Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Caught in the Act: Revision

86º ~ feels like 93º ~ dew point 73º ~ scuba gear weather, summer in the mid-south

So, I've been drafting poems for several weeks now, and I did draft another new one this morning (wahooooza). This means that I've been stacking up dated, printed copies of new drafts in my "in progress" folder that I keep on my desk, just beneath the printer. On the cover of this folder, by way of inspiration, is a printed list of my most recent acceptances, which are few and far between at this point, since I haven't had much to submit this past year. As the drafts stack up, the folder gains both a physical and mental weight. The folder grows before my eyes and maintains a presence just below the surface of my working brain throughout the day, leading to times like this morning's hour of revisions.

It's important to note that I see two major types of revision at the level of the individual poem.

The first type of revision is done when a poem draft is not "complete." This might happen because you've drafted the first few stanzas and gotten bogged down, or it might happen if writing time is interrupted by family/emergencies. In any case, this first type of revision is global; it involves being willing to tear up the structure of a poem in an attempt to recapture the energy of the draft and expand the draft to "completeness." I put these particular words in quotation marks because people always want to know when a poem is "complete" or "finished," and there is no black & white answer to that. It's gray and mostly based on intuition.

Here are some techniques for this global revision:

1. Save a new version of the draft and delete every second line (or third or whatever). Now write new lines to go in their spaces.

2. Save a new version of the draft and delete all of the line breaks and stanza breaks. Re-form the poem.

3. Re-write the draft in a different tense or different point-of-view.

4. Take two "incomplete" poems and braid the lines together.

There are many more such techniques designed to revise half-fledged poems, but somehow, I've drifted from this practice. I no longer even really save those half-born darlings. Oh, they might be in a file on the computer somewhere, and they are surely in my journal in scratches, but I don't print out what I've done. If I can't sustain my interest in the poem during my initial drafting of it, then I don't go back to it. This has happened over time, and may be a result of my having the luxury of uninterrupted writing time.

So, I am mainly focused on the second type of revision, the local revising that takes place when a poem is "complete" but not "finished."

Here's the procedure for my local revisions. I keep that "in progress" folder on my desk for a reason. Once the drafts gain a bit of heft, I find myself thumbing through them after I've finished drafting for the day. I read the drafts slantwise, barely opening the folder wide enough for me to see the whole page. I read quickly, almost skimming, but still taking in every word. From time to time, I might spy a serious slip of the fingers and stop to mark a grievous typo, but otherwise, I read on. I do this for several days until the poems bubble up after a drafting session and sort of ask to be revised. In other words, they come to mind as needing revision.

At that point, I go into my word processor and open each and every file that is "in progress," filling the screen with windows. I start with whatever window lands on top.

*Note: I used to claim that I could not revise on the screen, that I had to have a printed copy to tinker with. Sometime in the last six months, that has changed and I do all my local revising on the screen.

With whichever poem lands on the top of the screen, I start reading at the title, and I read out loud, with confidence and above a whisper. I am reading cold at this point, and I am listening for the places I stumble. I listen for the gunky lines that go on too long or the awkward line breaks. I listen for missed opportunities for assonance and alliteration, for metaphors and similes. I listen for useless repetition or extra adjectives, adverbs, prepositions, articles, etc. I always listen for the more precise way to say something, for the need for a more specific noun or for the need to change my syntax. Finally, I listen for the logic of the poem. Is it going to hold together and make sense to a reader outside of my own head?

As I read out loud, I stop and tinker with the lines, and after every change, I go back to the beginning and read the poem out loud from the start. The process is organic, circular, intuitive. I am not beyond cutting a stanza, and I almost always end up cutting some lines or phrases along the way, as I've learned my own tendency to useless repetition and over-explaining. I might add a line or phrase here and there, but usually, I'm cutting or substituting a better word. When I've made it through an out-loud reading from the title to the last line and I haven't stopped to tinker, I print out a new copy and date it. Even then, I don't consider the poem "finished" and ready to send out, as it needs to rest again. Later, when I'm spending time submitting, I'll read through the folder and select any drafts that are ready to be promoted into the "ready to submit" folder.

Every once in a while, this method of local revising exposes a poem that isn't making it, a poem that probably shouldn't have made it to this cycle at all. I just move on and leave it be. Maybe I'll come back to it; maybe I won't.

While it may be frustrating for the beginning writer, and it certainly was for me back in the day, there simply isn't a formula for revision. There are tools and tricks learned along the way, but there is no substitute for doing the work and discovering what works for you and your poems.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

New Poet Laureate (Charles Wright) and Ben Jonson Provides Chastisement

82º ~ after one glorious, beautiful, lawn-cutting day, the dew point riseth & storm clouds gathereth (see Ben Jonson below for the "eths")

This morning, I heard the news that Charles Wright has been named our next Poet Laureate. I think I've written about Wright here before, but if I haven't, I owe him a debt. I've never met the man, but Black Zodiac was one of my breakthrough books in grad school that helped me find my personal voice. My cousin, Marta Ferguson, the poet, writer, and editor gave me this book when I set out for my four years at the U of Arkansas in search of my MFA. I tried to read it that first fall, and I was clueless, adrift. I put it back on my shelf and beat myself up about "not getting it."

Two and a half years later, I returned to Black Zodiac, having read many more poems by then, and the book unfolded before me, making perfect sense and putting me in a state of wonder. Sometimes, this is the way it happens. I went on to read almost all of Wright's previous books, and have read many of his recent publications. I have to say that I favor his early work, particularly the selected poems collected in Country Music.

(I fear I have an odd "thing" for poets' early works: Mary Oliver's American Primitive, Lucie Brock-Broido's The Master Letters, Quan Barry's Asylum, Wright as mentioned above, and so many more.)

In any case, here is one of my favorite Charles Wright poems from Country Music


Year of the Half-Hinged Mouth and the Hollow Bones,
Year of the Thorn,
Year of the Rope and the Dead Coal,
Year of the Hammering Mountain, Year of the Sponge . . .

I open the book of What I Can Never Know
To page 1, and start to read:
"The snow falls from the hills to the sea, from the cloud
To the cloud's body, water to water . . ."

At 40, the apricot
Seems raised to a higher power, the fire ant and the weed.
And I turn in the wind,
Not knowing what sign to make or where I should kneel.

I think a little re-reading of Wright will be in order today, tomorrow, and on and on. It's good to be reminded of these touchstone poets and then return to them.


In the meantime, I also subscribe to many "poem-a-day" email services. Yesterday, The Poetry Foundation delivered "An Ode to Himself" by Ben Jonson. I confess, I don't have much time for the DWGs (the dead white guys of the traditional canon), and this is my failing more than theirs. However, I did skim the opening stanza, and something about it haunted me. Here is the first stanza:

Where dost thou careless lie,
Buried in ease and sloth?
Knowledge that sleeps doth die;
And this security,
It is the common moth
That eats on wits and arts, and oft destroys them both.

Ok, this is dangerous territory for a Midwestern woman who has the Puritanical work ethic woven into each and every strand of DNA in each and every cell in her body. For those struggling with Jonson's English, this stanza basically says, "why are you sitting on your ass doing nothing? Feeling comfortable and enjoying lazy-hazy days KILLS the brain and creativity."

The poem goes on from there to remind me that if I take a moment out of time to rest and recover from a hard school year, I am gambling with my faculties, and I had better get myself back to the WORK of writing...and right quick.

Of course, I'm able to be a bit more rational about all of this, and I know that rest is imperative; however, having just gone through the pain of getting back to writing every day, I know there is some truth to what old Ben here has to say.


Well, I have written a poem a day for the last four days, so I think I can safely say I'm back at work. So there, Ben Jonson!

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Drafting Days: Cat Scratch Fever

71º ~ glorious, after days & days & days of soggy rain, the sun arrives but not the humidity, wahoo

Yes, I've been writing for the past three days, but I've found that I'm not driven to include my draft notes as I've done in the past. In some ways, the process is always the same: sit in chair, read for inspiration, wool-gather words, become struck by a line, begin.

What I do have to say is that the drafts for Monday and Tuesday were inspired by my recent dental drama (needing a crown replaced, discovering serious decay, having a root canal performed by a jackass, etc.).  However, today, the draft remained medical in nature, and with a human subject, but was inspired by Gracie, our diva-cat who just underwent her second major surgery for breast cancer.

Some of you may remember that the sickly speaker was largely inspired by our cat Lou-Lou's lost battle with myelofibrosis. Now, I seem to be writing about surgeries to remove masses from a human speaker, but based on Gracie.

All of this reminded me that once, when I had been talking about the great emotional toll taken by working with community college students, who have higher rates of poverty, domestic violence, homelessness, etc, someone asked, "have you written poems about their stories?" My answer then, and now, was and is "no." Those are their stories to tell. While I empathize and sympathize and give all I can to support those students and help them find a way out, I don't feel inspired to write persona poems around those issues.

Instead, I seem to be most comfortable transfiguring the experiences of our cats onto human figures in my poems.    

So be it.

Sunday, June 1, 2014

Drafting Days: Touchstone Poets

75º ~ working on our sixth straight day of seeping rain, little sun, all is mossy and green

Today, I'm thankful for touchstone poets.

I'm still casting about for my groove, having caught it briefly a few days ago and then lost it. Today, I feared it was gone forever, but then, wahooooza, I found it again.

Last night I remembered that in the past I often told myself, "I'm going to write a poem in the morning," before going to sleep, and that I'd had some success with this. So, I did it last night, and I repeated it through my morning routine. Then, I put my butt in the chair (B-I-C) and picked up the nearest book. I read it with little interest. The poems weren't really my thing, even though the language was interesting and the ideas clever. Still, I gave it the college try and I repeated my goal to myself.

Eventually, I realized I had given the book a solid effort and put it down. An image flashed in my head, the image of my bookshelf and the spines of a couple of books I'd brushed past the day before when putting another book away. Aha! I thought, I'm going to re-read Lisa Russ Spaar, who like Lucie Brock-Broido, is someone whose poetry often charges through me and sends words tumbling out of me and onto the page. Why didn't I just start by reading someone whose work I already knew would do this?

See, I have this type A personality problem. I have this towering stack of poetry books that are unread, and I feel like I have to read the new ones before turning back to the old ones. But, as I was repeating my "I'm going to write a poem this morning" mantra and being frustrated, I realized that these should be two separate activities. The reading to inspire new drafts works best with writers and books I've already read and loved. The reading of unread books is to discover others who might fall into that camp later.

In any case, I opened Blue Venus and got all the way to the second poem, when a line of my own came bursting out ("When all the gods have gone to ground..."). Shazam. After days of forcing lines, stumbling and stuttering through the process, today a draft flew down the page. OK, so it's another short one, only 12 lines, but again, it felt "right."

So thank you to those touchstone poets, for teaching me over and over to trust the process and for the poems, both yours and mine.