Revising is sometimes knowing when to stop writing

trail sign2

About a month ago, maybe more, I was hiking some woods I didn’t know very well. I’d been there only once before and hadn’t gone far along the trail, so this day was for exploring further. These certainly were some gorgeous woods–huge boulders tinted with moss and lichen, mixed oak and hickory trees that left a thick cereal of leaves, twigs and nuts on the ground, and a light covering of snow that shifts normal perspectives.

So Emmett, my dog, and I tramped down into the hollow toward a creek, back up along a rocky ridge, cut into a wider path that led to a logger’s opening, then back into the protected part of the woods where the trail zigzagged and upped and downed, until after a few hours, my feet were getting pretty sore, the sun was no longer warming my back, and even Emmett looked ready to curl up in the back seat of the car. But we were probably 40 minutes from the pulloff where it was parked.

By now the much of the fascination with these new woods had faded, and was instead replaced with thoughts of my aching insoles and frequent glances at the trail map to decipher the shortest route out of there. Emmett had stopped peeing on every rock, so I knew he was thinking the same thing.

That feeling of having gone too far is also familiar to me in my writing, and usually it’s a moment that comes up during the initial draft of a poem, or shortly after when I’m building on an initial jumble of words. That first impulse to write a poem can often be sort of directionless. But that’s also what makes it exciting. One of the biggest thrills I get from writing is the discovery that happens on the way through a first draft, and that’s very similar to the feeling I get when I first set off on a hike along a trail or a kayak trip down a creek. The difference is that with a hike, once your realize you’ve gone too far, you generally know where you need to return to (and hopefully you know how to get there.). With poem, it’s harder to know just when things took a wrong turn.

This came to me this morning, when I was reading Raymond Carver’s poem, conveniently tilted This Morning. In the poem he’s going for a walk and eventually reaches a point where he starts to take in the world and reflect… ie, gets poetic about it. It’s a good moment, and he carries it off for a few lines until the perfect moment of insight ends with the line “I know I did.” I would love if the poem just ended there with that sudden self awareness. 

Unfortunately, as good a poet as Carver was, he was also known to not be great at self editing (thank you Gordon Lish). The poems goes on for four more lines, which really just drags out and diminishes the wonderful moment that happened with “I know I did.”

So how do you know? Ah, well, that’s the hard part. Sometimes it’s just recognizing that you’ve made your point, hit your mark and now you’re just saying it again with different words or new images.

Writing beyond the ending is something I see pretty frequently in poems, usually by younger poets who can’t resist the impulse to just keep walking on down that trail. It’s also something I’m prone to myself, a lot. After I’ve put my first efforts on the page I go back and carefully feel out whether the poem went too far. Usually this requires some time or distance. I need to put it down for a few days, or read someone else in between, so I’m not hung up on my own endorphin rush from writing. Walking is different. You know when you’ve gone too far, but sometimes by the time you know there are already blisters on your feet and you just have to suffer through them until you get home.

 

Follow me on Twitter @uniambic 

The Magician’s Handbook is available at Amazon.
Reckless Constellations is available here.
Advertisements

Form Decisions: How Poems Take Shape

keyboard

I used to be hooked on four to six line stanzas. I loved the pressure that small packages forced on me, the fact that I needed to squeeze a moment or impression into a six line box, then move onto the next one was both an organizing factor, and a way to allow my mind to make multiple leaps within a poem.

Here’s how I typically composed: A first line or image would kick off the writing session. I’d randomly (usually based on how the first line went) select a basic stress count (somewhere between 5 and 7 beats per line was typical), though I rarely went for any strict meter. By the time I’d get to the third line I’d start to look for ways to tie up that stanza and allow me to move to the next.

This process of working on one stanza at a time, rather than trying to approach the whole poem at once, made the writing process less intimidating. It’s like cleaning a room by dividing it into sections—first I’ll tackle the desk, then the bookshelf, the closet, then the floor… By focusing on one step, or stanza at a time, I could keep the progress going without actually worrying about where it would end up.

Usually the same decision system I applied to the stanza length would surface in the overall poem length. Mostly due to my short attention span, and dislike of longer poems I’d start thinking of an exit by the time I finished my third stanza. This is probably why most of my poems from that period are made of four or five stanzas.hibernationbygrantclauser

Here’s an example of one of those poems, as is the one pictured to the right.

The benefit, at least in my mind, of all those stanza breaks, is that they allow frequent jumps, such as scene changes, logic changes, even language shifts, without throwing the whole poem off the sofa. I could be talking about a bridge or a beach and then in the next stanza shift to room or a person, which all seemed to be allowed in that form. Those movements let me do things with poems that other approaches to building wouldn’t, and for several years it became second nature, as if my mind naturally worked that way.

One thing that format didn’t do for me was allow for a certain forward momentum, and along with that, a drama brought on by that momentum. When a poem is full of stops or pauses, it doesn’t pick up a lot of speed. That’s an effect I began for, and one I could only seem to find in longer unbroken poems. That seems to be where I’m at a lot these days (as people in my monthly writing group have noticed). I’ve been forgoing the stanza breaks and scene shifts for shorter lines, longer poems (though not too long) and more of a dramatic arc.

Poems that lack stanza breaks need justification to keep going without giving the reader a breather. At the same time, unbroken poems can exhibit a kind of steady momentum that often meets a key turn moment, and then rolls into the end. I picture it like holding a hose and spraying into the air—the water arcs upward, gaining power, hits its peak, then cascades down to the ground, gravity taking over.

Here’s an example that I think pulls off what I wanted.

I’ve liked working in this form, but it can cause other challenges. How do you keep or increase momentum? How do you shift ideas but still maintain the narrow lens focus? Or, alternatively, do you use the form to allow a wide-ranging wandering? Attention to how I use caesuras, transitional phrases, repetitions and other rhetorical tools play a role. I talk about some useful tools here and here, but there are endless others. Like any writer, I’m trying to figure it out on a case by case basis.

One of the reasons I like to try on different forms is to prevent getting stuck in a rut. I’ve seen poets who haven’t evolved their style over decades. Richard Hugo is the most obvious example, and except for 31 Letters and 13 Dreams, he wrote the same style of poetry his whole lifetime. I don’t want to get bored with my own poems, and I also want to explore new ways of doing things.

 

Follow me on Twitter @uniambic 

The Magician’s Handbook is available at Amazon.
Reckless Constellations is available here.

Which Poems to Workshop

nakedworkshop_nobutt

Sharing a poem in a workshop can feel like standing naked in front of strangers.

It’s a question that comes up every month for me a few days before my writing group meets. Which new poem do I share? Which one needs the most work? Which one will my friends like best? Which one will I get most defensive about.

Not all of those are valid questions when selecting a poem, but they’re questions that come up in my mind, and probably other people experience the same ones. I’ve written a handful of new poems since our last meeting, some I like a lot, some I think are just skeletons, and some I think are in need of a few key fixes to make them publication-ready (I know, that doesn’t necessarily have to be the goal, but I’ll leave that issue alone for now).

The selection issue was a little different when I was a grad student many years ago. I was in a weekly workshop for two years, and the frequency of the workshop meant that I had less work to pick from every week. I’ve never been a write-every-day person—I start one or two new pieces a week, and then tinker with them, and others, occasionally throughout the week, and frequently abandon them after a while. When I only wrote one new poem, that was the one I brought in.

In the workshops I teach I usually assign prompts so the participants have less choice in what to bring in at the next meeting (though I almost always allow people to bring in an alternate if my prompt just wasn’t working for them that week).

So, all this brings me back to my initial issue—how to pick the poem. This is mostly a matter of deciding what you want from the workshop and what kind of feedback you think you need. People who just want positive feedback or need confirmation that they’re doing something good, tend to only bring in finished or mostly finished poems. The problem with that approach is that the readers in the workshop are automatically going to assume your poem isn’t finished, and they’re likely going to start talking about changes. If you’ve decided in your heart that the poem is finished, then your heart is going to get broken. I’ve seen this happen in workshops. The result is usually a very defensive poet, and nothing gets learned.

I’ve also seen people bring in poems they previously workshoped with other groups or other teachers, and that can also be a strange situation, especially if the feedback from one group or teacher seems to contradict the other. Workshop groups, and workshop teachers, don’t all see things the same way, just as all journals and publishers don’t see things the same way. If the writer does this to pit one group of readers against another, or hopes that one group is going to be more receptive then the other, then the writer isn’t really learning. If the writer just wants a second opinion, then takes all the suggestions home to think about, that writer is learning.

And that’s the most important part of being a workshop participant. You don’t have to agree with every or even any suggestions, but you should listen to them, think about their context, and think about how the suggestions fit into your own goals with the poem.

I usually come to workshops with a few specific questions about the poem I’ve brought it. Maybe I’m uncertain about the form, or worry that the central metaphor misses the mark, and in the discussion I listen to see if anyone addresses those questions. If not, I may come out and ask, but usually if no one said, “hey, your stanza breaks are confusing,” then I assume they must be OK.

I also listen for unexpected comments. Often in writing I’m concerned about one aspect of the poem, and not really noticing how another part is driving off the road. Those surprising observations can also be helpful because they direct your attention to places you hadn’t been considering.

And finally, know that not every comment needs to be acted upon. The poem, ultimately, is your poem, and you have authority to agree or disagree with other people’s opinions (just not out loud). Not all the readers in a workshop will have the same likes and dislikes as you, so not all the suggestions are workable suggestions. But give each one a respectable chance. I’ve learned more from suggestions I’ve disagreed with, than from those I did.

My writing group meets next week, and I still don’t know what poem to share with them. If I get some new work done before then, maybe I’ll figure it out.

 

Follow me on Twitter @uniambic

The Magician’s Handbook is available at Amazon.
Reckless Constellations is available here.