A Secret to Clarity… That We Already Sort Of Knew

Like every other poet on the planet I have 1,000 notebooks with two or three pages filled that I abandoned for the next distraction. I had in my mind a plan to fill them all… this one for thoughts, this one for usable one-liners, that one for inspirational quotes that I would need later on for something important. Every few years I go through them and slice out the pages I used with an exacto-knife. Clean notebooks. The pages I would save for something important… I ended up with files and files full of random crap. Some of them poems, and even then they would be lost in the muck.

I was good at school, so I could keep that neat and tidy. But then again there was a ring leader cracking their whips at the lions, and a syllabus to follow and assignments and grades to check my progress. And even when the book bags got messy there was a sense of order on the timeline of classes. When it was all over I could just toss out the papers I didn’t want and move on.

But this is another beast.

Being an Internet poet who nobody has heard of is a bit of a challenge in itself. The blogger joke is that only your mom reads your blog… but I’m not sure if mom knows how to get on here, so joke’s on me 🙂  Getting the guts to post most of this stupid junk for blind peer review is nerve wrenching. Not to mention that there are things I know could be better, so resisting the urge to change the original instead of posting a new one is particularly difficult for me. There is pretty much nothing fun about having a blog, except of course the joy of no gatekeepers and no rules and no grades (though I did like the grades in school, I was one of those kids).

I encourage you to get out there and write… write about your job or your girlfriend or that one time at band camp… write because that’s what keeps us alive, it’s what makes us real and immortal and free. Don’t think you have to give something profound on the first try, the profound comes later. Later later later. Just write it down.

Once I had started writing things down I realized that I needed a plan… I needed a way to see how I was doing and I needed to work through the things in my collection that bothered me before I could start taking criticism from others…

I just read a compelling article on the Internet about how it takes ten years of deliberate practice to become a master, on Lifehacker.com. Please read it. It’s lovely. When I was working on my honors thesis (2 years ago ish) I noticed the same thing about the internet poets. Most of them had put in at least 10 years before their blog got any traction. It seemed like a weird number since the Internet is such a fast moving vehicle but it goes to show that even in this quick click life there are still mountains to climb.

So, we’ll talk in 7 years and I’ll let you know if that ten year figure is true. Until then there was something else the article mentioned about deliberate practice. I had been doing some specific practicing and goal setting here that I thought I would share since I am a process poet and all.

First, there’s a goal. I decided to write 100 poems and go from there. As I got closer to that number my next steps seemed clearer. Why have 100 poems that are shit, if you can go back and fix them. Of course, meeting that goal and having something to accomplish was a major player in keeping this site alive.

Second, there was a promise. I improved on existing material and tackled some of my own issues in an open forum, which, in some small way made me stick with it. Telling someone about a goal makes it so much harder to quit. If you can make sure there is someone in the world asking how that project is going so you have to own up to your hopes.

Third, there was a spreadsheet. It seems a little off base for a poet but having them all in one chart helps me see what must be done, what steps are next and where to go from here. I find that the easiest thing to lose is focus. The poems, the editing, the structure and the form come naturally, they are fun to get lost in, but the focus to move from one task to the next is a hard for someone so close to the work. For an outsider, or in school a professor, it was easy to follow a syllabus because someone else was in charge. Now that I am in charge I needed something similar to check off and feel accomplished.

These are my tactics, they will be different than yours. But I felt that in the name of transparency, which is the point of this blog, there needed to be another lens into the progress. so at the bottom of all of these poems and their sprawling versions is a spreadsheet, just like any other measurable, accountable project.

Keep writing, and set yourself up for success with a goal. Whether it’s 100 poems or a chapbook or a post a day, find your own secrets to success and you will be more than just a poet, you will have captured your potential.

Poem 123

Don’t kid yourself, I’m not going around again

Certainly now that I know the shortest route
To a circle is not the circumference…
Fuck pi, going on and on, moodier than a femme fatale.
Pick a number pi, land on a repeating decimal, settle for rational
But we shouldn’t settle for anything less than a modern miracle,
That’s the secret to striking a chord worth a secant
The line traced out is just the tedious long drawl
That’s what I know about circles…
That’s why I’m not going round.
–ECW 

Poem 122

pastoralism is the need for a time that was too perfect to be true; this is my ode to people who know what they are eating, with love from a girl who enjoys soy milk and tries to avoid reading ingredients. 
I’ve never parted the soil to bed a seed,
Never watched a seed toil into a tree
Bear fruit with seeds to grow again when spring comes.
No fruit in my cellar of my own reeping
I am keeping the pantry full with grocery needs.
I mostly toss away the seeds. Where would I put them?
In the first world I have a plastic bud by the dresser,
Reminding me of gardens, but needing no attention.
In the third world we pry poverty from its roots
Pity the poor without medicine and libraries,
Without word docs, emails, autocorrect
On the cell phones we don’t use to call our mothers.
How poor the people of seeds, growing the green leaves
Just as they always were, clean and clear the sunlight
The noisy nonsense civilized chew the dirt. 
I wouldn’t know a seed from a pebble or a fossil. 
Look up the photos on my cellphone and pity 
The people of the land, with only hope and no photos.
No eyes on the hive mind we share with touchscreens and wikis.
Just hope, the third world parts the earth and delivers their vessel.
Not needing a picture, the seed is every stage of tree.

—ECW

Poem 121

Literary Merit
They balled me up and crammed me in the cannon
Lit the fuse and I shot out in a tantrum—legs everywhere
Arm in gasps of air. Body square taking on flight like a skipping stone,
All alone in the atmosphere doing cartwheels on cloud heels and waiting
For them to cancel the act.
The cirque de cannon. Darting shadows around a covet-cliché,
We are air-borne of nimbus dream-madness until we crash.
And we will crash,
Because landing would mean we all deserve to survive.
But there would be so many worthy sky-dancers.
And the fellows below would rather wrap the safety net
Into a sack and cast us to the sea…
…quickly, hide in the cannon.

—ECW

(in case you thought this poem was about real cannons, read on)

Poem 86 Finalized; A Look At Phase 1

One final editing for Phase 1 of this epic project.

Before I talk about this poem I wanted to recap a little of what this has all been about. First, this beginning stage examined and revised all poetry that was not used in further projects (though those lines were a little blurry) and of course poems were excluded that exceeded 2 pages. It also stopped at a year from the project start to keep with the idea that it takes about a year. Many of these poems were vastly improved. Several of them were put down for later or forever and a choice few were completed as final drafts.

Why bother? Because poetry is an art not a magic trick, and because art means a deeper understanding than just a fleeting moment of lyric greatness. Because at the end of the day this blog (que eye roll for the use of a blog with an art as old as poetry) will be the project, the collection will be the poem, and the final meaning of poetry itself will be more than any single poem could do. A name writ in water can be eternal, and it also can flow with the tides.

With that I present Poem 86, an anomaly.

I am always talk about the fabled perfect first draft. A poem that is so spot on that there needs no editing. I rarely get that poem, in fact there is only one other poem here that I feel that way about. The truth is, my work needs a lot of work. It’s always been that way, so when I stumble on one that needs little to no editing I am a little agape.

Poem 86 is that poem. I was coming home from school to live for a while and I felt so strongly about the experience that I got it right on the first try. This may not be the best poem I’ve written, but as a first draft it is also as perfect as it will ever be. As a poet, that’s a hard call, but when you know you know. I made almost no changes and this ended up in the MFA selection, which proves how highly I regarded it. Of 100+ poems, I chose this first draft.

TAKEAWAY

When you know you know.
Don’t force it.

Original 86Revised 86

Stay tuned for the next phases of this epic project. I hope you’re having as much fun as I am.

 

Poem 85 Editing

Welcome to the Tree Phase

I laugh about my fish phase all the time. It came from a personal reading of Kate Chopin’s The Awakening and grew into a personal call to life. I found that most of my earthly experiences correlated closely with swimming and water movement. Of course it didn’t hurt that I was training for a black belt at the time so I was swimming laps everyday to keep in shape. I think poetry often echos out mindsets, but also the things we find valuable. The fish phase is something nearly comical in the edits I do here, because so many poems fall into that category and often I was just leaning on ideas and tropes I had established in my own mind.

Though I chuckle, it is not necessarily something to be scoffed at. Having phases in your work establishes your art arch. Like Picaso and his colored phases, there is a separation and a growth there, distinguishing freshness from sage. We are to cherish our phases, but not be limited by them. Sometimes fall back on the fish, but it is more with respect than as a fall back.

This poem marks the beginning of a second phase, the tree phase. The tree in this poem appears in half a dozen other poems and is a tree that I cherished beyond all others. It was a beacon of hope in an otherwise dark time and held together friendships and love with a grace I will never understand. It was the only tree I could climb on the quad at JMU and it made its way into my senior pictures.

But the tree is a myth of course. As time passes, the tree like the fish will fall into metaphor. For this phase, I can already see a nostalgia taking form. A sense of open longing for a past that maybe never was; pastoral. I remember the tree as I do my time in undergrad, with great respect, but also with a sense of wonder. It was the tree that grew and changed, fell into seasons, lost its leaves and grew them again. Not I. And when I look back at the tree I can see that I too took the same path, even though to the naked eye it was less obvious.

Look out for the tree in my work, the more mature fish, the bird and the cup of coffee. These are the signals of a better poet. Some write and have poems to show, others write and have edits to show, and those of us who have been working particularly hard have our phases to show for it. Keep an eye out for your own.

TAKEAWAY

There is nothing wrong with a phase. Like its own little chapter in your work, it will be come relevant with that birds’ eye view we talk about all the time. Keep a look out for the ways that you change the your own personal symbols and how your metaphor develops as you do. For me the fish was a symbol of shedding the downy bird of youth and naivety. The fish was a harder, scalier truth that we grow as we meet loss. The tree, a cyclical figure demonstrates a nostalgia that has no bounds but makes us sturdy and strong in our roots. It is the roots of the tree, after all, that matter the most. Phases are like photographs, cherish them, develop them, guard them, share them.

Poem 85 RevisedPoem 85 Original

Poem 83 Editing

Playing Favorites

This is a technique that grew from the idea of heart lines, the concept that there is a line in the poem that creates the work around it. This mini-version is like looking for the pulses on a sonar. In each of these 3 line stanzas a high, medium and low point establishes itself, like a pattern with no reason. There are lines I would keep and lines I would throw away. Of course there are other ways to look at a poem like this, I just saw the simplest to explain.

When looking for strong lines, we are also looking for the intention of the poem. That might sound silly after all of my other preaching about letting the poem come to life and allowing it to be itself. But the truth is poetry is a second language and we are sometimes lousy translators. When a poem gets muddy it is important to see where you were trying to go, where you feel is the best representation of the feeling, like a tiny heart line, a pulse.

These pulses are not necessarily the be-all-end-all for your work, just a sign that there are other forces under the poem working past the muck. So, like a sonar, if we highlight these lines we get a better picture of what’s really under the water. Cheesy but you get my point.

This poem was done as a representation of a painting. There are 1,000 ways I could have gone with it, but in this case I saw it fit to emphasize the personality of yellow in an internal rhyme syncopation. That, I hope, was the poem that was trying to get out all along. You’ll have to see for yourself.

TAKEAWAY

Here’s another way to look at a poem that might not yet have its sea legs. Looking for the peaks, or pulses, in each stanza will allow you to better landscape your poem and see what you were trying to write. We don’t always get it right the first time, but there are plenty of ways to rediscover the poem lurking below.

Poem 83 RevisedPoem 83 Original