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.)
- 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.”
- 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
in space before
joining its mate.
If the undropped
with the undropped.
But nothing can
stop the midair
collusion of the
unpaired above us
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.”
- 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.
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!
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.”
“…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
My brain finds connections I can’t completely explain between the Shu Ting poem I posted last week and this passage by bell hooks:
“I did not wait for desegregation, for college, for creative-writing classes, for grown-ups to show me the way. I found my vocation. It called to me and I was determined to answer the call. I began to write in my girlhood. And I am writing still, moving swiftly into midlife with a body of words I have made into books beside me. No passion in my life has been as constant, as true as this love. No passion has been as demanding. When words call, to answer, to satisfy the urge, I must come again and again to a solitary place — a place where I am utterly alone. In that moment of grace when the words come, when I surrender to their ecstatic power, there is no witness. Only I see, feel, and know how my mind and spirit are carried away. Only I know how the writing process alchemically alters me, leaving me transformed. Other writers tell of how it works within them. Written words change us all and make us more than we could ever be without them. Still the being we become in the midst of the very act of writing is only ever intimately present to the one who writes.”
– from the preface to “remembered rapture”
- Reply to the Loneliness of a Poet
Perhaps our hearts
will have no reader
Perhaps we took the wrong road
and so we end up lost
Perhaps we light one lantern after another
storms blow them out one by one
Perhaps we burn our life candle against the dark
but no fire warms the body
Perhaps once we're out of tears
the land will be fertilized
Perhaps while we praise the sun
we are also sung by the sun
Perhaps the heavier the monkey on our shoulders
the more we believe
Perhaps we can only protest others' suffering
silent to our own misfortune
because this call is irresistible
we have no other choice
– Shu Ting (Translated by Tony Barnstone and Newton Liu)
Annie Dillard, in The Writing Life:
“One of the few things I know about writing is this: spend it all, shoot it, play it, lose it, all, right away, every time. Do not hoard what seems good for a later place in the book, or for another book; give it, give it all, give it now. The impulse to save something good for a better place later is the signal to spend it now. Something more will arise for later, something better. These things fill from behind, from beneath, like well water. Similarly, the impulse to keep to yourself what you have learned is not only shameful, it is destructive. Anything you do not give freely and abundantly becomes lost to you. You open your safe and find ashes.”
J. Robert Lennon on what writers really do:
Recently, I timed myself during a typical four-hour “writing” session, in order to determine how many minutes I spend writing. The answer: 33. That’s how long it took to type four pages of narrative and dialogue for my novel-in-progress, much of which will eventually end up discarded.
Read the article for his detailed timeline.
via @CherylStrayed via @BigScotty
“For a poem to coalesce, for a character or an action to take shape, there has to be an imaginative transformation of reality which is in no way passive. And a certain freedom of the mind is needed — freedom to press on, to enter the currents of your thought like a glider pilot, knowing that your motion can be sustained, that the buoyancy of your attention will not be suddenly snatched away. Moreover, if the imagination is to transcend and transform experience it has to question, to challenge, to conceive of alternatives, perhaps to the very life you are living at that moment. You have to be free to play around with the notion that day might be night, love might be hate; nothing can be too sacred for the imagination to turn into its opposite or to call experimentally by another name. For writing is re-naming.”
– Adrienne Rich, from “When We Dead Awaken”, 1971
From a Paris Review interview with Kay Ryan:
Did you always believe in your work, even at an early stage?
Especially at an early stage. I just didn’t know how badly I was doing. That was a blessing. I don’t know how I would have survived if I hadn’t thought that everybody was stupid not to think that it was as good as I thought it was. Still I had to defend it, because there is nothing legitimate about being a beginning writer. I had to treat it with respect and learn my craft.