Saturday, November 09, 2002

First thought, best thought

I’ve always been interested in the poem’s relationship to the process of thinking & often see poems as documents of that process. From Kerouac’s speed-ridden prose scroll through Olson’s sometimes stumbling forward, using enjambment  & variable line length in his poems to lurch towards an idea, to Ginsberg’s transcription of audio tapes in “Wichita Vortex Sutra” or Duncan’s wrong-headed insistence that his final book appear typed rather than typeset so as to capture best what the poet thought he was doing at that instant, I’ve been drawn to works that often are written so as to appear unfinished, in progress, the poetic equivalent I suppose of “distressed” furniture or pre-faded jeans.

Not surprisingly, then, I think of myself as somebody who doesn’t revise much in my own poetry. So I was surprised this past Spring doing a little tour of the Southwest (Tucson & San Diego) when a woman at one of the events insisted that my own writing process appeared to be one of total revision. What I do in practice – and this pretty much has been the process for the past few years – is to gather individual sentences into a notebook (of late, into a Palm Pilot) until I have a decent number of them, at least 100, sometimes as many as 150. I then sit down with whatever notebook I’m using and with my trusty (if rusty) old Waterman felt-tip pen that I bought at a stationer’s just down from Zabar’s on the Upper West Side of Manhattan back in 1981 and use those sentences to compose the next passage of whichever work is at hand. Sometimes I’ll use just a few sentences, but other times it might be a fair number. On rare occasions, I’ll insert some sentence that occurs to me during this process, usually out of a sense that “this sentence belongs right here.” Once the number of raw sentences “in the hopper” drops down to a certain level, however, somewhere around 80, I seem to need to stop, there no longer being enough raw material from which to select. From the Palm Pilot to the notebook, I do make significant changes, even rewriting the basic sentence, although this occurs maybe in no more than five percent of the sentences I eventually use. & it’s possible for a sentence to “hang out” in the Palm Pilot (or the pocket notebooks & Sharp Organizer that I used before that) for perhaps two years or more before I decide that I really must not be intending to use that sentence. One the notebook itself is “complete” (& my definition of what that means changes from project to project), I type the poem into the PC. At this level, I change well under a single word per page – and this is what I’m thinking about when I say that I don’t make much use of revision. From end to end, this process can easily take years.

The argument that this one questioner put to me was that the revision was in the translation from Palm Pilot into the notebook. I’ve been mulling that idea over for months & it still makes me furrow my brow. At some level, I don’t think I’ve committed to the sentence until I get it into the notebook – I have no idea, even intuitively, where or how it might be used, the context into which I will finally place it. So it doesn’t feel to me that I’m actually writing poetry until I have my Waterman in hand with a physical notebook.* How then could that be a process of revision?

One of my favorite poets in the universe, Rae Armantrout, however, has a radically different approach to the question. Revision plays a strategic role in her writing process, perhaps its most critical element. Armantrout tries out an almost infinite number of possible combinations before committing to even the shortest passage. In addition, Armantrout is one poet who uses what any marketer or product development specialist would recognize as a focus group as part of her process. She sends draft versions of poems to a handful of friends, myself among them, asking for our response, advice, possible revisions, etc. She used to do this in person when we lived not so far from one another in San Francisco, then by mail for many years after she and her family moved back to San Diego. With email, however, the process has accelerated. There have been instances in which I’ve received four different versions of a single text within the space of one hour. And while I & the other members of the feedback team (or however Armantrout thinks of us) have over the years learned to be fearless in the suggestions we can & do make – a less confident poet would be crushed by some of the things we say – my sense is that Armantrout almost always does exactly what she herself intended to do with the poem, using us as much as anything as a means of clarifying her own thinking about the text.

One side effect of this process for me is that I often see so many versions of a single poem that I have no clear idea in my mind which version Armantrout eventually settled on until I see the work in print. Sometimes it’s a version that’s slightly different from every version I’ve seen. No one is more surprised by Armantrout’s poetry in a new volume than I am.

Today about dawn I was reading a passage in Frank Stanford’s The Battlefield Where the Moon Says I Love You in which the writing is, as often it is in this fabulous book, delightfully over-the-top:
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God has lost so much blood now he can’t speak he had to go to giving
hand signals like a deaf and dumb man
all was silent as a winter pond silent and untrue like a featherless arrow
like a shaft of sleeping wine beneath a tree the rotting teeth
and the dreaming knife and my dreams still ricocheting so close
and so far apart like journeys into space like the fast madness
of butcherbirds like field mice and toads and grass snakes all of them
with holes in their head have you seen that bird beating the minnow
against the branch he’s got him by the tail the eyes of the minnow like rubies
tin lids with their duets under the creek in the moonlight
like planetoids who never make it weep for the children with their bellies
buzzing like a hornets’ nest full of snakeskins made by the sparrow
the pieces of stars passing my ship
so slowly I can reach out and touch them if I could
I lay in slumber charged with death
stuck like a sword in a battleground giving its aria
like a dancer coming to life
in the solar ditch I ask the sailor of space touch one
finger with the other like a symphony the blessed legend in the void all over
again o how we died
ago we slept friends I tell you I heard the oboes that belong to the wolf
the opera two steps from the blues the light years boogie all the
time I heard the blind tiger guitar so that is how it goes how my dreams
those sad captains
treat me the unkept rendezvous with the void which is black the pocketknives
I lose in infinity those blades of grass that cut you in the dark

“Those sad captains” stopped me cold, although I’d already tripped over the reference to Peter and the Wolf three lines earlier. Is Stanford here alluding to Marc Antony? To Thom Gunn? To the sentimental story by Sarah Orne Jewett? Is it something that just popped into his head from the overheard & undigested language of everyday life? If I had to guess, I’d wager Shakespeare, but, like the allusion to Prokofiev, the intrusion of any sort of book learning is so curiously Other in this text that it can only send shivers through the poem, a memento mori to the preliterate society Stanford is exploring.

These lines are filled with phrases that don’t bear too much probing “like planetoids who never make it,” “the blind tiger guitar,” “the sailor of space,” etc., yet collectively work because they’re so consistently excessive. It’s more that these gaudy phrases mark the speed of writing than they do any point of reference within. When one does suddenly resonate with meaning, the impact can be dazzling. For me, this whole passage is completely justified by giving occasion to “like a sword in a battleground giving its aria.”

Without ever having seen the original manuscript of Battlefield, I would suspect that it doesn’t show much in the way of revision – other than possibly deletions & insertions of entire sections. It’s not the sort of poem that could ever be tidied up. Yet if what revision represents is the function of critical thinking in the act of composition – which is what I come up with, thinking of how radically differently I proceed through the writing process compared with someone like Rae Armantrout – then revision in this sense must already be present in Battlefield. There is something in Stanford’s imagination that told him when & how to bring in extraneous information, whether it’s oboes or Marc Antony, and ultimately it doesn’t matter if Stanford “got it right” or not. In this poetry, neatness doesn’t count.

* I’m totally weird & neurotic about notebooks as well, but that’s a topic for another time.
            But this does raise the question of what I think I’m doing when I’m writing/collecting sentences into my Palm or a pocket notebook. Research, perhaps. I don’t at that point in the process have any commitment, emotional or otherwise, to the sentences collected. & I’ve gathered them under conditions that felt like the furthest thing from “writing poetry” – in the middle of business meetings, while driving, twice while undergoing eye surgery. Whereas “writing poetry” for me has an emotional feel to it that is very little changed from the days as a kid when I would sit on my bed in my room with a spiral-bound notebook in hand, writing away with some kind of deep pleasure.

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