James McMichael works, almost primarily, in extended, book-length form. As he says, “any individual poem I’m working on has a necessary relationship to everything else I’m imagining.” He brings his poems along line by line and his books along poem by poem, writing “chronologically” until they are finished. These poems and books do not emerge from the ether; rather, McMichael generates the lines, poems, and books from a career-long practices of reading and note-taking.
Most of the initial composition of his poems occurs in longhand on legal, and this has stayed the same for the entirety of his practice. McMichael writes line by line until he’s completed a poem; he typically composes these lines usually early in the morning after having gone back over all he’s written before on the poem and revising what he deems needs revision. After getting another 8 or 9 acceptable lines onto a handwritten page, which usually consists of a number of strikethroughs and re-writes, he will type those lines out to add the current poem. For almost his entire career, this meant retyping the entire poem on a typewriter and then adding those lines. Given that his poems are often quite long–two of his books consist of book-length poems and most others consist of not more than 10 multi-page poems, this entailed a great deal of typing and re-typing the same lines, but McMichael rarely did any additional revisions when performing this typing.
McMichael’s process and the formal structure of his lines is also informed a great deal by his listening, particularly, to classical music, which he’s been doing, seriously, since November of 1973. McMichael believes this listening has trained his ear to be what it is; he even used Schoenberg’s 12-tone system to guide the stanzaic progression of his book Capacity. McMichael also believes there is a “non-accidental” relationship between his moving to writing longer poems after starting to listen lengths of music that were closer to 10 or 30 minutes long.
With his last book, McMichael began using the computer to both compose and add lines to a saved poem; he noted that these two process just coalesced with the machine and became the same activity and that he did not miss the typewriter, even though he loved using it. That said, he did not think the change made it feel like the process moved more quickly, although he admitted it probably did. He did, however, mention that he wished he had had some facility with a computer when he wrote his book of criticism, Ulysses and Justice; he used the same longhand-typewriter technique in writing that book of several hundred pages as he did in writing his poems.
The series of typewritten versions he produced of his poems were never anything special to McMichael; rather, they were means to his getting to the finished version of the poem. He would use the latest version to begin his process anew another morning, reading the poem out loud and looking for places to revise–McMichael’s two step process for this starts with the ear “What can the ear bear here” and then moves to the meaning “is [the line] saying what it has to be saying.” Revision is thus a constant in McMichaels writing process. He uses revision of previous sections of the poem to begin generating the next lines of his poem, which he is revising by hand even as he’s composing. This means that McMichael doesn’t write drafts of whole poems, but instead brings the poem along line by line through this combination of composition/revision.
Further, because McMichael typically composes his books in order as well, his process is one in which the composition, revision, and manuscript building processes are all combined into one. (This is going to prove difficult for our visualization …). These processes, however, are all driven by McMichael’s reading and note-taking practices, which has increased steadily throughout the entirety of his writing career. Both when McMichael is between composing a poem and even during, he will often be reading books on philosophy, theology, history, psychology, anthropology, and sociology and taking color-coded notes on these works in notebooks, and prior to the notebooks, on 5x8 index cards.
The notebooks are quite impressive in person, as the differently colored ink filling both sides of every page demonstrate a prolonged intellectual engagement that can be tracked via the colors indications–Red for more important material and Green for his own responses. McMichael will take notes on the material on the right hand page and then add his own response in green often on the left hand, facing page. He does this so that he can turn back to his notebooks, which he indexes by the title of the books he was reading and responding to, so he can return to what he was thinking at the time.
McMichael uses the notebooks and all the ephemera of his writing process towards completing a singular goal, which is the finishing of “the poem that [he] can’t make any better.” This focus on the finished piece, however, puts a lot of pressure on McMichael to make sure that the finished poems he is currently working into book-shape–which are only kept in one single word document representing the most recent version of the work–are backed up and well preserved. To help him in this process, he and his wife, the poet Susan Davis, pay a technical professional to set up and maintain a system whereby all their files are backed up automatically in the middle of each week. He also makes sure to send everything he has for a current project to a colleague via email before he leaves town on an airplane.