The Editing Itch and Other Ideas

I think that the most challenging part of the workshop for me, thus far, is attempting to keep the poetry train rolling when I have so much love for one poem at a time.  I don’t know if anyone else experiences their poetry in this way, but I always want to edit a poem to perfection before I start on a new one.  I feel as if I’ve left that particular poem in the dust if I start something new, and my brain just doesn’t want to move forward to new content.  If it’s a poem I’m proud of, I want to spend forever fixing minor issues with tenses, syntax, etc.  However, I’ve noticed more and more that I can accept a poem that isn’t perfect.

While it’s human nature to move toward perfection, I’m more comfortable now leaving a poem to fend for itself and grow into something new over time.  I can flit from idea to idea and not feel as if my poems are suffering for it.  I can come back to a poem with a new perspective and still respect it for the ideas I was wrestling with at the time it was written.  I don’t necessarily believe that poetry can be perfect, though many great poems come close.  That, for me, is the power of words and the ways in which they mean different things for people over time.  A once innocuous word can gain special significance through one singular event, and that essence can be unique to just that person.  The poem is like a journey toward that word that attempts to acquaint the reader with the particular feelings and events the speaker associates with that word.

For example, plenty of people associate fall with apple cider and the smell of baking pies.  However, a small group of people may associate fall with the day they first experienced fear at the top of a jungle gym, or the crunching of leaves under loud boots as they come toward you from behind.  Those associations don’t really hold true for everyone, but I think that the job of poetry is to lead the reader to that association through words.  If a poem is a good one, it can bring the speaker and the reader to the same feelings about a word or a time or a place.

That’s what I try to do with my poems, and hearing back from other poets in workshop helps me figure out if my poetry is leading my readers to that same conclusion.  Even if the general “feeling” someone gets from one of my poems is in line with my goal, I consider it a success, but I will always want to make sure every reader can come out of my poems associating say, skin with both the sensual and the savage.  It is a struggle to bring words to the table which mean the same thing for a lot of people while also allowing the words to gain complexity.


3 Replies to “The Editing Itch and Other Ideas”

  1. Nicole,

    I experience my poetry in a completely opposite way. When I “finish” writing a poem, particularly one that I don’t like/ am having a hard time with, I completely ignore it for a very long time. My poems probably have abandonment issues. I push them into a folder and don’t open them except every once in awhile to re-read them and see if I am ready to jump back into them. It is only when that re-read is in some way inspiring (whether out of frustration or admiration for my previously written work) that I can go back to it and start revising. Though I will say that due to the way the workshop schedule works, I often have to return to poems sooner than I want to. And it is painful.

    As far the idea of the “perfect” poem goes– I think part of what you’re getting at, too, is that a poem may never be “perfect” because language allows multiple ways to achieve perfection, and one poem cannot simultaneously do all things. Maybe you weren’t meaning this at all, but it is definitely something I have thought about before.


  2. Chloe,
    I feel you. I dislike revising my poems right away. Usually I’ll revise a poem twice before sending it workshop and after those two immediate revisions which produce a final draft, I hate revising again unless I feel like I am in the poem again. For me, each poem is a moment that I managed to capture. It’s fleeting. The chances of that moment returning are slim, but sometimes, when I re-read a poem I feel who I was in that moment and am able to revise the way the poem needs to be revised. I wonder if this makes sense at all.

  3. I’m not really sure how I do with editing my poems; it’s been so long since I’ve written any (something I have come to greatly regret). I find that, with the poems I’m most proud of, not only do I not want to move on – but I literally cannot stop working on them. The most recent submission I worked on feverishly for three hours straight at Denny’s, unable to even leave to go to the bathroom. The drive home, when my computer had died and I still had a few words left to squeeze out of me, was torturous.

    On the other hand, once I write that poem, I never want to change it. I won’t come back to it, even with revision suggestions, unless I’m forced. It’s like all the poetic substance of that kind has left my body. A flame, extinguished.

    But with other poems, poems that came about more gently, I think I’m more willing both to leave them behind and pick them back up again; they are a constant warm glow, something that likely always lives within me and so I can access again and again.

    Perfection is my least favorite word, just because I don’t think a poem is ever perfect or complete. That’s what stresses me out about sending off work to Gandy Dancer or any of the others – what i I want to change it later? What if I learn a new word – a sussurus, for example – that drastically changes my ability to see clearly what the poem intends for itself. Unfortunately, we will always be able to reshape our poems because we are always different and learning, about ourselves and the world. I think there’s a certain amount of perfection that I can feel – a level of polish where I’m happy enough with the poem to share it with others and allow it to stand against criticism. When you find that happy place, that’s really all you need.

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