Tuesday, July 8, 2008
44: On Revision and Wildness
The French lilac is blooming behind the cabins and there are fresh peaches in the dining hall.
We workshopped one of my longer poems this afternoon and at the end, I asked MDB about revision. There are so many different sorts of writers--the kind that adore the first draft, that sort of burst of creativity and intimacy with the page as it comes out. And he mentioned that someone (Terry Tempest Williams?) was doing an interview on NPR and mentioned how she'd prefer to take a second job cleaning toilets at a bus station than write a first draft. My dear (and talented) friend Karen loves the process of tinkering with the poem; revision brings her comfort.
For me, I am afraid I will muck it all up. I love the idea of revision, but the actual act I feel so unsure of--as if my intuition is better at the first draft than it would be at the end. (Is there a switch that hasn't been turned on just yet?) So I asked for some advice. And I said I knew much of it was intuitive, much of it came from reading and letting that sit with you, letting the words turn over like smooth stones in your mind. I said I knew some of it needed to sit in a drawer through several seasons before time would allow enough distance.
My poems have sat for six months now. It's time to bring them to a new stage.
His suggestions: to record yourself reading the poem out loud and listen to it over and over again. I'd rather hear someone else read it as I despise the sound of my own voice, but I do so like that idea. To find the dead spots. He suggested writing it out as prose to see where we needed to work.
Sometimes a new draft without the old one handy is a good technique, though more often than not, I've come out with a wholly different poem--a new first draft with a new conundrum.
He said to us, "Try anything you can to shake up the poem to draw out its essential parts."
I like that--the idea of shaking up a poem. A poem cocktail.
We did an exercise to warm up where we wrote a series of I am phrases. We had to write one wonderful thing that happened recently (my husband holding a clover up because he thought I ought to take a photograph--those little moments, the ones where we share something like that, are always so good, so touching) and one rotten thing that happened recently (my parents' dog, Madison, who was a part of my teenagerhood in Green Bay, is continuing that sad process of aging and now has liver issues along with her arthritis). Then write them as I am statements:
- I am Ryan holding a clover bud up to the tree trunk for a photograph.
- I am sweet Madison's liver trouble.
- I am the way your limbs twine with my own.
- I am the language for sorrow.
- I am walking in the early morning woods.
Once you have a string of these factual statements, break them in half and create new phrases:
- I am the language of sorrow, worrying over the subtlety of singing.
- I am sweet Madison in the early morning woods.
- I am finding ticks, the hidden peeping inside a tin drum.
- I am walking until you gather me up in your arms.
- I am replaying the memory of an always sound of laughter.
There's a lot of these exercises where you disconnect from that strange pull toward the rational, toward making sense. I remember an exercise he gave us that was a sheet of paper filled with words, mostly nouns and verbs. And we were to write poems stringing those words together as our eye dictates, perhaps adding preposition or a conjunction or changing the verb tense.
Your writing becomes a little bit more wild that way.
There's another exercise where he gives us poems in another language, preferably one we don't know. We are to "translate" those poems into English, so you are approximating, getting a feel for something completely bewildering.
I love collecting these writing exercises. I am the type who enjoys writing like that. I know others are very particular about their process: Sherry Quan Lee likes to write on unlined paper because it is more freeing; Sarah, my friend from Palm Beach, used to write in a tiny flip notebook, little phrases that popped into her mind; Karen prefers not to write in fancy notebooks as it feels a bit too daunting, as if perfection ought to come, and I remember she'd write on the backs of handouts in seminar; I am currently writing in a black faux-leather journal with teeny graph paper. We are particular about our writing instruments too. Carolyn Forche gave me a pen and told me, This is your poet's pen. I want you to write on your honeymoon with this pen.
I hope I am not boring my non-poet friends, the ones whose lives don't revolve around language in some way. For me, I feel as if I come alive at these retreats. Living, eating, breathing poetry, and in the woods. Oh, it is so perfect. Sure, I miss my husband, and I love him with a fierce love, but this week, thus far, has been such a gift, and I will come back to him with more determination and confidence, with so much buzzing in my head. And soon, this will become such a reality, the driving force. I loved teaching high school, and on my worst days, tolerated it, but I am most excited that I won't have distractions (as I might have in a low-res situation), that I will be able to drive myself forward, and if I fail, I cannot use the excuse that I did not try hard enough. No shrug of the shoulders.