Notes on Revision: A Megablog

I’ve written often over the years about my grappling with the revision process, ways I’ve approached it, ways I’ve been confounded, approaches I’ve read about and tried, ones I’ve read about but have been too lazy to try. I decided to go back through all the posts I could find that talked about revision and distill the barest skeleton of stuff so as to create a sort of quick-and-dirty revision cheatsheet. This is not to say I’m an expert, it’s just to say here’s some stuff I think I’ve learned along the way that maybe you’d find useful too. Or not. Whatever. Anyway. Here’s some stuff. 

Remember: look for the shine and sheer away what’s getting in the way, or carve it so that the light and shadow work how you want them to.

Remember: it’s a spiral process. Start anywhere. You’ll be back there again eventually, but hopefully from a slightly different vantage point.

Remember: time is the best editor.

But here are some ways to break it down:

The Words

– Are the verbs active? Are they surprising? 

– Are the nouns specific? Are they image-based? Or are they abstract or calling too much attention to themselves with their fancy multisyllables?

– Are there too many articles? Not enough? Could you gain specificity and heft by changing an “a” to a “the” or vice versa?

– Are the adjectives and adverbs necessary and are they doing enough heavy lifting? 

– Is punctuation serving clarity? If you’ve eschewed punctuation, is that serving the poem? 

– Is the tone right for the subject matter? Or wonderfully wrong for the subject matter?

The Sounds

– Have you read it aloud and does it flow? Are there sticky spots? Clunky sections?

– Are you paying attention to assonance, alliteration, onomatopaeia? Do the repetitions of sound work for the poem’s intentions? 

– Have you paid attention to rhythm? Does it have an interesting beat and flow?

– If you’re working in meter, does it get established, then break in such a way that is interesting and that serves the meaning of the line?

The Lines

– Are the line breaks serving purposes, in terms of ideas, rhythms, sound, controlling the movement of the poem? 

– Do most of the lines have integrity or heft (rather than just being throw-away lines to get to the next meaty bit)? 

– Do most of the lines start strongly? Do most of the lines end strongly?

– Is the white space serving the poem?

The Look on the Page

– If you’re using a form, does the content serve the form? Does the form serve the content? Would imposing more control enhance the effect of the poem? Does the poem need less control, a little wildness?

The Silence

– Have you provided some silence such that you are controlling the roll of the poem down the page, in the mouth, out in the room?

– Is there too much information? Could you let the reader sit with some ideas by giving them some white space?

The Energy

– Is there a place of energy in the poem that might show you how to trim around it, or how the rest of the poem might need to be energized to meet it? Or maybe your poem really should be headed in the direction of that energy, and more writing is needed.

The Beginning

– Does it start at an interesting place/moment/idea/emotion? Or have you hemmed and hawed some and the poem might be stronger by starting several lines down where things are really happening?

The Ending

– Does it come to some ending so thoroughly that you can hear a far thud? Is it wrapped up so tight in a bow that it’s face is getting red from trying to breathe?

– Does it wander off such that the reader is left wondering why they bothered to follow along? 

– Does it make sense; does it make glorious nonsense?

The Order of Operations

– Does the flow of images/ideas/sounds/silences make sense? Or does it make glorious not-sense? 

– Do you ask too much of the reader to try to follow the leaps and bounds? Is there enough of a through-line of thought to keep the reader going?

The Title

– Does the title you’ve chosen really suit the poem? (Or does it convey what you thought you were writing about but the poem had its own ideas?) 

– Does it do any useful work, like situating the reader, or setting a tone, or giving a hint as to what’s ahead?

– Does it add interest and vitality or is it merely sitting there? If you encountered this title, would you bother to read this poem?

The Content

Okay, this is kind of big. If a poem is an inquiry, you don’t necessarily have to know exactly where you’re going, or where you’ve ended up, but you kind of have to settle on what your intentions are and what direction you think you’re headed.

– Do you know what you’re trying to do with this poem? Or are you muddled and therefore the poem is muddied?

– Do you know too much? That is, did you already decide on your arrival before you even embarked on the journey? Where’s the mystery and thrill of the unknown?

– Are you trying to strong-arm the poem to go someplace it doesn’t want to?

– Are you trusting the reader to grasp your metaphors and the journey of the poem? Are you asking too much of the reader to leap over chasms and wade through confusing thickets?

– Is this a poem in which something is at stake for you?

Play It Out

I’ve made it all sound very systematic, but really, I find I do revision best as a form of play. Here are some ways to play:

– Rewrite it backwards to try to get some insights or suprises.

– Break it apart and put it back together differently. It’s fun to do this physically: scissoring up the poem and taping it back together.

– Underline all the places in the poem that have energy or something special going on. Take everything else out and start with those underlined segments. Write on.

– Take out entire sections one by one and see what’s left. 

– Plot the logic of the arguments/analogies to make sure they are solid.

– Change the voice: if it’s in first person, change it to third, e.g.

– Change the time: if it’s in past tense, change to present, or future!

– Ask a poet friend to take a look at it and try the edits suggested, no matter how off-base you think they are. 

– Try combining two poems into one. 

– Write a new beginning.

– Write a new ending.

– Pick your favorite line and write a whole new poem off of that.

– Try a new title. Sometimes the gap between the title and the text is telling. Sometimes you have to write to the title. Sometimes you have to re-title to the text.

– Insert a diversion. Follow that diversion out — does it lead you back to the original poem, or to someplace new and interesting that is still in keeping with the original? Or have you ended up writing a new and wholly separate poem?

– Do a writing exercise starting with the thought: What I’m really trying to say is…

– Put it away for a month. Better, two months.

And sometimes, you just have to give up and start a new poem.

Well, some things you can’t explain away; or, More Again on Revision Again

I’m participating in a lecture series about poetry revising in which some well respected poets share their own revision experiences and talk with each other about their approaches. It’s interesting enough, and good to spend a concentrated time thinking about this stuff, and I am trying to regard some old poems with freshly tuned eyes.

There is talk of the mechanics of revision — all that examine-the-language stuff, and the excess verbiage stuff, and the unnecessary diversions. But of course the hardest part of revision is less about what’s on the page than about what is not. What is hiding behind what’s there, or what is being denied, what has been diverted by pretty language. What have I been too lazy to uncover or too nervous or too blocked or whatever? No amount of moving words around will necessarily fix the problem of a poem that either doesn’t dredge up the deep enough stuff or doesn’t have the intention or power to do that anyway and so is inherently superficial (at best) or boring. Some poems can’t be saved. I’ve spoken of this before. Perhaps several times. (Here’s one: https://marilynonaroll.wordpress.com/2017/11/13/know-when-to-run-or-when-work-in-progress-is-not-making-progress-or-giving-up-as-part-of-the-poem-editing-process)

In the chat part of each session, people ask anxious questions which are really all variations on one question: How the hell do I know if I know what I’m doing?

And the answer of course is you don’t, and you never will. The discussion leader and the generous guests are too kind to actually say this, but I know it is true. There are no rules, no formulas, no standardized operating procedures. No quick tricks that always work. There are handbooks, guide books, how to’s, don’t do’s, but really, the horrible truth is, the only approach that can be at all counted upon is the try-this-what-the-hell approach. And then the I-don’t-like-the-way-it-looks/feels/sounds/ends up/reveals/hides or the yeah-I-can-live-with-that result. 

Although now in retrospect, these poets eruditely share what they can now understand of how a poem came into being, but I promise you, in the moment, they each and all said to themselves at least once: “Gaaaah!”

If the act of writing the poem must be the act of discovery, it’s important to remember this: Many voyages of discovery ended up with the voyager turning back, having mishaps that landed them elsewhere, finding themselves places they didn’t know they’d get to, bobbing in the middle of the ocean needing rescuing, thinking they’ve gotten where they were headed only they were someplace else entirely but didn’t know it, or dead. Every poem effort we make is a voyage into the unknown and we have very little idea what we’re doing, can only control so much along the way, and might end up nowhere.

I’m finding myself lately asking questions in poems that the poem then goes on to not address; that is, the poem reveals that it has a different question it is addressing. My job is to recognize that the question I posed is not what the poem wants to talk about, and then either figure out what the poem is talking about or/and write the poem that actually addresses the question I posed. It takes some time.

There are no answers. There is only more looking, seeking, feeling along the wall for a light switch, trying not to trip over the cat.

You’re where you should be all the time; or, More on Paying Attention

Once again, that wonderful site Brainpickings offered up something that got me thinking. This is a quote from Alexandra Horowitz from her book On Looking: Eleven Walks with Expert Eyes: “Part of normal human development is learning to notice less than we are able to. The world is awash in details of color, form, sound — but to function, we have to ignore some of it.”

Artists (and I include writers in that category, even though we’re not always; plus I am always bemused by the title of that venerable site and magazine “Poets & Writers,” but at least, for once, poets are listed first…) seem to be people who retain that interest in and personal inclination toward noticing, less inclined toward ignoring that wash. The act of making art is combining that attentive power with whatever resides inside that caused us to notice what we noticed.

It occurs to me, doubtless again, that revision is the art of clipping away everything we may have noticed in the wild world of detail but which may take away from highlighting what caught our attention, what echoed some inner — what? vibration? emotion? memory? some deep imagining?

I don’t know what it is that makes us makers, what notices us noticing what we notice and calls us to create something, something that records that electric moment. Because it does feel like a kind of recognition, or sometimes a reckoning, that moment.

Today on my walk I asked myself to notice light. Although I draw and paint, I’m not primarily a visual artist, but I know that light and shadow are vital in the world of visual art, so I challenged myself to pay attention to that particular input. It was staggering! All the twinkling of dew on jewelweed, the variegated shadows on fern fronds, how light works its way into the forest, and the astonishing fact of clouds. It was a day of clouds on clouds on clouds leaning on the hills or looming from behind them, and every cloud was an elaborate array of white and gray and gray-blue,  dark edges, white hearts, a little purple, maybe some green. Or was I imagining that?

Should I choose to write about that, my job is, I think, to get down what I noticed, and let what is inside me that caused that interest to rise up and help me find the words. To match those details with something that speaks out of those details.

But to make art, I then need to wade back in to all that I noted, and pare away and pare away everything that’s not vital to those inner interests. It can be a slow process. Confusing, for sure, as for me, only time reveals to me what is really important. This is tricky, of course, because I become attached to what I’ve noticed, wonderful details, or I become distracted by bigger things: Meaningful Notions, perhaps, or Earnest Intentions. It’s also tricky, of course, if I want a poem that meanders, that gets distracted. Even that must be carefully managed.

With revision the task of looking is not over. With revision I need to get sharp at the developmental phase mentioned in the opening quote. To create: notice everything; to revise: focus and focus.

 

Broken bicycles; or, More on Revision

I’m puzzling over a poem and indeed it feels like a puzzle. Jigsaw maybe, as I try pushing pieces against each other and they resist or yield. Or remember Tangrams? You got a set of shapes and were challenged to fit them together to make different forms.

In this poem, the last line was bothering me. It felt thumpy, like, “OKAY HERE IS WHAT THIS POEM IS ABOUT.”

And yet it seemed important in its own way, so it occurred to me to repurpose it as the title instead of the last line.

Okay, but that left the former second to last line just dangling there, insufficient. So I started shifting groups of lines around, swapping sections, turning sentences around, flip-flopping the images and ideas of the poem, starting in the middle, starting toward the end, restarting from the beginning I had started with.

I know the incredible satisfaction of occasionally getting all the pieces to fit together: suddenly, snap, you have the shape you’ve been trying to make. But I must ask of the poem: Is there a piece missing?

This is the challenge of the poem versus the Tangram, I guess. It’s possible I’ll never be able to make the desired shape because a crucial piece is missing, and it’s not as easy as getting on my hands and knees and checking under the couch. I need to identify the gap and write into it.

So at the moment, for all my shifting and switching, the poem looks — instead of like a good solid square or a kitty or bunny — like a gappy rhombus in a hat.

P.S. My video poem is up at Atticus Review https://atticusreview.org/narrow-the-vessels/

Watching the ships that go sailing; or, On Confusion and Intention and Revision

My life is one long ebb and flow of thinking-I-know-stuff/realizing-I-don’t/thinking-I know-stuff/realizing-I-don’t. Sometimes the tide feels exhausting. Sometimes exhilarating.

I’m talking (mostly) about writing and poetry here. The effect of the waves is humbling/humiliating. And it goes, and I go, on and on.

Just recently I was in a conversation about the revision process and following the energy of a poem; that is, feeling the lines that have strength and movement in them and taking out or revising all the lines that don’t meet and match that energy. But then the author of the poem under observation said something like, “But I want the rest of the poem to lead up to that moment. Without the lead-in, I’ve lost the journey.” And I remembered another conversation in which someone said about the critique process something like, “But you have to understand the poet’s intentions for the poem, you can’t just wade in with advice.” Then I wondered about myself: do I always know what my intentions are?

(And all this is why for many many years I have avoided critiquing other people’s poems unless they are friends and specifically ask. And even then sometimes I avoid it. Because inevitably I get tangled up in that tide, water up my nose.)

What if where the good strong energy in a poem is not where you want it to be, is at odds with your intentions for the enterprise, if you know what your intentions are? Do you follow the energy, or the intention? Do you tug on the energy to serve the intention, or give up on intention to serve the energy?

Does a poem have the space for an ebb and flow of energy?

Does the reader? Maybe a little bit. But the reader doesn’t give a shit about the poet’s intention, unless it’s either completely unclear or condescendingly clear. In between, it’s all about the reading adventure. Isn’t it? Or is that just me, all impatience and huff?

(All this flopping around gets worse (better?) when I’m looking at someone else’s poem. Plus I’m puffed up by the sheer power they’ve given me by asking my perspective. Ha ha, they think I know stuff! Then I’m freer to know more/understand less, to think I have a broader perspective just because I’m not scrabbling blindly inside my own poem. Not always the case. Often not the case.)

Do poems have their own impulses? Do they try to have their way with us? The subconscious certainly can and does, and to the extent it may slither out into a poem, well, there may be something the author can learn from what has been spilled onto the page. It at least must be contended with somehow, even if it’s deleted out and sent back up into the subconscious.

If someone saw my subconscious slipping, would I want them to tell me? Theoretically, yes, as it could be great for the poem. In reality, though, would I be able to hear them? I’m sorry, now, what was that again?

Do poems teach us how to write them, or is that one of those silly conceits that make what we do sound more mystical than it is?

The more poetry I read, as I’ve said here before, the less I understand about poetry. The more conversations I have, the stronger the pulls of the tides: I know a bunch! I don’t know anything! I know a bunch! I don’t know anything! And yet I keep talking, like the rumble of pebbles and the swish of wash, creaking call of gull.

 

And lead you through the streets of London; or, On Poetry Revision as a Journey

So when last we spoke, I was surrounded by 10 poems all of which descended in similar ways to the same simple place. I call them my WE ALL GONNA DIE poems, because that’s pretty much what they all say. Ho hum.

And as you may recall, the big issue was that I needed them to fill out a reasonable page count for a full-length poetry manuscript. Some of you would say, and I do hold it against you, well, just write a bunch of new poems. Let’s not be hasty. Who can write new poems in 90 degree weather?

I started wondering if I couldn’t nudge some of them in a different direction. Alert readers will say, hey, wait a minute, didn’t you have a post not that long ago claiming that one needs to stay true to the poem’s originating impulse, stop manhandling it to be something other than what it became? Fortunately, I have no alert readers, so I can ignore that.

If poems can be said to have a turning point — and apparently they can be said to have such a thing. Much has been written on it, so I won’t go into it here. Actually that’s because I haven’t read most of what’s been written on the “turn” in poems, mostly because I’ve read almost none of it. I only just learned that a “turn” in a poem is a thing. I mean, yeah, the sonnet “volta,” but apparently all? most? many? poems have a turn/turns in them. I’d have to think about that harder, but it made me consider the poem as a path or, if you’ll pardon the expression, “a journey.”

As  such, there may be certain points along the path in which another road might be taken. So I’ve come to look at each of these poems in this way, trying to catch just what moment, what line, what word might offer an opportunity for the poem to turn, to vee away or veer somewhat from where it had been going. What will happen?

This is actually kind of a fun exercise for 90 degree heat. Way more fun than trying to conjure up brand new poems. That’s for autumn.

Speaking of autumn, here is a link to a videopoem of mine on Atticus Review that I shot while in residency at MASSMoCA last fall. https://atticusreview.org/narrow-the-vessels/

And have I mentioned I have a new chapbook out? Oh, I have? And I’ve given you the link?  www.graysonbooks.being-many-seeds? Oh. Sorry.

 

Like breathing in and breathing out; or, On Poetic Clarity

I don’t always want my poems to follow the strict rules of logic. I want there to be some air in my poems, if not leaps at least some hopping, some request that the reader understand less with the mind and more with that other thing that comes into play when we react to a piece of music, for example, or a piece of visual art.

It’s a response in the quiet of the self, inarticulate, “moved” as in to be set, internally, in motion.

But that being said, confusion in the mind creates confusion in the poem, and part of the process of revision is to clarify clarify clarify — both my intention behind and the poem’s expression of that intention. But even that sounds more logic-based than I want the poem-making process to be. Oy.

I’m working on one of my poems-that-start-as-long-blathers. I started it some weeks ago, let it sit, worked on it, let it sit. Now when I go back I am confused about what I thought I was up to.

Some of that confusion is the lack of logic in the poem’s thinking. But I’m finding as I’m clarifying that, I’m losing something. I’m making changes based on logic, but I’m losing something that was special and beyond logic. I’m finding I need to go back to the self who first blathered and ask what? what?

Unfortunately, that self is gone with the passage of time, and this other, confused self must sit with it all.

It’s interesting, as a process. A tad annoying as well. I was sure I was onto something back then. Now I can’t remember what.

I have found in my work as a copyeditor and my brief stint teaching a course that not-great writing comes out of not-great thinking. The authors and students who couldn’t quite think through something couldn’t write through it either. That being said, overthinking can kill a piece of writing as surely as underthinking.

I believe in the first-step technique of opening the mind and letting stuff spill out without regard for logic or connection or any kind of controlling. But then that orderly mind has to wade in and pull weeds.

I have, however, been known to overweed. I have a sad little patch in my garden right now to show for it, and a peony whom I thoroughly traumatized. Judicious must be the weeding, so air can move, ideas can stretch out, images can take on different casts, and the writer can be surprised, as well as the reader.

Wow, this is difficult. I find that I need, as I sit with this confusing/confused poem, to think less, breathe more.

All misty wet with rain; or, Seeing the Forest Through the Trees; or, More on Revision

I swore off workshops long ago for a variety of reasons I won’t get into here, but as I’d been brooding over this particular poem for a while, and as isolation breeds a kind of insanity, I signed up for one.

It was not as bad as I’d feared it could be, although not as useful as I had hoped, but I did get one takeaway, which is, perhaps, all one can realistically hope for. It was worth the price of admission, but perhaps not entirely worth the hours of sitting staring into zoomland.

And I share it with you here for free. Cuz that’s the kind of gal I am.

The editing (or “revision”) process is often one in which I start with the idea of finding the weaknesses in a poem and getting rid of them. The process was reframed for me in that workshop in this useful way: Find the shining points in the poem and clear away anything that may be getting in the way of the shine.

It is very useful, this idea that the elements of a poem stand next to each other and cast shadows. You may want the shadows. You may not. I am grateful to be reminded to understand how the elements of a poem are standing together, what shadows they cast, what is illuminated and what is obscured by those shadows, and to take control of how light and shadow passes through the poem. You may want some, I think — some “chiaroscuro” in a poem, clarity/obscurity play of elements. But it needs to be carefully controlled so what is highlit is meaningful, what is shadowed is purposeful.

This may involve all the usual elements of revision: trimming, cutting, rearranging, but by thinking about it in terms of light and shadow, I’m able to bring a different kind of attention to the process, like thinning a grove of trees so as it strengthen the diversity of species, or dividing my vast, tangled patch of iris to let it thrive. So thanks for that, workshop.

As for the rest of the story, the workshop did give me the impetus to wade back in to the poem. I knew trimming would be advised, and some wholesale deleting of stanzas. A friend happened to be in the workshop and also had some specific advice re: my use of pronouns (more on that in another post) and the ending, as well as some need for clarification. So I took all that in hand and headed in, taking down trees.

Then I realized I could move stanzas around for logic of thought process.

I took out the ending. I wrote another one. Took that out.

Wrote a different beginning. Took that out.

Changed the pronouns.

Retitled the poem. Reretitled the poem. This process is useful for establishing my own understanding of the poem’s intentions.

I tried to walk away for a while. But kept thinking of new things to try. I put back in some things I took out earlier on.

All this changing led it to somewhat change direction. Okay, I thought, let it turn, and I’ll see where it goes.

It didn’t really go. I realized I was now writing things in to force it to go in this new direction. I felt like I was forcing the poem away from the thinking that was the impetus behind it in the first place. I took them out.

Finally, I went back and reread the original version of the poem. You know what? I kind of like it.

 

What do you do with a drunken sailor; or, On Failure

I am thinking today about the economic notion of “sunk costs.” I recently finished a project that took a lot of time and effort, and I hate it. It sucks.

I’ve spoken in this space before about how all creative people must allow themselves to make sucky work. But I need to take a minute to dwell in the rendeth-my-garment frustration of coming to the end of creating something only to be gravely disappointed. A moment of grief must be allowed. A flopping about of dismay.

But in the end, crap is crap, no matter how much time and good intentions it took to make. There’s no regaining the time and attention. It’s all part of the process. And I know I’m supposed to be focusing on appreciating the process. But, arrrghghgh.

I know some of you softies are thinking, “Oh, you’re being too hard on yourself. It’s probably fine.” There are some good moments in it, I’ll admit (it’s a cartoon), and I continue to be astonishedly pleased at some of the things that can come out of my not-entirely-in-control scribbling with my fingertip on the iPad. But a few moments doth not an entire piece make.

Can it be saved? I don’t think so. I’ll give a little time to trying to piece something together from the moments I like, just to indulge you. But I’m not sanguine. A word which also means bloody, which is closer to how I feel.

I’ll also spend some time thinking about whether I learned anything along the way, so it might not all be for naught. Processing the process, as it were.

So allow ourselves to make crap, yes. But I think it’s also worth taking a moment to grieve the sunken treasure of time and creative energy, the debris of the process settling lightly on the ocean floor, glinting of false promises.

Synchronistically, I heard an interview recently and it took me three times to understand that what the interviewee was saying was “work of art” not, as I had braingzingingly thought, “workfart”…

Then we take Berlin; or, Editing the Heart of the Matter

Most editing advice edits at the level of the word or sentence: do you have too many articles, are your verbs too boring, are your sentences too syntactically the same? But sometimes (often?) I find the problems I can’t seem to overcome with a poem are either in the entire approach of the poem, or the content. This is far harder to fiddle with effectively.

For example, I have a poem now that is well grounded in sensory stuff, but it takes a sudden turn at the end, and I can’t figure out if that’s okay, or if it seems abrupt because it does not grow organically out of what came before in the poem. Is it another poem all together? If I take out that turn, the rest of the poem seems unfinished. Maybe I have yet figured out what the poem is about, so I stuck on this other thing. On the other hand, maybe I just need to weave the ending into the rest of the poem. Or maybe the poem just sucks and I need to start over.

Do you see the problem? This is not a put-a-comma-in-take-it-out thing. This is an existential quandary at the poem level.

Sometimes if a poem does not seem to work it’s because I have not reached far enough. In this case, it may be that I’ve reached too far — beyond the scope of the poem into another poem all together.

This is the most interesting aspect of the editing process, eyeballing one’s own utterances, meditating on the source of images, the hidden reasons behind unconscious choices of vocabulary, choices of sound. Something has appeared here on the page, blurted out of my various levels of consciousness. It interests me. It fails me.

Sometimes ideas can be unearthed by playing at the level of word and syntax and sentence and sense-unmaking — so editing at that level can be useful too for this deeper examination — but at risk of the nicely arranged Titanic’s deck chairs’ fate.

I need to ask of the poem what it’s deepest intentions are. I need to ask, brutally, whether this is a poem that has enough to be said that it’s worth saying. Is it a nice description but not much more? Is it a clever snapshot but not a well considered moving picture with chiarascuro and resonance? Was it a moment’s effort that came of some deep bodied quake or a moment’s effort that came of a brainy shake?

I owe it to myself and the poems to ask this.

And if I have even a whiff of doubt, I need to listen to it, even if I share it and others say ooh and ah. If I think something’s awry, then something’s awry.

There is some level of communion I have to come to with a poem like this, to feel its beating heart. And if I can’t find a pulse? Well, there’s my answer.