Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Decisions and Revisions Which a Minute Will Reverse

I didn't do a lot of revision before starting my mfa. This isn't because I didn't see the value of revision; it simply didn't occur to me as necessary. Poems were accepted for publication or not accepted. If a poem didn't work, I set it aside. Sometimes I revisited or mined lines from it, but apart from that, that was pretty much it.

I still think revision can only be applied to certain poems and within certain spans of time. Some poems "go cold" and need to be completely molten down and recast. Some can be significantly strengthened by exchanging and replacing a few parts, or altering the structure.

Either way, I've been doing a lot more of it. Three of my most recent poems have benefited enormously from the workshop and from serious revision, which I think points to a couple of things.

1. I'm bringing the right things to workshop. I think the poems are less refined than what I'd like to bring, but that's probably the point. They engender discussion, which I think is good. I'm learning to be less attached to something just because I put it on a page. Which leads to my belief that:

2. I'm getting better at revision. I'm more willing to cut something apart once it's written down, whereas I used to roll poems around in my head for weeks or months before committing them to paper. Once they were made corporeal—"made flesh," to borrow from Craig Arnold—I rarely changed them. I think going through several drafts has improved some (but not all) of my poems. Meaning:

3. I'm getting better at knowing what to revise and how. Some poems, as I mentioned, need to be entirely recast, otherwise later alterations will look "scotch-taped on" (thanks, Billy Collins). Others can have parts swapped out, and still others can benefit immensely from a small change in structure, syntax, or word choice. I also think this has to happen in a certain temporal or emotional space, meaning (finally):

4. Revision only works insofar as it's an actual "re-visioning" of the original poem. A revised poem has to get closer to what the original poem was driving at. It has to be clearer, leaner, more complete (whether by the omission, exchange, or addition of words/ideas). In order to accomplish this kind of revision, I find I can neither be too close nor too far from the poem, either temporally and emotionally. Too near the poem, and I can't be objective; too far removed, and I can't return to the state I was in when I originally wrote it. I may betray the poem in this way.

Overall, I think I'm getting better. I have, in large part, my cohort and professors to thank for that.