Peeking over the shoulder of a poet at work
what a writer at work looks like. We’ve seen it in all those
movies; in fact it’s playing a supporting role right now in
the charming “Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont “. The writer
sits at the typewriter (yes it’s almost always a typewriter
unless it’s a period piece, and then it’s a quill pen)
ekes out a word or two, rips out the paper in an arcing motion (unless
it’s the quill pen scenario), crumples it, and tosses it onto
to the floor. That’s writing. Or not.
There is a fascination with watching writers work, though the level
of action can rival paint drying. A lot of thinking while looking
inert is involved. And of all writers, it is poets whose work process
can seem most inscrutable. So I was interested to hear about a new
web site, QuickMuse.com that challenges two poets in a head-to-head
match-up to write a poem in 15 minutes and to allow readers to see
each keystroke as they work.
It’s a concept I discussed recently with Joyce Peseroff, a
poet whose luminous poems suggest careful writing and thoughtful
revising. Peseroff is the author of four collections, including
her newest, Eastern Mountain Time, and the editor of three books,
including Simply Lasting: Writers on Jane Kenyon. She teaches creative
writing at UMass Boston, where she will be part of a new MFA program
in fiction writing and poetry.
“For the reader, it’s always fun to be present at the
creation,” Peseroff says of the Quick Muse challenge. “For
the poet, it’s almost as if you’re an experimental subject
and everybody gets to watch the process. They get to see how much
you revise, whether you write the whole thing and then go back.
Readers get a sense of how a writer most typically proceeds--what’s
the first thing the writer does in response to a prompt But it’s
always a draft.”
As a teacher, Peseroff feels it can be important for students to
watch the process unfold. False starts and lame detours, reworked
images and sharpened words can show them that a poem rarely pours
itself onto the page in ready-for-primetime condition. Still, she
feels opening her own process to observation would be intimidating
and might even hinder her writing. Her poems begin in everyday things.
Right now she’s thinking about a rooster at her vacation home
in Maine that may strut his way into a poem.
“I try to keep alert for images, sounds, rhythms, something
that feels like it has potential. It has to have some kind of emotional
engagement for me, something that brings a lump to the throat.”
She composes her own poems right on the computer (“I want
to see how it’s going to look”), saving a file for each
“Even when initial drafts come fairly quickly, the search
for the right word may take weeks,” she says, noting that
one personal preference is that, unless it’s intentional,
she hates repeating a word in a poem. Once she has a fairly solid
draft, the next part of the process is meeting with two poet friends
for discussion of each others’ work-in-progress.
or four people is best,” she says, for group critiquing. “With
more, you can get overwhelmed with comments and suggestions. You
have to be able to trust the people you’re working with. I
tell my students you should bring work that is something you want
to change rather than something you consider finished. For me, the
workshop members are my ‘ideal readers’. ”
can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.