In the liner notes to Miles Davis' 1959 album, Kind of Blue, jazz pianist Bill Evans wrote:
There is a Japanese visual art in which the artist is forced to be spontaneous. He must paint on a thin stretched parchment with a special brush and black water paint in such a way that an unnatural or interrupted stroke will destroy the line or break through the parchment. Erasures or changes are impossible. These artists must practice a particular discipline, that of allowing the idea to express itself in communication with their hands in such a direct way that deliberation cannot interfere.
This conviction that the direct deed is the most meaningful reflection, I believe, has prompted the evolution of the extremely severe and unique disciplines of the jazz or improvising musician.
I have thought often about the liner notes for this album, just as I have listened to it so many times over the years.
Improvisation is an art that performers such as musicians, theatre persons, dancers and spoken word artists know well. It is a part of their discipline and training. Their entire art, forged in the fires of memory and repetition, thought and response, is held in readiness until the moment the performance begins.
The direct deed.
I have wondered what the direct deed, the moment of forced spontaneity would be like for a writer. When I write, I revise almost immediately and directly on my first draft of any poem that I begin. I suppose that one could call that erasure a direct deed.
There are places where you can watch a poet being given a prompt and observe them as they change their minds and revise their work in real time.
That is a form of spontaneous poetry but it is not quite the commitment that a performance on stage is. An actor who has forgotten her lines or said different ones does not apologise to her audience and ask to be allowed to re-do them; she goes on, improvises and makes it look as if it belonged.
What I am interested in is writing as performance: a brief act which can neither be erased nor revisited, an act of calligraphy as it were. I am interested in the irrevocable keystroke, as if we belonged to the era of the typewriter or parchment on which a text is copied with no room for errors.
Nabokov once said, 'My pencils outlast their erasers.'
I would like an act of poetry that outlasts both and perhaps needs neither.
For this month's prompt, I would like you to commit your poem to the page with no erasures and revisions. If you don't like the result, abandon the poem and write another. Don't make it a new version of the abandoned poem. Think of something completely different.
Give yourself an hour, as if in preparation for a public performance. In that time, think about the poem. Don't make any notes. Put nothing down on paper.
If you like, gather objects around you that suggest or catalyse the poem that is forming in your mind.
Towards the end of the hour, sit in front of your page, whether paper or screen, and commit your poem in one go.
Make no revisions. These errors, as the title of Jeet Thayil's collection goes, are correct.
Submit your poem-acts to firstname.lastname@example.org by th 20th of February. I need hardly add that your poems should be under 20 lines. I will be very surprised if you even get to ten.
I look forward to this month's entries. Enjoy the brief month with an exercise that reflects its brevity.