originally posted here.
In My Piecemeal Fashion
With this pen I take in hand my selves
and with these dead disciples I will grapple.
(Anne Sexton, “Mother and Jack and the Rain”, Collected Poems, p. 109)
The previous issue of Cha was released just as we were shifting house, and, between packing and unpacking, moving out and moving in, we couldn’t quite manage an editorial. After its launch, former contributor and guest editor Ankur Agarwal wrote to me: “I was surprised that there was no editorial this time and I missed reading it. I hope the editorial is not discontinued for the future issues as well!”
I assured him that it had not been discontinued and there would be one in the following issue. I also decided that I would write it myself.
Deciding on a suitable topic to write about is hard. But once you have found it, the job is almost half done.
While editing former contributor Ricky Garni‘s recent poetry collection, 2% Butterscotch, I came across the following poem, which I like for several reasons—I love Borges. I love Middlemarch. I love “kinship between things”:
I didn’t have time to read the whole interview and so I was happy to think that this was just the way he liked to start sentences, like some people who say “Uh, well” or “Hmmm.” Borges was blind, I mean, I am not telling you anything you don’t already know here, but still, I had another idea, that people who are blind just have to occasionally make a big statement, like AH MIDDLEMARCH!, so they can sort of claim the territory of the conversation and people will stop and listen. It is really a bold move when you think about it, because people who have read Middlemarch realise what an extraordinary universe it is, and how George Eliot has produced a world in which the whole universe is one living thing, and how there is a kinship between things that seem far off and by the end are all interwoven, and so, once you have startled people by saying AH MIDDLEMARCH! you have really raised the stakes on the tenor of the conversation, because people automatically are thinking about a world in which there is a kinship between things that seem far off and by the end are all interwoven, which was Borges’ point, really, anyway because I read the rest of the article interview later that day and this is exactly what he said:
INTERVIEWER: What do you think there is?
BORGES: AH MIDDLEMARCH!
BORGES: (annoyed) I think there is a kinship between things.
(Ricky Garni, “Borges Says: AH MIDDLEMARCH!,” 2% Butterscotch, pp. 182-183)
I fact-checked the poem (there were a few American expressions I had to ask the author to elucidate, and Google answered quite a few questions as well), and my research led me to the treasure trove of Paris Review‘s author interviews. I immediately gulped down a few, and then sipped some more over the next days. What particularly fascinated me was how often the writers were asked about their writing process:
HOLLANDER: I always write in longhand, and I revise when I type. Then, when a poem is to be published in bookform, I may redo something in its magazine version, something that doesn’t seem right to me. Berryman: I got one of those things that have a piece of glassine over a piece of paper, and you can put something in between and see it but not touch it. I would draft my stanza and put it in there.
CLAMPITT: Oh, the thought of it! I don’t understand how, but a lot of poets do relish computers. My own original handwritten drafts are usually on the backs of those silly announcements law firms send out[.]
TATE: I was just sitting on my bed in a dormitory room and I started writing. The thing that was magic about it was that once you put down one word, you could cross it out. I figured that out right away. I put down mountain, and then I’d go, no—valley. That’s better.
SNODGRASS: Often I print them [the poems] off and make pencil or pen corrections on that. Or sometimes I just do it directly on the machine.
SEIDEL: I use what’s at hand to use. Literally. Sometimes, not often, it’s a pen and a small spiral notebook that I’m carrying around. Much more often, I start a poem on the computer. I sit down at the computer every morning. It’s my feeling that working on the computer puts less between me and the poem I’m writing than my own handwriting does. The computer is nearly transparent to me. As a quite separate thing, I take real pleasure in the device itself, typical sleek Apple elegance—the physical thing gives me pleasure. I travel a certain amount and the computer goes where I go.
Their responses led me to several questions: Do people still write longhand with a fountain pen, as though composing an important sermon? Or do they mostly tap away on their electrical devices? This is what I wanted to write about.
But, naturally, I could only speak for myself (more about my experiences in later sections), and I wanted to know more about how others approach writing. And who better to ask than our readers and talented contributors? I set up a questionnaire on Facebook (hoping the medium wouldn’t skew the results too much to the digitally inclined; as it turned out my methodology had other larger flaws), in which I asked “Do you write poems? If so, do you use a computer, or do you write in longhand?” and provided the following possible answers:
1. i carry my spiral notebook with me (i carry it in my bag) i’m never without it
2. What is “longhand?” My mum said my hands are short.
3. What difference does it make? None of my “poems” are published.
4. Have you heard of “global warming?”
5. And I know that the hand of God is the promise of my own[.]
6. I walk around the city with the poem I’m working on folded up in my head.
7. Before our lovemaking, longhand. After, computer.
8. Your answers don’t speak for me. I’ll add my own below.
One hundred and forty-three people responded. I was gratified by the large number of answers and decided to draw some conclusions in my editorial. As I said earlier, settling on a writing topic means that the job is almost half done. Surely, with the help of over 140 people, my task would be as light as half-eaten… cotton candy.
But one needs time to do anything (the line “Can’t believe how strange it is to [do] anything at all,” comes to mind), and, shortly after I set the questionnaire, an opportunity for me to return to the home of Cha, Hong Kong, had emerged. (A pattern also seemed to be emerging that I hoped I wouldn’t have to keep up—one issue, one move.) From that moment on, there seemed to be endless things to do—packing up, moving out, checking in—and that just getting there. Because of my changed circumstances, I knew I had less time to focus on Cha and the new issue would have to be published later than usual. And I thought to myself—”No, I can’t write the editorial after all.”
Saturday 21 September 2012. 2:00pm.
I am sitting in a hair salon in a Link shopping centre in my home district of Tin Shui Wai. My hair is covered with white cream and being steamed. In Hong Kong, “negative air ionisation therapy” (負離子) is a household name, although just ten years ago it was not so readily available. I remember when the treatment was first introduced, one needed to set aside six hours in a salon (at least those of us with really thick hair), and having your hair straightened was a half-a-day affair. Now it’s down to three or four hours.
My head is inside a glass bubble. I look like an astronaut.
Not having any interest in gossipy magazines about celebrities I no longer know and finding Anne Sexton best ingested nine pages at a time, I take out my notebook (black, hardcover, small, cheap, reliable) and start to write: “The previous issue of Cha…” and continue up until I reach “I take out my notebook…”
What interesting things one sees in a public housing estate’s hair salon:
– a steady stream of husbands, dragging their young children in tow, searching for their wives (unfamiliarly aproned and having their heads massaged or perms re-permed) to ask if they are ready for lunch. The answer is always a resounding “No.”
– the father with two sons and a daughter, their hair very thick like mine. While the boys are charmingly enthusiastic about having the backs of their heads shaved (as though it were the most exciting event of their entire lives), the tiny, chubby girl insists that she does not want to have a haircut! The proprietor of the salon—a woman whose own styling is hardly the best advertisement for her business—asks one of the stylists, apparently very good with kids, to convince the little girl of the joys of having a haircut. The negotiation (or rather, manipulation) is a pleasure to watch, although I will not reveal the stylist’s strategy here, for fear that parents’ groups might disapprove.
– passers-by, walking outside the shop, yelling someone’s name and then someone, heavily-shampooed inside the salon, yelling back.
– the legendary “The Tall One,” asked for by name by many clients. He apparently has the morning off, but when he finally comes in, he is instantly recognisable. Why? He’s the shortest hairdresser in the shop!
Computer vs. Longhand
“Do you write poems? If so, do you use a computer, or do you write in longhand?” Answers:
1. i carry my spiral notebook with me (i carry it in my bag) i’m never without it (52 people chose this answer)
2. What is “longhand?” My mum said my hands are short. (2)
3. What difference does it make? None of my “poems” are published. (2)
4. Have you heard of “global warming?” (5)
5. And I know that the hand of God is the promise of my own[.] (1)
6. I walk around the city with the poem I’m working on folded up in my head. (36)
7. Before our lovemaking, longhand. After, computer. (16)
8. Your answers don’t speak for me. I’ll add my own below.
Reading these answers again, I am embarrassed of how biased I was from the very beginning. The answers favour handwriting, apart from No. 2, which is my attempt at a joke; No. 3, which I deliberately included to show my mean streak; No. 4, which argues against the sacrifice of trees for art’s sake and No. 5, which is a reference to Whitman. There isn’t one answer for those who primarily use the computer or who use both a computer and write in longhand. Luckily, the respondents were more level-headed and came up with their own answers: “I write in a notebook and also use a computer. If my notebook and computer are not near me, I write on scraps of paper, and upload them afterwards, editing as I go.” (Rumjhum Biswas); “I use a computer, and as I revise I save off any significantly changed versions as new files.” (Bob Bradshaw); “I write poems longhand and on computer, and I revise both ways as well.” (Jon Tribble); “My mind, and then the computer.” (Steven Digman); “It’s somehow more personal to begin with pen and paper, but once I have some kind of poem there, I prefer to revise on computer.” (Ace Baker). There were also these longer responses:
Dear Tammy Ho, In view of the fact that most of your respondents have not taken your question seriously and have chosen to be witty and cute, I will risk taking it seriously and answer that I do, even at my advanced age, use the computer with its ability to correct my work with the flick of a finger. I can’t imagine how the great writers of the past managed with nothing but longhand. (Hal O’ Leary)
Actually several of your answers speak to me. I carry a notebook with me most of the time, but mostly it’s for recording birds i see or making notes from events I’m reviewing. Some poetry does get in though, specially haiku. I also keep poetry in my head, folded up in fact, like your answer suggests. When it comes to writing poems out, i write them in pen on paper and it’s usually not until I feel a poem is almost complete that I transfer it to the computer. (Juliet Wilson)
Almost always the first draft is in longhand on a yellow legal pad. Sometimes several drafts. When it begins to feel poemly, I put it on the computer so I can see what shape it’s taking. I print out and save all copies. Newest goes on top. I work on the poem in my head, eyes and ears open for the right image or word, the one I’ve been searching for. I often freewrite in the margins of the latest draft. Sometimes that’s where the real poem is. (Diane Lockward)
The majority of people, however, opted for Answers No. 1 and No. 6, the former inspired by e. e. cummings. Both speak to a kind of defiance against modern technology, although as I said, the options provided were not entirely objective. I was also surprised to see that quite a few liked No. 7, “Before our lovemaking, longhand. After, computer.” The answer was intended to be vague, playful and slightly provocative, and I am glad that it resonated with some. It also left open the possibility of a more metaphorical interpretation: after the consummation of ideas in the form of intense (and sexy) scribbling, the aftermath can be dealt with on screen..
One Unknown Person’s Story
W.F. Lantry shared his process thus: “I write in a strange, highly focused trance, and it only lasts so long.” I suppose this experience is echoed in many writers’ lives. For me, this “trance” can occur when I am in a stable moving vehicle, at a seminar, reading Butler’s Notebooks in the library, watching TV or slurping Japanese udon noodle soup on a stainless steel table (it can also be Sichuan beef noodle soup). So long as I can write on paper, I can slip into this “trance,” although before this state kicks in some lines might already have been forming, usually in reaction to some external stimuli. The “trance” can be incredibly short—several minutes from start to finish. Or it can be long—hours of abandonment. In order to be able to write in a variety of settings, I carry several pens (light blue, black, dark blue) and a notebook with me most of the time, sometimes several; as Reid Mitchell wrote, “Does it matter that my notebook is not spiral? And that I usually carry two?”
But I do not write poetry very often, and all that carrying around of stationary is more for show and security than results. Still, when I do write, I love to first scratch out the lines on paper to test their shape. When I move them to the screen, I often tear out the spent pages and crumple them mercilessly. It is like killing the poem’s past selves. Deincarnation.
However, after showing a professor of mine a first draft of “An Anatomy of Memory” (Fig. 1) on Facebook, he suggested that I start keeping my working papers.
Fig. 1 “An Anatomy of Memory,” May 2011. The poem was published in Asiatic in December 2011.
I think he was right—not because I delude myself with fantasies that someone will have idle, romantic or scholarly interest in them once I die, but because they retain the aura of the time when I first conceived the poem. Although this aura is of no significance to others, it is invaluable to me. Take “An Anatomy of Memory” as an example—I wrote it in a car while travelling near Glenshee, Perthshire, in May 2011. The discoloured wreathes, the blue sky and the many shades of green were all drawn directly from what I saw, although not the hooker, who I invented and randomly turned from ageless to middle-aged. (There was an inn that looked like it could have been built in Shakespeare’s time, though.) The handwriting, done on that late May morning, connects me intimately to the morning itself; it precisely conjures the time, the place, the people, the smell, the dots, the weather, the sounds, the carelessness of “The Anat” and “A Ana,” the carsickness from writing in the backseat.
Below are two more scanned images of my first drafts, if you will indulge me just a little bit longer. I should add that no physical copies of these remain. I was still into “killing” the pages at that time…
Fig. 2 “From Greenwich and the Maughan Library and Back.” 22 November 2011. When I began the poem, I was alone in the Maughan Library’s second-floor photocopying room and had just copied a few pages from Barthes’s Mythologies (I think it was the part about steak and chips). It was rather hot in the room, and I remember having a little bit of a temper, the kind that makes you angry at yourself for no particular reason. You can tell from how I crossed out most lines. And although you cannot read it, this draft also includes the line “with the smell of British beer and cat piss,” which was perhaps an accurate reflection of how I was feeling. The final version of this poem is forthcoming in Unshod Quills.
Fig. 3 “Minute,” 2007. This draft was done on the 969 Citybus from Tin Shui Wai (my parents’ home) to Sheung Wan (where my apartment was at the time). I finished the poem quickly—an outburst of sad feelings. You might find the texture of the paper interesting—I wrote on the back pages of a Victorian novel (my own copy!), now sadly two pages short. The final version of this poem, which can be read here, was published in Muse in January 2008.
I am back in Hong Kong, my hair is straight and I have just finished typing out scribblings done while my head was inside a glass bubble. For a moment, I consider crumpling up my notes, their purpose now served. But I decide not to—better to have a direct link to that housing estate hair salon, halfway around the world from where I was only a few days ago. It’s funny, I think, my own survey did not even include an option for my own writing process, but this process did allow me to find time to write this editorial after all.
Tammy Ho Lai-Ming / Co-editor
27 September, 2012
I have just told you my story. What is yours? Tell me in a comment below.