Before You Start

A word from Wes about the notebooks.

These scans from my writing notebooks make clear how important revision is to me as I write my way, draft by draft, down into a poem. My typical poem takes several pages to complete. For each of the entries in hypertext here, I have selected three chronological scans representing my creative process.

The poem’s first scan reveals my initial exploration of the subject I have chosen. That subject may be an event or an image or a familiar word or phrase. By opening a field of random images and associations related to my subject, I discover what my poem’s theme will be, and some of the details I will use in it.

In the second scan I am either trying out opening lines or working on some later part of the poem, searching for a transition to its next movement. A few of the second scans do not contain poetic text but notes to myself about the arc or structure the poem in progress has fallen into. Often such notes appear at the margins of the text in progress, (sometimes in caps) as I find my way with it.

In the third scan I am well into the process. Sometimes crucial decisions remain: whether to use stanzas, for instance, or how I will end the poem. Even those poems that appear to be finished in this final scan require revisions of phrasing or lining before they achieve final form. The best way to discover what is missing is to compare scan three with the finished version.

If you find a passage that is illegible, please remember that in my notebook I am always writing to myself and not to any reader. Think of the scribbles you make on scratch paper for a math exercise as you work toward a solution for the problem at hand. The scribbles in this case come from trying out the rhythm or feeling of a poem’s lines as they move toward a thought yet to be articulated, a process that for me has often resisted precise transcription.

You may encounter other odd tics. Is the manuscript sample written on a diagonal? Are there brief and bold instructions in a different hand? Perhaps I had returned to the notebook with a new thought just before going off to teach my classes, or maybe I jotted possibilities in the notebook at my side as I drove to work. These poems were written in the context of a busy life. Yet they would not be denied, pushing all else aside, and now the struggle to write them that is recorded on these pages seems the deepest and truest life I have known.