In a recent exchange with my mentor, he wrote about poetry not as an end product (the poem) but a process (the series of revisions that lead to the poem). Sometimes at workshops or in my reading, I find myself more interested in the process than the poem; I want the story behind the poem .
Recently, I looked at the workshop packet I submitted my first semester in my MFA program and my latest draft of my final manuscript for the program. It was much like reading diaries from high school. I was naive, audacious in my ignorance. It was pleasing to see that, despite the recent feelings of inertia, I am indeed in flux, in progress. I patted my now wiser self on the head.
In the same email, my mentor commented on the “stigma” of publishing revisions of poems already published, questioning if there was not such a stigma would more poets do it? We as a culture, as a society, perhaps as humans, like to know where things are, like definitions, like everything outside ourselves to be predictable. I talk about this with my student when teaching about stereotyping because I want them to feel safe in exploring and recognizing their own stereotypes. We all do it or have done it at some point. So, with writing, it is not surprising that once a poem is published we would not want to stumble upon a new version of that poem a year or five years later, particularly if you have that poem in a book (books aren’t supposed to change), memorized it, or cherish the poem like a friend who helped you through one of the pesky unpredictable moments in life. It’d be as if the poet came back to say, “eh, that was OK, but now here is the what the poem really should be like,” or, “this is really what I wanted to say in the poem.”
As I delve into new territories as a writer, I keep going back to poems that I was sure are done and revising. Drastically. I could conceivably write and rewrite this manuscript for yeas to come.
I started a new poem today (in my head). This was exciting as I have not written much new stuff lately. It was disheartening as it involved one of my two recurring themes in my poetry: my mother and a past lover. (No, I am not going to confess which one it was). My first thought was “Damn, I thought I was finished with THAT.”
My second thought was this is writing. Do love songs every lose popularity? Do humans ever reconcile the love and loss of a mother? I am pretty sure there is a quote about storytelling and how writers just tell the same story over and over. Am I just writing the same poem over and over, only my perspective has changed so drastically that the poem is unrecognizable as the same poem, or at least passable as a new poem? (This feeds my also recurring existential crisis as a writer.) I want to think maybe it just makes writing easier since I can just keep revising what I once said because this is what writing is, why people write: to work out what ever holds our obsession, to find our lessons (though this is the primary criticism against confessional poetry). Or maybe it is like the ideal conversation where I can keep refining what I say until I am as clear as I long to be, until I change my mind again.