Saturday, May 17, 2014

Poetry: The Art of Subtraction

I woke up two hours earlier than I usually do on Saturday and couldn't get back to sleep. It took me a couple of groggy minutes to realize it was because the early morning stillness was calling me to the page. After I had a brief quiet/devotional time, I got pen and paper (creeping around so I wouldn't wake anyone else up) and then snuggled down under a blanket to write.

I thought it was my novel calling out, and I did end up working on the beginning of chapter eight (you don't know how happy it makes me to be able to say "chapter eight" after about two decades of never getting past chapter three in a longer piece of fiction). I even worked for a bit on some notes for a possible script adaptation, one D. and I were talking about late last night before we fell asleep ~ ideas had apparently smuggled themselves into my sleeping hours. But much to my surprise, it was poetry that ended up being the most fruitful part of the writing morning. I wrote the draft of a poem yesterday -- first time in quite a while I'd dipped into poetry -- and this morning wrote three more!

I'm chuckling over the delight in quantifying the poetry writing experience.Unlike fiction writers, who love saying things like "I managed 800 new words today!" or even "I wrote 20,000 words this month!" poets seldom quantify. You rarely hear someone say "I wrote seven poems today!" or "wow, 246 new lines this month!" Maybe it's because anyone who has written a good deal of poetry knows that lines are going to be rearranged a dozen times and words and images pared down. While it's true that bigger isn't necessarily better when it comes to fiction either, I think it's possible for a good novelist to start with 20,000 words and still end up with that many when all is said and done, even while tightening and revising considerably. Stories have a way of expanding, filling up space, talking longer than we think they will. Poems, on the other hand, have the habit of getting quieter and smaller and tighter the longer we work at them, almost like a flower that's already bloomed re-closing into a bud and then opening again in a smaller, brighter, more perfect version of its earlier self.

My poem drafts are filled with cross-outs and parentheses, places where I realize I am being excessive with images or adjectives, lines where I question whether or not I really need to explain what I've just presented. Usually I discover that the image can speak for itself, or that if it can't, I need to work harder at helping it to. When I compose poems via the keyboard, a different kind of experience entirely, then the pages are filled with multiple copies of the same poem (thank goodness for copy/paste) with lines subtracted, rearranged, reformed. I still prefer writing first drafts by hand and revising via keyboard, but sometimes poems come unexpectedly and I do whatever feels right or handy in the moment.

The thing that still mystifies me most about poetry writing is where the ideas come from. It's such a lovely gift in that you never know what will spark the writing. The four poems I've worked on in the past two days each had a completely different seed kernel. The first came to me initially as a memory and a sound, the second was inspired by my reflection on a devotional reading this morning, the third mysteriously brought together two things I'd been thinking about but hadn't consciously put together (both things read about and contemplated during school time with my daughter), and the fourth was just a playful bit of response to a book I know and love well (the one I was working with for a possible script adaptation). Of the four, I think the one that's potentially the most powerful is the one where the two ideas came together in  a surprising way. One way I can tell that it's working is that I've already gone back to it twice to cut and polish.

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