Polishing Poems: A Personal Poetic Process

I’ve been writing a whole lot of poetry lately, since I rarely have time to write and edit longer pieces to my (relative) satisfaction these days. Most of the time, I succeed–I post one poem per week if I can’t manage an essay.

Last week, due to some circumstances (i.e. I got sick as pestilence itself), I uploaded an unfinished poem. While some people liked it–like the lovely Chiara of Books for a Delicate Eternity (Thanks for the feedback on both the poetry and the blog!) and my stepdad who happens to run a poetry forum (I’d join, but I want to avoid nepotism of any sort; not that he’d go easy on me)–I still feel like it’s worth tinkering with.

So I kept poking at it like some teenager who will eventually be killed by some eldritch horror within the next couple of movie-type hours. You’ll find the final product at the end of this post.

ReadinginBetween_poeticprocess
My poetry edits in progress: so sorry about the penmanship!

Side note: it’s become depressingly clear how different my poetic voice is from my prose writing voice. My poems make me look smart, my prose betrays my gibbering, flailing geek background.

I should point out that my approach to poetry is long, winding, and requires various implements (some of them potentially deadly); it’s inadvisable for people who don’t want to be mistaken for some kind of hipster hobo. That said, if you have a poem in you (who doesn’t?) and are interested in seeing how a slightly neurotic corporate slave does it, feel free to read on.

Step 1: Gather your thoughts and feelings

When I was in college a teacher of mine (a Palanca winner!) introduced us to several tactics for finding inspiration:

  • You can have a notebook where you can list as many items of one color as you can.
  • You can use templates to help you frame a subject (example: “______ lives in my house. It eats ________ and sleeps on _________.”
  • You can have a box full of your favorite childhood memories; just pick one or two up and let your memories guide you
  • You can re-read old diary entries and revisit situations after you’ve emotionally distanced yourself from them
  • You can just freefall and write everything that comes to mind for 30 minutes–you’ll be amazed at the ideas and turns of phrase you can come up with (fair warning: you might start the exercise expressing your love for cats and end with a plan to destroy humanity)

You have to try them all out to find the one you feel most comfortable with. I tend to fall back on the last option myself, and I thankfully haven’t killed anyone yet.

PS: Want to read that teacher’s poems? You can buy her book here. Or you can check out Movement.

Step 2: Pluck out the gems

Look at the thoughts and feelings you have gathered. Are there ideas or turns of phrase that you keep coming back to?

Write them down (or, if they’re already written, encircle them with a different pen color). If necessary, transfer them to a fresh sheet of paper. Read them again.

Are they saying the same thing? Are they saying different things? Re-write them in groups. You can list them down (as I do) or give them a group name, arrange them like a solar system under a thematic sun–you know, put them in a mind map. Either way, you will start to see the shape and sound of your poem.

And yes, you can do this while you’re drunk. In fact, being slightly drunk on SOMETHING (even chocolate) is the best state for writing your first draft. I do it all the time.

Step 3: Live your life for a bit

Once you’re done getting your raw material together, go off and do something else. I, for example, often have to go to work and come back soulless and earn money to support my book and crochet hobbies, while some of you may still be going to school or have chores.

You don’t have to leave it alone for long; if you’re inspired enough, you can give yourself an hour to watch TV (yes, there, I said it–you can be a poet AND watch TV). The point here is to let the core of the poem breathe and let a bit of emotional sobriety creep into you.

You don’t have to stop thinking about the piece; you just need to stop staring at it for a while. You don’t want it to think you’re creepy.

Step 4: Riff on it

Once you’ve let it breathe, you can start riffing on it.

I tend to go about it by doing a more concentrated version of steps 1 and 2:

  • Read the core ideas and phrases
  • Freefall while trying to keep the focus on them
  • Pick out the most interesting turns of phrase or thoughts and add them to my original list
  • Rinse and repeat until I feel like I’ve said everything I wanted to say

If you feel more comfortable with mind mapping, then you can just turn that solar system into a galaxy:

  • Read the core ideas and phrases
  • Expand on each of them with one or more nodules
  • Pick out the most interesting turns of phrase or thoughts and write them down as a list
  • Rinse and repeat until you feel like you’ve said everything you wanted to say

Step 5: Organize and Polish that Poem

It may be that I’m really an editor or proofer at heart, because this bit is my favorite.

Once you have all of this done, you can start constructing your poem. Think of it as a more fun version of kitchen magnets. What I do in particular is:

  • Pick out my first line, then my next lines; remove lines that don’t fit quite as well
  • Write them out in a small notebook
  • Rearrange until I’m satisfied
  • Type them up via the WordPress app so I have a poem that’s scheduled for publishing on Fridays, no matter what happens to me
  • Tweak the breaks in the phrases as necessary (note: this is a matter of personal cadence; what looks good to me may look awful to you and vice versa–neither of us are wrong)
  • Go back to Step 4 as necessary; rewrite poem in the notebook and make notes for change
  • Go back to the WordPress app to make revisions and make changes to the phrase breaks
  • Repeat the cycle of type-edit-write-edit-type-edit until I’m happy with the way it looks
  • Log in to WordPress via laptop to make sure it looks right on desktop (and maybe create an image for it if I have the time)
  • Celebrate with a Coke

You may want to avoid being this neurotic, of course, and that’s fine. But here’s the thing–you can’t do without polishing poems. Editing poetry may seem like a tedious chore, but it’s actually an exercise of focus.

Whether you just want to glorify the sound of words or to express the awkward pain of being, well, AWKWARD, it’s important that you have your poetry convey that. This means taking extra care that your phrasing rolls into each other like waves or ensuring your terms/imagery evoke similar thoughts and feelings.

That’s why, as you can see above, I still took the time to make poetry edits to last week’s piece. You can find the final version below.

Tomorrow, I’ll go back to my regular poetic programming. Until then, fellow poets, happy writing! Let me know how your pieces are doing 🙂

Doll

I sit astride a 3-foot wall watching

how the rest of the world lives;

What I mean to say

is that I am not above you

What I mean to say

is that I don’t disdain you

when my tongue is sewn to the roof of my mouth

I on the contrary

am underfoot as I

envy your voices

striding into crowded rooms,

your eyes meeting other eyes

while I

can only stare into ear shells

waiting for the sound of oceans

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