Friday, June 30, 2006

How Do You Write?

That was the question asked of me, in a recent roundtable discussion. It prompted some long thinking about how, indeed, I write, method and aesthetic and means and attitude. I expect my responses to the question are not typical or average, as every time I answer with the truth, I get confused looks. Some poets don't understand how I can do what I do, when I don't write at all the way they do. But herewith is the absolute truth of how I write:

I don't write every day. I write when I feel moved to. I question the practice of writing a poem a day, because I think a lot of what that ends up with is daily junk. I am a more dedicated journal-writer than poet, I guess. Writing a poem a day leaves me cold, although I acknowledge that it works for others.

I don't like poems that preach, that are too pedantic, or too smug and self-conscious of their own merits. Writing poetry is a process of discovery, not a sermon. Writing for me, is about listening to an inner voice, and transcribing what comes forward, when I listen.

I know a very good poet who is a disciplined daily writer: a couple hours a day for him, and he always writes on an electric typewriter. He produces good work, and has a workmanlike, craftsman's approach to writing. He tells me he can't understand how I write good poems when, compared to him, I am completely undisciplined. Which I am, by his standards.

I have no set rules, set practices, or set times and places to write, and no set modes of writing. Although I often do my best writing first thing in the morning, upon waking; and my other best time is late at night, jsut before bed. I write on the borders of sleep, and the Dreaming.

When I write, it often feels like it's not me that's writing. The poem chooses its own voice and mode, usually. Form emerges organically, usually part-way through the writing of the poem; when I get to the second stanza, or the second line of a haiku I know then what the form will be. I have learned not to try to force things, ever. Poems for me have almost always come to me, when they choose.

I almost never set out to write a poem. Instead, I listen, and get into beginner's mind, and wait. Usually a poem arrives in a flash, almost complete. Many need some revision, but not essential, structural revision. Some first drafts have been published; they emerged in finished form. The poems that I set out to write, or if I try to do a daily "morning poem," almost always suck, and read more like mental masturbation. I have an inner voice, that is not my conscious mind's voice, that is the poet. I'm not in charge of that voice (the ancient Greeks spoke of their "daimon" in this way; Kipling worked this way; Julian Jaynes wrote The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind on this topic), and my discipline consists of meditation and being prepared to listen. Once or twice, I have actively felt like I was taking dictation. Usually, though, now, after years of this, I can sense if something's ready to emerge, and dip into that river more or less at will. And the river has become more accessible with practice. I've become, with practice, a good improvisor, in music, in art, and in poetry. But again, the discipline, for me, is in maintaining readiness, and being prepared.

What I write with depends on what's at hand. If the laptop (my life is in the laptop nowadays) is booted (it usually is), I type the poem into a word-processor text file. If I happen to be driving cross-country, miles from electricity, I pull over and write on whatever handy scrap of paper is available. (Kids, we're trained professionals. Don't you try writing and driving at the same time.) I keep a blank book in my backpack, or on the car seat. (My sister, who is also an artist, makes beautiful hand-bound books; I often use them as my journal books.) I've even written poems on the backs of grocery receipts, if I couldn't find anything else at hand, in the moment. Before becoming this computer-assisted nomadic artist that I've become, I kept a handwritten journal for 25 years. Not a diary. Not a reportage of daily events, intimate thoughts, and scraps of personal life. I just wrote in it when I felt like it, and never felt any more compelled than I do now to write with any daily discipline.

Almost all of my poems were first written down in that ongoing journal. I used to be a semi-pro calligrapher, and still suffer from "quality writing instrument lust." Take me into a store where they sell fine pens, and watch me drool. Wave a sumie ink writing set under my nose, and watch my eyes fill my desire. (I recently found a Japanese stationer's store in San Francisco, and restocked on some of my favorite writign materials, which you just can't get anywhere else; for example, refillable cartridge sumie-brush pens.) Thus, I used to write in my journal with good fountain pens only—I hate ballpoints, and won't use them except in a writing emergency—and thus many pages of my journal looked like calligraphy assignments.

Virtually all of my poems (prior to laptop nomadism) began in the journal, and were later transcribed into word-processor files, and often revised during transcription. Lately, though, as I said, if the laptop is booted, I write directly into a text file.

I have no set practice, in other words. I do own (it's on loan to a good friend for now) a beautiful replica 18th-century writer's desk, which I used to love to sit down at, lay out the journal book and some good pens, stare out the window, get centered and grounded, and begin to write. In my mind, even now, I occasionally visualize that "set-up routine" to calm and center the mind before writing.

I can write pretty much anywhere, anytime, because the set-up routine is a medtative practice, and one can come to center and ground wherever and whenever one is located. One carries the practice within, and doesn't require the external objects to achieve open, receptive poet's mind. (The reason I recommend poetry writing guides like Susan Woolridge's Poemcrazy and Natalie Goldberg's Writing Down the Bones is because they explicitly teach this practice; I recommend these books over the craft books, because they teach the mindset. The elements of craft can be acquired much more readily than can the mindset, and there are many more books about poetic form than there are about poet's mind. It's very easy to teach grammar, but none of those grammar guides even acknowlege the necessity of proper state of mind. And now that I've been keeping an online Road Journal on my website, I'm likely to post first drafts of poems there, just as I used to write them in my paper journal.

I do keep old versions of poems, but not obsessively, and I don't generally use them as tools for rewrite. I keep them more as notes towards the process. When I'm in the tent at night, camping, or on camping trips miles from electicity, I take the latest journal book along, and I actually find myself writing by candlelight, in the tent at night, a lot. I produce a lot of pretty good writing on those sorts of trips. I produce less back in Snivellization, generally, mostly because I tend to be focused on the art or music most days. When I was a teenager, recently gifted my with first typewriter, a Smith-Corona portable, I composed at the typewriter, sitting cross-legged on the bed, more often than not. But that was the apprenticeship of a future poet, and only one or two examples of that early juvenilia survive.

The three longest poems I have ever written, in the hundreds of lines, are poems about sex, my sexuality, fantasies, experiences, and memories, and the first of those I began writing by sitting there on my bed in front of that typewriter, at age 15 or 16, then put the poem away and came back to it off an on for 12 years, before determining the poem was complete, and declaring it done.

A poem almost always comes to me as a vision, a sequence of images: my job is to convert that into words. To transcibe, if you will, what I see. I usually fail, as words are completely inadequate, and betray the vision almost every time. Very rarely, a spoken phrase comes into my head, and I write it down, as though taking dictation. (Rilke started the Duino Elegies this way, so I know how he felt on that day.)

I have no set philosophy, other than to serve my daimon, which crosses over into all my creative modes, music, art, poetry, weaving, landscape art sculpture, whatever. I respond in the moment, at the moment, to a place and time and state of being. I produce my deepest, most archetypal work when I am in a meditative state of mind. "When in deep water, become a diver." I have learned over time that when I'm all caffeined up and feeling chatty and convivial with friends, not to even try to write a poem, because it will suck. (Maybe a humorous senryu, but such poems are throwaway ephemera, and not intended to be anything more than that.)

I have no set aesthetic, because "all roads are good roads." I really believe that. I know that I work best in certain modes, on certain topics, and I could enumerate those, but then that would be my list, and useless to anyone else, who rather than emulating my list would be better served to list their own.

If I do have an aesthetic, it's fractal geometry. I am aware constantly of more than one level of being, of life, of the layers of consciousness of the Universe itself. I am Patterner, and more. Fractal mathematics, and chaos theory in general, are the closest i've come to a Western representation of the "floating cloud" lifestyle described by many Taoists and Zen masters in the East. As Benoit Mandelbrot said when he introduced fractal geometry to the world: "Clouds are not spheres."

There is one particular form of poem that I invented that has been described as fractal poetry; as far as I know, it's the first genuinely fractal form: self-similar across different scales, so that when you "zoom in" or "zoom out" it retains its character; descriptive rather than didactic, even imagistic, in that each individual line can be read as a haiku; which is also a fractal characteristic: complexity thickens and releases chaotically.

(For those of you unfamiliar with chaos theory, it's not about randomness or disorder or genuine chaos, as there really are no such things; what is discovered are higher levels of order within apparently chaotic systems. Life is very much a strange attractor; had Jung lived another ten years to witness the birth of fractal theory, I believe he would have embraced it as descriptive of the operation of the collective unconscious, and the archetypes.)

Anything I say on this topic will be inadequate, because my "method" is always changing, always evolving, and I might have a poetic "voice" I explored ten years ago that makes me wince now. If a writer doesn't keep evolving and changing, they stagnate and kill their art. I've seen that happen far too often, with poets who publish a great first and second book, then start repeating themselves and lose all energy and interest; the "workshop" poets, and the MFA poets, are particularly susceptible to this trend. But I digress. I do find it useful to answer the question at hand, if only to formulate for myself my own writing practices and needs. Good pens. Nice paper. A fast keyboard. Anywhere, anytime. No rules, no habits. Zen mind, beginner's mind.

I respect those poets who feel that "How do you write?" is too personal a question, because it is a very personal question; yet I find myself unafraid of standing naked under the spotlight like this. If only so I can get clear for myself what and how it is that I bother to write at all. As I've said before, poetry is only a distant third in my modes of creativity, after music and art. And I've also written here before of the irony of intention vs. history. I note that chaos theory plays a role here, too, as does the law of unintended consequences. Because it's chaotic, I choose to not to try to impose false order onto it, but let it be what it is.

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