7 Contemporary Poets on Revision
“I don’t like writing; I like having written.” I hear variations of this saying from time to time. I distinctly remember one of my former professors attributing it to Hemingway. As I Google it now though, I can’t find any instance of Hemingway saying it. The first name Google turns up is Dorothy Parker, but it seems that variations of that saying have been attributed to too many people to count. The point is: it’s widespread. I bet most writers have heard some version of it.
I’ve never understood it though. I love writing. Why would anyone who disliked writing spend so much time doing it? Having written is fine—I like to get my words out into the world occasionally—but if I didn’t enjoy the process first and foremost, I doubt I’d write at all. (Now I’m imagining a star basketball player who hates playing the game but likes “having played” it.)
I also love revision—interrogating my drafts or playing with sound, syntax, and form. To me, revision is the main part of writing. So, as both a writer and a teacher, I often find myself digging around the internet for little nuggets of wisdom about revision from writers whose work I admire. To me, the fun in revision comes from the ability to experiment wildly. Reading how other writers think about revision often inspires me to try something I’ve never done before.
Imagine my excitement then, when seven wonderful poets—Aimee Nezhukumatathil, Natalie Shapero, Su Hwang, Chen Chen, Ama Codjoe, Emily Jungmin Yoon, and José Olivarez—agreed to send Iron Horse Literary Review these short musings about revision.
Here’s how these seven writers describe revision:
Revision—that’s the fun part of writing for me. Now the drafting process is very unglamorous for me—lots of self-doubt, stops and starts, fussing over lines, stress-eating gummy bears (I’m only half-kidding)—but I think you have to push through distraction and just get it on the page, even if it means wading through the mucky swamp of doubt. I never know when I’m going to be able to return to the desk again, truly. I mean I have no writing schedule (and don't want one), and I have a very full life where I actually enjoy being with my children and husband and my pals and loved ones. I love being in my garden. I love exploring food when I travel. And I teach full time, and we are knee-deep in thesis season right now. Writing and revision are a huge part of my life but not at all the main part of my life. I think that is very important to say. I'm a better writer when I have other interests tugging at me, and I never want my children to say 'Mom loved writing more than hanging out with us.' But also, they know very well that the world doesn't revolve around them, and that every member of the family has interests they want to pursue and that they are better people for doing so. I'm so done with the narrative that was presented to me in my 20s that you have to pick a robust family/social life or be a writer. As one of my fave memes states, "Why not both?" ha ha. And at the risk of being a tad melodramatic—I confess that at the end of every draft, I’m actually physically tired, spent. But I love and live for revision! Love it. That’s where the making and shaping joy and play and music-popping-crackle metaphor-magic and question-asking and the snapping off line breaks happens for me. Only in essays, I don’t worry about line breaks, but my revision process is the same. I think that helps keep my students in check when, at first, they may resist looking over their poems again. I ask/tease/shame them: How can you NOT love revising poems? That’s where the magic happens! I usually start with examining the openings and closings of the piece: the first line or sentence should hook just under your skin to keep you wanting, really wanting, to read on. The last line/sentence should feel as if the hook were either yanked out or gently removed. Either way, it should smart.
I do much of my writing and revising out loud. I tend to write while I'm moving around, walking or doing the dishes or wandering the aisles of the thrift store (shout out to the Los Feliz Goodwill). I work out revisions of the lines by seeing how they feel in the air, and I go over them enough that I expect myself, by the time the poem is finished, to have them committed to memory. If I find that a particular part of the poem is challenging to memorize—that it falls away from me when I try to recall it back—that's when I know that the line isn't done yet. So, basically, I revise until the poem feels easy.
For me, writing and revision aren’t mutually exclusive––they are intrinsically, inexorably linked––they are one in the same. Re-vision: to have another look, to see something again like holding a gemstone to the light, to imagine anew. Change is not just a literary conceit in fiction or the volta in a sonnet, it’s a part of being alive. We exist in constant flux: I am not the same person I was yesterday, nor the person I will be tomorrow. Maybe I acquire a new word (I do all the time!), or hear an old-but-new-to-me song, or a conversation in the grocery store that inspires a new insight or rabbit hole. Something I read could conjure a fresh image or an occurrence in the world could shift a train of thought––anything is possible, so I want to stay open and receptive as possible. And because we’re constantly absorbing stimuli and experiences, I want my writing to have a chance to benefit from some time, space, and a sense of discovery––to rest, breathe, morph, try on different shoes, dance, play. Reshaping and fine-tuning are the most pleasurable parts of the process for me, as if I’m adding another layer of paint or whittling some more marble to create beauty, art. I’m not in a rush, and I view this kind of devotion and care as being in service to my work. Finding a better word that introduces a sweet slant rhyme or ending the line differently for greater impact can be so gratifying! Also, reading poems out loud is tremendously helpful when revising––it’s music after all. Once I started putting my first book together, I realized my tendency to overuse certain words and images. In fact, I made constant copy edits for my first book until the day the file went to the printer, and even now, if I could magically edit stuff post-publication, I’d change at least a dozen things. I’ve had a handful of gift poems (poems that get written in one sitting almost fully formed), but the reality is that I’ve had to earn most of them over time (some poems took years to finish). That said, there’s a danger of over-revising too, so I think it’s about finding a balanced approach. To paraphrase a quote attributed to Oscar Wilde that sums up my process: “I spent the morning putting in a comma and spent the rest of the day taking it out.” To be a dedicated poet is really about attention. Attention to the world around us, attention to emotions, attention to wonder, attention to language, attention to the littlest things.
I love, love, love revision. I used to despise it, wanted every poem to come out perfectly formed like a little god dropping right into my lap from the heavens. But that involved so much anxiety and waiting that I barely wrote a thing. I was much too precious about the writing process as a whole. These days I see and practice revision as something generative: a way to keep writing and thinking and dreaming, rather than a method of perfection. I’ll try a dozen different endings. I’ll switch lines and line breaks around twenty different ways. I’ll change an adjective, a verb, over and over. I don’t think perfection exists, anyway. Or, if it does, it must require a little bit of god, of the muses—well, actually, a lot of luck. Maybe perfection can happen, but in the meantime, I can be a writer and, what a concept, enjoy writing. Which means enjoying the mess. I have no fixed routines or rituals around any stage of writing. I just know that I should follow my obsessions—if a poem is asking me to stay with it, however weird, however wildly frustrating, I should. I should listen. Listening is more important than talking, as in talking over what the language of the poem has to offer. Its sound, which is its agency. I don’t know, maybe that sounds silly and mystical, but I have a silly side (my main side!) and as Lucie Brock-Broido wrote, “I've got this mystic streak in me.” Other poets have described this more eloquently, but yes, I always hope that the poem will be smarter than I could ever be. And as the novelist Kazuo Ishiguro said, “You shouldn’t get disillusioned when you get knocked back. All you’ve discovered is that the search is difficult, and you still have a duty to keep on searching.”
Time is the first ingredient of my approach to revision; it allows me to re-see much more clearly than I'm able to immediately after I've drafted a poem. Often, after almost forgetting what I’ve written, I can look at a poem with fresh eyes and revise accordingly. “Accordingly” in my practice means asking myself a series of questions such as: How can I push myself as a writer to move beyond well-worn habits (formally, narratively, imagistically)? What am I leaving out? Am I hiding? What is the heart of the matter? Are my verbs working their hardest? Is there an ending beyond this ending? Does the ending feel well-earned or like a flourish? After revising towards these and other questions, I again let the poem be. I let time do its work (on me) and try my hardest to be unsatisfied instead of glib. I want to keep listening to the poem as I change and evolve, hoping it will too.
Emily Jungmin Yoon:
I write my poems on the computer, which for me means writing and revising often happen simultaneously. I might write a word then immediately change it; I might play around with the line breaks before I move onto the next line. I can imagine how writing by hand can make the process slower and more deliberate; those who do this might think longer before committing a word to the page. (That said, one can also type more intentionally and slowly, or write by hand but edit or erase things immediately. Either way, we all often return to the poem later for another round of revisions.) But there is something powerful and visually interesting when I revise as I write, when I blur the boundary between revising and writing. This way of writing appears closest to how thoughts form in my head, but also, in a strange way, it feels akin to molding or painting by hand. An object changing shape, in a constant state of metamorphosis, through my touch. Words appearing only for an instant, now here, now there. My “first” draft already contains countless layers of revisions. In the beginning, there was Transformation.
I tend to revise while writing because writing poems feels a little like trying to solve an emotional Rubik's Cube. I mean that as I write, I will discover some new emotional texture that sends me back to the beginning of the poem. Did I miss an opportunity to expand an image? Is there a surprise at the beginning when I revisit? My students at the Between The Lines program in Iowa City talked about revising towards the "most vibes per word," & that's kind of what I'm looking for. I want my poems to have an emotional impact. Secondly, I always revise towards music. I will write a cliche image if I believe the music of that word choice makes the sound of the poem pop more and feel more cohesive.