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Interview with Michael Ryan

Irvine, CA on March 18, 2014 | Interviewer: Devin Becker

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Devin Becker: Here we are. It's March 18th and this is an interview with Michael Ryan. Okay-the interview kind of has two parts. The first part I just sort of ask about your current practices. It's based on the survey Collier and I did for an article about two years ago of like younger poets and how they work with digital media. So those are meant to be sort of short answer, just about how you save, how you type, stuff like that. Then, we'll kind of talk more about the arc of your career and different ways your process has changed or not changed in accordance with history, technology, culture. So if you don't mind, please state your name, date of birth, and where we are.
Michael Ryan: Michael Ryan, 24th of February 1946, and I believe we're in Irvine, California.
DB: Okay. This is kind of how you work currently. What genres do you work in as a writer?
MR: I write prose and poetry, essays, nonfiction, and mostly poems.
DB: So you're primary genre is poetry then?
MR: Yeah.
DB: I know these answers. Some of these will be repetitive and if it's like, you're like, "Okay, I answered that," just tell me.
MR: That's fine.
DB: Okay. What kinds of devices do you own or have access to for your writing, in terms of computer devices?
MR: I have a desktop computer and an iPad. I don't use the iPad much, but sometimes for internet stuff.
DB: Do you have a desktop computer here? Do you have one also at your office that you work on?
MR: I don't use it.
DB: You don't use it?
MR: Yeah.
DB: Okay. So, that's your main computer for composing?
MR: That's it.
DB: That's it?
MR: Pretty much, yeah.
DB: What operating system are you using?
MR: Microsoft Word.
DB: Is it a PC or a MAC?
MR: It's a PC.
DB: It's a PC, okay. Do you use computers exclusively for your work or do you use both physical and digital environments?
MR: What does that mean?
DB: I mean, do you work on paper and digitally? Do you go back and forth, or are you at the point where you work primarily on the computer?
MR: I draft poems by hand and then I'll go back to the computer and go sometimes back and forth. Prose, I write on the computer.
DB: Okay. At which point-if you're writing by hand-do you move to the computer?
MR: Yeah, it depends. Just it seems to be finished enough to make a typed copy.
DB: Okay. Do you have any prewriting or notes to these things or are they usually-?
MR: Yeah, again, it depends on the piece. They're all very different, but sometimes there are a lot of notes, sometimes there's not much. I don't usually take notes on the computer. I usually will do that by hand.
DB: Do you save those prewriting notes, the physical copies? Do you keep them somewhere or-?
MR: I keep everything, yeah. My papers are at the University of Virginia. Theoretically, someday I should be sending what's accumulated to them.
DB: How do you save your digital files, like your poem files, etc?
MR: I try to do them in terms of the draft numbers. Like, I will save the title. Sometimes, I'll put the date if it seems germane, but I will put numbers so that the first draft that goes on the computer is "1," and so forth.
DB: Do you save them all in one folder? What's the folder system like? Are you saving them in just, like, "Poetry Folder"?
MR: Yeah, no, just one. Currently, it's "Poems 2012-" because that was when I finished my last book of poems. So they're kind of arranged by book.
DB: Once you have the poem on a computer, do you ever print it out to revise it that way?
MR: Yes.
DB: Do you save paper copies of those drafts?
MR: Yeah. Well, usually. I can get sloppy about it, but I try to save most.
DB: How do you do that? Do you put them in files? Do you put them in boxes?
MR: My office is filled with stacks of brown boxes, as you might remember. It's all a big mess and a big pile.
DB: Some lucky archivist someday will have several months of work.
MR: Yeah. Lucky, or perhaps not so lucky.
DB: Were there also like brown bags too, or was it just boxes? I feel like I remember paper bags-?
MR: No, there were not brown bags.
DB: They were boxes? My memory-
MR: That's a screened memory, Devin. You think I'm sloppier that I already am.
DB: I picture you with grisly bags full of your working drafts.
MR: It's pathetic, but not quite that pathetic.
DB: I know. Do you back up your digital copies? Do you put them on a hard drive somewhere else, or any of that?
MR: No, I hope it has a back up system on it-I think it does. I think it backs it up automatically.
DB: Okay. Are you using something like Dropbox or any of those kind of cloud things?
MR: No, I'm not.
DB: Okay. Once you're finished with the poem, how do you save that finished piece? Does that go into a manuscript file? What happens once you feel like the poem is done?
MR: Well again, when it's done, it's just number whatever, "15," of that particular poem, and it just stays in that folder until it's time for a book. And then, I will transfer the latest final draft of everything into some other place, so that it's just the final drafts. Then, there's always galleys and proofread stuff, and so that becomes a separate folder.
DB: Okay. That's the quick digital beginning part of it. Now, we'll kind of talk with larger scope. How long have you been writing professionally, is the first question? By professionally, I mean in a way that you are sort of supporting yourself or that it has led to jobs or something like that.
MR: The first poem I published was in 1970. So, 44 years.
DB: What was your first poem?
MR: Actually, the first published poem that was in my first book was 1970, but before that there were a couple. But the first one and the oldest poem in my New and Selected is a poem called "Hitting Fungoes."
DB: Yeah, I like that one. Would you please describe the arc of your career, like kind of education all the way through what your current kind of position?
MR: I've been teaching all of that time.
DB: I mean, even before that, like your kind of education leading up to that too.
MR: When I went to Notre Dame, there weren't any writing workshops. I was an English major and I was interested in being-I was the editor of the literary magazine at Notre Dame when I was a senior there, and I wrote extremely bad undergraduate poems. I then went to Claremont graduate school and Claremont here, and was going to get a PhD in English and was writing poems all of that time, and decided to leave after three semesters, and dropped out, went to Cambridge, lived with some friends and I worked in a bookstore in Harvard Square.
There's a funny story about after I quit at Claremont. I was sort of a lame duck there. It was during the time of the Cambodia invasion and it was a very charged political time. I had gone through Iowa City and expected that since I was a poet, all the faculty on the workshop would want to read my poems. Kindly, George Starbuck met with me and I handed him a manuscript of poems and he put it in his desk drawer. We just talked for a few minutes. That was it and I left. After I quit the PhD program at Claremont, I got a letter from George Starbuck saying "You're accepted to the workshop. Why don't you apply?"
DB: That's nice.
MR: Wasn't it?
DB: Yeah.
MR: A miracle. Never could happen now, or come close to such a thing. But anyways, he was a sweet man and apparently saw something in my poems. So then I went to Iowa from 19970-1974. I got an MFA there. I couldn't get a job after getting an MFA, so they kindly offered to put me up for another year. I worked in the Iowa Review as a poetry editor. But they said, "If you're going to stay, you have to go back in the PhD program because we have to have a way to give you graduate aid."
So I did that, and worked on the Iowa Review. Still couldn't get a job after the next year. The fourth year, or between that and the summer after my third year, I got a call from the Yale University Press saying I won the Yale Series of Younger Poets, and so I went back to Iowa for a fourth year and finished up my PhD. They put me on the faculty for my last semester there. When I went to Southern Methodist University from there for four years, I then directed the MFA program-which is now at Warren Wilson-while it was at Goddard, and while the director, Ellen Voigt, had her Guggenheim year. I was there two years, I guess. No-one year. And then I went to Princeton for two years, and to Charlottesville, Virginia at the University of Virginia as a visitor, and was also, mostly, at Warren Wilson for all those years. And then came here, and I've been here since 1991-University of California at Irvine.
DB: All right.
MR: Was that too long?
DB: No-that's exactly what I'm looking for. I mean, just sort of, "This is what happened," you know? Now, I'm going to kind of ask you more specifically about your writing practice. I kind of delineated it into like three stages-the first being kind of like compositional prewriting generative stage, the second being the kind of revision stage, and then the third being the kind of organizational archival stage, by which I mean, like, when things are starting to be finished and your putting them into books, and then what you do with those publications and how you kind of work with that archival stuff. Does that make sense? If that matches up with your writing process enough to talk then-
MR: Sort of.
DB: Usually, it will just kind of go, and you'll probably answer questions that I have later, and we'll just go forward. So what I like to talk about is kind of like how you are writing initially in the beginning parts of your career, and then kind of to think about how that changed-if there were sort of significant changes, what those were, and stuff like that.
DB: So, would you please describe kind of your typical compositional practices when you first started writing professionally, like at Iowa, and maybe a little past that area? How were you writing? Were you handwriting? Were you using a typewriter? Did you keep a notebook, things like that?
MR: I don't think I kept a notebook in those days. When I went to Iowa, I was writing five poems a week. It was fun and easy-"Hey! This is easy!" And occasionally changing a word or two, and all by hand. I mean I would have to type it up at some point and that was on a typewriter in those days. A manual typewriter, I think. That changed in my second year there. I guess I just hit a wall and saw that I couldn't write the poem I wanted-or hoped to write-in one draft. And started multiple-drafting much more frequently, almost always. Most of the poems in my first book were written that way, and not the old way.
DB: How did that work, like just nitty-gritty wise?
MR: Well, again, it's always been going back and-I mean, it's mostly handwritten over, and over, and over, and over, and over again, starting from the beginning. I never have been able to do it any other way. First word first. First syllable first. All the way to the end. Sometimes, I will have a whole-in fact, in the happiest times-I will have a whole draft to work from. But there really isn't any way to formalize it because everyone's different. Every single piece I've ever written comes differently, has different problems. William Maxwell said he learned nothing about writing the next novel from writing the last one. It does feel to me sort of like I'm inventing the wheel every time out, and they just don't resemble each other. I have written poems in single drafts-not very often, but-I've also written 250 drafts of a poem and still not finished it, and it ends up in the brown box. I have finished poems that I started 25 years earlier, because for whatever reason-you know, my life is changed, I've changed a little, I hope-and I saw the solution to the problem, that was insoluble. It really is like doing problems, I think. At that stage of composition, at least. The ideas kind of that you get something that compels you. Isn't that how it is? It drives you through to it's finished, and that finish may take a while or not. It might take forms, there can be snags along the way. There can be endings that don't come, but it isn't linear-there are problems that occur. Structural problems, and so forth.
DB: In terms of how this is going, kind of physically-you say you just write a draft and you never go back and cross it out? Or do you write another draft, and another draft, and another draft, all handwritten? I'm just trying to clarify.
MR: No, I will cross things out, or write-in alternatives on the side.
DB: On the one sheet of paper?
MR: Yeah. I don't recopy the whole draft every single time-which I guess is what I indicated before-but not if it's just messing with tweaks. But sometimes the snag will get hit at line-whatever-5. Then, I will start all over again, or at line 25. I just have to have the whole thing in my head at a certain point, but rarely before a whole draft is there. I will go to the computer and type it up, and then it helps to see it printed-out. I don't work on the screen. I print it out and then work on it some more by hand.
DB: Is the way that you do it with the computer now the same way that you used the typewriter?
MR: Essentially. I mean, I guess maybe sometimes I do make little changes on the screen. You know, if I'm typing it up again or something, that will perhaps provoke-probably very minor-changes. Changing an article or-you know.
DB: Yeah. But never anything very substantial.
MR: Well usually not, is my recollection.
DB: And the handwritten composition pieces, where do they exist, physically? Are they in a notebook? Are they on just regular pieces of paper, or-?
MR: They're on yellow-well, actually I do have two things. You're making me see how idiosyncratic I am. I guess everybody probably is. What I do is I take a piece of white typing paper-usually it has something written on the other side of it-I will fold it in half, and I will start writing on one side of it. And, you know, if that goes on-if it's longer than that-I will go to the other side. And then when I have to store them, I will shove them together, you know, in a way that they can be folded-in inside, and the latest one will be on top. But also, I will write on yellow pads, and that'll come into the process. And then there are the typed sheets. It all sounds pretty chaotic when I say it, or really compulsive.
DB: But is it usually that progression? It starts on typing paper, moves to the yellow sheets, and then to the computer?
MR: Well, it varies. Sometimes, there are no yellow sheets. But I will never start composing a poem on the typewriter, or on a computer. Ever. That doesn't happen. It's all by hand. So it always goes that way.
DB: In terms of your prose work, does that start on the computer?
MR: Yeah. For some reason, I can write prose on the computer-and prefer to write it on the computer-because I will change a lot as I am writing. But why that would be specific and, you know, so distinct from one to the other, is a mystery to me. Maybe just because that I originally wrote prose by hand, too. I only stopped writing it by hand, I think, about 20 years ago. I think I wrote Secret Life on the computer.
DB: On the computer?
MR: Maybe when computers came in.
DB: That was sort of what led to more writing?
MR: I think mostly, yeah. That was in the '80s. I had one of those enormous things with a huge processor.
DB: Did you note a difference once you weren't using the typewriter anymore and you moved to the computer?
MR: Well, one great thing about it was that you could make changes, and you didn't have to retype the whole thing, which is what you had to do before that.
DB: And had you composed prose longhand? I mean, did you ever do that?
MR: Yes. Most of the essays in my book of essays, which was published in 2000, were composed longhand.
DB: And those essays, though, were they written earlier? I'm assuming much earlier than 2000?
MR: Quite a few of them were, but maybe the last ones in it were composed on a computer-that's, in fact, likely.
DB: So, the computer came in in kind of the late '80s-did you notice, as computers got more powerful, did anything change then? Or does it feel basically the same since the first time?
MR: Well that first time, before you were born-
DB: No, I was born.
MR: Yeah but they, you know, they were so slow. But at that time, it seemed like magic, just that being able to change it. So yeah, of course it has changed. Everything has accelerated-you can look up stuff, look up definitions of words. I would often write with a dictionary. I never have called a poem finished before I looked up most of the words in the poem. I like to see how the etymologies work in relationship to one another before I call something "finished." Now you can do a lot of that on the computer.
DB: And now have you moved from using physical dictionaries to-?
MR: I still have them. They are next to my chair upstairs. I still like to do that. But yeah, I'm not systematic about it. I'll look up things on the computer, too.
DB: Okay. And so when you first started using the computer, were you also always printing out? You never really worked on the screen even in the early days?
MR: Yes.
DB: So now we're going to move kind of the revision section-we're talking about both, and that's fine.
MR: Okay.
DB: So you spoke some about your revision practices when you first started as being fairly small. What was it prompted this sort of the change to move into a more robust revision strategy?
MR: Well, the poem that I wanted-needed, or could see-to write couldn't be written in a single draft. So I guess I'd get something that felt rich enough, and compelling enough, to keep pounding. And that did seem to create a sort of breakthrough for me.
DB: Did you learn this revision technique? Did other people influence you in developing this, or was it something that you kind of built on your own?
MR: Well, I had been taking workshop at the University of Iowa for a year, but it's not my memory that we ever really spoke about that. And so it was really compelled from the inside-out. It was more that the piece just wouldn't yield, and yet it wasn't going to be thrown away, either-there was something in it. So I don't know-my relationship to the whole enterprise shifted. I just started working more slowly in the sense of not less-probably, in fact, more-it just got finished a lot more slowly. And there were a lot less poems. And now I write very few. I mean I write a lot of poems still, but it seems like 1 out of 100 starts comes to fruition, at most.
DB: Okay. Your style of revision-are you adding, are you subtracting, or are you sort of substituting? Or is it a combination of those?
MR: I'm pushing into it. I'm pushing as far down into it-and as far out-as I can, with attention to all the aspects of poetry as I understand it and hope that the poem embodies, you know? Rich Wilbur said, "My intention in writing a poem is to exhaust the subject." I don't ignore that. I don't ignore-in my own mind, at least-anything. I want everything to be working on eight cylinders, and of course I never achieve that. It's an impossible ideal. But I'm trying to grow into the language. I'm trying to grow deeper into the subject. I'm trying to make the story-if there is one, or one implicit-I'm working with every aspect of it. But it's essentially getting a line that might be a beginning, and that it contains everything else. That's the weird and sort of mystical aspect. It's all in that piece, and it's driving you to complete it.
DB: Yeah, and how do those lines come to you?
MR: Randomly. Sometimes when I'm reading. I was reading this morning and it sparked something and I wrote it down, but it probably will never see the light of day. Or in the middle of the night-I have to get up out of bed and turn on the light, write down the line. But it almost never sees the light of day. I have various repositories for these lines, but it's gotten pretty disorganized, too. I used to be a lot better at keeping them in one place, but I do try to dig it all out and look at it sometimes, especially when I'm dry, or, because of teaching, I haven't been able to work on my writing for a while. So to get started again, I'll just look at all this-what to me is-raw material. But raw material can come from anywhere. It can come from somebody else's writing, too. But it has mostly got to come from my own.
DB: And so, for a line that you wake up in the middle of the night to write down, what do you write it down on?
MR: Well, I can write it in my journal. I keep a journal now, a handwritten journal. Or I can just write it on a piece of folded paper.
DB: How is the journal related to the writing at this point? Have you been doing that your whole career or is that a more recent development?
MR: No, I've been doing that for about the last 15 years. The journal, for me, is a separate enterprise. It's just the kind of vomiting that I probably wouldn't want anybody else to ever read. But there is stuff in it sometimes, you know. I have gone through the exhausting, narcissistic process of rereading the journals sometimes, and right now what I have started doing is I write the journal in black ink and if there's something that I want to remember for writing-prose, poetry-I will underline it in blue, so that I can go back through it and see what those things are.
DB: Okay. So you say that you're still writing a lot, but there are a lot fewer that are coming up to that level. I mean, how has that changed over the course of your career? Were they more kind of bubbling-up, or do you have higher standards at this point?
MR: It's not really standards. I mean, I want it to be as good as it can be, always. So the standard is, you know-that's the standard. Whether or not I ever achieve it-or how often I do-is unfortunately not for me to say. Because I would say that it pretty much either achieves that standard and simultaneously doesn't. So again, it's just my audience for a poem is the poem. What anybody else thinks of it-or even what I think of it-doesn't matter at all. To me, what I want to do is get the poem to come off of the page and become a thing. So, you know, again, whether or not I'm doing that, that's sort of the illusion that I'm under.
DB: How do you know when it's a "thing"?
MR: I don't know. Except I do know. I'm talking like a Zen...
DB: Yes, yes. I mean, it is almost certain.
MR: I mean, I don't really know how to answer that because again, it depends upon the piece, so it's contingent. But I interrogate my work brutally. I would never want anyone to talk to anyone else the way that I talk to my poems. I ask them at every moment, "Are you interesting? Are you interesting? Are you interesting? Is this engaging?" Every nanosecond of the piece, I want it to be-Keats said, in his letters, he wanted "to load every rift with ore." And he was talking about sound, mostly, in that particular context. But that's what I want to do. Every moment provides an opportunity, and you just don't want to lose your attention to that.
DB: Right. Has your definition of "interesting" become slimmer as your practices have been going forward?
MR: I think it has actually become wider. I think I'm a little bit-not much-but a little less obsessive, and a little less tunnel-vision than I was when I was younger. But my taste has not really changed in music, in painting, in poetry. You know, I've discovered new things along the way, but I remember seemingly consistent, and hide-bound.
DB: What role do other people play in your revision process?
MR: Well, I have trusted readers, some of whom I've had for a very, very long time. I think what you want in a reader is somebody who loves your work-and maybe loves you-but will tell you the truth about a piece. Even to the point of saying, "This really doesn't work at all, and belongs in the bone pile," but who will tell you, at every place, what doesn't work for them. And you can get a group of these responses, and you can see which ones are useful. I've changed things because of those responses, but I also have not changed things.
DB: How does that work in a logistical way? Has that changed pretty dramatically?
MR: No it hasn't. It's just a question. I mean, it's like going to a shrink or something, or talking to a friend, or a spouse-it gives you new eyes. You need new eyes. Then you're able to process that response, because it's concrete. It's not abstract. You can only interrogate it so far by yourself, and then you need somebody to tell you, "This is working," or, "This isn't."
DB: Are you now sending these over email?
MR: Yeah.
DB: And before there was email?
MR: Through snail mail.
DB: But it was a similar process?
MR: Same thing.
DB: Do you find the immediacy of email has changed it?
MR: We've become terribly spoiled by the immediacy of email. I mean, you send something off and you expect something is going to come back in the next 3 minutes. If it's something you're particularly looking for, you check your email 712 times a day. It takes a real discipline for me not to do that, because I would spend all my time doing that, otherwise.
DB: So this is the kind of organizational archival portion. How do kind of keep track of all the work that you have, coming from beginning to end? Like, say, just one poem for instance. Do you have many going at the same time, or are you always working on one, and then that comes and you move on to the next?
MR: I never have been able to do more than one thing at a time, ever. And so if I'm working on an essay, that's all I'm working on. If I'm working on a poem, that's all I'm working on. If I'm working on a nonfiction piece, that's all I'm doing. I just don't have the capacity. I might, you know, still have lines of poems in the middle of the night or come to me, and I will write them down, but I don't work on those. I never bring anything to completion, stop this and do this, and go back to that. I just have to totally immerse myself in what I'm doing.
DB: And so, once that becomes version 10, or whatever, on the computer, and then you've moved onto the next, how do those then coalescence into a collection?
MR: Well, I have the final drafts of each of the poems, at a certain point. Most books of poems are about 40 poems, about 50, 60 pages-at least mine are. So, usually somewhere in the 30s, the book will start to take shape. There might be a great number of those that won't make it into the book. Some will seem too weak. I've published quite a few poems in magazines that didn't go into any collection ever. So there is a process of winnowing at that point, and even more revision of individual pieces. But I will take it out of the folder that it's in-you know, it will be X-10, Y-25 or whatever the piece is-and then I'll take the final version and just save it into the book folder. You know, I'm still working in the compositional folder, but it will then be, "These are finished, and these are going to go into a book."
DB: And then when you are putting together the order, when you have maybe all of the poems ready, how do you go about doing that?
MR: Well, they'll all be printed out in their final versions, and I'll mess with them. I'll mess with the paper. I couldn't do it any other way.
DB: Yeah. And do you have any other rituals or things for doing that? Do you put them all out on the wall, or something like that?
MR: I've heard of people who do that-they spread them out on the floor and stuff-but I've never done that. I do make, sometimes, arbitrary decisions. I don't like-though I used them earlier on-sections. I don't do that anymore. I don't think that's in my last work-I should probably check. I mean, my preference is for it to be one thing.
DB: So, some of this collection work hasn't changed-I mean, small things, like not using sections anymore, and things like that. Do you notice any other changes from your earlier career to now?
MR: In terms of?
DB: Composing, say, the book as a whole once you're at that finished stage?
MR: No. I can't really say so. It's, again, a process of trying to realize it as best you can and also to not publish it until it's ready to be published. And I certainly didn't choose to take-it's about 10 years between books of poems,, on the average but I also did write three other books. So, they took some time as well, but I've never been anxious to put something out before I was happy with it.
DB: Okay. So, that's sort of the basic sort of process portion. Is there anything else you think you should mention or we should talk about? I mean this is going to be kind of another short answer portion, like a lot of the computer questions, basically.
MR: Well, no.
DB: That's fine.
MR: I mean there's also infinite subjects to talk about but, you know, I think the most interesting part of this for thinking about making it into a magazine thing was the questions about composition.
DB: Yeah. So, these are kind of the more, I guess, blunter questions about computer use, and I think we mentioned some of these. When did you start using computers on a regular basis? Late 80s?
MR: Probably mid-80s.
DB: Mid-80s?
MR: It was pretty early.
DB: Okay. And how did you have access to a computer? Was it a personal computer?
MR: I bought it.
DB: You bought it?
MR: It cost a lot of money, too. At least I didn't have much at the time.
DB: Yeah. What drove you to make that purchase if it was a larger one?
MR: Friends had told me-who were writers-that, "You've got to do this. This is amazing and wonderful. Do it." The program assistant at Warren Wilson knew computers, and so I could take some tutorials with her, and she showed me how to do it. And a lot of the writers-it's a low-residency program; two weeks every six months-a lot of the writers were going to her at that time.
DB: Did you agree with your friends that it was this great thing to have once you had it?
MR: Again, it was great to be able to change things without typing them all out again-and that's pretty much all you could with it. There was no internet. There was no email. All it was was a word processor.
DB: Did that have any effect on your style, or on your process?
MR: Not that I could track. I wrote letters first on the computer. It was still snail mail and so, I was composing letters on the computer. But I would compose letters on the typewriter, too. I've always done that, and not written letters by hand-I'd always typed them. But I liked being able to-you see me doing this with my fingers. I liked being able to do that. And I think that's what led me to start composing prose on the computer, because it was easier for me write physically.
DB: I know you've been working in rhymed verse, or in formal rhymed verse, since the beginning, but I feel like it's increased more as you've gotten into your later career. That was one of things I was wondering when I was reading your stuff again for this interview. It doesn't seem that the computer really has any play in that-like, I thought there might be an easier way to work with rhyme or something like that, but you're still mostly doing that all on paper?
MR: Yes. But I have looked up-I confess-rhyming pairs. There are rhyming dictionaries online. So, sometimes I've used those just to see what the options are.
DB: Right.
MR: I want to write a rhymed poem as if you don't even know it's rhymed, unless it's purposeful that you do know it's rhymed. So, yes, in that aspect of it. But in terms of composition? No.
DB: Okay. How was your relationship with the computer changed? I guess that's a very weird question, but I guess I'm wondering how you feel about the files themselves? Were you always kind of conscientious about trying to save them, or are they more of means to an end?
MR: I don't really think about that much. I think I've had a few computers crash-I don't remember. Did I ever lose anything? I don't recall. I don't think so. Not poetry, anyway. But what did I do before computers? How did I save stuff? I think just in the folder. And I still do that. I still keep a physical folder of finished poems. I have the poems I finished since This Morning-
DB: This Morning, the book, not-
MR: This Morning, right. Yeah. That would be a lot for me. Since 2012, they are in just a file folder upstairs, the paper copies. The finished book, the final drafts.
DB: Do you have any sort of "dear" feelings for like, say, maybe some of the paper, maybe the hand-written work, or anything like that? Do you try to protect it? Do you kind of give it extra attention in any way?
MR: Well, I do invite it to dinner every once in a while. I take it to the movie when it feels neglected. And I pet it, sometimes. Speak very soft, kind words. Um-no.
DB: The computer has more of a kind of ease of typographical flourishes. Have you ever used any of those options on the computer?
MR: No.
DB: Do you use spell check?
MR: No. But I don't have spell check. I mean, the program will underline something in red if it's misspelled. If it's misspelled, I will correct the spelling, but I don't think I have an automatic-maybe I do? I don't know. I've never used it. I won spelling bees.
DB: When you're writing are you connected? Well, when you write, you kind of compose mostly off the computer. I guess when you're typing it out, are you connected to the internet? Are you using the internet in any way with the poem?
MR: Poem?
DB: Or with prose? I mean, either way?
MR: Well, in the act of writing, again, for the most part, when I'm on the computer for a poem, I'm not composing. I am just typing. And then I might use the internet to look up a word or-I've never really been conscious, particularly, of the process. When I've written prose that involves a reference to something, or I'm trying to think of what the thing is that I want it to refer to, I'll look up stuff. The process of composing? Well, I guess I'm inside of it in the same way. I'm trying to make it rich in all the same ways, except the relationships among the language and structure and what you can do in a poem that you can't in a piece of prose, and vice versa. But yeah, I will. I'll go to something if I need to.
DB: Can you pinpoint a point a time when the internet became more of an important part of your working or writing life?
MR: I don't even really remember very well. We went to France in 1997 and there was no internet. So, that's what-17 years ago? We had no email. I think internet was just kind of beginning, here. I remember a friend of mine, whose wife is a novelist, saying that his wife had sent her novel to her agent over "the wire." That was about that time, and I thought, "My God! That's amazing!" But, yeah-I don't really remember when it came into such a degree that it became something resembling what it is today. It seems like it was a very gradual process.
DB: Do you note, like, in maybe different books, or in your relation with publishers, that there was a difference or a change? I'm guessing your book of essays came out 2000-did you interact with the publisher there online? Did you do that with the selected?
MR: As I recall, there was email very shortly after we came back from France in 1997. So, those last three years of the century, email kind of just started to become the mode of communication. And yes-I was working with a copy editor who lived in San Diego, and we would send things back and forth and to the publisher, which was in Georgia. Yeah, it was all in place by then.
DB: Do you ever worry about the security or, sort of, fixity of the files, the computer files that you have now? Is that a conscious concern, or-?
MR: Like someone would get into it and-?
DB: I guess more like the computer would crash, and you would lose them.
MR: Well, you know, I have paper copies, and recovery methods are pretty sophisticated for hard disks. I have an old laptop in my closet that I thought to get the hard disk transcribed to a newer computer. I just have never done it. It's probably impossible, now-it's way out of date. But outside of that, one, I think, did crash. I've just taken whatever is on the hard disk of the old one and transferred it to the hard disk of the new one, and as I said, I believe this thing has automatic backup on it.
I don't know how they do that but I'm pretty ignorant of all these stuff, and willfully so. It just would suck up too much of my time to learn about it. But I do know writers who are really pretty expert, and probably it ends up using less of your time once you learn it. But I have a physical aversion to reading manuals, so I can't do it. So, I have a computer guy-a very nice guy. If any of us-my wife, my daughter, or I-have any problems, I call him up. He's usually here within a couple of hours.
DB: Okay. How often do you see this gentleman?
MR: Well, only when we have a problem, but he also has that "log me in," I think it's called? So, he has all three of our computers accessed-everything on them-from his office. So, I hope he continues to like me. I overpay him and-
DB: That's probably wise.
MR: Yeah, I think so. He has access to everything on all the computers. So, I'm not sure if that's ridiculous or not, but-
DB: How did you establish this relationship?
MR: He works for the school, but he does this for us privately. So, I met him through his working for the School of Humanities. A very sweet guy.
DB: You talked a little bit about the correspondence changing from snail mail to email. Do you feel like you do more correspondence now with email, or is it about the same throughout your career?
MR: Well, as you know, it's a completely different animal. A lot of emails have no addressee, and no "complimentary close," as we called it in 4th grade-"Sincerely, Michael." People write two, three words, or one sentence for an answer to an immediate question. It's nothing like a letter. You wouldn't write a letter like that.
DB: In terms of like the correspondence you have with writers and things like that, is there a marked change in that correspondence, as well?
MR: When I'm responding to somebody's manuscript, I would say there is no change. So, I will write them a letter, essentially the exact same thing I would have been sent through the mail. But other things, like personal correspondence, tends to be a lot briefer. I mean, I'll still try to be funny in emails. I mean, that's actually the thing I do the most. And I can also send people hilarious stuff from YouTube, or whatever, and I get those back, and sometimes they'll send jokes, or whatever. So, there are changes. There are also similarities, but because it's so much faster and so much easier, you can make it shorter.
DB: In terms of your own sort of reading and thinking, have you found the computer a boon to finding new work, or to finding new writers to read, or anything like that?
MR: I don't like to read off the screen. If I really want to read something-if it's an article in a newspaper or something-I will usually print it out. Also, I'm having some physical problems using computers, and probably heading for a shoulder surgery this summer, so it's not physically comfortable to spend too much time on it. But mostly, even before that, I don't like to read off the screen. I like to read off a page.
DB: What is the difference, do you feel, for yourself?
MR: That's a very good question. I like having a physical thing in my hands to read from. That's native to me. I mean, screens didn't come in any significant way until about 15 years ago. So, I was reading for many years-probably 50 or so-before that happened. I would imagine that kids are perfectly happy reading off the screen. My daughter texts her friends all the time and gets texts and emails, and I don't text anybody. I don't do text, you know. I'm like my grandmother with the telephone.
DB: And then, I guess, sort of a little bit of on teaching, and then just kind of ending. So, have you seen-with the computer rise and all that-has your teaching changed pretty fundamentally, or has it stayed the same?
MR: Oh man. Well, it's a teacher's nightmare, in so far as, you know, you can be contacted any time in the night or day. And you can't live teaching without email. It's not possible anymore. It's just assumed that you're going to get notices from school, you're going to get communications. You just simply would not be able to function. Because when this technology-and this is commonplace-it just makes the other technology completely obsolete. So, the way people communicated with you before-when I was teaching before the advent of all of this stuff-none of those communications would come through those means. And now all of them do.
So, it isn't that you can just stop and get them from other sources, because they don't come from other sources. So, all the emails I get from the chair of the English Department that go out to every member of the English department, they don't appear in my mailbox. Which, before, I would get them every four days that I went into school. The assumption of the timeframe has radically changed and compressed. So, just it's so much more of your attention that it's really necessary for me to limit that. I don't have an iPhone. I have a dumb phone, and I don't want emails following me around all day.
DB: Yeah. I'd like to drop mine off too. Did this kind of, I guess, greater reach of email and the sort of technological stuff that we've been accustomed to, has that changed your writing in anyway? Has that impacted your time? Has that impacted your attention?
MR: I would like to think not, but again, there is an addictive quality to sitting on the computer that I've noticed-that I check my email, and then I'll look at the weather, and then I want to see what the headlines in The New York Times are, and I'm sitting there. And why get up? So it has that quality of really drawing you into being in a relationship with it. There was a survey in The Guardian, which is the newspaper I read every once in a while-well, almost every day I'll look at it-and the question was, "Would you rather give up sex, or your computer for the rest of your life?" And guess what 70% of the people answered.
DB: Sex.
MR: So, if that isn't insane, I don't know what is. Or maybe the two are coterminous for people. But it has really become something radically different.
DB: Do you feel that your students have changed in their kind of cultural, technological understanding or relationships with you, since the rise of the internet?
MR: No, I wouldn't say that. Again, they can contact me at any time.
DB: So, that's a change?
MR: But that's fine with me. I mean, they respect me. I actually contact them more than they contact me, and they are very, very considerate of my time and my attention. So, it's not really a problem. It's just that I think their relationship to technology is very different from mine. They were talking the other day at a pause in the workshop about how many of them are still doing Facebook. I've never done Facebook. I never would do Facebook. Facebook is my worst nightmare. The idea that anybody-you know, I still get emails from strangers and people I used to know, and all this stuff. And I don't want any of that stuff. But they were saying they do Facebook, but for their undergraduates-their students, four years younger-than Facebook is passé. They don't do Facebook. They do whatever-
DB: Some other thing.
MR: So I am very much like my grandmother still screaming into the phone, because the way she had phones-which didn't come until she was pretty old to start with-you had to crank it, and you had to shout into the thing. And so she just kept doing that, even when she didn't have to.
DB: Yeah. Then I think, finally, sort of my blunt ending question-do you have any kind of thoughts as to what really changed with the advent of computers in relationship to writing? I mean, has there been a change in your opinion, or do you see it as something that has simply transferred kind of analog practices into a virtual environment?
MR: Well, I'm not sure that I'm educated enough to answer that question, and the area that it affects that is most important to me is poetry. And in fact, I think there is a great opportunity. Poems, you know-the convention is an artificial convention. But for the last how many hundred years, at least probably 200, maybe even a little more than that, have been published in the form of books. That's just the way poems have primarily appeared. Also, individual poems have, over the last X years, appeared in magazines. I've had a number of poems published only online. Some of those poems have been accompanied by audio versions to the poems. Some of the poems have video versions. It seems to me that, you know, where this all could go, and I have no better idea than anyone else, is-I hope books don't stop existing. It's one of those technologies, like a bicycle, that seems like it will never go out. It's a good technology. But clearly, there also have been published poems that are also being published in other forms.
I have published five books, and yet, there's probably 75, 80, 90-most of the content of my books are on the web right now, without my permission. I mean, they are just there. So anybody who wants to read poems by me, or any other poet, could find them right there, and they won't be in book form. They will be individual poems. For me, poetry is very much an auditory experience. When I am composing, I say them out loud in a kind of quiet voice. I like to read poems out loud. I'd like to hear them read out loud. I think you get a different apprehension of them than just reading them silently. So all that to me is for the good. I like hearing poems online. And I like seeing poets read online, but that's less important to me than being able to hear them. So that could really serve to make poems perhaps less like prose.
DB: Yeah.
MR: Just the technology.
DB: That access to the auditory experience immediately with the printed page.
MR: Yeah. It's very cool, and you can read it and listen to it at the same time if you want.
DB: Yeah, and so when you're composing, you're also reading it out loud, like line by line, as you're writing the words?
MR: I do. I always do that.
DB: You always do that.
MR: It's like a little whisper.
DB: Okay. That's interesting. Okay. I think that's it.
MR: All done?
DB: Yeah. Thank you very much.
MR: Thank you, Devin. That was fun. Fun is important.
DB: Yes, it is.