31 May 2010

You Sank My Prose Poem! A Word About Revision


I spent a good deal of time last week revising poems. Perhaps by some strange alignment of the stars, I’ve been locked into writing prose poems for most of the year. I have even gone back to some older poems, which draped across the page and turned them into blocky-talkie prose poems. What started out as a vital experiment in form locked me into a specific shape. My poems were beginning to feel like Kraft singles neatly displayed in their plastic packages.

Last week I took a chisel to the paragraph blocks of my poems. It felt good to hammer them into pieces. I displayed the old draping forms next to the rectangular ones and proceeded to make new breaks. The new shapes of the poems look like boats in the game Battleship. The depth charges of stanza and line breaks sunk the heavy freighters and left me with sleeker vessels.

With a few snips and hems, my poems make me happier than they have in a long time. They don’t appear “weak” like the draping forms and are no longer clunky word bricks. Again and again, I am amazed to find the real poem within the poem that I have written. Through many layers of revision, the true poem or the heart of verse emerges.

Much like a sculptor, it is my job to knock off the awkward pieces and to reveal what is underneath.

Revision on the page, especially revising a poem for shape, confronts the major differences between spoken word and verse. Spoken word revises for rhythm, musicality and sonic thrust, the same as traditional verse. Spoken word at its heart is an aural experience. It’s a performance that can be recorded and transmitted through visual and audio media, but cannot be translated accurately on the page—at least in my opinion. What thrills me about spoken word is the visceral and ephemeral quality of a spoken word artist performing live. The artist’s becomes as much of a medium for the art as the words. Voice, timing, breath, gesture and facial expression create a dynamic and intrinsic quality to the work performed.

The poem performed on stage is not the same poem written on the page.

There are as many ways to revise work as there are writers. After the initial writing of a poem I will read it out loud and tinker with it until I am either happy with where it is going or frustrated enough to let it go. After which, the poem must sit. I cannot objectively look at my work within a week of writing it.

For me, my first drafts are either brilliant or total pieces of crap depending on my mental outlook for the day. Coming back to a poem a after week or more gives me some breathing room. It may really be fantastic or terrible, but more likely it will land in the horrible place called “It Needs Work.”

I revise poems and let them rest again. A typical draft will see ten or fifteen tinkers at the very least. While these may not constitute major changes, each draft will attempt to take the poem closer to where I think it needs to go. Revision is the method by which I find what I am really trying to say. Initial drafts are just large gestures.

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