On revision (again)

iceimageI am going to go out on  a limb here and make a blanket statement: Revision should be every writer’s middle name.

I tell this to my Comp-Rhet introduction to academic writing students all the time, but they have difficulty figuring out how to revise effectively. There are good tactics out there, but they do not work for everyone; how a person thinks and learns and processes information varies considerably. Lately, I have been using a strategy I teach to students writing essays to revise my poems. I ask myself: how is this poem organized? Is the structure working with or against the poem? Too predictable, or not predictable enough?

Just as in a well-wrought prose piece, a poem’s obvious and underlying structures matter a great deal in how well it “works” for a reader. It’s also an aspect of writing that people tend to overlook, so analysis of structure in the revision stage can be useful.

Another revision strategy I have been mulling over recently coincides closely with what Grant Clauser describes in this post, The Poem Is the Question. He writes:

I’ll scrounge around in the poem to try to find what it’s asking. If I figure out the question or the motivation in the poem, then I’m better equipped to solve its problems… Sometimes it helps to actually put a question in the poem–either as a crutch that you’ll eventually remove–or as a permanent part of the poem. A question is a pretty interesting part of speech in that it’s one of the few that almost always demands a response from the reader.

I have found myself going back to a draft and asking, “What got me going on this poem? Do I even recall? Is the impetus an interesting one? If not, can I change it?” Clauser suggests a more specific kind of investigation, and it’s one I have been employing today (snow and ice out there and the roads are lousy, so the campus is closed–hooray for a half day of unexpected free time).

Lesley Wheeler has also recently blogged about revising. She observes that the word revision, which places “emphasis on ‘looking anew’ doesn’t entirely capture” the process of late-project revision. She’s listening to her own words aloud as she revises…another approach that has worked for me.

Maybe the month of February calls to us as a quiet time of yin creativity, which is a way of looking at revision as an inwardly-focused energy–as opposed to marvelous bursts of creativity from inspiration or the much-vaunted Muse. The lunisolar calendar used for centuries in Asia calls February the first month of spring (立春  lìchūn)! I had better keep at the revising, therefore. Before I know it, yan energy will return with the start of the gardening season in eastern Pennsylvania.




Creative publishing

Poetry and publishing: two topics that seem diametrically opposed, if you look at them under the perspective that’s the norm in the USA—that of business, capitalism, popular culture. Shake off that norm, however, and publishing can be re-imagined as aural/oral, visual, textual, cinematic, digital, interactive…who knows?

When a reader begins to deepen her understanding of creative literature, she will also find it necessary to widen the concept of publishing. Some folks say this is a new world. Or they’ll claim things were better in the old days. Curmudgeons and prejudices abound.

In my lifetime, I have observed and been part of significant and constant changes in what constitutes publishing, from Linotype to Huffpost. Recently, I participated on a panel of poets talking to students who have just begun an MFA program. The panel was a discussion, but it jogged reflections on the process of getting poetry to an audience. So here’s a compressed version of getting poems published, as I experienced it.


I began to submit my work in the very early 1980s to the indie-publishing journals which were extant at the time: photocopied, stapled zines with print runs of 300, or maybe just 150. I was new at writing and aware that my work wasn’t ready for Ploughshares or Poetry and the so-called top-tier journals I purchased and read carefully and tried to learn from.

As a 20-year-old woman, I was not exactly full of self-esteem. Why did I submit at all, when I knew my poems were juvenilia? Well, I know that now…at the time, let’s say I knew they weren’t up to the work of Elizabeth Bishop or Audre Lorde.  The reason was mentorship. I had two good friends who encouraged me to send work out but to be realistic. To read the journal first and analyze my work in comparison to what appeared in the magazine. Good advice—and let me tell you how much harder that was in the years before the internet! As I lived in New York and Brooklyn and Philadelphia, however, and it was the 80s, there were good independent bookstores to browse, and good libraries. And there was Dustbooks.

So analysis was crucial, not just for deciding where to submit but to learn how to be a better writer. It was important to compare, to take apart, to hear meter, to recognize rhythm and consonance and the fabulous image and the fresh metaphor, to say how does that writer achieve what she does and can I learn it? Without slavish copying?

Damned difficult. But thanks to publishers, at least the materials were available. If we hadn’t had poetry publishers, it would have been even harder to learn the craft; and I’m not the sort of sui generis writer who just creates out of genius. I had to study, practice, revise, and learn the hard way. Alas.

In the later 80s, I started doing some editing and publishing of other people’s work. My dear friend, David Dunn, and I had a small press that put out two broadsides and four chapbooks. Taught me a great deal. I helped to edit a Xerox-zine in Philadelphia in the 80s. Meanwhile, I kept getting work into small press journals nationwide, mostly these photocopied deals with tiny readerships; but the minor successes kept me going. After awhile I had enough hubris to try the better-recognized journals, with some success. This is how it works: persistence, but not bull-headed, blind persistence. One persists through the learning process; revises, practices, finds trustworthy people for feedback.

My sister, my spouse, and I all have worked in the publishing business-as-business, in how-to and B2B magazines; I was a typographer, proofreader, copyeditor, writer, indexer. All of that background was valuable in its way and never kept me from pursuing creative work. So I did eventually go for my MFA, in my 40s, and I got chapbooks and a collection published at long last in spite of—oh, you know—life.

Because I feel that poetry needs audience, I was early to jump on the online publishing wagon, despite colleagues who warned that it wasn’t really as acceptable a venue as academically-affiliated print journals. Nonetheless I’ve found myself enthralled by online journals, by audio-poems, moving-poems (video), podcasts, blogs. I’ve watched well-respected magazines migrate to the internet. And there are problems with online publishing. I know about them, wrestle with them, yeah—keeps life interesting.

My route has not been the academic route, although I work at a college today; I am more of an outlier. Poets and writers can be nurses, doctors, mechanics, or landscapers, grandparents, people with disabilities, insurance industry managers, post office workers, tutors. Each of us discovers her own process for writing and for getting the poems into the world. Mine is pokey and slow and frequently interrupted, and my next long collection won’t appear until 2021, nine years after Water-Rites, my first. But I feel satisfied with my publishing record, such as it is. People do read my work, which is kind of the entire point of writing, no?

When everything is easy and there’s no chance of failure, life is boring. Writing creatively means taking risks, creating tension. Publishing creatively requires the same things. Risks, imagination, persistence, curiosity, analysis and a willingness to be open-minded. Fun pursuits, but not always easy ones.

Manuscripting redux

I have read reams of advice and guidance on how to choose poems for a collection, how to order them, whether to construct an arc in a poetry collection, and so on. I have also had the excellent personal input of good poets and mentors in the process, all of which leaves me deeply grateful and still stumbling when I once again begin the process.

One challenge is excess. I have put off revising for collection for a few too many years, and now I need serious critique and culling; thus, I didn’t know where to begin (as I mentioned in an earlier post). Given a problem, however, creative people tend to develop a method. I chose the simplest one I could come up with: start by pulling all the published work that is not in my previous collections, and see what happens.

What I will discover–in fact, in the early process, already have noticed–is that not all work accepted for publication in a poetry journal reflects my judgment of my strongest poems. Then, too, down the road I will pull some good poems from the evolving manuscript because they do not play well with the others…that is, in terms of tone or subject. As I add things up, I’ll begin to see what might be missing or needed, or I’ll be reminded of an unpublished piece that ought to be included.

This work is exciting. And it takes weeks or months. It will change; my feelings about what I want the collection to say will change.

And then the reading will begin. I will read and re-read the book-as-it-exists and ask generous friends to read and critique the whole.

If I were a more ambitious and organized person, I might approach the manuscript process differently–certainly sooner, and possibly with more of a projected arc in mind from the start. I know that putting together another manuscript will be yet another learning experience, different from chapbook-writing, different from the past books I have composed. The poems differ, too–of course! My perspective, my physiology, my experiences, even my environment, though I have lived in the same house for 20 years.

At this stage, a month or so into the process, a coherence begins to occur. Yes, a book exists in the piles of poems. Probably two books, in fact–but let me begin with abundance (or perhaps, with diminishment) and proceed from there.

[Not my manuscript…William Blake’s]


Forgive me, readers–whoever you are–this weekend I am composing poems instead of a blog post, revising the work (see this post) and creating new stuff from dribs, drabs, sketches, notes, and the windy day outside with its sky full of variable, intermittent, strangely-colored clouds.



Neglecting the work

It seemed to me to have been a long time since I devoted serious focus to my creative work–I mean in terms of organizing, keeping track, revising, submitting to journals, compiling a draft manuscript of newer work…the so-called business of poetry. I resolved therefore to spend a weekend at the task. Alas. The weekend revealed to me the extent of my benign neglect: ten years of not-really-being-on-the-ball.


I do not consider myself a particularly prolific poet, but I found myself faced with well over a ream of poetry pages, many poems only in their second or third draft and far from “finished.” Maybe an average of 70 poems a year for ten years. Do the math: this is not a weekend’s work. [le sigh]

Where to begin? There is no beginning. After an hour or so of trying to prioritize the various components of the job, I gave up and just started at whatever had become the top of the pile. Analysis: which drafts had any glimmer of possibility? Some erstwhile poems could easily be culled into the “dead poems file” I keep under the cabinet with the dust bunnies. Others required considerable revision.

Fascinating process, despite aspects of tedium. I encountered poems I forgot I’d composed. I looked at the dates I began and revised them, tried to discern where my thoughts and feelings were at the time. Somehow, going through poems in no way resembles looking at old photographs–it’s not that sort of memory jog. Indeed, the poems are not involved with the memory part of my brain but with the creative part.

And that is exactly what I have been neglecting: the creative, imaginative, intuitively analytical side of myself.

In the process, I found a chapbook manuscript to submit–I had completely neglected it–and several worthwhile poems. I have no idea yet how much further I can get into the pages of past poems, and whether I might fashion another manuscript from the lot. But I’ve decided the work should not be neglected.

And I have a lot of catching up to do!



First person, continued…

When a poem employs first or, in some cases, second person, readers generally assume the stance is the writer’s. (For more on this, see previous post.) I won’t deny that that is sometimes the case, a situation which has led to the contemporary idea that a poem is always a form of self expression–yet another assumption that is only true in part.

My Best Beloveds have been known to accuse me of writing a lyrical narrative incorrectly. “That isn’t how it happened,” they say–and they are right. But poets are not journalists, nor even memoirists. A poet chooses the event, image, or story that will make the poem do its best work which, dear readers, is not necessarily factual.

Even relationships may be imagined, or imagined from a different-than-expected point of view. The poem may have emerged from a prompt having nothing to do at all with the poet’s own relationships or experiences, and yet seem true.

Here is an example of how the first person (lyrical narrative) point of view may or may not reflect the writer’s actual experience. In the example below, revision, change of stance, and allusion make this “father poem” not about my father, exactly. (For a poem that is about my father, as I imagined his experience, see this post.)

I began this poem when I came across the Chuang Tzu quote. Call that my “writing prompt.” As my father had been dangerously ill at the time, the aphorism resonated. Yet the poem did not seem to head where I thought I wanted it to go…to be specifically “about” my own father. The allusion to the Chinese sage does not feel much like my own family–the image did not jive with my parents’ backgrounds. I tried the poem without the aphorism, and it became totally boring. I returned the quote as an epigraph and tried couplet stanzas then, developing the image of old slide projector screenings (pardon the pun), something I recall vividly from my childhood.

Then, my dad’s condition improved. He recovered. I put the poem away for awhile, and when I went back to consider it, I realized the poem did not need to be about him. Or about me, for that matter. It’s still a poem in progress but works better now.

Who is the “I” in this poem? Shall I let the reader decide?




The sage Chuang Tzu says, when you step
on your parent’s foot you know
you are already forgiven.

My father’s no sage,
just an old man beginning to die.
Unable to smile at his pain

he smiles at us
at my mother holding his hand
at my sister holding her anxious thoughts;

he smiles at her fears and they seem
translucent, like slides projected
on the wall, pictures of our childhoods

hovering near, colorful but not crisp—
and instead of our rounder faces
and smaller forms fading

he is fading, sallow among the sheets, white screen,
blank wall, and he’s forgiven me in advance
for all the injuries I may do

treating me with gentleness
though I’ve trod upon his foot
again, and again, and again.





Today, another draft of another poem, also recent. Next, I think I’ll move to older work…material that I haven’t submitted for publication (or that I have submitted but has not been accepted). For now, though–this recent, perhaps too-fresh, lament.

~ ~ ~

The Work of the Body as It Ceases

Before we know ourselves
the body exerts itself, pulses,
lungs open into breath
blood sings with that air.

Unless there is ache
or ecstasy, the body labors
unnoticed while we tend
to other forms of work.

Look, now, at the last days
when the reliable diligence
of heart, lungs, kidneys halts
under strain the body can’t abide.

The throat cannot do its job
though body needs sustenance
and consciousness yearns
to say something unconveyable.

There is work always.
The long labor of maintenance
which, being humble, produces
no outcome except living.

The body’s nothing if not persistent
even as it dies, as vision narrows
and breathing weakens.
Those lively nerves? They settle.

Slowing is also work, as is
decay: work of a new sort
to which the workhorse body
can adapt in the quiet room

where those who loved the body
during its years of industry
do the work of mourning
which does not ever cease.