Backwards Poetry Revision: Process and Reflection

There’s something soothing about revising a poem (imho). It’s a meditative process, a recursive journey that weaves together the past, present and future. I think it might be the closest that I can come to prayer.

Somewhere along the way, I learned from someone a revision exercise called something like “Backwards Reconstruction.” Or was that “Deconstruction”? Whatever. I’d like to show you the process, using one of my slush pile poems, and then reflect on what the process has done for the poem and for me.

So, to begin.  Here’s a poem that I wrote in April 2015, during a “poem a day” challenge:

Waiting for It

I’m waiting for the poem to come to me,
looking out the window into slow moving
clouds over the gently waving branches
of a still-leafless tree, marking two pelicans
as they dive from the white into the blue,
flapping in tandem, tracing big circles
across my vision.

The birds this morning 
shouted from the bare trees, promising
warmer weather, the eventual arrival of
summer: silky hot skies, flowering shrubs,
the hiss of cicadas stretching the air wider.

I'm waiting for the poem to come to me,
stretched out on my chaise under two
layers, skin still vaguely chilled by the
retrograde weather, the crisp wind,
frozen mud flavored by yesterday's
mocking snowflakes.

I'm waiting for it
to burst onto the scene with trumpets
and tiger lilies, with explosions of leaves
and clusters of cottonwood seeds borne
in puffs across the river trail, with dandelions
like punctuation marks across every lawn --

 I’m waiting for the naked summer poem 
 to arrive and demand we strip off all these 
 heavy clothes, run across hot sidewalks, and
 dive into each other with sweaty abandon.

 April 1, 2015 

—-

I should have typed the poem here instead of cutting and pasting it. But that’s what I did. Lazy.

But now I am going to physically rewrite the poem, line by line, moving backwards. And, for the sake of this exercise, I’m going to eliminate punctuation and capitalization and stanza breaks:

 dive into each other with sweaty abandon
 heavy clothes run across hot sidewalks and
 to arrive and demand we strip off all these
 i’m waiting for the naked summer poem
 like punctuation marks across every lawn
 in puffs across the river trail with dandelions
 and clusters of cottonwood seeds borne
 and tigerlilies with explosions of leaves
 to burst onto the scene with trumpets
 i’m waiting for it
 mocking snowflakes
 frozen mud flavored by yesterdays
 retrograde weather the crisp wind
 layers skin still vaguely chilled by the
 stretched out on my chaise under two
 i’m waiting for the poem to come to me
 the hiss of cicadas stretching the air wider
 summer silky hot skies flowering shrubs
 warmer weather the eventual arrival of
 shouted from the bare trees promising
 the birds this morning
 across my vision
 flapping in tandem tracing big circles
 as they dive from the white into the blue
 of a still leafless tree marking two pelicans
 clouds over the gently waving branches
 looking out the window into slow moving
 i’m waiting for the poem to come to me 

—-

Okay. Time for the real work to begin.

I’m going to revise/edit this “new” poem so that it makes syntactical sense, and in the process cut away anything that’s flabby, redundant, imprecise, vague, off, or just stale (imho).  I’m also going to rethink line and stanza breaks.  My goal is to “resee” the raw material. 

In other words, I’m going to rewrite the ever living shit out of it.

(20 minutes pass)

Waiting for It 

Let’s dive into each other with 
 sweaty abandon,
 throw off heavy clothes, run across 
 hot sidewalks and
 arrive at the
 naked summer poem,
 its commas and dashes in 
 drifting cottonwood puffs across 
 the river trail, its periods in 
 dandelions and ellipses in
 tiger lilies, its leafy 
 explosions exclaiming.
 
 I’m waiting for it,
 waiting with mocking snow
 over frozen mud flavored by
 yesterdays, and crisp wind
 and layers of
 chilled skin,
 
 waiting for the poem to come
 with a hiss of cicadas 
 to stretch the air 
 silky hot over 
 azalea and rhododendron,
 dogwood, magnolia, snap-
 dragon and peony, 
 pansies and petunias,
 
 waiting its delayed arrival, 
 the promise of it 
 already bird-shouted from 
 bare maple trees, and
 traced across my slow windows 
 by pelicans diving two by two
 in circles from wispy clouds 
 to incisive blue --
 
 exclamation points 
 behind 
 naked branches!
 
April 22, 2021 

My revision process took about 20 minutes (that seemed like far fewer) and involved at least three passes through the poem.

The project of going backwards to retype the poem really slowed me down. I was able to see that it was about — at least right now, today, this morning — capturing that feeling of frustration and anxiety and hope I get when I’m waiting for spring to arrive in Green Bay, waiting for that definitive turn toward summer. It was about that feeling of suspension (limbo) and “oh wait, no, I take it back” kind of bullshit cold weather we get all through April and sometimes May that drives me crazy but also pokes me with hope.

While I was revising, I hooked on a couple of motifs. Punctuation, flowers and trees, and the idea of looking from the inside (house) out.  Also, the idea of summer being naked and winter being covered up. When I started with the naked summer instead of the layered winter, I moved from ecstatic to bound. And I decided that if summer is about joy and running naked, it’s about exclamation points and dashes, and winter’s punctuation is a bunch of periods and parenthesis and comma after comma after comma. (Forget the semi-colon.)   

Also, I thought that enjambment worked for the feeling of dislocation I was going for, and shorter lines.  

Finally, I wanted to celebrate all of the specific flowers and vegetation that I love so much, god, I heart the fuck out of them, because they’re the signs of warm weather, clear sun, naked skin, and (to be honest) utterly useless beauty (we can’t eat them).  

The process of revision, and of writing this reflection, has left me feeling refreshed and hopeful. It’s reminded me that the act of writing poetry is a worthy end in and of itself. Publication, the madding crowd’s acclimation, love from hordes of strangers — who needs all that? When you have poems to be writing, word by word, line by line, stanza by stanza, silky petal by silky petal. 

Oh, and here’s something: this is the first time in … maybe forever? … that I’ve used an exclamation point in a poem!

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