When I took my computer to be repaired, I was uncertain how long the repair might take, so the next morning, I declared a Poetry Day.
On a shelf under my desk I keep a three-ring binder containing my current work on poetry. The first section holds poems by other writers, theme ideas for poems I may write. Next, to improve my mood, comes a sheet protector containing a newspaper clipping of my poem “Planting Peas” appearing in Ted Kooser’s “American Life in Poetry” column a year ago this month. That always reminds me that I have written some good poems!
Following is a section of new poems I consider finished, but which are unpublished, or which have been accepted for publication or published in magazines but not in a book. When I first declare a Poetry Day, I usually read through these– they are in alphabetical order– to see if they still satisfy me. Sometimes I make changes, suddenly seeing in the poem something I’ve failed to see the last 200 times I read it.
I’m not kidding or exaggerating when I mention reading the poem 200 times. Rita Dove says, “A poem can go through as many as 50 or 60 drafts. It can take from a day to two years– or longer.” Carolyn Forche mentions 80 drafts. Both are quoted in 1,001 Tips for Writers [with an additional very long subtitle] by William A. Gordon.
Keeping these poems together, and printed, helps me see when I am approaching enough decent poems to consider putting together a book manuscript to submit to a publisher.
Next in the binder, also in alphabetical order, come my working drafts: poems that have been through many revisions, but which are still not ready to be published.
When a publisher asks for a poem, as sometimes happens now that I have a few books in print, I check my finished but unpublished-in-a-book poems first, and then, if nothing there seems appropriate, go to unfinished work looking for poems that might be close to making the breakthrough to being real poems.
This week a book publisher asked for a submission of four to six poems for an anthology. On my first Poetry Day, I read through this section and found eight poems that I thought might be made ready with some uninterrupted work time. I took them out of the binder and began reading and making notes.
At the end of the first Poetry Day, I had done minor revisions on each of these poems several times, and enjoyed thinking about them, testing changes, as I did other routine chores.
* * *
Next day I made work on those poems my first priority, starting by reading through all of them. After I had done this several times that second morning, I realized that I still hadn’t received the phone call telling me that the computer was fixed.
Instead of frustration, I felt peace, because suddenly I realized that I didn’t need to do anything but work on these poems.
I didn’t need to check email; I had no computer!
I couldn’t waste time on Facebook or writing entertaining emails to friends.
I could begin new work in my journal, but I could not type several other pieces that were ready to be committed to a computer file. I had no computer!
For the first few hours, I was listening for the phone, a repair person telling me my computer was fixed. Then I sat myself down for a lecture. If I spent all my time on edge, my hours would not be productive. My attitude would make the difference between a mind filled with impotent fury and calm, satisfying attention to my work.
The next time I read the poems, my mind was wholly on the poems instead of half regretting what I was NOT doing. By the end of that second day, I’d made radical changes in the poems and each one felt better to me than it had in months. I knew my subconscious mind would continue to work on them throughout the night.
* * *
On the third Poetry Day, after working on the poems for an hour, I sat back and looked around my office. How could I make it serve me better? One of my habits that can have negative effects is immediately leaping up to fix a problem without thinking it through. So instead of rushing to rearrange something, I put my feet on the desk and made a mental list. My desk was a mess of unfinished jobs I couldn’t do without the computer. So after working on each poem, I took a 15-minute break to look through one of the piles and file it, throw it away, or put it where it belonged.
* * *
By the end of the fourth Poetry Day, I was still tinkering with the poems, but I alternated work on them with other writing chores. I’d also turned to another major job. I’ve been writing a new will and studying my “literary assets.” Because I am a published writer, and have therefore made money (though never a living) from writing, anything relating to my literary efforts is considered among my assets for tax purposes. I fear the IRS may take what I consider to be an inordinate interest in these assets considering how little money I’ve made from my writing over the years. Rather than burdening someone else with sorting hundreds of drafts and files after my death, I’ll make some decisions now. Two universities have already established collections related to my writing, so I can catalog which materials should go to each. In addition, I’ve collected materials that might benefit my county or local libraries as well as a South Dakota historical collection in another library. By the end of the fourth day I cataloged two boxes and a tote full of family papers, making them ready to deliver to a library where they will become part of South Dakota’s historical assets.
When I caught myself scrubbing faucets with an (old) toothbrush, I finished the job, but did not allow myself to go back to housework because it was not writing.
* * *
On the fifth day without my computer, I looked through the unfinished poems, finding a poem I wrote as a letter to an officer of the Wyoming Highway Patrol who caught me speeding on one of my trips to Cheyenne before I moved back to the ranch seven years ago. I’ve never really revised the letter into a real poem, so I began to work on it again.
Next I found a poem I first wrote in the 1970s about being present at an attempted robbery in a bookstore in Columbia, Missouri; the most recent draft is dated 1999 and I still don’t know what’s wrong with the poem. I turn the page.
Among the drafts is a group poem to which I sent a contribution along with a dozen other poets; the last time I heard from any of them was 2012. Has the project ever been completed? I began another poem in 2003 on a drive to Dickinson, N.D. Another draft titled “Ten Dogs” was inspired by an essay I read in which the author detailed the lives of all his dogs, ending with the death of the last one and saying, “I am six dogs old.” Dogs are tough subjects for poems; the question is always how does one make a poem more than nostalgia and sentimentality?
I turn the page and find “A Psalm to Wal-Mart,” but am not inspired to work on it. I’ve spent hours on a poem about an officer who shot and killed a young man marching against the Vietnam War when I lived, and marched, in Columbia, MO, but have never found a satisfactory conclusion. All of these are unfinished, and I find none ready for prime time.
After working over eight poems during the week, I selected six to submit to the anthology. Then I double-checked my list of published poems and discovered one of them had been published in quite a different form last year in another collection. I eliminated that one from this submission, but I retain the changes. When it’s eventually published, I’ll note that it was “previously published in slightly different form,” and where.
Here’s one of the poems I worked on this week, as it looked when I started revising:
Every sunrise morning,
Edna walks by my house toward Mass,
she tells me, Bible clutched to her breast.
Her neck is crooked so she can look
only at the ground; when we visit, I speak
to the back of her gray head. “This way,”
she says, “I see the crocuses and hyacinths
before you do.” She talks to my dogs
when she stops for breath. She likes them,
she says, because they don’t suddenly appear,
barking, crashing into the fence to startle her.
Every morning now, I kneel on the sidewalk
pretending to pull weeds, or push
old leaves away from new shoots
so I can look up at her face while she tells me
her daughter lives alone most of the time,
that husband of hers away on a ship.
Edna is 85. She doesn’t suspect I’m kneeling
in homage. She wants seeds from my sunflowers
to plant in her yard
“Every sunrise morning” seemed clever to me when I wrote it in 2010, but merely cute, and not in a good way, now. “Breast”– incorrect; surely she has two. I didn’t speak to the back of her head, but the top, and she was, of course, wearing a hat to Mass. Edna isn’t just passive and sweet; she’s a bit tart in her comments about her daughter’s husband. Why should I state that I am kneeling in homage? Aren’t poems supposed to show? I’m not happy with the unevenness of some of the lines.
Here’s the current (I won’t promise it’s the final) version of the poem:
walks by my house each day at sunrise
clutching a Bible to her hollow chest.
Her neck is bent so far she faces the sidewalk.
When she stopped to visit the first time,
I talked to her round purple hat. She is on her way
to Mass three blocks away. “The way my neck is,”
she told me, chuckling, “I see the crocus
before you do.” She talks to my small white dogs
and lets them lick her fingers. “Those big dogs
in the next block bark and slam against the fence;
they scare me to death every day.”
I don’t go to church, but often now I kneel
at sunrise on the sidewalk, pretending
to pull weeds so I can see her face
while we talk. She says her daughter
lives alone “most of the time, that husband
of hers is always away on a ship.” She tells me
she is 85; her husband left her when her back
began to turn her face away from him
and toward the earth.
She asks me for sunflower seed
to plant in her yard
Beginning the poem with the first line may be too clichéd, but I’ll let it stand for now. “Hollow chest” conveys Edna’s shriveled age visually. I believe she actually said “scare me to death,” but even if she didn’t I like the reference, considering her age and the next stanza of the poem. I’m not sure I should have removed the comment that she talks to the dogs; that may have to reappear. The contrast between my failure to attend church and her faithful daily attendance is a commentary on Edna as well as on the poet. I’m not sure if she told me about her husband, but if physical disability turned her face toward earth, her faithfulness suggests she turned also toward Heaven. “Earth” ends the line, for emphasis. Once the poem gathers speed and begins to gallop toward its end, I needed to shorten the line about the sunflower seed.
* * *
On the sixth day, I was completely immersed in my project of cataloging family memorabilia when the phone finally gave me news that my computer was repaired. My first response was a sinking feeling; I was thoroughly enjoying myself, working hard at my writing. And I didn’t need the computer to do that.
Still, my Poetry Days resulted in eight improved poems and four boxes (so far) of donations to the historical collection at the library. I also created a nonfiction binder, arranging my essay drafts in much the same way as I’ve arranged my poem drafts, making everything easier to find when I’m ready to work at writing. First, though, I have a lot of emails and Facebook comments to sift through.
In case my organization discourages you, here’s your reward. On the fourth Poetry Day, I turned to the very last section of the binder: “Notes and Bad Poems.” Did I say I rarely throw anything away?
The title of the worst poem in this group is “Love is like a compost pile.”
And I haven’t thrown it away. No matter how badly your writing went this week, this should cheer you up.
Linda M. Hasselstrom
Hermosa, South Dakota
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© Linda M. Hasselstrom, 2015