Thursday, July 24, 2014

Writers on the Writing Process: An Interview with Poet Diane Lockward

Diane Lockward is the author of The Crafty Poet: A Portable Workshop (Wind Publications, 2013) and three poetry books, most recently Temptation by Water. Her poems have been included in such journals as Harvard Review, Spoon River Poetry Review, and Prairie Schooner. Her work has also been featured on Poetry Daily, Verse Daily, and The Writer’s Almanac.

Laura Davis: Where do you write? Paint us a word picture.

Diane Lockward: My usual writing place is the kitchen table. Best time is morning when it’s quiet and my brain is most alert and creative. While my table serves as a place to eat, it also serves as the repository of stacks of books, journals, and yellow legal pads, all of which I really mean to straighten out but never quite do. From my spot at the table, I look out through a sliding glass door onto my backyard which is nice and woodsy. I have pretty flowerpots on the patio, a rock garden, birdbaths, and birdfeeders. In summer I get all kinds of birds—my favorites are the goldfinches who occasionally fly into a poem. This is a peaceful, quiet spot, conducive to daydreaming which sometimes is conducive to a poem.

LD: How do you begin writing? Do you just dive in? Warm-up exercise? Daydreaming?

DL: If I’m fired up with an idea, if that’s what leads me to the table, I just begin writing. But if, as is more often the case, I have to go in search of an idea, I often begin with some reading from either a poetry collection or a journal. I read until a line, image, or word evokes some kind of response from me. Once I’ve got that response, I begin writing. If that method doesn’t work, I might use the “palimpsest” method, that is, I take a poem and add a new poem on top of it, going line by line following the structure of the original. This method is instructive and often leads to a real poem—one which usually bears no resemblance at all to the original. The resemblance disappears with multiple revisions. I also enjoy prompts and find them stimulating, so I sometimes pull out a book of them and choose one to get me going.

LD: What writing implement do you wield and why?

DL: I like a Paper Mate ballpoint pen, black ink, medium point. I like the way it rolls on the paper, very smoothly, unlike a pencil which sort of grates against the paper and makes a little shuffling noise. I always begin a poem on a yellow legal pad. Something official about that. I never compose on the computer. I go to the computer only after several handwritten drafts have been done. I do a lot of revision on those early drafts which, by the way, is done with a red pen. When I feel like the poem is getting close to a real poem, that it just might be a keeper, I want to see what it looks like when typed up. Once the poem is on the computer, I begin to think about line lengths, line breaks, and stanza breaks. I print out a hard copy and spend days and weeks doing more revisions. Each new revision gets paper clipped onto the top of the growing pile of drafts. But it all begins with a pen and a piece of yellow lined paper.

LD How do you decide that you are finished working on a poem?

DL: After I’ve done several drafts, I record myself reading the poem. This is part of my revision process. I can hear rhythm, sagging syllables, unnecessary repetitions. If my mind starts to wander while I’m recording or playing back, I know I need to enliven things at the spot where that began to happen. When I’m satisfied with the way the poem looks on the page, when I like what the poem says and how it says it, I again record myself reading the poem. Do I like its music? Have I chosen the best possible words? Does the poem, even after dozens of revisions, still hold my interest? If the answer to each of these questions is Yes, then I’m probably done. Probably. I put the poem aside for at least a week, let myself forget about it. Then I take it out again. Record and listen again. Do I still like it? Did I this time spot something I’d missed before, something that needs to be fixed? If so, I make the repair. I again put the poem aside and repeat the process. Once I can record and listen and feel compelled by the poem and not hear or see anything that needs fixing, I’m done. As you can tell, I’m big on revisions. For me, that’s where the real writing takes place. But sometimes I go too far. When I begin to suck the life out of the poem, when I rob it of its surprises, I need to go back a draft or two and resuscitate the poem, find its heart again, get it beating again.

LD: Do you believe in writer’s block? 

No. I believe in laziness. I believe in dry days. I believe in sometimes just not feeling like showing up at the desk (or in my case, the kitchen table). And often I don’t show up. I can go days, even weeks without writing new work. I’d rather be working on new stuff every day, but I know myself well enough by now to acknowledge that I’m just not a daily kind of  poet. I do something related to poetry every single day, but sometimes it’s reading, typing up drafts, making submissions, going to a reading, listening to poetry recordings by other poets, working on my monthly Poetry Newsletter, writing a blog post for Blogalicious, or responding to interview questions. I like to think of the fallow days as days of hunting and gathering.
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