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:
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.


Moving on

Hi everyone,
David from 417 Magazine
I’ve spent this week on the second draft of a book that should come out in 2018. I’m ready to send it off as soon as I finish this post. I didn’t mean to take this long but got tangled up in the first line of the third stanza of one poem. It’s a simple line that includes the word “sticks” in it. My concern was that sticks also appears in another poem in the group and I worried that the repetition might be a problem.

After fretting over it for two days, no solution came. It’s the right word in both instances. I rewrote the line, and the whole stanza, in various ways but found no fix that I thought was better. In the days before I began being published I whizzed past such situations with a shrug and hope that an editor wouldn’t notice. At some point I learned that editors do pay attention and if I see it they’re going to spot it too.

I think I can defend my decision to reinsert the original line in this case. We’ll see. I remember a time when an editor told me to stop revising and let her get on with the book. Sometimes it’s just hard to let something go. Someone help me remember who said, “Writing is never finished. It’s abandoned.” Or something close to that.