A poetry title to look out for this spring is the Id Kid, Linda Besner’s debut collection which is “crammed with tall tales, off-colour jokes and cockamamie theories”. Linda took time out from her busy schedule to answer my editing questions. While there are no off-colour jokes in her answers, there is a lively wit and intelligence at play that is as instructive as it is entertaining.

How do you work your way through revisions? Do you have any tricks or theories to removing commas, words or lines?

Linda Besner: My main revision strategy is to show the poem to as many other poets as possible and get them to figure out what the hell’s wrong with it. I think your revision strategy tends to depend on what your pitfalls are as a poet. Personally, I really struggle with clarity—allusions or formulations that seem crystal clear to me often pose problems for my readers because I’m not providing enough information. I think this is rare, but I actually usually end up adding words and lines to poems in the course of revision rather than striking them out. One of the most important rules of revision for me, and I think this can’t be stressed enough for poetry editors in general, is to take a long, hard look at the grammar being employed in the piece. The idea (at least, my idea, and the idea behind, I think, most of the poetry I enjoy) is for all of the effects you create to be intentional. As a reader, I want to trust the writer not to confuse me by accident. I think 80% of the time, a keen attention to grammar is what makes the difference between intentional and unintentional confusion.

Robert Lowell wrote that revision is inspiration. To what extent do you think that’s true? How would you rewrite Lowell: Revision is __________.

Linda Besner: Hmm. Maybe, “Revision is mastery”? I love working on new pieces, but sweating it out with old pieces you just barely care about anymore is what makes you a professional.

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?

Linda Besner: The only real difference for me is that when you’re editing a whole collection you catch yourself out on words you’ve used more than once. Editing The Id Kid, I found that I have an inexplicable and annoying over-fondness for the words “ticklish,” “fitful,” and “tinkle/tinkling.” I had to decide which poems deserved custody. It wasn’t pretty.

Any pet peeves when it comes to editing your own work or someone else’s?

Linda Besner: I don’t know if I would call it a pet peeve so much as The Reason Artists Jump Out the Window, but the thing about revision for me is that it’s at this stage that you struggle most mightily to make a poem into something it’s not. And then you have to decide what else it is, and whether you can still feel—if not the same way about it, then feel something for it. I just finished Salvatore Scibona’s novel The End, and there’s a line in it I loved: “Disappointment was the result of an idea’s attempt to miscegenate with the visible world.” The poem in my mind and the poem on the page are never quite the same poem, and it’s always painful to accept that.

When editing other people’s work, I feel mildly peeved when people use fancy fonts to make their poems seem prettier. If it’s not good in Times New Roman, it’s not good.

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?

Linda Besner: This poem was one of the last in my book that my editor and I really went back and forth on a lot. I’ll include the first half of the poem here, and you can try to guess which was the line my editor didn’t think was working:


They kill us for their sport. No wait, I mean

They and the world flash in and out of existence
For each other, reappear in slams of yellow nectar.

Narcoleptic fits wherein that kingly breast-exam on wings (all
Self-palpate quivering and doubt) shouldst prod

Another waxy cone of thought. Belief’s
An intermittent current, it falters and you drop.

Mm. I imagine anyone reading this is picking out “Narcoleptic fits wherein that kingly breast-exam on wings” as the problematic line. Everyone I showed the poem to for comment certainly did.

Here’s what I was trying to get across: solipsism is a philosophical position that asserts that only one’s own mind certainly exists. The external world that I think I see and touch might exist, or it might all be just the product of my mind. When I say, in line 2, that the solipsistic hummingbird and the world, “flash in and out of existence/for each other,” I am trying to get across the idea of someone who is flirting with doubt about the external world. So far, essentially so good. Then the problem line—let’s take it a bit at a time. “Narcoleptic fits”: here I am trying to use the idea of sleep and waking to get across the sense of belief and disbelief in the external world. This idea is meant to be hinted at again with the word “kingly”: here I’m thinking of The Red King’s Dream, which is a passage in Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass in which Tweedledum and Tweedledee argue that Alice is only an imaginary creature in the Red King’s dream, and that if he woke up she would disappear. (You can read the passage here) It is generally accepted that Carroll was deliberately alluding to the problem of other minds, a philosophical problem addressed in discussions of solipsism. If you didn’t catch this, I’m not surprised—I can’t imagine why I thought this allusion was direct enough for anyone to see it. Then the final bit: “breast-exam on wings (all/ self-palpate quivering and doubt)[.]” What I hoped was happening here (it wasn’t, alas) was that “breast-exam” would connect to “self-palpate” in the reader’s mind: I was thinking of self-examination, which, for me, because it’s about the self poking and prodding at the self, had something in common with solipsism, which posits that what seems external may in fact only be yourself in disguise.

Of course, this didn’t make sense to anyone who looked at the poem for me. The king thing was somewhat confusing, as was the narcolepsy, but people were willing to roll with it until they got to the breast-exam. Apparently breast-exam=solipsism wasn’t as obvious a parallel as I had thought.

After some consideration, I tried this:

The Red King’s narcoleptic fits wherein
That skeptic breast-exam on wings (all
Self-palpating quiver and doubt)

which didn’t fix the problem. And now I had another problem because I was going to use the word “red” later on in the poem and I didn’t want to use it twice. So I tried this:

Egoistic fits wherein that breast-exam on wings (all
Self-palpating quiver and doubt)

I was really married to the idea of a breast-exam on wings. In retrospect, I don’t quite know why it took me so long to give it up, but at the time I really felt that if I just changed all the words around it, somehow I would be able to make the reader see what I was seeing.

Then I felt defeated and deflated, and tried settling for this:

All self-palpating quiver and doubt, they
Hover close to prod another waxy cone of thought.

but I hated it. It just didn’t have the spark of the earlier lines; I felt no joy reading it. So I put back some of what I had taken out, and got this:

A king’s narcoleptic fits wherein
That tireless inquiry on wings (all
Self-palpating quiver and doubt)

which was closer. I felt that because the first line is a quotation from King Lear, even if that was the only association most readers would make with this use of the word “king,” the other meaning and reference was still in there for anyone who did happen to catch it.

I ended up with this:

A king’s narcoleptic fits wherein that fitful inquiry on wings (all
Self-palpating quiver and doubt)

To be honest, I’m still not sure I’ve got it right. But I hope that this line does enough work for the reader that she or he has a fighting chance of figuring it out. I still miss my breast-exam a little bit—there was something exciting and outrageous about that image for me—but I came to the hard conclusion that I was not the only person who should be able to enjoy the poem.

My hope is that as I work hard to become a better writer, I will get better at making those kinds of risky images work. Here I chose to cut it altogether rather than try to explain it, and in this poem I think that was the right decision. I think revision for me ends up being about trying to figure out where exactly the line is, and when I’ve gone too far. Writing, however, is an exercise in pushing that line as far as possible. Now that the revisions on my book are done, I’m looking forward to getting back to the fun part.