Poetry Writing Rates

I have been scrupulous since elementary school to note what draft number a poem is, giving hooks for cross-referencing with date started, how many drafts it takes to end.
Most of the early poems are on paper aka largely lost/mislaid/likely to be foisted at me from one of mom’s sheds, but ones I have from the mid-80s note the date, to the minute, of starting a draft, and sometimes the minute it ended.
I thought maybe there is a pattern, a time of day when I am geared to write most or best. So for future records, I added the time in the margin.
Spoiler: The numbers all fell apart. It doesn’t matter what time of day. I wrote at all hours. The pattern I saw to writing rates was when I took time to do it.
As some people are sure of being their gender, I have been a poet. It was on my secondary school business card.
To go pre-beginning, I have an early memory of being taken to a department store—possibly Zellers in Smiths Falls; it was some other town and a store off my usual path—and was asked to spend time in the toy aisle while mommy did other things.
I was aware of her peeking in on me, monitoring, and looking pleased at the attention and seriouness I gave to the dolls, concluding, maybe I wasn’t a tomboy entirely.
What I was doing with my trusty notebook was noting features of the dolls. Hair, eye, skin colour, size, number of outfits. The sign claimed each doll was unique. I was skeptical.
I had only basic addition and multiplication to work with but when I got home, stomach down, page spread out on the living room floor, I worked out how many variations there were. A fairly small set. Certainly not infinite. And I was satisfied.
(And postscript: I got another doll that Christmas).
Flipping ahead to university age, in paper files I found one bundle from mostly 1992 (but spread from 1989 to 1996) where I sometimes wrote the hour and day but not year, or no date at all. (These I can’t add to the stats). I’d note if it was a rewrite, or came out of a different poem as a spinoff.
One, curiously had the date set for 4pm Nov 20, 2017. I’m assuming that wasn’t placed by future-me but nonetheless I’ll go for the romantic notion and read it in a couple years as I intended.
I started to chart poems in 1991 but the poem files of late 80s to 1993 were on floppy disk, and up and died. What I have references poems earlier. Sometimes I copied over the first draft into the 1993 file to keep them together so this is what I’m measuring in the (eventual) chart (below).
In the early 90s used to annotate the poem with notes on how I felt it failed and what I aimed to do, what I was reading, what poem I was emulating when that was the case, notes on scansion, copy of a model poem, the version number.
Apparently I was reading Atwood in the fall of 1993. Funnily enough my conscious memory declared the good story it preferred: I read one poem of the eye of the needle and never read her again until last year. That’s the way numbers and keeping records are useful for correcting stories.
Over the last year I’ve gone back to annotating poem drafts with what poetry I was reading at the time. It may cause no pattern, just a nice tracking system.
I also started tracking in 2002 and with increasing attention number of poems submitted out, to where, where and when ones were published. But that may be a chart for another day.
I have made: 5,174 initial poem draft from Nov 1991-Jan 2015 and 1,706 poems completed in the same period. That works out to writing a poem draft 18 days per month, although it tends to be nothing, nothing, nothing,…six….edit, edit…nothing…
Look at 2007. Wowie. Spike cluster around the time of taking rob mclennan’s second workshop which blew off creativity’s barn doors. Partly with the wonder of a poetry teacher crossing out most of the poem and his saying. Nope. But this phrase, and this line, promising. Start again with those. People who assure it’s all good are counterproductive.
And it coincided with my doing poetry full time. And, after a year’s recover from the depression of quitting my day job my health finally improving. You can’t write well from within illness.
And having suddenly both time and energy to write, and permission to process some schtuff and to explore, and having new to me poetry to explore. And doing NaPoWriMo.
Still, cause and quantity are tricky things in a few ways.
What is completed? I don’t have tags on each poem. I’d compile the numbers every few months or years. Sometimes a poem flagged as done, 4 or 6 or 15 years later gets redone. So it counts multiple times.
One poem which I distinctly remember writing easily in 2011 as a haiku, I found the rough frame of in a re-draft in 1993, marked as from an original of Oct 1991. So it wasn’t an initial draft.
Wiley things, these poems, and memory.
Quantity. Hm. When doing a book-length poem, a poem gets the same weight as the after effects of receiving 2 haiku magazines and going to a conference and consequently trying to haiku-mind and doing 70 haiku over 3 days.
The biggest spikes there were for the smallest forms. With those you either have something with legs or don’t. If the foundations are wrong, there’s not fixing, just demolition and starting a new one.
So, the numbers are more specific than accurate, particularly in some earlier dates where I’m missing data. As I said, the floppy disk fiasco.
But also, here and there I lost a paper notebook and all the ways to count with it.
I remember walking down Merivale Road one snowstom day in the mid-nineties. I had stashed my bag at work, deciding to only being the essentials. I thought my hands are cold. Why should I carry my wallet and notebook in my hand? I can fold them into my hat, put that under my arm and stick my hands in my pocket. Never mind the cold head. I thought they would fall out of my pocket.
The hat arrived empty from this harebrained scheme. Months of poems, gone no matter how much I retraced my steps. And all i.d. but that was a more common thing. I’d already lost or had my wallet stolen a couple times within a few years. But poems, those you can’t get new copies of at a government office.
Watching the statistics I see some patterns over time.
1) I don’t lose notebooks anymore.
2) I now am liable to start 3 or 5 times the amount I finish, instead of finish most of what I start.
3) I used to do copious rounds of substantial edits to each poem. Now I pursue some poems only.
When I write more, do I write better or worse? Or am I diluting by doing more? That’s hard to measure. Anyone up for looking through a thousand poems or five as an indie judge?
The poems I did the most drafts of I were those I was most likely to publish, or to send to publish. Is that because there were more completed?
Part of that may be getting more attached to those which I spend the most time with.
The poems I published have another category which is no substantial edits. They never were workshopped. No test readers. They were a gut yes as they tumbled out. They may have been written over a few minutes or a few hours or a week or two but when done, were done. And generally have a grace to them which appealed to people far more than those that were “my babies” which I edited and lived with and fought with and so on.
Those poems that pleased me most were likely composed in months when I did crazy things, like doing not NaPoWriMo of a poem a day but set a personal challenge to do three or four prompts in parallel. And that didn’t stop me from writing off-prompt as well.
As with doing daily pages the practice scrapes off the obvious conscience mind’s well-intended intent and prattle.
I wasn’t doing a polite occasion poem of safe things. I was well into productive level of stress and without time to curb instinct.
At the same time I wonder did friends or family see me when I was doing 4 new poems a day for 2 months straight? There were fewer edits in these files.
For my theory of a good season for writing I made charts through the 90s that compared a February to every other February, for example. The pattern held for a while but ultimately when I wrote more, it was only because I wrote more. Morning person or night owl was disproval. Now winter-person or summer-person.
Because I write as practice (regularly since the mid-80s at least) I write whether in mood or not. There isn’t a lot of pattern with poetry. I write. Some of it was lineated and looking back wouldn’t qualify as a poem, more diaristic, but madness enough as is without going through them all ad putting on foil stars of poem, or almost poem, or red x of wtf, definitely a fail.
It’s the process of stretching, learning to articulate that matters, learning to pay attention rather than just be present. Talking to self without shutting self down for long enough for a signal to get through. Observing rather than just seeing what’s outside of me. Navigating what matters or to what matters.
Good times or bad times, poetry drafts happen. In contrast, diaries get more impacted. When my life is in chaos I get secretive with myself and go silent to the paper page. There are months I’d love to go back and see what I was thinking, how did I understand this, but I said nothing. I was inarticulate.
Blogs are effected by more going on. If I’m very busy I used to write posts in advance so there are constant skeleton posts covering my absence. But I quit my job and because I didn’t talk of work at the blog, never mentioned quitting. I am circumspect about mentioning online where I live so I moved house and there was no sign at the blog. When I was most depressed it showed as inverse of the most upbeat countering myself.
The poetry shifted with each tumult, even if not directly explaining direct perceptions.
Mary Ruffle in Madness, Rack, and Honey: Collected Lectures said p77

It has been a long journey for me, of listening. I used to think I wrote because there is something I wanted to say. then I thought, “I will continue to write because I have not yet said what I wanted to say”; but I know now I continue to write because I have not yet heard what I have been listening to.

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  1. Interesting, Pearl. And an imposing record of accomplishment. You’ve inspired me to trash a bunch of poems that have been gathering electronic dust in my files and will never go anywhere.

  2. Well, that’s an unexpected effect.
    It’s good to keep moving on but I also don’t delete any past poems.
    I’m in the process of going back and seeing what good bones could be used in new soups.

  3. Oh, I love that Mary Ruffle quote! This whole thing was a fascinating read. For many years I used to file and sort and annotate. I have huge folders of poems on paper. Now that everything happens on computer, I still sort and file but seldom annotate any more. If I think I need to, I make extra files for extra copies, e.g. submissions, but not in all the great detail you have, and I used to have (though never as finely delineated as yours). Why do I find it so utterly fascinating to read of another writer’s process? I perceive that it makes me feel cosy and at home. Perhaps it is that there are these other strange creatures, poets, out there and i”m not a freak. It goes back to childhood of course, when I was the only one I knew and people thought it peculiar. My parents thought it wonderful, but very much discouraged the notion that it could be a profession. Nevertheless….

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