Round-two of my MFA in Creative Writing is underway and I’m once again lucky enough to be surrounded by a host of superlatively talented people. As part of a new series of posts at Poetic Edits, I’m pleased to introduce one of them to you. Melissa Sawatsky, whose pedunculated poems grow from all those small places where the heart touches the land, is a second-year MFA at UBC with poems published in emerge 2006, Rhubarb Magazine, and a chapbook entitled Berlin. Here’s our interview:
How would you describe the process of revising your own work? Do you have any special tricks to taking out commas, words or lines?
I like to think of the process of revision as distillation. I ask myself what a poem wants to be, what it is writing towards, and then I can identify the lines that don’t help it to get there. I often find that the first and last couple of lines (or even the first and last stanzas) need to go. In first drafts, I have a tendency to “introduce” and “explain” the poem, which is really just a cue for me to understand what the poem wants.
With regards to nit-picking about words and punctuation, I try to read the piece aloud to pick up on interruptions in flow. Awkward words and lack of rhythm become apparent when a piece is read orally. So I try to treat each piece as both a written and spoken art.
Robert Lowell wrote that, “Revision is inspiration.” To what extent do you think that’s true? Is it ever true to say, “Revision is hell”?
I think that both of these statements can be true, depending on where I’m at with a piece. I like to think of the word “revision” as “another vision.” If a new vision for a piece is easily inspired by the vision that came before, then revision is inspiration. If I am stuck on a piece that needs work and I can’t see where it’s going or what it wants to be, then revision is hell. When that is the case, I usually open a blank document and start again in order to liberate the poem from sailing down the River Styx, so to speak.
What are three pet peeves when it comes to editing your own work or someone else’s? Do any of these pet peeves inspire sighs or groans?
I’m a detail-oriented person, so I usually zone in on inconsistencies in form or punctuation choices. On the one hand, poetry has the benefit of being liberated from the rules of grammar, sentence structure, punctuation, and even logic. On the other hand, these rules should be broken or reinvented with deliberation and intention. When I sense that a piece has not been written with this kind of intention (whether it is my own work or someone else’s), it will incite a groan of sorts.
Are there any lines from an early draft of a poem that you’d like to share? What ideas, principles or gut feelings guided you through those changes?
First draft (excerpt):
The ferries carry me between two versions of home.
One built by someone else’s hands,
the other a windowless houseboat that has yet
to moor at her chosen shore. Inside the drafty walls
I learn the art of constructing cradles.
The Queen of Coquitlam carries me to Departure Bay.
The house my grandparents built
beside the Strait of Georgia. The ferry rocks gently,
I think of the houseboat left on the other side of this crossing.
It’s dark and drafty living room. The fireplace
cold over Christmas. A half-built cradle
rocks in the winter wind.
The royal vessel carries me across the Strait of Georgia, away from a windowless houseboat moored in the bay. Inside its dark and drafty living room, the fireplace is cold over Christmas. The hull of the houseboat rides the waves. A wooden cabinet rattles and chimes interior instruments of saucers and silverware. In the centre of the room, an empty cradle rocks in the winter wind.
I arrive at Departure Bay, continually. Each passage a resurrection of sunken ships, a dream of boats in the act of being built. This is the ferry that floats between. The steady embrace of steel, and underneath, the rumble of impermanence.
As I looked over my first draft of this piece, I realized that I was just warming up to the environment(s) of the ferry and the houseboat and what they represented. The metaphor was there, but I needed to take it further, make it more haunting, bring home the ideas of temporary passage and impermanence. The form of a prose poem also seemed better suited to the subject matter and the imagery. This piece is still in progress and will probably go through another revision.