Just as I was about to compose my Morning Porch entry at Identi.ca this morning, my connection to the internet went down. I had a moment of irrational panic, thinking that I might have to go back to pen and paper to write the poem I wanted to get started on. Then I came to my senses: it’s just the internet! We haven’t lost our electricity, so my word processing wouldn’t be affected.
It’s scary how dependent I’ve become on this technology. It’s really only been since the late 80s that I switched from using a typewriter to a computer. At that time I didn’t have my own computer — that would have to wait until my parents upgraded about ten years later, and I got their hand-me-down. So I was still composing poems on scrap paper until well into the 90s. It was nice, in a way, accumulating all those drafts in a big file box. It gave me a real sense of accomplishment. I rarely ever referred back to previous drafts, though, and I’m not quite sure why I didn’t recycle them.
Poetry writing the old-fashioned way involved scrap paper, as I’ve said. Ironically, almost all of this paper consisted of computer print-outs with one blank side. My dad worked as a reference librarian at Penn State, where the Pattee Library had computers from the 70s on, so from the time I was a kid, I was used to writing and drawing on the back of computer paper. I remember for a number of years, the print side was striped with light green bars, and of course great reams of it were still attached and folded accordion-style, with the tear-off, perforated strips on either side where the tractor feed gripped the paper.
I never got into blank books. In fact, I hated them, because in my few experiments with them, I found myself writing in an affected style designed to require no further revision — but revision, especially for an apprentice poet, is at the heart of serious writing. My drafts on the back of printer paper would each be about three-quarters of the way covered with squiggly cross-outs before I moved on to another draft. (Instead of a straight line, I liked to wiggle my pen as I moved it through a line for an ocean-waves effect.) And although I had a refillable ink pen with an array of nibs, and had learned calligraphy for the Xeroxed nature zine my brothers and I produced when I was in my early teens, for actual writing, nothing but my old sloppy handwriting (printing, actually — I never developed a cursive hand), using a regular ballpoint pen, seemed comfortable.
One peculiarity that perhaps foreshadowed my eventual fondness for the blank screen as a composition medium was my strong preference for unlined paper. This might well have been the result simply of the availability of all that blank-sided printer paper, but I always felt a bit imprisoned by having to write on lines in a ruled notebook. Of course, I was never terribly fond of school, which was where I used lined paper. Poetry for me was an almost exclusively extracurricular activity — probably if I’d ever been made to write it in class, I would have hated it. That said, to this day I do use pocket spiral-bound notebooks with lined pages for jotting down ideas, many of which do end up in poems.
Despite an early admiration of William Carlos Williams — I was introduced to his work by the guy who became my poetry mentor, Jack McManis, when I was 13 — I very rarely let the typewriter on which I composed final-ish drafts influence the shape of the poem. Rightly or wrongly, I’ve always felt that the arrangement of words on the page is a fairly trivial matter; the aural shape of the poem is what counts for me. Also, though I took a typing class in high school, I never got any faster than 35 words a minute — and that was with the fancy new IBM Selectric typewriters they had in school. All my college papers were banged out on the same Olympia manual my dad had used at Bucknell in the late 50s and early 60s; the only advance in technology was erasable typewriter bond — so much quicker than using whiteout. So as long as the typewriter was the only other option, of course I’d use pen and paper as much as I could.
I imagine you can see where I’m heading with this. The green letters on a black screen took a little getting used to, but aside from that, once I figured out how much easier typing was on a PC, I put away the Olympia for good. Like a lot of writers, I wasn’t especially impressed by Microsoft Word when I eventually moved to a Windows operating system in the late 90s. WordPerfect 6.0 seemed plenty good enough (and in fact my mother continued to use it for all her writing until just last year, when Dad finally managed to convince her that if would be less work to just learn Word than to continue to struggle with converting from one to another each time she had to submit something. I admire her stubbornness, though). I turn off all the auto-correcting features of Word: the underlines of misspelled words and the grammar suggestions are distracting and often quite wrong, and is there anything more irritating to a poet than being prompted to capitalize the beginning of every line if you don’t want to?
Learning to compose poems on a word processor didn’t happen overnight. For a couple years after I got my own computer, I continued to write first and second drafts by hand. When I did type poems up, I would immediately print them out and then make more pen-and-ink edits to the printed texts until they became virtually illegible, prompting a return to the computer. But I liked that the version on the screen more closely resembled the version I would submit for publication (which I was doing a lot of at the time, blogging not having been invented yet). And of course it’s much easier to make sense of a draft that isn’t all messed up with cross-outs and inserts; I was sold on the convenience of word processing from the get-go. It was just a matter of slowly breaking myself of old habits and getting comfortable with the new interface.
I almost never print anything out anymore, which I regret every time the power goes out and I realize that virtually my entire corpus of poetry is inaccessible to me. But it does save enormously on paper, not to mention file cabinet space. I confess that I almost never save different versions (does it still make sense to call them drafts?) as I go along. My friend Todd Davis once told me that he learned the hard way never to over-write old versions with new ones, after an incident in which he only realized after he’d mailed a poem off to a magazine that the previous draft had in fact been superior. Fortunately, he had happened to email that version to his father, so he was able to recover it, but ever since, he said, he’s been very disciplined about saving each significant version as a separate file. I could definitely stand to become more organized about a great many things, but since I’ve never shared his experience of missing an earlier, discarded draft, I doubt I’ll be adopting this particular practice.
Word processing does have its down side: eye strain and carpal tunnel syndrome, for example, don’t seem as great a threat for pen-and-paper users. Then there’s the whole creepiness factor: I’m really not sure that processing is something I want to be doing to poems! The immediate association is with food processors, which are typically used to turn things into a uniform mush. “I’m still processing that,” we like to say about a new idea, because it makes us sound somehow hipper and more in control than if we merely said we were thinking about it, pondering it, or mulling it over. Just words, maybe. But no one knows better than a poet how much the flavor and connotation of a word can influence the way we feel about something.
So has my consciousness of the fact that I am processing and not merely writing words changed the way I feel about the resulting poems? If so, not nearly as much as the technology itself has changed me. Contemporary North American poets think a lot about process (the noun) because the workshop model of writing instruction has traditionally emphasized attention to the writing and revision process as an antidote to our society’s excessive focus on commodified products. I certainly don’t argue with that focus. In fact, I’d argue further that the electronic manipulation of texts via word processing software has helped me enormously as a writer, by making me far less attached to any given version. As my hesitation about continuing to speak of drafts suggests, I no longer really conceive of poems as going through distinct, identifiable instars on their way to a mature imago; now they are more like pitchers of water from that river Heraclitus warned us about. This attitude helped prepare me for online publishing, where even a published text can remain mutable. The new-found ease of textual modification that word processing represents has therefore turned out to be more than a convenience for me — it’s been a slow revelation.
I’ve begun hassling some friends and acquaintances to guest-blog other installments in a projected series of posts on poets/poetry and technology. If you’re interested in contributing a personal essay about some aspect of poetry and technology with which you’re familiar, please get in touch via the contact page or by email. Every month is poetry month here at Via Negativa, so the series won’t necessarily conclude at the end of April.