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.

Down to the Crossroads; or, Confidence and the Editing Process

I’ve gotten a couple of acceptances just recently that I’m very pleased about. And it has also thus far been a year of many rejections. I have certain pieces I’ve really believed in that just keep getting rejected over and over again, and I’m losing my confidence. Do I really know how to assess my own work? Am I just wrong?

My rational self says, “Yes, sometimes you’re wrong. But sometimes,” it assures, “you’re not wrong. It’s just that this is the game — send stuff out, get it rejected, repeat.”

But, I argue, how do I know when I’m right and when I’m wrong?

Rational Self says, “Oh, um…is that the phone? I think I hear the phone. Gotta go…”

I’m in this place of doubt — not necessarily doubt about my work, but doubt about my ability to understand what in the work is working. And what isn’t. I know I’ve been here before. I know the mood has passed. I don’t know if I had discovered some way out of this fog, or whether it’s just time, and distraction. I’ve forgotten. I know I come back to two things: that time is the best editor; and that there is something at gut-level that knows things about my work. But when time and gut still says it likes a work that has been getting rejected for years? I know I’ve written in this very space about honing one’s own editorial sense. But can I really believe myself? I dunno.

Rational Self rolls her eyes.

The editing process takes inner calm, perspective, and confidence. This is especially true when it comes to “knowing” that something is ready to send out. My own process is too often to send stuff out too soon, get it back rejected, and suddenly see a new editing angle. But hey, it’s a process. But there are some times in which I just can’t muster up the guts to do good editing on my own work, or see it with a sufficiently cold eye. (And I do think there are some of my works that I’ll just never get perspective on. I’m just going to love their flawed selves and that’s it. I’ll tuck them into a manuscript somehow or incorporate them into a visual project maybe. But I won’t abandon them to my C-level folder! I won’t!)

A friend of mine who breeds and raises dogs talks about puppy panic periods: something a puppy did without fear a day before suddenly turns it into a whites-around-the-eyes, stiff-legged-no-way-I-ain’t-doin’-that trembling mess, and pretty soon pretty much everything freaks it out. The periods generally only last a few days, although the puppy might have another such period some time later in its development. I think I have puppy panic periods throughout my whole life. Different things set me off at different times (there are some things, of course, that set me off EVERY time). (Spider!) I think I must be in one now.

Time will move me off this, and I’ll regain my self-confidence, and/or regain some perspective on those pieces that have received consistent rejections, and/or continue to believe in them beyond all reason. Right now, though, I’m going to just sit here quietly for a while.

That’s not a spider over there, is it?


You Can Leave Your Hat On; or, Rethinking Writing and Editing

I like to flounce around thinking I know things.

So it’s good when I stumble upon ideas that wake me up to my profound ignorances. A few things I read recently made me rethink my often cavalier approach to writing and particularly to editing.

First was this from1984: “The Revolution will be complete when the language is perfect.” In 1984not only is history rewritten daily but language itself is being narrowed, and as language narrowed, thought itself stultified. Thinking and language is, for us, our wag-tongued species, inextricable. “Every year fewer and fewer words, and the range of consciousness always a little smaller.”

I have always loved words, even as a little tiny kid would leaf through a book on the family shelf called How to Build a Better Vocabulary. Words were as magic as magic, and as delightful in the mouth as chocolate chip cookies, as cake with candles. And I can almost remember a visceral sense of my mind expanding as I encountered new words that struck me, words that opening up new worlds, new ways of thinking.

I just read Robert MacFarlane’s Landmarks, a wonderful book about books and words, specifically words of regional dialect that describe things specific to regional experiences: how the fog creeps across the moor, the way certain rock formations sparkle, how the regular passage of a small animal through a hedge creates a hole. Worlds and worlds, words and worlds.

I think of Rilke in the 9th Duino Elegy: Maybe we are here to say: house, bridge, fountain, gate, pitcher, fruit, tree, window…. (Well, is the best translation “pitcher”? Or is is it “jug”? “Carafe”? “Box of Wine”?) Looking through my recent drafts I think I’ve gone slack with language. One editing exercise I do in my writing workshops is to ask everyone to examine all the verbs in their draft, and act to wake up those verbs, make them carry more weight, move with more gravitas or fleetness. Editor, edit thyself.

And then I encountered the words of an old friend, whose work never fails to humble me to my own limitations: Doug Glover has a new book of essays on writing coming out. It’s called, characteristic of his humor, The Erotics of Restraint: Essays on Literary Form. Here in an adapted extraction published on, Glover speaks volumes about sentences:

A few key quotations from Douglas Glover, “The Power of a Good Sentence,” on

– “One day, I happened to read an essay called ‘On Some Technical Elements of Style in Literature’ by Robert Louis Stevenson. He was talking about sentences, but instead of repeating platitudes, he showed how to construct sentences on the basis of conflict. Instead of just announcing a single thesis, a sentence begins by setting out two or more contrasting ideas; the sentence develops a conflict, intensifying toward a climax, a ‘knot’ Stevenson calls it, and then, after a moment of suspension, slides easily toward a close.”

– “Suddenly writing a sentence became an exciting prospect, a journey of discovery, a miniature story with a conflict and a plot, the outcome of which I might not know at the outset.”

– “The lesson is to inject conflict, rhythm, plot, and energy into your sentences by deploying relatively simple forms. Never leave a crude sentence snoozing on the page when there is the possibility of dramatic elaboration.”

Oh, dear.

And so I fall back, retreat — retreat!– to the beginning — or, is it really the beginning, or some waypoint on the spiral? — to begin again, to roll/push/shove/muscle/spin/turn/revolve/cycle/trundle my rock of carbuncled words and sentences up the rubbled hillside again.

What’s Love Got To Do With It?; or, Art and the Question

I’m in the middle of an interesting writing experience. I have yet another new batch of poems (Ugh! MORE? When I already have one full length and two chapbook length manuscripts that I can’t get published? Damn me and my productivity. I depress myself.) that I’m revising through. As I questioned the logic behind one of them, forgetting the reading I was doing that inspired it, I began researching the topic more — which was the origin of life on earth.

Yeah, I know.

So anyway, I found this incredibly fascinating article on that summarizes the research thus far and how dead ends in previous research often actually contained useful thinking that informed later research, once someone took a look back on the old stuff with a new eye.

This is the revision process in a nutshell — everything old can be new again. (But again, emphasis on “old,” that is, the necessity of the passage of time to allow one to re-see, re-view, to see afresh, with new eyes.)

I’ve now traveled miles away from whatever I was trying to say in that original poem, and am aswamp with new information that astounds and intrigues me. What it asks in me that I may turn into a poem I have no idea yet. It may never be a poem. But what a fun rabbit hole it has turned out to be. And this question about the question is key.

Research is always about a question, sometimes posed in different ways or approached from various routes. And this too is poetry. Some of the poems I’m editing are interesting but lack a central question. This is what can come of writing from the middle of research — one feels briefly as if one knows something! But to reach back into the central question is essential to make art. Art comes out of the not-knowing, the search. Otherwise, you’re just presenting an academic theory.

There’s a local man who makes hundreds of paintings of local landmarks. They’re okay, in that they have some personality to them and a signature style. But there is no mystery, somehow, no way in which the artist is admitting he doesn’t know something about his subject matter. I’m not even sure what I mean by that. I just know there’s a blandness to the presentation such that I’m fine with looking at it once, but it’s not something I’ll bother to look at again. In contrast, I have a landscape hanging on my wall that I look at often. I’ll find a new streak of color I haven’t noticed before, or haven’t admired in a while. I’ll enjoy anew the shadowed trees, a smear of light on the pond edge.

One of the brilliant things this article is doing with the history of the research of the origin of life is presenting it as an unfolding, of stalls and restarts, of conflicts and alliances, certainties and doubts. The subject and the researchers are alive and wondering, just as the artist of my landscape shows herself.

In these poems I’m editing, I have to reach back to find my wondering self, if it’s there. If there’s no wonder, there’s no poem. Life, as it’s turning out, probably began in a shallow, soupy mess of chemicals and metals with some light thrown on it.

Hey, I’m a mess of chemicals and metals! Maybe I can create some stuff that has some life in it…


A real laugh riot; or On Cleverness or Humor in a Poem

A recent critiquer of a poem of mine averred that in two particular places I had “substituted cleverness for humor.”

This gave me paws. Ha ha, see what I did there? Isn’t cleverness humor? Humorous? Humor-ish? Is it a lesser form of humor?

It could be said to be superficial, perhaps — wordplay, for example, whereas humor, perhaps, should dig deep, have a little of its tragedian partner. Is there not room for cleverness in a poem?

The first place the critiquer red-penned in this way was indeed wordplay. I was trying to reconsider the meanings of a word. But maybe I had made my point with the image I presented, and didn’t need to emphasize it with the wordplay. In which case, it wasn’t the cleverness at fault but the redundancy. Fair enough.

The second offense was a quick lightening of the mood — I used an old song lyric to describe a situation. I’m not quite so convinced cleverness was a problem there (or indeed, anywhere). In the poem in question there are a few lighter moments in a poem otherwise taking itself seriously, and this was one of them. Can’t a little levity allow the reader to take a breath, to share with the writer a chuckle?

But maybe such cleverness calls too much attention to the writer. Look at me and my cleverness, it may say, and take the reader out of the poem in a way that is harmful to the poem and its atmosphere. Do we really need to share a wink, you and I?

If I want to inject humor, shouldn’t it be of the deeper kind and arise from the poem itself, not from the author’s ego?

I don’t know. I like to laugh. But when is humor organic to a poem and when is it hiding something or asserting itself in a show-offy way? I just don’t know, in the case of my poem; although I may recognize it immediately in someone else’s.

At any rate, I think it’s an interesting question.

Bring it on home; or Thoughts on Structure

A family crisis plus daily rejection emails plus a flurry of other small irritations recently put me off my writing “schedule” (ha ha) or really any of my efforts to be creative. I’m in a funk and wonder what it’s all for anyway. So I watched Project Runway. Or, in this case, Project Runway All Stars (In which contestants from past Projects Runway re-compete. Really, guys? you have nothing better to do than this again? Dmitry, I’m really surprised at you).

Anyway, in spite of some terrible calls on the part of the judges (Are you freaking kidding me? I shriek), and truly horrible styling for the host, poor Alyssa whatever-her-name-is, always stuffed into some inappropriate boob-bulging dress and teetering in some ridiculous high heel (Are you freaking kidding me? I shriek), I find it inspirational.

I love seeing how the designers rise to a challenge, within minutes conjuring all kinds of ideas, choices of colors, shapes, the imagination, the technical skills required. I love the way they become truly wrecked throughout the course of the competition, sleep deprived, on edge, and how they always say the competition pushed themselves to do things they would not otherwise have done.

I don’t know anything about fashion or clothing design, so I don’t really understand exactly what they mean, but I would like to feel that feeling — of trying something I’m not entirely sure I can pull off. The problem with not being in a reality show about writing poetry is that I have to come up with my own challenges and push.

I have had that experience — in recent times, for example, trying to write a long poem with long lines and leaps, pushing and elbowing and elbowing the boundaries of the poem. My first videopoem pushed me in this way, and my animations. (Can I really draw an octopus that looks recognizably like the same octopus across ten frames? Fortunately, all octopuses look sort of the same….)

So what’s it all for? Well, as regular readers know from a previous post in which I revealed the meaning of life to be, well, a meaningless question, I don’t think “it” is all “for” anything. It just is. I wake up every day (so far). So what am I going to do?

I guess I make things because it can be fun. I write because it’s how I think. I play with animation and video and paint and fabric because it’s fun. I don’t cook things or play tennis or volunteer at a soup kitchen because those things are not fun for me. In the absence of a Project Prod a Poet or a Project Make Something, I have to put myself in the creative zone, and this can be tiring and tiresome. But at least I’m not sharing a room in some hotel with other contestants, and having to worry about what Irina is saying behind my back. Cuz she’s just mean.

Lingua Franca, Alfie; or What Poetry is All About

“It’s all about language!” Nancy exclaims.

“Yes!” I cry, “That’s it exactly!”

Her undergraduate poetry students, apparently, balk at this. They’re sure it must be all about their experience and their emotion. And, of course, yes, it is, AND ALSO…and yes, it is, BUT THEN…, she tries to explain. Without attention to language, we run the risk of writing prose and sticking random line breaks in and calling it a poem. Possibly with tortured and obvious end rhymes, just to make sure the moniker sticks.

Well, that’s her battle to fight. I have my own: I started thinking surely I could now come to appreciate more of the contemporary poetry I struggle with if I could only remember that it’s all about language.

But actually, often that’s the problem I have. It seems to be all about language…and not much or enough about experience or emotion…much less the other basic building blocks of poetry’s towers, huts, bridges, and many mansions.

A quick tally in my own mind of these blocks include: image, diction and tone, rhythm, silence, placement of words visually on the page. Oh, and intention.

So, language, yes, AND…or I’m left dangling in a language soup. Throw some croutons to this drowning fly. Give me a little logic, some sense of depth of meaning, some boogie woogie; and image, please, give me a flower or a piece of dogshit on the sidewalk or a surgeon’s scalpel under the light, something to grab onto, even if it bloodies me.

I know I’ve lamented this again and again in this blog, and encouraged myself to read more slowly, read with a broader mind and spirit. But I keep forgetting, and getting frustrated all over again when I read the next inscrutable (to me) volume. But I’m ready to dive in again, armed with the battle cry “Language! Language!”

But lest it seem like I only read poetry I don’t get, let me take a moment to mention a few books I’ve read recently or are in the middle of which I am very much enjoying: Lisa Bellamy’s The Northway, Jackie Craven’s Secret Formulas and Techniques of the Masters, and Sarah Giragosian’s Queer Fish. Oh, and rereading Anne Carson’s fascinating Autobiography of Red. Huzzah.