One of the standard questions asked of the many poets in the interviews republished from the New York Quarterly, in the book I featured in my last blog, The Craft of Poetry, Interviews from the New York Quarterly edited by William Packard, (now out-of-print), was about their revision process. For example, here is the exchange when the question was put to Jerome Rothenberg:
NYQ: What do you feel about revision in your own work?
JR: This whole question of revision seems to me to be a matter of overcoming distractions. When I’m not distracted to begin with, when I’m sort of concentrating, experiencing a peak of concentration, then I basically don’t have to revise what I write. I do tend to be distracted. In other words my discipline in terms of being able to focus on the work is not so great that I invariably write without revision. So revision is an attempt to return, to make up for that loss of focus. In some sense being distracted by sounds, people on the telephone, all of those things take me off into different directions, and I haven’t tended to write poetry in which I can take advantage of wandering off. I am trying to focus. The poetry may have its own gaps, but it’s a form of concentration. If I can’t get it all together at one time, then I have to get it together over a number of occasions. And sometimes something that starts well enough doesn’t come to any conclusion.
Allan Ginsberg indicated something similar in his interview stating that, “[He does] as little revision as possible. The craft, the art consists of paying attention to the actual movie of the mind. Writing it down is a by-product of that.” He also goes on to talk at length about the focus and concentration Rothenberg mentions.
My work tends to require lots of revision and these two processes–writing and revising–are very different activities for me. The initial writing is often a more delightful, inspired event. Revision, even though it demands a great deal of creativity, feels like a different kind of mental activity, more critical and well, more like, work. To me, it feels like where the real poem is often created.
I actually like revision and that’s a good thing because revising my manuscript is all I have been doing for the past several weeks. . . also the reason why I have been remiss in posting more frequently. For many reasons, I hadn’t gone back to the manuscript as a manuscript in several months. By letting the poems set for a while, I find that I am seeing them with entirely new eyes. It is a different journey than the one I went through putting them together in the first place. I don’t know how this works for others but for me, since this is my first full-length manuscript, it’s been nothing short of a revelation .
Some poems I liked originally, I have taken out, altogether (even Rothenberg acknowledges that some poems that start out well, don’t come to any conclusion); while, others I thought about taking out earlier, I kept in and they have become—through revision—some of the strongest work in the manuscript. Also, I find that I am more willing to experiment with form, language, and lineation perhaps because, I can be more objective at this point perhaps because I am not as emotionally tied to the initial inspired creation. Further, I am reading and being influenced by different poets at this point and that is very clearly influencing the revisions. Finally, when I gathered together some new poems I had written over the past several months, and added them to the manuscript, I realized the book simply wasn’t done before. It still isn’t, but it feels like it’s getting closer.
As a more mature (in years, anyway) young poet, I am often tempted to feel like I don’t have enough time in my life to let my poems sit for several weeks or months before I come back to them. But coming back to the manuscript after a hiatus has shown me that there really is something very useful—at least for me—in putting a poem down for a while, then coming back to it. There is real value in letting the poem exist outside of my bias or perception undistorted by my emotional investment in it. It creates important creative objectivity.
© 2010-2012 Grace Curtis