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!