I was lucky enough to have had a panel I proposed for the 2015 Association of Writers and Writing Programs Annual Conference in Minneapolis accepted. Its title is “Where We Begin to Revise,” and the participants who’ll sit beside me will be four poets who’ve been featured in A Poetry Congeries: Keetje Kuipers, Erica Dawson, Peter Campion, and James Harms. The catalog copy for the panel reads like this: When we ask students to revise poems, what exactly is it that we’re asking them to do? When we get student portfolios at the end of a semester, we are frequently disappointed at what seems a lack of effort. Sometimes, maybe, that lack of effort is on us because we are not clear enough about exactly what we mean by revision. This panel will provide a number of proven strategies that will help students focus on revising those areas that most affect a poem’s success. In November, I will also lead a workshop at the Annual Sanibel Island Writers Conference called “Slapping Your Poem Around: Interrogation as Revision.” The workshop will offer 12 points of interrogation that will help students get at the nitty gritty of a poem's negotiations with a reader, as well as its relationship to other poems that are being written in our time. I love this stuff, and I hope my enthusiasm for it is infectious.
There are as many ways to engage with a poem as there are kinds of poems. One might read for “meaning,” even if that’s not what a poem wishes to offer. Wring its neck all you like; ol’ Archie might say, “A poem should not mean / But be.” One might read just for the pleasure of experiencing the wash of language in one’s head, the deeply sensual pleasure of Rubber Baby Buggy Bumpers on one’s lips. One can read for solace, identification, for a better sense of what it might have felt like to be alive in a particular historical moment. We read to explicate poems for academic purposes, and we read poems because we yearn to empathize, because it makes us feel more human. The list is long and various.
As a poet and teacher of poetry writing, one way I especially enjoy reading poetry is by examining the choices a poet has made in the composition of the piece, how this choice rather than that has made the poem what it is—or has made it not what it might have been. I look at where poets break their lines and consider the possible reasons they may have had for doing so. I look at how they begin their lines: does the line begin with what I might see as lax language—a prepositional phrase, article or conjunction? Or does the line’s doorway instead draw the reader into the space with an active verb or strong noun? What purpose is punctuation serving; how does it manipulate the reader’s progress through the poem? I look at the action of the poem; what are the verbs doing? I look to see what purpose each image serves in the poem; which rise to the level of metaphor and which are used for some other reason? I always look at what a poem might be doing sonically; that is, what role does “music” (rhythm, rhyme, meter, alliteration, assonance, consonance) play in the experience of the poem?
These things help me to locate those places I should begin to revise; they help me learn how to be a better poet. Or I don’t learn how to be a better poet, but at least the process helps me to understand why I make—or don’t—the decisions I have to choose from as a poet. They help me to reify abstract thoughts I’ve had bouncing around inside my head. Or they begin to place new ideas in motion. This might be the benefit that is most valuable to me as a writer who always wants to grow into a more generous aesthetic instead of shrinking back into a curmudgeonly comfort zone. By examining points of revision in poems other poets make, I sometimes find a new way to skin a cat. I learn to appreciate more fully what others are seeking to do and to better understand why such moves may or may not be right for me. At least for now. One of my favorite things as an editor is quibbling with small things in the poems of those poets I choose to publish. Usually, I will let the poem stand without comment. After all, my opinion is not the end all. But, that noted, I also, every time this happens, reconsider my own views. Hmmph, I might think. Sometimes it’s well, why not?