Telling the past

Hi everyone,

Yesterday Jane Yolen and I finished a new collection of poems and sent it on its way. During the day we got to talking about the Scottish brogue and that brought back memories of when I was a child in Ajo, Arizona. My dad worked in the payroll department for Phelps Dodge Mining Corporation and one of his associates was a Scott named Harry Poole. The two couples got together from time to time and that was fine with me. I was six or so and I loved to listen to that man talk. He had grown up in the old country and could tell story after story about what it was like when he was a young man. When Mr. Poole retired, he and his wife moved to California. I only saw him one time after that, when we took a trip that way and stopped in for a visit. Their retirement bungalow was cozy with a small living room and kitchen. I don’t remember the bedroom. There was a white crocheted doily draped across the back of the brown sofa. Mr. Poole sat in his favorite chair beside the sofa. This is what I remember.

After the greetings and everyone was settled, Mr. Poole tamped fresh tobacco into his pipe, lighted it, took a few trial puffs, then looked off into the past while my dad and I waited. We were about to be treated to another of Mr. Poole’s stories. I could hear the women in the kitchen, catching up over tea. Mr. Poole said, “When I was a boy, twelve, thirteen, my father sent me to work at a saw mill. The family needed the extra money. A puff or two. The mill was a dangerous place. Lots of noise. No safety features. Accidents were commonplace.” I don’t remember if my dad was smoking a cigar but he was awake so he probably was. Mr. Poole went on, “One day a lad got careless and ran a log too close to the blade. Took his finger off.” The old man’s eyes began to smile. “The lad wrapped a rag around the stump,” he said, “then he slipped up behind the fellow at the next saw and dropped his finger down the back of his coveralls. You should have seen that lad carrying on when he eventually fished the finger out and saw what it was!” I don’t remember if I laughed or gasped. Mr. Poole obviously thought it was a funny story. He closed his eyes as if fact checking. Satisfied, he nodded, opened his eyes, and went to his pipe again, leaving a comfortable silence to drift around the room.

How accurate is this memory? I like to think it’s close to the way it happened. Whether it is or not, who is to say? It’s my memory and has lived in my mind as clearly as a video for nearly seventy-five years. Telling the past is an important part of what writers do.

Baiting up

Hi everyone,

Productive day yesterday. I finished the sixth poem for a new proposal that’s now ready to send out, and also finished the sixth poem for a proposal with Jane Yolen. That will be two more hooks in the water. Never know what you might snag!

Wheel, part 2

Hi everyone,

Jane, I couldn’t get back yesterday. Here’s my follow-up to your poem. Thanks for the prompt.

Back in my wheel,
my book-lined nest.
Inhaling the silence,
I cherish the test.

Here I take nourishment,
live in my head.
Here I imagine
the sorcerer’s thread.

Words are my fortress
where safely within
I trundle my wheel,
I spin, I spin.

(c) David L. Harrison

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

I’m feeling retoaded

Hi everyone,

As Jane Yolen and I pointed out, the past few days have made it tough to be a toad around here. We’ve now registered over eight inches of rain in the past week so that adds to the mix. But moving on . . .

It took all week but yesterday afternoon I finished my last of five poems for the collection I’m doing with two other poets. I still have the end notes to attend to, but that won’t take more than three days, I hope. Standing by is the need to finish editing the poetry chapter I’m doing for CHILDREN’S LITERATURE IN THE READING PROGRAM while also getting back to work on the Scholastic book with Mary Jo Fresch and deciding what my subject will be for an article I’ve promised to write for a state reading journal. When I can, I want to get back to the middle grade novel that is all but finished. May should be a busy but good month.