A couple of weeks ago, I had the good fortune of meeting the phenomenologically talented Daniela Elza. The philosophical spark that ignites her poetry was immediately evident in our lively conversation. I was delighted that she agree to answer the following questions about editing poetry. (To hear her poetry in action, you can catch her at Vancouver’s Word on the Street at the Poetry Tent at 2:50pm, and then later in the day with Twisted Poets between 4 and 4:30 pm. )
How would you characterize the process of revising your own work? Do you have any special tricks to taking out commas, words or lines?
Revising my work is part of creating the work. Revising for me is more a kind of learning alongside the poem, a kind of inhabiting, and honing. I try to get out of the way, and listen.
I find it less interesting when I make up the poem’s mind. A lot more interesting when the poem makes up my mind. I recognize the poems over which I exercise more control. They are my least favourite.
Each new re-write of a piece is like a scaffolding between language and thought shapes. A kind of play between what the words pull me to say, and what I need to say with the words. Perhaps, as I work on my poem, my poem is working on me. When I sense a balance is achieved, when I start hearing the music, I know I am getting close, or at least that I am on the right track.
I try to give a poem more than one chance. I think of the poem as a wild place I walk into, and learn to inhabit. The poem could be an attempt at an answer to a question I might have asked. Something I need to ponder on/out. I have to be patient with the answer. Poems come from the world, and have to find their way into language. Like children, their first steps may be uncertain. They may come in drops and trickles. In different parts of my journal. When I go through my journal to pull stuff out to work on, I recognize those attempts—the poem making its way into words. One strategy is to pull them all out alongside each other. Then I can see my way into the poem. Sometimes the poem has rolled in my head long enough, and it pours out all at once. Sometimes, but not often.
Once I am happy with a poem, I type it up on my computer. There, it takes further shape. Reading the poem out loud is a good way to test it. Taste it. I pay attention to places I stumble.
I like to play and experiment, but I try not to make my poems suffer for that. I am grateful to all my friends and the poets/writers who have shared their thoughts about my work. Somewhere in this process I send the poem to my mentor for further feedback.
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”?
It is inspiration. For some revision might be hell. There is, for sure, that sense floating in the air. It is less often that we talk about the sheer delight of it. I take my time. If I force it, I am miserable. Perhaps my ego has gotten too tied up in the process. Of course it becomes a struggle when I am fighting with the poem. Maybe that is where the hellish part comes in.
Part of what I want to hear is something that will surprise me. That rarely happens when I hold on too tight. So, I back off, leave the poem alone. Return to it at a better time when the approach comes closer to that of inspiration. If I get quiet enough, I can hear the poem suggesting its changes. Calling for its rewrites.
It is not everyday that I am in the mood to rewrite a poem (And I do rewrite, longhand, over and over). Some poems take a lot more time than others. They have slow births. But, I will not call them painful. I think of it as an organic process. I have to trust in what I do not know, while at the same time using the tools I have at hand.
Inspiration in revision is crucial for me, since my creative space is the place where I recharge, and rejuvenate. I like the feeling of following creative paths and their possibilities, of getting lost in the wilderness of the poem, being at its mercy. Listening to all the ways in which it resonates. We already grip too tightly at so much in life.
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?
Doubt is annoying, with the potential to paralyze. We are so good at doubting. One of the things I have to remind myself is trust in the process.
The comma: My trick with commas is to take them all out. I find them constraining. They are good for prose, which makes points. They are not good for my poems, which I see as points from which something new can grow. (This also alleviates me from having to worry about taking out a comma and then at the end of the afternoon putting it back in.) Perhaps this inspires groans. But I also think it inspires. I have allowed that freedom to myself, and my reader.
The third one is the hardest to pin down: the insistence on too many standards/ rules/ideals. Too many rules kill creativity. Perhaps that is one of the ways we put children off poetry at an early age in school. Kids speak poetry before they go to school. What happens after that?
My friend Christi and I were talking about this the other day. What seemed to arise between us is that revision just as a response to external ideals/standards is an effacement of the person, the poem, and the imagination. Sometimes, we apply these rules well before the poem has managed to form itself. Before it has learn to speak.
There is something wiser and bigger than us, even within us. Robert Bringhurst puts it nicely: “The reason for writing poetry is that poetry knows more than those who write it.”
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?
I do not have a fresh example, since I have not written much this year. It has been mostly a year of submissions and putting manuscripts together. My poem in a tumble of feathers, in the book 4 poets (Mother Tongue Publishing, 2009), has three drafts before the final version. This element in the book is great because it focuses on the process, demystifies it a bit.
Going back to find the drafts was time consuming. And rewarding. I discovered a couple of techniques I use in composing. I was not aware of them, so that was fun. I remember the last two lines giving me the hardest time. It was a while before I settled on something I was happy with. And after I found those last two lines, the title changed as well.
What guides me is still the original impulse. Did it answer my question? Am I changed by the answer? Is this my own answer or was it given to me? (We are full of answers, we have not laboured to earn. They are at out fingertips constantly tempting us to resort to them.)
Usually, I put the request to work at the back of my head, and at some point something will come, and I will recognize it as the line/s I needed for that poem.