As I challenged myself to interact with poetry daily, I found myself writing more poetry. Writing was much more organic, and I wasn’t staring at a blank page. If anything, I was trying to get my hands on a blank page and a pen and a few minutes when my daughter was occupied or napping. Or I would just jot some notes on my phone. I have found that just the act of thinking about something enough to write it down anywhere cements it in my mind in a more meaningful way so that it often bubbles up elsewhere. In the last year, I have made some changes to my writing practice, and I thought I would share them here.
First, I organize my digital work differently. I remember meeting with my writing partner Erika Saunders one afternoon, and we spent 15-20 minutes just discussing how we store our poetry digitally. It’s hard to organize poems because often the first draft is so different than the last, and whenever I tried to put them in folders about topics or in different states of done-ness, I would lose track of poems. It’s also hard because the title often changes, and so we both said that since we pick up poetry when we have time and sometimes go stretches without writing much, it can be difficult to know where to pick back up. I went to a free class taught by the the 2020 Pulitzer-prize winning Jericho Brown this last year, and he mentioned that he puts all his working poems into a single document, which he often emails to himself. He puts the poems which are getting closer to being done toward the top and the bits and pieces he doesn’t know what to do with yet towards the bottom. He said this way he can track all of the working pieces in the same place and keep scrolling down to work on what needs it. I have implemented something close to this, but I don’t move the more done ones up necessarily. I do save all the drafts and label them as drafts and put a line between poem ideas. The thing that I really like about this method is that the title doesn’t matter until the end, and when I want to work on my poetry, I open that document and there is all my recent work. Currently, that document is about 35 pages, so I will have to sort out a system for moving older drafts elsewhere and finished poems elsewhere. But it has taken out some time wasting for me, which is essential.
Second, I write 2-3 drafts before breaking my poem into lines. I learned this from Christine Stewart a few years ago at a writer’s conference. I remember her encouraging us to work out the sentences before the lines. As a very young poet, like in high school, I had no idea what I was doing with lineation. I just broke lines off and never revised or touched them and thought that they were absolutely genius. I think that was fine at the time, but now I have a greater sense of how to manipulate the line to add meaning to the poem that would otherwise be lost in prose. I also think more about how many lines in a stanza, what kind of pace I want readers to experience in the poem, etc. So, I keep it in a paragraph for a few drafts. Then, when I decide to lineate, I try a few different methods. I like to use couplets, so I try that and see how the flow works, try different line lengths, try different ways of emphasizing words. Through this process, I know when I have achieved the format I want because I have tried so many options.
In Bass’s class (which I discussed a bit in the last post), she shared with us this helpful way of thinking about line breaks:
“Meg Day calls a good line break industrious because it does the heavy lifting of
a) building off the semantic meaning in the line that precedes it
b) satisfying the semantic needs of the line on which it breaks
c) providing enough tension—by way of suspending that semantic need—to propel additional meaning into the line that follows
d) preventing the reader, by way of surprise, from moving too swiftly down the page.”
Third, as much as I can, I try to read the draft as if it was someone else’s draft. I taught English at SDSU from 2014 to 2020, and I am used to finding how to help students improve their composition drafts. Necessary changes can seem so obvious when it’s someone else’s work. However, in creative writing, it’s less obvious, and in one’s own writing, it can be near impossible to see where to go next. I have tried to make a more conscious effort to see the draft as if it isn’t mine. This helps me be harsher in my critique and to allow myself to explore more than I might have otherwise explored. It also gives me more freedom to step back from the actual, lived experience I am writing about (because I often write about lived experience) and to consider meaning and emphasis over telling the story the way it happened.
Fourth, I am starting to see poetry prompts everywhere. I wrote some of the prompts that I posted to this blog at the beginning of the month based on the most recent Pasque Petals. When professors suggested to get prompts and ideas from other authors, I used to feel intimidated by this because I was convinced that I couldn’t write anything as good as the authors I was reading, and also I didn’t know a wide swatch of work from a group of authors whose writing is along the same vein as mine. Honestly, I had to write enough to discover my style and subject matter to even recognize this. I write in a more accessible way than some of the books I have read this year. Some of them I understood maybe a few poems in a whole collection, and I think there’s a wonderful place in poem-world for more cryptic poems to be analyzed and felt. However, it’s not currently my style to write this way. So the authors who I return to now for my prompts write about their lives, their families, their bodies, nature, grief, love, hope, everyday experiences, etc. In these books (the ones that I recommended in the April 7 blog), I can find prompts for myself. For example, I was reading Ada Limón’s book The Carrying and she has a poem titled “Wife” in which she writes about what the word means to her. I have been working on a collection in which I write about scarred skin for some time now and decided to write one titled “Scar” by writing about the word specifically. I had a lot of fun writing about it, and even got my best friend the speech pathologist to give me some insight into how she teaches kids to say the sounds in the word “scar.” So the more that you can read work that really resonates with your writing style, the easier to find prompts within that work.
I hope that someone who reads this finds something here helpful. Anything to add as far as writing / revising tips? Let me know in the comments ????
By Jodi Andrews, MA