How to Write a Prize-Winning Poem

I don’t have time to write a long post today as I’m behind on my copyediting, and want to send my novel out again, Anansi having sadly said no. I’m thinking Freehand Books this time.

So I thought I’d do an easy one and show you the editing behind the poem that won me the Diana Brebner Award from Arc Poetry Magazine in 2009. It might help to remind me that entering contests can be worth it so I’ll start making the time to do it again.

Here’s where the poem began, a few lines quickly written as I looked out the window.

And crows can fly
updrafting freedom with friends
Clean and free. How
an updraft lifts or, with the pull of a pinion
allows an easy turn on a spot no eye can mark

They’re not good lines but I wanted to write a poem that afternoon, so I kept at it. And got lucky:

The blackness of birds, a flotilla flying silently
in the blue of my window, cawing held
by glass, refrigerator hum, the wisp
of a passing cloud. They look so clean
from here, beaks that have never known
the soft meat of a lamb’s eye or how
a squirrel comes, one strand at a time,
off a flattened road. They updraft
freedom with friends, a chatter of trees,
don’t know the loneliness
of doors, chairs, single cups and plates.
Age leaves them black-downed
in mud, obliterated.
How can we not envy them?

Now it looks as if those first eight lines came easily, since they appear without any intervening drafts. But I remember sitting on the sofa gazing into space for long minutes, my hands hovering above the letters as my brain debated word choice, the nature of crows, incidents I’d read recently in the newspaper.

This technique can be fruitful but if you allow it to go on too long, it can rob you of your momentum and, as happened here, the poem starts to crash.

That’s okay, that is what editing is for. I could see I’d achieved a certain tightness in those first eight lines that I needed to make the rest conform to. The first to be cut was ‘freedom’ because it’s a concept, one which doesn’t belong in such a concrete poem. As for the rest, I was spelling too much out for the reader, which cheapened the earlier part. I kept a couple of good phrases and single words. I threw the rest out.

Next draft:

The blackness of birds, a flotilla flying silently
in the blue of my window, cawing held
by glass, refrigerator hum, the wisp
of a passing cloud. They look so clean
from here, beaks that have never known
the soft meat of a lamb’s eye or how
a squirrel comes, one strand at a time,
off a flattened road. Not for them
the singleness of chair, cup, bed. They
updraft to a chatter of trees, a caw-fest
lasting until age black-downs them in the mud.
If I had pinions, I’d float on the first draft
out of here, but we’re all trapped, all in
the grey-celled cage of our own construction.

At this point, the poem is almost there. But I’ve done something dreadful to it. I’ve inserted myself. Worse yet, I’ve tried to go all profound. After reading it over a couple of times, it was clear what had to be done. The delete button should always be a writer’s best friend. I used it.

Here’s the final version, short and sweet:

Crow, of the family Corvidae

The blackness of birds, a flotilla flying silently
in the blue of my window, cawing held
by glass, refrigerator hum, the wisp
of a passing cloud. They look so clean
from here, beaks that have never known
the soft meat of a lamb’s eye or how
a squirrel comes, one strand at a time,
off a flattened road. Not for them
the singleness of chair, cup, bed. Instead
an updraft to a chatter of trees, a caw-fest lasting
until age black-downs them in the mud.

P.S. Want to read a superb poem, very tight, very well-written? Check out Zach Wells’ Anatta. That’s something to strive for.

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  1. Preyksha’s avatar

    Thanks for the insights!

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