Wednesday, June 03, 2009

Revise, revise, revise

As I mentioned before, one of the best things I took away from the poetry workshop I went to last month was an appreciation for the importance of revision, something I've always struggled to do with my poetry. Along with the guidance on rewriting I got some good tips for reference materials. One of them I immediately went out and purchased from The Poetry Home Repair Manual, by Ted Kooser. And I must say, like his poetry, this slim volume of advice for beginning poets is full of easily accessible, pithy insights that sing in their simplicity. But I'll stop gushing before I start to sound too much the fangirl (which I admittedly am).

I wanted, really wanted, to like the advice from Sam Green (and Kooser as well) to keep a notebook for working on drafts and gathering ideas, because those black and white notebooks poking out of Mr. Green's satchel just seemed so... writerly. I have to confess, though, that one of the things I've really hated about revisions in the past is the unruly sheaf of papers it seems to create: stray yellow sheets ripped from legal pads, pieces of odd-shaped scratch paper and even the occasional scrap torn from the side of a brown paper bag, trapped unreliably between the pages of a notebook swollen to twice its former size.

Barring that, bound notebooks make it difficult for me to keep drafts of the same poem in the same place (unless I leave a lot of empty pages after each poem), and ring binders are just too clunky. So after some tweaking, I think I've found a system for organizing my poems and tracking revisions that embraces the idea of a notebook, but eliminates the clutter and potential for losing that stray sheet with the perfect poem I will never, ever be able to recreate.

Originally I had one Word document where I kept all my poetry, with the most recent poems added on at the beginning as I wrote them. If I did any revisions, I'd usually make changes to the poem in the document without any way to keep track of what I altered. Unfortunately, that system didn't allow me to go back later and see what I had originally written. Word has a feature that tracks changes, but I found all the red tags indicating edits to be extremely distracting as I tried to concentrate on reading and re-crafting my words. I finally hit on the idea of keeping all my poetry in a single folder, continuing to use my Word document for any new writing, but then cutting and pasting any poem I was actively revising into its own Word document. Now, each time I want to revise, I copy and paste the most recent version of the poem at the top of the document and make a note of the date, then rework the copy, leaving the older versions intact below.

So far this new system has been working well; for the last month I've buckled down to rework three or four poems I've written over the last year, and in some instances have gone back to earlier drafts to recapture details or imagery. One of the poems I wrote last July and it's been through several incarnations since then, but I think I'm getting close to being satisfied with it.


She baked bread in old blue and white yeast cans
she set the loaves to cool on racks
in a row of lofty gold butter-brushed domes
mushrooming to spill over tin rims
they were best within five minutes from the oven
the knife freeing each yielding round slice
in a rush of sweet yeasty steam
gently spread with butter
and eaten hot enough to barely scald my palms
but not blister the roof of my mouth
as my teeth tore the glorious wheat tissue

within a few years she would send me
all gangling reticence behind bleach streaked bangs
shuffling my scuffed white hole-in-the-toe sneakers
the entire two long blocks to Safeway
chipped fuchsia fingernails shoved deep in the front pockets
of my pegged and faded 501’s
back pockets stuffed with change:
handfuls of tarnished pennies
gleaned from the yawning broken zipper mouth
of her frayed tan purse
a couple of dimes
that had nestled between her hairbrush's teeth
a few nickels
retrieved from the folds of old grocery receipts
maybe even one or two quarters
from the side coin purse on her wallet

always just enough for four cheap loaves of
foamy white
perfectly square
uniformly sliced
preservative laden
negligibly nutritious
every loaf enshrined
in its own shiny bag
blue and yellow letters
cheerfully emblazoned
on all five sides
Ovenjoy Ovenjoy Ovenjoy

I slid first one slice, then another
in and out of the toaster
slathered them in margarine
sprinkled them with sugar cinnamon
then retreated to my room
closed my door behind me
balancing a stack of cinnamon toast
in a pile on a plastic plate decorated
with a faded spray of brown and pink roses
surprised I couldn’t taste a single slice
no matter how many I ate
could only feel the viscous grit
of margarine mixed with sugar
and all the thousand sharp edges on each piece of toast
tearing into the roof of my mouth
and the insides of my cheeks

I’d always try another slice just to see if it
would taste the same
would finally feed me
the way her bread used to do
but it never did.

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