Hi Najia! I read your poetry book a few weeks ago and I absolutely loved it! I write prose but have never been able to write poetry, and I was wondering, when you write poems, do you tend to churn out a crappy Draft Zero and then go back and revise heavily? Or do you have a different writing process?
- I start with a scrap (an idea, a phrase that I like, an interesting image). when something like this comes into my head I’ll make a note of it on my phone or in a “scraps” document on my laptop. for this poem, that scrap was “a clogged drain / sending back its rubbish / in a backwash of [word I hadn’t decided on yet] / like coagulated pearls.” for “extremophile” it was “glowing like glass, / repugnant with ash, / a thing that would break / if you handled it / at all.”
- ruminate on this phrase until it grows into something bigger–until you can add more to it, or figure out what you want to say with it, or even combine it with other scraps. for example I wrote the poem “cruor” by writing the scrap “but blood will out. / and blood will out. / and blood will out / and out / and out,” and then, months later, writing the scrap “neither stain nor contagion / but the very innermost / guts / of the thing— / the thick, dark, / sure roots of it,” seeing that they fit in well together (both talking about “blood” as a metaphor for race), and writing the rest of the poem around them.
- be patient! sometimes I sit on scraps for a long time before figuring out what I want to do with them (though of course this process is perforce expedited right now because it’s napowrimo). my first question is always, “does this bit want to be at the beginning, middle, or end of a poem? does it have a ring of finality to it? is it a good opening? or does it need both an introduction and a closing to be added?” and then “what is it saying? what mood / tone / emphasis does it have? what can I use this to say?” and I sort of write a poem around it like forming a pearl around an irritant.
- don’t be afraid to revise heavily! maybe where you first tried to go with this poem isn’t working out–go back to the drawing board. maybe this scrap that you thought would work at the end of a poem actually fits better in the middle of what you ended up writing (this is what happened with “cruor”). sometimes I end up cutting the original image that I wrote the poem around out of the poem entirely!! it breaks my heart but if omitting something makes for a better poem, then omitted it must be. I’ll also change the order of things–”an Arabian sonnet” started with the rhyming couplet “dense, fizzing tufts of green like algal blooms— / as sleepy as the downy crowns of mushrooms” and throughout the course of writing it, I ended up switching the rhyme scheme from a Petrarchan sonnet, to a Shakespearean sonnet, to a series of rhymed couplets, before I figured out what I wanted to do. each one of these changes involved switching a lot of lines and even stanzas around. this also necessitated changing “dense” to “in,” and I was sad to lose that image but it was syntactically necessary. I was very proud when that one finally came together, lmao.
- so that’s what I do to get a first draft. then I read over the poem closely about 1600 times and probably end up paring it down a lot! I cut any word that doesn’t add anything, or anything that can be inferred from the rest of the poem. I change or cut any word that’s not pulling its weight, and change stock expressions and cliches unless they’re adding something. I’ll sometimes cut entire stanzas–there’s nothing I hate more than when a poem overstays its welcome. I look at every word and ask “is this the right word here? is it saying what I need it to say? is there a reason for it to be here? would something else serve me better?” if you’re writing in a metered form you can also ask yourself if you’re using the meter well–if your deviations from it mean something, if it means something when you stick to it (as in Sonnets for the Sickly where the very regular meter of “wake and doze and wake by turns in restless fits and halts” mimics the action that it’s describing, and, contrarily, the meter is often less regular than usual during points of high emotion in the poem, such as the beginning of the fourth sonnet.) I’ll often put words that aren’t quite right in (parentheses) so that I can come back to them later. I like every word in my poems to say at least one thing but preferably two or three. thesauruses are your friend but make sure that you know the exact meaning of any word that you’re getting from them!! here’s an example of the result of this process.
- I’ll also change punctuation, line spacing, stanza order, and wording back and forth about 20 times at this stage, sometimes leaving it and coming back to it later, before I’m sure that I have everything just the way I want it.
this is just one process out of many (I’m sure many people figure out what they want to say first and then find the language to fit it, rather than working backwards like this) but that’s what I do!