October is the tenth month of the year, and a month I look forward to whenever I check my personal calendar. In terms of official dates, I look at a long weekend for National Indigenous People’s Day (formerly Columbus Day, or, for Geneseo, Fall Break), my birthday in the middle of the month, and Halloween on the last day of the month, which is my favorite holiday. In terms of experiences, I look forward to October because it is the month in my experience when the leaves start changing color, when I’m settled into the school year, when I feel the crisp fall breeze and a chai latte in my hands. It’s cold enough to wear sweaters and the occasional jacket, but warm enough that I don’t die of frostbite. It’s the month of pumpkins and apples and cinnamon and “It’s The Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown.” What more could I ask for?
I am currently in the process of rewriting a poem that someone else wrote, something that is jarring and unsettling in a lot of ways. Even more importantly, this is a poem that I looked at and didn’t see any clichés that needed to be cut out, any formatting that needed to be fixed, or any other egregious issues upon the first reading, the fourth reading, or the forty-second. My task however, is to rewrite it, whether in my opinion this poem needs big fixes or minor tweaks.
The first worry I have is whether I come from this high-and-mighty editor’s chair and totally misinterpret the vision that the poet had. Throughout my academic career, I have learned about literature through the three-headed demon of themes, motifs, and the main idea. Each of these categories imply a limited range of choices, and I have always felt satisfied when I discovered one of those choices. Sometimes I can make as many revisions as I want, but my question is whether any of those revisions are justified in the grand literary vision of the poet. I think everyone would like to think that their point of view on anything, from dining halls to politics to moral frameworks, is valid, otherwise we’re just shouting into the void of an unfamiliar and detached universe. Of course this writing assignment is a blip in the grande scheme of the universe, but I’d still like to think my viewpoint is valid all the same.
I am used to giving annotations and other suggestions for poets, and that part doesn’t faze me. They exist outside the realm of potential text, and exist outside the realm of criticism that later readers might write in the margins. That is, if the poet integrates my re-write into a later draft. This would be beyond flattering, but what if other readers don’t find this rewrite justified? What if my work is subject to the same red pen annotations that I used when critiquing other poet’s work?
If the poet doesn’t integrate my re-write into a later draft, I don’t know that the outcome would be any better either. My writing and my art in general come with a heavy amount of personal investment, no matter how many times I say that I am experimenting or otherwise intellectually curious or detached. That doesn’t mean that I am a sensitive snowflake who can’t take constructive criticism, but having my ideas dismissed without an opportunity to discuss them is something that makes me feel hurt. Of course, the real world doesn’t always work this way, but the writing workshop often creates this environment that makes me believe all of my ideas are heard and understood through discussion and frequent feedback.
These are probably my three biggest anxieties about rewriting, and I only hope my revisions do the poem justice. Let me know in the comments if there’s anything that I need to clarify further, as I do have a tendency to be long-winded in these blog posts!
One of my favorite poems that I have read so far in workshop is Sam Sax’s “Lisp”, an eye-opener for me in terms of manipulating alliteration to suit both form and content. The poem is one stanza long, and the line breaks at the end end in relatively the same places on the page. All of the text is in lowercase, except for the singular letter s. This lowercase appears muted, whisper-like, but also draws our attention to the phrases, instead of the names and proper nouns like it would if there was capitalization. A forward slash separates each phrase, and sometimes it ends a line, sometimes it does not. The line, traditionally used in literary analysis to separate lines of prose from one another, becomes warped in this poem, halting the reader as they read for a phrase, stop, and continue reading. There is very little punctuation throughout the poem, and the refusal to abide by traditional grammar standards (as seen in the lack of capitalization) indicate a speaker who is not interested in the grammatical rules as well.
Immediately after my final exams were over, and I turned in my portfolio for ENGL 201, I had to pack for a HUMN 220 trip to Greece. This trip was definitely a bucket list trip for me, ever since I picked up D’Aulaire’s Book of Greek Myths and read it until the spine almost came apart. As I packed, I wondered about Greece’s imprint in Western Civilization, and how I would walk the same streets as Plato, Saint Paul, and so many great thinkers. It blew my mind. Still does.
However, when I was there, I was overwhelmed by what little came out of my pen. Here I was, in Greece, spending some days in an Athenian apartment with ten girls, one working bathroom, and no air conditioning, and other days in Santorini, where the waters are the most beautiful royal blue I’ve ever seen. I read Dante’s Inferno and St. Augustine’s Confessions and William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, some of the major works in the literary canon. Two of my favorite moments in the Inferno were Francesa’s retelling of her love affair with Paolo and Dante’s tutor’s moving response to Dante’s queries. I enjoyed the Greek nightlife with my friends, and got wasted soon after drinking ouzo. I also experienced several moments of profound spirituality, such as when I visited the Mount Parnassus and the Temple of Apollo, where the Oracle of Delphi resided. The view of the eroding temple, contrasted against stark dark mountains and a green valley, is a view I will remember forever, and that place contained a mystical energy that kept me silent and reflective on the bus ride back. In Corinth, I stood on a platform where Saint Paul preached, right in the center of the agora. On that platform, there was a plaque with a quote from 2 Corinthians: “For this slight momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal height of glory beyond all comparison.” (2 Corinthians, 1:17) That same energy that struck me at Mount Parnassus was there as well.
However, all I came up with writing-wise was drivel. All my poems were about the same. Each poem had three stanzas, a female speaker, and a plot about a relationship with an emotionally unavailable man. I should have been creatively flourishing in a new environment, in a place many people (including myself) dream of going. On the repeated bus trips, I would stare at my writer’s notebook in disbelief, either losing my train of thought or furious that the poem that I thought was original turned out to have the same pattern.
I spent the rest of that summer in a creative drought, instead occupying my summer with work in a teaching assistant position, visiting friends and relatives, and preparing for my sophomore year of college. I am so excited for this poetry workshop because it will put me into a creative routine, something that I’ve been missing ever since Greece. I became very close with my ENGL 201 class last semester, and I felt affirmed by both their praise and critiques of my work and each other’s work. My work was better than it had ever been before, and I’m so excited to spend the semester in the company of my fellow poets, writing regularly so that it fills the blank page.