I used to think Ginsberg’s “first thought, best thought” policy was absurd, after all, where does that leave the revision process? Now I think he may have been on to something. Without spontaneity an utterance will feel rehearsed, practiced, trite. As if some raconteur were rattling off an anecdote for the hundredth time. Many tremendous poems, on the other hand, have a slapdash quality to them, as if they’ve been jotted down at a moment of great haste, no time to spare. Franz Wright’s poems in Walking to Martha’s Vineyard have this feeling of urgency sometimes evinced in an apparent carelessness with form. My first mentor L.S. Klatt had to remind me once: “It’s all artifice.” Because I would become convinced of the illusion. And Wright in fact had endless drafts.
Funny how bad memory is, when I go back and read emails written two, five, ten years ago …. It’s like I’m a wholly different person. I forget myself so it’s like I’m always happening right now. Somebody should write an essay on the benefits of forgetting! A recurring problem in workshop is that the poet is too familiar with the work at hand and that familiarity has led to rigidity. A poem should be fluid. Once it ossifies, you have to break it. Or else become blind to its possibilities. The way I formulate this problem is this: a poem is by nature a premediated act. It’s set down and concretized, finalized, on one hand, but on another it’s a living language and if it’s done right it’s where language is most alive, that is, spontaneous.
I think the way I guard myself against the stifling impulse that is the result of being overly familiar and for example memorizing my own work is I submit poems the day I write them. Just to get it out of my sight. I give it away at once. At that instant, it becomes no longer mine to think about or deal with. And I’ll submit a poem up to seven times before I stop and wait for the results. The lack of care makes the submission process fun. Spontaneous.
In lieu of workshop, I have rejection. The more a poem gets rejected, the more suspicious I become of the poem. It’s at that point that I’ll re-read and re-vise it.