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.

 

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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.

Putting Together a Manuscript of Poems: Everything I Can Think Of; A Megablog

Putting Together a Poetry Manuscript: Everything I Can Think of at the Moment

You have been working diligently. You discover one day that you have 50 or 60 poems, maybe more, you think, gee, it’s high time I had a book of poetry published. What comes first? I’m not talking chicken/egg, I’m talking about which of the poems in the pile in front of you should come first? Gaah! you cry. This will not be the last time you cry gaah, but here are some ways to approach the process.

The Collective

You are putting together a collection of poems, so you might take a moment and think about the collective. A bunch of disparate poems may not a collection maketh. Nor does a tight group of thematically or otherwise related poems necessarily make a good collection. Too much difference makes a collection feel random. Too much sameness makes a collection feel boring.

If you’ve been lucky in your life, at some point you’ve been a member of a group that has cohered, has been able to embrace a level of diversity, strengthen the connective tissues, and make of itself a functioning thing. Experiences like this are fun, and fine. This is what you want to make of your poems. I was part of a singing group that started as the Five Fabulous Females. Tall, short, prim, ribald, soprano, contralto, Broadway-oriented, bluesy. Viva les differences. Things quickly fell apart, however, as one member seemed to want different things from the group through a different process, and we never actually performed together as five. Then we were Four Fabulous Females. A performance or two later, things fell apart as one member seemed to approach things with a different sensibility to the rest. Then there were three. We three went on to perform together many times and remain friends to this day. So it goes. You could put out a collection of poems some of which live uneasily with each other. Or you could hold out for a good team.

So taking a deep breath, ruthlessly read through the poems, and by instinct and without much thought, put to one side poems that cause a little hitch in your confidence, a tiny question of readiness, any momentary hesitation. They might be able to be saved, but for this first round, anything questionable has to be put aside. Don’t worry about how many you’ve set aside and how many are left. You want the core of your manuscript to be the best poems you have. Then anything new you have to generate or revise you know you need to raise to the same standard.

Ordering the Disorderly

Go through again the group that is left and again in a quick sort, without too much thought, mark poems that seem to be addressing similar themes or issues. Maybe put a different color dot for different themes.

Go through again and mark in some other way poems that are similar in form or approach.

Go through again and mark in some other way poems that use similar imagery perhaps or share some other similarity.

Now put all the like-themed poems together. You might find several streams of themes — put the groups in some (at this point perhaps random) order and read through the whole thing. Make any notes on what you’ve learned or poems that seemed particularly well suited together and poems that were too similar and should not appear next to each other.

Now maybe reorder them using the form markers and read through again. Make your notes.

Now reorder in whatever other similarity markers you have used and read through the whole thing again. Make your notes.

This is exhausting and you will periodically want to just go to the top of the stairs and throw them down and then leave them in whatever order is left when you clean them up. This is also legitimate. Do it. Read through and make notes.

You will probably come to find that there are poems that seem to want to be in close proximity and poems that do not. You should begin to find that some kinds of bunches work together and some do not. You may begin to feel that too much similarity of some of the poems will dictate that they should be spread throughout the manuscript, their similarity functioning as stitches that tie the whole thing together. Trust this process.

You will likely have some outliers. It could be that they belong to another manuscript all together. You will feel panicked by this, because you have now lost a number of poems and no longer have a full length collection. This is the way things go. Better to build from a good base than to shove 60 random poems together and hope they work.

Your chosen poems may be falling into natural groupings. Should you make them into discrete sections? Not all manuscripts have to have sections. But sections can help to focus the collective attention of both the poems and the reader. So if groups seem to fall naturally into sections, make sections. If not, don’t worry about it.

There are all kinds of ways to order poems. Try as many as you can think of, but keep in mind the idea of “collective.” I attended a dance performance recently in which one piece was made up of short dances to 24 short pieces of music. In the end, I felt that what we’d watched was 24 short dances, not one coherent dance. The performance seemed to go on and on because there was no arc connecting the dances together. The same can be found in poetry collections. Try to find and highlight some kind of connective tissue, to reveal some kind of arc.

Filling It In

At one point I thought I had a manuscript just because I had a bunch of poems I wrote in a certain (lengthy!) period of time. But in the end it felt like a collected works instead of a slice of a concentrated period of a mind working. In the end, as a collection it did itself a disservice by meandering and feeling jumbled and uneven after a while. I had to identify some central concerns and…yes…write new poems. Once you have a pile of your best work set in some kind of order, you will begin to see where the gaps are and/or where you need to create more work that supports and lengthens what you’ve collected thus far. Thus your assignment: write on.

But Wait

Give some thought to what the collection is getting at, what themes are being considered, what of your obsessions are being visited, or are you exploring a kind of form, or an image, or a period of time, a person, an event. If you had to write a blurb for the back of your book, what would it say? Once you’ve captured that, are there poems that clearly lie too far outside that statement? Maybe put them aside for another collection.

Take a Step Farther Back

You will not thank me for this, but I have to raise the issue: Is what you’re saying compelling? Is how you’re saying it compelling? The fact is the poetry publishing world is competitive. Many able poets are writing very competent poems in collections that are not very interesting. Many interesting writers are offering collections that are not very competently written. Why not strive to be both writing well and thinking deeply, imaginatively. Push your work into places where you don’t entirely know your way. Wonder does wonders for work. Imaginative + vivid + fully felt = winning combination. By imaginative, I mean evidence of a lively mind at work. By vivid, I mean something special in the language (my preference) or the form or the approach. By fully felt, I mean some emotional gravitas.

I was reading a manuscript of someone else’s poems recently, and they were really good poems. Very competent, lovely poems of domesticity and parenthood. But, I thought to myself, some element is missing. Is the problem that I’m just not that interested in poems of domesticity and parenthood? I didn’t think that was it. I decided finally that what I was missing was a kind of reaching. This very able poet was not reaching beyond her grasp. She knew the world of her poems too well. If I call what I wanted from this manuscript more risk-taking, what do I mean by that? It’s a sense, I think, of a mind in motion rather than a mind at rest; questions asked and pondered rather than answered. What does it mean for any of us to take risks in our work? How do I write a poem that feels risky to me, that feels like I’m peering over the edge of something, and something that makes the reader tremble there too? Is risk about subject area, form, language, meaning?

A friend says, “I demand emotional risk. Not necessarily confessional, but someone willing to open a vein, or why are we there anyway?” I think I agree about “emotional risk,” but I’m just not always sure what that means — both in what I read and in what I write. And I actually don’t always need “emotional” risk, but SOME kind of reaching, whether emotional, craftish, wordish, conceptual.

You do not want to hear this. You do not want to do this. You may not have sufficient distance to look at the collection from this perspective yet. Either put the collection away for a little while until you can get a fresh perspective, or…ignore me and sally forth. Whatever you do, do not give up.

Where To Begin

There is likely one poem you think is terrific and should open the collection, and one or two poems that feel conclusionary in some way. You may be wrong. Don’t settle too quickly on the opening poem. It may very well be the last decision to be made, once you settle in to the feel of the whole manuscript.

The first poem should teach the reader how to read the whole manuscript. It should give some sense of what the reader can expect.

The last poem should open out somehow, so the reader feels like they’ve opened a new door back into their own life through which they see things differently.

This is a lot to ask of opening and closing poems, I know. But if our reach does not attempt to succeed our grasp, etcetera.

And Then

Proofread. Proofread. Proofread.

Regarding typeface and format: Make sure the way you designate titles is simple — all caps for example, or bold. Don’t make it too fancy. But make it consistent. The same goes for section headings. In headings and text, don’t use obscure tyepfaces. If you are playing with spacing or other odd presentation on the page, be prepared to submit your work as a .pdf in case transmittal screws up your careful play.

The End

Make sure every poem kicks ass. The more poems you put into a collection, the more likely it is that you’ll include ones that aren’t as strong as others, which weakens the collection. Remember, there are a lot of poets out there, and a lot of people doing really good work. Be one of them.

 

Line Item; or, On Poetic Lineation; or, Don’t Just Break a Line, Make a Line

I see an awful lot of earnest, heartfelt prose that’s broken up into poemy-looking lines and stanzas and called a “poem.” But I just can’t agree. Such work has ignored the most primary and powerful tools of the art and craft of poetry.

Let’s just start with the idea of a line. A line should start strong and end strong as much as possible, and should have some reason for being a made line that ends deliberately and with purpose rather than one that ends because you think a line should be about so long, or one that haphazardly strolls across the page until the automatic right margin shunts it downward.

A line must have some integrity. That integrity should be in the form of:

– idea — that is, it should do the work of building on, refuting, suggestion something other than, developing or moving along the idea of the poem,

– rhythm — the line should have some relationship to the lines around it such that it carries along or disrupts established rhythms,

– sound — the sounds in the line should have some kind of resonance with the idea of the poem or, again, be part of a larger sonic pattern in the poem.

And that’s just what I come up with off the top of my head.

The line break itself should have a purpose — to suggest, to control the reader’s pace: hurry the reader along or stop him in his tracks, to hint or wink, to emphasize, argue, and again it also can have sonic responsibilities in the form of, well, silence.

Not every line in every poem necessarily carries weight. Sometimes you just have to get from point A to point B. But the editing process should include serious consideration of each line and its integrity. This is the great fun of writing poetry, for heaven’s sake! Otherwise, just write prose. Prose is fine too.

Beneath the Skin: Levels of Editing Poems

As I brood over my newest batch of poems, and cast a crabby eye on the previous batch, as yet unpublished, it seems to me that editing can be focused on three levels.

There’s the level of the text on the page:

– Are the verbs active and surprising enough?

– Are the nouns specific and image-based enough?

– Are there too many articles? Not enough?

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

– Are the line breaks serving purposes?

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

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

– Have you paid attention to sound and silence and rhythm? Are they serving the poem?

– If you’re using a form, does the content serve the form or the form serve the content?

– Is the white space serving the poem?

There’s the level of intention:

Is the poem doing what you intended, expressing what you want to express? (Do you know what you are trying to express?) Is it trying too hard? Is it not trying hard enough? Have you brought enough emotional/philosophical depth to the undertaking? Are the images/experiences/ideas sufficiently and deeply, specifically personal such that they become universal?

Then there’s the level of what I think of as ambition:

We’re all writing in or responding to a literary history and tradition. Where does the poem fit in that tradition, what poems are the greatest expression of that tradition, and does your poem reach for that greatness? In other words, have you figured out the magic of the poems you most admire and have you sought in your own poem to create that magic?

And it’s always useful to pause in the entire enterprise now and then to ask “Why am I doing this? Why is my attention on this?” Even if you’re unable to answer, the question is worth asking in order to refocus, to re-center.

Mind you, I’m rarely focused and together enough to work at all these levels with any given poem, and am largely lazy anyway. But it occurs to me that this is the bar I’d like to set for myself in the editing process. And by “bar,” I mean, let me belly up to it and order a whiskey for the ordeal.

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Do Be Do Be Do; or the Power and Necessity of Active Verbs

I was listening to a friend read a short fiction piece recently and was struck at the leap in power when she came to a character’s gesture. For all the loveliness of the prose telling who, why, and where, it was the act of the characters — he reached toward her throat, she grabbed after the falling ring — that caught and carried the energy of the piece. Someone else read a poem and again, it was not the abstract nouns, for all their romantic evocations, that contained the poem’s gravitas, but the verb that reached out and struck.

Good writing demands strong verbs, motion, gestures. Power lurks in the acts of the hands, the body, the feet, trunk or petal, wing or Mack truck.

Don’t give me love. Give me the actions that love compels.

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Strike Three: or The Necessity of Vigorous Editing

I was at a reading recently, a mix of fiction, nonfiction, and poets reading from their works, mostly self-published or published by very small local initiatives. Poets have it easy to do a ten-minute reading — we can fit in a good handful of poems, usually. But longer-format writers have to figure out what ten-minute extract they can feature that doesn’t need enormous backstory set-up, but that creates some narrative movement.

By and large these readers were not very successful at that, and that set their work at a disadvantage from the get-go.

I wonder if longer-format writers need to actually design a few extracts that meet ten-minute or twenty-minute limits so they’re ready for such opportunities. That probably means taking a longer scene and editing it down or moshing together a couple of scenes and deleting out some interstitial matter. This strikes me as a useful editing technique as well.

Which brings me to my next point.

Self-published or sort-of-almost-self-published (“vanity” presses, I hate to call them) authors seem often to have done their work a disservice, as the editing that goes on, if it goes on, is not rigorous enough to create good work. That’s just all there is to it.

It is hard to edit one’s own work.

But it is necessary to grow the tough skin and fierce attention to do so, or to allow someone else to wade in and do it along with you. It is the only way to create good work.

In the work of one reader that night, every single noun had an adjective, and not a single verb was done without some -ly defining it. This made for limp nouns, flaccid verbs, and slow, tedious listening. It was all I could do not to leap forward wielding my red pen at the offending volume. (Yes, of course I had a red pen on me. What? You want me to wander naked into the world without my Edit Girl costume hidden under my clothes?)

Edit edit edit. Scrutinize everything.

“But do you know how arduous that is?” you cry. Yes. Yes, I do.

Put it away for a while and let time push you back from it.

Do a quick overview, taking notes on flow and movement. Then wade in a bit at a time. Take it scene by scene. Ask of everything: Are you necessary?

Open a new document and throw in there chunks you’ve taken out, or chunks you’re not sure about. That way you can move things back if necessary.

It’s rarely necessary.