Response to Robert Okaji’s “How to Write a Poem”

Response to Robert Okaji’s “How to Write a Poem”

 

How to Revise a Poem

 

Having learned to make a toast in nine languages

And setting aside the chainsaw with which I carved

 

This poem out of a block of fresh ice, I take up the scalpel,

Heated over the blue flame of the gas stove. I stand

 

For a moment like a conductor in white tie and tails,

Waiting for the crowd to fall silent, and make the first cut

 

Into the heart of the poem. Does it bleed? Do the words

Fall to the dirt among the pigeons? Do the courtesies

 

Sound hollow or sincere? The moon pulls at my arm

Like a cat in search of dinner or a playmate. I accept all:

 

Love, envy, ambition, and drive the wrong way down

One-way streets. They won’t catch me. They will

 

Park their Black Marias on the sidestreet, dig in

To the bowls of chili I provide for them while I steal

 

The bullets from their guns. Finally! At last! Just exactly

What I needed for the new ending to the poem.

 

Language, People!

age-of-ultron-captain-america-language

So last week my writing students at MIT were given a piece by science fiction writer Samuel R. Delany’s book About Writing. The passage I like best says, “Use the precise word. Don’t say ‘gaze’ when you mean ‘look.’ Don’t say ‘ambled’ or ‘sauntered’ or ‘stalked’ when you mean ‘walked.’ (And don’t say ‘walked’ when you mean one of the others.) As far as the creative writer goes, the concept of synonyms should be a fiction for high school and first-and second-year college students to encourage them to improve their vocabularies. The fact is (as writers from Georg Christoff Lichtenberg [1742-99] in the eighteenth century to Alfred Bester [1913-87] in the twentieth have written), ‘There are no synonyms'” (4).

Similarly, poet Marge Piercy says (somewhere probably in this book but I cannot find it) that every poet should have, in addition to a good dictionary and thesaurus, a set of Peterson’s Field Guides to trees and flowers and birds. There is a difference between a grackle and a sparrow, a walnut tree and an oak. Similarly, when you get a good thesaurus, that means Roget’s, NOT Mirriam-Webster. For “Color” Mirriam-Webster says things like “hue” and “tint.” Roget’s gives you all kinds of reds, oranges, yellows, greens, etc. Some are from flowers, others from gems. Always look up the thing to see what it came from.

Particulars persuade, people. So watch your language!

Delany, Samuel R. About Writing. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan UP, 2006.

Piercy, Marge. Parti-Colored Blocks for a Quilt. Ann Arbor: U Michigan P, 1999.

The Hokey-Pokey of Writing

1-jello-mold-dreamalittlebigger

So back in May I talked about the bit in a piece of writing, usually a long piece of nonfiction, which you always end up cutting. It served you as a writer to get from idea A to idea M, but it no longer serves your readers, so it must go. The problem is that it’s not always obvious which bit or how much of it is the bit you need to cut and which bits you need to keep. Sometimes you cut a section, then put it back in, then take it out again, or possibly take another bit out and then put it back in again. After a while you throw your hands up in despair and run away weeping, which is actually a really good idea.

But let’s face it folks, that really is what it’s all about. And if you don’t believe me, check out this video of bagpipers proving it:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=g6vDtKlyET4

Often what you need after finishing a draft, particularly a frustrating draft, is distance. Walk away. Do something else. Eat something. Do your laundry. Read a book. Play with the cat. While you are gone, with luck, the writing will set like Jello, and your choices will be clearer.

Do You ever Just throw a Poem Out?

Ninja__s_Recycle_by_Chris_Remmey

So during one of those long conversations with my roommate Jack last month he asked me if I ever just throw a poem out. The short answer is: Yep!

The long answer is, well, not without trying to resuscitate it first. Code Blue! Usually there is a line or a phrase or an image that is solidly good and if I take that out and throw everything else away and take that little cutting and see if I can grow it into something larger. And sometimes I just leave the inadequate ones in a folder or drawer and wait a while and see later whether or not I still think they are inadequate or unsalvageable. It is easier now than it was many years ago, but that is true of many things in writing and life.

Or Maybe Growing a Poem

cecropia moth to send

So I know that the language I often use for this blog to talk about writing is architectural for the most part, but I have not always thought of it this way. On the one hand, I see students and other writers who see a piece of writing, a paragraph, say, as a brick wall that cannot be changed without actually breaking it apart and making a mess and then getting new bricks and more mortar, and it all seems to be much more work than they are willing to do. And I tell them, well, okay, if it must be a wall, make it out of Legos not bricks, because then you can change the size and color and try to do it a whole bunch of different ways quickly and easily and with some sense of fun.

And they often respond, “Huh.”

I do tend to think of words as small varicolored toys of varying sizes and infinite complexity, but that is more often when I feel that either I am in control of a piece of writing or, at the very least, or perhaps best, the writing is in control of the writing and I just have to let it come through my hands.

Alas, as we know, most writing doesn’t work that way, even for a bloody productive writer like me (last count: 48 days, 79 poems, 100 pages). Sometimes a piece of writing, or a part of it, kicks your butt for days, weeks, even months. In this case, where I can’t see a way in to simply take out pieces and replace the working parts, I start to think of the poem as being more organic, something that needs to grow, without me doing the growing. All I can do is water and weed and wait.

That is when it helps to have a writing buddy to kick back for you, or if you are very fortunate, a midwife. For years, my Poetry Midwife, Pamela read my poems when I was stalled out. Usually her answer to my dilemma, though phrased much more diplomatically and kindly, was basically, “The ending sucks.” Over and over, I just couldn’t end the thing right. Either I was overwriting or underwriting (which sounds like I was selling insurance) or just not, well, right-writing.

The beauty, however, of having the same problem over and over is that once you have finally figured out how to fix it, you have practically no problems left, until the next one comes along. So I got to the point where, when I was stuck on a poem and ready to pass it to her for help, I said to myself, “Self, I bet you she is going to say (nicely) that the ending sucks. So fix the ending first, self, before you send it to her.”

And somewhat magically that left her saying things like, “I really like this one.” Period. Success! And in my gratitude for all she did for me, I wrote her the following poem.

The Midwife’s Poem

for Pamela

Rub your hand across this mound

of words. Do they kick? Does the rhythm

move your hand? How fast does that

counter-rhythm heartbeat flutter behind?

Does it fly in time? What kind of moth

child trembles under your hand, under

the skin of the poem? Is it drawn to the heat

of your palm? Does it hear yet another counter-

rhythm, the heartbeat that you bring

to your silent, mulled questioning?

Every few weeks, I come to you for this

questioning, this touch you have for rhythms

and the reasons behind them. Without you, yes,

I might gestate properly, but anxiety, the ache

in the night, might slow this mothchild’s growth

in me. You have a touch, softer than feathers

on a warm breeze, for the unborn delicate grey

wings, for the dark hot blood pumping, pumping

into each phrase, each stanza. You deliver

them, living, into the pale papery light.