About Writing: “When do you start? Where do you write? Do you have a reader in mind?”

From a Paris Review interview with poet Edward Hirsch about writing:

Q. When you start, what do you do? Do you write something on paper? On a computer?

I always begin with pen and paper. I write by hand. I used to type up my poems, then revise them by hand, then retype them. Now I move fluently between writing by hand and revising on the computer. It’s a hybrid way of writing that is subject to constant revision.

Q. By “revision,” you mean everything . . .

I mean thinking through a subject. I write by the line. I continually revise the lines and stanzas as I go. I’m listening to what I’m making and changing it all the time.

I was once doing a question-and-answer session at a bookstore with the novelist Jane Smiley. Someone asked me a question and I explained how I wrote. Jane said, “Oh, I would never let my students write like that. You could never write a novel that way. You’d never get anywhere.” I know what she meant. My process is excruciating. But I can’t help it—that’s the way I work. I was also amused when someone asked her if she wrote poetry and she said, “No, I leave that to him. I don’t want to live like that.” It’s all about the intensities.

Q. So you feel there’s a different requirement when you’re writing poetry than when you’re writing prose?

Yes. I feel that poetry is never at the dispensation of the will. “Poetry is not like reasoning, a power to be exerted according to the determination of the will,” Shelley says. He knows that not even the greatest poet can say, “I will compose poetry.” That’s true. Writing critical prose is a little different. You take your lunch pail to work and fasten yourself to the chair. It requires great concentration but it’s a little less whimsical in its inspiration.

Q. Where do you write?

Most of my life I’ve worked in coffee shops, cafeterias, fast-food joints. I like to go to public spaces and settle down to work. I’ve almost always started a poem while sitting in a coffee shop or walking. If something kicks in, once I’m working on it, I open the computer. I can go on working in my study or in my office. Sometimes I head back to the coffee shop.

But now, with the pandemic, no one can work in a public space any longer. It’s one more small loss in the midst of a large calamity. Like everyone else, I’ve had to learn to adjust. I’m riding out the quarantine with my partner in Atlanta, and she has generously turned a small bedroom into a workable space. My consolation is very long daily walks.

I’ve always felt the connection between poetry and walking, and the drift helps put me into a state of reverie. I know where all the benches are now, and sometimes I pause to write something down. The French poet Paul Valéry, who paid more attention to the way his mind worked than most of us, noted that there was “a certain reciprocity” between his pace and his thoughts. “My thoughts modify my pace;” he said, “my pace provokes my thoughts.” It’s all in the pacing.

I work in the daytime now, in what Henry James calls “sacred mornings,” and that’s a terrific help. In my twenties, thirties, forties, I used to work deep into the night. I did my most serious and difficult reading at night and I wrote many of my poems at night. I liked the concentration, the solitude, the sense of being the only one awake. Hence all my poems about insomnia.

Q. Do you have a reader in mind as you write?

A poem is a dramatic experience. It carries its own meaning. I won’t be there to explain it. It’s an orphaned creature that must make its own way in the world. While I’m writing it, I’m also trying to live up to the models of those who came before me, my poetic exemplars.

I write for myself and others. At first, I’m just trying to think through something crucial for myself. That’s hard enough. I’m trying to make something, to remember and express something, to find something out. Along the way, I start trying to unpack and articulate, to dramatize and transform it in such a way that it will be meaningful for someone else, someone unknown to me who may not even be alive yet, who doesn’t have any idea about who I am. I’m writing to a stranger in the future.

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