Creating a Text – Robert Peake
What phases are involved in the creation of a text?
“A good poet is someone who manages, in a lifetime of standing out in thunderstorms, to be struck by lightning five or six times; a dozen or two dozen times and he is great.”
This quote by one of the finest poetry critics of his time, Randall Jarrell, would seem to suggest poetry is purely a matter of inspiration – the cliched bolt of lightning from above; a good poem simply strikes. Despite a single exception in my writing career (doesn’t that, in fact, prove the rule?) – lightning-speed inspiration has simply not been my experience. The act of writing is a dance with oneself. The dance-hall is a process called revision.
Here is what I do: I get up early and write three pages that are purely uncensored stream-of-consciousness. Then I rip them up, go outside, crinkle them into a metal bin, and burn them. Next I read a few words to myself about why poetry matters to me – inspirational statements I’ve made as a kind of antidote to the internal critic, things I need to keep hearing to keep me going – so I tell them to myself. Then, I write.
Sometimes I have gathered snippets or ideas on a pad of paper I carry in my wallet. More often these days, I just dive in. Sometimes I go back to other poems and revise. Sometimes I read a bit of someone else’s work to get me going.
What comes out I file in a folder called “raw.” Other mornings, or evenings when I’m not too tired, I come back to the “raw” folder – especially if there’s something in there that is starting to cook. I can have a dozen or more such protean poems going on at any one time. I try to work on the poem to see where I can take it. Sometimes a new direction comes in, and I see how it can enhance the poem. It is exploratory.
I read aloud, I tinker, I make radical changes (often saving earlier drafts just in case). The fire, the energy, the poem-craft, comes in revising what has spilled onto the page. If I get to a certain point where I feel “too close to the trees” I might take the piece into a workshop or send it to a trusted friend (or faculty advisor). Some of those suggestions can be really good. I take everything with a grain of salt.
At a certain point, I know the poem is about as good as it can be for what it is. Then I have to ask myself: is it any good? As a reader, would I like it? Often, the answer is “no.” I have put time and energy into this piece, and it’s gone as far as it can go – but still isn’t something I would stand by years from now even if it did get published. If I don’t like it, why should a publisher? And even if they do – how will I feel years from now about having put out mediocre work? So I put it in a subfolder of “raw” called “hibernate.” You never know.
The propensity for a poem to wander its way into greatness through hard work and continual revision may seem on the statistical order of a lightning strike. But the reality is much slower, more patient – and I feel every effort, including the so-called “failures” help to make me a better writer. So I write, and write and write – shuffling poems in and out of my “raw” folder, dancing with myself and the possibilities of the poem, doing my best to enjoy each nonlinear dance step.
Robert Peake is a poet; you can find his blog here: Robert Peake