Today I spent a good deal of time thinking about poetry. What makes a poem hit you where you live? How do we transform the simple everyday objects of our lives into exquisite works of art?
In my own process, the answer is simple. Edit.
With every revision the poet has an opportunity to take something personally meaningful and turn the phrases to touch more hearts. I started thinking about what I know of this process. I survived for years without editing. Resistant to striking anything, convinced I would lose some of the essence if I changed a single word. Told early in life I was a “natural writer,” it never occurred to me that discipline would only deepen the flavor natural talent brings to my work. Much of my life I have been able to write anything; poems, short stories, lengthy essays, on short notice. I skipped the “rough draft” process, except in classes where I was required to turn in a copy. I thought my ability to write without revisions, still garnering A’s and compliments, put me ahead of the game.
When I met Mendy Knott,I received the authentic compliment, mixed with room to grow, I have come to expect from her. Mendy loves to encourage writers, but she won’t bullshit you. So after a reading one night when she told me I was a strong writer and I shot back with my questioning “really?” she closed in on what teachers and peers never had. She mentioned editing. I don’t recall the exact conversation but I remember walking away still feeling good about my work but open to this idea of editing. I did not, however, take her advice for a few more years.
I had dubbed myself a “napkin poet.” I wrote when the muse suddenly appeared, often driving down I-540 at upwards of 70mph or after a little too much coffee in the middle of the night. Grabbing at whatever I happened to have on hand, I wrote most of my poetry on napkins, sometimes on my skin, and once in crayon on my dashboard. I liked being a napkin poet.
It has only been the last 12-18 months I’ve been editing my work. I thought about this change and the way my writing has strengthened, not just from editing but also the daily discipline of writing. Much of my writing practice has developed around suggestions solicited from Mendy Knott, who I’ve come to think of as my writing mentor. A few other tips and overheard statements from other writers have seeped in to my consciousness as well. A collection of one liners, instructions, and reminders about what it means to show up to this work and to claim the space of being a writer.
With all this in mind, the following poem emerged. While not all of these treasured tips can be attributed to Mendy, many of them can. She has been the single most influence on me claiming my space as a writer, professionalizing it little by little, making friends with discipline, meeting my muse halfway, and being able to hear critiques of my work with eagerness. I’ve titled this piece “Keep the Original.” This taken from her repeated advice about revisions, always keep a copy of the original in case you cut a little too much. This wisdom was what held my hand as I picked up my red pen for the first time. Thanks Mendy.
Keep the Original
write what you know.
Then, add mystery,
step into strange.
listen to your friends’ suggestions,
but stick to your truth.
sleep on it.
write; when you’re inspired,
because it’s time,
because you must.
read your work.
yes, out loud,
where others hear you.
read it through,
take it in.
show up everyday
ready to be inspired.
carry a small notebook at all times.
write on napkins when you must.
know poetry is ministry.
release yourself from what holds you back,
just show up.
call yourself a writer,
because you are.
shoulder the burden of the pen,
write a hard truth,
the poem you don’t want to write.
meet your muse halfway,
and be on time.
write the story of your people;
good, bad, and ugly.
sleep with poetry by the bed.
scribble it all down,
you’ll edit it anyway.
keep the original.