Improvisers and Revisers: An Experiment in Spontaneity

Ken Gordon

The first step was to involve some talented people in my experiment. Remembering the success of Robert Pinsky's online Favorite Poem Project-an open call for readers to share the poems they love, and the reasons for their choices-I asked the former poet laureate to participate. He was, to my great pleasure and surprise, interested. "But," he added, "an hour is way too long. That's not improvising, it's rapid composition. Five or ten minutes would be more like it. Maybe one minute."

I worried when I read this. This "spontaneous composition" stuff would be new for a lot of poets. Would they be able to come up with the goods on such short notice? If not, would my experiment be a pure embarrassment? Alice Quinn, poetry editor of the New Yorker, echoed my own reservations when, after receiving my invitation, she wrote, "I might be interested in participating. I'd certainly be interested in seeing the results of the early 'contests.' May I get a feeling for this before I commit?"

But the best response came from poet Thylias Moss. I e-mailed her on Friday, January 13, at 7:55 P.M. Five minutes later, I had her reply:

I'm in
even without the lure
of competition, possibility of quick-fix victory
I'm in

the chance for a poem to find its audience fast
for my words to not have as much time to stale, pale

lose the relevance of the moment
to which it belongs —why I'd even allow

glimpses of the poem unfolding, line by line, word by word
poem emerges onto the web.

This was what I was looking for: poetry at the speed of light. Round One clearly went to Moss, and my hopes for this experiment, which had dimmed here and there, were suddenly incandescent. I slowly became aware, however, that it might not be for everyone. Writers who are unused to extemporizing, whose sense of self and professional status have almost nothing to do with spontaneous composition, may not take kindly to the suggestion that they wing it for a few minutes, "live," on the Internet. In fact, they just might get defensive.

My first intimation of this came in the form of an e-mail, on January 14, from Anne Fadiman. I'd asked her to be a judge because for seven years she edited the American Scholar—the literary quarterly described by the New York Times as "an intellectual giant"—but she politely declined ("I wouldn't be a good judge.because I'm neither a poet nor a critic of poetry"). Then she added a surprising note: "The premise that someone must lose each time may be a challenge for well-known writers who have the literary equivalent of an unbeaten record. Their willingness to participate will be in direct proportion to their degree of security."

Still optimistic about my experiment, I sort of ignored this idea. I thought of Iron Chef America, and how each week a world-renowned chef loses to another, with what appears to be true adult equanimity. I decided that this kind of grace under pressure was a byproduct of the agonistic process: Once poets began competing, they would realize the appropriate way to behave should they lose—and that there was always the possibility of a rematch. Plus, the people who had expressed an interest in this project were accomplished professionals, and I was certain of their talent and self-confidence. Surely, they understood that this wouldn't be an exercise in self-congratulation—the sort of easy adulation that comes to famous poets at their readings—but a competition.

Then came a shocking response from Andrei Codrescu, a poet, novelist, and essayist whose work I quite admire. His e-mail, containing the subject line "oh boy," originally landed in my Junk Mail folder:

I find the whole idea exhausting, not because it's not possibly entertaining, but because it's time-consuming. It's also sort of silly, ultimately, since these kinds of contests go on hourly now on the net and in cafés, and I don't see what can be gained by it. An insight into spontaneity? It's there. I'm sure. I practice it like everybody else every minute. Make poets faster? There are a million poets out there, slow and fast. Or is it a sinister attempt to make "name" poets act like kids on speed? Actually, now [that] I've thought of it, it's not even entertaining.

Clearly, the idea of holding a public competition of improvisational writing isn't for some poets—for example, those for whom art making, in Wordsworth's phrase, is "emotion recollected in tranquility." Former poet laureate Mark Strand, who also declined to participate, put it this way: "I write so slowly, so laboriously, each poem sometimes going through forty or fifty drafts before it is finished, that I wouldn't be a candidate for an improvisational mano a mano. I like rewriting and don't trust anything that comes spontaneously. It is just my way. Others may have their ways. More power to them."

And power, poetic power, is what it's all about. Whether you get yours from polished, printed poetry or a bit of virtual inspiration is not important; what we all want, as readers, is the best our writers have to offer. I don't know if an online improvisational competition is the answer, whether it could inspire our great poets (the great poets who agree to participate, anyway) to produce their best work—or not. But I think it's time to find out.

This project, which is still in the planning stages, has taught me that improvisation and revision are subjects worth thinking about. Hopefully, it will lead other people, those of the various aesthetic ideologies, to think about the way they compose. Perhaps this modest online experiment will prompt skeptics to try improvisation themselves, or even encourage unscripted scribblers to take a second look at the idea of revision. I realize that the lesson learned might turn out to be "abandon revision at your own risk," but that's a risk I'm willing to take. Actually, it's a risk I'm willing to have some wonderful poets take too—Thylias Moss, for instance, who e-mailed the other day to say that, while revision is helpful in smoothing out wrinkles ("I too look smoother after a session with cosmetics"), she prefers the "irregular, / ruined states and their greater variety along the stages of ruin."

And so I doff my reviser's visor to these brave writers. I'm reminded of a line from Jack Kerouac's most famous stretch of typing, On the Road: "Their energies met head-on, I was a lout compared, I couldn't keep up with them."

Ken Gordon, the editor of, contributes to such publications as the Boston Globe Magazine and the New York Times.