Friday, August 22, 2008

What Do You Need, and Why?

Mary Biddinger asks about "poem writing essentials." I have a few simple requirements:

1. Dogs and Black Coffee: I need my dogs (two black labs and a border collie) to wake me up in the morning. After I bring the dogs back in, I need a cup of black coffee as I sit down to write.

2. A Triggering Device: A poem will always begin to organize itself around a particular line, figure, or image. It may be a place, a small scene, a phrase--but something gets into my head and I can't get that something out until I begin to write. I can force myself to sit down and attend, but I cannot force the triggering device. Being at attention, of course, makes it more likely that a poem will be written.

3. A Last Line: For some reason, in a poem that works, I almost always know how the poem will end soon after I begin writing. It's the business in between that becomes problematic. If a poem fails, it is often because I did not see a way through to the end as I began writing. I don't think the necessity of knowing the ending is a good thing.

4. Good Paper: I write on long yellow legal pads (gee, what a surprise!) but print typed drafts onto 32 lb. paper. My thinking here is that good poems (one hopes that's what they are) are art objects and deserve to be on good paper. I print in 12-point Times New Roman with 18 point titles. My goal is to always have the poem print as it might appear on the page of a top flight journal.

5.Pens: For the initial drafts and for correcting printed drafts, I use only Uni-ball Gel Impact or Pilot Precise V7 pens, in red, black and blue. Yes, all three colors. Yes, this is weird.

6. A Fugue State: When a draft is "working," several hours will pass during which I have no sense of time. This doesn't always happen (some deliveries are more difficult than others) but the poems that come out of this mental state have something--a quality--that the others do not have.

7. Books: The idea for a poem often leads me in several directions. I am always looking for specifics to inform, open, and provide texture for the poem: the names of constellations, information on how birds shape their nests, the names of wild flowers, snippets of history. Most of these details--gathered from field guides and more esoteric sources--do not make it into the final draft, but they deeply inform the final version of the poem. Annie Dillard says that access to a library is necessary to write a sonnet. I believe this to be true.

8. My Computers: I have a 24" iMac desktop and a 17" MacBook Pro, along with a big HP laser printer. I consider them essential. I love to shift drafts back and forth, and the MacBook--a beast--permits me to carry the poems out into the world (see #10, below) without loss of firepower. I cannot imagine trying to create art on a Microsoft-based system.

9. Setting: I have insomnia. When I get going on a poem, I go outside and walk in loopy circles, in any weather, day or night. I need my trees to stare into and my driveway to pace. My right arm must move as I walk, counting beats to words I cannot yet fully articulate.

10. An Empty Table: At some point in the drafting process (at several times, if I get stuck) I need a big empty table. Onto that table goes the poem and whatever books or other materials I will use to solve a specific, intractable problem in the poem. When I arrive at another problem, I find another empty table, lay out the poem, and surround it with different books and objects.

11. Other People's Poetry: I have a good memory, and an eye for where a poet went in a poem and how they got back home. I often refer to the work of others when I am in a jam. I am interested in how a poet problem-solved--how she structured the poem; how she went off on a riff and how she found her way back to the melody.

12. Cigars: Forgive me, but I have surrendered every other personal vice. Anyone who'd like to send me a box or two of Bolivar Cofradia 654's, El Rey del Mundo Robusto Zavalas, or Montecristo Series C's, will receive a poem in return. I promise to give up cigars as soon as this manuscript is finished.

Promise.

What do you need in order to write? Why do you need it?

5 Comments:

Blogger Dominic said...

It's interesting to see what people need to get them writing. Funny how the subconscious works. This week I've taken to writing in the car on the motorway (as a passenger, I hasten to add!) Why, I don't know...

6:01 PM  
Blogger Collin said...

I posted mine at Mary's site. Let me see if I can remember them:

1. Good music
2. My laptop
4. A tab opened to an online dictionary.
5. A box of wine
6. All of the above in London or Paris.

:)

6:35 PM  
Blogger Suzanne said...

Quiet! And Mornings.

Starting Wednesday I'll at least have a little quiet. ;-)

6:31 AM  
Blogger Radish King said...

I need a really crappy notebook with stickers and jam on the outside covers and whatever pen is at hand. Night is good but I'll write in daylight if I absolutely have to.

4:29 PM  
Blogger The Weaver of Grass said...

I need to make sure that the right (i.e. creative) side of my brain is "in gear". If I have been dealing with anything mathematical (doing the books, paying the bills etc) then it is a waste of time trying to write. A solitary walk in our lovely countryside usually does the trick.

3:12 PM  

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