Wednesday, April 05, 2006

NaPoWriMo update

So, five days, five poems. One is probably a keeper, and four pretty much suck (but at least a couple of them have words or phrases I may be able to cannibalize for something else later). I suspect it's no coincidence that the probable keeper was written when I was relaxed and comfortable, on a weekend day, having consumed sufficient caffeine and spent a half-hour or so reading poetry -- and a couple of the sucky ones have been "oh crap, I'd better write a poem before I go to bed, damn it" poems. Go figure, huh?

How's everyone else doing?

Beyond that: When you've written a first draft, do you generally have a strong sense of whether or not it's a keeper? I always think I know immediately, and then I'll go through a pile of drafts that are six months or a year old and suddenly some of them look promising enough to work on. "Gee, when the heck did I write that? That's not bad."

And of course, sometimes I get all excited about a first draft, and then I either can't figure out how to revise it to completion, or realize I was just infatuated with the thrill of having written something new but it actually sucks after all. I think writing a new draft every day may help me get away from that, since having written something new won't actually be a big deal.

So what about it: do you know? And if so, when? (I'd ask "how" as well, but I suspect that's kind of like "how do you know the milk is bad" ... you just smell it and you know.)


Carol Peters said...

Anne, thank you for the encouragement, and yes, I'm doing it, too, along with seven or eight classmates from my MFA program. We have a private office on Zoetrope where we post every day. I have four new poems (one is interesting enough to put in the work pile) and a revision sufficiently major that I claimed it for my poem one day.

I have not been at this game long enough to know what I have when it first appears, and generally, not even when it ripens. Without a teacher and my writing groups and my poet friends, I still would have a hard time knowing what's a keeper. Sometimes I think I take good milk and shake it until it's bad. But maybe in those cases it was bad milk to start with.

Suzanne said...

Ha! I haven't got a single keeper, but I am breaking a lot of 'rules' that I had set up for myself, so that in itself has been a great experience.

Charles said...

It takes me a while to know if something's a keeper. When you take the pie out of the oven, it always smells good. But after the poem has "cooled" for a while, I get a better sense of whether or not it's workable. And of course, for me, I'm always thinking about how that poem fits into the greater scheme of the rest of the work I'm writing at the time.

Anne said...

Carol: "Sometimes I think I take good milk and shake it until it's bad" -- isn't that how one churns butter?? :) (And now, of course, I'm thinking of the old story about the frog who fell into the tub of cream and kept treading water till it turned into butter. I'm definitely pushing this metaphor waaaay too far now.)

Suzanne: I think breaking one's own rules is one of the best things that can happen from an exercise like this! My poem from yesterday was a totally narrative thing about a stormchaser, the kind of poem I never ever write, but I think I'd like to play with that mode a little more.

Charlie: Pie! Now I'm hungry. But you're right, the scent of newness can be misleading. And I'm so envious of how you always have a larger plan in mind, writing towards something. Sometimes I discover that an apparently disparate bunch of poems really does have something in common, but that's pretty different from what you do.

Now I want some pie. With ice cream. Hold the frog legs.

Lyle Daggett said...

What? No frog legs with the ice cream?

I actually haven't been playing write-a-poem-every-day this month, though as it happens (and totally by coincidence) I've been reading William Stafford's book of essays Writing the Australian Crawl, in which he talked in a couple of places about his long daily habit of writing poems early in the morning, before anyone else was awake (or, sometimes, late at night after everyone was asleep).

After reading his essay (in the above book) also titled "Writing the Australian Crawl," I started working on a poem which I finished a few days later, and which I'll keep. It was one I'd had kicking around inside for a couple of years (after randomly glancing out a window one day in March a couple of years ago), and finally wrote it two or three weeks ago.

I normally don't work in multiple drafts. I normally start work on a poem by writing the first line, and I work my way through line by line, crossing out and rewriting as I go, until I've written the last line. So that generally speaking, the first draft is also, in effect, the final draft.

(Occasionally I'll go back and make a minor change or two if something still doesn't sound quite right, though more often than not, once I get to the last line I leave the poem as is.)

If I don't know what the first line of the poem is, I'll wait for it before I start writing. If I get stuck somewhere in the middle of a poem, I'll let it sit and wait for the next line before I resume writing it. I have poems that I've finished, that I've published, that sat half-finished for days or weeks or months or (in a few cases) years, before I found how to continue and finish them. Now and then I can sort of "push" myself to try to find what comes next, though more often I just have to sit and wait for it.

Generally once I've written the last line -- once I've gotten that far -- I know if a poem is one to keep or not. Years ago, when I was newer to writing poems, I had many poems that I abandoned half-finished and never went back to, because it became apparent that they weren't going anywhere. As years have gone by, I rarely now give up on a poem half-finished (though it still happens once in a while). I think this has something to do with having learned a little of the discipline of sitting and waiting.

I always feel like if I tried writing in multiple drafts I'll lose the essential thread of the poem, I won't be able to identify what to keep and what not to, in the multiple versions. The line-by-line process seems to work better for me, for keeping hold of the essence of the poem.