Category Archives: the writing process

Interview with poet

Nightsun: How often in writing a poem do you know when it’s going to work, that you’re going to be able to take the poem to some satisfying conclusion?

[Stephen] Dunn: My barometer for myself is that I’m not even in my poem until the first moment I’ve startled myself. Usually if I’m wise that day I throw away everything that precedes that moment. I’m interested in my life, of course, but when I write poetry I’m not interested in my life, per se. I’m interested in using it to talk about concerns of mine, perhaps ones I didn’t even know I had. I usually trust that I might be able to bring the poem to some fruition when I’ve written myself into some locus of concern. I’m certainly always ready to fictionalize what appears to be my life for the sake of exploring my subject matter. And I’m not aversed to creating some obstacles for myself, creating things that the imagination must reach toward in order to accommodate. That’s the illusion of good writing, I think, that something might finally seem effortless, seamless, which may have once had many disparate parts. Essentially I’m talking about how a poem finds its structure and shape. Often a poem is a problem solved.    (from here)

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The incentive for writing

Viet Thanh Nguyen’s assertion (Critic’s Take, April 30) that a writing workshop “can be a hostile place for women and people of color” no doubt has its degree of truth, but I want to say it can also be a place where the ideas of the very same people are treated with careful attention and respect.. . . women and minority writers, even in hostile cultures, have burdens similar to those the rest of us have: to discover what they didn’t know they knew, and to make something memorable out of whatever it is that’s important to them, whether it’s an act of revenge or a walk in the woods.

Stephen Dunn, May 12 2017 Letter to the Editor The New York Times from here

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Private and public

Interviewer to poet

‘You make work in private, but once it goes public, readers make it their own. They define the work—and, by extension, you—in terms of who they are, what they want or believe. ‘

David L. Ulin, interviewing poet Claudia Rankine, The Paris Review The Art of Poetry No. 102

(from here) 

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A universal truth to be reckoned with

[There is] a truth that sits beneath the surface of the twin, universal facts of our beginnings and endings: the unequivocal triad of mother-father-self. Whether that triad is sturdy or broken, bonded by biology, affection or both, it’s one that most of us must reckon with, in some shifting fashion, all of our lives.

Cheryl Strayed on Richard Ford’s Masterly Memoir of His Parents May 1, 2017 The New York Times (from here) 

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Putting real people into memoirs and novels

Germaine Greer to Primo Levi, discussing his book The Periodic Table on his experiences in the concentration camps.

. . .  Would Sandro recognize himself from the account you give of him in The Periodic Table? [Sandro Delmastro is the hero of a section of The Periodic Table. He was the first of the Piedmontese Resistance group to be killed in 1944.]

Primo Levi: No, he wouldn’t recognize himself. He’d have protested. As his nephews in fact did protest. They attacked me violently, for stupid reasons: because I wrote that his father was a capomastro and in fact he was an industrial surveyor. It’s always dangerous, transforming a person into a character. No matter how good the author’s intentions, no matter how much he tries not to distort anything, or tries to improve the character of the person, to make it more noble or more beautiful, the person is always disappointed. Because everyone has an image of himself which is different from the image that other people have of them. It’s as if I looked at myself in the mirror and saw a different face from the usual one. A human being is a ‘unique’, complicated object. When that object is reduced to a page, even by the best writers, it’s reduced to a skeleton. It took Flaubert five hundred pages to describe Emma Bovary. I think if Sandro had lived, and I’d made him read the portrait of himself, he would have burst out laughing. He would have thought it comical that he’d turned into a written page. He was a young man who so loathed all forms of rhetoric that he’d have been afraid to find himself described as a hero, a saint, a warrior. He’d have laughed and said something in dialect, ‘Balls!’ probably.

Now that I’m retired I go to a swimming pool and nearly every Tuesday I meet Sandro’s brother there. We greet each other, talk about the weather but he has always refused to talk to me about Sandro.

Germaine Greer: It is dreadful, isn’t it? A writer’s like a parasite whose excrement lasts longer than the thing it fed on.

Primo Levi: That’s true. But the writer’s not only a parasite, he’s also a creator. In the best cases, the book lasts longer than the man who wrote it and transmits a reality which isn’t the true one.

Germaine Greer: And no matter what he confesses to, the narrator is always invulnerable.

Primo Levi: Because he is in control. The author is omnipotent and can create the reality he wants.

(from here) 

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What is a quote?

“What is a quote? A quote (cognate with quota) is a cut, a section, a slice of someone’s orange. You suck the slice, toss the rind, skate away.”

Anne Carson, Decreation

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The power of what can’t be spoken

Poets, and maybe most writers, struggle to relay experiences or insights that may be fundamentally unspeakable, beyond the reach of language. . . .  Ben Lerner argues poems are “always a record of failure,” tangible proof of the great chasm between what the human spirit wants to convey and what it is able to. This is also a plausible explanation for the intense reward that comes with quoting poetry, snapping it off into its best bits for a unit that can stand alone or else be embedded like a strut inside one’s own writing.

To pull the most evocative phrases from a piece also creates the illusion that the whole is as seamlessly powerful as that isolated part, a hammer-strike of sustained perfection. As Lerner puts it, “lines of poetry quoted in prose preserve the glimmer of the unreal […] the echo of poetic possibility,” but this phenomenon is not unique to poems. Something similar is at work when friends text each other pictures of paragraphs from a novel, or when a blogger quotes a passage of an essay on tumblr. I keep an ever-expanding document of the lines I’m most struck by in whatever I’m reading at the moment. This tendency of mine is probably the reason I’m still so annoyed with Richard Sikken’s complaint about readers who lift phrases: “I crafted poems — units made out of lines placed in a specific order — and the poems have disappeared. My loveseats have been broken into chairs, into matchsticks.”

Charlotte Shane, Anne Carson’s Splintered Brilliance: On the pleasures of poetry that deliberately defies our comprehension, 

(from here) 

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The power of what we forbid ourselves from telling

Often that which we are unable to tell ourselves coincides with that which we do not want to tell, and if a book offers us a portrait of those things, we feel annoyed, or resentful, because they are things we all know, but reading about them disturbs us. However, the opposite also happens. We are thrilled when fragments of reality become utterable.

Elena Ferrante (from here) 

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The most difficult things to tell

The writer  pushes ‘the protagonist much farther than I thought I myself, writing, could bear.

Leda says:” The most difficult things to tell are those which we ourselves can’t understand.”

It’s the motto — can I call it that?— which is at the root of all my books.

Writing should always take the most difficult path. The narrating “I” in my stories is never a voice giving a monologue; she is writing — that is, struggling to organize in a text what she knows but doesn’t have clear in her mind.’

Elena Ferrante, Frantumaglia: A  Writer’s Journey, p 257

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The ennoblement of shame

[The philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre] interpreted Genet above all as a writer, who took control of the contingencies of his life by writing about them. But where did Genet get this ability to transform the events of his life into art, asked Sartre? Was there a definite moment when Genet, a despised and abused child abandoned by his unmarried mother and taken in by an orphanage, began to turn into a poet?

Sartre found the moment he was looking for in an incident that occurred when Genet was ten years old and living with a foster family. Such a child was expected to be humble and grateful, but Genet refused to comply, and showed his rebellion by stealing small objects from the family and their neighbours. One day, he was sticking his hands in a drawer when a family member walked in on him and shouted, ‘You’re a thief!’ As Sartre interpreted it, the young Genet was frozen in the gaze of the Other: he became an object slapped with a despicable label. Instead of feeling abashed, Genet took that label and changed its meaning by asserting it as his own. You call me a thief? Very well, I’ll be a thief.

. . . . he owned his outsider identity as thief, vagrant, homosexual and prostitute. He took control of his oppression by inverting it, and his books take their energy from that inversion . .

Sarah Bakewell, At the Existentialist Café: Freedom, Being and Apricot Cocktails, p 219

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