Road to Revision

So many planets have to line up for a poet to reach full potential. Revision is one of them. Not Jupiter, but maybe Mercury. You wouldn’t write poems if you didn’t like playing with words. So why not develop that playfulness further…via revision? 

1.    Last Line First / Best Line First

Got a lackluster poem? Take the last line (or the best line) and throw out everything else. Start over with that one line as the opening of a whole new poem. Use the process to reboot your brain. 

2.    Saving What Works

Often more than just one line needs to be extracted and expanded on. Here’s a failed Abecedarium of mine that contained an idea worth salvaging. The germ of a separate poem is in boldface. 

Where Light Goes 

Zombie Christ rises like a B movie. 
Yet be not deceived. None return from death.
X is the true cross of man, marks the spot
where light goes, leaving images behind. 
Vivid an instant. Gone but permanent. 
Understand, like light, we die. Otherwise
time would stop. We’d all still be in Egypt, 
still building pyramids, still watching the
river of snakes swimming the dress of that
cute Egyptian girl dicing onions, a
paring knife in her hand. My eyes are wet
on waking, face numb from loss. Her face still
no less real than mine.
Or that pair of eyes— 
magician’s eyes—from fifteen years ago. 
Lord of Illusions, The Great Sandini
knifed my soul, staring from a 10-foot tall
jet-black poster. An ephemera shop
in Pike Place Market. Like twin eclipses
his eyes burned through the decades between us, 
glowed like fire opals. Grew white hot as road
flares. Gazed on the essential dead, bricks in
ethereal pyramids. Agnostic, 
dad gets a Christian burial. Some small
comfort to mom. We drive through sloppy snow. 
Below, toads hibernate. And I curse time’s
architect for being right, forever.

(Published in Verse Wisconsin)

Here’s what I developed from the above: 

Old Flame 

I’m glad we die.
Otherwise we’d all
still be in Egypt
raising pyramids

and I’d be sitting
at that wooden table
dicing onions with
a pretty servant girl. 

If not for death
I’d still be drowning
in her slender river, 
clutching my bronze 

paring knife with
its bone handle, 
instead of waking up
with a wet pillow 

half hypnotized by
yellow serpents
swimming on her
dark blue dress. 

(Published in Stoneboat)

In the case of “Old Flame,” revision helped me follow the vein in the marble—more of a hands-off approach, allowing the poem to develop the way it wanted to, and not according to my preconceptions. This doesn’t happen often, but when it does, I end up with something I wouldn’t have otherwise, something different from what I’d normally write. Sometimes that leads my writing in a new direction.
3.    Follow Through
Sometimes I get off to a good start…and just stop. “Atheist Heaven” was originally five lines. 

Atheist Heaven 

There’s an empty church in heaven, 
a spray of stars I don’t believe in. 
I walk for hours staring at my feet. 
Dark houses crowd the street
like echoes waiting for a sound. 

(Published in Chiron Review)

More than a year later, I finally followed through on the idea. 

Atheist Heaven 

There’s an empty church in heaven, 
a spray of stars I don’t believe in. 
Dark houses crowd the streets
like echoes waiting for a sound. 
Mutely my shoes lead me
to a lobby, then an elevator,
finally a penthouse office. 
Floor-to-ceiling windows sing
with exclamation points of light! 
No one’s sitting at the desk
big as four pool tables. 
Veins of pink and yellow
squiggle in the marble. 
I see a vacancy and fill it. 
The universe runs itself. 
A black chrysanthemum closes
continuously, deflowering
creation at the end of time.

(Published in Verse Wisconsin)

But I still wasn’t done. A few years later I returned yet again, and a sonnet emerged. A version I was finally happy with (or less dissatisfied):

Atheist Heaven 

Part of me wants to believe memory saves
everything in some Smithsonian of the soul, 
like the Akashic records helping Edgar Cayce
remember Atlantean life in perfect detail. 
Prehistoric ferns and painted tribes of frogs
pressed in the limestone pages of God’s brain
seduce me with hope—Aardvark to Zygote
safe in some encyclopedia already bound
big bangs ago. But there was no Atlantis
and except for George Romero, dead is dead.
Tint all the graveyards you want with stained glass, 
death is just an echo waiting for a sound.
There’s nothing but an empty church in heaven.
A spray of stars I don’t believe in. 

(Published in Nerve Cowboy and Right Hand Pointing) 

4.    Start A Salvage Yard

Start a salvage yard of images, ideas, and lines saved from broken poems. Some lines of mine have taken years to find their final resting place. Here’s an extreme example, composed mostly of old lines, which I’ve boldfaced. 

Like Sunglasses You Can’t Take Off

How the hand’s a planchette for the soul 

and religion’s
                              like ice cream:
Peanut Butter Buddha, Key Lime Christ.

So many beautiful lies about time
our memories sieve from our lives. 

Tint all the graveyards you want
        with stained glass

no one comes back from the dead
except in zombie movies. 

The crow in my throat says goodbye— 
black boomerang that gave me gravity. 

I say ah, tasting smoke as it goes. 
I’d rather say zebras sport unicorn horns
orange as traffic cones

but halos dissolve here
like wintergreen Life Savers. 

(Published in Verse Wisconsin)

In my brain’s basement, a reference librarian sits at a gray, metal, government desk. When I’m writing, she hands me whatever old image or line I need, when I need it. It’s a blessing in this line of work, to be sure. Often these phrases are years (or decades) old, but never found a poem worthy of them. 

But if memory isn’t that helpful, keep these gems in a folder, a journal, or even just save all the various drafts of your poems, combing through them periodically for new ways of approaching the ideas / material. These can also be the seeds for future poems. 

5.    Haiku Titles

For years my titles sucked. Some mightily. Most often they were barely competent, content to label things: Sailor on a Greyhound, Communion, Country Garage. You get the picture. 

Then about a year ago, I loosened up. I belonged to an online critique group, and one day I sent out a poem entitled Phantosmia (a term for olfactory hallucinations). I was a little tired that day, a little punchy, and in the subject line I wrote Though I Detest Incense, Still I Smell God. 

A few of my critique group members said they liked the subject line a lot better than the title. So I used it. Since I didn’t think the subject line “counted” or mattered, I had allowed myself to be more creative with it. I kept doing this…and then began incorporating a lesson I’d learned from writing haiku. In haiku you pair two images that aren’t obviously connected, but that have a kind of subconscious resonance between them, like the invisible sparks between magnets. I began writing titles that didn’t have a literal connection to their poems, but that somehow complemented them. Here’s one example: 

Like a Raspberry Seed Between My Teeth 

Across the road
a white screen door slaps. 
Redwing blackbirds scatter. 

Cattails’ slow explosions
fill the ditch. 
I crack a beer and watch. 

Last night at the Badger Tap
someone asked me why
I came back to Wisconsin. 

Even in peacetime
ten years in the navy
was killing me. 

An east-to-west airliner
slowly flies over. 
Its contrail spreads. 

Sometimes it’s what
we’re not
that matters most. 

(published in Verse Wisconsin) 

6.    Leftover Lines

Sometimes a line you’ve cut from an earlier draft makes an interesting title. That’s what I did in this one:
Steering from the Passenger Side 

Somewhere near the county line
my piece of shit Dodge dies. 
The sun melts my jeans
and black t-shirt like
biodegradable trash bags. 
A mile later, my cock drops off. 
A crow snags it, tumbling up
like a birthday balloon
or a shingle torn off hell’s roof
in a windstorm. 

No other cars. 
My flat feet slap the yellow line. 
Blacktop burns my soles. 
I’m dangling my legs in the ditch, 
staring at a thistle’s ultraviolet
crown when my eyes fall out. 
Two bushes sprout and I see clearly
through a hundred yellow berries, 
in all directions like a fly— 
the road ahead, the way back home, 
the flyspeck of that crow, 
my body by the road. 

(Published in Verse Wisconsin)

One of my titles, A Whale of Stars swallowed me, was even a recycled one-line haiku (there are such things) that had been published in a leading haiku journal. 

Even my label titles got better: Bat Boy Finds Love, Friday Night at the Haiku A Go-Go, Viral Savior, Popeye Murders Me, Superboy Robots, Dead Poets in Hell. Loosening what I thought was acceptable as a title also allowed me to expand my range of topics, and vice versa. Some of these “looser” poems have been accepted by Alaska Quarterly, Antioch Review, Crab Creek Review, and Rattle

7.    My Road To Revision

Until my early forties, I only wrote free verse, revising very little. Then I started working in forms, and revising more, getting the poem to flow better within the constraints of whatever form I was working in. This revision habit carried over to my free verse and improved my poems. It tightened the writing, resulting in richer musicality. 

These days half my poems are forms and half are written in free verse. I’ve also gone back and revised many older poems, some written several years ago. On average I spend 10-40 hours on a poem, 2-3 hours each morning. First drafts are usually easy, flowing out in an hour or two. With the second draft, the poem’s 90% done. The majority of time for me is spent fine tuning via drafts #3 on, getting that last 10% of the poem as perfect as possible. 

I’ll often return to a poem months later. Sometimes years go by between revisions (or versions), as with "Drinking with Your Ghost":

Drinking with Your Ghost after the Funeral 

Sitting in a pickup in the middle of a field, 
the engine ticking down to nothing, 
windows filled with rows
of corn stalking into shadow, 
I drink until you’re sitting next to me
though we both know you’re really at the cemetery, 
what was left of you after the accident concealed
by oak and bronze and varnish and miraculously healed
in everybody’s memory. 
Still the whiskey
lurches back and forth between us in the muddy
light until the bottle’s dry
and dark as that smoked glass
we used to watch eclipses through, 
though tonight
there’s just a wobbly moon
and a few raccoons
stealing corn like no one’s there. 

(Published in The Early Birthdays 1985) 

drinking with your ghost
raccoons steal corn
like no one’s there 

(Published in Modern Haiku 42.2 Summer 2011) 

Revision won’t magically make a bad poem good, or a good poem great. But if there are seeds of goodness, uniqueness, or greatness currently in your work, adding revision to the equation will give your poetry a much better chance of developing its full potential. 

(First published in Verse Wisconsin 106 July 2011.)

 Michael Kriesel

Michael Kriesel

Winner of North American Review’s 2015 Hearst Prize and numerous other awards, and past President of the Wisconsin Fellowship of Poets, a poet and reviewer whose work has appeared in Alaska Quarterly, Antioch Review, Crab Creek Review, Nimrod, Rattle, Right Hand Pointing, Rosebud, and The Progressive. Books include Chasing Saturday Night: Poems about Rural Wisconsin (Marsh River Editions), Whale of Stars (haiku) (Sunnyoutside), Moths Mail the House (Sunnyoutside), and Feeding My Heart to the Wind: Selected Short Poems (Sunnyoutside). He has a B.S. in Literature from the University of the State of New York, and was a print and broadcast journalist in the U.S. Navy. Every Name in the Book, Mike Kriesel's new electronic chapbook of short poems, is now available to read from Right Hand Pointing here. For a printable PDF version, email Mike here.