Interviewer: You describe your approach to writing poetry by saying you simply put out your begging bowl and wait to see what drops in. Can you talk about what this looks like, in practice?
Marianne Boruch: It’s fairly simple really. This has been my method for years, this whole business of the “begging bowl” habit to start a poem. It might be a way to avoid too much self-obsession and navel-gazing, the great danger of the genre, and at least to begin in the world, the not-you, looking out to it with no agenda besides the usual wonder and puzzlement. What you find out there will bring you inward eventually, back and forth between image and idea as the poem moves toward a first line, but there’s also a lot of patience involved, that wait and mystery: what will come into my head, and how will everything proceed up or down from there? Going blank – clearing the mind to zero, no expectations or clear aims – is crucial. Intention is worthless. And then you really do wait, or at least I do. Of course once that first line’s in place, you follow it who knows where, and that’s where the meticulous care begins.
The main thing is to give yourself time, a good steady empty block of it. And be there, show up. The nuns in my grade school used to warn us about “an occasion of sin” and I always loved that concept – the “occasion” of something, for something. So you merely make sure you’ve set up time and a place for the poem-to-come, make the occasion for it. That’s all we can do willfully anyway. But maybe I like the equation I seem to be suggesting between sin and the poem. That is – poem as something outside, an outlaw, of sorts, done in secret, and something that changes the source, which is to say, the writer.
And then there’s the months and months of revision that follow early drafts. These days I call this process my “hospital rounds” and the aim is modest: to visit with the poems, read them over and over each early morning for months and months as they gradually reveal what they really are to me – and want to be. My job is merely to show up, a pencil in hand loose but ready.
Interviewer: I love this image of the poet as rogue surreptitiously adjusting her instruments, readying them for the somehow illicit arrival of a poem. I like the idea of the hospital rounds too (very relevant to your recent studies!) – is this always your process?
Marianne Boruch: I’ve done the begging bowl thing for years, since the mid-80s at least. That willful blanking out seemed the best way to go under, to put myself into that semi-timeless state where something might really happen. Poems exist outside of time, after all, and have a nodding acquaintance with the eternal if we’re lucky. Contrary to popular opinion, poems go way beyond the self. This method to start acknowledges that fact. The hospital rounds began when I finally realized how long it takes for a poem to reveal itself to me – its shape, its meaning. Months and months really. A lot of us can write a poem that seems like a poem, it looks like one, even sounds like one. And we might even be able to do that pretty quickly. So what? Stay staring at it – and weirder, more multiple things begin to happen.