edits and revisions

August 4, 2017

We recently ran two guest posts on the subject of revision, the first by Bethany Reid, the second by Richard Widerkehr. It’s a fascinating topic, and a process we don’t often get to observe in the work of the poets we admire.

In an article in this week’s Book Review section, The New York Times opens a window onto the process of writing and revising, with brief statements by six poets and images of their works in process.

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Joanne Carson manuscript with edits by Truman Capote

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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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This is a guest post by Bethany Reid.

I was taking my very first poetry class, from Nelson Bentley at the University of Washington, when I learned that Dylan Thomas’s executors found among his papers 67 drafts of “Fern Hill.” I was all raw courage then, and the notion of revision imprinted itself on me, a little like a German shepherd adopting a duckling. So when my students get discouraged about revision, when my writing friends tell me to stop revising anything, I tell them about “Fern Hill.” It isn’t that I don’t enjoy the madwoman stage of drafting a new poem, but my heart belongs to revision. And if you recently participated in NaPoWriMo — National Poetry Writing Month — then you have 30 new poems in your notebook, and the party is about to begin.

The word, revision, looks abstract, but it’s really fossil poetry, in the best Emersonian sense. That vis in the middle means that revising is seeing again. And I think of revision not as a single lens, but as a series of lenses.

Especially when I’m not sure where to begin revising, I take out a lens for word choice. Maybe I’ll circle all of the verbs in the poem. Just bringing them to my awareness (just seeing them) begins the process of making them stronger, and for deepening the poem as well. You can use this lens for each part of speech. Are your nouns concrete? Any adverbs rattling about and asking to be excused? Too many the’s or it’s?

I have another lens for line endings. Colleen McElroy taught me to read aloud only the end words of each line. (End words in the first stanza of “Fern Hill”: boughs, green, starry, climb, eyes, towns, leaves, barley, light). No, you don’t need a strong word every single time, but becoming aware of what you do have will alert you to missed potential, and strengthen the entire poem.

Once you’ve looked at line endings, take a quick look at line openings. (“Fern Hill” won’t seem as useful here, but notice that in addition to 8 repetitions of and, words like fields, time, golden, down, and sang occur. They are almost a précis of the poem.)

There is so much more you can do, I know. I ask questions. I take out separate lenses to add color words, smells (which I tend to neglect), or emotion. I read my poems aloud as I revise. I also like to play around with line length and stanza breaks. Sometimes I try putting a poem that’s not working into a form, a sonnet maybe or something more complex like a sestina. Just to see what happens. I carry my poems with me and read them away from my desk. Even submitting poems to journals and contests turns out to be a kind of lens. As my poems move into my send-out book, they get another read through. If they come back to me…I am willing to do it all again.

Eventually, there is an end-point. And I don’t mean a point of diminishing-returns (an expression I rather hate), or the famous Paul Valéry line: “Poems are never finished, only abandoned” (though I agree). With practice, I’ve learned not only how to revise my poems, but how to see when they satisfy me. You will, too.

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Bethany Reid’s most recent book, Sparrow, won the 2012 Gell Poetry Prize. Recent publications include EIL, Clementine Unbound, Silver Birch, Del Sol and Cheat River Review. After 25 years of teaching, she retired early to take care of family and write. You can learn more about her at her blog (bethanyareid.com, formerly A Writer’s Alchemy).
 
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