My Life as a Poet – Writing Notebooks

(Note: Thumbnails displayed alongside text are images from the original presentation. Click on a thumbnail to view an enlarged image.)At the very core of my collection, though, as I see it anyway, are the scores of composition notebooks that contain all the thinking about and the revisions of my poems, so I conclude my presentation with a sample of my writing notebooks. It might surprise you – and it surprises me a little, to tell you the truth, when I look back on it — that some of the first things I wrote in were examination books – blue books — as here.
And here, a blue book including my notes for a poem called “The Last Peaceable Kingdom.” But then I was a teacher when I began publishing my poems.
In fact, my composition notebooks often include notes about teaching activities, too – like this one, which contains work on a poem, but also, notes about the visiting writers series at UMF, and a slide list for an American literature course in which I often showed slides of American art. The writing and the teaching are in the same notebook not only because I was working on writing and teaching projects at the same time, along with some letters, but because I never felt the teaching process was a threat to poetry that had to be separated from it. Teaching was simply another kind of creative thinking.
So what’s inside the tablets and notebooks? Here’s an example, taken from one of the many that led to the completion of that long narrative poem I talked about earlier, “My Brother Running.” This is a beginning draft for one of the later sections of the poem, and what it shows is the reckless, no-holds barred method I generally use to explore a poetic subject. I should tell you that “My Brother Running” was a hard poem for me to write, because its subject was my younger brother’s compulsive jogging or running, which finally led to his fatal heart attack, and I was trying to determine in the poem what he thought he was running from and running to, sometimes nine and ten miles a day, in a period of great trouble for him. But I was also trying to link his running to the childhood conflict in our family that I began with in my presentation today – and link it also to the accelerating pace of life in America, and the politics of Ronald Reagan, and the explosion of the Columbia shuttle, and even to the destructive power of American myths. In other words, I wanted to work on a larger canvas than I had worked on in the past, so I needed to write exploratory drafts chapter by chapter, to figure out what approaches and associations might serve best.
But then, that’s the way I always begin the writing of a poem — starting with a shopping list of possible details, images, events, approaches – anything that might come into my head as I think about a subject. This page actually contains the record of three different exploratory sessions:
the first one, in pencil, to ask myself questions and run through a range of associations;
the second, done on another day, in green ink, to pen in still other possibilities;
and the third, completed later on with Xs and circles over the whole page, to get rid of what turned out to be false leads and find out where the true poem-in-motion was. The idea in these exploratory drafts is to keep things fluid and associative – or put it this way, never to let the left brain know what the right brain is doing.
Do ideas occur to you when you’re on the road in the car? Well, that’s what check-books are for. I gathered up these checkbook pages and pasted them into the notebook after some trip I took – revisiting the pages I pasted later on, as you see, with that black pen.
Here’s another draft page from the “My Brother Running” tablet –  a mosaic of check-marks, stars, notes circled, notes added to notes. But on this page, which is for section or chapter number 10 of the poem, I’m beginning to try out actual lines, as you see in the foreground of that field of material.
In fact, that first line there in the top foreground is the first line of the chapter as I finally wrote it:“But of course it was my job…” –  the other lines you find under that one disappearing in later drafts. Perhaps you’ve noticed that my handwriting here and elsewhere is not – what? –  entirely legible? I have to admit that when I open my tablet on a new day of writing, I myself sometimes have trouble reading what I’ve written the day before. The most obvious reason my drafts are hard to read is that I’m often writing quickly, following the feeling or idea of the poem in motion. But I think there’s another reason for my illegibility that I’ve only recently figured out – and I admit is weird: I want to keep the poem-in-progress in some way a secret even from myself, that is, a mystery I have to dig for, or a secret code I have to discover each morning as I sit down to continue the process of making the poem.
Once I got each section of “My Brother Running” the way I thought I wanted it, I finally did give the poem to the left brain, which is to say I typed it up – always what happens at the very end of the process for me. But as you see from the marginal questions and notes here, even the typed version has become a draft, on the way to another typed version. By the way, that typed chapter you see at the very top of this slide, given its own title, is from an earlier version of “My Brother Running”– a version that was totally different and represented months of work, after which I tore it apart, and started all over again. This poem about my brother, with all its stitching and unstitching, took me five years to write. And just for the record, my second long narrative, titled “Fire,” which also appears in different versions in my archive, took six years, and the shorter poems I’ve written can take anywhere from several days to years of return bouts. So you see writing, for me, is truly rewriting, as I have no doubt it is for all the other writers here.
And whatever poem I write, long or short, I always begin with an exploratory draft involving a listing of random thoughts and possibilities, as here in this more recent family poem called “Draw Me.” I’m not going to linger over the details of this page because I only intend a summary of my writing process here — so we can wrap this up.
So I click on to a later page of the manuscript, in which I’m trying out both images and lines.
There at the left, where you see that listing of phrases beginning with the word “God,” I’m already investigating possible endings for the poem, which concludes in its finished version with a sort of ironic prayer. So I’m writing the poem, as it were, upside-down.
And every day I come back to my notebook once the poem gets going, I invariably copy out the lines and stanzas from the day before,
as here, to fall once again into the trance of the poem, testing out its language and its rhythms.
The result of this process over the years has been the books I’ve squeezed into this slide, also part of my archive in first editions, and a couple of books without covers for the future, one, at the top right, a forthcoming volume of poems, and the other, at the top left, a memoir in progress – almost all of them, even the new books, dedicated to my dear wife and best critic, Diane.

Looking back on the writing I’ve done, I don’t really think of it as some great literary enterprise, but instead as a long and earnest conversation with the reader, that has come out of the life I have actually lived, and has helped me to understand that life, including the difficult bonds of family; and the struggles of the ordinary people who live around me, so many of their lives unsung; and the sometimes troubling mythology of my country; and in another key entirely, the mystery that exists in the commonest things. Of course, most of these books were written in our wonderful state of Maine, and often inspired by Maine, where I’ve reached my maturity as a poet and writer, so I want to end by saying that I’m very pleased my archive will be housed in this Maine college – the more so because Colby claims collections of letters written by two poets I love, namely, Thomas Hardy and the Maine poet E. A. Robinson, after whom this very room where we are gathered has been named. Besides, I’ve come to love Colby College itself, where I’ve found so many good students, and fellow writers, and valued friends.

So thank you, my Colby friends, for your support, especially Peter Harris and Doug Archibald, and thanks to Clem Guthro for all your help in bringing my papers here, and thanks especially to Pat Burdick, the Head of Special Collections, who was instrumental in making this acquisition possible. Thank you all.