I normally avoid email interviews with the writers on this site. It's a much more rigid format that obviously allows for no follow-up questions. But I've decided that when it comes to poets, email interviews are better: even the prose of their answers is beautiful. Their concern for how language sounds knows no bounds.
It is not a stretch to say that it’s an honor to feature poet Gregory Orr this week on Writers on Process. Orr is the author of more than ten volumes of poetry and many pieces of essays and criticism. He is currently professor of English at the University of Virginia, where he founded the MFA program at the University of Virginia in 1975. He was the poetry editor of the Virginia Quarterly Review from 1978 to 2003. His poetry has been translated into at least ten languages.
Orr has received fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities. He has also been a Fulbright Scholar and a Rockefeller Fellow at the Institute for the Study of Culture and Violence, and he received the Award in Literature from the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters. City of Salt (1995) was a finalist for the LA Times Book Award for Poetry.
Much of Orr’s poetry is informed by transformative—and terrible—experiences when he was younger. When he was 12, Orr accidentally killed his brother in a hunting accident. His mother died soon thereafter unexpectedly, and his father later became addicted to amphetamines. Later, he suffered his own near-death experience: as a member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee during the civil rights movement, he was jailed and severely beaten. In an NPR story on his craft, Orr states, “I believe in poetry as a way of surviving the emotional chaos, spiritual confusions, and traumatic events that come with being alive.” (credit to The Poetry Foundation for the biographical information above)
Two answers. One is that I fell in love with the experience of writing poems from the very first one, around age 16 in high school. It wasn’t a good poem, but it was a poem of “escape.” It created another landscape out of language, out of words, and it was a language I was released into. That release of the pressure inside me was thrilling and I wanted to feel it again. I felt that language could create reality in poetry, that creating reality out of language was primal to poetry, and it was a reality that included how it felt inside you. I did try to write prose then also—my prose hero was John Updike, who had only published a few books at that time in 1963, and his god then was “accuracy”—a loving fidelity or alert fidelity to the world as it is.
But after a while I had to give up prose, because in all my short stories my protagonist would get trapped in reality and would end up killing himself. Obviously, a complete attention to “reality” wasn’t going to lead me or my characters anywhere. At the age of eighteen, by happenstance, I had a chance to work for a small film company, mostly documentary films—they wanted me to drop out of college and stay on, but even though I enjoyed the work and the camaraderie of film-making, the kind of raucous family aspect, I knew that any creative work I was going to do would be solitary rather than deeply collaborative, as film is.
Talk about your writing process. Do you have a regular routine?
I’m a morning person. Students and people who know me don’t call me before noon, because that’s when I’m going to be working. I think learning your rhythm, learning when (and where) you write best is one of the huge steps in being or becoming a writer. Once you know when and under what conditions you work best, then you can (and pretty much need to) orient your life around that knowledge. It’s one of those “tests” about the role of writing in your life. If you are being fed, spiritually, emotionally, imaginatively by the writing, then you need to make a place/space for it in your life. That said, there are exceptions: I take paper and pen with me in a pouch when I run (a few miles in the evening)—sometimes ideas or parts of poems come to me during a run.
What do you compose on?
I think I’m happiest writing out on paper with a pen. Sometimes I find myself writing five or six pages of ideas about poetry out longhand and then I stop and think, “Damn, why didn’t I start this on my laptop—now I have to transcribe everything. And I am frequently too lazy, so the pages pile up.
Depends. If you asked ten years ago, I could say that I revise poems from 50 to 300 times, even the short ones. Now, I’d say something different. The two most recent books, CONCERNING THE BOOK THAT IS THE BODY OF THE BELOVED and HOW BEAUTIFUL THE BELOVED, have involved less individual revisions. I’ve selected those poems from a larger group of poems—the selecting is likely to replace the revising to some extent right now. The kinds of poems that happen in those two books happened more as givens than labors, but that’s complicated also.
Are there any quirky parts of your writing process that help you write?
Is coffee quirky? The good news is that we don’t recognize our quirks, we are them (and a few other things).
What do you do when you get writer's block? What advice would you give people who have it?
I think the best advice I can give comes from way back in my life and that is: discipline. If you want to write, you need to remember that no one else necessarily wants you to write (some loved ones may claim they want you to write, but often the truth is you are only complicating their lives with your odd pursuit of writing; writing doesn’t even make you a nicer person as far as I know). So, no one needs you to write except yourself. In fact, the world would rather use you for some other purpose, make you a tool of some mundane project that it has in mind (and will pay you to do).
So, if you insist on being a writer, you have to have an enormous amount of self-discipline. You write in the face of the world’s huge indifference. So… what I did as a young person (still an undergrad) is made myself write every day. Just like a serious athlete trains every day. The more you write—and read and consider poems—the better you get. The more skilled. I’m not talking about the need to start with a certain gift, but with what can be learned. So, if you have discipline, you can write your way through writer’s block. No one says you will write well, but that doesn’t matter—keep the process moving, keep the relationship between yourself and language alive. Sometimes, I switch to prose writing; I like to think about the psychological and social/political functions of lyric and to write brief essays about poetry. Try something different, but something that lets you use language. Basically, if you are a writer, you have an exaggerated love of language and you should work to maintain that relationship, even in times of estrangement or self-estrangement.
What would be your perfect writing environment?
There is none. Not for me. But coffee and a quiet morning after a good night’s sleep—that’s as close to heaven as I’m likely to get.
What are the two or three most valuable practical editing/revising tips you would give writers?
The truth is that every writer is different. What works for one person doesn’t for another. As a writer, you always want to be on the lookout for tips that might work for you, but always they are related to your gifts and your ambitions. Few of them transfer easily. One big exception I’d say is that Ezra Pound with his “A Few Do’s and Don’ts of an Imagiste” (about 1913) is a big how-to, practical advice giver. Such dictums as “go in fear of abstractions” or “compose in the rhythm of the musical phrase rather than the metronome” (i.e. go for rhythm over meter; advent of free verse)—he seemed to like to yammer at young poets and he did it well.
Is exercise a part of your writing process?
Yes, essential. Running has been for over thirty years, but plantar fasciitis the past several years has crimped that seriously and to my dismay. I jog a few miles in the afternoon/evening and limp the next morning. If you’ve had it you know what I mean. Yoga also, a routine I do alone, but I need both the run and the yoga to stretch out and lose the stress that builds up (either in our American life or in my own psyche).
Does reading other poetry inspire you?
Yes, of course, and when you are young, reading all of it that you can (your job: to know your art in all its manifestations). The older I get, less I’m in touch with what younger poets write (or young poets at least). I go back to my favorites constantly (Whitman, Dickinson, Blake, Keats, Wordsworth, Chinese lyric, Sappho, Hopkins, lots of others—“you read the dead poets,” a friend once said, which is a weird idea, since if I’m reading the poem then the poet is alive). And I read randomly in other places, but prose fiction isn’t easy for me to read.
Why is poetry so important--why should more people be reading it?
Poetry is important because it (as personal lyric) has existed in all cultures at all times, from New Kingdom Egypt about 3000 years ago all the way to now and globally, just globally. Therefore, it is “important” in the survival sense—why else would it always exist? (by the way, I don’t think there’s any important distinction between poetry and popular song in the terms I’m discussing—survival; expressive function, etc.). Who could have survived adolescence without some form of popular music (rock ‘n’ roll, rap, hip hop, alternative—doesn’t matter) and who could live as an adult without songs to reignite our inner lives? Which is what lyric poetry is about for me: keeping the emotional/spiritual/imaginative life alive (add a drop of mental life to that also). I’ve written a book about this POETRY AS SURVIVAL (University of Georgia Press, 2002), and I’m writing another one.
No one, of course, “should” do more of anything in particular—read poetry, raise their own vegetables. Who needs more tyranny of Should in their lives? If you were lucky enough to discover that poetry (or some poet) had a gift to give you (the gift, say, of an enhanced sense of vitality or of feeling more alive, more deeply or more wonderfully)—if you were to discover that some poem or poet had that gift to give you and you ignored it or spurned it, then, well… too bad for you to be so foolish. But poetry isn’t for everyone. I mean, actually, it is, if you include popular song—it’s there to deepen your emotional and imaginative (and I’ll add “spiritual” for the heck of it) life, but that’s not to everyone’s needs or wishes. Poetry will always be there. Poetry will ALWAYS be there. Like rock ‘n’ roll or Keats’ “Grecian Urn”—ready to deliver what it has to whoever needs it.