Michael Ryan has always started each poem draft by hand. What happens next, however, is up to chance. Especially during his early career as a PhD student at Iowa, he might finish a poem in a single handwritten draft. Other poems go through 250 drafts before they are relegated, unfinished, to one of the brown storage boxes where Ryan keeps his papers.
More often than not,his current practice involves at least multiple drafts. As he writes and re-writes, Ryan usually either on folded pieces of typing paper or on yellow legal pads, Ryan crosses things out or writes in alternative words and lines on the handwritten draft. If completion eludes him beyond this phase, he will re-copy the entire poem as many times as it takes to come closer to a finished product. Once the poem reaches this stage, Ryan will type it up, print it out, and continue to revise by hand (he only does minimal ‘work’ on the poem via a computer screen). In this sense, his process has changed very little from the days where he would type his poems on a typewriter to the mid ’80s, when he began using a computer. Only minor changes–edits to a specific article, for example–take place via digital media.
Ryan’s approach to revision has evolved out of a need to say or capture something in verse that cannot be articulated or captured in a single draft. When a poem will not yield, but also refuses to be discarded, that is when he slows down and pushes the revision process to completion. He describes this process as a ‘pushing into’ the poem, growing deeper and wider into the language and the subject. Ryan will share his work with trusted readers via correspondence–formerly paper letters, now email–though he finds the nature of these correspondences have changed little beyond the speed of transfer afforded by digital communication.
In terms of generative practice, Ryan keeps a journal (as well as collected pieces of folded paper) for jotting down raw material. He also relies on definitions and etymologies, often looking up every word in a given poem (either online or in a physical dictionary) before deeming it complete. As a rule, however, Ryan does not stop and pursue a passing idea at the time it comes to him. He immerses himself in one project at a time. With poetry, he will save the final drafts of each poem on the computer until he has enough to begin shaping a manuscript. From there, he will create a ‘book folder’ wherein he saves the final drafts of those poems he deems strong enough to include, then print out the poems and organize the manuscript manually.
Ryan maintains an extensive archiving practice, whereby he keeps all drafts in brown boxes that he eventually sends to the University of Virginia. His computer files are automatically backed-up, and he empoloys a technical person to maintain his and his family’s computers.