Saturday, June 8, 2019

Here I Am! Poems about our selfhood (6.8.19)

Good Saturday all.  Apologies for the lateness of this.  I nearly forgot that we have a new project for the coming week!

And that is . . . to write a poem about your first memory.  By this I mean, to try to go back in time to that moment or experience before which you have no memory.  I mentioned last week that such a poem might also be about when you first became aware of yourself as a person in the world—or, as Margaret put it, when you first became aware of a self.

I suppose inevitably, this kind of exercise IS about selfhood and our lifelong struggle to understand our own, to define it, to “experience” it.  Put another way, we might be talking about the first time we asked the question, Who am I?  

So much poetry, good and bad, dwells on this question.  I think of the poems of Sylvia Plath in Ariel.  Or Robert Lowell in his sonnet sequences, which are book-length, lyrical investigations into Robert Lowell.  

Some poets, like Lowell and Plath, Anne Sexton and Theodore Roethke—you can name many more yourself, I’m sure—are closely identified with the idea of Self in all their writing.  These four “confessionalists” are among the most claustrophobic explorers of selfhood in the English speaking poetry canon.  Reading their poems is like being drawn into their psyches, seeing or experiencing them from the inside out.  Their explorations are deep and tunneling, full of troubled probes.

Some poets approach Self in relation to environment, and reading their poems is like getting to know them from the outside in.  Frank O’Hara and Kenneth Koch are two that I’m familiar with.  Much poetry written by people of color is, to me, an effort to understand Self in terms of one’s skin color (literally from the outside in, but also culturally, economically, materially, societally, politically from the outside in).  Two recent books, Brown, by Kevin Young, and Magical Negro, by Morgan Parker, remind me of this outside-in understanding of Self.  The essayist Richard Rodriguez is another writer of color who works in this direction.

Others, like John Ashbery or Wallace Stevens or Marianne Moore, famously appear to avoid the subject all together.  At least that’s the impression we often have when reading their poems: is there a real person in there? 

Is this a project about biography?  I hope not!  In other words, I am asking you NOT to write a poem that answers that question, Who am I?  (Instagram is flooded with this stuff these days, and some young “poets” are building global literary reputations by writing such self-affirming verses by the dozen.)  Instead, I am asking you to travel back in time as far as you can go, to that moment when you had your first real thought, when you formed your first idea or formulated your first independent observation of the world around you, AND YOU WERE AWARE OF BEING PRESENT TO IT.

I believe that one thing that distinguishes civilized human beings from other creatures is this ability (some might call it a curse) to stand apart from oneself in order to “see” or “experience” oneself AS A SELF in the world.  What this project challenges you with, then, is to recall the first time you remember having this experience.

I can’t wait to hear and to read what you bring on Wednesday!

Sunday, May 26, 2019

The Flag You Fly: Giving Your Poems Titles (5.26.19)

Last week, I brought up the subject of titling poems, why we do it, when we do it, and the effect this writing step has on our writing.

Indeed, creating titles is writing, just as much as creating couplets or metaphors or visual images or lines or word order.  Some famous poets are famous for not writing titles to their poems.  Emily Dickinson used no titles.  It might be argued that Walt Whitman dispensed with titles, too, in Leaves of Grass, which is constructed as a sequence of poems or “yawps” of various length.  The creators of the West’s great sonnet sequences—Dante, Petrarch, Sidney, Shakespeare—in fact, the creators of most poem sequences (Robert Lowell, for another instance) write without using titles.

But when you look around your own bookshelves and then the internet, you find that going title-less is the exception, not the rule.  Yet titles are merely a convention, just as rhyme and meter are conventions: an accepted but not a necessary practice.  So why does it persist?  Selecting a title for a poem might have something to do with a sense of completion.  Or it might suggest a poet’s desire to “direct” readers into the poem.  Or it is a comment on the poem, a kind of Uber-statement.[1]

One thing I’ve learned over a lifetime of writing poems is that titles bear meaning.  So much so that I’ve found them a) hard to write, b) revelatory even to me (I didn’t know what my poem meant until I found the title for it!), and c) aids to the writing process.  By and large, titles are either suggestive or descriptive.  As descriptors, they might tell the reader “what the poem is about” (e.g., an event recounted or an emotion experienced), and thus they are aids to understanding, helping to clarify a poem’s meaning or a poet’s intent.[2]  When they are suggestive, titles can be deployed to clarify a poem’s meaning or to obfuscate it.  Titles can be used like sleight of hand, to get readers looking one way while the poem develops some other way, and in this sense, titles can introduce surprise (and delight) to the poem.  Or they might be gentle reminders that poems present limits: of meaning, of interpretation.

Titles are like the flag of a poem, hoisted to show its colors, an emblem of the poem as a work of art.  This emblematic function might make for an interesting study for someone’s dissertation.  What is an emblem?  How does it come to be?  What is its function?  How is it perceived?  How is it interpreted?

This last question—how an emblem is interpreted—has meaning for the practice of giving titles to your poems.  For making a title is part of the creative process, the process of making meaning in a poem, which is why settling for “Untitled” feels lame, like a letdown, like an incompletion—like settling.  Since titles are emblematic, they carry more weight (more front-loaded weight, you might say) than most other parts of our poems; often, they “stand for” the poems to which they are attached:

The Wasteland
my father moved through dooms of love
Landscape with Rutabaga and Farm Implements
When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d
I Am a Cowboy in the Boat of Ra
The Man Under the Bed
They Flee from Me
My Last Duchess
Not Waving But Drowning
Lady Lazarus
Death & Co.

Titles sometimes are provisional.  We start out with a title but as the poem develops we change it.  Often, titles change even after publication.  The acknowledgements page of Megan O’Rourke’s new book of poems states that the poem “Expecting” was originally published in Tin House as “Nightdream”.  We want the title to “fit” the poem as we understand it today.

Titles function variously in the writing process.  At times, I’ve written the title first.  In fact, I’ve written several book length manuscripts entirely from titles, literally beginning with a table of contents.  I rarely get very far into a draft of a poem without thinking of a title for it.  I need a title—at least a working title—to help me organize my thoughts and feelings, to help me put a limit on what the poem is to be, where it is to go, how it is to move.  Often, my first version of a title is not my last, and sometimes I struggle to write the title that seems best to “represent” (emblematize) the poem I’ve written.  At other times, less often for sure, the title opens a door into the poem for me, and without it I wouldn’t be able to write the poem.  The title sets a mood or a place or a feeling, it creates a kind of thumbnail outline to which I can append the words of a poem.

Titles are important.  They're worth the thinking about.

[1] Even the rather lazy, antiseptic “Untitled” is a title!
[2] Seen differently, you might say that such titles are a poet’s way of asserting rights—I meant for the poem to mean this, and this is how you shall understand it, too.  Not every reader appreciates being told how to interpret a poem, even by the poet!

Sunday, May 19, 2019

Who Wrote This Poem?

Have you ever stumbled upon a poem among your notes or files that you don't remember writing?  That you so don't remember writing that it's possible you didn't write it?  But for which there is no evidence--among your notes or files--that it was written by someone else?

Like most writers of poems, I am meticulous about dating poems and even drafts of poems that I write.   I use a simple system, a small notation of month and year, that tells me all I need to know.  Usually I start writing a poem long-hand, in notes and fragments or streams of thought in a notebook, which I then transfer to the screen of my laptop where it can be edited and stored.  As drafts approach what I think will be a finished version, I make a note of the month and year at the bottom.  Rarely, and I mean rarely do I neglect to do this.  

If I record somebody else's work in my notebook or in an electronic file, I always take care to document it, give enough attribution so I'll recognize the piece's provenance years on.

Just tonight I found this poem in a file on my laptop's hard drive:

Variations on a Question

. . . the dailiness of the sea . . .

. . . returns are my only itinerary . . .

Birds from fish, yellow
From roses, the sea from rivers.

Do you hear the yellow
Detonations of September?

If all rivers are sweet,
Where does the sea get its salt?

Are those fishes or birds or, perhaps
In the nets of the moon, roses?

What is rarer in this life
Than to be Pablo Neruda?

I found it in a file labeled "Cubist Poems" as part of a W@1 project titled "Ways of Looking: Poems That See the World Through Multiple Perspectives." (See this blog's entry for August 1, 2018.)  Was this my contribution to that project?  Or was it an example by some other writer that I meant to share with my colleagues at W@1?  Or was it a contribution by one of them?  The draft has no date.  I can't find a proto-version of it in my notebook for that period.

At first glance, it's not my style.  When I look at small pieces of evidence--syntax, sentence construction, image generation--it doesn't strike me at all as something I even could write.  Yet, the entry has no other attribution.

How odd!  Still, there is one detail that suggests the poem is mine: line endings and breaks.  The line endings here are grammatically balanced and regular; nouns in almost every instance.  I am partial to that.

But I don't remember writing it.  Which is really too bad because I like the poem very much.  It's quite Cubist in its multi-faceted perspective and apparent disjointedness.  I wish I could say with certainty that I wrote it.

Friday, May 17, 2019

Why They Tell You Not to Use Adjectives in Your Poems (5.16.19)

At this week's W@1 session, talk wandered into a technical issue about use of modifiers in poems, especially in descriptive passages.  Inevitably, one writer quoted a former creative writing instructor's admonishment to get the adjectives out of your poems and to use language that's "concrete" and "active."  And everybody nodding in agreement around the table--all those who almost weekly deploy weak verbs and noun modifiers with abandon!--seemed to accept this prohibition without much reflection.

That got me to thinking about why teachers of writing of all kinds dismiss the lowly adjective and adverb.  I remember my own writing teachers saying the same thing, like they were delivering a commandment for the tablet.  I also remember thinking that if I can't qualify this noun with some adjective or other, or that verb with some kind of adverb, how am I supposed to convey what I'm describing?  

Nobody ever explained why I shouldn't drop modifiers in front of the nouns and verbs of my poems.  They just implied that it's not good writing.  If anybody ever called them out about their implications about what "good writing" is and why it doesn't make room for modifiers, most arguments I've heard just fall back on (or into) a kind of speechless, "Well, one simply knows good writing when one sees it, and it avoids adjectives."  Like pornography, I guess.

Enough rant.  I've been thinking about why adjectives preceding nouns and adverbs preceding verbs make for weak poems.  Injudicious use of certain modifiers is a little like trying to make somebody understand you by speaking louder.  Or like following up a punch line with "Get it?"  It reveals a fear that your reader won't get it, so you either raise your voice or you "spell it out" for them.  

Either way, what you're doing when you overuse modifiers is demonstrating your distrust of readers.  More importantly, you're trying to control outcomes.  In other words, you don't trust your reader to see what you saw or feel what you felt in exactly the way that you saw or felt it.  So you pile in the adjectives and adverbs.  

There's some justification for this fear.  A person's experience is . . . personal, to some extent even unique.  Writers, poets especially, work to recapture that uniqueness.  It's only natural that a writer will strive to share the uniqueness of her vision.  It follows that modifiers, when deployed as figurative language, will aid in the recapture, bringing memory closer to the remembered event.  So why is the opposite true?  

An inexperienced writer may assume that his experience, what he has chosen to write about, is personal to the point of complete uniqueness: no one has ever seen the sea the way that I see it now.  An inexperienced writer assumes that the point of a poem is to convey this unique vision for all to see exactly as he has seen it.  And the goal is to prevent readers from seeing it any other way--no, no, that's not what I meant!  That's not how I saw the sea!

But a more experienced writer, who also assumes the uniqueness of her experience, understands (perhaps through the reflection that writing permits) that conveying the unique experience is impossible.  Language can only approximate; it's a very imprecise tool for capturing reality.  Words mean more and less than we want or need them to.  An experienced writer knows that every poem is a failure in this sense, and that piling on modifiers, for instance, merely compounds the failure.  Doing so actually impedes conveyance.  Less is not more, it is liberating.

So what's to be conveyed through a poem, if not your original experience, perception or insight?  If as your reader I'm paying close enough attention, I get to experience your experience of trying to recreate an experience.  What?  What I mean is this: every good poem is the record of its own writing.  The proper reading of every good poem is the experience of or insight into the struggle to create that record.  The original experience--whatever that may have been--is secondary at best, and at an eternal remove from the reader's understanding.

I don't care to see the sea exactly the way you saw it.  Even if I did, I know that I never shall.  Even if I had stood next to you upon that precipice, I couldn't have seen that sea in quite the way you saw it.  I do care to see (i.e., experience through reading) how you've struggled to articulate what you (think) you saw.  The more you try to influence my seeing what you saw in the way that you saw it, the less visible your vision becomes to me.  More modification won't help.  Less is liberating.

Thursday, April 25, 2019

My Editor, the Monkey on My Back (4.25.19)

For those of you who feel a need to return to the basics every so often, maybe as a way to recharge your writerly batteries, we decided at yesterday's W@1 session to concentrate next week on “free writing,” a method also known as “automatic writing.”  For our purposes in poetry writing, free writing is second cousin to stream of consciousness writing and even the techniques of the surreal practiced by the likes of Rimbaud, Artaud, Breton, Joyce, and on to Ginsberg, Kerouac, O’Hara, Ferlinghetti, and further into our generation as practiced by Wanda Coleman, Ann Lauterbach, Leslie Scalapino and many other writers of the San Francisco/Black Sparrow Press scene.[1]

Basically, free writing is this: you write without stopping.

You do this at a steady but not frenetic clip, for a set period of maybe ten minutes, then fifteen, then twenty as you become more accustomed to it.  You do this a couple times each week, even more often if you’re up for it, just as you might work out with hand weights two or three times a week: three sets of twenty reps on this side, three sets of twenty reps on the other side, Monday, Wednesday and Friday.

You write without having anything in particular to say.[2]

The point of free writing is to loosen up your writerly synapses, to get you physically, mentally, emotionally, spiritually situated toward writing something of value at some point.  BUT NOT YET.[3]

Peter Elbow, a popular teacher of writing in the 1970s, had this to say about free writing: 

The main thing about freewriting is that it is nonediting.  It is an exercise in bringing together the process of producing words and putting them down on the page.  Practiced regularly, it undoes the ingrained habit of editing at the same time you are trying to produce.[4]

Decouple production from editing!  This is what I was trained to do with my own students, finally, in the 1980s, after I’d finished graduate school and worked at a more progressive Department of English. (I might add that this training also helped save me as a writer of poetry—it helped me to get the Monkey Editor off my back so I could at least get some words on the page.)  But it’s easier said than done, so there are techniques to learn, of course!

Technique: make the time to free write regularly, at least a couple of days a week, and for about ten minutes.  You can expand—more often, for longer periods—as you get better at the decoupling.

Technique: don’t try to speed write, but write steadily.  It’s the continuousness that helps to loosen up your writerly synapses and, quite literally, the muscles in your pen-holding fingers.

Technique: don’t stop.  FOR NOTHIN’!!  For the entire ten minute writing period, just keep moving the pencil or pen (or your thumbs on your iPhone’s keypad).  Don’t even worry about hitting returns.  Don’t worry about correcting anything like punctuation or spelling or word order.  Don’t stop to think of a better word than the one you just used (although, if that word occurs to you as you free write, put it down!), and don’t revise.  If you get stuck for something to put down, just write the word STUCK or I’M STUCK or something like this until your mind gets over itself.

Free writing isn’t always or just about generating new content.  Some of us have little trouble doing that naturally already.  Free writing can help you to establish a fresher, more creative stance toward the content you already have in mind.  If it’s done in a directed fashion, it can even help you discover new thoughts, relationships, associations, perspectives, memories and the like with respect to your content.  It can help you to richer content.


And now for the project . . . use your free writing first to loosen yourself up, then perhaps to develop content for a poem.  Don’t set out trying to write a poem, though; in fact, don’t even try to make lines.  Remember the lineation project we just did?  Well, try writing in an un-lineated fashion, margin to margin.  After ten minutes or so, set what you wrote aside.  Come back to it later looking for potential poems—in the form of a topic, a certain tone or persona, a rhythmical effect, some striking images; all the stuff you’d expect to put into a poem.  Then look for or recreate out of your free writing the “movement” of a poem, which is to say, content that has a beginning, a middle, and an end, so that you don’t wind up with just a fragment or fragments.

And that’s what you should bring to our next Wednesdays@One, along with your thoughts about your experience with free writing.

See you then!

[1] I am not merely dropping names here.  If you’re really interested to improve your writing, then you’ll want to extend your commitment to reading these and other poets of the Surrealist, Automatic, Beat and post-Beat eras.  You’ll want to understand why they abandoned traditional approaches to composition, not to mention conventional understandings of what constitutes poems and poetry.
[2] A relative of free writing, which I used to teach in my freshman comp classes, is “directed free writing,” in which you write non-stop with a certain topic or idea in mind, like “cars” or “money” or “salt” or “laundry detergent,” and the more generalized (to a point), the better.  This kind of writing is also called invention writing or discovery writing—you practice it without using a reference manual of any kind, in order to understand how much you already know about a subject, and therefore how much you already have to say, even before you begin to research it.
[3] An analogy: the other day, I overheard a conversation among tennis players on the court next to mine.  One fellow asked why people stand in close to the net and bat the ball back and forth to each other as a warm-up.  “What’s the point of that,” he asked his tennis mates, “what’s that supposed to do for you?”  This was a man who likely could never sit still long enough to free write.  (I wanted to shout, “The point is hand-eye-ball coordination, you dummy!  You’re going to need these when the points count.”  But I didn’t.)
[4] “Freewriting,” in Invention and Design: A Rhetorical Reader, eds. Forrest D. Burt and E. Cleve Want. New York: Random House, 1975.

Sunday, April 14, 2019

Lineation Redux (4.14.19)

Attached are some poems that I have “de-lineated.”  The project for this coming Wednesday is to read them carefully enough to see any possible formal devices (e.g., rhyme, meter, verbal end-stop or enjambment, punctuation) and/or any logical/rhetorical/syntactical cues that might suggest a line ending or beginning, or a stanza break, and then indicate with a slash (/) where the line breaks.  If you think the text suggests or should have a stanza break, insert a double slash (//) where you think the text has/should have a new stanza.

I will bring the originals to W@1 so we can compare your line breaks.  It’s likely fruitless in most instances to try to guess what line breaks the author originally inserted, though this might be a fun guessing game!  More fruitful will be to assess each poem here according to the above suggestions about rhythm and formal devices and try to “re-lineate” based on what your ear and your eye tell you.

Like everything else in poetry, when it comes to lineation, there are conventions and there are innovations; there are “schools” and there are unique styles; there are traditions and there are experiments.  The point of this project is to help us all to think about the decisions—conscious or otherwise—that we make when writing poems.

Spoiler alert: the text of one of the poems here actually is printed with fully justified margins, left and right.  So it looks on the page like what we usually refer to as a "prose poem."

For a slightly deeper discussion on lineation, you can re-visit our project dated 12.12.17 (there are two blog entries), on my  You’ll find the discussion in the blog archive, under 2017-December.

To My Dear and Loving Husband

─ Anne Bradstreet, ca. 1678

If ever two were one, then surely we. If ever man were loved by wife, then thee; if ever wife was happy in a man, compare with me, ye women, if you can. I prize thy love more than whole mines of gold or all the riches that the East doth hold. My love is such that rivers cannot quench, nor ought but love from thee, give recompense. Thy love is such I can no way repay, the heavens reward thee manifold, I pray. Then while we live, in love let’s so persevere that when we live no more, we may live ever.

The Birds of the Air
─ W. S. Di Piero, 2014

The Cooper’s I now see farther down trail pulls my vision to red-tail mates dialing through blues above a sparrowhawk’s crown that turns from phone lines toward elk cows bugling near the heron hunting gophers—the just enough always too much already. This coastal track we followed years ago poppies redwoods fiddleheads monkeyflower mistletoe oh the healing mistletoe that clings to the live oaks it falls from while we agreed we could not be as we were and wind rushed through our ears our voices as it’s rushing now as if our voices still say no this can’t be what we meant or wanted. How many times we said that. It must have been what we wanted talking so much helplessly about what’s not here anymore is its own kind of plenitude, isn’t it? How lucky are we.

Owl Poem
─Caroline Bird, 2002

I refuse to write about an owl, better to write about a person with an owl, or a person who wants an owl, or better still, a person who hates owls and will never have an owl.

Once Upon a Cold November Morning
─Mark Strand, 2012

I left the sunlit fields of my daily life and went down into the hollow mountain, and there I discovered, in all its chilly glory, the glass castle of my other life. I could see right through it, and beyond, but what could I do with it? It was perfect, irreducible, and worthless except for the fact that it existed.

Waking Up
─William Bronk, 1994

Mr. Dread was in the bed. I’m leaving he said then did.  Well, we’ll see.

The Scenario
─Kevin Young, 2018

The two of us, black, met one night dancing alongside each other to Tribe at a party in the world’s smallest room. Someone from Carolina brought moon-shine & over the beat, the clanking heat, Phillipe leaned over his date to say, Hey man, we should be friends. What you know yo. And that was that. Popping the caps off brown Red Stripe bottles with his teeth he’d drink out the side of his mouth, sly. We heads kept ours dreaded, crowned—a decade later he was gone. The Scenario, our favorite of 500 songs.

Friday, March 29, 2019

The Habits of Poetry - Revising (3.28.19)

At the start of the year, I blogged about the habits of writing poetry, and began with the habit of practical observation.  I hope everyone continues practicing that important activity - even if or especially if (?) it means just sitting around, paying attention to something.  Another habit for writers of poetry to cultivate regularly is revising, which we'll talk about next Wednesday.

Revision means what it says: seeing again.

In poetic practice, revision means these two things separately and together: seeing and return.

Seeing the poem you have written can be literal as well as figurative, of course.  Seeing your poem means "stepping away from it" for perspective, which in turn means seeing the work you have made in total and in the larger context of its existence.  

In the literal sense, you see your poem on the page, its shape, its width, its length . . . its typographical footprint.  I think we all do this as a way of assessing, initially at least, whether what we've written looks like a poem.  Beyond this initial look, we often make changes to lines, stanzas, paragraphs, and margins based solely on how the typography hits the eye.

We also "see" in a more figurative sense--seeing, as it were, how a poem sounds or behaves sonically, rhythmically and so on.  How often do you say lines or phrases of your poem-in-process over and over to yourself, even if only silently, attempting to get the cadence or the stresses right?  This, too, is revision.  

After you've worked on a new poem for a time, you may step back and try to see it in its totality, as a verbal artifact with a beginning, middle and end, or with a completeness of thought and expression that you know to be complete because it satisfies your sense of proportion and appropriateness.  Does it hang together?  Does it contain extraneous, unnecessary language or imagery or sound?  Do the lines flow from one to the next or, conversely, do the lines comment on one another (whatever effect you want the poem to have as the reader proceeds line by line)?

Yet another kind of seeing involves context.  You hold your new work up to the light of poems that you have made before; poems that others have made, say, among your personal coterie of writers, such as at W@1, or among your personal library of models and poetic heroes.  How does the new work appear in comparison to poems of a similar type from the canon (e.g., sonnets, dirges, nature poems, imagist poems, etc.)?  So much of our writing--I should say, all of it--is done in relation to other writing by ourselves, by others dead and alive, that any act of revision must involve this stepping away from and seeing.  This kind of seeing complicates your role as writer: you become a critical reader.

Then there is the re- part of revision.  This "again-ness" is where writing turns into burden for all writers of poems.  I don't believe there's a writer among us, or whoever lived for that matter, who doesn't rejoice at a poem that comes out whole and finished and unassailable direct from the brain!  This is the inspired poem.  But such a writing experience is as rare as it is exhilarating.  For most of our writing, the process feels stop-and-go, slightly constipated, even, and the very opposite of facile.  It is a process of uncertainty, which is to say, of discovery.  

We often feel that writing a poem means covering the same ground over and over, starting over, looking again, reconsidering.  It is painstaking.  It is deliberate.  It is self-correcting.  It is fraught with decision and will.  The re- part of revision requires patience, understanding, courage, perseverance, and belief.  And commitment.

I have heard writers of poems say they never revise and indeed some are famous for having said so about their work.  Charles Bukowski famously claimed he never revised, that his poems sprang from his being (or his beer) whole cloth.  Frank O'Hara also made a "style" out of so-called "automatic writing," which for him was a close relative of action painting.  Many of John Ashbery's poems read as though they are riffed from a single sitting, and in fact, he claimed to write this way.  Coleridge told friends that his poem, "Kubla Khan," was "taken down" verbatim from an opium dream. 

There are times, precious times, when a poem springs forth for me, too, even one whose quality I can't find much fault with.  These are poems that seem to come "from somewhere," are "inspired" and feel like they have a genesis all their own.  I merely take dictation.

But of course this isn't really true.  For the truth is that I am constantly writing poems--or lines, phrases, rhythms, tones, images, figures--in my head, which is to say, not always at a keyboard or in my journal.  And as I write them, I revise them in part or in whole.  Many float away with sleep or some distraction.  Some stick, become repetitive, until I actually do sit down at my keyboard or my notebook and begin to record them.  Once this activity begins, I start to examine in detail the rhythms, syntax, pitch, and tempo of the words.  I begin to see, literally, how certain words appear in succession and, now that they are frozen on a page or screen, how or whether they "play well together" or need more encouragement.  Eventually, I start asking myself, Why have I written this poem?  What am I trying to say with it?  This is when I get into the "about-ness" of the poem.

Often enough, the process I've just described works in reverse, or gets jumbled up.  In fact, my revision process is recursive and piecemeal: two steps forward, one step back.  I often work a poem like a jigsaw puzzle, fitting a corner together here, an edge there, a bright spot somewhere else.  It requires patience and perspective.  And honesty.  I have to assess what I have done as honestly as my eyes and ears, my experience, my training and my education permit me to do.  And then I have to decide whether to continue writing the poem I'm working on or abandon it. 

I find that laying a poem--a proto-poem--aside for a time provides the perspective I need to return to it with fresh eyes and understanding, to see its possibilities.  So abandoning a poem in process is always a conditional affair: I never know when or if I'll get back to it.  If the work leaves enough of an impression on my mind and imagination, then it will tug at me, it will "percolate" until I come back to it in earnest.  This, too, is part of the revision process.

Well, that's how I do it.  How about you?  How do you revise?  Do you employ a technique, a process, a routine?  How honest are you about your own writing?  Have you ever held onto a line, an image, a phrase, a figure, a form, even a theme or subject in a poem beyond all reason or propriety, like a dog with a bone?  Revision is commitment.  Have you ever refused to commit the sometimes radical changes needed to make a poem of your words?  I have!  Have you ever said to yourself, But I don't want the poem to mean this or behave this way or look like this on the page, when "this way" may be exactly what the poem is telling you it must be?  Revision is submission.

For next week, then, select a poem that you believe needs revision, one that's not yet finished or that hasn't assumed the form or voice or diction or flow or depth that you suspect it has to achieve in order to be a true poem.  Spend more time with it.  Ask yourself what and where the problems lie that you need to solve.  I am not talking about taking up a couple of lines or an image that you jotted down months or years ago and making a poem out of them!  I AM talking about taking a draft of a poem that you worked on at some point an then set aside, or perhaps one you've noodled over for some time now, or perhaps even one that you thought was finished but maybe isn't, if you're really being honest with your work.

Bring the original or draft version with you to Wednesdays@One, along with a revised version.  Be prepared to tell everyone what you focused on in the revision, why you selected that aspect, and how you went about making changes.  Perhaps most important, be prepared to talk about your revising habits--any you'd like to do away with, any you'd like to cultivate.  You don't have to produce a finished version--this session isn't about completion--but you do have to spend enough time with a draft to produce some meaningful change that can be explained.