Andy Stallings: Process Autobiography

 

*** Andy's note: I wrote this as part of an e-mail conversation on process with my class in spring 2014, shortly after completing To the Heart of the World. ***

 

1. 

When I started writing poetry, I required a prompt and some discord. My poetry classes provided prompts ("Write a poem about coffee," "Translate this poem from a language you don't speak," "Write a forgery of Anthony Hecht" etc.) and the vast swaths of time provided by my being an undergraduate with prerequisites out of the way gave me room to find the discord. One week, I'd sit for hours on a traffic median while writing the poem. Another week, I'd take a bus and ferry ride to Bainbridge Island and write in the library I'd visited frequently the year before while living with my grandfather when he was dying. Another week I'd wake up at 4:00 a.m. and go to an empty classroom on campus and compose on the whiteboard (crossing paths on the way with my roommate, who had stayed up all night, was the only other person on campus, and was feeding peanuts to squirrels). Another week I'd lock myself in my room for 24 hours and force myself to drink 24 warm Mountain Dews as sustenance and spur. It's hard to know whether it was the prompt or the discord that produced poems, but it seemed to me then that both were necessary, and that it was the combination of restraint and oddity that made anything happen at all. I don't know if this counts as process or not, but even given those constraints, the only times the poems were any good at all were when someone had died or when I was in a state of unrequited love (both of those conditions are still useful). 

 

2. 

When I first thought of myself as a poet per se, I was in Rome. We were required to write a poem every day. My apartment mate Erik Olaf and I would wake up at 6:00, walk a couple miles through the miraculous city to the Palazzo Pio where we'd meet the rest of our group and head off to one site or another. Walking through the streets, and then in churches and sub-churches and museums and at archaeological digs and on bridges we'd stop and look and think and write massive quantities of notes in our sweat-soaked notebooks, trying not to smudge the words. We were supposed to take riposto in the mid-day, and then return for a class session in the early evening where we'd read the poems we'd written that day. I have never been able to nap, and was at the time incredibly competitive and wanted to write verifiably better poetry than anyone else every day, what an asshole. So I sat in cafes, or walked by the river, or sat under vines, and wrote instead. The only way I could make poetry under such circumstances was to invent ridiculously constricting forms (an ode in dead-man meter, a sonnet disguised as a ballad, etc.) that literally forced words onto the page. It was an insane way to behave with poetry, and unfortunately it infected my understanding of how to write poems for a couple years afterward, so that writing a poem required very specific circumstances and a ton of focus, and I didn't do it more than absolutely necessary. 

 

3. 

Finally my process changed again while I was at the Writers' Workshop. I observed that my friend Zach never seemed to write his poems sitting at a desk with his head in his hands, and that they were better than mine (I still cared about that). Realizing that I was tired of requiring specific circumstances and conditions in order to write at all, and realizing that Melissa and I wanted to have children before too long, I set about developing a set of exercises by which I could trick myself into writing, and then used those exercises to train myself to be able to write any place at any time. It took between two and three years for this conscious alteration of the way that I thought and wrote to become an entrenched  physiological reality. During those few years I wrote a *ton* of poetry by the processes I'd devised (all of which were geared toward quickness and strangeness), none of which was worth a damn. But at the end of that time, I could write a poem anywhere, anytime -- even in my sleep, as it turned out -- and nothing could be more valuable in the present context of my life.

 

4. 

When I got to Tulane in 2008, I'd just finished the process described above, and my process changed again. I started to think about poetry not in terms of individual poems, but in terms of book-length projects. During each of the next four years, I wrote a new book-length manuscript of poems (book-length, in manuscript, is anywhere from 40-80 pages, occasionally longer). I was aware by this time that, although I could write a poem anytime, the poems I cared about tended to come in clusters, on a relatively regular annual cycle. So I'd keep in practice by writing notebook poems in between the times when I knew I could expect to have a sudden feverish burst of activity. When those times came, I'd build an entire book or a section of a book around the material generated in that time period (that is: those poems would define the shape and character of the book's project), and then I'd spend some time sorting through older work, pillaging poems that bore a resemblance to the new material, collaging poems or sequences out of worthwhile lines from worthless poems, and etc. In this manner, I wrote 3 books that I don't care much about, and another that might one day become a book that I care about. During this time, Melissa and I made the following document, which expresses most of my concerns about poetry at the time:

SEVEN CONDITIONS FOR LIVING THE LIFE OF AN EXPERIMENTAL POET

1) Live outside the concern for money (poverty)

2) Resistance

3) Saying yes (willingness)

4) Spontaneity

5) Devotion

6) Independence

7) No attachment to outcomes

 

5. 

In the fall of 2011, I grew tired of my annual cycle, and grew tired of collaging old material, and almost quit writing poetry altogether. But just then I started feeling a really deep connection with the poetry of modernist and futurist poets like Blaise Cendrars, Guillaume Apollinaire, Aime Cesaire, and also Rimbaud, and decided to apply some concerted pressure to my writing. I figured I could write a book from start to finish in the course of a semester, and did so. My process was: (1) wait until I'd feel really tired at night, then sit in bed with a notebook and write down whatever words I could before I dropped my pen and my notebook, (2) wake up a couple hours later with a few lines in my head and memorize them, (3) turn off the light, fall back to sleep, (4) wake up in the morning and refamiliarize myself with the memorized lines, (5) pick out some books of poems to bring with me on the ferry and the streetcar, (6) read while riding and bang lines together in my head while walking, (7) arrive at Tulane and finally write whatever I had in my head down in long, declamatory lines, (8) teach a class, (9) work the notes up into a full poem -- which always had taken a prospective shape while I taught and whatnot, and (10) type up the poem and put it in a file with the others. Sometimes instead of falling asleep in Step 1, I'd just write a poem from start to finish. At the end of the semester, I made a manuscript of it. It was violent and disturbing to have written -- the Arab spring, and Occupy, and deaths of friends all were heavily on my mind, and someone got shot to death outside our house, it was reasonable for it to be violent, but -- I put it away for a couple years. I've recently gotten it back out again, and I hope it will be my second book, though I wrote it before the first.

 

6. 

I've been in an entirely different process for the past year and a half, but I'm not ready to talk about it yet. I've been trying to learn how to go all the way. 

 

7. 

Throughout these entire 11-12 years of shifting modes of process, there has been one constant, and it is the most important thing of all: I've read poetry constantly, voluminously, voraciously, whether I loved it, hated it, or didn't care about it at all, and modeled my poetry after everything in that reading that I've loved. Directly modeled at times, indirectly at others. At first, the breach of autonomy inherent in influence didn't bother me because I was a student and figured that it would be a decade before I wrote anything of actual worth (I was right about that); later, I realized that it was un-American to reject originality even partially, and during the second Bush presidency especially, it felt important to be un-American in whatever ways I could manage; and finally, now, it doesn't bother me because I'm convinced of my own autonomy as a writer, and who wouldn't want the company of others in their autonomous state? 

All these things apply to me. It's impossible to know whether they'd apply to anyone else. 

For you, I have three direct pieces of advice:

1) Read more poetry.

2) Become close friends with anyone else who you notice reading a lot of poetry.

3) Remain in aesthetic motion constantly.