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.

~

In which my dad appears

When does bereavement permit the writer to get back to the writing process? I have had quite a few conversations about this topic in the past few decades, and the answer’s pretty obviously “It depends.” I think of Donald Hall writing during Jane Kenyon’s illness and death and afterward–the stunning poems of Without. When my friend David Dunn died, I wrote immediately and often, sorrow emerging through elegies and remembrance. But I was younger then, and less experienced in the arena of bereavement.

During my mother-in-law’s two-year decline toward dying, I found myself writing about the challenges we faced–physical, emotional, communicational (that’s not a word, but I’m leaving it here all the same). Afterward, I could not/did not write. What interferes?

Why my thoughts turn this way: because, lately, my dad keeps turning up in my poem drafts.

I did not write much last year and did not submit any work.* For some reason, though I blogged and wrote long emails to friends and read many inspiring books, I did not feel particularly creative. But I wouldn’t have associated that semi-arid year with my father’s death; I figured my creative void was more about covid and an increase in chronic fatigue symptoms.

To jump start myself this year, I signed up for an online workshop (see this post). It has helped–I’ve drafted more poems in five weeks than I wrote in five months last year. But there’s been a peculiar outcome to these poems: despite widely differing prompts, source poems, and initial processes, my dad or something I connect with him appears in almost a third of the new drafts. I wonder what my subconscious is doing behind my day to day routine. Is this a response to bereavement, or a sign that I’ve accepted his death, or a reminder to self of what a huge loss it has been to me?

Not that I have a definitive answer to any of those questions. I do feel grateful for his appearance, though. He had a good sense of humor and loved to sing–nice things to have in a poem.

~

Thanks, Dad.

~

*Well, almost no work. Thanks to Marilyn Hazelton, editor of red lights tanka journal, I did submit tanka poems in 2021; and she accepted a few for this season’s edition (print only).

Prompted

I have been composing new poems, a welcome development spurred in part by my participation in a poetry workshop (see my last post here). Meanwhile, the college semester has resumed, and my colleagues who teach poetry have been discussing and sharing writing prompts.

For those readers who are not poets: A writing prompt is a sort of assignment in associative thinking or use of a craft strategy that the instructor offers as a form of inspiration or motivation to get creative writing started. There are entire books on this topic. Most writers go through dry spells or low motivation, and teachers need new ideas to keep their students doing the actual practice of writing even when bolts from the blue do not arrive to shake the creative spirit into gear.

I will admit to mixed feelings about prompts. Prompts can act as shortcuts to the process of composing, but I am the kind of writer who prefers the long haul; for some reason, the struggle of finding something to say, and an interesting way to say it, assists me in writing poems. I’m not in a hurry. I revise frequently. If it takes a long time to get to the finished poem, so be it. Sometimes I’ve followed a prompt and produced quite a nice poem, but maybe the voice or style or approach does not feel like my own. That’s a potential downside to prompt use. I have read poems by other writers that sound like prompt-produced poems. Some of them are fine work and yet…

This isn’t to suggest prompts lead to inauthentic or cookie-cutter poems (though that can happen, especially with inexperienced poets new to the task). I think it depends on how the prompt is presented or written and, in addition, the environment surrounding the process of thinking about writing. What works best for me is a prompt that makes suggestions I have to complete or devise for myself. Ambiguity with specifics, if that makes any sense–or specifics with ambiguity.

The environment in which I’m currently working includes a group of seven people, with whom I had not previously been acquainted, meeting online, and a moderator/leader who makes observations non-judgmentally and asks questions concerning where this poem draft could go next. And yes, there are also prompts. What I like about Elena Georgiou’s prompts is their open-endedness. Because none of us are beginning writers, we feel free to disregard any part of the prompt that doesn’t appeal to us–or to follow it closely to force us out of well-worn poetry habits–depending on our internal environment on the day we happen to be tuning in or trying the prompts. We are a group of independent people who are collectively thinking about writing. That’s something of value.

Constricted

I am forcing myself to write despite my sense that the flow, such as it is, has narrowed. I’m keenly aware that there’s a lot of material beyond the blockage and opening the floodgates may be as unmanageable as the “dry period” is unrewarding. Funny thing about balance. Keeping the seesaw level–no easy task. And as my peers and I progress toward aging, the constriction metaphor applies all too well. Many people I know now walk around with plastic or metal tubes inserted in their interiors to keep vital organs ‘flowing.’ My mother’s brain operates through constricted blood vessels, and now she can barely produce an understandable sentence. My lower back’s accumulating calcium deposits that have narrowed the path my spinal cord takes as it does its daily, necessary work.

Sometimes the flow of anything gets constricted. In our bodies. In the earth’s rivers. In our cities and houses: clogging and backups, plumbing and traffic. We implant stents, dig culverts, widen highways, remove the blockage–once we have determined where it is. There’s the challenge. Where is the rub that keeps us from our dreams? (Hamlet couldn’t figure it out, either).

Normally, I read at least a book a week; lately, just magazine articles, or no reading at all. Very strange for me–and I wonder whether my lack of motivation for reading and my current “dry spell” hinge on sorrow. My workplace has been busy lately, lots of scheduling, many meetings and decisions, not much time for personal reflection. It becomes natural, easy, to do the work of routine and ignore the kind of creative effort that grief requires. In my case, there’s also speculative grief: I know my mother’s dying little by little. We who love her spend as much time as we can with her, lifting our own spirits whenever our visits or gifts of chocolate and flowers and dinners out make her happy. What does she love? Fresh strawberries, for example. I bring them from my garden. She savors them. My day is made.

But I come home sad.

vessels, unconstricted

~

I wrote to a friend recently:

My writing practice has suffered a bit during pandemic but feels also as though underlying changes are in process. Just not much by way of results yet.
Somewhat surprised that my father’s death has affected my practice. Or perhaps it is my mother’s aphasia, frailty, and impending death that’s at work here. Or maybe just the stress of trying to maintain my job and relationships with colleagues and students under pandemic protocols, which has not been easy.
My brain’s been stuffed with things like learning new technology and teaching practices, and that leaves less room for wandering and interconnections and daydreaming. And then I have less energy for the creative work, as well. The garden’s been good, though. I’m not discontented, just feeling the currents of interweaving changes.

~
I suppose those interweaving changes may be a bit knotted, if they are threads, or partially dammed, if they are streams. Maybe why that’s the case does not matter much. What matters more is how to proceed when it seems nothing’s forthcoming–patience, force, ritual, practice, or…change.

You can judge your age by the amount of pain you feel when you come in contact with a new idea.

Pearl S. Buck

Wry words from Ms. Buck. Meanwhile, where are those new ideas? Maybe I just don’t feel up to unblocking the flow just yet. A little apprehensive about the pain.

Short lines, few words

A friend has been sending me the occasional haiku she’s written; she says that the haiku form has kept her busy and creative during a time when her attention feels divided. I am reminded that, in the past, composing haiku has been a useful practice for me, as well–a method of retaining images and moments that might later prove useful in other types of poems..

My colleagues Dave Bonta, Michael Czarnecki, and Marilyn Hazelton, among others, find in haiku and tanka a wide range of possibilities for expression–and compression. Though I suppose that is true for any poetic form or strategy.

I just want to get writing again.

~

This morning I made some attempts at writing again. Writing poetry, I mean–different from my other acts of writing. Writing against frustration, grief, and absence and pain…obstacles, for me, to composition.

If I were a fiercer poet, a fiercer person, I might manage to write in media res, the midst of the goings-on; I might accomplish poems through my anger or sorrow. Instead, I have to wait it out, mull, observe, speculate. It’s just my natural modus operandi.

Maybe I’m lazy, or afraid.

~

No luck with haiku. I wrote a couple of mediocre tanka that might be salvageable once I work on them a bit.

I wrote this–no form, just words. Putting it out there for now, with an illustration. Not exactly haiga, not nearly luminous or complete.

Hey, Muse. This is all I got.

~

Introvert
 
Long-necked gourd
tangled in
its own vine
twists and curls.
There is something
fantastic in its nature,
imprinted in seed,
patterned and tendriled--
an urge to
turn
and flourish
hidden though it is
beneath broad leaves.
 




zucchino rampicante


			

Break/change

David Bowie famously invites us–or exhorts us–to turn and face the strange. Necessary, especially during times people are wishing things were as they used to be. Change seems a stranger. We don’t want it at our door.

Facing change presents challenges and requires confronting fears. No wonder people resist; yet change is all there is. Without it, not even death (which is all about change). Just stasis. Not-life instead of no-life; un-life.

For now, a break from blogging, from submitting poems to journals, from sending out my latest attempt at a manuscript, from attending readings and conferences and workshops. I might say “it’s all too much” under current circumstances, but the reasons are more complicated and center around transitions of the not-writing kind.

In time, knowing the way my writing process occurs, these transitions will lead to more writing. More poems. Lots of process.

Meanwhile. I’m in the woods. I’m in the garden. I’m even (I think) going to be in the classroom. But it will all look different.

IMG_6972

(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

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.)

 

index.jpg

 

 

Not a perfectionist

My late mother-in-law, may her memory be for a blessing, spent much of her last decades gardening. I learned a great deal about flower gardens from her, and we discussed cultivars and shade-loving plants and pest control with the sort of enthusiasm that avid gardeners well know. She enjoyed landscaping her place with colors and textures, carefully tracing expected bloom times as well as plant heights and spreads so that the beds produced an ever-changing canvas to delight the eye.

hail and roses

Hail: One of Nature’s curveballs

Except: Nature is always throwing curve balls. My mother-in-law’s gardens were beautiful, but she always eyed them critically. It is true that most gardeners notice what isn’t thriving, where the weeds are, or what has not grown out or bloomed as hoped. That comes with the territory. But the process of gardening is so much more enjoyable, even soothing, when one is not a perfectionist.

Not being a perfectionist myself, I find that time in the garden acts as a meditative oasis. It is part mindless physical labor, part problem-solving, part mindful awareness of the environment. This year, I’m making it even easier by planting fewer vegetables and fruits and more blooms to attract pollinators; I’ve a smaller variety of produce but am experimenting with some new (to me) seeds–a melon from the Caucasus, a few heirloom tomatoes, black beans as well as green ones.

I learn as I go–as I cull and thin, inspect insect damage, note responses to growing conditions. It occurs to me that this activity bears a resemblance to the writing process, particularly when putting together a collection for a chapbook or longer manuscript. In that undertaking, I’m also not a perfectionist; and I should not be quite so quick to gainsay the need for the perfectionist attitude when creating one’s art (as long as it does not lead to fruitless caviling).

But I’m just not constitutionally ordered towards that sort of purist idealism. The best I can do with my poems is similar to the best I can do with my gardens: devote mindful attentiveness to the “product” and try not to worry about eventual outcomes.

“Write a little each day, without hope, without despair.”  —Isak Dinesen [Karen Blixen]

See what grows.

IMG_1547

By July–who knows?