Revising revisited

July 8, 2017

This is a guest post by Richard Widerkehr.

I enjoyed reading Bethany Reid’s blog that mentioned Dylan Thomas’s 67 revisions of “Fern Hill,” a poem I’ve loved for a long time. I remember hearing a story told by the poet Erin Belieu, who said that her husband, a writer, looked through her drafts of a poem and said, “I think you had it at the seventh draft, not the twenty-seventh.” It can be hard to tell at the time, and if you can tear yourself away from trying to get it just right, let some time pass, you can sometimes see more clearly what changes need to be made. Also, one change can lead to other ideas, if you let it.

The most helpful thing I heard about revision in the last few years is what Joe Stroud said: If you find yourself grinding away at a poem and can’t get it right, try reworking it in prose, which can give us sensory details we leave out. Since my first drafts are often telegraphic and leave out things the reader needs to know, putting in more can be helpful. If we’ve been to workshops, people will often tell us what can be cut. Sometimes, the hard part is seeing what we left out. We hide the Easter eggs, as Annie Dillard said. She said she asks herself when she thinks she’s done, “What did I leave out?” If it doesn’t go in this poem, it can lead to the next one.

One example of how I did this is how I worked on my long poem, “Her Story of Fire.” Someone told me Alberto Ríos had given an assignment to write one poem and then write the reply or opposite of that poem. What I did was use two speakers with different voices — one was a mentally ill woman, and the other speaker was her brother. One spoke; the other replied, though they often talked past each other. This exercise became the long title poem of my book Her Story of Fire (Egress Studio Press).

I liked Bethany’s suggestions to rewrite a poem in a different form or using different line lengths or stanza patterns. Sometimes I’ve tried that, and I’ve also tried using different pronouns (you, he, she, we) for the narrator. Often I’ve changed the verb tense from past to present if I want more immediacy.

One thing I do in revising that I haven’t heard many other poets do is find a word that sounds like or rhymes with a word that doesn’t work. Yeats changed “a mass of shadows” to “a mess of shadows.” But then I tend to write using sound and rhythm to lead me to what I want to say, so that works for me and helps me discover or uncover the meaning as I go along, which I like to do. When I wrote my novel, Sedimental Journey (Tarragon Books), it started as a short story about a geologist in love with a fictional character. Later, I made plot outlines but didn’t follow them. It took me nine years to finish the book and another fifteen years to find a publisher.

What did I leave out of this short piece? How to persist and keep writing. One thing I’ve done is switch genres when I got frustrated or bored with what I’m doing. My novel started as a fun break from my serious poems, though it changed and became funny-sad as it grew. My new book of poems, In The Presence Of Absence, will come out in September from MoonPath Press, but I don’t know what comes next.

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Richard Widerkehr’s new book of poems, In The Presence Of Absence, will come out from MoonPath Press in 2017. He earned his M.A. from Columbia University and won two Hopwood first prizes for poetry at the University of Michigan. He has two collections of poems: The Way Home (Plain View Press) and Her Story of Fire (Egress Studio Press), along with two chapbooks. Tarragon Books published his novel, Sedimental Journey, about a geologist in love with a fictional character. Recent work has appeared in Rattle, Floating Bridge Review, Gravel, Naugatuck River Review, Cirque, Arts & Letters, and Mud Season Review. He has worked as a writing teacher and, later, as a case manager with the mentally ill.

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2 Responses to “Revising revisited”

  1. www.bethanyareid.com Says:

    I love this! I’ve had that experience, too, of realizing an earlier draft had an energy that seeped out of the later ones. This beautifully captures how each poem demands its own process and careful listening.


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