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Journal, Day Two

By Janet Holmes

Back in grad school (the early eighties, not to put too fine a point on it), the advice to “write every day” meant, in my mind, to sit down at a desk and work on a poem, preferably a new one, every day. I had my own computer back then, since my job as a technical editor made them familiar and desirable objects, and I used it to compose. (It was one of those 520K “Power Macs” that looked like a breadbox on end, with a minuscule screen in black & white. It came with a program called “Speakeasy” that spoke aloud whatever you typed into it. I typed my dog’s name, Wally: it came out rhyming with Sally.)

Truth is, I just am not good with dailiness. I’ve never been a diarist; I even find it difficult to remember, every day, to take my vitamins. I do a lot better thinking about writing poetry as a constant process, which includes note-making, reading, thinking, and writing all jumbled up into one. Part of this had to do with a change my work took about 12 years ago, when my ideas for poems seemed larger than what (I conceived of as) a “single poem” could accommodate. (My definition of “poem” changed as a result: I’d consider the entire book of F2F, for example, a poem.) I began looking at the tiny pocket diaries my father kept from 1919–1921, in an attempt to write about him; he had passed away in 1985. Part of my process in writing the poem sequence “The Green Tuxedo” included transcribing his tiny handwriting into a computer file so it could be searched, and researching locutions, events, and places mentioned in the work.

In the meantime, the rhythms of the diary’s language (which was not quite like spoken language, or my father’s speech) got into my mind. I began to collage parts of the diary into the sequence. I was aware that other poets were using collage as a technique, but this was my first need for it; this writing also made me much more aware of poets’ incorporation of different levels of speech into a single poem. I hadn’t yet read Zukofsky’s “A,” but “A-1” would have been a great example of this, as would C.D. Wright’s remarkable Deepstep Come Shining. This awareness made me both much more eager to incorporate different levels of speech into my work and more bold about incorporating collaged words from a subject’s own voice. (This goes back to the “eavesdropping” from yesterday’s post. The collage allows the reader to eavesdrop.)

At about the same time, Stephanie Strickland and I began to collaborate on a Web-based hypertext presentation of her poem “The Ballad of Sand and Harry Soot.” This was a long-distance project, with me in St. Paul, MN, and Stephanie in New York, conducted almost entirely over e-mail. (The results are at http://www.wordcircuits.com/gallery/sandsoot/.) I was the mechanic on the project: she provided the poem & images, and I did the HTML coding. The theory was to make the site as technologically “lowest common denominator” as possible so it wouldn’t be impossible to access as operating systems, HTML, and browsers updated—lucky for me because my coding skills were nascent.

Stephanie had created a poem that didn’t require the computer (Heather McHugh chose it in text form as winner of the Boston Review’s second annual poetry contest (http://bostonreview.net/BR24.5/strickland.html)), but which immensely gained from its use. It also dealt significantly with issues of computer-human interaction—Sand is, after all, silicon. I can’t describe what it is like to draw together all the many connections a poem makes intratextually, and add to them imagery with its own multiple connections, except by saying that the reading experience was larger than I was used to. I found myself wanting to create a project with such scope.

One of the advantages of Stephanie’s poem is that the stanzas are quite short, which enabled me to make a lexia, or media page, small enough for very primitive browsers to load but with large enough type to allow easy reading. When I began to write my own hypertext piece, I used index cards: the first time since that 512K Mac that I’d intentionally begun writing seriously by hand. I wanted to keep my lexia short, with the idea that each segment would display and then segue, much like a film, and the cards worked as physical limitations (kind of like Ammons’s adding-machine tape). Because I was dealing with internet messaging as a topic, I would replicate the look of internet messages for those segments. I began to dream big: because the character of Echo was important, perhaps I could incorporate sound as well! Maybe video instead of words! In short, while writing the poem, my intentions for it soon outstripped my capabilities to code it.

Still, some of my students recall my carrying about my little index-card-sized binder with the poem building inside it. Eventually, as collaborations with programmers fizzled (I didn’t have money to pay a programmer, basically), I began to structure the poem as a book instead. Thinking of F2F as a book instead of hypertext brought changes to the work, though in some poems a triple-dot break remains as a vestige of those lexia plans, those index cards.

The poems I wrote in 2002¬–2003 felt burdened by my own growing depression and anger at the run-up to war, and I turned to favorite poets for solace. In Dickinson I found a poet also dealing with a devastating war, and in the first poem she is thought to have written in 1862, just a year into the conflict, are the lines

If it had no pencil
Would it try mine—

I took these as an invitation. I loved what Tom Phillips did with A Human Document, and even more what Ronald Johnson did with Paradise Lost—the latter, I think, more because I could discern connectedness between the created poem and its palimpsest. Erasure had seemed almost a parlor game to me in the past; it seemed too easy to have meaning. (Uncool to want meaning, I guess. No news to me that I’m uncool!) But what I discovered was a deep sense of collaboration in the process. I had to negotiate Dickinson’s language, history, and her deep, idiosyncratic spiritual life, and found it immensely well suited to our own situation in what now seem to be the early years of a long, horrifying war. Now, instead of a pack of index cards or a laptop, I was working by writing in a book, circling, erasing, revising, creating something I titled “The ms of my kin.” The voice is neither Dickinson’s nor my own: it is a third thing I use to unloose my anger.

What I’m saying, I guess, is that my process is either fluid or inconsistent, depending upon your point of view. It is not a process I recommend to others or think superior to anyone else’s; it is simply the only way I can work. Each project dictates its process. Although I am miserable in the between-phases, I now know that it’s very likely because I’m working out a way of working. As a teacher, I never tell my students they have to write every day at the same time, to make a forced habit of it. Instead, I can open up a channel for discussing their writing processes, in which writing every day on a schedule is one way of creating.

Posted in Uncategorized on Tuesday, January 16th, 2007 by Janet Holmes.