May 26, 2010

Revision, Part the Last: The Pencil Writes With Both Ends

I have said very little about the particulars of the process of revision, believing that you, and all poets, must decide how to discipline their own children. I can articulate my ideals, indulge in analogies, and chant for you a kind of poetic catechism, but the moment I say, "Begin by revising line breaks and work out to stanzas" I have been dishonest. There is no manual but the poem itself.

Yet, speaking very generally, I have found that I often do a poem more harm through addition than subtraction. When I revise by grafting many new lines to the original, adding ornament to statements and mist to once-clear scenes, I usually ruin the poem rather than improve it. Redaction, on the other hand, is often better to clarify, direct, and reveal the poem. This is because I tend to reiterate sentiments or images when I first draft a poem, stating and restating ideas or moves in an effort to express them more perfectly. This stuttering, I have found, is just part of my generative process. When, later, I return to these poems to revise, I begin by choosing the clearest iteration, the swiftest image in the bunch; the rest, I dump.

But my poems are frequently over-fleshed by more than stammering attempts. Often whole segments of the poem are empty or dead. These vacant passages in the poem fall into the following three rough categories.

The Dead Head
Many of my poems don't actually get underway until the third line or the third stanza. I usually identify these false starts by their vagueness, commonness, or writhing lyric. If, in those early lines, I refer to anything meteorological, seasonal, or address any of the common abstractions (Time, Love, Home, etc), I am almost certainly clearing my throat while already occupying the stage.

The Empty Belly
Sometimes, after a rousing start, a poem will begin to putter about thoughtlessly. Poems that are three pages long almost certainly do this at one point or another; they begin to include the reader in their infatuations, flitting about with confidence, if not beauty. In my own poems, these passages identify themselves by a stiffening or slipping of tone and the sudden abundance of irrelevant anecdotes and analogies. If I, for example, describe the lint in the clothes dryer as the hair-clogs of angel dogs, it's time to pack it in.

Poems of the Empty Belly test the social contract between reader and writer, where the reader asks again and again, Where are we going? and the poet replies only, We're almost there.

The Sleeping Foot
The exit of a poem is easy to miss, and often the poet goes rushing past it. Half of revision for me is the process of finding the true end of the poem, whether it comes in the fourth line or the fortieth. Conclusions are probably most difficult because of the pressure of both the poet's and reader's anticipation. A poem that has an Empty Belly may be forgiven if the conclusion is sufficiently arresting. But without conclusion, the poem is purposeless. And the exasperated reader feels that they have been waved over by the poet only to be told, "Never mind."

And yet, conclusions are the most exasperating part of the poem, requiring both purpose and deftness, directness and flirtation. If I have to write new lines during my process of revision, it is most often to correct the conclusion. Often, though, the conclusion of a poem exists in some imperfect state within the draft of the poem. We only have to, as Heaney's old saw goes, dig to find it.

If one of my drafts concludes with either a bundle of pretty words or a stack of polemics, I know I have run by the conclusion, usually buried some lines above.

Finally, while I suggest that poets consider writing with an eraser, I also would caution against, 1.) cutting without close-reading, and 2.) overwriting files. Don't remove too many organs. The difference between a surgeon and a butcher is whether they pull out the spleen or the heart.

May 18, 2010

When the Road Ran Out

We say we’re going online, but we go nowhere.

The hilarity of the internet is that we read it like a book, scan it like a story, obsess over it like a poem. We lose ourselves. Worse yet for the book-lover, the web is full of people trying to impress. Why else would a young man ride a handrail down three flights of stairs on his groin? To impress.

This is abhorrent to the book-lover because the authors they love wrote for the same reason, only they articulated the reason more grandly and more complexly. The poet writes to impress; to impress his ideas upon us, to make an impression upon the page. (Isn’t that why folks reminisce about the typewriter, because it forcefully beat the letter into the sheet?)

Most dreadful of all, is that the ability to articulate the abstract, the mongrel idea, the duplicitous emotion is often overlooked. The internet is not a publisher, but an enormous broadsheet that we can begin to read anywhere. The book cover is lost, that binding that said, This, read only this. The editor is lost, that starchy critic who said, I know, I know. The publisher is lost, that robber that said, Mine, mine. Even many of the words have been lost, each a sacred suitcase of human experience.

But the reader has not been lost.

The web is postmodern without the games; it is not an exercise. It is the ur-book, written by a planet full of morons. If we are horrified, it is because we’ve been lying to ourselves or hiding inside the articulation of books.

Every generation finds evidence that their children will wreck the world, end the whole parable once and for all. But history is not an ascension. We aren’t running towards a cliff. We humans aren’t going anywhere. We’re still sitting in chairs and throwing our thoughts into the unknown. That dream isn’t new; it began soon after the first of our species spoke the first word.

Perhaps we are sitting down because have reached our destination. I don’t think we just arrived.

Not that you have to like where we were left when the road ran out.

May 14, 2010

Revision, Part 3: The Honest, Modest Host

We must be honest when we revise a poem. Drafts can be written out of hubris, inspiration, flourish, but poems are most successful when revised with honesty.

Honesty, here, is not an ideal, but rather an expression of perspective. What may be honest in one context may be cruel or inappropriate in another. Most writers are capable of addressing many perspectives: the perspective of the tradition, the scholar, the critic, the character, the voice, a particular social or economic perspective, a target audience's perspective. Before a writer can “honestly” revise, they must first decide whose perspective they are being honest to.

I don’t mean to suggest that “honesty” requires a perspective or audience of one. When I revise, I do not imagine a singular reader. Instead, I imagine something closer to a classroom full of students. Most teachers will tell you that one of the most difficult challenges of teaching is to address and engage the entire class: that great spectrum of ability and interest must be engaged all at once. A teacher has to draw in the most experienced and the most novice of students with the same lecture, or exercise, or discussion. Some teachers profess that they teach to the middle, or the top, or the bottom of the spectrum of ability, expecting the rest of the class to adjust accordingly, but I’ve never had success with targeting a single bandwidth of student. Instead, I constantly find myself translating and reiterating as I strive to express something that is both accessible to the inexperienced and challenging to the wiz.

Make no mistake, engaging the perspectives of an entire class is not the same as engaging everyone. I am still seeking to honestly respond to the perspectives of a particular band of readers when I revise a poem. Honesty in revision is often about decoding, clarifying, and directing the original germ of inspiration. Though I've used the analogy of a class to describe a diverse audience, I think it's a mistake for a poet to create a poem that reveals itself only after careful study. Great poems are accessible and also reward closer inspection.

This complex honesty, this deference to the audience, requires the poet to expect more of the poem than the audience. This is not to say the poet should respect the poem more than the audience, speaking down to them as if they’re a child. Instead, the poem should make reasonable demands. Reasonable demands show great respect.

Put another way, the poet is the host, the poem the home, and the reader the guest. The host’s house may be modest, or grand, a one room farmhouse, or a maze, but the more immodest the home, the more modest the host should be.

May 8, 2010

Interlude: Describing Marriage by Rehearsing a Divorce

Today, I'm taking a break from my posts on the revision process. I'll pick up that thread in my next post.

David Biespiel has an article on the Poetry Foundation site (originally published in Poetry's May issue) in which he bemoans the loss of political discourse among poets, bemoans the evaporation of civic awareness and accountability, bemoans the tribalism and isolation which has washed over the poetry and public landscapes. He bemoans a great deal.

While I don't disagree with Biespiel's central thesis, that poets have generally recoiled from the political elements of public discourse in favor of a bathroom sink love-fest, his easy culprit (the poet) and the unfocused grandeur of his solution (truth, power and suffering) suggest a lack of honest consideration.

An editor who uses anecdotal accounts of their interactions with submitting writers to demonstrate that writers are mercury-poisoned prima-donnas, is like a person who hangs out at a single's bar and then complains about the shallow conversation. The editor and the shallow writer share one thing in common: the shallow publication. Look, after thirty years of editors asking, nay demanding, that poets produce reflective, solipsistic, lyrical codes, you can't expect to clap your hands and turn all the poets into Robert Lowell. It doesn't work that way. Editors do more to shape poetry than poets.

Further, Biespiel (wearing his Poet hat, now) glances over the change that public political discourse has undergone in recent decades. Poets aren't the originators of our aversion to political discourse. Most everyone is ducking that particular chat, and has been for years. Political conversations seem to occur primarily in two modes, now: privately, between like-minds, and in the circus of TV news panels.

While discourse is on the defensive, activism is doing just fine. Activism, however, has come to mean "the public action of the frightened and ill-informed" and "smug, empty gestures to warm the heart of the giver." Biespiel, though he pretends to champion political discourse, alludes continually to activism, and not any activism, but "liberal" activism. His submerged point seems to be, "Where have all the Democrat poets gone?" That's not discourse, man, that's recruitment.

We're working our way out of the personal-is-political era, and working our way back to the communal-is-political. Not just poets, but many folks in America, increasingly feel an urge to reconnect, to commune, to converse. We are doing this not through activism, but through a reconsideration and rearrangement of our daily lives. Community is becoming more central to what characterizes a fulfilling existence. Conversations are opening up. I have friends who I disagree with all the time, and I really appreciate their presence in my life; I appreciate that discourse and I want more.

Biespiel, by connecting civic, public discourse to the most contentious and divisive of political issues, is essentially promoting something wonderful and noble in the terms of its most difficult eventuality. It's like describing the virtue of marriage by articulating the misery of divorce. Biespiel rails against the balkanization of the poet community, and then, without irony, he draws a line in the sand: "The American poet must speak truth to power and interpret suffering. And just as soon as the American poet actually speaks in public about civic concerns other than poetry, both American poetry and American democracy will be better off for it." Apparently, there are two types of poets: the ones saving democracy and the ones who are indifferent to the potential super powers locked inside their words. As absurdly grandiose as this statement is, I don't disagree with his tacit point that writing poetry about poetry is not a good way to engage an audience.

I can think of no vaguer, more mushy exhortation than "speak truth to power and interpret suffering." If Biespiel had said, "Stop writing about yourself like you're some kind of lonely Christ, and go out and write about anything else on the face of this giant planet," I'd applaud. But no. He talks about truth and suffering. Just what poetry needs. More "truth." More "suffering."

May 4, 2010

Revision, Part 2: The Never Ending Poem

When I first began to write poems, I rarely revised. I would justify this lack of revision by saying that I preferred the spontaneity of a first draft. In truth, I rarely revised because I didn’t enjoy reading my work. This should’ve been a clear signal that I desperately needed to revise; after all, if I didn’t want to read my poem, how could I reasonably hope that some uninvested reader would?

When I finally began to revise my work, I inadvertently perfected the art of the endless poem. My process of revision was basically to revise as I read: to scan and tweak. As I read through the poem, usually for the first time in weeks or months, I’d pick at the language: the words, metaphors, syntax, and punctuation. Occasionally, I’d screw around with the line breaks. Then I’d pack the poem up and return to it after another few weeks or months, at which point I’d go through the same read-and-tweak process again. I might revise a single poem this way a half dozen times or more, and still never feel that the poem was resolved.

This, I’ve discovered, is the worst possible way to revise. The essential flaw in my method was that I wrote as I read, or, more accurately, I overwrote as I read. I restated the poem using language that I was presently infatuated with, only to later find those revised poetic flourishes tedious. The reason for this is that I, like many writers, am constantly falling in and out of love with words, phrases, and grammatical constructions. My most current fascinations with the language always seem the most striking to me. When I first write something, the language often glows like wet paint. But, like paint that has dried, the language later seems to lose its luster. I have to continually remind myself that poetry is more than poetics.

To revise successfully, I first have to be a reader of my own work. Not a critic, not a peer-reviewer in a workshop, not an editor; I have to be a reader. This is difficult for me. I critique in my sleep. I am a ninja critic, and by that I mean, I am more likely to think about the possibilities and implication of details than the present reality and effect of the work as a whole.

The first step of revision for me is reading. I read the poem, taking it on its own terms, flaws and all; I read it until I understand what it is reaching for, what it wants to be; I read until I am affected.

It is harder for me to read my work than to write it, but doing so saves me and the poem. It saves me from wasting time revising the language of a dead draft: not every draft becomes a poem. And reading saves the poem because it keeps me from just whitewashing every distinct idea or sentiment with a heavy coat of pretty words.

Revising as you read mostly results in the never-ending poem or the same poem written out a hundred different times, which incidentally, is sometimes called “a career.”