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Susan PlettDinner With a Poet
Copyright©2011 by Susan Plett

This is Susan's seventh column in our "Poet's Classroom" series.

I love to ask people about their jobs, especially if it’s a job I’ve never heard of. At a recent banquet, I sat beside a young man who was in the process of becoming a certified member of Power Washers of North America. I plied him with questions, all the while thinking, who knew there was a certification process for power washing? By the end of the evening, I knew there was a whole lot more to power washing than pointing the wand and flipping a switch.

People who don’t write poetry sometimes have a similar attitude to my initial response to the power washer… Poetry? Don’t you just pick up a pen, or sit down at a computer, and emote all over the page? How can it be wrong if it’s how you feel?

Well it’s not wrong, of course, but emotions can be ineptly communicated. Just as a poorly handed power washer can cause damage, poorly handled words fail to do the job you are setting out to do.

For those of you would like to sit down at dinner beside a poet and spend the evening talking about what it takes to make a poem become a poem, here’s a look at one of my early poems, from rough draft to finished poem. The rough draft was 250 words of freefall:

Lie very still. Lie very still. I try to think in a whisper. If you lie very still she won’t know you’re awake.
My mother’s voice rolls over me in black suffocating waves. My brother’s voice, seven years old, stubborn, defiant, is high, light, bobbing like a plastic toy in the turbulence.
I squeeze my eyes tight shut, lie very still on my bed. There is a rushing roaring pounding in my ears. Don’t make her mad Charlie don’t make her mad don’t make her mad I forget and move my lips but I am safe the voices have moved no closer, are still in the kitchen.
GET OUT OF MY HOUSE! this is the seventh wave, the big one, and it is punctuated by the slamming of the door. Charlie is still in his pajamas the snow is ankle deep on the ground
lie very still don’t squeeze your eyes I try to look in the mirror to make sure I look like I’m sleeping I will my heart to beat slower worried she’ll see it fluttering caged under the thin blanket
Charlie? CharLIE?? Her voices rises, sharpens, tangy scent of madness finding its way under my bedroom door.
WHERE DID YOU GO? WHEN I GET MY HANDS ON YOU ...the voice is coming closer closer
lie very still lie very still lieverystill verystill stillstill curl into a ball dive under the covers
and the bedroom door crashes open

Interesting enough, but there's a lot of words, and some murky backstory. The first pass through, I added some line breaks, which helped to slow things down and let the story emerge. I also italicized everything the narrator of the poem is thinking. A sample of Draft #2:

rushing roaring pounding in my ears
don’t make her mad Charlie
          don’t make her mad don’t make her mad
          
GET OUT OF MY HOUSE! it’s the seventh wave, the big one punctuated by the slamming of the door.
          Charlie’s in his Christmas pajamas
          his robe on the chair beside his bed
          snow over the tops of our boots

I gazed fondly at my bright and shining poem and asked for feedback, certain the poem should be bronzed and hung on a wall. “I don’t get the part about Charlie.” “Who’s outside?” “How do you know how deep the snow is?”

I changed that bit. And then I changed it again. And again. And people still refused to understand exactly where Charlie was and how a narrator hiding in a bed could know that. And then someone asked me a Very Helpful Question, one that I still ask myself when I am stuck trying to fit all kinds of details into a poem.

Helpful Question #1: Whose story is this?

This is an especially important question to ask when you are working—as I was—from a real life anecdote. The story belongs to the narrator; what she can see and hear and feel from where she is, and her reaction to what she is hearing. Charlie’s story belongs to a different poem. Which leads me to Helpful Question #2:

Helpful Question #2. Are there too many people in this poem?

Does Charlie even need to be in this poem? Well, yes, because there needs to be a focus for the anger, but is there a father in this family? Is it necessary to mention him? The dog was likely hiding under the table at that point, too, but those kinds of details just aren’t necessary to communicate the emotion, and working too hard to tell the complete truth can muddy your message.

A corollary question to this is—are there people who are taking up too much space? Charlie is necessary in this poem, but he is not the focus, and where he is and what he is experiencing after the door slams is not needed. Here is Draft #3.

Tempest

          lie very still lie very still
I try to think in a whisper
          lie very still
my mother’s voice laps under the door
wave after suffocating wave of bitter black water
my brother’s voice a persistent plastic toy
tossed in the turbulence

rushing roaring pounding in my ears
          don’t make her mad Timmy
          don’t make her mad don’tmakehermad
“GET OUT OF MY HOUSE!”
it’s the seventh wave, the big one
punctuated by the slamming of the door

lie very still
          don’t squeeze your eyes too tight
I will my heart to beat slower
worried she’ll see it fluttering
netted under the thin blanket
“Lisa? LiSA??”
Her voice rises, sharpens,
salt spray of madness
misting under the closed door
“WHEN I GET MY HANDS ON YOU...”
the tide comes closer closer
          lie very still lie very still
          lieverystill verystill
I curl into a ball
dive under the covers

and the bedroom door crashes open

I changed the names in an effort to make the poem more anonymous. It feels untrue to me, now, but I wanted to be kind to my mother, who was not a monster. When we are writing poetry about people who are a part of our lives, it easy to hurt without meaning to, because the narrow focus a poem demands presents only one view. There is no place in the scope of this poem to discuss the things my mother did well.

Also of note in this latest draft are the changes that were made in an effort to sustain the ocean/storm imagery—“tangy scent” becomes “salt spray”, “finding its way under my door” is replaced by “misting under the closed door” and “caged under the thin blanket” is replaced with “netted under the thin blanket."

At this point, I read the poem aloud, listening for phrases that slowed me down. I culled the mother’s speech, because the first phrase established the mother’s mood and tone, and I found myself hurrying through those lines to get to the “real” poem.

I changed the mother’s speech to lower case because ALL CAPS and an exclamation mark were much too much like telling the reader I WANT YOU TO NOTICE THIS WOMAN IS YELLING!!!

I added a few words to place the reader in the house. Where is the narrator lying very still? I added the word bedroom. Where is the slammed door? Another room in the house? I added kitchen—and that sent Charlie out of the house.

I asked myself if the adjectives made sense, and “suffocating wave” was shortened to “wave”, which also served to speed the action up.

And then, when it looked like this:

Tempest

          lie very still     lie very still
I try to think in a whisper
          lie very still
my mother’s voice laps under my bedroom door
wave after wave of bitter black water
my brother’s voice a persistent plastic toy
tossed in the turbulence

rushing roaring pounding in my ears
          don’t make her mad
          don’t make her mad don’tmakehermad
“Get out of my house!”
it’s the seventh wave, the big one
punctuated by the slamming
of the kitchen door

          lie very still
          don’t squeeze your eyes too tight
I will my heart to beat slower
worried she’ll see it fluttering
netted under the thin blanket

her voice rises, sharpens,
salt spray of anger
misting under the closed door
the tide comes closer closer
          lie very still lie very still
          lieverystill verystill
I curl into a ball
dive under the covers

and the bedroom door crashes open

I tinkered and fiddled and fussed with line breaks and punctuation and how it looked on the page until, in a fit of desperation, I sent it off to a contest where it won a prize.

Did you find this article helpful? Please let us know.

Copyright ©2010 by Susan Plett