These past two months of the second year of my MFA at UBC have been rich with reading and writing. I’m in Rhea Tregebov’s immensely instructive poetry class where I’m surrounded by all sorts of talent. Ben Rawluk is a poet who inflates fantasmagorical balloons with helium and other chemicals he’s concocted in the lightening sharp recesses of his imagination. When he releases these poem-balloons in class, there’s always a party. Ben was kind enough to answer my editing questions…
1. How would you characterize the process of revising your own work? Do you have any special tricks to taking out commas, words or lines?
Staring long and hard at it until the poem reconfigures itself. Or simply moving things around. The opportunity for revision offered by being able to move text around on screen is remarkable, and as a consequence I no longer ‘draft’ things. Revision is an ongoing process from almost the first line written. For me, revising a poem is like reassembling a puzzle over and over until all the pieces reveal the picture. Take something out of one place and see what that does to it. Put it somewhere else.
As for taking out commas and other pieces, reading the poem out is still the biggest and most obvious method. I tend to put in too many commas initially anyway, so half the time it’s simply reminding myself that such-and-such a line doesn’t need a comma there.
2. 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”? Are there any editing/revising quotes from famous writers you hold as mantras?
Almost all my real writing occurs in the revision, for poetry as well as prose. The first draft is always just a marathon to get the raw material
out there so I can go to work on it. Revision is hell in the same way that war is hell, maybe, you’re out in the trenches of poetry, trying to push the line forward.
“The beautiful part of writing is that you don’t have to get it right the first time, unlike, say, a brain surgeon. You can always do it better,
find the exact word, the apt phrase, the leaping simile.” — Robert Cormier.
3. 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?
The cliche is the biggest one. They stick out. Having one manage to stay in the poem long enough to be seen by other people? I want to curl up an die when that happens. After that: lists. I love good list, particularly a list of hypothetical images, but that’s a trick that gets old and only works in certain poems. I think it’s a common thing for poets, so I tend to want to cut them unless they work really well. I’m also prone to getting rid of enjambments a lot of the time because they always feel like a dull note, even though that isn’t true some of the the time.
As far as other people’s work goes, I have a problem with cutting too much. I have occasionally suggested cutting poems down to one or two lines from an entire page. I have this tendency towards wanting only the best and strongest lines, nothing weak — I have to hold that impulse down, of course, because you have to strengthen what the poem has in it, not simply cut out everything else.
4. 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
This is hard because I don’t keep explicit drafts anymore. When I have lines that aren’t working, my biggest gut impulse is to simple try moving it around and around until the light explodes and I see where it goes.