poetry, reading, stray thoughts, writing
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Prosaic, with possibilities

Tilly cat nap

The older children are back at school. Possibility quickly collapses into the usual rhythm of school days, swimming lessons, reading-books, and packed lunches. The Moose has once more declared himself a vegetarian. ‘Where do carrots come from?’ he asks me suspiciously and I try to remind him of the summer we grew them in a window box by the back door. T has given out her birthday party invitations and soon it will be time to hang out the bunting. For the first time she is maintaining the list of invitees and acceptances herself, carefully ticking friends off in the notebook she picked out in a French supermarket.

I’m trying to feel my way back into everything. I seem to be reading far too many books at once. Currently in progress: The Story of a New Name, the second of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan cycle, which I’m reading hungrily ever minute I can; Renata Adler’s Speedboat, paused while I gulp my way through the Ferrante; Tinkers by Paul Harding, also paused at almost the mid-point and I can’t remember quite why; Dear Life by Alice Munro, which I have been eking out since last Easter; and at least five or six (seven or eight?) volumes of non-fiction and poetry. The stacks by my side of the bed are listing dangerously.

And the books are only the start of it. Everything feels a little scattered. I have writing projects in various states of completion; our plans for the summer are still vague & they need to be sorted out quickly (this for another little project we’re working on); the garden is suddenly at that stage where things gallop out of control unless you tend it a little each day; and I’m once more trying to follow the IOWA MOOC How Writers Write Poetry, which I loved last year, and would happily love again if only it weren’t for the clunky Canvas infrastructure it’s hosted on this time.

Still, there is time. There are lists. Things will get done, or they won’t, and even then there may still be a chance to do them.

And here is a little Friday list for you — two takes on the writing process that have inspired me recently:

//1// Pretty much everything on the blog of poet Molly Spencer is wonderful or helpful, or wonderfully helpful. I’ve especially been loving her series on her notebooks & how they fit into her writing process. Here she is on her reading notebook and her writing notebook. Key revelation: “I go back”. So obvious, I know, but I often avoid going back unless there is something I remember writing that I want to use. Not any more.

“About once a week, I go back through my morning writing and underline or highlight words, progressions, images, metaphors — whatever jumps out at me as the diamonds in the rough (and believe me, it is mostly the rough) […]

Then I type these up and put them in a file called Fragments. These fragments often become the seeds of poems as I page through them on drafting days and find words and lines that seem to belong together.”

//2//  And, following right on from Molly Spencer’s ‘Fragments’, the poet Kate Greenstreet describes a very similar practice in this video from the IOWA MOOC (see 1.00 minute in; she talks for about 7.5 minutes). She calls her file ‘The Epic’ & “stirs” lines and snatches of dialogue into it at random. I love her deadpan yet mischievous delivery. [The clip is from last year’s MOOC, but Greenstreet’s talk has been used again this year.]

“For about ten years I’ve been using a tool for building poems. I call it the epic. It’s just a word doc I use in lieu of a notebook. Actually, now I have a notebook too but the epic is where my poems begin to take shape. My basic practice is to write things down wherever I am on whatever I have handy at the moment, usually an index card or a scrap of paper.

Then in the morning, I copy these notes into the epic, stirring them in randomly and mixing them up with whatever’s already there. A poem for me often begins by reading through the epic and seeing what fragments attract me.

The fragments actually seem to attract each other. When I notice that, I combine them and read them aloud. As fragments become part of a poem, I move them into a new document and delete them from the epic. If the poem doesn’t work, I’ll usually stir the fragments back into the epic if I haven’t used up my interest in them by then, which does sometimes happen.”

Anyone else with files like these? And what do you call them? I love the idea of ‘The Epic’, but ‘fragments’ — prosaic but with possibilities — sounds a little more up my street. So, I’m off to read my notebooks. Wish me luck. Or at least some diamonds in the rough.






  1. I had a hard time with Greenstreet’s talk on the “Epic”—she seemed so flat and unenthusiastic about the whole thing and the thing itself, her method, it’s called EPIC and she was not engaging (imo). That said, when I got over her delivery (with the help of Hass), I loved the idea and realize I do something along those lines though in notebook form. For me it all starts (and always will?)* with putting pen to paper. Your process?

    * Question mark because I say always but then, sometimes change takes us by surprise, doesn’t it?

    • So funny. I can see what you mean about her delivery, but I just loved her. She seems (to me at least) mischievous yet deadly serious. I hadn’t made the connection of epic = awesome until I read your comment — I just though of epic = long, and I like that — our lives go on like an epic (to ourselves at least), her document is epic in length, and then there’s the joke of it she talks about at the end — who is she to aspire to write an epic, yet isn’t that what she would truly want to write. But we can definitely agree that Hass makes the wisest, kindest & most learned of teachers.

      As for my process, yes, pen to paper. I kept with my 2014 intention of ‘something small’: at least 15 minutes of writing each day. Sometimes I work with prompts or ideas, sometimes just with whatever’s on my mind. If I’m working on something specific I’ll go back and type it out, but otherwise I’ve kind of fallen out of the habit of re-reading. That’s why Molly Spencer’s process (and the look into her highlighted notebook) was a bit of a lightbulb moment. Kind of daunting to think of going back through all those notebooks, but starting a weekly habit of searching for anything even vaguely sparkly makes sense to me.

  2. Nicole says

    I also find writers’ and poets’ working processes so fascinating! Always great to read about them.

    Good luck with the finding your way back into the normal everyday – always hard after a break!

  3. Thanks for the links to the Iowa MOOC and to Molly Spencer’s website, both look like great resources. And a second thanks for the recommendation of Priscilla Long’s “Portable Mentor.” After checking it out of the library numerous times and incurring enough fines to buy the book, I’ve finally purchased a copy. Hip hip for writing notebooks!

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