Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Summer writing projects

Hey y'all,

I hope everyone is enjoying some kind of summer break, if not from employment, at least from academia. And writing! (But not in any kind of a hurried way, necessarily...)

Today I was working on two old poems, glad now that I could get a new perspective on them; they were retail poems originally (I used to work in a grocery store), and now they still are, but with a little more differentiated view of working in the service industry (waiting tables).

What struck me in working on these poems was the question of what is salvageable as an idea or a spark for new work, that may no longer be salvageable as a poem. Both of the old poems were almost two years old. Both hadn't been touched in as much time. Both I felt pretty good about when I wrote them, but soon seemed not as good as my new work.

In revising the poems, one seemed to spring to new life, and the other seems still to cling stubbornly to its origins. What's worse, I worry that my own habits atrophy in the act of revising that latter poem as is (I.E. using revising practices I have since abandoned). So I thought I'd put this question out to the blog:

At what point should a poem be given up on?


  1. I don’t write poems but I can tell you this . . . I wrote a story for workshop spring semester that was a complete failure. I wanted very much to scrap it. I hated it. But after talking with a professor about it, I’ve decided to use the story as the kernel of a novella that I will spend the summer writing. So maybe we can salvage almost anything--even the biggest messes--if the spirit moves us?

  2. I give up on a poem when I just don't feel excited about it anymore, when it seems to have gone stale and I am no longer invested in it, eager to move onto something else instead. But I often salvage parts, even if it's just one line or phrase, of discarded poems for use in new poems.

    I'm fascinated by the idea of your retail poems! I worked in a grocery store for a long time, and hated it so much that I have kind of tried to block it from my memory, and have never really written about it or any other crappy retail job. But it would be interesting to try.

  3. I tend to not look back but with a caveat: I am tending toward rewriting poems wholesale rather than revising work beyond an arbitrary period of time (two or more years old-ish) mostly because I am confident that my mind now can grapple with material I had no hands on in the first place. Harryette Mullen had us do an interesting revision where we were made to rewrite resent poems from memory. It was very lucrative.

    This summer I am on a writing and revising tear. I am spending time in Los Angeles and San Francisco and can't wait to just emerse myself in my home culture now that I have some outside perspective.

  4. I want to read more retail poetry!

    I'm a fiction writer but I enjoy writing throwaway poems. No limits, no governing style, no "project," no taste. I expect most of my poetry to hold my interest for about five minutes, and it usually doesn't disappoint.

    What I find most interesting is when a poem stands up and starts making demands of you. A few just won't give up - they demand I rewrite them, even though my default is write and forget. It seems that what I find most compelling is usually that which exceeds my ability to do anything except write about it.

    Another interesting thing I've experienced: I wrote a pretty hackneyed poem and was able to develop an (I think) pretty good story out of it. The poem simply opened up a character's point of view and backstory, which I then transplanted into a story. In another case, a mostly failed story led to a series of three and counting poems. It's like the characters and root of the story needed somewhere to go, said "uh-uh" to the story, so jumped into a few poems.

  5. I have to second what Laura said. I think you can always revisit work even if you only keep a title or line but when I have to retire something it is because I no longer enjoy it myself :)

  6. I like to scavenge, though I think my scavenging leads toward whole-sale revision more than attempts at whole-sale revision require scavenging, if that makes sense. And some whole-sale revision does occur over the space of months.

    And excited that everyone want to read retail poetry. Go young writers who work in the service industry!

    I think I like also the agreement about a poem being done when it no longer excites. Although there is that trouble: the poem that excites in one word or phrase or line, and not really overall, but eventually something is found in it. Strange when that happens.


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