From the category archives:

Process

By Margaret Atwood

 

via The Future of Books

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from “Self-Consciousness” by Tony Hoagland:

When a person takes the step toward learning more of craft and its history, more of artifice—when, for example, a person crosses the threshold of an MFA program—she chooses to end a childhood in artlessness. She gives up some of the innocent infatuation, the naïveté, the adolescent grandiosity, maybe even some of the natural grace of the beginner. “They are good poets because they don’t know yet how hard it is to write a poem,” I have heard a teacher say, a bit tartly, of her beginning poetry class.

This initiation into knowledge will infect the learner with the virus of self-consciousness. As a consequence of learning of the existence of the poems of W.H. Auden, or Marianne Moore, or Louise Glück, your writing may suddenly seem horribly simplistic, crude as crayon drawings on Masonite. Now the poem, even as you are making it, seems stiff, clumsy, and obvious. Now your work may become, in compensation, coy and encoded.

Yet that very knowledge, which can inhibit and choke, can also inspire and challenge. Self-consciousness is the necessary border crossing of craft, skill, and even of poetic ambition.”

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On April 1st, US Poet Laureate Kay Ryan held a video discussion with a handful of community colleges to kick off National Poetry Month, known on Twitter as #napomo — or #napowrimo to those celebrating the month by writing poetry.

I kept an ear on the conference while doing some busy-work. Here are a few partial quotes and paraphrases I managed to capture:

  • “In order to write well, you must write a lot.”
  • It’s important to have a defended space in which to write: people walk through a garden without fences, even if they didn’t mean to.
  • “We’re not hearing from you. Have you answered?” (She was addressing technical difficulties with the link to one of the colleges, but I heard something deeper in it.)

Reading

  • You need to read — read a lot — the entire spectrum: “It’s useful to read things that irritate you as well as what you like…It’s important to read outside your taste.”
  • Think of your brain as a fish tank, and the fish are ideas and thoughts. For those fish to be well, the water has to be aerated all the time. Reading everything and anything plunges oxygenated language into the tank of your brain.
  • “Our brain tissue is stained by really powerful voices like Emily Dickinson.”
  • “Are you hungry to speak?”
  • Don’t be impatient to know too much about your voice — have a lot of tolerance for yourself and your experiments.
  • Eventually, one is kind of reduced to one’s voice: “Sandblasted enough, the shape of you starts coming out.”

Inspiration

  • When you sit down to write, don’t worry about inspiration — “it’s a dirty trick to think you have to wait for inspiration.”
  • You have to start, and inspiration may find you, or it may not at all.
  • “I always find disagreement particularly provocative, to take exception to something.”

Editing and Revision

She read her poem The Other Shoe:

Oh if it were
only the other
shoe hanging
in space before
joining its mate.
If the undropped
didn’t congregate
with the undropped.
But nothing can
stop the midair
collusion of the
unpaired above us
acquiring density
and weight. We
feel it accumulate.

  • “A short poem, but it took a lot of work to get to it…”
  • Unless you are Rimbaud, you better figure that you are going to be doing a lot of re-writing.
  • The Other Shoe had nine or more previous versions. (She flipped through them quickly; one included an illustration.)
  • “In order to make a poem look unworked, I have to work at it a lot.”
  • “I don’t find necessarily that my first thought is my best thought at all. Just a first thought…out of which a good thought might grow.”
  • She immediately forgets what she writes, which allows her to re-read as a stranger: “I have a bad memory, and have always thought of it as a great advantage.”
  • “This is a patient art, in order to gain some excellence in it.”
  • Elizabeth Bishop’s “The Moose” took 12 years?
  • It took Ryan seven or eight years to find a last line that she liked for her poem He Lit a Fire with Icicles.

Questions & Answers

Student question: “What role do other readers play in your revision process?”
Kay Ryan: “Excellent question! None!”

  • She keeps her own counsel.
  • Her partner, who died recently, had been the only one to read pre-publication versions of Ryan’s poems: “If she didn’t tell me the bad things, I couldn’t trust her when she said something was beautiful.”
  • It’s dangerous to listen to other people and their feedback.
  • Working through errors yourself can take you in the direction you need to go.
  • On workshop poems — “good in some sense that is incredibly boring.”

Clear Points

  • Don’t court obscurity, don’t be consciously intentionally obscure.
  • “We have plenty of confusion and ambiguity in this world…Try to get something important across…Try to make clear points.”
  • “Publishing is an act of communication…to make someone else feel or think very much as I do.”
  • When writing a poem, make sure the substance is in the poem, and not stuck in your mind.
  • “Is everything you need to understand the poem available in the poem?”
  • Poetry — the most exciting, exacting, demanding work she’s ever found to do with her mind.
  • “Every sort of experiment can be a useful experiment.”

Note: If it’s in quotes, I’m 99% sure it’s something Kay Ryan actually said. The rest is stitched together from my short- and mid-term memory.

Note #2: I know, I know: bullet points.  Sorry! I’m just trying to get this published quickly, and crafting it into a better format will just delay that.

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45 Months

February 7, 2010

in History,Invention,Process,Video

You don’t have to be a software engineer to appreciate this visualization of the growth of Twitter as a system.

Each photo represents a programmer, each particle represents changes made to the code, and the colors represent different computer languages:

Twitter Code Swarm from Ben Sandofsky on Vimeo.

What do your collaborative projects look like?

via Peter Wooley and Tech Crunch

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Infrequency

February 1, 2010

in Poetry,Process,Words

#1452

Your thoughts don’t have words ever day
They come a single time
Like signal esoteric sips
Of the communion Wine
Which while you taste so native seems
So easy to be
You cannot comprehend its price
Nor its infrequency

– Emily Dickinson

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Signifiers of Home

January 5, 2010

in Place,Process,Words

There are “Books You Can Live Without“? Really?

The NYT’s Room for Debate blog makes this claim, and asked six book enthusiasts how they go about the task of choosing what stays on the bookshelves, and what should go.

My own attitude is closest to that of Joshua Ferris:

“Books are notes from the field, bound and domesticated, life brought into narrow focus. Get rid of a book? No way. Every one is a brick keeping the building standing. Books are my life. I leave and come back, and the books I find there tell me I’m home.”

I can only hope he’s joking about piling books on top of his wife — well, unless she’s into that kind of thing.

And Fred Bass, co-owner of The Strand Book Store, summarizes the economic conundrum that lurks within every book-purging project:

“When you’re all finished, think of selling your books to the Strand! Though we’ll definitely buy the quality books you plan on discarding, we really want the books you’re keeping.”

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The FCC has conditioned us to hear prurience where a beep replaces…counting.

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Kate Monahan shares her experience with putting Carolyn See’s “charming note” idea into practice.

Quoting See:

“These notes are like paper airplanes sailing around the world, and they accomplish a number of things at once. They salute the writer (or editor or agent) in question. They say to him or her: Your work is good and admirable! You’re not laboring in a vacuum.  There are people out in the world who know what you do and respect it.”

And:

“These are paper airplanes of affection.  They are the glue of human sweetness in literary society.”

Tip of the hat: Mark Levy

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Breaking the Log Jam

November 25, 2009

in Adaptation,Process

Yoinks! I have 80+ possible items in the queue for publishing on this scrapbook, but I’ve been so busy with other projects I haven’t taken the time to edit and post them.

Here’s the good news: not only am I going to get caught up, but I’m going to pre-schedule at least two or three items a week so there’s bit more consistency in the publishing schedule in the future. I hope…

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From My Muse, My Self by Hazel Dooney:

“I am still both artist and muse. Because of my feminist upbringing, I used to interpret the role of muse with scepticism. It was, I used to think, related to looks, not intellect, and so inevitably ephemeral and ultimately destroyed by time.

Now I’m not so sure. In the muse that is myself, I am only just beginning to penetrate layers of 20-something years of tightly woven emotional, psychological and intellectual fabric that are enriched, not eroded, by the slow decay of the physical self.”

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From Best Thought, Worst Thought by Don Paterson:

“What kills the writer, in the end, is the absence of a direct causal relationship between effort and reward. Thus it is rarely true *work*, in any way our bodies can understand. A free day, all the kids off to their grandmother’s, the house deathly quiet; half an hour’s meditation; a cafetière of Costa Rica in the study; no sound but the rain dripping from the trees in the back garden through the open window….And I cannot introduce two words to one another without them falling out immediately. Today, feeling exhausted, ill, overweight, the house full of yelling, my mind a roiling broth of fear and resentment and professional jealousy — a dozen problems I have pored over for weeks have been solved in twenty minutes flat. I end the day feeling worse than ever, as if I had accomplished nothing at all.”

From the Songs for Drella collaboration between John Cale and Lou Reed, which reflected on their time with Andy Warhol:

“No matter what I did, it never seemed enough,
He said I was lazy, I said I was young.
He said “How many songs did you write?”
I’d written zero, I lied, and said “Ten.”

“You won’t be young forever –
You should have written fifteen!
It’s work!”

….

Andy said a lot of things,
I stored ‘em all away in my head.
Sometimes, when I can’t decide what I should do
I think: “What would Andy have said?”

He’d probably say: “You think too much!
That’s cause there’s work — that you don’t want to do!
It’s work. The most important thing is work.
It’s work. The most important thing is work.”

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I went momiji-viewing late this afternoon, and there was just something in the air, or the light, or the drizzle, or the combination that seemed like an ending.

Can fall be over already?

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From one to two:

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Attend Attentive

September 8, 2009

in Process,Thinking,Words

“…I know how difficult it is to refrain from searching. It takes long hours of waiting, indecision, boredom, exasperation, presence and hope. Hours in which one is mainly occupied in being attentive, letting things come, fighting against bad ideas, or against ideas, full stop. Rejecting inadequate words, and learning to recognize and welcome the right word. So writing, more than anything, is a matter of not writing, and of attend attentive: attentive waiting.”

– Anne Weber, in this episode of the Guardian Books Podcast

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Quite an Exercise

September 7, 2009

in Music,Process,Video

György Ligeti’s etudes are a bit more compelling than most piano exercises…and what an ending!

Bonus: Here’s Ligeti’s Etude No. 2:

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