Poetry and Process

National Poetry Month just ended, and I completed a successful 30/30: thirty poems in thirty days. This is the first time I’ve managed 30 poems in a couple of years, so I’m happy that I have some new lines to work with. Most of the thirty are not that good, since I don’t revise or rewrite during the 30 day period; the focus is simply on producing. There are some gems in the pages of my notebook, though, and I’m looking forward to revising them in the coming months. 

For one of them, temporarily titled “Green Flags” I’ll take you through my revision process. I learned, long ago, that waiting to revise is the only way I get words down on the page. If I start trying to get it “right” while I’m writing, I don’t get past a few lines because I get stuck in the rewriting loop. 

As I often tell my writing students, sometimes you have to finish something before you know what shape it should take, before you know what you want it to be. I’m aware that others have much more organized processes than I do, and end up with a more polished product after a first draft, but that’s the great thing about writing: there are many ways to go about it, and we just have to find the one that works best for us.

My process, should you want to try it on, goes something like this:

  1. Get an idea. This happens in the form of an image or concept I want to explore, or a line that I know will be in the text in some way.
  2. I write it, without much thought to word choice, overall structure or form; the point in this phase is to get the words out. For 30/30, the goal is a poem that feels “complete.” If I’m writing prose, it could take several sessions to feel “complete”, depending on scope. 
  3. While I write, I will sometimes cross out words or lines if I think, in the moment, of an alternate I like better. In the draft of “Green Flags” you’ll see below, I’ve put the main body of the text in the center, with my margin notes on the left and right, and with strikethrough text to show where I crossed things out. This is the only type of rewriting or revising I do while I’m drafting. It’s simple enough that it doesn’t disrupt my thought process and also simple enough that I don’t get frozen in the “make it perfect” headspace. 
  4. The next step is to leave it alone for a few days, preferably while writing other things. This lets me come back to it with a fresh perspective. 
  5. Then, I start thinking about organization, word choice, line length, and so on. A revision takes more than one draft. For this, I’ll take you through the first revision.
three columns of text. Center column is a poem of 4 stanzas. First stanza reads: 
I’m a fine tuned machine
expert at catching the problems
trained to zero in on what’s
wrong, what to watch out for
these words have a strikethrough: a bull ready to go on the defense
alerted to-- end strikethrough.
Right column reads: Will the machine recalibrate? Doing the machine vs. nature setup feels a bit predictable, so maybe both parts should be machine metaphor… keep that motif going? 
Center Column:
My system sending the alarms 
to my gut, and my brain
and my heart at the first 
snap and ripple of red fabric. 

I know how to spot a red flag.
I know how to put up a wall
draw a new boundary, set up the 
trip wires and alarms so I 
don’t find myself surrounded by 
red flags and hurt feelings and lies
again. I know how to [finally]
recognize when the relationship is 
going wrong, when it’s time to 
call it a day and cut my losses. 
Here, left column reads: This stanza should have the “machine” relaxing, reprogramming? 
Center Column: And with you I’m learning 
what a green flag feels like. 
Soft ripple in the spring breeze
flutter and gentle snap-pop
fall around my shoulders like
a warm blanket at the fireside
after a [long day of just being]
Right Column reads: I know what I mean here but I don't like the wording...
Left column reads: See if I can make this parallel the first half better.
Center column reads:
With you, my senses always searching
for the next “wrong” sign are
relaxing, are momentarily confused
because with you the wrong hasn’t come
And the windows in my walls 
Can open and see you carefully 
step over my trip wires  and
with you I want to push 
my walls down because 
I can be me-- i feel okay 
to be me and with you 

Left column reads: should it be step over my trip wires? I want it to evoke triggers? "Watch as you don't trigger my trip wires" might be better there...
Center column:
begin strikethrough: I can disagree and know that 
still you’ll be there-- I’m learning
that the green flags ... end strikethrough
I can relax the boundaries 
because you’ll respect them and I’m        water
learning that green flags feel a lot like sunlight in a drought.

The first thing I want to address is the metaphor/motif issue I noticed when I was writing this poem. In the first half, I’m using machinery and technology as the metaphor for spotting red flags in relationships. In the second half, when I shift to “green flags” I also shift to nature imagery. This progression of ideas felt natural, but then I started thinking: Why not use machinery/technology for the whole poem? The juxtaposition of machinery and nature is a little predictable. I am curious to see what happens if I go with a motif instead of multiple metaphors.

          And with you I’m learning 
          what a green flag feels like
          soft ripple in the spring breeze
          flutter and gentle snap-pop 
          fall around my shoulders like
          a warm blanket at the fireside 
          after a long day of just being.

I already know I’m not satisfied with this stanza’s ending, from my annotations on the first draft, and now I have to decide which sections of the poem best fit with the motif begun in the first half. The ripple in the spring breeze needs to go, and I should shift this from feeling to detecting, perhaps. The snap-pop of fabric can stay, because I use “snap and ripple” in the beginning, plus fabric is in line with the image of the red/green flags. My new stanza might look something like this:

          And with you I’m learning 
          to see the green flags:
          soft ripple, gentle snap-pop 
          sending a warm hum of 
          all is well through my synapses.
          The alarms are silent and rest
          comes after long years of vigilance.

I shifted away from “feel” to “see” because the verb fits more with the red-flag-detecting machine in the first stanza. A “hum” through synapses also complements the idea of machinery, and relaxing vigilance is less vague than “after a long day of just being.”

The next stanza has fewer nature images to contend with: just the last line about water and drought, but something about it feels a bit awkward and overdone, particularly the “i can be me” and “I can relax” lines. I’d rather evoke the idea of relaxation without using the word.

          With you, my senses, always searching
          for the next “wrong” are recalibrated
          because with you the wires
          haven’t tripped; with you the locks
          can release and the windows 
          ease open, the boundaries 
          redefined and letting you near.
          The alarms don’t sound and
          my heart beats slowly, my
          breath comes easily. No need
          to cut my losses or tally up
          the hurts because the feelings 
          are all easy as I look around and
          all I see is green. Like desert after 
          rainstorms, like water after a drought. 

I’ll revisit this again, but in this part I revisited the idea of the trip wires, and the boundaries established in the first half of the poem, focusing on the metaphor of fortifications, and also a calm parasympathetic nervous system, since the first half mentioned signals going to gut, to heart. So the heart beats slowly when trip wires aren’t set off, and windows open and boundaries are allowing the “you” nearer. I snuck in a little nature imagery at the end, because it seemed to fit well with the idea of seeing green all around. I might need to change that still, but the idea of traffic lights signaling “go” felt cliché, and I didn’t want to invoke the image of machinery starting because it felt like a factory.

The second draft of the poem is in full, below. I’m satisfied with it for now, though that could change in a few days. For now, on to other things (mostly grading and getting through my final semester as a full-time faculty member at a college), and poetry revisions will continue later on.

Green Flags
          I’m a fine tuned machine
          expert at catching the problems
          trained to zero in on what’s
          wrong, what to watch out for.
          My system sending the alarms 
          to my gut, and my brain
          and my heart at the first 
          snap and ripple of red fabric. 

          I know how to spot a red flag.
          I know how to put up a wall
          draw a new boundary, set up the 
          trip wires and alarms so I 
          don’t find myself surrounded by 
          red flags and hurt and lies
          again. I know, finally, how to
          recognize when the relationship is 
          going wrong, when it’s time to 
          call it a day and cut my losses. 

          And with you I’m learning 
          to see the green flags:
          soft ripple, gentle snap-pop 
          sending a warm hum of 
          all is well through my synapses.
          The alarms are silent and rest
          comes after long years of vigilance.

          With you, my senses, always searching
          for the next “wrong” are recalibrated
          because with you the wires
          haven’t tripped; with you the locks
          can release and the windows 
          ease open, the boundaries 
          redefined and letting you near.
          The alarms don’t sound and
          my heart beats slowly, my
          breath comes easily. No need
          to cut my losses or tally up
          the hurts because the feelings 
          are easy as I look around and
          all I see is green. Like desert after 
          rainstorms, like water after a drought. 
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