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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
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.