Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Some Answers to Questions from a Poetry Student

[Re-post from February 7, 2005. Answers to some short questions (slightly edited)....]

My advanced poetry student Gwen Wagner recently asked via e-mail: "Ballpark, how much time do you find you need to spend writing a day to keep 'in the groove' or be ready when the groove hits you?"

When I was younger, I used to write for several hours a day for days on end. Sometimes whole days or nights would be spent with writing. Even though I wrote relatively little that was worth preserving in those early years (when I was eighteen to twenty or so), the habits of concentration were essential to developing a literary consciousness that was actively creating, innovating, and working. Just reading great works by others does something similar to this, also, but reading works best for young poets when they are fulfilling a need (or a lack) in their own work.

Now, I should say that due to some situations I have at work now, I have not really written a poem in a while although I feel I have lived through the material to write many (haha).

In the academic year 2002-2003, I was able to write more often and finished most of what is now invisible sister before the summer of 2003 ended. Just as an example, “Iris’ painter hears the rain music return” took maybe a dozen drafts but they were mostly just getting a sharper focus on the subject with each new version. It wasn’t grueling.

There have been a lot of what I will call minor poems, and maybe a few “important” ones, or at least important starts. What’s the difference between minor and major poems? Some things in your life carry a great deal of energy, and some are just little observations or moments etc. When I get an opening into a major field of energy that is turning into a poem, I think that could be important. I have actually had some important starts this year, but I have not rushed to work on them due to other pressures. I don’t want to botch a potentially great thing even if it means having to wait a long time until things are more calm.

In 2003-2004, there were fewer poems as invisible sister was being created at Many Mountains Moving, and that required much creative energy of a different sort, and so did arranging readings etc.

Gwen also asked: "How do you revise work without the help of peers/other writers?"

Actually, even when there are no actual “peers” (as in a workshop), I carry around inside of me (as everyone does) the voices and the ears of others who have been my peers and precursors at different points in my life. So there are friendly, enabling presences in my consciousness when I write. In fact, when I feel the most inspired is when I feel these presences the most.

A lot of times, I also share things via a free online forum that I have set up with friends and peers, which I still find enjoyable and helpful.

Reading new works aloud for various audiences also helps a lot, and so does creating audio recordings in a studio.

Also, when you write with actors or actresses in mind, they can actually have a profound impact on the work because their ways of hearing the work and giving it voice can actually create new dimensions in the work that you did not hear before. Sometimes the creativity of the actor or actress extends the depth of the character, and then you can follow that opening wherever it leads. That is one reason why I like to work with some people over and over.

Gwen also wrote: I'm reading this book called Art as Experience by John Dewey. It was written in the 1930's--amazing amounts of good stuff came out of the "depression." (Kind of like the Dark Ages.) This book discusses some theories of art, some of which are applied to poetry (though in a sort of stifled way that could be expanded by someone who knows the writer better.) In a chapter on expression two ideas which you touched on indirectly in the blog came up. One, that a work of art which has sufficiently accomplished it's message, if the viewer is receptive, can speak to that person--the artist goes through a process of creation in making the painting (art) and the viewer also goes through a creating process in order to access its meaning. Interesting thought...makes art very interactive instead of stuck in a museum and musty. Two, that self-expression (really an excuse for self-indulgence) doesn't make something is the cohesion of thought and medium that creates a cohesiveness and accessible message in the work.

I am really glad you made that connection with Art as Experience because the only reading that has really mattered to me is that in which I feel a very strong connection to the writer as though we were in a kind of an intense dialogue. (The list of writers I have felt this close to is not very long.) The reader has to be reinvented and to be actively reinventing him or herself while reading just as a person in a real dialogue with a true friend starts to awaken or engage different aspects of the self. To be inspired while reading is like discovering a true friend who turns on (or reaches) essential parts of you.

On the point about self-expression, I'd say that the first really successful things I wrote happened when, by accident, I didn't say what I wanted to as much as I let the poem say what it needed to. In fact, the first times that I stumbled into this phenomenon, I myself didn't know what the lines meant, but I somehow knew they were better than anything I wanted to say. The lines knew more than I did, which was humbling. Humility is a good place to be in the midst of the process of creating.

Whenever it happens now that I write something that I know is better than or more than anything I could ever consciously grasp or "plan," when a kind of a mysterious door opens up where I thought I knew where I was, then I feel very fortunate.

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