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.

I want you to show me the way; or, On Reading Kay Ryan

I picked up Synthesizing Gravity, a collection of Kay Ryan’s essays, eager to discover what this brilliant poet has to say in prose…only to find the intro was written by another in my literary pantheon, Christian Wiman. Listen to this: He writes, “…Kay Ryan is…in some way native to…a realm in which gravity and levity are vivid kin….” Isn’t that amazing? That’s a realm I would like to move to. My literary Canada. He suggests Ryan’s purpose is: “…to light the space between mind and world. To light, and thereby lighten, the space between mind and world. To lighten, and thereby lessen, the space between mind a world.” I say yes to all that. Yes. And I haven’t even gotten past the intro.

+++++

Okay, now I have gotten past the intro, and yes, yes to many of these erudite little essays in which Kay Ryan thinks her Kay Ryan-ish delighted thoughts on poems that interest her interesting mind. I have had some friends in my life like Kay Ryan in whom I totally delight and with whom I’m always a little anxious. These are people SO much smarter than I am, totally idiosyncratic in their brilliance, and they just dazzle without being anything grand or fancy but just being their often small-seeming, darkly quietly brilliant selves. And I’m anxious that they find me likable and never discover the dolt I am. This is what Kay Ryan would be like if I could be her friend. And I would love to be her friend. Or at least her roommate at an AWP conference, about which she devotes one hilarious essay, her reluctant attendance at an AWP as a visiting alien, wide-eyed and exhausted by the planet-change. 

Here is something she says, in the context of considering a Robert Frost poem, but so relevant to the poetry writing process in general, I think, and relevant to a discussion I had recently with a poet friend. About her spare, crystalline poems, which I often find engimatic, I’m constantly asking basically, “Can you tell us just a little bit more?” Ryan says: “The amount you need to say is so hard to gauge. How much can you not say, and something will still have the charge of the unsaid? There is a point at which what is said is too pale, or frail, one fears, to tip the mind into the unsaid. And the reason for the pallor might not be punctilio but a genuine failure of force.”

I had to look up “punctilio” (“a fine or petty point of conduct or procedure”) and in so doing sort of lost track of things, but she’s addressing, I believe, choice-making — how to choose the words/syntax/form that will carry the greatest resonance, undone by either too much or too little actual information. 

Here, from another essay, this one considering William Carlos Williams, she comes at the same question from the other end: “How much can you take away? It’s always a question. Or maybe it’s exactly the wrong question, posed like that. If you think you are taking away, then you probably are — diminishing something. You have to be looking for something, feeling for the contours of the thing inside the distractions, trying to add just a little bit moreto what you know.”

All this is to say that Kay Ryan is a delightful essayorial companion, and I’m enjoying this collection without the anxiety of worrying about whether she is enjoying me.

Lazy days, Sunday afternoon; or, On Artistic Journeys

I recently watched Free Solo, that documentary of a man’s extraordinary un-roped ascent up El Capitan. Before I saw the movie, if I thought of his journey at all, I just that “wow, that’s nuts.” I had somehow not expected the amazing preparations he made, both with his body, and certainly with his mind, but also the carefully mapped, hold by hold, route, which he practiced roped again and again until he had every move internalized. Certainly this was a tale of an internal journey, for sure, both into his certainty that he could do it, but also, I think most significantly, when he was able to say, cameras trained on him, partway up the wall face, “No. This is not the day for this.” And called it off and went back down, knowing he’d have to wait another six months to try again, knowing he was tangling up the film producer and his crew as well. But when he finally did the ascent, he knew every move so well, he went surely and rapidly right up the face in a scant few hours with no hesitation, as a strange dance with the wall. It was indeed a kind of choreography he created.

I thought of this movie in contrast to the “journeys” described by two poet friends of mine who got it into their heads to each write a heroic crown of sonnets — that is 14 sonnets of 14 lines each, the 14th of which contains the first lines of each of the previous sonnets. Or something like that. Wow, that’s nuts.

But what struck me, in contrast to Free Solo, was how each of them talked about the great unknowns of their journeys, every step being felt out in the dark. They said things like “I thought I was going to start in this way, but then decided to try this other way” or “I thought I was writing about this thing, but the more I got into the unfolding of the poems the more I realized I was writing about this other thing entirely.”

Their journeys were more like the first ever roped ascent up El Capitan, no doubt accomplished in fits and starts, heading up one way only to retrace and try another route. One of the two adventurers started with the crowning final sonnet and backed into each of the others. The other started that way then realized she didn’t need the “heroic” part and just revamped to do a regular crown, as that is what served the movement of the poems she was writing.

It was exciting to hear about. Both of them found the form created interesting limits they had to figure out how to negotiate.

Of course, they also embarked on these adventures after years of careful study of the art and craft of poetry, and some poking around into the history of sonnet crowns. 

And of course, El Cap had never been free climbed, so the whole thing was an unknown. For mortal stakes.

I guess my only point is that any crazy idea one might want to try is part dream, part incredible preparation, as well as part throwing yourself into it and figuring it out as you go along. Any such challenge is part flinging your body at a stone wall and your mind into the well of form and chaos.

My other point is how much I’ve enjoyed lounging on my couch with little ambition, hearing about other people playing out their crazy ideas.

We belong together; or, The (Im)possibilities of Artistic Collaboration

I have a recurring dream of/dread of doing a collaborative project of some sort, with someone or someones from other artistic disciplines. I want to be pushed/pulled out of my comfort zone…but not too far.

I dread the awkward social interactions that I presume will arise in a collaborative environment, the moments of “ugh, I don’t know if I can do this” or “oh no, I think I just hurt that person’s feelings/pissed them off” or “my feelings just got hurt/I just got pissed off” or “how can I tell this person I think this is a terrible idea” or “that person just told me my idea is terrible.” Ayee. Yeah, I know mature people work through these moments. But, ayee.

I have collaborated before, I remind myself. I worked with a videographer friend, who basically just let me order him around. Thanks, Pete! He came up with some ideas, and offered some editing ideas and suggestions, cautioned me about a couple of things, and I was grateful for his guidance. And basically he was a delight to work with, and I’m extremely proud of the video we produced.

I collaborated twice with a choreographer friend. The first time I shared with her a poem series with audio, and she set a dance to the series, incorporating me and two other readers on stage with her dancers. There may have been moments early in the process when she wanted to beat me over the head, because choreographing to human speech is not the easiest thing, varying as it does. When we started practicing, I think I did some minor edits, and at one point had a cringy moment when I heard myself undiplomatically suggesting maybe one of the choreographed movements was too literal. (Sorry, Beth!) But she took my comment in stride. I think the whole thing came out fabulously. We then worked on a revamp of The Nutcracker, trying to use some of the traditional music and dances, but in a shortened form and performed in a nontraditional setting. I started doing a spoof, but she didn’t want that exactly. So I came up with some ideas, we worked them back and forth. I did some more working out of narrative structure and we did some more brainstorming and tweaking. It was great fun. We have not gotten a chance to stage it yet, but we have a template to hit the ground running when/if we get a chance to.

So what am I afraid of? Oh, you know, I don’t like the unknown. The what ifs, the hows and whys. I fear that I don’t know what I don’t know. I fear that I’ll initiate an effort and then fail. What if I get fired as a collaborator? Ayee.

I’ve thought of putting out a call for collaborators among the visual artists, videopgraphers, and musicians with whom I’m acquainted. I’ve stopped myself basically because I can’t come up with a vision or a goal or a thematic framework or anything to basically create a nice bag around the empty space of possibility. Also, of course, there’s no money in it for any of them who actually make their livings through their art. (Well, really, who does that these days, and how on earth would they know ME? I mean, yeah, I happened to have dinner in the same empty restaurant where Laurie Anderson was eating, so consider myself having had dinner with her…but…well…there’s a limit to how far delusion can get one…) I know that I don’t necessarily need a framework, but it would be helpful for the pitch.

Or am I just afraid? Fear is good. As long as it doesn’t stop me from moving forward. My latest fantasies revolve around collaborations not with other artists but with scientists — a geologist studying the ancient terrain around here, an ornithologist tracking all these owls I’m hearing at night, or a limnologist peering at water samples in a microscope (do they do that? I just wanted to use the word limnologist in a sentence). But will they just think I’m eccentric? Who has time for a poet?

Just do something, I say to me.

Gaah, I say.

Just shut up and make work, I also say.

It’s exhausting just collaborating with my many selves. Who has room for someone else?

Ya know it’s a lie; or, Why We Write

A friend asked me recently what I hoped to accomplish when I wrote a poem. I stammered something about it not reallly being a desire to accomplish something, but more the way you say ouch when you bang your elbow. Only more pleasant. Sometimes.

But that didn’t feel entirely right.

Then I said something about wanting to show the reader something, startle their perspective, the way the view changes when you shift the kaleidoscope and the colored fragments fall into different patterns. But that certainly didn’t seem entirely true. I rarely think about the reader at all.

I started to say something about how poetry appeals to me because of its compression. But although that’s true, that’s not really why I write it.

I started to say something about art as communication, but at that point I knew I had my cerebral hat on, and that that didn’t really get at what she was asking.

So don’t I run into an article by that damned George Saunders, who got it just write — I mean, right. In a Guardian article from 2017, he wrote this: “We often discuss art this way: the artist had something he ‘wanted to express’, and then he just, you know … expressed it. We buy into some version of the intentional fallacy: the notion that art is about having a clear-cut intention and then confidently executing same. The actual process, in my experience, is much more mysterious and more of a pain in the ass to discuss truthfully.”

Word, George. What he said.

 

All the noise noise noise; or, On Writing from Prompts

I was trying to write in response to a prompt the other day — a wonderful monoprint. But all I got was words.

You know what I mean. Yes, there were sounds and syntax and “meaning” or meaningish business but really it was all blah blah blah. I never got past the mask of vocabulary and earnest snuffling. I was too aware of being aware, too hard trying to try. Ugh.

So tiresome when my mind gets in the way of my brain, when words stand between me and what I might not be able to say in words but which is exactly what a good poem can do. Or the silence in a good poem, maybe. The white space.

I have an uneasy relationship with prompts. I can’t trust the whole set-up, because sometimes they work: I drop into some strange space of utterance and up bubbles things strange and fantastic; and sometimes they don’t, and I’m clutching my pen and strangling the empty page with grabby fingers of text.

It has something to do with breathing. No. It has something to do with attention. No. Is it in the set of my jaw? Should I squint my eyes? The whole enterprise seems impossible. Except when it’s glorious.

If the effort toward writing from a prompt seems too effort-full, the only thing to do is walk away. Go yank weeds or walk or lately I’ve been taking objects and slathering them with blue paint and dragging them across paper. A bottle cap. The red mesh that onions come in. A stick. Good fun.

Maybe THAT’s my response to the monoprint prompt. I don’t know. And I can’t trust this space of not knowing. Because sometimes it’s confounding. And sometimes it’s exactly where I need to be.

Got the rockin’ pneumonia; or, On Writing About Current Events

I was thinking about the hazards of writing current events poetry, and asked some poet friends if we talked about Covid in our poems are we not in danger of having them become dated?

One argued that we are writing poems out of a specific experience, out of an extraordinary time.

But don’t all times feel extraordinary when we’re in them? 9/11, World War I, the Cuban Missile Crisis, the death of a parent — all of them were times that felt catastrophic to the individuals inside them. How to write a good poem that transcends its extraordinary time to encompass all extraordinary times? Or should that even be a goal? Why not linger in the time and be frank about it?

Another person called attention to Yeats’s Easter 1916 as a poem grounded in a specific experience but a poem that has transcended the time of that experience. It is a wonderful poem, which certainly by the title grounds us firmly in time, though makes the assumption the reader will understand the reference to the Irish uprising. That phrase, though, “terrible beauty,” captures the imagination and takes me in any number of directions far from Irish soil. And the naming of the dead is an ancient rite that we still take part in. The movement of the poem to the unceasing natural world is both a common approach of putting us in our place and also effective, a useful reminder of the fleeting nature of our existence. But even though he wrote it shortly after the event, the poem already feels like a historic, long view. It has a vital distance, the “I” a distant onlooker from the start, already elegiac.

Is it this real or perceived distance that offers an avenue into the power of the poem? I don’t know.

We in conversation about this agreed that something happens sometimes with a Big Event; its moniker becomes a shorthand for a layered mishmosh of received wisdom and assumptions and perceptions, and that can be hazardous for a poem. We also agreed that any particular person’s “how I suffered during X event” is not likely to make for a very good poem. Something needs to happen in a poem, some kind of specificity, some kind of universality.

Of course, this is true for any poem, not just a poem rooted in a Big Event. Does every extraordinary moment have its poem? Do each of us inside every extraordinary moment have our poem?

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.