An Interview with John Walser

Can you discuss the origin of "The Summit of Corn Du?" 

I was driving through Brecon Beacons National Park, and I was in desperate need of a bathroom. The first parking area I found, I pulled into, and there I found a bunch of hikers gathered and a sign saying that this was the head of a trail up the second highest peak in Wales, so I decided to join them in going up the mountain. As I hiked, they were all there: the cadets, the cairn shift, the mist, the memorial, the sudden storm, the mild oxygen debt.

Later, as I was working on the other poems for my manuscript 19 Skies, I knew I wanted this experience to be part of the book, but my journal entry for that day was rather sparse. Still my memories of the experience and my photographic record of it were not, so I started the poem about a year after the hike. It was not an easy one to finish though: getting the language right (sort of craggy) and the last half of the poem didn’t come easily. All in all, it took about five years from the experience to the finished poem to get it where it is now. 

Can you describe your writing process?

For many, many years, I simply wasn’t writing. In all truth, I was stuck in a habit of artistic or creative or maybe uncreative laziness. I was a writer of TYME slips poems: an amalgamation of images that I wrote on ATM receiptsas I drove, as I sat in bars, as I went brain numb in faculty meetingsand then collected months later and then occasionally but not often enough mosaic-fused together into something of value. (I wrote five or six good poems a year, at most.)

In the fall of 2009, I got the opportunity of having a semester-long visiting professorship in England. I taught and lived in a 19th-century manor house in the Lincolnshire countryside, and, because of the proximity of all aspects of my life, I was able to carve out quite easily, most days, time for writing. (And I found a great space as well: this wonderful flower-filled, sun-lit conservatory off the back of the house.) That semester I began my obsession with journaling. 

When I got back, I had over 650 pages of notes and journal entries, but only one finished poem. What I needed then was a plan, a system for finishing poems, but I also didn’t want to lose the momentum I had with journaling either. 

Each day I journal. (On December 31, 2011, I decided just for the heck of it not to miss a day of journaling that next year, and I haven’t missed a day since.) Each month, I get around 180 notebook pages of images and thoughts and, well, mainly, drivel. But that for me is part of the process too: I write as much as possible in hopes that there will be more than just a little bit of work that isn’t born already rotten. This, though, is just the first step.

Every three months, I then go back into the old journals and cull three months’ worth of entries. I read them and type into a computer file all the images, all of the ideas, all of the poetic zygotes that are there and that still interest me, still intrigue me. Once I’m done reviewing those months, I print up those culled bits and start culling them: nurturing the sprouts, seeing connections, teasing imagery, seeing how those fragments connect to works in progress, getting rid of big hunks. (I like to maintain a nine-month backlog, culling, say, January-February-March entries at the beginning of October.) 

Once a poem starts to take shape, it gets its own computer file, and I print it and work it pen to paper (along with all of the others I have goingabout 200 poems at a time, 30 or so that I really focus on) until I decide to recycle sections back into the journal, going in like a grave robber and popping the gold crowns out so that I can melt those images down in the future for, I hope, cufflinks or a ringuntil I decide it is done.