Revising

Hi everyone,

By request, let’s talk about revising poems. I have no absolute formula but in general the process from beginning idea to finished poem goes something like this.

The idea is the easy part. It may come from a prompt such as the word of the month challenge. It may come from a thousand places: thoughts, conversations, quotations, pictures, jokes, cartoons, joyful moments, embarrassments, sadness. Reach your hand into the air and grab one. Ideas are everywhere.

Getting started is just as generous with pathways. Maybe I’m responding to a challenge to write a limerick or a haiku. Maybe the challenge is to write about a particular subject. Now and then I simply make a list of subjects of interest, choose one from the list, and set out to capture the essence of it in a poem. Be patient and don’t set the hook too soon.

I’m sure that everyone has his/her own method for getting into the poem itself. My typical beginning is rather willy-nilly. I try any number of first statements, probing to see if this is coming down as free verse or in something with rhyme and meter. There are times when it takes several stabs at it before an answer seems to appear. Once a pattern, or lack of one, seems dominant, I slavishly follow that lead to see if what I’ve chosen is do-able.

In a sense, I revise as I go but only enough to allow the rough poem to expose itself with its faults and possibilities. Unless the poem has a strictly dictated form, I have to determine as I go how many stanzas I need to tell my story. Too few kills the tension. Too many bores the reader.

Finally comes the last two steps. The first is revision. I come to this with a heavy hand. Stanzas meet their maker. Lines trade places. New information is introduced. Sometimes the first “final” version is hard to recognize from the last one. The second last step is rewriting. This means, to me, polishing. Looking for better metaphors, stronger verbs, more exciting nouns, more surprising rhymes.

Now and then a poem just plops itself down with a smug, “Aha!” When that happens, I look around hoping no one saw how easy it was. Mostly, I work at it. My record number of revisions/rewritings was something over twenty. My average is probably half a dozen.

By example, here are the first two stanzas of a recent poem:
FIRST DRAFT
The Robin

When nights turn bitter
and worms tunnel down deeperdeeper down
to hide from the cold winter’s frosty breath,
robins band together leave for warmer places.
When the ground turns hard and cold,

Somewhere south the air is warmer
and berries beckon.
Somewhere south their strong wings take them
hundreds, maybe thousands of mile.

Here is the last draft of those same two stanzas.

When ground turns
beak-chilling cold
and worms tunnel deep
below winter’s breath,
robins take wing,

Sometimes for weeks –
a thousand miles –
guided by sun, gravity,
remembered streams, roads.

Time is another partner in this pursuit of a fitting end. My writer’s need to finish sometimes gets me in trouble. A year or two ago I wrote something for one of Pat Lewis’ anthologies. He read it and pronounced it pap, or something akin to it. He was, of course, correct. I think Jane Yolen still belongs to a writer’s group. Is that right, Jane? Getting writing right is not easy but for me that is the joy of writing.

The floor is open for conversation. Thanks in advance.

David

Winged beggar

Hi everyone,

Two evenings ago Sandy and I were sitting lake side for a sundowner when we had an unexpected visitor.

The yellowjacket must have been a wine connoisseur because it went right to work investigating my chardonnay. Eventually it gave up and left. I didn’t mind the visit and I didn’t mind a single yellowjacket. If I start seeing more, though, I’ll go in search of their tunnel. Last time I stepped too close to a hidden nest I got nailed three or four times before I could move away.

If at once you don’t succeed . . .

Hi everyone,

On Friday, which I declared “Do What You Like Day,” I fished an old nonfiction manuscript from the files for one more look. When I wrote it by request from Dutton several year ago, it topped 10,000 words. I signed the contract and banked the advance. Then a new publisher came in and cancelled nearly all of the nonfiction projects in the works, including mine.

I showed the manuscript around. A different editor liked it but asked me to shorten it rather dramatically. I did. He left his position with the manuscript hanging. Someone else, unfamiliar with the history, turned it down.

An editor at a different house asked me to shave the manuscript down to a few hundred words. I did. She didn’t take it but suggested how I might revise it. I did. She didn’t take it. I didn’t blame her. I was tired of the subject and it showed.

When I dug the manuscript out of the files on Friday and read it again after six months, I was impressed by how unimaginative my writing was. My prose had turned to wood. It wasn’t good enough for a middle school newsletter. I was that jaded.

I wandered around the house trying to get up the gumption to discard the project. For a “Do What You Like Day,” this was not making me warm and fuzzy. I might as well have stuck with the marketing plan that I didn’t want to do.

And then, out of the blue, I suddenly knew exactly what to do. Just like that my muse dropped the solution in my lap. I immediately proclaimed the rest of Friday to be “I Love My Muse Day.”

I am now busily and happily at work on what will amount to a brand new manuscript. Will it sell this time? Of course it will! I’m pumped. Bring me an editor!

Signing on a crew

Hi everyone,

I’m happy to report that Boyds Mills Press, my publisher of PIRATES, has reached an agreement with Cynthia Gonzales, associate professor of music theory at Texas State University, that will allow her to set “Signing on a Crew” as lyrics for a men’s choir piece. I’ve already seen the first few pages of the score. At one time in my youth I was assistant choir director for Grace Methodist Church in Springfield (got married there too) but these days it’s a stretch for me to read sheet music and hear all the sounds in my head.

Dr. Gonzales has earned three degrees in Music Theory: the Ph.D and A.M. from Harvard University and the M.M. from the University of North Texas. She has been a professional singer for over 20 years, company manager for four seasons with the Santa Fe Desert Chorale, and has performed at Carnegie Hall and Lincoln Center.

If you aren’t familiar with the book (brilliantly illustrated by Dan Burr) or the poem, you can go to Amazon.com, click on the cover, and scroll to “Signing on a Crew.” Cynthia found it on the Poetry Foundation website:
https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems-and-poets/poems/detail/58600.

In 2013 PIRATES was selected by Missouri Center for the Book to represent Missouri at the National Book Fair in Washington, DC. Other recognitions include Kansas State Reading Circle List, 2009; NCTE Notable Poetry Books, 2008; nominated for Cybils Award; VOYA’s Nonfiction Honor List, 2009; Texas Bluebonnet Master Reading List, 2010-2011; and Indiana Young Hoosier Book Award Master Reading List, 2011-2012. I’m delighted to see a poem from the book transformed into song, sung like no pirates could ever hope to match!

Let the poems pour

Hi everyone,

So far this month’s word challenge, RAIN, has inspired a good range of very readable poems by Susan Bickel, Jeanne Poland, Linda Boyden, Mary Nida Smith, Bryn Strudwick, Cory Corrado, Jane Yolen, Susan Hutchens, Jesse Anna Bornemann, and Cheryl Harness. Am I missing anyone? When you post your poems under the box for Adult W.O.M. Poems, I can find them easily when I go searching for the month’s poets. When you post them under comments on a day when you’re ready, I’m likely to miss them when I’m summing up. It’s always your call as to when and where you place them, of course. I’m happy either way.

You have five days remaining in which to create rain-based poems to share with the rest of us. So far this month our number of participants is down a bit so spread the word to all laggards, sluggards, dawdlers, loafers, idlers, slouchers, indolents, and faineants with good intentions to hie themselves to their nearest pen and cozy up to their muses. One new poem each day would be lovely and two would be even grander.

Oh, the picture? That’s my friend Cory Corrado. We met in 2011 at my Highlights poetry workshop. She’s one of my favorite people and that’s one of my favorite pictures. My muse went crazy with all that wonderful material to ponder!