Today I’m celebrating the one year anniversary of this website and reflecting on my goals for it and my poetry. While writing was always my first ambition, my secret desire, I was initially trained as a musician: my undergraduate degree is in performance. The correlation between the two practices has always been obvious to me, the painstaking hours spent alone in a small room first warming up then running over and over the same passages, the listening(reading) to others, the disproportionate rewards for time spent, the sheer joy of performance.
The difference for me was that I didn’t enjoy the practice time for music whereas I love editing. I would watch the clock while running over sections of a sonata but am regularly late for dinner while choosing and discarding words.
This website was designed to lay bare my editing process, because I’d always wanted to see how others edit but couldn’t find anything in print or on the web. Clearly, others are interested in the process too. According to my statistics program, I have over 300 regular readers who come back over 3 times a month to read these posts. Most of you live in Canada and the United States but others come from Germany, Spain, the UK, etc.
While reflecting my love of editing, this website also inadvertently reveals my perfectionism: my love of honing a line has made me aware of my ability to improve it, which becomes a fierce responsibility, which ends up as a kind of fear. If I know hard work can make a poem better, then I think I must keep working at it and I become afraid to let go, knowing I can always improve on what’s there, if I just read more, learn more, and then revise again.
Obviously I have periodically persuaded myself to part with some poems. That’s why I have the publication record I have, plus three more coming out in an upcoming Descant issue. But I am holding myself back. Friends have published several books of poetry while I sit writing and polishing.
And as for my novel, my third one (I’ve already rejected the previous two), it sits in permanent virtual reality on my hard drive, once again waiting for that final final final edit even though I keep promising myself I’ll send it out again.
I love editing, yet I need to learn how to let go. How to know when a work is done.
John Adams, a Pulitzer Prize-winning American composer, reminds me in his Juilliard Commencement Speech, ‘A life in the arts means loving complexity and ambiguity, of enjoying the fact that there are no single, absolute solutions.’
Much as I wish it were possible, there will never come a point when I feel I’ve reached perfection in a poem. I need to stop aiming for it. But not to stop aiming towards it.
Earlier in his speech, Adams reminded his audience of graduating performers – and us – that ‘The arts … are difficult. They are mind-bendingly and refreshingly difficult. You can’t learn the role of Hamlet (no less write it), you can’t play the fugue in the Hammerklavier Sonata (no less compose it) and you can’t hope to move effortlessly through one of Twyla Tharp’s ballets without submitting yourself to something that’s profoundly difficult, that demands sustained concentration and unyielding devotion.’
I’ve given poetry my devotion. Now I also need to learn how to let go. Which means, I also need to learn how to stop posting what are probably final versions rather than current versions of my poems on this website. It’s time I got a book manuscript off to a publisher.
So today, here’s a first draft:
uprooting the wild maple, the weed maple, a hundred
mini trees bunched in my hand, smelling
of the greenness of the earth, the white roots still
wriggling, the blind seeking earth’s black
blindness, the sucking that leads to
growth, the sun transposed cell by thirsty
cell, placing rings around a tiny
stem longing for the thickness only time
can bring, time and the abundance of
rain falling, snow’s thickness, the white blanket against
the bite of cold’s teeth on the young. All the grief in
one hand, all the cut-off life, all that will not
grow by my choice, the choices each day forces
hour by hour. I could turn, leave the hundreds
more, the jungle my garden wants
to be, let thirst thin the tiny twin leaves, choose only
sofa’s static safety, but those rings have
choked you already, a tightness of throat preventing
speech so you weed, hearing the hydrageanas’
voice sing as you do.
And a stage further along, where I’ve simply started working on it, at this point, only tidying the language, not yet looking at where it’s going. I’ve been playing with line endings, choosing verbs this time to drive the poem, which help to set an eerie atmosphere.
uprooting the wild maple, the weed maple, a hundred
mini trees bunched in your hand, smelling
of green, the white roots wriggling, the blind seeking
earth’s black blindness, the sucking
that leads to growth, sun transposed cell by thirsty
cell to place rings around a tiny stem longing
for time’s thickness, time and the abundance of rain falling,
the snow white blanket against
the bite of cold’s teeth. All that grief in
one hand, all that cut-off
life that will not grow by your choice,
the constancy of choice a weight the tree won’t have to know. You could
repent, leave the jungle your tree wants to be, let thirst thin
the tiny twin leaves, choose only
sofa’s static comfort, but rings choke
you already, a throat tightness so
you weed, hearing the hydrangeas sing
as you do.
p.s. Many thanks to my composer/conductor friend Marg Stubington for sending me Adams’ speech.
p.p.s. I know Adams says “A life in the arts means a life of sacrifice and tens of thousands of hours of devotion and discipline with scant remuneration and sometimes even scant recognition” but couldn’t some of you 300+ leave comments more often?