One thing I notice about my draft poems is that I often ignore punctuation. Sometimes that lack remains in the final draft, if I think that the ambiguously run-on approach works for the poem or that line breaks alone serve the purpose; but more often, punctuation is something I work into the revision process. Billy Collins tells an anecdote attributed to Oscar Wilde about proofreading a poem, and how he spent all morning deciding to remove a comma, and then spent the afternoon deciding to put it back in.
I do not devote quite that much time to commas. I do think that punctuation matters as an aspect of poetic craft and can convey more than we realize. The draft below, if I decide it is salvageable, will probably require some punctuation.
Down Will Come Cradle
She rocked you to soothing in her
warm young arms
do not forget how young she was
you so new
to the world you felt safe unquestioning
but look back
from yourself as you are now and
think of her
embracing your small body with her fears
and with love
she barely understood herself saying to you
what she’d heard
from her mother until she could confirm
secure against her novice worries as she
rocked you both
warm and soft and young in the
where you now attend to her no longer
you nor she young but the mutual
continues the lifetime of strain and slack
you so new
to the process of soothing her how
you rock beside her holding her hands in
your warm hands
Revising a draft, for me, means returning to the poem from several perspectives. I might change the speaker from first person to second or third person, or change the poem so that there is not a clear speaker at all–no longer “lyric.” I may alter specifics, such as place names or seasonal references. Or fictionalize with invented crises, persons, time periods, or events. Take on a persona, for example. Add or delete dialogue. These are interpretive and point-of-view considerations: How can I broaden the poem’s reach?
I might then revise for stanza patterns. Or find a vague meter going on in the piece which I will decide is worth pursuing, if it will enhance the poem; sometimes it does not work that way. If an image intrigues me, or puzzles or frustrates me, I’ll devote some revision effort to that. Play with alliteration or assonance, rhyme or off-rhyme, line lengths. Those are craft considerations, mostly.
When I work on a draft, my approach is that craft should hone perspective, and should be a silent partner in the poem. Early drafts, if promising, possess something inherently interesting. Otherwise, there’s nothing to work on or work with–the poem never really happens. Maybe all it manages to be is an idea, or a memory.
During the recession
laid off and without
even an old car
I lived in Sarasota
red tide gulf waters
slew of small fishes
dead on the beaches
where I went shell
hunting for lack of
Lizards on my walls
everything that mattered
blotted in moist air
novels and notebooks
drew mildew my hair
haywire the boy I loved
brown eyes & panic
sea at sunset gulls
Once weekly I’d bike
and wait in line to prove
I couldn’t get a job
but that I’d tried
& after my humbling
agencies I’d stop at a
coffee shop on Fruitville
Road and order two
eggs over easy home fries
brown toast coffee &
There was something
so filling about that
meal I still think of it
silky blueberries in my
mouth the tip I left
the blond waitress who
kept my coffee cup full
and always called me Darlin’.
I have to keep reminding myself that these poems are drafts and just get over their weakness and rough spots and recall that the drafting aspect is part of my April experiment–pushing the envelope, as the saying goes, and allowing the imperfections to go public. Then readers will perhaps recognize that every poem has to start somewhere, and it is not always from inspiration or native talent.
Any of the poems I draft this month that I consider worth keeping around for further work will move into my revision-worthy pile. For me, the revision process engages creativity in a form very different from the initial draft. Just as an example, few of my drafts use rhyme; sometimes I employ a basic metrical strategy (but not always)–and stanza structure almost always occurs during my revision process. Yet my finished poems often contain such components.
I 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.
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.
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.
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.