Writer in Residence · 07/12/2012

Poetry Revision and the Changes that Come with Teaching

A linked list of all posts from Revision Month can be found here.

I’m curious, of course, about how we teach revision and how our teaching affects our own writing method. I often see interviews where writers are asked how editing has affected their writing, but I find far fewer interviewers asking about the effects of teaching. I wonder why that is. Below, we have some thoughts from the brilliant poet Tomas Morin, author of A Larger Country, on how teaching has changed the way he writes a poem, completely. I found this fascinating, though I don’t think it’s anything I could ever do.

How does teaching change the way we write? Maybe it makes us more aware of the kinds of things readers want, the current tastes in fiction, the possibilities that excite the kind of readers who want to be writers — the serious readers, often.

How do we present solutions in workshops and then go back to our own work, so baffling?

I find myself, in workshops, asking the same few questions over and over: what do we know about this character? What do we wish we knew, or what do we need to know? How does the character change? What does so-and-so element (structure, story stuff, title, etc.) do for the story, and is it enough? Who is the protagonist? Who has the agency? What does she have to gain or lose? Why is x so important, or what can we do to make it important? How would the story be different if y was different, better or worse? What is the outside story, the inside story? What is this story “about”? What does the story tell us it’s “about”? What is this story accomplishing and what can we do to help the other parts work with what is already successful?

There are more questions that I’m forgetting, but they are not so many, really. It’s a short list, a list anyone could ask himself after finishing a draft. But I think that by asking these questions over and over, I am asking the things that I can help with. There are probably questions here that I wish I was asking, questions, perhaps, that I have more trouble answering. When I am revising my work, I am looking for the same things I look for in my students’ work, but I have to be careful for issues I might not normally identify. This is one reason I read aloud. The ear hears what the eye doesn’t see. Maybe it’s one more way to distance myself from the work, letting the sounds go into the air and come back to me. I have found it helpful, sometimes, to record myself reading a story and then to listen to the recording. We all need a teacher, and sometimes we are our best teachers only when we can see ourselves as students.

Or some more cogent thought I am reaching for but not getting at right now. The point is, many of us are teachers as well as writers, so how has that changed our revision method — which, it occurs to me, is what we mostly teach in workshops, since we ask students to bring in drafts already written?

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Revision Thoughts from Tomas Morin

My method of revision underwent a significant change a few years ago. Before let’s say 2008, my way of revising a poem was fairly typical. I would write a complete full draft fairly quickly and then set about revising that draft and then repeat until that first draft had in time reached its final stage. Sometimes this would take a few months because I routinely set aside work so that time away from it would give me the objectivity to spot those weaknesses I couldn’t yet see. Sometimes this would also take years. During this time I would tinker with line breaks, improve images, modulate tone, etc.

Everything changed around 2008 when I stopped writing poetry year round. Writing and teaching had always competed against one another for my time and energy, a battle that was taxing and frustrating. In 08 I decided to only write poetry when I wasn’t teaching: winter, summer, spring break. The result was that whenever I had an idea for a poem come to me, I would take notes about the setting/plot/voices/images/maybe a last line and hope that when I unbottled the inspiration when I wasn’t teaching that there would be something there. To my surprise, not only was there something there, but my method of composition and revision had suddenly changed. Now, I began revising on the level of the line while I was composing the poem. What this means is that I won’t move on from let’s say line 4 to line 5 until lines 1-4 are exactly the way I want them. As I go along I save the poem multiple times in the event that I go down a dead end I can always backtrack. So my files for a particular poems will be titled something like, Bluetooth 1, Bluetooth 2, Bluetooth 3, and so on. By the time I’ve reached the last line I could be up to like Bluetooth 75. The result has been that I now usually take no more than a few days to write a poem because of the overlap between composition and revision. Once I’m reached the last line, I still read the whole thing and sharpen the things I mentioned before: lines, imagery, etc.

One huge advantage to my new style of revision is that most every poem I write now is a keeper. Before, I might write like 15 poems a year and toss half of them. Now, I write 4-5 a year and usually keep them all. I don’t know of any prose writers that revise like this, though someone suggested Nabokov, something which I haven’t checked out.

I tried to go back in time to when I wrote terrible poetry, and I asked Morin a follow-up question: I was wondering what you do to work on tone or imagery — how you know what works right — and whether you have any rules or tips for line breaks.

Where to begin the quagmire that is line break poetics! The most helpful things I’ve ever read with regard to the line came from an essay titled “Improvisations on Form and Measure” in Halflife by Charles Wright. One of my touchstones in that piece is the following: “Each line should be a station of the cross.” The implications of this with regards to structure, imagery, tone, plot, emotion, etc. are immense.

Also, Elizabeth Bishop’s poetry has been a great model to me about the importance of having quiet lines, lines that don’t demand attention. It was her work that showed me one need not have fireworks in every line.

As for tone and imagery, I try to make sure that as I go along, each successive image resonates with the ones that came before. This is easier to do because of the way I construct a poem now by revising along the way.

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I know very little about the intuitive process of poetry, but I always wrote my college essays on form and line breaks and meter and alliteration/assonance, etc. For some reason, I found it easier to analyze the technical aspects a poet can use to impart meaning. Perhaps the poet has more concrete strategies at hand, but I suspect it was also because a poem can focus entirely on meaning, without being encumbered by those pesky things like plot or character that a fiction writer uses to pull a reader along for several or many pages.

I remember going to a poetry reading once where Mary Oliver said she was writing poems with long sentences now in order to try to entice the reader to keep reading. But I think a reader comes to poetry with a different mindset. I do. I open a book of poems for a completely different experience. Not to be led through a story, but to be taught something by words.

I took my first writing class as a high school student at the nearby University of Connecticut, with a teacher obsessed with sound. She wanted each “l” to mean something soft, each “g” to mean something “harder.” She would trace a sound through a piece and try to show us how whenever that sound came up, it was attached to a running tone or theme or etc. I think that was when I first fell in love with the music of words, when I saw that she could do this, that poetry could do this. In college, I wrote my papers on how a break in the meter, or a disruption of a strict form, or a line break in a certain place, signaled to a reader that something was happening, something out of the usual and full of meaning. I love the beauty of sound but I was also coming to see that part of the beauty was in interruption.

There is a lot a fiction writer can learn from poetry — look at me, bringing it back to fiction. I like how Jim Shepard starts his readings with poetry. Many of the novelists I love have also been poets or list poets as their influences. Poetry puts a focus on some of the things fiction usually hides in the background: imagery, tone, music.

I had a poetry professor in college who said he always wanted to write a novel, but each time he tried to, he got a few beautiful lines in before he realized that it would take him forever to fill 200 pages one perfect turn of phrase at a time.

Because there is also the side of music, in fiction, at least in my experience, that can get in the way. To me, the beautiful sentences are usually my darlings. And as I have mentioned in these posts, I get too hung up on the sound and then it is hard to make larger changes that break the rhythm I have meticulously set. The biggest issue, though, is that I am still working on the level of sound imparting meaning. I prefer subtlety to explanation. I like the reader to flow along a surface of music, feeling the meaning beneath his back, keeping him afloat on sentences. I never want to drown my reader. I never want to drown myself in explanations, which always seem clunky to me, less beautiful, even when they are necessary. It can be a problem. I want tone. I want fiction that does all of the things that poetry does, and not only in the background. And yet I also know that I want fiction to do what fiction does, as well, all that plot and character development and pulling the reader along as fast as he can go.

Like teaching and writing, family and writing, editing and writing, it’s a balance.

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posted by Matt Salesses