These are two excerpts from February 2014 correspondence with Cathy Wagner about how I revise and improvise my writing:
No, usually I do little or no editing, myself. In recent times (books like Open Clothes or Blue Book) I indicate in the authorial notes whether or how I have edited anything based on a transcript or act of writing. E.g., in the newer of those 2 books there has been only very selective cuts, no rewrites, as I recall. This relates to the Ginsberg/Kerouac school of spontaneity and stylistic whatever-I-do-is-writing mode or pose, which I am neither doing nor critiquing, but availing myself of as a premise for doing whatever I am doing. I would not say the poems are a record, but I would say that the transcripts are a poem, and also that the original live oration or sound recording or manuscript or typescript was also a poem. To call the in-print (on the page or on a screen on line) published (which means for others, potentially anyone, to see) version a poem is the hardest of all, rather than saying it reproduces inadequately a poem, no matter how carefully I’ve made choices on typography and layout, perhaps because still it is the furthest removed from my own clumsily intuitively decisive inept hand and mouth. But I will call it one anyway. An embodied simulacrum of my intentions for transposition to the page/screen. To say the poem itself is a transcendent entity that cuts across or encompasses these diverse incarnations feels totally pretentious and false. Not true of Dickinson either. Her embodied hand-written poems include the paper they’re written on, we know now more than ever. The published typeset versions are just accounts of them, documentation approximating their form and the writer’s intentions.
Anyhow, I used to edit some and may again, would like to, but haven’t found the time. If I write an essay, like the 2 reviews published in Jacket2 in the last couple years, I rewrite a good bit, as long as I can stand it, then hope for the best. Two projects in which composition was largely comprised of revision come to mind, namely “Reverse Order”(which appears in a book of the same name) and Briarcombe Paragraphs (in a chapbook of the same name), both of which I feel are major achievements of my frustrating and irreconcilable willfulness. In these each segment (stanza or paragraph) was composed at one extended sitting, using the previous one (itself its own final draft) as basis for revision (in the case of the poem, I also reversed the sequence of lines when I first typed them out before I began to revise it into a new stanza). The piece called “On Time in Another Place” that is also in Reverse Order was extensively revised, as a set of isolated paragraphs, over the long time I was out of the country around 1984-85, then I spliced the paragraphs together, alternating lines between them in a way I made of collaging them, and that required some careful tender revision too, without changing the paragraphs’ composition much.
Meanwhile, anyhow, if and when I am simply improvising, as writing on the page or screen or in the sounding air, I am indeed as you say editing in my head, there are roads not taken. I notice that once I feel like “I know where this is going” I feel obliged to change it. This is a sort of characterological fault or necessity (I don’t want to call it a compulsion, I don’t think that’s fair to it) that has made it impossible, just about, to write narrative, though on the other hand, when I wrote my (heavily edited and rewritten) parts of the Grand Piano books I did not worry about this or feel a pressure to do this. So it has to do with the poetry act of art writing, basically, and it includes my personal history of finding myself sick with shame and disgust when I didn’t follow this willingness to let go and see work slide into a frame or tone, a voice or tense that I hadn’t been anticipating. On the other hand, I have often hoped for a given attitude, manner, or relational quality in an improvised work in public, only to find I couldn’t locate that at all in my actual behavior and production, so that I was already fully thrown back on not-knowing how to do it or what could/should come next and thereby the necessity of actually improvising, rather than simply reproducing something I’d imagined or rehearsed. The chosen constraints or rules I’d committed to in advance would in effect save me by giving me something to hang onto while bouncing off of, so that I could find a weird and basically unpredictable if not uncanny rhythm of seeming contact and suspension to orient to, even as it changed or refused to change as I went along. Hard work, in a way. I don’t know whether ‘the unconscious’ enters into this work, but I have no objection if it manages to; forgetfulness is certainly rampant to a degree I could call amnesiac, as I often can remember very few moments of what I’ve said until I hear it later.
There is a meta-discourse and a discourse and the textual production, particularly when improvising aloud, clearly slips around between these two impersonations that are actually impossible for me to distinguish with any conviction. They reflect each other, reflect on each other, mimic one another, infect one another.
Anyway, clearly your method of writing as you describe it in your fourth paragraph here is very very different and allows for a play of levels and discourses in a different set of ways that is most compellingly pleasing-and-disturbing. I don’t know how many people rewrite their works. Most people you and I like a lot in their writing do I think revise, rejuxtapose, refinish, scratch and contort their work variously between the sketches, notes, and drafts it starts from and a final piece.
. . .
I thought a little more (endlessly) and recently listened also to a ‘reading’ I gave at St Marks on 3 9 2005 in which I first gave a tentative and unresolved short reading (with some improvisation) from the Open Notebooks section of what was then my brand new book and then I did an improvisational piece that lasted about 25 minutes I think. Just standing against the white wall or pacing and gesturing, talking. It was on the same model as the piece I had already done at Discrete Series in Chicago (which Erika Staiti used verbatim for a video — both are linkable to from my website, stevebensonasis) but it comes out very different, less ruminative and airless, more artificial and passionate. I could send it to you via Dropbox if you like. But the point of saying so is that this is another way I have revised work, as if ‘in the camera’ as I’m speaking an improvised work, by ‘repeating’ the same utterance with a discrete or indiscreet alteration on more or less every iteration. (I also did this in a work called “Enter,” during which I was also writing other variations on the same clauses, and it’s not available from me in video but I made a text version of the entire thing and that’s also on line.) For a few years I focused on this approach to improvising/revising works, with mixed satisfaction, in that some episodes were marvelous to me and some highly disappointing as some limitations, in myself or the method, showed in a dull tiresome way. I had felt that way about the St Marks piece until I re-heard it while driving on Friday.
A way I have done work that is in a sense private and not poetry (as your trance vocalizations may be) is the piano improvisations, which my Yamaha can record up to two of at a time, and which I gradually begin to download into my laptop and post occasionally at ReverbNation. I have also made a link from the website to the page there lately. These are not my best — the best have all been played without recording, or the recordings lost. I often have wondered whether and how I could work piano playing into my poetry readings but, aside from the difficulty often of arranging a keyboard at all, I haven’t yet found any way in which the two mix. That may eventually come.
Another thing I thought of about how I edit in situ while improvising work orally or in text is that I think I am gauging whatever I produce relative to the listener/reader’s access to something. I am not maintaining any specific or consistent idea of what I want the reader or listener to be able to grasp, understand, or hang on to, so that the handholds or hooks or openings toward significance or interest are mercurial sometimes and always subject to change. But I am aware that I also can’t really make the work totally oblivious to the other who is attending to it (actually or potentially), and a few attempts at work that are procedurally focused on chance applications of words to page without attempts at linkage or attachment of any kind have never (to my recollection) made it into the presence of any public. Stuttering or shouting m ay be a way of offering such access, as well as grammatical and semantic familiarity or representation (in the sense that “You believe in crouching play antiphonies,” for instance, represents a person having some kind of conviction in entities with specific characteristics, even if it’s hard to tell what this may mean).
Usually, all the same, I do mean things by what I utter in such improvisations; I am usually saying things that I believe are ethically acceptable to utter as assertions, even though they may not be particularly valuable in and of themselves, and even though some things I say are presented merely as gestures for some momentarily palpable reason and I really don’t mean them as assertions in the world of my own understandings, even though I may not indicate any difference between them and gestures I would indeed ‘stand behind.’