Now Hold On There; or Slowing the Revision Process

Recently I slipped while hiking and twisted both my ankles. I was able to hobble out, but this incident has considerably slowed my pace these last couple of weeks as I limp through the world.

I know I should probably say “Oh and this has enabled me to notice more of the details around me,” but I was already pretty notice-y, thus write poetry to do something with all those details I see. No, this change of pace has made me think about my editing process.

I tend to do many things quickly: I walk quickly (a friend of mine told me once she had spotted me “marching down the street” and I felt momentarily self-conscious of my purposeful gait). I think quickly (except in emergencies, during which I’m pretty useless). I drive at a fairly sedate rate, and I don’t know if I speak particularly quickly, but I write quickly, and I edit quickly. Limping through the world has required me to curtail some activities (like the other hikes I was planning to do, or really any walking much at all) but mostly to strategize better my movements and consider more closely my priorities.

This came home to me particularly at the grocery store. I was already in aisle 10; did I really need that thing I forgot to get in aisle 3? I had to think through the item, the impact of its absence, the significance of its presence in my post-supermarket life. Yes, I sighed, and shuffled back.

I wonder if this limping pace might benefit my editing process, that slower level of consideration of each word, image, line, stanza, type of rhythm, punctuation. I was thinking about this as I read a fascinating article by Denise Levertov in which she takes us almost step by step through the writing and revision process of two poems. She had kept her notes and so was able to recall the process that took place over days and weeks of two poems that were making use of ideas years in the making. (I was reading the article, “Work and Inspiration: Inviting the Muse,” in A Field Guide to Contemporary Poetry and Poetics, but the article originally appeared in Fieldin 1969.)

I recognized the one step forward, half step to the side to regain balance, a half step forward, the drag of the more-sore foot pace of the process she describes. It sounded like a good process, necessarily slow and halting in order to get at the depth of the work she was trying to bring forth. I’m going to try to consciously slow my editing pace, to limpify my revision process, in a good way, to bring more strategic thinking in terms of viewing each decision against the bigger picture, reviewing each step in light of the where-I’m-trying-to-go.

We’ll see. I make no promises. I’m already pushing my healing process with these ankles, impatient to march forth again.


Order! Order!; or, On Finding a Unifying Principle in the Disorderly Poem

I have been trying a new approach to writing poems these days, very different for me, who usually has a stranglehold on word and idea. I’ve been kitchen-sink-ing it these days.

I start with an image and anything that occurs to me around that image which seems at all relevant to why the image caught my eye, I throw down on paper. And I do this for a while, leaving a file open on my desktop to add stuff to as it occurs to me as I wander around my day. After a while I start rereading them to rediscover what’s there.

If it seems like I’ve got a heap of stuff that has some relation — a bunch of silverware perhaps, or cups and saucers — then I pick through to try to create short, more orderly passages. I try to find threads to weave and gaps to fill. I toss to the bottom things that either don’t seem to quite fit or are blathery or boring, but I don’t want to throw away just yet. Often I find similar versions of the same idea, so I have to decide which one is most interesting, or twist a handle here, ding a tine there, so there’s enough different that I can keep them both. And I start to try line breaks, stanza thingies, start to clip and shift my way toward rhythms. And I try to find the point beyond which an idea I’ve thrown in just cannot stay.

It’s in this editing process that I bring some order to the mess. I do insist, it seems, on having some kind of organizing principle or through-line of reason. (Which it seems puts me out of touch with so much of contemporary poetry I read, poetry that tolerates the, to me, wholly tangential, the inexplicable, the, what I call, “hunh? quotient.” Of course, these contemporary authors may indeed have their own organizing principle for the seemingly random utterances. But what is it? What is it? What the hell is it?)

I am concerned about making sure there’s some kind of connective tissue at work in a poem, a line of thinking that at least somewhat clearly loops back upon itself. I want the reader to happily take leaps with me, not find themselves legs flailing over an abyss.

It doesn’t always work, of course. I have heard from some of my readers that they have at times in reading my poems found themselves all Wile E. Coyote-like, dingetdingetydingety over a poetic cliff. They don’t care for it, I hear…

Some of these poems I’m working seem to want to stay long and unwieldy; some hope to strike out across the page width-wise as well as length-wise; one floundered itself into an essay form instead of poem; one just got whittled down from four pages to one stanza. I’m not sure if any of them quite add up yet to more than the sum of their parts. But I’m enjoying the process at the moment. This devil-may-care flinging of stuff into the sink with a clatter.

Help Me If You Can; or On the Stages of Project Completion

Sometimes when I’ve just “finished” a project, I get all bouncily excited. I can’t wait to get it out into the world, CERTAIN that the world will be AGOG. At times like this I wish someone would gently wrest the “Send” button from my hand.

If I do excitedly send the fresh, new piece, fortunately it takes so long for most places to respond that the rejection letters come less as a knife to the heart of Tigger as a knife to the heart of, say, Kanga, perhaps, or Roo, or, depending on the day, Eeyore.

If I’m a sensible bear, I’ll put the piece aside. I’ll come back to it later and HATE EVERYTHING ABOUT IT. Then I’ll put it aside again and later come to it with a more measured response. Although if I wait too long, I’ll get too Wol-ish about it all, and that can be insufferable.

So, having just finished a couple of pieces about which I’m WILDLY ENTHUSIASTIC, I’m going to try to breathe through the bouncy part, and try to put my new pieces aside for a while. I’m hoping to get fairly quickly back to my usual, Piglettish state: slightly worried, somewhat confused.

Another Round of Notes from the First Round

It was time again for my task as first-round reader for a poetry book contest. Once again I approached with self-doubt and angst. Once again, I learned some things to apply to my own work.

The twenty-five or so manuscripts I looked at were uniformly pretty well-written, which tells me that people are taking the time to learn something of the craft of writing (or at least reviewing the rules of grammar) and the art of poetry.

But I found that several of these full-length manuscripts felt more like solid chapbooks with other stuff stuffed in around them. This is interesting and a useful cautionary tale. I need to examine my own current full-length ms to make sure I have truly a full group of good poems and not a core of good ones and some bubble wrap.

A corollary to this is that it seems like collections are getting longer and longer. And I’ve noted in an earlier post that contest rules are asking for mss that are of higher and higher page count. I just don’t think this is a good thing. I want a book of poems to be a small world I live in, roaming around, revisiting streets and vistas. I don’t want to wander forever in strange terrain. Too many times I’ve encountered collections that after a while make me say “Enough already.” This is not good for poetry, already fighting an uphill battle for readers. Too many poems invites too many weak poems. I favor shorter and stronger throughout. Whack ’em with some good stuff and go.

“Ahem ahem”: I found that, no lie, 80% of the manuscripts were chock full of epigraphs: epigraphs for the ms as a whole, for sections, for individual poems. And 98% of the time the epigraphs added nothing to the experience of the poem. Why why why do people do this? It seems like a lot of throat clearing and paper shuffling. Unless they provide some vital context, I just don’t see the point. I began to resent this imposition on my time. They’re unnecessary ruffles. Think of Jerry Seinfeld’s puffy shirt. If you want to use someone’s line in your work, have at it; just give them a nod in an end note. But epigraphs? Enough. Stop hiding behind someone else. Just start the poem, poet.

I also found often that I didn’t understand people’s line break decisions. I tried counting syllables or beats, in case I was missing a form or something. But an awful lot of the time the line breaks seemed suspiciously random. (I’ve written about line breaks before: Line Item) So I need to go back and stare down my line breaks, justify them to my now line-break crabby and hyper-vigilant self.

Finally I read a couple of mss that were interesting in content but in the end never transcended their own material. I talked about this a little bit last time with regard to essays. Where is the emotional center and how is my vision being shifted? The same goes for poems: experience has to launch to something beyond itself. Otherwise a cigar is just a cigar. And where’s the art in that?

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?


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.

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.