When you care about someone there’s always a better way to word a complaint. Instead of saying, “You stink,” you might say, “Let’s take a bath together.” Think of it as revision. Nothing says “I love you” like a little editing.
Recently, my editor asked me to spend at least five minutes a day staring at myself in the mirror. “Look at your body, or your face, or your hair. Tuck something in or comb something out. You don’t even have to make it better. Just spend a few minutes trying to grasp what others are looking at when they’re staring at your poem.”
My impression was that revision was just an excuse not to finish something. When you stop changing you’re dead, and a finished poem is a dead poem, but they don’t publish living poems. Even a good poet is a better mortician. If I wanted to publish a book I needed my poems to be done. I needed dead poems.
No one else was looking when I peered into the hallway mirror. I’d always preferred the natural look–shaving once or twice a week, clipping toenails only after they started snagging my socks, perhaps a smear of Old Spice deodorant if I planned to be riding an elevator. But there aren’t a lot of elevators on a one-story farm. I’d grown accustomed to the sweaty, smoky, musky vapors that swung around my torso. Poetry is what you feel inside, right? It’s not about smells. It’s not about whether the work shirt with your name embroidered in script over the left breast pocket is miss-buttoned.
I like to write about my experiences. My personal love-tossed dream of life. On a farm, this kind of poetry requires special shoes. My editor wasn’t alone in hoping I’d clean up my act. Mark Wunderlich once took me aside, saying, “One spot of manure is classy. Two spots are sloppy.” I looked down at my boots. There were five manure spots. I was at least four stains away from Graywolf Press.
The problem is that I don’t write poems as much as I just write them down. They begin as a kind of oral adventure when my hands are busy under a horse or over a tractor. I can sing as loud as I want to, in whatever way the music visits my tongue. It’s the only time I don’t stammer or stutter. When I see the words on a page, I’m still hearing them, breaking the lines apart from how they’re written, ignoring the grammar, the spelling, and reducing fully formed definite articles to long indecisive dashes.
My editor surprised me at the mirror. “When I tell you to fix things about yourself I’m not saying I don’t want you; I’m saying I want more of you. I’m saying I’m greedy for the best of you and you should want to be greedy for the best of your poems.”Everyone knows the drill.
First you get yourself dirty in a poem, then you scrub yourself back out of it and let it become its own creature, or just voices in the wind speaking through you. Still, I resented all the cleaning, and verb detente, like I was ridding the poem of my rustic soul.
“What about Donald Hall?” I asked, pointing to one of his books. “Surely I look better than that old Hobbit.”
“That’s because he can’t have sex,” I said. “He told me himself. He stopped writing poems when he stopped having sex.”
My editor thought about that for a minute before chiding both of us: “Maybe if he got a haircut, he’d…”