Monday, May 03, 2010

Counting Drafts

I don't really think it matters how many drafts a poem goes through, to get where it to where it's supposed to be. It doesn't matter if a poem is a first draft, or a twentieth draft. Or rather, it ought not to matter. It's useless to speculate which creative process is "better," or which process makes for a "better" writer. I don't find those comparisons necessary, useful, or reliable. I reserve the right to question whether or not a creative process is useful to the poem, or to the poet.

But that's the whole point:

If the finished poem, the end result of whatever creative process you've gone through, is a good poem, who cares how you got there? As a crude but relevant aphorism states, "Show me the money!" In other words: Is your creative process yielding you with good poems? Does it work out well for you?

My only other point in this discussion is that while one can describe one's own process to others, one cannot use one's own process as a way of dictating to others what their process ought to be. Resist authoritative prescription; offer only humble description. (Just to be clear, anyone who misinterprets a statement of strong opinion as an authoritative prescription needs to step back and think about why they did so.)

Here are two poems of mine, by way of example. (I make no hubristic claims that either of these poems are "good;" although one poetry editor did like one of them enough to want to publish it.)

One poem is almost a first draft; you can count it as a second draft only if you consider that in the middle of the poem I changed a few words, altered a line break—very minor changes. The poem emerged more or less complete, the form clear in mind at the time of writing. Little revision was done, just those few bits, and the poem remains as nearly raw and fresh as when it first emerged.

The other poem has been through several drafts; six or seven if I remember correctly, although it might have been a bit more. During the third revision, the poem's form radically altered itself into a new shape I had neither anticipated nor intended. There was a lot of paring away, a lot of shearing, a lot of reshaping, a lot of condensing and shortening. I made the poem as jewel-like and dense as possible.

Without my telling you which poem emerged from which process, can you tell? Can you tell which poem was heavily revised, and which was not? I won't say now; maybe later.

I should also mention that both of these poems were written in response: one of them was a dare, and one of them was a response to comments made in workshop-like poetry discussions. Both poems were written in that manner of creative process that in music we call improvisation, but which in poetry doesn't really have an equivalent technical term (save that which is borrowed from music). The lack of a vocabulary about improvisation in poetry has always struck we as perhaps representing some underlying assumptions that poets have about their own creative processes; assumptions that I question. Anyway, these poems were both improvised, or written to the screen, or spontaneously composed on the tongue, or however you want to describe it.

As I said, one was heavily revised, and one was not.

Can you tell which was which? (Does it even matter?) My lips are sealed. (Isn't that the point, that perhaps it doesn't matter?)



what can I say to you you never listen it comes down to things I perceive that you don't
that I can never convince you of those ghost-deer standing right behind you
that you're standing on the graves of faerie circle killed grass going down four feet and you can't feel it
you don't see the world the way I do you don't see hear smell perceive headblind farcryer
I see an owl shaping wind in its lunge call catch trap mouse squeal I hear wind moving across a mountain
seven hundred miles away hear the roaring heart of the world a constant steady hum and tide in my ears
once I stood almost crucified against a tree at Spirit Lake and watched a rapid liquid tide of ghost warriors
flow down across a saddle valley between two hills circle and slam against village walls in
the circular glacial valley below and become nothing old women and young wearing deerskin walking there
you're slow as snails in a rowboat can't see any farther than banana slugs can't see what the eagle sees I feel
people next door moving in their sleep when I drum over the trance-bound journeyers I see
where they are traveling little holographic movies hung over their heads I push the drumbeats into
their dreams then we all go out for tea but I've seen inside your heads I keep your secrets even the ones you


so much welling up within I can’t get into words too small to contain they lie fail false incomplete crash

now I'm overwhelmed approaching burn out more it’s too much new crisis every day making me paranoid
way past coping let everybody know it too by needing help none of it matters can only do today feel like
quitting packing it in just going away for awhile disappear dissolve into mist

it’s the middle of the night as ever full moon in pines crossing geese over lake waters lap and I'm
alone with it already over it I’ve spent months here by myself now I’m supposed to keep doing it and
I’m tired of it I quit I quit I quit I absolutely quit

not that I’m incapable or unwilling but losing voice if you open that box be prepared for a long time
listening all or nothing no I can’t do just a little bit at a time need now away from here need it
frustrated beyond believing attempts to escape this trap now coyote gnawing its own leg off don’t care if
completely falling apart not sleeping much or dreams so violent wake up more disturbed than
when went to bed the night before keep going to bed thinking maybe sleep better tonight never do just
keeps being the same this is heck tired of self-talk too tired of constant thinking about it just so tired
lost lots of ground lost ready to throw anchors over stay steady in bay blank crabwalking sideways
away need desert alone time need time by ocean need time time where don’t have to talk to

if you hold yourself still, the fox

If you hold yourself still, the fox
will always come to you. She moves
silent through dusk, across sudden lawn,
a natural gap between bush and cliff.
She is wary, ears up, nose alert. She skips
lightly, pauses to flick her tail, then
disappears, streak of red and black.
There’s a waterfall, bitter, cold, she sips
when night pauses; a deep water seep
from between rocks that remember dinosaurs
and birth-cries of lost volcanoes, gone
before this beach, this river were here.
An owl calls, very close overhead, between
meadow and shore, moving towards beach;
fox freezes, her tail and belly low-slung to soil,
red blur blending into dusk-toned fireweed,
and waits for owl to pass. If you can shape
yourself into stone, slow-breathing juniper,
your palm cupped to hold rain, and be silent
for endless days, the fox will come to you, sip
cold water, lap your lifeline. Don’t look at her
direct, be a peripheral vision of your own self,
flicker of red and black in lung, heart, artery;
and she will come, tentative, hesitant, but
curious. Become moss, become invisible,
become as ancient as the dreams of cliffs.
If you hold yourself still, the fox will come.

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Blogger Jack Veasey said...

If I had to guess, I'd of course say the first poem is the first draft. The second poem looks and feels more shapely.

I'm prepared to be wrong, however! I like both poems, but I also prefer the second one.

12:27 PM  
Blogger Jim Murdoch said...

My gut feeling is the first poem has been revised the most. The latter is shapelier but due to the sheer quantity of words in the first piece I cannot imagine you getting it to look and feel right the first time. I could be wrong and don't care if I am.

(Interesting - while I was writing this comment Jack has posted his guess and I see we have used a similar logic in making our decision.)

12:30 PM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

Thanks for playing, guys. Yes, I admit it's a bit of a game. I'm just curious to see what people think.

I admit that I have indeed set it up as a bit of a game. I hope to get lots of results via comments before I tally them up and don my emcee's tophat to do the Grand Reveal. I will indeed let folks know which is which, later on, but I want to see what people think, first.


2:10 PM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

Rather than make a ridiculously comment here, which gives the answers, I've chosen to make the "reveal" into a new post:

Counting Drafts 2

Thanks for playing along.

1:30 PM  

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