Two reams

As regards my recent long weekend assessing and organizing my work, the most startling revelation has been its sheer volume. I keep my printed poem drafts in an old-fashioned cardboard letterhead/correspondence box which holds two reams of paper–1,000 pages–and the box was full. Among poets who experience writer’s block this abundance may seem a problem worth having, but keep in mind two things:

1) This output represents over 15 years of uncompleted, unrevised drafts and

2) Most of the poems are crappy, or mediocre at best.

Apparently I have taken to heart William Stafford‘s advice that if one has trouble with writing, “perhaps you should lower your standards.” *

Abundance is a fine thing, but anyone who has ever cleaned a barn stall or an attic knows that sheer volume does not count for much. And one cannot spin bad drafts into gold without considerable help from supernatural guides or wily trolls, neither of which accompanied me to the cabin.

Rumpelstiltskin-Crane1886

Thus, I had to toil on my own, critique my poems, evaluate which ones have most “promise,” and try to keep myself from throwing absolutely everything into the woodstove. The work required solitude, discernment, frequent breaks for walks, tea, exercise, reading work other than my own, and (eventually) wine.

Also the occasional nap. My brain gets sleepy after awhile.

The outcome? I winnowed, though possibly not enough.  I have begun the disciplined, for now, revision process of the “active” stack of work. It is entirely possible that there’s a collection or two in there, though I will not know that for some time.

It will not be gold, but it will be a vast improvement over the accumulated dross..


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Part of the process…

*In an interview with Bill Moyers, and widely quoted elsewhere

(Dis)order & (dis)comfort

The university takes a long weekend in October; I thought it a propitious time to snare some solitude for writing and revising and thus betook myself and a mountain of my work to a semi-secluded cabin. Designed and largely built by Jack Fisher, the place offers light, comfort, memories, art, nature and spaciousness of environment. While I had no particular plan in mind–in retrospect, possibly a mistake–I imagined these days would act as a mini-writing retreat.

I love the cabin, the memories, the aesthetics of the house and generally I love solitude as long as it does not extend for too many days. The circumstance I discovered once I opened up my pile of poetry drafts, however, led me to one conclusion: I was going to have to organize, read, evaluate, consider, and cull before even getting to the “fun” part of revising. This level of work tends to discomfit me, feels tedious and draining and sometimes fruitless–which is why I have pretty much put it off since…oh…graduate school. Almost two decades.

But I made myself time to be alone and undisturbed, so let my work disturb me as it must. If a writer never allows herself to experience discomfort, she is unlikely to move her work forward in any meaningful or craft-related way.

I do not mind a little disorder in life, but the state of my drafts long ago sailed past disorder and into chaos and redundancy. It helps me to make an analogy to the garden: time to weed, time to save seeds (and label them!) and make notes on what thrived under which conditions and to note where the voles and rabbits are breaching the fence. A realtor might substitute the analogy of “deferred maintenance.” [Yikes!]

If this long weekend turned out to be less full of new work, or of fruitful revisiting of poems to make them stronger–if it has tested my comfort level with my own writing and forced me to face the mediocrity of most of it–that’s fine. The edges are where the interest lies, at the tension between the expected and the challenging. Sometimes we need a little less comfort and order to test the mettle of our creative acts and of ourselves. The days at the cabin were peaceful and full of solitude. I believe they will have yielded, for me, a clearer view of where my work–and I–are headed.

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Edges & the middle

My spouse told me of how he once interviewed a woodworking craftsman, renowned for his “perfect” furniture finishes, and asked about his technique. The craftsman advised, “Take care of the edges, and the middle will take care of itself.”

This phrase came to mind last week when I decided I had better tackle the weeds in my strawberry patch. Still hobbled by a foot injury, I figured weeding the berries was a task I could manage sitting down. The job seemed daunting, however; I have neglected the garden and permitted all manner of invaders–perennial and annual–to colonize the strawberries’ bed and twist around and root beneath their superficial root systems. Frankly, most people would not have recognized it as a berry patch.

It’s the equinox and the weather’s wonderful so I heaved a sigh, grabbed a few tools, and started to work. A garden bed has little in common with a French-polished tabletop, but I kept the idea in mind: tend to the edges, maybe the middle would “take care of itself.” Bermuda grass and galinsoga pull out easily, but there were also deep-rooted clovers, thatchy crabgrasses, English plantains, pigweed, ladies’ thumb…too many to name, though by this time I am pretty good at identifying the weeds of eastern Pennsylvania. I worked from the inside edge southward to the corner, then westward.

So far, still a pretty nasty-looking affair. After a few sessions of working along the scrim, though, I did begin to see progress; and–yes, the middle was much easier to finish weeding after I’d taken care of the edges.

~

Sometimes, I find motivation in a good analogy. I wondered whether I could transfer the French polish/strawberry patch concept to writing. Could that be one way to draft or rework a poem? What if I spent my efforts taking care of the poem’s edges–would the middle sort of take care of itself? (And what would be the edges of a poem? Its closing and opening phrases or stanzas? Its end-of-line words? Its beginning-of-line words?)

My gentle readers may recall that fringe landscapes and edges are a major inspiration for me–just type edges into this blog’s search bar, and quite a few past musings will show up. I will try working on my poems’ edges intentionally and see what happens.

Meanwhile, as the cooler weather approaches, I’ll cover up my berry patch with straw and promise to check the weeds a little more regularly next year, so I can get the results below in June of 2020:

high angle photo of strawberries in strainer

Photo by KML on Pexels.com

 

 

Forward

Lately, less gardening and more writing; we have experienced the region’s not-uncommon August/September drought period. My vegetable garden has given me about all it can at this point, so what remains to do is clean up. That’s a job that will have to wait, because I’m processing new poems instead of pears.

I tell my students that writing is a process, but the processing I’m doing now is more akin to the verb form of process, in the sense of “to treat raw materials in order to change or preserve them” (Merriam Webster). That could be another metaphor for the revision process…

Also applicable is the etymology of the word process {from pro “forward” (from PIE root *per- (1) “forward”) + cedere “to go”}.

So, forward I go. More drafts, more changing the raw materials of poems (what would those be? words? ideas? emotions? observations?). More going forward into the whole process. “Without hope and without despair.” (That’s Dinesen by way of Carver.)

 

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Punctuation

Semicolons-and-Colons-2_720x370…or lack thereof!

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
in herself
secure against her novice worries as she
rocked you both
warm and soft and young in the
darkened room
where you now attend to her no longer
young neither
you nor she young but the mutual
comforting
continues the lifetime of strain and slack
you so new
to the process of soothing her how
easily
you rock beside her holding her hands in
your warm hands

~

Idea or memory

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.

~

Sarasota

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
other purpose.

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
and palmettos.

Once weekly I’d bike
to Unemployment
and wait in line to prove
I couldn’t get a job
but that I’d tried
& after my humbling
before government
agencies I’d stop at a
coffee shop on Fruitville
Road and order two
eggs over easy home fries
brown toast coffee &
blueberry pie.

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’.

~

blueberry-pie-horiz-a-180011

Drafty

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.

This one’s a less-plausible lyrical narrative, and I have no idea why I drafted it.

http://www.thisisnotacraft.com/

“Observatory Box,” Joseph Cornell

~

Experience of the Disembodied

What happened was a bounce
or peak in the field,
a shiver in the multiverse
tearing through cosmic shift

although maybe that is not
what happened because I was
not observing the rift,

I was entering into it with my
physical body per se

although I could not call the action
“flying” yet I did feel earth’s
gravity, that weakest of forces,
loosening until church spires
and pine trees, tall city buildings
shrank beneath me–

and my skin emptied,
a frosty altitude, a gutted sensation,
numbed spine and brain: Where am I?

In this supra-cosmos no light
of the sort my eyes can translate.
Energy vibrating. Loss of myself
while I watch myself,

fascinated, undone. Waiting
for the next shoe to drop.

~~

Re: National Poetry Month –here’s a thoughtful blog post on continuing the conversation through millennia.