Saturday, May 08, 2010

Counting Drafts 2

In Counting Drafts I reprinted two older poems of mine to make the point that the number of drafts required for each poem was very different. I left the question open as to which poem had required extensive rewriting, and which poem was almost a first draft. I received not many guesses or comments in response, and the split was 50/50 on the guesses.

Well, pull out the trumpets and give a fanfare, because here's The Big Reveal.

Although, really, it's no big deal, and I doubt many care.

There were two points I was trying to make: that an excessive number of drafts of a poem may not always serve the poem well (or the poet; the issues involved could be psychological rather than writerly), and that what matters is the end result, the quality of the finished poem.

No matter how you get there, and no matter how long it takes you to get there, the poem is what matters.

if you hold yourself still, the fox

This poem is almost a first draft. Only a few words and line-breaks were changed. Like many other of my poems, it emerged more-or-less fully-formed. (Poems often emerge this way—one imagines that most of the drafting or shaping happens quietly in the back of the mind, before the poem is ready to emerge.)

The poem was written in response to a question in a discussion forum Have you had any meaningful encounters with nature? Do you ever have close encounters with nature that just automatically inspire you? leave your head dizzy with literary possibilities?

There were a lot of replies to that question that were personal stories of close encounters or surprising moments. I waited a long time before jumping into the conversation, because I had just been on one of my roadtrips down the coastal Highway 1 in California and Oregon, and the imagery and sights and smells were all very fresh in my mind. So to me the whole question about encounters with Nature was absurd: how can you possibly miss nature, since we're all immersed in it all the time? I realized that the question was based on the usual conceptual dichotomy of City vs. Wild, of Nature vs. Civilization, etc. But I was remembering that there's a pack of wild coyotes living along the Chicago River in downtown Chicago; and the places I'd just driven through, coastal OR towns that dip down to the sea where the mouths of rivers emerge, are so interdependent with nature that you cannot make any separations.

I reprint here some of the conservation that set my mind into white heat, which led eventually to the making of this poem. My initial response to the discussion question was:

In the past few days, driving down the Pacific coast from Portland to San Francisco, and camping along the way, I had encounters with gulls, sea lions, otters, great horned owl, ravens, numerous finches, crabs, humans and their children and pets, giant redwood trees, Monterey cypresses draped with moss, mushrooms glowing brightly in the dusk, songbirds, Stellar's jays, sugar maples (just beginning to turn fall colors, so that they are green on the bottom, yellow in the middle, and fire red on top), the overpowering scent of white pine from a logpile at a sawmill, kelp, mussels, bivalve clams, minnows, half-feral cats, deer, more deer (they're always on the move at dusk), redtailed hawk, turkey vulture, brown eagle, koi, willows, spiders the size of thumbnails, banana slugs, pampas grass, and much much more, an incredible richness of encounters.

The question, Have I had any memorable encounters with nature?, sort of boggles my mind, as it seems to assume that "nature" is something separate from "me," which is completely wrong. We are immersed in nature continuously. We are part of nature. Not even "city" is separate from "nature." There are two primary sources of inspiration in my life and writing, nature, and the inward life. These are not separable either, especially if you have encountered Jung's concept of synchronicity. The inner and outer worlds reflect each other. It's always there, perceivable, if we just slow down and pay attention to our surroundings,

I can't possibly pick one "encounter with nature," because (for me anyway) they are continuous, daily, absorbing, ordinary parts of everyday life and events. Nothing special, everything special.

If you hold yourself still, the fox will always come to you.

Obviously, this line became the first line of the poem, also its title.

I received this response:

I like your take on nature though. At least how if we slow down we might see these two strange worlds meet, whatever they are to us. I guess I could re-word my question to fit your viewpoint, something similar to: What parts of your continous everyday life, interacting with nature (which you may view as a part of yourself), inspire you and stand out most of all? I think you get the point either way, but thanks for bringing a new and free thought to the table.

as for the fox always coming to you...very well, she may, but once she comes you must never let her go.

To which I replied:

I think we always have to let the fox go, so that she might come and go as she wills. Clinging to an idea, a style, a vision, even clinging to life itself, can choke it, make it mannered, make it stiff. Let the fox remain wild, and she will come back to us. Put her in a cage, and she might die.

I think poetic inspiration is the same way: Let something wild in us remain wild, untamed, "natural" by which we could mean unmannered, unrefined, unfettered, and most importantly uncontrolled, and the wildness will remain in our poetry. It's a wildness we need, even in our cities, if we want to stay in touch with that essential aliveness, that breathes us, the very life-force itself, perhaps.

There was some more discussion, some of which centered around the above respondent saying: How strange I could say one thing, but completely agree with your disagreeing with me. The discussion led us to arrive at some point of congruency about how nature is not really separate from us after all; and how we might reflect that in our poems.

And, at white heat, within a day, the poem emerged. As I said, I made only minor revisions.


This poem was revised a minimum of seven times, possibly more that I didn't count. It began as raw and unedited spew onto the screen, a psychological dump, and a way of writing that I think perfectly healthy—write first, revise later. The first two drafts were huge and unwieldy, just raw and rough, more prose than poem. The third revision radically trimmed the poem's length, and beat it into some form, after which it continued to be pared away at, condensed, and polished. It remains one of the more emotionally raw poems I've ever written.

Many readers have assumed it's autobiographical. While it was written as part of the grief process during my parents' deaths, where a lot of this sort of emotion was floating around, in fact the poem is in a character's voice, not my own. It's personal, and personally emotional, therefore, but not autobiographical.

The poem is part of an ongoing series in which each poem has a title from ancient Greek; many of these words have theological or spiritual usages. Several of the poems in the series emerged from contemplating the Greek word that became the title; it's not common for me to have the title first, or use a word as a writing prompt, but these Greek terms are so rich with meaning, and so spiritually potent, they activate the poetic response in me. Writing each poem in the series has been a fluid response to what Greek word made me think and feel. What ties each poem in the series together, beyond the undertone of theological exploration, is that each poem is done in a different, experimental style. Not my usual thing. The entire series is an exercise is exploring how life-changing events affect the way one makes art, and what one makes art about.

What I think is successful about Kenosis is that it embodies the action of its title: it is not a poem about the emptying-out of the spiritual process of kenosis, it enacts that process. This was one root of the controversy surrounding the poem: the rawness made certain people uncomfortable; they would have had me talk about kenosis in the poem rather than enact it. I like the shape of the poem, the breathless long lines that propel the reader on and build a powerful momentum. Otherwise, I don't claim this to be my greatest poem; far from it; I think it still has some problems. But I can't do any more with it, and it's good enough as it stands to be part of its series.

Kenosis, I have mentioned before, as a poem generated a heated debate, and some controversy within the workshop in which I was working at that time.

The poem was also used as an example for a writing prompt, which was titled "Vision & Revision." The prompt asked for examples of how individual poets went through their rewriting process. I had to point out that this amount of revision on one of my own poems was atypical; there was also an interesting discussion around how much rewriting is too much.

The controversy led to a long conversation about moralizing in poetry criticism, the value of traditional vs. experimental styles in poetry, and more. I later took my own contributions to this discussion and reworked them into a series of essays. Since this controversy may have some oblique relevance to the discussion about editing and rewriting and drafts, I post the series here, via links, in case anyone feels inclined to dip into it.

Moralizing vs. Experimentation

Moralizing vs. Experimentation 2

Moralizing vs. Experimentation 3

Moralizing vs. Experimentation 4

Moralizing vs. Experimentation 5

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Blogger Jim Murdoch said...

All the stuff about foxes was interesting. I’ve only ever had one ‘encounter’ with a fox, a red fox in a train yard I used to frequent as a kid. This day I was there alone. It was dark so it must have been late in the year. I turned the corner of a brake van and there was the fox. I’ve no idea what gender but I’ve always assumed that it was a vixen. Anyway, she looked at me and I looked at her. We were close, maybe twenty feet apart, and I have no idea how she hadn’t heard me but she hadn’t. For a few seconds (you know those seconds, the ones that feel like minutes) we looked into each other’s eyes and then slowly, leisurely, she turned and padded off down the track without a backwards glance.

Since then I’ve run across foxes quite often but that was the first time. I was surprised how often I saw them when I lived in Glasgow. One time I saw three of them, what looked like a mother and two young ‘uns, and I felt a little sad. Seeing them in this environment felt unnatural. They didn’t belong in the middle of a city. Seriously they were miles and miles from open country.

5:30 AM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

It just goes to show that the separations between City and Wild that we think are supposed to be firm and real are in fact fictional constructs. Nature and City overlap like anything.

11:49 AM  

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