
ryan189
MR: No. But I don't have spell check. I mean, the program will underline something in red if it's misspelled. If it's misspelled, I will correct the spelling, but I don't think I have an automatic-maybe I do? I don't know. I've never used it. I won spelling bees.
ryan190
DB: When you're writing are you connected? Well, when you write, you kind of compose mostly off the computer. I guess when you're typing it out, are you connected to the internet? Are you using the internet in any way with the poem?
ryan191
MR: Poem?
ryan192
DB: Or with prose? I mean, either way?
ryan193
MR: Well, in the act of writing, again, for the most part, when I'm on the computer for a poem, I'm not composing. I am just typing. And then I might use the internet to look up a word or-I've never really been conscious, particularly, of the process. When I've written prose that involves a reference to something, or I'm trying to think of what the thing is that I want it to refer to, I'll look up stuff. The process of composing? Well, I guess I'm inside of it in the same way. I'm trying to make it rich in all the same ways, except the relationships among the language and structure and what you can do in a poem that you can't in a piece of prose, and vice versa. But yeah, I will. I'll go to something if I need to.
ryan194
DB: Can you pinpoint a point a time when the internet became more of an important part of your working or writing life?
ryan195
MR: I don't even really remember very well. We went to France in 1997 and there was no internet. So, that's what-17 years ago? We had no email. I think internet was just kind of beginning, here. I remember a friend of mine, whose wife is a novelist, saying that his wife had sent her novel to her agent over "the wire." That was about that time, and I thought, "My God! That's amazing!" But, yeah-I don't really remember when it came into such a degree that it became something resembling what it is today. It seems like it was a very gradual process.
ryan196
DB: Do you note, like, in maybe different books, or in your relation with publishers, that there was a difference or a change? I'm guessing your book of essays came out 2000-did you interact with the publisher there online? Did you do that with the selected?
[00:55:00]
ryan197
MR: As I recall, there was email very shortly after we came back from France in 1997. So, those last three years of the century, email kind of just started to become the mode of communication. And yes-I was working with a copy editor who lived in San Diego, and we would send things back and forth and to the publisher, which was in Georgia. Yeah, it was all in place by then.
ryan198
DB: Do you ever worry about the security or, sort of, fixity of the files, the computer files that you have now? Is that a conscious concern, or-?
ryan199
MR: Like someone would get into it and-?
ryan200
DB: I guess more like the computer would crash, and you would lose them.
ryan201
MR: Well, you know, I have paper copies, and recovery methods are pretty sophisticated for hard disks. I have an old laptop in my closet that I thought to get the hard disk transcribed to a newer computer. I just have never done it. It's probably impossible, now-it's way out of date. But outside of that, one, I think, did crash. I've just taken whatever is on the hard disk of the old one and transferred it to the hard disk of the new one, and as I said, I believe this thing has automatic backup on it.
ryan202
I don't know how they do that but I'm pretty ignorant of all these stuff, and willfully so. It just would suck up too much of my time to learn about it. But I do know writers who are really pretty expert, and probably it ends up using less of your time once you learn it. But I have a physical aversion to reading manuals, so I can't do it. So, I have a computer guy-a very nice guy. If any of us-my wife, my daughter, or I-have any problems, I call him up. He's usually here within a couple of hours.
ryan203
DB: Okay. How often do you see this gentleman?
ryan204
MR: Well, only when we have a problem, but he also has that "log me in," I think it's called? So, he has all three of our computers accessed-everything on them-from his office. So, I hope he continues to like me. I overpay him and-
ryan205
DB: That's probably wise.
ryan206
MR: Yeah, I think so. He has access to everything on all the computers. So, I'm not sure if that's ridiculous or not, but-
[00:58:42]
ryan207
DB: How did you establish this relationship?
ryan208
MR: He works for the school, but he does this for us privately. So, I met him through his working for the School of Humanities. A very sweet guy.
ryan209
DB: You talked a little bit about the correspondence changing from snail mail to email. Do you feel like you do more correspondence now with email, or is it about the same throughout your career?
ryan210
MR: Well, as you know, it's a completely different animal. A lot of emails have no addressee, and no "complimentary close," as we called it in 4th grade-"Sincerely, Michael." People write two, three words, or one sentence for an answer to an immediate question. It's nothing like a letter. You wouldn't write a letter like that.
ryan211
DB: In terms of like the correspondence you have with writers and things like that, is there a marked change in that correspondence, as well?
ryan212
MR: When I'm responding to somebody's manuscript, I would say there is no change. So, I will write them a letter, essentially the exact same thing I would have been sent through the mail. But other things, like personal correspondence, tends to be a lot briefer. I mean, I'll still try to be funny in emails. I mean, that's actually the thing I do the most. And I can also send people hilarious stuff from YouTube, or whatever, and I get those back, and sometimes they'll send jokes, or whatever. So, there are changes. There are also similarities, but because it's so much faster and so much easier, you can make it shorter.
ryan213
DB: In terms of your own sort of reading and thinking, have you found the computer a boon to finding new work, or to finding new writers to read, or anything like that?
[01:01:05]
ryan214
MR: I don't like to read off the screen. If I really want to read something-if it's an article in a newspaper or something-I will usually print it out. Also, I'm having some physical problems using computers, and probably heading for a shoulder surgery this summer, so it's not physically comfortable to spend too much time on it. But mostly, even before that, I don't like to read off the screen. I like to read off a page.
[01:01:20]
ryan215
DB: What is the difference, do you feel, for yourself?
ryan216
MR: That's a very good question. I like having a physical thing in my hands to read from. That's native to me. I mean, screens didn't come in any significant way until about 15 years ago. So, I was reading for many years-probably 50 or so-before that happened. I would imagine that kids are perfectly happy reading off the screen. My daughter texts her friends all the time and gets texts and emails, and I don't text anybody. I don't do text, you know. I'm like my grandmother with the telephone.
ryan217
DB: And then, I guess, sort of a little bit of on teaching, and then just kind of ending. So, have you seen-with the computer rise and all that-has your teaching changed pretty fundamentally, or has it stayed the same?
[01:03:10]
ryan218
MR: Oh man. Well, it's a teacher's nightmare, in so far as, you know, you can be contacted any time in the night or day. And you can't live teaching without email. It's not possible anymore. It's just assumed that you're going to get notices from school, you're going to get communications. You just simply would not be able to function. Because when this technology-and this is commonplace-it just makes the other technology completely obsolete. So, the way people communicated with you before-when I was teaching before the advent of all of this stuff-none of those communications would come through those means. And now all of them do.
ryan219
So, it isn't that you can just stop and get them from other sources, because they don't come from other sources. So, all the emails I get from the chair of the English Department that go out to every member of the English department, they don't appear in my mailbox. Which, before, I would get them every four days that I went into school. The assumption of the timeframe has radically changed and compressed. So, just it's so much more of your attention that it's really necessary for me to limit that. I don't have an iPhone. I have a dumb phone, and I don't want emails following me around all day.
ryan220
DB: Yeah. I'd like to drop mine off too. Did this kind of, I guess, greater reach of email and the sort of technological stuff that we've been accustomed to, has that changed your writing in anyway? Has that impacted your time? Has that impacted your attention?
[01:05:22]
ryan221
MR: I would like to think not, but again, there is an addictive quality to sitting on the computer that I've noticed-that I check my email, and then I'll look at the weather, and then I want to see what the headlines in The New York Times are, and I'm sitting there. And why get up? So it has that quality of really drawing you into being in a relationship with it. There was a survey in The Guardian, which is the newspaper I read every once in a while-well, almost every day I'll look at it-and the question was, "Would you rather give up sex, or your computer for the rest of your life?" And guess what 70% of the people answered.
ryan222
DB: Sex.
ryan223
MR: So, if that isn't insane, I don't know what is. Or maybe the two are coterminous for people. But it has really become something radically different.
ryan224
DB: Do you feel that your students have changed in their kind of cultural, technological understanding or relationships with you, since the rise of the internet?
[01:06:59]
ryan225
MR: No, I wouldn't say that. Again, they can contact me at any time.
ryan226
DB: So, that's a change?
ryan227
MR: But that's fine with me. I mean, they respect me. I actually contact them more than they contact me, and they are very, very considerate of my time and my attention. So, it's not really a problem. It's just that I think their relationship to technology is very different from mine. They were talking the other day at a pause in the workshop about how many of them are still doing Facebook. I've never done Facebook. I never would do Facebook. Facebook is my worst nightmare. The idea that anybody-you know, I still get emails from strangers and people I used to know, and all this stuff. And I don't want any of that stuff. But they were saying they do Facebook, but for their undergraduates-their students, four years younger-than Facebook is passé. They don't do Facebook. They do whatever-
ryan228
DB: Some other thing.
ryan229
MR: So I am very much like my grandmother still screaming into the phone, because the way she had phones-which didn't come until she was pretty old to start with-you had to crank it, and you had to shout into the thing. And so she just kept doing that, even when she didn't have to.
[01:08:32]
ryan230
DB: Yeah. Then I think, finally, sort of my blunt ending question-do you have any kind of thoughts as to what really changed with the advent of computers in relationship to writing? I mean, has there been a change in your opinion, or do you see it as something that has simply transferred kind of analog practices into a virtual environment?
[01:09:03]
ryan231
MR: Well, I'm not sure that I'm educated enough to answer that question, and the area that it affects that is most important to me is poetry. And in fact, I think there is a great opportunity. Poems, you know-the convention is an artificial convention. But for the last how many hundred years, at least probably 200, maybe even a little more than that, have been published in the form of books. That's just the way poems have primarily appeared. Also, individual poems have, over the last X years, appeared in magazines. I've had a number of poems published only online. Some of those poems have been accompanied by audio versions to the poems. Some of the poems have video versions. It seems to me that, you know, where this all could go, and I have no better idea than anyone else, is-I hope books don't stop existing. It's one of those technologies, like a bicycle, that seems like it will never go out. It's a good technology. But clearly, there also have been published poems that are also being published in other forms.
ryan232
I have published five books, and yet, there's probably 75, 80, 90-most of the content of my books are on the web right now, without my permission. I mean, they are just there. So anybody who wants to read poems by me, or any other poet, could find them right there, and they won't be in book form. They will be individual poems. For me, poetry is very much an auditory experience. When I am composing, I say them out loud in a kind of quiet voice. I like to read poems out loud. I'd like to hear them read out loud. I think you get a different apprehension of them than just reading them silently. So all that to me is for the good. I like hearing poems online. And I like seeing poets read online, but that's less important to me than being able to hear them. So that could really serve to make poems perhaps less like prose.
ryan233
DB: Yeah.
ryan234
MR: Just the technology.
ryan235
DB: That access to the auditory experience immediately with the printed page.
ryan236
MR: Yeah. It's very cool, and you can read it and listen to it at the same time if you want.
ryan237
DB: Yeah, and so when you're composing, you're also reading it out loud, like line by line, as you're writing the words?
ryan238
MR: I do. I always do that.
ryan239
DB: You always do that.
ryan240
MR: It's like a little whisper.
ryan241
DB: Okay. That's interesting. Okay. I think that's it.
ryan242
MR: All done?
ryan243
DB: Yeah. Thank you very much.
ryan244
MR: Thank you, Devin. That was fun. Fun is important.
ryan245
DB: Yes, it is.
beasley1
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?
[00:00:00]
beasley2
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.
beasley3
DB: What genres do you work in?
beasley4
BB: Poetry only.
beasley5
DB: What kinds of devices do you own or have access to for writing?
beasley6
BB: Devices?
beasley7
DB: Yeah.
beasley8
BB: You mean like computers?
beasley9
DB: Sure.
beasley10
BB: I have a laptop, a Toshiba Satellite laptop computer, and that's mainly it.
beasley11
DB: Is that it? Do you work on a tablet or a phone or anything like that?
beasley12
BB: No.
beasley13
DB: Or pretty primarily on that device?
beasley14
BB: That and my office computer, which is a desktop.
beasley15
DB: The operating system on which you work, is that a Windows?
beasley16
BB: Windows 7—or that's Windows 8, now.
beasley17
DB: Do you work on that office computer very often or is that—?
beasley18
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.
beasley19
DB: How do you do that? Do you email them to yourself?
beasley20
BB: I have Carbonite on this computer.
beasley21
DB: Okay.
beasley22
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.
beasley23
DB: Okay, so you don't have the folder on your office computer, you just have the kind of shared folder here?
beasley24
BB: Yeah.
beasley25
DB: Do you use computers exclusively or do you also work —physically?
beasley26
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.
beasley27
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.
[00:3:50]
beasley28
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.
beasley29
DB: So, you'll have them, like, kind of spread out in a grid on your desk essentially?
beasley30
BB: Yes.
beasley31
DB: And then move them around. How does that help you—are you sort of picturing them on a page, then?
beasley32
DB: Or are you still kind of picturing them in the air? How is that?
[00:05:00]
beasley33
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."
beasley34
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.
beasley35
DB: Okay. And where do you walk?
beasley36
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.
beasley37
DB: Will you write while you are walking?
beasley38
BB: Yeah. I carry either note cards or a notebook with me and scribble things down as I'm walking.
beasley39
DB: Do you have specific notebooks that you use? I mean, that seems like a very unique notebook.
beasley40
BB: It's got a Byzantine cross on it. It's kind of appropriate for me.
beasley41
DB: Yeah! No, it's great. Do you have many of those?
beasley42
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.
beasley43
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.
[00:7:52]
beasley44
DB: Yeah, but you do write by hand a lot of the pieces of the poem.
beasley45
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.
beasley46
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?
beasley47
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.
beasley48
DB: Somewhere like in a box or in a file, cabinet?
beasley49
BB: Yeah.
beasley50
DB: And how many notebooks do you have at this point?
beasley51
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.
beasley52
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.
[00:9:25]
beasley53
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?
beasley54
BB: I don't like reading on the computer, I never have.
beasley55
DB: Okay.
beasley56
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.
[00:10:00]
beasley57
DB: And you do this once a year? You print out everything once a year?
beasley58
BB: Yes.
beasley59
DB: Are there dates on the poems themselves?
beasley60
BB: Yeah.
beasley61
DB: So you date—and do you put a time? Or do you just—?
beasley62
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.
beasley63
DB: Do you have like a schedule to which you try to keep, or is this just kind of a continual work?
beasley64
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.
beasley65
DB: So, mostly it's here.
beasley66
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.
beasley67
DB: And usually those correspond to your teaching?
[00:12:08]
beasley68
BB: Yeah.
beasley69
DB: And you teach—is Western on a quarter system?
beasley70
BB: Mm-hmm.
beasley71
DB: So, you teach from September to mid June every year?
beasley72
BB: Late September to early June, yeah.
beasley73
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?
beasley74
BB: My first book was published in 1988, so '98, 2008—twenty-five, twenty-six years.
beasley75
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?
beasley76
BB: In terms of what I have written and published?
beasley77
DB: Yeah. Where you've been, what the projects have been, etc.
beasley78
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.
beasley79
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.
beasley80
DB: Who chose that? Was that Charles Wright? Or was that the next one was Charles Wright?
beasley81
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.
[00:15:00]
beasley82
DB: And from 1992 to now, you've been professor at Western Washington, teaching?
[00:16:16]
beasley83
BB: Yeah.
beasley84
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.
beasley85
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?
beasley86
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.
beasley87
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.
beasley88
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?
beasley89
BB: I was typing.
beasley90
DB: You were just typing?
beasley91
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?
beasley92
DB: With like serrated edges? Yeah.
beasley93
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.
beasley94
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—?
beasley95
BB: No, I had to be at my desk, so I couldn't.
beasley96
DB: You had to be at your desk. Would you write lines and then rearrange them at that point? Or were you kind