Revision revisited

National Poetry Month comes to a close this week, as does my experiment with revising someone else’s poem. It was a fascinating practice, because it involved a kind of interpretation and re-imagining, taking–in this case–a poem written in Portuguese in 1928, and seeing whether through revising, I might make it mine (if not make it new). In slightly less than a month, I reworked the poem ten times. That’s a pace much quicker than I generally revise my own work. Which also made for an interesting process.

No judgment on the outcome, such as it is. The purpose of the prompt was to keep me writing and to remind me to get revising my poems, and it did have the intended effect. When emotional, physical, job or life obstacles clutter the writer’s terrain, attending to a writing project–however arbitrary–can have a salubrious effect. Or at least grease the wheels a bit.

The initial piece: I randomly chose the following poem by Pessoa in the heteronym of Ricardo Reis, in Honig & Brown’s translation:

"Whatever stops is death, and is our death"

Ricardo Reis (Pessoa)

Whatever stops is death, and is our death
If it stops for us. That very shrub now
    Withering, takes with it
    Part of my present life.
In everything I saw, part of me remained.
With all I saw that that moves I too move.
    Nor does memory distinguish
    What I saw from what I was.
~~

That was my ground zero. Perhaps I chose it because it reminds me a bit of Dickinson’s “Because I could not stop for Death.” I will not reproduce all ten ‘versions’ I drafted, though that might interest someone (who exactly, I don’t know…). Here, however, is the tenth version, which sounds much more like me:

Revision
            after a poem by Ricardo Reis {Fernando Pessoa}
                        “Whatever stops is death…”

Hurrying to wait,
I contemplate
the final cessation
which
like the intersection
of Lanark Road and Rt. 309
lies up ahead:
red light, stop sign.
 
At a less determinable
distance, death does its duty—
part of me goes dying daily
each fallen leaf
dry stalk and road-killed
grey squirrel
pulls me closer
to my own departure
the way
a mother grasps her
child’s hand while running
to catch a crosstown bus—
hurrying.
 
I imagine memories
will dissipate, and freeze—
slowness and blur
will burgeon
until I can’t discern
the glistening new cicada
from its static husk
or morning’s gleam from dusk’s
cluttered, cloudy smog
or red lights from yellow
 
change will be stopped
at that intersection because
I will no longer know who
or what it is I was.
 

~~

One of the things I take away from this effort is that I do have a recognizable voice in my work. That was something I fretted over for many years, the concept of possessing a poetic voice. I have written in so many styles and taken different approaches to work and, for awhile, topic, that younger me worried that I had not developed a voice. Apparently someone long ago convinced me of the importance of having a recognizable voice; now, I barely recall why lacking it would feel like such a terrible thing. But reading my revision of Pessoa’s original, I sense his idea but hear my voice and my interpretation of his idea.

I’m not sure this is the final draft–whether this poem is finished or not, or whether it ever will be. I thank Pessoa for providing the starting point for the experiment and for making me stop and consider whether memory distinguishes who I am from who I was.

~

Finally, a recent brief poem in One Art Poetry Journal: https://oneartpoetry.com/2022/04/21/passover-by-ann-e-michael/

Process parallels

The weather warmed and got windy, and that bodes reasonably well for garden prepping even if the last frost date is still almost a month away. I got digging, sowed more spinach and carrots, cheered on the lettuce sprouts, and–with some help from Best Beloved–pried most of the winter weeds out of the veg patch and set up a raised bed or two.

While I was out there pulling creeping charlie and clover and reviewing my garden plan for this year, it occurred to me that my process in gardening parallels my process in writing. My approach to each has similarities, probably due to my temperament though perhaps due to the way I go about problem solving. The process is part habituation or practice and part experiment, with failure posing challenges I investigate with inquiry, curiosity–rather than ongoing frustration. And sometimes, I just give up and move on without a need to succeed for the sake of winning.

I have no need to develop a new variety of green bean nor to nurture the prize-winning cucumber or dahlia. My yard looks more lived-in than landscaped; on occasion, we’ve managed to really spruce the place up, but it never stays that way for long. I admire gorgeous, showy gardens but am just as happy to have to crawl under a tree to find spring beauties, mayapples, efts, rabbit nests, mushrooms. My perennials and my veg patch grow from years of experimentation: half-price columbines that looked as though they might never recover, clumps of irises from friends’ gardens, heirloom varieties I start from seed. The failures are many, but I learn from them. Mostly I learn what won’t grow here without special tending I haven’t energy to expend, or I learn which things deer, rabbits, groundhogs, and squirrels eat and decide how or whether to balance my yearning for food or flora with the creatures that live here and the weather I can’t control. There are a few things I’ve learned to grow reliably and with confidence–ah, the standbys! But the others are so interesting, I keep trying.

Writing poems? Kind of similar. After so many years of working on free-verse lyrical narrative, I feel confident in my control of those poems and can usually tell when they’re not operating the way I want them to. Then I wait and revise and rethink, but there’s a familiarity to the process. Whereas I am far less confident with sonnets–nonetheless, sometimes a poem really works best in a form like that. So I know I have to expend more energy on it. Other times I find myself needing to experiment. I try mimicking another poem, tearing apart my line breaks, or revising in a form I barely know. I play with puns or alliteration, alter punctuation to stir up the rhythm or surprise the reader (or myself). Breaking my habitual approach to starting or revising a poem leads to curious results, sometimes intriguing ones.

But, like my garden ambitions, my writing ambitions exist more as a means to learn and experiment. I do not set out to produce the decade’s best poem or to develop a unique style or form that academics will admire and study. (I just made myself chuckle.) Heck, most of my work has not yet seen print–and with good reason. Not every rose is an RHS Garden Merit award winner.

For now, here’s a poem I wrote over a decade ago, one that will be appearing in a forthcoming chapbook. More on that when I know more myself.

~

STILL LIFE WITH WOMAN

Loose sleeve envelopes her brown hand
which rests upon an apple or a secret 
cupped beneath; only the stem shows,
fruit’s oblate body intimated by
the solidity of her skin against
the table’s plane.
This is a moment undiscovered,
a painting by Vermeer—
blue, white, quince-yellow, poised—
her palpably-dimpled wrist sloping
toward the precise, thumbnail shadows of
her relaxed fingers. We know
blood imperceptibly alters the shape of her veins
every second her heart beats, we know her womb
continues its cyclical pulse, that she inhales
and exhales, a living form, yet—
still: an inclination of the white, loose sleeve,
half an eye open, she covers some promise.
This is only one second before
surprise or boredom, a miniature:
one of those moments we find ourselves
in parity with every other thing,
equal in being to quince, fan, mirror,
that pitcher of water on the sideboard,
that window, full of light.

~

Revision practice

It is National Poetry Month again, and this year, in recognition of the celebration, I have started a practice to experiment with, just out of curiosity and to give myself a nudge. Many of my poetry colleagues invest a month in writing a poem a day or reading a poetry book each week or posting a poem daily on their social media platforms. It’s important to remind ourselves why we treasure and delight in poetry.

I chose a simple project that requires frequent re-imagining/re-imaging. For my starting point, I picked a poem at random from a collection of Fernando Pessoa’s work. I copied the poem, by hand, into my journal and re-read it a few times. Then I turned the page and rewrote it, “revising” it in the way I might revise a poem of my own. My plan is to repeat this process after a day or so, each time revising from the most recent version. In a short time, the poem will have moved away from being Pessoa’s piece–perhaps bearing little to no resemblance to the original…a sort of whisper-down-the-lane approach. The intention is to consciously alter image and voice in each re-imagining of the draft, though I’m not sure how well I can hew to my intentions. We shall see.

from City Lights Books.

Why I decided on Pessoa for this project, I don’t really know; but I think there’s something perfect about using one of his pieces as springboard. Because Pessoa was kind of a springboard for himself–he created several writer-selves who wrote poems and critical prose: heteronyms, he termed them. The poem I used was “by” his persona named Ricardo Reis. Adam Kirsch wrote a good introduction to Pessoa’s peculiar obsession with being a non-person in a 2017 New Yorker article. By revising something by Pessoa in my own voice and through my own images, perhaps I nurture his pursuit of dissolving the self.

It occurs to me now that the poems of several contemporary writers may have induced me to try this writing prompt, most recently Daisy Fried in The Year the City Emptied (which I highly recommend). Her collection consists of “loose translations” of Baudelaire, reimagined in Philadelphia during the covid outbreak while her husband was dying. It’s not a cheerful read–but then, neither is Baudelaire–nevertheless, the resulting poems are powerful and vividly interesting.

So, back to my little project for April: I figure this need not be a daily practice, though I have managed to get to revision three by now–so it is moving apace. The deepest challenge is not the revision, as I enjoy revising and wish I had more time and energy for it. The challenge is just that: time and energy! As the semester sidles past mid-terms into the final stretch, I get busier at work; in addition, my chronic health conditions have moved into a frustrating flare lately, leaving me fatigued and feeling as though my brain were swaddled in cottonwool and embroidery floss. The news from Ukraine drags on sadly in the background of my day-to-day. My mother’s aphasia worsens. I am dealing by plodding away, sometimes without much brilliance, at the revision challenge. Also by watching the goldfinches as they molt into their yellow plumage… and urging my tomato seedlings to flourish in their little indoor pots.

Then I pluck daffodils and set them in vases. There’s nothing like fresh flowers on the dining table to cheer a low mood. Onward to revision four…

~

daffodil photo Ann E. Michael

Reflective spaces

Many years back, I spent awhile researching and pondering the ways time can play out in a poem. I fully intended to spend another couple of years developing theory on space in poetry, but that essay never came about. Life diverted me from literary scholarship and criticism, and that’s alright. I never was very good at scholarship.

The idea, however, returned to me recently in one of those by-the-by moments; I had been writing to a friend about revisions and was re-reading Plath’s Ariel (the version with the facsimile pages and also drafts of the title poem and of “The Swarm”). I noticed that, from her earliest hand-written drafts, Plath chose to write “Ariel” in three-line stanzas–and that was something she did not revise or alter in any of her subsequent drafts.

Interesting. Stanza length happens to be one of the aspects of a draft I am most likely to change when revising. Stanzas being the little rooms of the poem, it seems the spaces between stanzas play, usually, a more than visual role in the best poems…well, that got me thinking about space in the poem and somehow led to thinking what poems offer. Why we read and write them, even in the 21st century.

Explicitly: The poem is a space for reflection. In the space of the poem, a reader can expand perspective or feel resonance, as in a concert hall; or find a mirroring of the reader’s self (reflection); or, in a critical sense, the reader can reflect upon the poem’s topic, context, argument, content, imagery, craft, language, or beauty. The space of the poem urges response and responsiveness. Poems are not rooms built solely by and for the writer but built of the circumstances and for the reader, too.

What poetry means, in terms of reflection, is that the response can be reflective of the reader’s space, as well as the writer’s. I know that I have had different responses/readings of the same poem depending upon the place I was in while reading it (emotional, physical, contextual “place”). Different kinds of mirrors reflect different visual images. The lighting matters. The time of day. The mood. All of those are spaces, metaphorically or actually. Different stanzaic rooms, different poetic rooms–ready for a reader’s exploration.

Photo by Jenna Hamra on Pexels.com

Lyrical

I may have mentioned in my last post that I am reading Jonathan Culler’s book on the theory of the lyric with the intention of getting back to my own work, revision at very least, writing if at all possible. So I have begun.

Lyric continues to be my main poetry mode, though I do pursue narrative and non-lyrical haiku forms occasionally. I haven’t spent too much time dwelling on how to define lyric as a genre; I just accept it as a sort of catch-all term for a continuum of many kinds of poems that in general are brief, “you” or “I” directed, subjective as to observation, and often patterned rhythmically or patterned using rhyme.

Here are some quotes from the book that I found useful, thought-provoking, or relevant.

~

“Fiction is about what happened next; lyric is about what happens now.”

“Many twentieth-century poems…require sounding or voicing and may juxtapose phrases that evoke various voices…[asking] to be read in relation to the lyric tradition…”

“Poems provide formulations that may explain for you a situation you found incomprehensible.”

“The lyric, by its formal patterning and mode of response, asks to be learned by heart, even if that seldom happens…” (This concept is one he takes from Derrida).

“The lyric aims to be an event, not a representation of an event, and sound is what happens in lyric.”

“Lyric address is usually indirect.” (This, despite the frequent use of apostrophe in lyrical poetry, which Cullers argues is used indirectly most of the time.)

Lyrical apostrophe “posits a third realm, neither human nor natural, that can act and determine our world.”

“If one were to treat lyric as a domain to be mapped, one would need a multidimensional space.”

Jonathan Cullers

~

I especially like that last one. Lyric as Kosmos, as universe (and possibly universal). It jives with Whitman in some ways–resonates, at very least, with his idea of poetry as vast and of himself (as poet) containing multitudes.

Something to aspire to be, to write, to wrap my mind around.

Uncertainties

Best Beloveds are again in difficulties. Difficulties abound, it seems.

As do beans. It is that season–the beans have come on mighty sudden. Bounty presents its own challenges, but there’s joy riding along like a kite above it. And when I meditate on things, I realize that all times are “uncertain times,” a phrase bandied about so often these days as to render it a meaningless cliché.IMG_1547

~

Herewith, a very early draft of a new poem, one on which I will need to work (revising…) for some time to come. But it’s a start.

~

Hypothesis

Garden teaches a comfort with uncertainty,
knowing that I cannot know, each plan a guess.
From a clear day, hail spewing.
Tree fall on a windless afternoon.
Influx of virus or insects, invasion
of the burrowing vole. I’m never sure
what to believe, or whom–
each seed, each season a test of my hypothesis,
the hypothesis of the garden,
on which nothing at present depends.
We won’t starve. I can purchase food, certainly,
although the garden demonstrates
how rapidly such certainties may change.
Maybe tomorrow, no oranges, no flour,
no disinfectant soap. We live without guarantees
despite the product labels’ promises.
This year the pear tree bears no fruit:
few bees? late frost? Does it want a reason?
Yet I quiver with my need to know.
Knowing, old as I am, uncertainty means change.
Comfort? That requires a trust not at odds
with what’s ambiguous. I weave for myself
a hammock of my unanswered questions,
settle into it, become seed pod, chrysalis, womb.
I place my trust in change.

~

Two reams

As regards my recent long weekend assessing and organizing my work, the most startling revelation has been its sheer volume. I keep my printed poem drafts in an old-fashioned cardboard letterhead/correspondence box which holds two reams of paper–1,000 pages–and the box was full. Among poets who experience writer’s block this abundance may seem a problem worth having, but keep in mind two things:

1) This output represents over 15 years of uncompleted, unrevised drafts and

2) Most of the poems are crappy, or mediocre at best.

Apparently I have taken to heart William Stafford‘s advice that if one has trouble with writing, “perhaps you should lower your standards.” *

Abundance is a fine thing, but anyone who has ever cleaned a barn stall or an attic knows that sheer volume does not count for much. And one cannot spin bad drafts into gold without considerable help from supernatural guides or wily trolls, neither of which accompanied me to the cabin.

Rumpelstiltskin-Crane1886

Thus, I had to toil on my own, critique my poems, evaluate which ones have most “promise,” and try to keep myself from throwing absolutely everything into the woodstove. The work required solitude, discernment, frequent breaks for walks, tea, exercise, reading work other than my own, and (eventually) wine.

Also the occasional nap. My brain gets sleepy after awhile.

The outcome? I winnowed, though possibly not enough.  I have begun the disciplined, for now, revision process of the “active” stack of work. It is entirely possible that there’s a collection or two in there, though I will not know that for some time.

It will not be gold, but it will be a vast improvement over the accumulated dross..


IMG_6501

Part of the process…

*In an interview with Bill Moyers, and widely quoted elsewhere

(Dis)order & (dis)comfort

The university takes a long weekend in October; I thought it a propitious time to snare some solitude for writing and revising and thus betook myself and a mountain of my work to a semi-secluded cabin. Designed and largely built by Jack Fisher, the place offers light, comfort, memories, art, nature and spaciousness of environment. While I had no particular plan in mind–in retrospect, possibly a mistake–I imagined these days would act as a mini-writing retreat.

I love the cabin, the memories, the aesthetics of the house and generally I love solitude as long as it does not extend for too many days. The circumstance I discovered once I opened up my pile of poetry drafts, however, led me to one conclusion: I was going to have to organize, read, evaluate, consider, and cull before even getting to the “fun” part of revising. This level of work tends to discomfit me, feels tedious and draining and sometimes fruitless–which is why I have pretty much put it off since…oh…graduate school. Almost two decades.

But I made myself time to be alone and undisturbed, so let my work disturb me as it must. If a writer never allows herself to experience discomfort, she is unlikely to move her work forward in any meaningful or craft-related way.

I do not mind a little disorder in life, but the state of my drafts long ago sailed past disorder and into chaos and redundancy. It helps me to make an analogy to the garden: time to weed, time to save seeds (and label them!) and make notes on what thrived under which conditions and to note where the voles and rabbits are breaching the fence. A realtor might substitute the analogy of “deferred maintenance.” [Yikes!]

If this long weekend turned out to be less full of new work, or of fruitful revisiting of poems to make them stronger–if it has tested my comfort level with my own writing and forced me to face the mediocrity of most of it–that’s fine. The edges are where the interest lies, at the tension between the expected and the challenging. Sometimes we need a little less comfort and order to test the mettle of our creative acts and of ourselves. The days at the cabin were peaceful and full of solitude. I believe they will have yielded, for me, a clearer view of where my work–and I–are headed.

IMG_6484

Edges & the middle

My spouse told me of how he once interviewed a woodworking craftsman, renowned for his “perfect” furniture finishes, and asked about his technique. The craftsman advised, “Take care of the edges, and the middle will take care of itself.”

This phrase came to mind last week when I decided I had better tackle the weeds in my strawberry patch. Still hobbled by a foot injury, I figured weeding the berries was a task I could manage sitting down. The job seemed daunting, however; I have neglected the garden and permitted all manner of invaders–perennial and annual–to colonize the strawberries’ bed and twist around and root beneath their superficial root systems. Frankly, most people would not have recognized it as a berry patch.

It’s the equinox and the weather’s wonderful so I heaved a sigh, grabbed a few tools, and started to work. A garden bed has little in common with a French-polished tabletop, but I kept the idea in mind: tend to the edges, maybe the middle would “take care of itself.” Bermuda grass and galinsoga pull out easily, but there were also deep-rooted clovers, thatchy crabgrasses, English plantains, pigweed, ladies’ thumb…too many to name, though by this time I am pretty good at identifying the weeds of eastern Pennsylvania. I worked from the inside edge southward to the corner, then westward.

So far, still a pretty nasty-looking affair. After a few sessions of working along the scrim, though, I did begin to see progress; and–yes, the middle was much easier to finish weeding after I’d taken care of the edges.

~

Sometimes, I find motivation in a good analogy. I wondered whether I could transfer the French polish/strawberry patch concept to writing. Could that be one way to draft or rework a poem? What if I spent my efforts taking care of the poem’s edges–would the middle sort of take care of itself? (And what would be the edges of a poem? Its closing and opening phrases or stanzas? Its end-of-line words? Its beginning-of-line words?)

My gentle readers may recall that fringe landscapes and edges are a major inspiration for me–just type edges into this blog’s search bar, and quite a few past musings will show up. I will try working on my poems’ edges intentionally and see what happens.

Meanwhile, as the cooler weather approaches, I’ll cover up my berry patch with straw and promise to check the weeds a little more regularly next year, so I can get the results below in June of 2020:

high angle photo of strawberries in strainer

Photo by KML on Pexels.com

 

 

Forward

Lately, less gardening and more writing; we have experienced the region’s not-uncommon August/September drought period. My vegetable garden has given me about all it can at this point, so what remains to do is clean up. That’s a job that will have to wait, because I’m processing new poems instead of pears.

I tell my students that writing is a process, but the processing I’m doing now is more akin to the verb form of process, in the sense of “to treat raw materials in order to change or preserve them” (Merriam Webster). That could be another metaphor for the revision process…

Also applicable is the etymology of the word process {from pro “forward” (from PIE root *per- (1) “forward”) + cedere “to go”}.

So, forward I go. More drafts, more changing the raw materials of poems (what would those be? words? ideas? emotions? observations?). More going forward into the whole process. “Without hope and without despair.” (That’s Dinesen by way of Carver.)

 

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