Posted by: jeannineatkins | June 20, 2014

Deep Breaths for Poetry’s Last Lap

It’s the season of irises, roses, and revision. I recently got back notes about a manuscript I’m calling Finding Wonders from my writing group and two other friends. Dina, Lisa, Bruce, Deb, and Terry all assured me that it’s close to a book. “It’s mostly housekeeping, now,” Lisa said. Of course it’s more spring cleaning with mattresses to be overturned, cushions thrown around, and when you get behind the sofa, who knows what you’ll find. Fixing one stanza breaks up those before and after. Some poor phrases can be snipped away, but switching one word makes me question others. If you’ll pardon my mixing metaphors, I’ve been shoved back ever so gently to the start, and given great shoes and cheers, but also need to take deep breaths for the last go-around.

I email Deb that what she suggested seems doable, and think I hear caring impatience in her reply: Of course it’s doable! Okay, but revising with astute suggestions still means minute by minute, hour by hour, and day by day, facing mistakes, uncertainty, wrong tracks I went down. It takes both faith and doubt. I know other poets, I’ve taught other poets, who think their work is entirely theirs, and don’t want critiques, but only cheers. I believe there’s always a time for encouragement, but it can take a brusque tone. If we want an audience of more than one, we should listen to attentive readers. I’ve been writing a long time and feel like I judge myself well, but I miss problems, from easily fixable things, like starting a poem in a bed that seems to stay there with a bunch of speakers under the covers (I just cut the bed), to larger issues of wobbly arcs and a disturbing dearth of character flaws. The small missteps are often due to oversights as I focus on words and larger issues of plot. The big writing problems are like the habits we drag with us every day, so common that we hardly see them. We can always use another eye, even when we don’t welcome helpful remarks because no matter how well-phrased, they carry a sense that we didn’t quite cut it before. Who likes to be reminded of imperfection or get shoved back to uncertainty, where almost everything original begins.

I chant, I can do it, I can do it, but cringe through some changes. It helps to know good people will look squinty-eyed at me if I threaten to quit now. While housecleaners are advised to tend to the big first, then deal with the dust, at this stage of revision, I start with the small mistakes, which builds my confidence to take on larger issues. As the list of what must get fixed slowly shrinks, my need to tackle the next builds enough so that I’m hardly aware of flashes of grumpiness and joy that braid together, along with that anxious state, where I know have to decide on my own what’s clear and what’s hazy, what’s too much or not enough, what finally matters.


I hate to make yet another mess, but it’s necessary to crack open characters, see if I can understand them a bit more. All of this is made easier from truthful critiquers. Their little checks or “nices” in the margins keep me good company, and they’ve bestowed gifts: a few scenes or images rearranged, lines deleted, where I can see that yes, those remaining will have a sharper impact. I’m glad for these while struggling with contradictions. One person loves an image, while another writes something nicer than the “huh?” I translate it to in my notes. Can I find new words to keep the image, but make it less opaque? One reader marks some lines as prosy, and I change them, even though in a recent conversation she referred to Elizabeth Bishop using that word. Still, I question my language and syntax. Deb notes places where she feels lost in some sequences, while Dina won’t allow me to use words like “then” or other time markers. They’re both right. I have to make everything move smoothly ahead, and still keep a sense of poetry, not clocks and calendars.

After tending to my friends’ advice, the poems will be all mine again for a while. I’ll read each one, listening for rhythms. I’ll try to come to the words as if I never heard them before and find more places to trim, and a few views to add. I can lay them all on the floor or porch table, taking turns, and consider switching order. For a while, I can do whatever I want, before setting them forth again, this time across the table to my husband, who is a great spotter of jumbled phrases, overblown metaphors, and too quirky wording, as well as errant commas. A work is ours, then not, back and forth, just like we hope words will be for readers, who make them theirs.


For other Poetry Friday posts, please visit Jone at Check it Out.


  1. Lovely. I love this stage–when you have so many voices to listen to, and they’re all good, but you have to pay attention to your own in the middle of it all. Yes, totally challenging, but then you start to see the rough edges fall away and the threads tie together, and finally you get to the stage where you’ve got the fine-grit sandpaper and are just polishing. And those words, “it’s close to a book” are just the best in the world! Congrats. 🙂

    • Thank you for celebrating with me, Becky — and reminding me to celebrate. This is a happy time, even with its teeth-gritting, furrowed brow moments that feel as much a beginning as an ending. But truly there is a shore!

  2. I was wondering why you weren’t at the window seat! And here you are, with a poetry ms.! Kudos!!!! And, yes, good critiquers are a blessing, those other eyes that reveal more. Then back to your own eyes, opened wider, with only your heart behind them.

    • I missed you, Sarah, but you’re right, I’ve been quite hunkered down, determined to make my way through this last-ish stage. I love your last sentence, and will try to earn its vision. xo

  3. Of COURSE you can do it! It’s “just” hard work, but it’s the sort you can actually do, with time and space enough.

    • Thank you for the cheer, Kelly. There are always those two voices — impossible. shut up. So very sweet to hear someone not in my head voice confidence, pushing me that much closer. And someone who knows how essential it is to take the time.

  4. The hard part, revision. I wrote about revision today and actually you are in it. I opened Kate Messner’s Real Revision and found you sitting there telling me to clean up and make my nouns more precise. I feel I can always revisit work and find something new to change. I haven’t sent many poems off because of this. And the personal nature of them. And that little nagging voice in my head.

    I hope you will get this work out into the world. I love your View from the Window Seat. I have savored it like a warm cup of tea. I hope we can chat over coffee some day, maybe in that window seat.

    • So glad you are finding useful prompts in Kate’s good book! I identify with your litany of lists of why poems don’t go out to the world. I have to look at those same ones spilling into my mind, then decide at some point I’ve reached an end. A poem is also something that we finish. Then on the next. I am writing that more bravely than I actually feel!

      Thank you for your hopes for my manuscript, kind comment about View, and hope for real coffee one day. That would be wonderful!

  5. I love this line: “After tending to my friends’ advice, the poems will be all mine again for a while.” I’d love to talk with students about this line. Writing is all about creating, lending out, recreating, and lending out again, isn’t it? Sometimes it’s hard to lend out, but that doesn’t mean it can’t ever be yours again. It’s hard for students to turn their writing over to someone to critique. The sense that they can have it back is a reassurance. 🙂 Thanks for a glimpse into your writing life and process!

    • Holly, that does seem something good to talk to students about. Some see critiquing as taking away their power, when it’s more about being open — or at least trying to fake being open (I’ve been that person, silently grumbling) — then deciding what to take and what to leave be. Giving the words over to someone for a while is a step toward claiming them as yours, then letting them be both yours and everyone’s.

      So much of learning to write even when it’s not personal writing is about learning about yourself. Most of us want to be right, and most of us aren’t all of the time. Doing critiques we’re vulnerable, and feel the resistance even when we’re grateful. Writing for students is like writing for grown up authors; we just become a bit better at noticing the phases, that the unhappy parts will pass and open ways into what we couldn’t have imagined without them.

      Thanks for reading and writing, and good luck with your students!

  6. Oh, I feel bad; I meant to deliver caring encouragement–a perfect confidence in your abilities, not impatience. Sorry for the mix-up!

    • No, no, what you said was perfect. I heard it as “snap out of it,” but in the best possible way. Because I do dip into the valley of I-can’t, even when logically I know I’ve been there before and get out. Your voice was my voice and it made me laugh and move on, so thank you, my dear!

  7. What a lovely and timely post. I need to dive back into a manuscript that’s been in a drawer for a while, so this was exactly what I needed.

    • It’s perfect weather for diving, Kathy. Enjoy the swim –or the parts of it that you can. Seems like it’s been a busy spring for you. Now is the time to contemplate on the deck!

  8. Revision is SO much work! Whenever I face that mountain, I think surely I must be the only writer in the world who has to fix so much. Thanks for the reminder that this just IS the process.

    And yes, you can do it. 🙂

    • So many strands of the process, one can get a bit worn going back to the beginning of yet another go-through. But you are not alone. And thank you for the faith — sending mine back to you!

  9. Thank you for this peek into your process. Hope it helped your head AND your manuscript to write this out!

    • Yes, it does help to slap the problems onto the page, grumble, explore, and move on. Thanks, Mary Lee!

  10. I loved reading about your process. I’ve never really had my work critiqued…just the nice comments on my blog…but, you know, lots of people are very nice, and lots of poems aren’t. There is a fine line between help and hurt, so not many want to do the constructive criticism for fear of hurting. It’s so wonderful that you have a group, and husband, that can give you valuable feedback!

    • Your comment about nice people and not so nice poems made me smile. I think most of what we see on blogs is considered by the writer finished, so at that point one mostly wants affirmation along with its nudge to move on. But sometimes we write things that don’t look entirely finished and we feel stuck on a way out. That’s when trusted friends can help. Emphasis on the trusted. I’m lucky to have have found and been able to build upon that trust over the years. With group and husband, I know they have my back, so whatever is hurtful (and it can hurt) washes away pretty quickly, while I move ahead assessing what to change. And finding they were usually right. Thank you for reading and commenting, and best wishes for your writing and revising!

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