A Mess

National Poetry Month came and went this year. The academic year came and went, and then summer was upon me, and I wrote and I read, and all summer I’ve thought about what I learned during April 2018: it is perfectly okay to write a messy poem.

The mess we make when we write is where we find our hearts, our truths, but we don’t find them at first. We find them by writing the messy poem again, then again. We might have to write it five or ten times before we find what we’re looking for or what works. I had to give myself permission to write the messy poem. I had to stop myself from writing the tidy poem or seeking a clean ending, even a clean beginning. I had to let myself make a complete mess then I could go back and find the beauty.

All summer I’ve been writing messy poems. I even wrote a messy sequence. Because I’m letting myself write whatever I need to and make whatever mess I need to make, I am also slowing down. I’m thinking while I read and write. I entertain possibility and try it in my own work. Everything is possible when we write messy poems. We are giving ourselves permission to see what happens and follow the path we think is most intriguing, or exciting, or interesting. Whatever we think works for the poem we will try, but we can’t do this unless we first give ourselves permission to be untidy.

It’s my plan to keep this way of thinking in mind as I continue writing. I want to follow the paths that open themselves to me as I write. They will change slightly as I move forward, but that’s the beauty of what we do as writers, as poets. We have so many options. One way to find them is to make a mess.

Advertisements

National Poetry Month, part two

National Poetry Month is over halfway through and I’m still going. The writing is getting harder, I’ll admit. I’ve had trouble getting started this week but have realized that if I keep pushing forward, the poem eventually finds its way.

I’ll be back at the end of the month to share what I’ve learned about writing a poem a day in April 2018.

It’s that time of year again…

…wherein I decide whether or not I’m writing a poem everyday during National Poetry Month. This year, I am.

But I’m not forcing myself to write a perfect poem each day. I plan to let each poem take whatever shape it needs. Most will be really rough drafts. In the past, I would despair over this and wonder why I was even doing a 30/30 if I couldn’t write a “good” poem everyday. But this kind of thinking isn’t fruitful for the process nature of writing, nor is it good for the person (me) who simply wants to put words on the page each day in hopes to get to the center of something.

That’s what I’m hoping for. If one good poem comes out of this month, so be it. If I have drafts that I can revise over the summer, so be that, too. The only challenge is to write– not well, not badly, but JUST WRITE. It’s the simple act of the work that I’m going for: to practice.

Things I’m learning and relearning about revision

  1. Revision takes time. Lots of time.
  2. When I’m revising a poem, I can’t work on it every day. I need a break. If I try to revise the very next day after a revision session, I remember whether I was frustrated or if something didn’t go well. I need to not only take a break from the poem but from my feelings about the poem. Working on the poem every other day is just fine.
  3. Sometimes striving for conciseness and efficiency hangs me up. Sometimes I just need to put every thought down on the page. And sometimes, while working this way, I will be surprised by a turn of phrase or line break, or development of thought which aids the poem in further drafts.
  4. I can’t get where I’m going if I don’t move. That movement can occur in various ways. I need to be open to what the poem needs, not what I think it needs.

An unintentional guide

After I pulled poems together with a central focus last week, I reminded myself to print some notes I’d written to keep myself centered, as well as a conversation I had with some fellow poets on social media last year that I cut and pasted into a Word document for future reference. I printed these documents then read through them, and noticed as part of the conversation the name of a friend who passed away suddenly last year. It was a bittersweet reminder: this poet was a part of my writing life. We always made sure to connect at AWP if we were both attending, and kept up with each other on social media. Like me, she lived in the Midwest. Snowstorms would often reach her state before they reached mine, so I knew what was coming if she mentioned it on Facebook. She was someone I not only respected but admired, and her passing was and still is a loss.

She was one of three friends I lost last year who were fellow writers or professors. No matter what their calling, they were people who taught me how to live a good life not only intellectually but spiritually. When I started publishing, they encouraged me, and I not only read their work but watched how they navigated the world as writers, hoping to learn something I might have missed. My fellow teaching colleague who left this world last year had an office right down the hall from mine. A lifelong learner, his office and home were filled with books. If he knew someone was interested in a certain subject, whether they were a child or adult, he give them books to aid in their discovery. He often surprised me with books that I still hold dear; some I use in classrooms. These friends became part of my life, some my daily life, and taught me how to be steadfast and patient, while remaining curious about the world.

What happens when we lose friends who’ve helped us grow? It’s difficult to lose people you love to talk to and hear from, and who inspire you. It seems most difficult to learn how to live without them. I’m still learning. But I’d like to be for others who those friends were for me: an unintentional guide through this life. These friends didn’t set out to inspire me, but by being themselves and through their kindness, they taught me more than they realized.

 

Revision tactics

I’m heading into revision mode with some recent poems that need significant reworking. In the past, I’ve been able to find a line that allows me to clarify or develop my thoughts, but with some of the current poems, I find myself stuck. These particular poems fall flat and need to be completely rewritten. In this case, it can be hard to find a line significant enough to aid in revision.

Jeannine Hall Gailey has discussed using a word cloud generator to help with a title for a manuscript. If a word cloud generator can help with titles, I thought maybe it could help with pulling new phrases from a poem for revision. I copied the poem (without the title) into the generator, and presto! It showed me the words used most often, as well as other words I used in the periphery.  I pulled some new lines from the generator and this gave me a new way of thinking about the poem, which resulted in a revised poem with a related focus.

I don’t want to forget to mention (as much for myself as anyone else) this list of poem hacks by Carmen Giménez Smith which I’ve found helpful throughout the revision process and plan to return to again. I’d also like to hear about revision strategies that work for you when you’re stuck.

Here’s hoping you’re staying warm this winter and have a little bit of sunshine every now and then.

XO

Julie

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I’m not ready

Last weekend I did some work that made me really think about the poems I’ve been writing for the past 2 1/2 years. First, I finished a grant application which included a 10 page manuscript. This sheaf of poems contained what I believed to be my strongest work to date, but also reflected themes and imagery from my work-in- progress. Secondly, I sent a submission to a journal that asks with every submission that the writer discuss the work, so I wrote what I’d thought about while working on a certain set of poems. All of this work made me consider the poems I’ve been writing and collecting in a document for the past few years.

So far, the only work I’ve done toward making these poems move toward a manuscript is giving it a name which I know I don’t have to keep; after writing a few books I know this can change. I’ve also made a list of titles and tried to put the poems in some sort of order, but quickly decided I wasn’t ready.

I did the latter again this week: I printed the poems, thought about how each fit into a certain focus, and put them in separate piles designating the different parts of the focus. After I did this work, I put them back into a binder, but soon decided I didn’t want to separate the poems into sections based on parts of a focus, but to braid these parts together to construct a narrative.

In the past, sequencing a collection hasn’t been easy for me, but the process also hasn’t been as difficult as this one. My past books have called up a certain chronological narrative that this one doesn’t and can’t. Even though I called forth the past in both books, which interrupted each narrative then moved it forward, I can’t do that with this collection. In fact, I’m not even sure where to start.

I’m not frustrated with the process because I know that every book asks for something different from the writer. This one is a different creature than others I’ve written. To put the collection in order now may harm the process; I believe that when the narrative is ready to present itself, it will. My instinct is to take the poems out of the order I half-imposed on them this week, remove the poems that don’t fit the current focus, and keep writing. Forcing a structure on the work when I’m not ready won’t help me think and it won’t help my writing.

There is no right way to order a manuscript, that’s what I’ve noticed over the years. It’s not a perfect process. It’s messy and frustrating and joyful. As writers, we have to follow our instincts and decide when the work is ready to become a book. And if it isn’t ready, that’s okay. There’s no time limit. The only pressure is external, but we can’t do that to ourselves. We have to listen to and trust the work– that’s the voice that matters.