Wednesday, September 8, 2021

I spent much of yesterday working on a poem draft, and the experience was tedious and slow, though eventually I did make progress. This was no day spent wallowing in creative drunkenness: the task was a slog from beginning to end. But work happens, whether it's fun or not: I have to relearn that lesson every single time I sit down to write. And because I find it easier to recall the bits and pieces of the slog-day process than to reprise the glory of in-the-zone, I also have an easier time explaining to other people what I've been doing.

So, the poem.

Late last week I started a draft that I had temporarily titled "Weather," a description of a rainy night. Yesterday, when I pulled the piece onto my screen, I saw some self-satisfied language, a boring arc, and a smug speaker--in short, I saw the sort of poem that I dislike myself for writing: glib, unsurprising, and superficially emotional.

My first urge was to trash the poem and never look at it again. But the language, though glib, had its attractions: I wasn't doing a terrible job of trying to describe the inside-outside experience of lying in bed listening to a rainstorm. Essentially, though, the poem was boring, and it was going nowhere. There was no turn, no dramatic movement, to shift it toward an ending. The piece was merely a chunk of nice-sounding words.

So I flipped the draft: I made the last stanza the first stanza, and rewrote the piece so that its events moved in the opposite direction. This was Shakeup Number 1: Suddenly several of my pet phrases, comments I'd been rather pleased with, turned into irritating pronouncements. Out they went. Out went some of the nice descriptive passages, which suddenly began to seem bloated. The draft was losing weight; its bones were starting to show.

Then, as the fat went, I began to notice that I was repeating sounds--rhymes, near rhymes--within the lines. Okay, then: Shakeup Number 2: Rewrite the poem in quatrains. For a stanza or two, this was easy, as I already had some rhymes to work with. But then there were the stanzas without them: now my brain had to rethink the piece as sound, and new rhymes were changing the direction of the poem radically. What was I talking about now? Where was this piece going? Finally, I was starting to surprise myself.

Which led to Shakeup Number 3: Quatrains are a double-edged sword. Yes, the rhymes can force surprises, but singsong meter and neat rhymes can also create boring sound and ridiculous syntax. So I split the quatrains into couplets: e.g., the rhyme scheme still existed (ABAB, CDCD, etc. ) but there was now a line space between them (AB // AB // CD // CD). As soon as I inserted that line space, I became able to break metrical bonds. The cadence loosened and the rhymes became less insistent. I felt as if I'd just opened a window: I still had the frame to lean on, but now the wind was hitting me in the face.

Finally, Shakeup Number 4: This draft, which I was learning to love, was insisting that it needed two extra lines. It did not want to end in a quatrain. I had to change the pattern and close with a rhymed couplet, but this had the potential of becoming too neat and slick: creating a smug aphorism, slamming a door shut. So, to parry this tendency, I changed my sentence style. The rest of the poem was made of long loose sentences that crossed lines and stanzas. The final line of the couplet was composed of three brief fragments.

Today I'll look at the draft again (now tentatively retitled "Island Weather"), and I'll no doubt make more changes. But I think the piece is probably in its final structural shape . . . because I did not throw out something bad, because I tried to divert my habits, because I messed around with the way the piece was moving down the page.


Carlene Gadapee said...

Teresa's Multiverse!!!

I'm excited for you; such energetic commitment to the draft!

Dawn Potter said...

Yes, a version of the multiverse, with some different activities plugged in. I didn't swell and shrink details so much as focus on re-seeing dramatic movement via formal shifts.

David (n of 49) said...

Grateful you shared all this.