On Making Poetry Public

October 20, 2011  |  Uncategorized

My latest collection of poems, Water Over Stone, IP Press is about to be launched.  As I read aloud to an audience, words I have wrestled with for years, I ponder the long process that took raw emotion and language and refined it into something I am at last ready to share.

For me, the genesis of a poem is intensely private.  It begins as a pinch deep inside, like the pop of an egg and I know I am fertile. A poem wants to be born, but I don’t know anything about it yet.  If I ignore the pinch, I find myself growing cranky and miserable.  If I honour it with time for quiet contemplation, I am rewarded with an image, sound, or phrase that suggests the raw beginnings of a poetic form.  These I incubate for a time, perhaps an hour, a week or months.  The random lists of words or  phrases or even a mood begins to coagulate. Often I have false starts.  There is a point in every poem I write where I feel despair.  I fear this poem will spontaneously abort.  I am sitting in the chaos of creation without knowing how it will ever come into form.

Sometimes it comes as a trickle, sometimes a gush…

The secret of it all is to write in the gush, the throb, the flood, of the moment — to get things down without deliberation – without worrying about their style — without waiting for a fit time or place. I always worked that way. I took the first scrap of paper, the first doorstep, the first desk, and wrote — wrote, wrote . . . By writing in the instant the very heartbeat of life is caught.

Walt Whitman, “Walt Whitman’s Camden Conversations”

When the poem finally reaches the page in a form that feels solid, I am elated.  This post-partum passion can last as long as a week.  I am in love with my latest offspring and want to stay up all night just to watch it breathe!   My urge is to show this precious creation to everyone I know.  This is the quintessential poem and renders all earlier poems obsolete.  THIS IS NOT THE TIME TO MAKE THE POEM PUBLIC.  I am not ready for any kind of criticism yet.

Finally, the cold winds of doubt arise.  Will anyone understand my newborn?  Now the inner poet gives room for the inner critic.  If the inner critic is an ally, this is an important relationship.  Now I am ready to re-examine the poem with fresh eyes. I can generally spot the obvious clichés and  weaknesses like adverbs and adjectives or abstract words that don’t serve the poem.  I can also email it to a few trusted poet friends for comment.  I am ready to hear what isn’t working. I am prepared to prune back any self-indulgent phrases and to weave in missing links.

Again and again, I read the poem aloud, listening for clunky words or awkward phrases. The poem is still not ready to go public.  I let it rest in a drawer for a few weeks and force myself not to re-read it until once again I can face it with fresh eyes.  Usually, there are some minor changes at this point, but sometimes I turn the poem inside out and it becomes something quite different. I ask myself, What am I really trying to say?

The mind wraps itself around a poem. It is almost sensual, particularly if you work on a computer. You can turn the poem round and about and upside down, dancing with it a kind of bolero of two snakes twisting and coiling, until the poem has found its right and proper shape.  —Marge Piercy

At last, I am ready to bring it out in public. I practice re-embodying the poem, connecting to the emotion that drives it. I practice in front of a trusted writing group or an encouraging crowd at a local poetry reading.  Often just speaking the poem in front of strangers, reveals weak points I hadn’t noticed before.  Some poems are easily accessible when performed.  Others work best on the page.

More changes are made.  A comma moved, a shift of line break.  Printed out, the poem is ready to go off into the world.  It is submitted to a literary magazine or a contest and forgotten.

Call me fickle, but response can take many months. I am fully engaged in other poems, my latest darlings. If the word eventually comes back, that the poem will see print, there is a curious anti-climax.  The poem no longer belongs to me, but to the reading public.  I look at it in the magazine and feel surprise.

Could this be my baby?

Collecting these poems into a manuscript is the next step.  They change subtly as they are placed side by side with others.  When the book appears and I hear the feedback from readers, once again I am surprised. Readers often see links I never thought of and make assumptions that every part of a poem is true and  about me.  Many choices are made even in autobiographical poems to distil and conflate for the sake of the poem.   Some are purely fiction.

At last, the book launch and a more extended performance where I continue to discover new things about my own poems.  It is a relationship that grows and changes as I do.

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