From Composing on the Computer to Writing by Hand

Poetry Notebooks

One planning journal and four poetry notebooks

When I was young, I sometimes wrote poetry at my computer. That was when you could be on the computer without being online, and being online meant tying up the house phone line. Now I mostly compose new poems by hand, because it’s how I can get away from flow-breaking distractions. As a result I’ve been motivated to maintain a legible hand.

From the outside it might look like some kind of poetic preciousness. Ahh, she writes by hand, in a special notebook! But it’s all about the practical considerations of the work. If there is anything romantic about it, it arises out of the association the work gives the tools.

I write in a special notebook so poems don’t get lost in the mess of the discursive personal journal, or the business time of the planning bullet journal. Every once in a while I type them up. When I type up the poems, I make folders named after the notebooks. So, Blue Notebook, Pine Notebook, Birch Notebook, Red Notebook and so on.

It’s important that the notebooks don’t carry any inherent meaning so they don’t limit the possibilities of the poems I might write in them.

Recently I got a couple of white notebooks. To distinguish them, I gave them names, but I was careful to not be serious or significant. So the one I just finished is Birb is the The Word, and the one I’m using right now is DUCK.

I didn’t at any point sit down and think This Will Be My Process Now. I just sort of started writing poems in a notebook, and then started going to cafes to write and took the notebook, and when it filled up I started another notebook.

If I have any real (not joking learn dog language) advice for writers it’s that you have to figure out your own process. That process isn’t something that you can sit down and invent ahead of time. It will arise out of practices that work for you, that you elaborate on slowly, if you need to [1]. And that it might change depending on your circumstances.

Just keep writing. The rest will sort itself out over time. Keep writing and if you accidentally stop writing, start again. Do that as often as you need to.

[1] Sarah Perry’s recent post on ribbonfarm, “Deep Laziness,” talks about how iterative elaboration on simple forms gives rise to beauty. The principles and practices she outlines apply to the structure of the creative process itself, not just the output. Or at least they do for me.

words pasted onto paper

Home-Made Glue and the Creative Process Behind “Night-Time Skin Ritual”

After doing a cut-up last week using my own work and the WIPP nuclear waste warning poem, I decided I really enjoyed the cut-up process and the kinds of work it generated. I wanted to do something playful for Valentine’s Day using whatever advertising I could get my hands on. Unfortunately I didn’t come across any fliers or other paper ads in the wild, so my only source was the SF Weekly.

I hand selected the ads for events happening on February 14th in the SF Weekly and then cut out interesting phrases with scissors. I wasn’t satisfied with the variety of phrases and selected an advertisement for a beauty cream from the Tatler, and cut phrases I liked using a box cutter. I used a box cutter because I couldn’t find my little scissors and the big scissors didn’t have enough precision. All the cutting probably took almost an hour.

Then I put all the cut-outs on a big cookie sheet and used a variety of randomizing techniques. At first I arranged the cut-outs into little piles by size and chose from each pile in turn. I didn’t like the results. I removed a couple of cut-outs from the mix that I thought were too boring or repetitive. Then I tried stirring all the cut-outs together, and then sprinkling them gently onto the cookie sheet, to scatter them randomly. Some flew onto the floor. I then picked up the pieces that were on the outermost edge, clockwise, and put them down in a shoebox lid. After one turn around the clock I repeated the scattering process. Snippets that fell onto the floor were also deemed to be selected.

I modified the placement order for too un-random feeling randomness (like when two things appear in a row that used to be in a row in the original text), but mostly left the words and phrases as they came.

Once the shoe box lid was full, I decided to glue the phrases to a blank piece of paper. I couldn’t find any glue so I decided to make some paste glue using a little bit of flour and water and heating it up in the microwave. I added too much flour and made a gluey dough. When I tried to thin it out by adding more hot water, it just got lumpy. It turns out making glue is a lot like making French sauces, and once the flour has been activated with hot water, you can’t dilute it further. I put the bad glue in the compost.

I tried again with less flour in my paste mixture. It boiled over in the microwave and was too thin. I made some more very thick paste and added it bit by bit to the too-thin paste, which did work. I microwaved it again and it boiled over again. I had to transfer the glue to another container and wash the whole microwave.

Although the glue making was messy it probably only took about 15 minutes.

I got a piece of printer paper and attached it to a clipboard. I used a toothpick to spread glue on the back of each phrase and glued it down onto the paper.

There were more paper snippets left, so I repeated the process twice more. Then I transcribed and photographed the results.

People think that the worst that might happen with poetry creation is some spilled ink or accidental pencil stabbing, but I make much, much bigger messes as part of my poetic process.

And that’s how I wrote Night-Time Skin Ritual.