Easy Pieces; or, Editing as Meditation…Editation?

It’s been years since I worked on a jigsaw puzzle. My mother and I used to do them together, bent over the puzzling pieces, saying, “Let me get just one more, and then I’ll stop.” When I got one for a gift recently, I just thought it was cute and whimsical, and thought to put it aside for some rainy day when we had guests who might want distraction.

But I opened it up. I’m sucked in. One thousand pieces.

The picture is a painting of a couple walking through a park in the rain. It’s not a good painting, managing to be both sentimental and garish — the colors are improbable. But as I’ve been working on the puzzle, my sense of shape and color is enhanced. After spending time sifting through the pieces, when I walk away I see the world afresh, my eye still alert for that certain shade of orange, for a piece with a little blue in one corner. I see new colors everywhere in the everyday world. And I’ve come to appreciate the picture painter’s bold use of color, his or her fearlessness at slapping a stroke of cerulean in a shadow, a smear of fresh-grass-green on a tree trunk.

Because I’m seeing the painting through tiny shards of it, seeing the bits of tree for the forest, I’m enjoying what’s been accomplished here in the details, as I pull back to look at the overall picture.

And it occurs to me that if I could bring this level of attention to my writing, it could be a powerful editing tool — to slow my process way down and see each and every word, how the words fit together, how they elbow each other, where space is used, and then pull back to understand each element anew as I view the whole piece. And also use that heightened awareness of word and silence as I encounter the world.

I tend to gallop through editing, working quickly, instinctively, shoving words or lines around. If you look at me working on a jigsaw puzzle, you see me bent almost motionless over the pile of pieces, examining, searching, maybe poking with a finger to get a better view of this one or that, sorting some out by color. If you watch me edit a poem, I’m cutting and pasting, deleting, undeleting, retyping.

But now I’m tempted to literally cut up my poems, even my essays into separate words, and spend a slow time piecing them back together, with the slow breath of concentration and meditation.

I know that putting together a thousand-piece puzzle is a slow process that will take weeks, and I accept the pace, and enjoy the process.
So why am I in such a hurry with my writing?

 

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Let Me Take You By the Hand; or, On Developing a Reader’s Guide

Friends and family have been extremely generous about supporting my poetry — buying each book as it has come out, sometimes buying an extra copy to give away, sometimes even reading them! Sometimes even reaching out to tell me about a poem that affected them in some way. But a few have said things like “I’m sorry, I don’t really understand the poems” or “I don’t like poetry” or “I don’t read poetry at all.” With them in mind, for my last book, Glass Factory, I created a short reader’s guide, thinking that I could provide some hand-holding to those who might enter the book with trepidation, or those who might not enter at all without some guidance.

It turned out to be quite a fun process for me (although I confess, I don’t know if anyone really used the guide — perhaps it was more fun for me than anyone else….)

I started thinking about some of the most important poems in the book in terms of theme, the most difficult poems in the book in terms of easy access by the reader to what was going on, some of the craft stuff I was doing in some of the poems, and the ideas or impetus behind some of the poems, some backstory, so to speak. Then I started writing up little paragraphs about some of the poems. Once I had a few of these, I started to see that I could break up the guide into what I termed “Inspiration,” “Craft,” and what I ended up calling “Obscure References and Inside Jokes.”

I also thought it was important to give readers some idea of who I was, and how these poems fit in the context of my life, so I created an “About Me” section. I also know people are also interested often in how people work, so I added a section about my process.

I did spend some time trying to think about questions for further thought that I thought might come out of the collection — but I only did that tedious task because all the other reader’s guides I’d looked at had done that.

What the process of creating the guide did for me is to help me step back and look at the individual poems and the collection in the way I had not before. Writing about the life context within which the poems were written gave me surprising insight about what had been going on for me in the years in which the poems were written. It made me enjoy the process of writing some of these poems in a way that I hadn’t been conscious of when I actually wrote them. It was such a useful process that I wonder if I should do it now for the full length collection I am sending around for publication at the moment, because it might give me some ways back into the collection to make it stronger.

https://marilynonaroll.wordpress.com/glass-factory-readers-guide/

 

The Living End; or, On Writing Endings

I’m good at beginnings. I can begin a million things. I just often can’t figure out how to end them. I think I have been writing poetry because of my anxiety about endings — by virtue of the relatively short nature of poems, my how-will-I-end-it anxiety is shorter too. This is why I’ve found writing essays and fiction so grueling and unpleasant. But even writing poems I find myself reaching with increasing desperation for an ending, sometimes long before I’ve even figured out what I’m writing about.

At least I’m aware of it — admitting you have a problem is the first step, right? So I start to recognize my end-times anxiety and purposely both relax and try to continue writing through it, trying this direction and that, trying to get myself to write right onward, toward any number of endings, writing even past an ending, so I can make sure I’ve said what the poem wants to say.

I got a critique once about a group of poems that they all fell toward an ending in the same way, so I have to watch my tendency to wrap things up in the same way, to be too tidy. One instructor told me I had a tendency to write poems that were closed-ended rather than open-ended, so I need to think about this often. Geesh, it’s no wonder I have anxiety. Another mentor commented on a number of my endings, and offered several alternatives, none of which I liked. Another mentor offered a new ending to a poem, which I took and then published the poem with that ending. But now when I read the poem aloud in readings, I always revert to my original ending.

My mother is very old and I fear her ending — at the moment she’s at least overtly physically healthy, if absent her memory, but I fear her end will be slow and painful, as so many old people’s ends can be. How can I balance my concern for her ending with my concern for her continued life? I have similar fears for my poems as I write them. I want them to die well. Well, no, I want them to live well, and to end well. What’s that sentiment about sliding up to the pearly gates yelling “woo woo”? I want that for my poem endings.

Too often I’ve had the experience of a piece of writing never “in the end” revealing to me what it was really trying to figure out, so I loop around and around until I give up, or shove some ending on it like a cork. When I’m very lucky, a poem falls gracefully to some image that opens the whole poem up. Or, and again, this takes luck, I find the ending right there at the beginning, and realize I’ve just written the whole poem upside-down.

As a child I loved to hang upside-down on the handrail of our walkway, or off the couch watching TV upside-down. Lately I’ve been missing that perspective on things, and no amount of downface-dog or head-standing quite replicates the bliss of just hanging around in reverse of the known world. So if you come to my door and think you see feet instead of a head sticking up above the couch, well, I’m busy.

Take It Away; or, Some Thoughts on Editing Poems

I’ve been writing some crappy poems lately. As I brood upon them I think most of them suffer from, at the very least, a problem of tone. I’ve written in other posts about the issue I have with poems of mine that sound overly grandiose. Like I’ve suddenly taken on a British accent or something. I want to say to the poem, “Get over yourself.”

The poems are stumbling around some fairly abstract concepts and this tone is the trap I often fall into when I’m writing from an intellectual interest in an idea rather than from a more visceral reaction to some stimulus.

But I love poems that do a good job of getting their fingers gripped onto the elbow of a good hardy abstract concept. I know it can be done.

One of the crappy poems has a tone I love, but the poem itself goes nowhere. I think the problem with that poem is it doesn’t have a central concept around which it’s stumbling.

The balance of idea and tone is crucial; one must match the other, and one cannot move forward without the other, it seems.

It occurs to me that one of the editing approaches I can take with tone is to radically pare down the words, to move away and away from prose, to introduce white space and silence. Sometimes this can unsettle the plummy tone and begin to allow the poem to get its feet under it.

In contrast, with the poem that goes nowhere, one approach I can take is to keep writing, to write toward something, often starting with the prompt “what I’m really trying to say is:” and asking my mind to move around the image or memory that presented itself, and why it arrived, and why now. Then once I’ve got a lot of prosaic words that may be heading me toward the central idea the poem is wanting to consider, I can begin paring back toward something interesting.

At least these approaches are a place to start. If I get nowhere, well, then I guess I’ll just move on (see post: 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/)…

Know When to Run; or, When Work in Progress is Not Making Progress; or, Giving Up as Part of the Poem Editing Process

I have been stuck on a couple of poems. They didn’t do what I wanted them to do, resisted even doing something different, resisted any effectiveness in coming together in a way that made me satisfied. I think I pulled out my entire arsenal of editing ideas. Here were my editing efforts:

– Walked away from them for a couple of weeks.

– Rewrote them backwards to try to get some insights or suprises.

– Broke them apart and put them back together differently.

– Took out entire sections.

– Plotted the logic of my arguments/analogies to make sure they were solid.

– Asked a poet friend to take a look at them and I did the edits she suggested.

– Tried combining the two poems into one.

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

Nothing worked. And so it goes. So I add them to my pages and pages of abandoned poems.

Sometimes whatever the impulse was to speak just does not lead to something worth hearing. It’s sad to abandon an effort. I keep the pages of abandoned poems around and revisit them occasionally, hoping some new insight will enable me to save them. I cannot recall a single instance of this working.

Part of working toward being a good writer is knowing when to walk away. Part of working toward being a good writer is asking enough of your poems that some of them just can’t make the bar.

 

Working Title; or, Poetry Titles, Oy

I’m not saying it was necessarily because of the title changes, but I had the experience once of radically changing titles of two poems that had been rejected several times from lit mags and suddenly and immediately got an acceptance for them. Coinkydink? Possibly. But it certainly made me sit up and take notice of what titles can do.

– A title can situate a poem in place or time, so you don’t have to use up vital poem real estate with that information. Yeats sets us right on “The Lake Isle of Innisfree,” so we’re already in place when he begins. But you may run the risk with that of overemphasizing time or place when the point of the poem is to transcend time or place. You have to ask whether the time/place title helps or distracts or gives too much attention to itself.

– A title can emphasize a certain je ne sais quoi that the poem is getting at. But you run the risk of beating the reader over the head. A title that basically says “Be Prepared to Feel Sad Ahead,” or “This Poem Is About Grief” just aren’t that interesting. But you can suggest it slantwise with an image, perhaps, or an echo of sound or word/words from the poem. I mean, sometimes it’s the only good solution to name a poem about daffodils “The Daffodils.” But maybe it’s a lost opportunity.

– A title can carry some of the weight of the poem, in that you can ask it to act as another line, the first line, in fact. You can ask the title to address the same things that the poem addresses, or hint at them, or choose a title that creates a resonance. A long and searing poem of several parts tracing a personal and family history Ocean Vuong titled “On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous.” There is nothing about earth nor beauty particularly in the poem, but the title captures a tenderness toward the fallible humans considered in it. It prepares our heart somewhat for what lies ahead, and when the poem is done helps settle a kind of grace on the experience.

Or you can choose something completely innocuous, I suppose, and not ask much from a title at all. Modern visual artists do that all the time — “Painting #7 of a Series of 10,” for example. But visual artists don’t have to work in the medium of words; poets do. (What if visual artists “entitled” their work with splashes of paint or visual gestures instead of words? I think that would be helpful sometimes.)

But we poets work in a world of words and white space, and the title has a particular status at the top of the page. It sits lordly over the poem text, wearing its white robes. It offers an opportunity to capture something about what lies ahead or provide a way to loop from the end back into the beginning again. It can provide crucial information for the reader to find her way into the poem, or set a tone, or cast a lifeline for the reader to hold as he walks through the poem, then out and back in again, or out and out and out into the world.

In Favor of Waiting, Poetry’s Best Revision Tool

I play any number of editing games with my work (including that game of believing it’s absolutely perfect right out of my head onto the page): chopping things up, turning things upside down, tossing things away, changing articles and personal nouns and verb forms. But there is no more exacting revision tool than time. A “perfect” poem put away for a while will, once brought back to the light, reveal its skin tags and moles, its sagging belly, its misshapen feet. Yes, it can be gruesome. Don’t get me wrong, some poems do come out of the head fully formed and pretty solid. But the thing is, you can’t really know that until some time has elapsed.

What is a poem? A made thing — poured onto the page, nudged onto the page, spat onto the page…and then worked: carved, smoothed, questioned, made exact. I’m not sure anything that does not undergo that process should be called a poem, but rather some other word: a thing, a whatsit, a lump of something that might be something.

When someone shambles up to the microphone at an open mic night with phone clutched in hand to read a “poem” they “just wrote this morning” — that noun and that phrase should not appear in the same sentence — they do a disservice to themselves as a maker and to the made thing, not to mention the long-suffering audience.

How much time does it take? I wish I knew. I often get tired of waiting, often think “oh, it’s fine, just get it out there.” Sometimes I’m right. Sometimes I’m wrong. Only time will…well…you know.