I have been trying to post more often, but often don’t feel I have anything worth sharing. Then along comes Joseph Harker to tag me in this writing process blog tour wherein each tagged poet answers some questions about his/her writing process, and then tags two more. Joseph blogs at the link above, (where he writes complex and brain-twisting prompts in his “recursions” section) and he is starting a new journal, The CSHS Quarterly, that is currently readying its first issue. This blog tour links to several other poets – follow back through the links starting with Joseph’s above to read the answers of fine writers such as Lesley Wheeler, Jeannine Hall Gailey,Kelli Russell Agodon and Sandy Longhorn, to name a few. I still don’t know if any of my answers will be worthwhile, but they were interesting to consider and much harder to answer than I thought.
What am I working on?
Way too many things. Seriously, I’m in over my head a little at the moment. I am addresing final revisions of a sixth chapbook manuscript based on the myths surrounding the Amazon pink dolphin, I have decided on an initial set of poems for a second manuscript (which needs quite a bit of work), and I am delving into drafts for two other sets of poems, one based on the names of monastic prayers and the other on items from The British Museum’s History of the World in 100 Objects. I also am running a new feature on my blog once a week called OPP, which celebrates other people’s poetry, especially poets that I perhaps have missed or that others may not know much about. Oh, and I’m into the worst part of my teaching year with middle schoolers – two weeks before Spring Break.
How does my work differ from others of its genre?
That is nearly an impossible question to answer. As a genre, poetry is so diverse in style and purpose that every poem is different from another poem. Even my own poems are different from year to year or series to series. I hope that my poems are well-crafted and well-realized enough to resonate with readers. I don’t tend to write one type of poem – some are narrative, some lyrics, some prosey, some even a little “experimental.” I would not label myself a political writer or a nature writer or a formal poet, but elements of all of these can show themselves in my work. If I had to pick one quality that is consistent in my work, it would probably be attention to sound-maybe that makes my work different from others? Hard to say.
Why do I write what I do?
In terms of genre, I am drawn to the compact and intense nature of poems, the fact that a poem is its own self-contained universe with galaxies in every line. Although I have also written short stories, I have trouble maintaining interest in anything longer. If I consider why I write about the topics or issues I choose, I wish I knew. I’m sure I have been influenced by my reading, but there aren’t any particular influences I can point to. (I actually find it fascinating that two different people have referenced Millay when talking about my poems since, up until last year, I had very little exposure to her work other than the “The Harp Weaver” and whatever I read in college lit class.)
Many times, I become a little obsessed with an idea and write about one thing for a long time. (For instance, the chapbook manuscript about Amazon pink dolphins was sparked by viewing a Michael Palin travel special about Brazil, which reminded me that I had learned about the dolphins when visiting the Amazon thirteen years ago.) Sometimes it is simply a piece of language or an image that sticks in my head until I free write to develop a scenario or a speaker that intrigues me. Mostly, I write because I feel compelled to do so, to both wonder at and demystify the world around me and how humans navigate its strangeness.
How does your writing process work?
It depends. (I know, that’s a cheater answer, but it’s true.) I certainly don’t need a café, or cup of tea/coffee, or any type of particular setting. I actually don’t like to write in cafés or coffee shops – too distracting. I like natural light, but I also write at night. I can write just about anywhere, although I certainly prefer to be comfortable. Actually, now that I said that, I will clarify that I like to be comfortable to draft. I usually do my best revision work, however, at a table or a desk, somewhere that makes me sit up and pay attention.
I do usually write at night, especially during the school year. Since I’m up and out before 7 AM every day and usually home around 4:30, by the time I work out, have dinner and complete any chores or work tasks that need attention, any drafting time would be on the couch with my husband while we relax and watch TV. I have a skill that annoys my husband and son, which is to be in the room and seemingly present with them yet completely engaged in what I am doing to the point where I barely know they are there. When I am away at a conference or residency, I often write very late, into the wee hours of the morning when the mind is free. I don’t have the luxury of doing that ten months out of the year, however.
As I said above, I often free write based on an image or piece of language and see what happens. Sometimes I use source material (like the British Museum book mentioned above) as a way in, and sometimes I use prompts. However I begin, I am a fairly fast first drafter, not worrying too much about where things are headed. I just follow a train of thought and see where it goes. It is very rare that I sit down to specifically write a poem about a certain topic.
I usually put first drafts away for a day or two, and then I go back to mine anything that seems worth saving. I know that seems like a short time period compared to what other writers do. But I get too excited about a promising draft to let it linger for longer than that without a second look. It’s almost like, if I leave it sit too long, all the first-draft-magic will drain out, and it will become just another random bit of scribbling. And I have enough of those already, thank you.
Then the fun begins – I love to revise. Changing line breaks, experimenting with diction and sound, chopping out the throat-clearing and the extraneous adjectives – revision is my favorite part of writing. I try not to hyper-analyze a revision, though. When the poem has settled into a form and syntax that pleases me, I am willing to send it into the world and see what happens. I don’t seek perfection, because it doesn’t exist. At least, not out of my pen.
Next week, watch for posts by these two talented poets as the Writing Process Blog Tour continues:
Ruth Foley lives in Massachusetts, where she teaches English for Wheaton College. Her recent work is appearing or forthcoming in Adanna, The Bellingham Review, Yemassee, and Weave, among others, and her chapbook Dear Turquoise was recently released from Dancing Girl Press. She serves as Managing Editor for Cider Press Review.
Carol Berg’s poems are forthcoming or in Pebble Lake Review, Fifth Wednesday Journal, qarrtsiluni, The Bakery, Spillway, and in the anthology A Face To Meet the Faces. Her chapbook, Ophelia Unraveling is available from Dancing Girl Press, and two other chapbooks, The Ornithologist Poems (Dancing Girl Press) and Her Vena Amoris (Red Bird Chapbooks) are also available.