THE ART OF REVISING POETRY

THE ART OF REVISING POETRY: 21 U.S. POETS ON THEIR DRAFTS, CRAFT, AND PROCESS, edited by Charles Finn and Kim Stafford. Bloomsbury Academic, 50 Bedford Square, London, WC1B 3DP, UK, 2023, 156 pages, $20.96, paper, www.bloomsbury.com.

https://www.kimstaffordpoet.com

For this week, a departure from the usual one-poet book. I came across The Art of Revising Poetry last year while in Livingston, Montana, where I bought On a Benediction of Wind: Poems and Photographs from the American West—poems by Charles Finn, photography by Barbara Michelman (I will have a post on this book next week).

When I looked up Finn to learn more about him, I discovered that he and Kim Stafford—a poet well known to me—had collaborated on an anthology of poems and essays about revision, not yet released. I put it on my wish list, and in December I found it at my library. (I’m going to have to buy my own copy.)

The opening essay is worth the price of admission, and includes a list of 12 suggestions for revision. The first:

  1. How could the poem’s title be more intriguing, prophetic, indelible? It’s been said the title of the poem holds about 20 percent of the poem’s overall effect. How can a poet tinker until the title alone compels? (p. 3)

The 21 poets include Finn and Stafford, also Abayomi Animashaun, Naomi Shihab Nye, Jane Hirshfield, Joe Wilkins, Shin Yu Pai, CMarie Fuhrman, Prageeta Sharma, Frank X Walker, Beth Piatote, Sean Prentiss, Shann Ray, Philip Metres, Rose McLarney, Yona Harvey, Paulann Petersen, Todd Davis, Tami Haaland, Jimmy Santiago Baca, and Terry Tempest Williams.

(I had planned to offer a sampling of names, then I just kept going.) The list includes poets known to me and unknown. The approaches to revision are as diverse as the poets. They echo one another, of course—they’re writing about the same topic, after all—but each poet adds something unexpected. Not one disappoints.

As I read, I kept writing out passages in my notebook. “My revision process is, overall, one of inquiry,” Rose McLarney writes in “Identifying Gems” (p. 57). In “Finding the Language, Finding  Story” (a gorgeous essay that is also about raising a child), Joe Wilkins shares a strategy I honestly had never thought of:  “I usually write in couplets (you can’t hide anything in couplets, all that white space forces you to interrogate every word)” (p. 18).

In “Emptying the Zendo,” Shin Yu Pai admits that she doesn’t revise very much, then elaborates:

Revision, for me, is like polishing a gem to bring out its beauty. However, this working and reworking of the stone also changes its rawest qualities and alters its energy. The place where I decide to put down the pen and stop fussing with the poem is not the place another poet, teacher, or scholar might choose to end. Ultimately, we find our own relationship to our voice and our objects through reading, practice, and deep listening. In this way, we are our own teachers. —Shin Yu Pai

This might be good advice for life, as well as for writing. We find our own relationship through using our own voice, but also reading, practice, and deep listening.

For each poet, we encounter first a photo of an early draft, usually hand-written, then a typed “first” draft, next the final version, and finally a short essay about the revision. Here is Animashaun’s final draft:

Exodus

When the last immigrants
Walked out the gates

Fireworks lit up the sky
Horns and sirens blared

From every window
Flags draped

The country at last
Was itself again.

At the park, townsfolk
Celebrated new liberation day—

They cheered as foreign clothes
Were burned in piles

Danced when ethnic foods
Were flushed down sewers

And monuments to migrants
Were lassoed and pulled down

Including statues
Of the town’s founders—

Immigrants some say
From the horn of Africa—

Whose clay heads now dangle
From a rope in the heart of town.

—Abayomi Animashaun

In his essay, “Discipline and Unknowing,” Animashaun writes about the journey he took with this particular poem, and about what happens with every poem:

I never know where the writing will lead, but I accept the gift of each word, of each phrase, with the faith that each will yield in its own time as long as I continue to listen and remain steadfast . —Abayomi Animashaun

(To learn more about Animashaun and his books, visit his website: http://www.abayomianimashaun.com/books.html.)

I find myself wishing I were teaching a class where I could assign this book and discuss it. I’ll shut up now and let you find your own copy. The publisher is currently offering it at a discount: https://www.bloomsbury.com/us/art-of-revising-poetry-9781350289277/.

 

Rita Dove, PLAYLIST FOR THE APOCALYPSE

PLAYLIST FOR THE APOCALYPSE, Rita Dove. W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 500 5th Avenue, New York, N.Y., 10110, 2021, 114 pages, $15.95, paper, www.wwnorton.com.

What a pleasure to read this book of poems by the inimitable Rita Dove, Pulitzer Prize winning poet, former U. S. Poet Laureate, editor (in 2011) of the Penguin Anthology of 20th Century American Poetry, etc., etc. I knew, before reading a single poem, that, 1) I would be confronted by challenging content; and 2) I was in capable hands.

I was not disappointed.

The poems are divided into six sections, each section addressing a facet of history, whether national, international, or personal. “After Egypt” takes up the long history of emigration, displacement, and ghettoization. The section, “A Standing Witness,” emerged when she was tasked to collaborate on “a song cycle, bearing witness to the last fifty-odd years.” It begins with an epigraph:

People are trapped in history and history is trapped in them.

—James Baldwin

All the better—Dove might be arguing here—that we face this history and do not flinch away from it. So, a poem about the girls murdered in the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama (“Youth Sunday”); a poem titled for Trayvon Martin, “Trayvon, Redux”; a poem about Mohammed Ali (“our homegrown warrior, America’s / toffee-tone Titan; how dare he swagger / in the name of peace?”). A whole section of poems titled “The Angry Odes.”

As for the personal history, in the final section, “Little Book of Woe,” the poems tackle a difficult personal diagnosis. In “Borderline Mambo,” the lines are both dark and playful, with a powerfully effective anaphora in “as if” (and, later in the poem, riffs on that phrase): “As if you could get the last sip of champagne / out of the bottom of the fluted glass. / As if we weren’t all dying, as if we all weren’t / going to die some time, as if we knew for certain / when, or how.”

Opening that section, a long poem, “Soup,” which I’d love to include in its entirety:

When the doctor said I’ve got good news and bad news,
I thought of soup—how long it had been
since I had had the homemade kind,
the real deal where you soak the beans overnight…

A tour-de-force sentence that rolls on for 29 lines!

I could choose so many poems, and would love to send the whole book to you (the epigraphs!), but I’m led to show you that playful, word-drunk side, and so, this one, from the section titled, “The Angry Odes”:

Ode to My Right Knee

Oh, obstreperous one, ornery outside of ordinary
protocols; paramilitary probie par

excellence: Every evidence
you yield yells.

No noise
too tough to tackle, tears

springing such sudden salt
when walking wrenches:

Haranguer, hag, hanger-on—how
much more maddening

insidious imperfection?
Membranes matter-of-factly

corroding, crazed cartilage calmly chipping
away as another arduous ambulation

begins, bone bruising bone.
Leather Lothario, lone laboring

gladiator grappling, groveling
for favor; fairweather forecaster, fickle friend,

jive jiggy joint:
Kindly keep kicking.

—Rita Dove

And if you didn’t notice the alliterative words in each line, go back now and read it again.

I first fell in love with Rita Dove’s Motherlove (1995). If you want to learn more about her, start with her pages (and numerous poems) at Poetry Foundation: https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poets/rita-dove.

At https://uva.theopenscholar.com/rita-dove you will find a list of Dove’s many accomplishments, including the 2024 Thomas Robinson Prize for Southern Literature.

Just a Note

I’ve had several emails in response to recent blog posts, and I want to highlight these two:

 

First, this shout-out from J. I. Kleinberg’s Chocolate Is a Verb: https://chocolateisaverb.wordpress.com/2024/02/10/thank-you-bethany-reid/

And DO notice the nudge toward Judy’s reading at Pelican Bay Books in Anacortes on Feb. 24, with none other than the fabulous Claudia Castro Luna.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

And an email from the Jackstraw Cultural Center, regarding this podcast — part interview, part poetry reading, of my dear friend Carla Shafer:

J. I. Kleinberg, THE WORD FOR STANDING ALONE IN A FIELD

THE WORD FOR STANDING ALONE IN A FIELD, J. I. Kleinberg. Bottlecap Press, 2023, 32 pages, $10, https://bottlecap.press.

I have been a follower of J. I. (Judy) Kleinberg, Bellingham poet, artist, and blogger for a number of years. If you have not already subscribed to her near-daily blog The Poetry Department, you must do so immediately. You’ll find there all sorts of poetry-centric announcements—for readings both local and world-wide, for book and journal recommendations, for great quotes, and more.

Kleinberg posts her own artfully collaged, found poems at her personal blog, Chocolate Is a Verb, and this, too, I recommend.

What a delight to have not one but three collections of poetry by Kleinberg released to the wild in 2023. (I am breathlessly awaiting a full-length collection.)

In The Word for Standing Alone in a Field every poem brings to life a scarecrow—part Dorothy’s Scarecrow from The Wizard of Oz; partly an actual scarecrow, hung in a corn field, immobile, abandoned; partly dark witness to the world. I want to write to “the world on fire.” We meet him, and get to know him through the voice of a girl, who seems to me beyond lonely. But, once she has her scarecrow, she becomes his friend and amanuensis, and through her we learn the scarecrow’s secrets, and through him we glimpse her secrets.

I don’t want to tell you too much. She holds the scarecrow when he weeps. She observes how his “shadow / stretches across the tasseled corn, / a long scarf pulled in hour by hour / until it’s hidden beneath the circle / of his hat” (“Shadow”), and how she finds him, and the crows, and more, as “We all kneel together // in the church of corn.” (“Alike”).

Any of these 28 poems would be a good choice to share. Some are imagist, some paint a larger picture: “Oh scarecrow, faded effigy, straw man, / what can you tell us…” (“Effigy”). Every one of them shot right through me.

Stranger

Indoors and in doorways,
the scarecrow is a stranger.

His roof is blue or gray or black,
fastened by stars. His carpet

the color of seasons—green,
gold, brown, green again—

but his feet in his boots
never touch down, suspended

in a wilted crucifixion,
arms flung, eyes turned

to the girl in the doorway.

—J. I. Kleinberg

Kleinberg is an award-winning poet and has published widely. To learn more about her, find her at Poets & Writers: https://www.pw.org/directory/writers/ji_kleinberg.

Or read the lovely overiew at her author page at Bottlecap Press: https://bottlecap.press/products/field?keyword=standing%20alone.

Such a treat!