Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Jello Wrestling, Or How a Draft Becomes a Poem

75º ~ the beauty of spring continues to linger into what is normally something like a hot summer already in early June, partly cloudy but no complaints, calm air, everything lush & green

I confess, I have never wrestled in Jello.  I confess, I used that as the title to this post to get your attention.  I suppose I could have said, "Catching a Greased Pig" as well.  Still, there is something to be said of the analogy between wrestling and revision.

Again today, I turned to my "In Progress" folder and called up each of the drafts I've worked on since November.  That's right, November.  I truly don't believe there is a right or wrong number of days to wait before starting on revision, as long as there is some kind of waiting period to clear the mind.  Some of the poems I've just worked on have been in the folder for six months; however, that is more of a result of my academic life & responsibilities than of any need to wait that long.

The waiting period is crucial, though, because it provides perspective.  The first poem I worked on today was drafted on 14 November 2012.  This poem is one of those that arrived with great energy, and I've continued to remember the opening stanza without really trying to memorize it.  Based on the copies I have printed out, I worked on the poem again in January 2013, making a major change in point of view to the second half of the poem.  All this time, as I've been haunted by that opening stanza, I've also known, I mean known, that something wasn't quite right about the poem, and yet I could see the potential.  I knew what I wanted the poem to do (in an abstract way) but I hadn't figured out how to get it there.

Yesterday and today, I returned to it again, and something simply clicked.  I had to cut away some lines I thought I loved in the second stanza and add something new there.  I had to change the lineation in two or three places.  As many of you know, I'm fond of indenting and creating white spaces; however, there is a craft to this as well, and while it might look like the poet has simply used the enter and tab keys willy-nilly, this is not the case.

To revise well, I have to have a little distance from the initial rush of the first draft so I can catch my breath.  I have to be able to listen, really listen, as I read the draft aloud over and over, tinkering with the linebreaks and the word choice.  The poem really does seem to know where it wants to go, but I have to be able to hear it.

And that, my friends, is the most frustrating thing to read or hear when you are trying to figure out how revision works.  Still, after years of writing, I have to relearn this with every poem.  At a certain point, the poem and I are wrestling with each other.  We grapple with sounds and breath, and eventually, neither of us wins but through the struggle the poem is made.

I'm thrilled to say that I have six poems now, each in its own folder, that seem nearly ready to go out and meet the world.  These will be the first six poems since I finished the sickly speaker series last fall.  I'm hesitant, of course, but also eager to see what reaction they might receive.


Justin Evans said...

Wow! All that time. Maybe that's what I am missing. When I start drafting a poem, I can't help but play with it continually until it takes the form I want.

I hear about all these poets who draft in paragraphs and then find the best appearance for the poem, or they draft and can wait like you. I can't do any of that. I start writing and that's all there is. I keep at it until all that's left is the tweaking and tuning. I can leave a poem alone, but only after it is almost everything I want/need it to be. If it can't survive that process I'd rather know earlier than later.

Sandy Longhorn said...

Justin, I love hearing about all of the different approaches to drafting. Whatever works!