Here is how I do my job. Every morning I go to work at my desk in our house. I have coffee with Lily, see her off to the theater, and clock in about 9:15. The first thing I do (and sometimes the only thing) is pick a notebook and a pen and spend some time writing...
Twelve years ago, the day before I moved from Chicago to St. Paul, the poet Raul Jaimes gave me a gift. "You write with crappy plastic pens, Fred. You need a real tool," he admonished. And in a little black box was a heavy charcoal Tombo Zoom cartridge pen. Let's just say it changed the game.
Six years later, the week I moved from St. Paul to Brooklyn, I gave that (glorious, dented, many-times-nearly-lost) pen to Sarah Fox. But I was smart enough to have another, which I won in a bet the year before from Lily (she didn't think I could go 1 year without buying any records. She didn't know me very well then...). On the way out of New York, nervous that I would lose it in transit, I bought another. So now I keep two, with different colored inks (currently burgundy and indigo).
Like clockwork, an hour after I sit down, I have a visitor.
This is when the fur really starts to fly.
Once I finish a notebook (which can vary in time from a few days to a couple months - I work on several concurrently), the next step is to "pull" the most useful notes from the notebook (this varies from 4-10 pages of a 24-page notebook) into a large (9"x12") draft book...
This is usually the first time I start to break lines, chop out the junk (but not too much chopping), unpack all the tense- and point-of-view shifts (always a struggle for me) and (hopefully, sometimes) see images and phrasings gravitate toward each other.
Then, I jump on the Alpina...
I pull the notes out of the draft book and sort them into loose collections on typescript pages. This step includes more line-editing, more refining of language, and the first steps in making the parts fit together. Typing out the notes after I pull them serves a few purposes: it gives me an idea of relative line length and "standards" (rather than my crazy handwriting); it allows me to see all the notes at once (spread the pages across the desk); by shuffling the pages, the original context of the free writing, its sequence and the images' relationship to each other, is weakend significantly, so I'm allowed to forget all the associations the images had, and try to see what associations can be made. Poems are rarely written in order.
Here are the typescript notes from the notebook "Long Distance Relations." These notes led to a longer poem (with, as you can see, long lines), but the sequence of the notes bears very little relation to the sequence of the poem, and many of these notes, entire sections, were cut from the final poem.
Why do this? Why not knock it out on the laptop?
Novelist Harlan Ellison summed it up nicely:
"It is not that I hate the technology. What I hate is them telling me that I am not entitled to work at the level of technology that best serves my purpose. Form follows function... I operate at a level where I can best produce material using a manual typewriter. It fits my need. I get pleasure out of it. I get no pleasure from using a computer. Using PCs for doing term papers, or scientific treatises, for lists, for stuff like that, it's fine, but NOT for creative work... many writers say yes, it has made them write in a more slovenly fashion. They are not nearly as alert to the fact that they're going to actually have to do the physical labor of changing something... The only thing I've ever heard in aid of using a computer over a typewriter is it makes it easier... making it easier, I think, is invidious. It is a really BAD thing. Art is not supposed to be easier! There are a lot of things in life that are supposed to be easier. Ridding the world of heart attacks, making the roads smoother, making old people more comfortable in the winter, but not Art. Art should always be tough. Art should demand something of you. Art should involve foot-pounds of energy being expended. It's not supposed to be easier, and those who want it easier should not be artists. The should be out selling public relations copy."
The next several steps of culling and drafting also happen on the typewriter. The best way to describe it is as a series of sieves, each time pushing the work through to get rid of distractions, weak lines or phrasings, anything that doesn't fit. This process can take anywhere from a couple days to a couple months. It helps to keep slowing myself down, to put a draft away and come back to it, as a way to dissociate myself from it and read it "cold." The errors surface easier this way.
When I have a draft that I think is close to complete, I show it to Lily. Then I type it into the computer and send it to my friend Sarah to read. Both give insightful notes. The poem usually doesn't end here (it's tough, remember), but this is usually where it's getting close to moving off the desk.
It's funny, the poems that come out are different all the time, and have changed a lot over the years in both style and substance, but the way they're made has stayed pretty close to the same since I set up shop in Chicago in 1993. I still can't tell if it's working... but, as Ellison says, "I get pleasure out of it."