Ariel Gordon is a Winnipeg-based writer and editor. In spring 2010, Palimpsest Press published her first full-length poetry collection, Hump. She is the 2010 recipient of the John Hirsch Award for Most Promising Manitoba Writer and the 2011 Aqua Books Lansdowne Prize for Poetry/Le Prix Lansdowne du poesie. How to Prepare for Flooding (JackPine Press, 2011), a collaboration with designer Julia Michaud, will be launched this fall. When not being bookish, Ariel likes tromping through the woods and taking macro photographs of mushrooms.
How do you work your way through revisions? Do you have any tricks or theories to removing commas, words or lines? Any special chairs or states of mind you like to work from?
Ariel Gordon: There’s a rare/fleeting moment, while editing, when a poem ceases being a castle in the air and exists outside of my thoughts/feelings about it or the moment/feeling/image it documents.
At that point, I’m satisfied and stop editing. Which is not to say that the poem is finished but that it’s finished enough – intact in a way that’s beyond fiddling – to keep my editing compulsions in check.
I’m often driven to write poems by particular strings of images/phrases/sounds and so editing is about removing the clevernesses, the over-emphases, the notes that clunk instead of sing.
That said, my poems don’t often change radically while being edited…but I tend to have a fairly good sense of what poems work and which ones don’t. I don’t spend much time with the limp ones.
I’m hoping to get braver/more ruthless with the poems that work.
Depending on the poem, I’ll have an on-line thesaurus open, to look for words that might fit better in terms of sense or sound.
I read the poem out loud to check on rhythm/sound and I do a read-thru to make sure that my line breaks aren’t too distracting/too safe, but I’m not overly worried about stray commas.
Partly, that’s because I’m not a bred-in-the-bone copy-editor; I see language as a means to communicate. And I’m rather brutish by nature. I like things that are scratched up, when the object’s seams are showing. But then, I’m from faded-at-the-knees Winnipeg…
Robert Lowell wrote that “Revision is inspiration.” To what extent do you think that’s true? How would you rewrite Lowell: “Revision is __________”
Ariel Gordon: Inspiration is scribbling. Revision is writing.
Do you feel any difference or make any distinction between editing a single poem all by its lonesome and editing a series of poems for a collection?
Ariel Gordon: They’re micro/macro versions of the same process. A poem with four parts, for instance, has to have variation in terms of length, of tone, in register. The same goes for a book with four parts, though the challenge is deeper/darker. I’ve rearranged manuscripts by spreading them out on the floor after having a hard time conceiving of the mansucript entirely in my head or in a single Word dcoument, for instance. Too much same-same (as my S. Korean ESL students used to say) is boring. And predictable. And boring.
Any pet peeves when it comes to editing your own work or someone else’s?
Ariel Gordon: I’m no one’s wife but I OFTEN find myself married to the original idea/image/sound in a particular work.
Convincing myself to radically change a piece – throwing out most if not all of it, dramatically re-writing the rest – is hard mental work, especially if I’ve got something that sort-of-kind-of-but-doesn’t-quite-FUCKING-work.
The problem is that you have to be committed to changing the piece for the changes to be any good. And if you’re not convinced that it needs changing, well…it feels baby/bathwater-y.
The absolute worst is when I’m having a stupid day and somehow decide, in the midst of my stupidity, that maybe I should edit my poems. Thank gods I keep all the different e-versions of my poems…
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?
Ariel Gordon: Lately I seem to be writing lots of little image clusters. There isn’t a lot of connective tissue between them, so they get committed to my journal but don’t seem to quite work as poems, which is to say that they may or may not get another draft.
My poem “Blown” was like that. Though I mostly resolved not to write any more pregnancy and mothering poems after my first book Hump was published, I can’t yet stop myself from writing poems to my daughter, inhabited/informed by my daughter.
So this is a one-off, written while my conceit-ed manuscript languishes.
Anyways, here are the bits and pieces I started with, all written at the same time:
You step into a wet gopher hole.
Behind you, a fenced-in bison scrapes
her flank against a comb taller than you are. Handfuls of fur.
The ting of horn against metal. But you don’t want to stay
and watch massive
shrug out of her winter coat.
Boulevards like fields
of mustard, mid-summer: dandelions.
Dandelions. Six steps back, you start in
on the oldest charm in the books: He loves
me, he loves me not. Shredding
Crabapples in full pulpy flower. You stand
downwind to pick a single pink bloom
but a stiff breeze finds you blinking away
petals from dozens, clutching
You punch gopher holes
in ground I thought was solid,
I won’t complain. Bouquet of balloons jostle
into the front seat.
I don’t expect more. Balloons jostle
into the front seat, fender benders
of static electricity.
You can tell I was having trouble because I was circling around the gopher hole sequence and the movement of the balloons. A few weeks afterwards, I went back to my journal and had another go: the image of the balloons, in particular, had stuck with me.
Working on the poem in second draft felt to me like wielding a stack of cold pancakes or irregularly shaped plates. It totters a bit. But that seems to be how my brain works these days.
Here’s what I finished with, though it still feels like it might need another tinker or two…
Bouquet of balloons in the back seat.
You swat, adding fingerprints
to the latex covering drifting fists
of noble gas. In the rearview I get glimpses of road,
your heated cheeks, the cars nudging
the few feet between us
at the lights. I don’t ever expect more
than glimpses. How we both got a mouthful
of crabapple pulp today when all you were after
was a single bloom. How you substituted dandelion
for daisy when the oldest charm
rattled through your head: She loves me,
she loves me NOT. And started shedding yellow.
Lately, you’ve relied on I didn’t mean to…
Which means everything I own shredded,
everything I own fragile. Like a balloon
floating into the front seat, static
a kiss with teeth.