Friday, June 27, 2008

A re-post from the northern Colorado years | failures and revisions

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[January 26, 2005]

I don't like to dwell on failure, but every writer who is "on the job" for a couple decades has a pile of them somewhere (published or tucked away in a drawer or boxed up somewhere). This is one of the hardest things about the writing life: what to do when the writing does not turn out as well as it should have or could have, and there is no solution in sight.

I think of myself as one of the lucky ones because most of the times when I think I have written something really worthy it does get published and draws at least some of the attention it deserves.

On the other hand, there are lots of writers who get stuck or give up too soon or keep making the same mistakes over and over and over. I understand their frustrations, fears and anxieties. I have certainly had my share of duds. For every successful poem there are at least several fizzles and outright dead ends. (When I was younger, the fizzles outnumbered successes by a far greater number, too.)

I have gotten better at learning when to walk away from these disasters and to just try something else for a while. I have also learned from experience that the really great poems return. Even if the poem that misfired seems hopeless one day, in a couple years (or many years) it may open itself up again and suddenly seem quite clear as to how it needs to go. The ones that need you to come back have a way of calling you when you are ready.

But as I say this, I know it isn't true for everyone. Why is it true for me? Maybe it is the fact that I am willing to accept a high percentage of drafts that "blow chunks" compared to a low percentage that seem stellar right away. Most of my best poems started out in drafts that looked like crap. I'm the only person who could see any potential there. Why do I see potential there when any sane person would not? Why did I go back into something that seemed so unpromising to try to make it work again?

For example, that poem for Antonio Salemme [see the earlier January 2005 entries] actually had a weaker earlier incarnation, "white fire" (from the late 1980s maybe?) which was published in a little magazine. But I recognized its severe limitations as a poem while I was in a workshop with Galway Kinnell in 1999. What happened in the intervening years? For one thing, the woman who inspired the earlier poem went not just out of my life but far away (like Japan), which made it easier to detach the poem from a bunch of personal feelings that really did not help the poem at all. I no longer needed to say anything about how I felt about her. Instead, I had the painting in its pure and austere power to work with.

(The imagery from the same painting was used in the earlier poem also but it was not about the painting; it was about the feelings for this particular woman.)

I realized that what I really wanted to say, still, hadn't gotten said because this very personal relationship was in the way.

Ironically, even though the autobiographical elements all got stripped out of the new poem, I feel that it still represents (albeit indirectly) an essential part of me. In fact, as I read it now, I think it seems to me to be a more honest examination of that personal relationship even though that story isn't even represented in the poem anymore.

(Coleridge was a poet who also wrote very personal and embarrassing earlier versions of poems that evolved into less personal but more honest and great works. In America, people tend to think self expression is an end in itself for art. But most of the rest of the world knows better, I think.)

So, before I forget the original question, why did I go back to that old poem in the first place? The old poem, despite all its flaws, seemed to me to be demanding my attention. Perhaps it had been nagging me. It still contained the signature of the energy that gave it birth. That energy forced me to own up to the powerful feelings that inspired the poem in the first place, and that led me back to the originating moment of the work in the remote past. Reflecting on the past, I realized that the very old relationship had lost its "charge," but its meaning had now taken on a life of its own in the poem. It was almost as if the emotional energy of the poem had replaced the emotional energy of the relationship. Instead of thinking about the past, I was thinking of the past poem, and that was a far better situation for me as a writer. The poem had set me emotionally free of the past by memorializing it in an art form that was "permanent." That was the moment I felt the most free to work on the poem as a totally new thing; that was the moment I broke the tie with that past. Ironically, that was the moment the past became the most clear.

A "failure" became a "success" even though I had to wait more than ten years for that poem to unfold itself for me. I actually think that is one thing that a lot of good writers do; they transform their junk into something valuable, sometimes slowly, sometimes quickly. But you have to be willing to throw out the old stuff and say, "I can do that better!"

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