Tiny White Flowers

Tiny White Flowers

Friday, January 30, 2009

Notes on Revision, Unrevised--Jan 09

I prepared the following notes for a discussion I was to do last Tuesday night--a follow-up to a workshop done by Nora Gallagher (which I unfortunately missed).  While this has nothing to do with spiritual writing, I felt it was something worth talking about.

And, I'm sure I will go back and revise this.  Just see if I don't!

*   *   *   *   *

Like taking apart a sweater when you’ve noticed a flaw, revising is often an unavoidable task necessary to bringing the piece to true completion.  And like many learning to knit for the first time, the importance of making a swatch to determine how many stitches there will be to the inch and how many rows to establish the pattern, is often over-looked for the more inviting prospect of diving right in willy nilly.  Also, one needs to make sure they have appropriate yarns, and colors that delight.  

Granted, some poets do make notes beforehand when planning a poem, and others are more apt to dive right in as the spirit leads them.  Either way, revision will most likely be the biggest part of creating the written piece.  It is the plan, the wild yeast, the basket of yarns and small swatch – the initial spark—we build on, shaping, honing, paring, until we get it just right.

Used to be I was very anxious to get the poem out.  I’d read it, and pronounce it “done.”  Then I’d email it to Bill or Jim, pleased with the work.  Next morning I’d look it over again, and always I’d be horrified when spotting the inevitable glaring glitches—typos, ideas that ran off beyond the page, leaving no forwarding address for the reader—and I’d immediately set about patching it up, and again, too quickly, I’d sent it off, with an apology, “Sorry, that must have sounded terrible.  Here’s what I really meant.”  And it would go on like this until I was finally at peace with the poem.

So in this way, my first revisions were an inclusive sport.  Later, I began to hold off sharing my work until I’d lived with it for a while.  John Willson would always tell us in his poetry workshop, that he lived with a poem for an average of about three years before it was finally ready.  Still others argue that a poem hasn’t reached full maturity until is has fermented a good ten years.  Others maintain that the poem is done in the first two hours.  Any more that that, and you lose the spirit.

Bill Hicok has this to say:

During major revisions, when tangents pile up or I feel I've gone down a dead end, I try to pull the thing - the image or idea, the feeling - that got me going in the first place, back in front of me. I've found there's a fairly specific ideational or emotional imprint from when a poem hits critical mass, from the moment I know this is a poem I'll carry through and not just a false start. Learning to identify that point has helped me through revisions, through every kind of draft. Possibility is so compelling, all the directions we can go, that a reminder of intent, of limit -- the moment's intent, the moment's limit -- can be very liberating. I think of poems as records of moments. If I can identify what's most particular about a moment, I'll likely complete the poem.”

Over the years, when I couldn’t think of new material, I’d open my files of unfinished work (some pieces years old), and pick something that spoke to me about great possibilities, and went from there.  And now I’ve come to like that part about as much as the initial creation, maybe more so.

Revision gives me the chance to evaluation each section of the poem.  Does each line help to further the poem?  Do the line and stanza breaks act as dead ends, or invitations to continue the journey?  Do my word choices cause the reader to stumble or pause to reflect?  Very importantly, does the piece want to be read and reread?

Oftentimes the first few lines are just seeds, and can be thinned later.  Begin in the midst of the action.  Play with line breaks, metaphor and language.  Find new ways of showing the reader to picture what you want them to see.  Use fresh language, and salt sparingly (avoid killing the flavor with too many adjectives!) 

Somewhere in the middle, switch directions; avoid predictability.  Keep a sense of mystery; allow the reader to think for themselves; and maintaining a sense of wonder, circumvent the neat finish.  End on a question.  Finish with the unexpected. 

Live with your poem as long as you can.  Once you’ve worked it and feel some sort of stopping point, put it to bed for a couple of weeks.  Don’t look at it.  Force yourself not to open the folder.  Later, take it out again.  Reread it.  What stands out, or reads awkwardly?  Approach it again with renewed vigor and a fresh eye.  If necessary, repeat.

When you feel ready, share it, either in a workshop setting, or with one or two trusted friends.  Listen to their reactions without reacting.  Pencil in your notes, write down what you’ve learned about your poem that you didn’t know.  (This happens to me often.)  Most importantly, take their advice—with a grain of salt.  Some of it will be good, some a product of preconceived ideas and personal taste.  You are the parent of the piece; you ultimately will know the right time to send your child off into the world. 


Enjoy the process.  It’s how we grow as writers.  And remember, even if the work runs into a dead end, or falls of a cliff, it wasn’t all in vain.  You likely learned something along the way, and from the pieces left over, you might just have the beginnings of something new.



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