Posted by: jeannineatkins | May 20, 2011

Revising: Or Giving Your Words a Whirl

My poems begin with people who did something that made me stop, frozen with hard-beating heart, the way I did as a child playing Statues after a friend grabbed my hand and spun me around.

Then there’s the wandering through libraries, collecting armloads of books about that person, the places where she lived, the company she kept, her moment in history. I muse over incidents I find as I stalk the character from home to work, try to peer into her cereal bowl or what’s left on her plate, and the softness of her pillow, and how long she might lie awake. All along I’m taking notes, which I spend a long time ordering not just through days but years. Though, of course, sometimes childhood moments appear smack in the middle of life as a grown up, so while admiring chronology, I don’t want to pledge to its logic.

I’ve put a lot of poems in order recently, mostly happy with the flow of events, my word choices, echoes, and imagery. Now I want to shake the poems like doormats in spring air and see what flies, or what’s left in the spaces where old dust was wedged. I want to spin things around and check angles I missed. I’ve lingered with images, wondering what the tracks in the snow, cobblestones on Boston streets, old moccasins, an obsession with Cleopatra and swans could tell me. I’ve set down my guesses, but it’s time to guess again, look deeper in the tracks or around the corners of those narrow streets. We want people to read poems more than once, and that means we have to make our way through them, I don’t know, a hundred times? There’s no need to count but there’s plenty of need to backtrack and set things awhirl once again. I begin with wonder, proceed with some knowing, and now want to return, for a while, to the state of seeing things anew.

Please visit Poetry Friday Roundup at The Drift Record where Julie Larios writes about a book of poems by Stacy Gnall called Heart First into the Forest, novels in verse, and the compression, elegance, and mystery poetry and fairy tales have in common. She’s convinced me to order Heart First into the Forest, because reading other peoples’ poems can set me loose from my own predictable ways, fling me into the right sort of dizzy and open-minded state for this stage of revising.



  1. “peer into her cereal bowl” Wow. That pretty much sums up the depth of your research and pondering, and now I have a whole new appreciation/understanding of what you do, Jeannine.
    Cool how that works, huh?

  2. Or at least now you know I’m obsessed with breakfasts. But I think the best research moments are not the dates or even some details of amazing events, but when you find out things not often in the history books. What kind of shoes did she wear? Did she have an opinion on cats? And, yes, I really want to know, if I can, her choice of cereal or toast. Nosy, nosy, nosy, that’s the secret of research.

  3. B’fast reveals a lot about character…and also, place. I remember having bulgar for breakfast (gov’t-funded staples), and in the South: toast fried in bacon grease, and/or crumbled cornbread, topped with buttermilk (ugh!!!). Now I eat a nutrition bar, or Greek yogurt with fruit. 🙂

  4. I love hearing about how you snoop through interesting tidbits of a life and then turn them into beautiful words and images and feelings that tell a story. Now I want to know what’s in the cereal bowl! I hope not corn bread topped with buttermilk (for Melodye’s sake!)

  5. It is quite hard to imagine you eating bacon-grease-fried toast! Which I hope appears in your book.

  6. I’m afraid it could have been of the corn bread and bacon grease ilk. Then she wisely moves to Italy….

  7. It does! And lol, I hated bacon-grease-fried toast back then; and even now, my stomach recoils at the very thought.

  8. no surprise for the writer = no surprise for the reader
    I’ve seen this “slogan” a few times recently. The time does come to “shake poems like doormats in the spring air” can dislodge surprises–but wait! Don’t throw the spontaneity out with the stale dust! It’s a fine balance, isn’t it, between fluffing a piece of work and wearing it flat.
    I’ll be ordering Heart First as well!

  9. Re: no surprise for the writer = no surprise for the reader
    Heidi, ach, the balancing. I guess that’s why the shaking up — things start to look too shiny and spiffy, and that’s not quite what we want. I hope we’re both in for some cool surprises with Heart First! I’ve been working my way through some good Poetry Month suggestions from around these quarters, but am happy to add to the stack!

  10. So…you like your revision both shaken AND stirred? How about your martinis? (Nosy, nosy, nosy!!!)

  11. Am I mixing my metaphors? Or is martini making just a better one than housekeeping? Shaking and stirring should happen everywhere.

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