25 January 2014
Have been quite productive this morning, crossing out one item after another in my to-do list. It made me feel purposeful. In the afternoon though, a lull came over me, and I found myself fixing and rearranging the files on my computer instead.
I saw a folder full of my poems that I’ve submitted to various publications. Most of these were rejected, ha. I noticed that I submitted a lot in 2006. I was, I think, in junior year of college. I can’t believe I had all that energy.
I suddenly remembered this:
Marianne Moore went to school and she wrote poetry, but she did not study creative writing in school. Do you think the institution of the creative writing program has helped the cause of poetry?
Well, not really, no. I’ve said some nasty things about these programs. The Creative Writing Industry invites us to use poetry to achieve other ends—a job, a promotion, a bibliography, money, notoriety. I loathe the trivialization of poetry that happens in creative writing classes. Teachers set exercises to stimulate subject matter: Write a poem about an imaginary landscape with real people in it. Write about a place your parents lived in before you were born. We have enough terrible poetry around without encouraging more of it. Workshops make workshop-poems. Also, workshops encourage a kind of local competition, being better than the poet who sits next to you—in place of the useful competition of trying to be better than Dante. Also, they encourage a groupishness, an old-boy and -girl network that often endures for decades.
The good thing about workshops is that they provide a place where young poets can gather and argue—the artificial café. We’re a big country without a literary capital. Young poets from different isolated areas all over the country can gather with others of their kind.
Let’s move away from editing other people to editing yourself. Could you talk about how you work? I gather that you revise a lot.
First drafts of anything are difficult for me. I prefer revising, rewriting. I’m not the kind of writer like Richard Wilbur or Thomas Mann who finishes one segment before going on to another. Wilbur finishes the first line before he starts the second. I lack the ability to judge myself except over many drafts and usually over years. Revising, I go through a whole manuscript over and over and over. Some short prose pieces I’ve rewritten fifteen or twenty times; poems get up to two hundred fifty or three hundred drafts. I don’t recommend it, but for me it seems necessary. And I do more drafts as I get older.
Or maybe I just like it. Even with prose, I love the late stage in rewriting. I play with sentences, revise their organization, work with the rhythms, work with punctuation as though I were handling line breaks in poetry. In poetry I play with punctuation, line breaks, internal sounds, interconnections among images. I tinker with little things, and it’s my greatest pleasure in writing.
And then this part about writing letters:
Another subject. You’re notorious for answering letters. Is your heavy correspondence related to your art? Doesn’t it get in the way?
Sometimes I wonder, Do I write a letter because it’s easier than writing a poem? I don’t think so. Letters take less time than parties or lunches. How do people in New York get anything done? My letters are my society. I carry on a dense correspondence with poets of my generation and younger. Letters are my café, my club, my city. I am fond of my neighbors up here, but for the most part they keep as busy as I do. We meet in church, we meet at the store, we gossip a little. We don’t stand around in a living room and chat—like the parties I used to go to in Ann Arbor. I write letters instead, and mostly I write about the work of writing. There are poets with whom I regularly exchange poems, soliciting criticism. I don’t think that either Robert Bly or I has ever published a poem without talking it over with the other. Also, I work out ideas in letters, things that will later be parts of essays. I dictate; it takes too much time to type and no one can read my handwriting.
– Donald Hall, as interviewed by Peter A. Stitt for The Paris Review, The Art of Poetry No. 43
The ‘reject’ folder is suddenly staring back at me. Get back to work, it seems to be saying.