Essays / Faculty

Patrick Donnelly on the Writing Process

My writing life is messy: my pattern is that there are irregular patches of non-writing between stretches of intense work. I get unhappy the longer the non-writing periods go on, even if the other things I’m working on are necessary and interesting, because some important piece of what keeps me in “a maker’s” or craftsperson’s relationship to the world is missing during those times.

“My advice is, if you’re thinking of creating a peer workshop, choose poets who are stronger than you are in some ways, and who will be honest with you.”

From time to time I organize a peer workshop with two to three other very fine, very different poets. We meet by Skype videoconference when our schedules allow. That means I know I have to have something to show, and the fact that I admire the other poets so much means I can’t show just anything: it has to be as good as I know how to make it, and not an early draft. That’s a strong incentive to work regularly. My advice is, if you’re thinking of creating a peer workshop, choose poets who are stronger than you are in some ways, and who will be honest with you. There’s little point in assembling a group that won’t challenge you, or won’t call you on bad habits.

I work on lots of poems at the same time, maybe as many as twenty, with three to five on the front burner. When I get stuck with one, I shift to another. I keep a list of working poems in a computer file, and keep going back to that, trying to finish as many as possible. I never give up on anything, however dire it seems; some fragment might turn out to be useful. When poems are ready to be sent out, those titles move to a submission list, and if they come back from any particular journal, they go out to another the next day—but that’s another story.

“I recommend translation as part of a writing life, both the reading and writing of. Otherwise it’s too easy to conclude that what’s happening in English, diverse as that is, is all that’s going on. Which it isn’t, not by a long shot.”

Translating Japanese poetry and drama with Stephen D. Miller has been important to me since we embarked on that in 2004. It’s a different but related activity I can turn to, if for whatever reason I’m out of sorts with my own poems. It refreshes me, and sends me back to my own poems with strategies that wouldn’t have occurred to me. So I recommend translation as part of a writing life, both the reading and writing of. Otherwise it’s too easy to conclude that what’s happening in English, diverse as that is, is all that’s going on. Which it isn’t, not by a long shot.

One doesn’t need to be fluent in a foreign language to work on translations; you can work with a partner who is fluent, as I do, though that person also needs to be a reader and lover of poems, as well as knowledgeable about the culture and literary tradition the poems come from. I guarantee this will stir fresh qualities, elements, and topics into your own writing.

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