Auld Lang Syne

Wednesday, April 4, 2018

Revising is an art unto itself

Poem made. Seems pretty good. Is it done, ready for prime time? Well...

I write almost every day. But not all of my writing is writing. Most of it is revising.

For me as poet, revision is the best part of the process. I look at a particular poem and ask the same question: what does the poem want? Years ago I took a week-long workshop with poet Michael Dennis Browne wherein he posed that question to us, a question I had never considered. Since that time, I cannot revise without the question. As I wait to hear what the poem is saying, I review some possible revision strategies, try on a few and see what might make the poem stronger or more definitively a "poem." (another topic for another post)I used to think of revision as something I would do to peel away layers that were obstructing the poem's message or motive. Until the Browne workshop and later Jack Myers' workshops that was my strategy.

Myers says in his helpful book, The Portable Poetry Workshop (Thomson Wadsworth, 2005), that revision was once thought of as violating a sacred gift... the workings of the unconscious. The idea that a poem comes from somewhere unearthly or is bestowed as a vision or is some kind of dictation from on high has always befuddled me. I've been in workshops where someone defended her/his poem by saying this didn't come from me and I have no right to alter it. I wonder why the person is writing at all if the writing is mere dictation. Do people who feel this way see themselves as prophets or soothsayers or mystics? Isn't automatic writing best left to the religious?

Myers tells us that re-vision is actually the act of taking a closer look and seeing a poem with new eyes, then implementing techniques which potentially make the poem stronger. He promises that this process is engaging, rewarding, and worth doing. He is right.

Let's look at three types of revision.

1. Reductive Revision

This refers to the kind of cutting that most think of as the hallmark of revision. Get rid of the following and at least the poem will be tighter:

a. unnecessary modifiers (cut out extra or extraneous adverbs, adjectives!)
b. passive or flat verbs
c. obvious and over the top transitions
d. narratives or plot elements that are fillers (do not add to the poem but only provide back story)
e. too many prepositional phrases
f. poet-intrusive or editorial comments

This is a decent strategy for the beginning poet to find ways to tighten his/her poem, however this is just one way, and a base-level way to revise.

I am as guilty as the next poet when it comes to having extraneous elements in my poems. I get so intense over the imagery, the syntax, line breaks, end words, stanza construction, etc. that sometimes the throwaways creep in when I am distracted. Using articles (a, an, the, etc.) is my biggest issue right now. I must pare them, tame them, even obliterate them.

I am getting better about adjectives and adverbs. I've been on a campaign to free the literary world of ly words for some time. They almost never add much to the understanding of a poem. Clearly, less is more. But some poets are married to adverbs.

Ing  words are on my hit list too. I try to rewrite without them. Always seems to make the poems better.

Adjectives in strings of 4 or 5 drive me up the wall. Just because one is good doesn't mean 3 are better. How many dark, grey, ominous, threatening, thunder clouds are better than one nimbus. A wise choice of adjectives is a better strategy. Hint: if there is a list of adjectives that uses a bunch of commas, revise them out.

Another way (my personal favorite after doing the reductive revision) is to ADD material or elements to the poem. The poem may want to be more, say more, embody more.

This, in my opinion, is where the art comes in.

2. Additive Revision

If a poem seems clunky to me, the first strategy I use is to print out a copy and write some notes in the margins, arrowing where the places in the poem are not quite right. I may do a free write or I may write out (in prose) what I mean to say here is.... I can find new material in the free writing of my intentions. Sometimes clarity appears and I can move toward fixing the clunky part(s). Sometimes I just look for places where there might be something new or surprising to insert. This may seem a bit dangerous and I get a feeling in my spine or in my chest that I am venturing into deep water. I was working on a poem just yesterday where this was the case. The poem was ok, but lacked something to unify and to give it a bit of a punch. I chose a single line, a repeating line. I inserted the line in three places, the result being that the POINT of the poem emerged. It was a line that had been running through my head, that I had pushed aside in my desire to get the incident just right, accurate. Once I agreed to let the line into the poem, it began falling into place. Is the poem done yet? Maybe not. But it is better, clearer, more like itself.

Here are a few ways to insert additive elements to a poem:

a. add images
b. add flashbacks or flash forwards — be careful here, consider changes in verb tense a way to go back or go forward in time
c. insert an anecdote (SMALL) that is supportive of the larger story being told
d. add a line that repeats at least 3 times
e. add color, landscape, food,  or even game elements ... let it flow and look a the results; can always take out later
f. add a mysterious line that seems dystopian or utopian
g. add a quote or phrase from science, mathematics, or literature

These are just some ways a poet can be additive in her/his revision. Be creative. Settle in and let the poem reveal what it wants/needs. Worth remembering: when writing about something that happened, it is not necessary to be wholly factual. Get at the essence; the kernel of truth that lies somewhere, perhaps somewhere buried in fact. You can lie a little. Sometimes you need to lie a little.

3. Deep Revision

This can be the scariest, also the most rewarding, process of all. It requires a poet to be somewhat relentless and cold-minded. It requires a poet to be willing to change everything about the original in order to arrive at the real poem. It requires a poet to fall purposefully out of love with every part of the original, only to discover what is really wonderful.

What would happen, for instance, if the poet took the original poem apart, laid all its elements separately on the table, then reassembled (rewrote) using either reductive or additive revision strategies? Deflate or expand each element.  Every line, every phrase, every stanza.

Certainly, separating the elements will give the poet a new view of each as an independent gesture. It allows the poet to assess the strength or weakness of each and make informed decisions about revision.

The poet should consider changing the shape, format, or form of the poem. Sometimes a poem just wants to be a pantoum, a sonnet, or a poem in heroic couplets. Sometimes, it wants to be a prose poem. It is helpful not to be nailed to writing (constructing) the poem in one way.

The great thing about revision in general, deep revision in particular, is that the possibilities for great improvement abound. Be brave enough to try.

Quickie Revision Checklist:

1. Read the poem aloud until you get to point where you KNOW it deeply
2. Do not revise while writing the first draft.
3. Keep every draft until you are certain the poem is satisfied.
4. Do not title the poem until (at least) two drafts into the process.
5. Play line/element agains each other to check for repetition (the bad kind) and for confusion (always bad)
6. Check for mixed metaphors.
7. Check all verbs for activity and power. 
8. Check for a overabundance of adverbs and adjectives.
9. Try making the end (line or stanza) the beginning, the beginning (line or stanza) the end. What happens?
10. Put the poem away for a week or two (or longer) after you think it is done. It may not be.

When you are ready, send your poem to a trusted poetry reader. See what glitches she/he may find. If needed, go at it again. Remember, if you have to explain the poem to someone, you have not let the poem have its own voice. 

Revise, re-envison, re, re, re  until the poem has had its say. Listen to the poems. They will speak on their own behalves. And keep in mind, remember ... it is a PROCESS.

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