Monday, May 24, 2010

Really really stuck on a poem

I've been working on a new poem for the manuscript and I'm really stuck--more stuck than I've ever been. Usually when this happens I just throw a poem in a drawer and forget about it for a year....but I have a little deadline on this one. I submitted an early draft of it to the journal and the editor told me he liked it, but it needed to be revised (he's absolutely right). So, I need to get it to him soon, but the more I work on it, the worse it gets. I've shown it to two poet friends, both of whom gave me good advice, but that's not getting me there either. I;ve tried all the revision tricks I know...even tried turning it into an extended haiku at one point, but that was just pathetic.

Here it is, in its current, sad mutation. If anyone has any advice, please, post away!


Sleeping at the dock,
curled in the v-berth
is like living
again in a womb—
all motion, and muffled
is that someone
speaking out there?
It’s a skin
separating us from the cold
waters of the world.
Inside it’s soft light
and a worn quilt,
wrapping us in warmth.

And like a ripened womb,
the boat is made to empty
us into the world.
Every few days,
we emerge,
heads rising up
out of the hatch,
to a new world,
a new marina, a new cove,
unfamiliar trees,
and water with new
hazards to learn.
We will cut our tether,
once again,
and let go
into the rush of current
flushing us swiftly,
out to sea,
out into the world
of large waters
where anything can happen.

In the moment
before leaving, we always
I stand on deck,
feeling the hum of the belly
beneath me, hand
on the umbilicus of line,
hesitating, hesitating—
wanting to slip
back below, curl up,
and sleep
in the belly of safe.
But also loving
the whole new world
just around the next

Monday, May 17, 2010

Reading to Edit

Last night I did a reading with Nancy Lord at the Downtown library. We had a very small but enthusiastic crowd; we got some terrific questions afterward, so that was fun.

I decided to read mostly new poems to see how they played to an audience. This has become my new favorite way to edit poems--reading them, and feeling out an audience. Before Freshly Rooted came out I did a few readings here and there, but not many. But after it came out and I started doing readings, I realized how incredibly valuable that experience is as an editing tool.

It works two ways for me. First, and most obvious, I get an audience reaction. Last night I read a poem from Freshly Rooted that I'd never read in public before and it got a lot of laughter...something I hadn't really anticipated. It's not a funny poem to me...but once I was reading, I could see it as funny, and the laughter made sense. This has really changed my understanding of the poem, actually. Also helpful (although painful) is when I read a poem and the audience is just quiet--and I can tell the poem is falling flat. So the laughter, or sighs, or dead silence all give me clues about how well a poem is floating.

Second, it makes me edit with an even harsher pen. As soon as I'm reading, it's like I have these new glasses on and I can see weak lines or phrases in a way I've not seen them before. It's like I'm becoming a hyper-editor. I actually often edit while I'm reading.

So, it was really useful to read some new poems last night to gauge reactions; this is going to really help me edit those individual poems and the book as a whole. I'm going to be reading at the Kachemak Bay Writer's Conference in a few weeks and I think I'll read mostly new poems there too...but maybe different poems than I read last night. It would be great if I could get the chance to read most of the book at various readings before it comes out.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Euphoria and Reality

After I draft a new poem, in that first rush of euphoria, my impulse is always to give it to someone. Invariably, I'm in love. Look at this poem I've birthed! I've spun out of pure air! Isn't it amazing?

And then I have to remember, that not everyone wants to kiss a new baby, and not every baby is cute.

I really have to fight the impulse to share, because the poem is almost never done--usually, not even close. Most poems go through months--some even years--of drafts before they are done. The ones I love when I finish usually have a seed of rightness and possibility about them, but that's often about it--so much of it's not yet developed. I think that impulse to share is that longing for someone else to confirm that yes, it has potential. Yes, it might just be a good poem.

One of my goals this summer is to really work on revision. I think the impulse to stop too soon is really strong--for me certainly, and I think for a lot of poets. I think sometimes that's what workshop is all telling us other, kindly and firmly, to keep working. It's not ready. Keep working, it's not ready. We have to learn over and over that even though a poem can be drafted in a few minutes, that doesn't mean it's a finished poem.

Some days I like best the initial writing--that euphoria of a good birth. And some days I like much better the revision--the tinkering with words, the cutting of bad lines, the assurance that it will get better with a little more work. There's no assurance that a new poem has potential. I throw most of them away. A lot of poets do. William Stafford wrote a poem every day of his adult life. If an average book has 40 or so poems in it, and an average time between books is 5 years, that's approximately 1,785 poems thrown away. It's hard to sit down (or get up in the morning) and write one of those 1,785 poems. But we have to write those, to get the 40 good ones.

Today I wrote a new one that I think might be a good one and I rewrote one that badly needed to be pushed back in and germinated a bit more. So, this feels like a good day. I'm savoring this, knowing how many not good ones there are, to come. And I'm resisting the urge to post that new poem here.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Poem Conversations

Here's a picture of my book in progress.

One of the sessions I attended at AWP was about manuscript organization. It was so helpful--really, amazing ideas from a slew of poets. One of the things one of them said was to think about the conversations poems have with each other and use that as a structuring principle. Of course poems do talk to each other, and the poems directly before and after a poem affect the way we read a, conversations.

I finally took a day off from grading, locked myself in my office, and spent 4 hours working on structuring my book. I thought about it's "spine" poems, it's opening and closing poems, and its conversations. It was amazing to start grouping them together. I did it wholly intuitively...not by topic or theme, but by obsession and intuitive linking. One thing they emphasized was that we obsess when we write poems, and often a particular obsession shows up in muliple poems. We don't want to necessarily put them together, but to let them refrain. So with that principle in mind, I worked obsessively/intuitively instead of in any kind of surface organization. It was really cool to see how certain poems changed as they started sparking against other poems.

I made an enormous mess on my office floor (once again, Virginia Woolf proving herself right about "a room of one's own"). So I could teach the next day I stuck them all up with magnets on my wall, and I'm doing to let them germinate there for a while, to see how they work and grow together.

Now this is the fun work of writing.