Wednesday, July 29, 2009

The Wondrous Work We Do...

REVISION re⋅vi⋅sion  
1. the act or work of revising.
2. a process of revising.
3. a revised form or version, as of a book.

Origin: 1605–15; <>revise ) + -iōn- -ion

Related forms:
re⋅vi⋅sion⋅al, re⋅vi⋅sion⋅ar⋅y, adjective

Synonyms:1. alteration, correction, emendation. Unabridged Based on the Random House Dictionary, © Random House, Inc. 2009.

Revision, or re-vision, to re-see something, to re-learn, to find another way to say or say it more clearly, clarification, clarity. This is the work that poets (all writers!) do. This has been my only work for the past few weeks. This morning, my work is finding the best word to suit a particular phrase in a line. One early search went like this:

  • Find a word to replace "unravels" (because this word is used at a pivotal point in another poem in the manuscript and that annoys me tremendously, especially when there are so many other--perhaps more fitting--words to be used)
  • Go to the Dictionary/Thesaurus
  • Look up "unravel" and look up the noun it became an adjective/verb for in the poem
  • Decide "unravels" works but there are other alternatives
  • List other alternatives: unwind, loosen, untwine, untwist, shake loose, come undone, free, unfold, uncoil, unfurl, untie, slacken, lax, withy-cragged (okay, that one made the list just because it tickled me...)
  • Narrow the list, then try each suitable alternative in the poem
  • Read the poem aloud twice using each word
  • Listen for assonance
  • Listen for discordance
  • Listen for rhythm and internal rhyme
  • Listen for meaning
  • Listen for meaning
  • Read for meaning
  • Listen for rhythm and meaning again
  • Think about layering and denotative/connotative meanings of each word (i.e. "untwist" works because the noun literally untwists but it sounds playful and the line highlights a rough action taking place, therefore, "untwist" works sonically and denotatively but not connotatively, so it's out of the running to be the replacement word...)
  • Work with the three words that make the cut (loosen, unwind, untwine)
  • Shuffle the iPod (selections from Erykah Badu's Worldwide Underground have served me nicely thus far, now it's on to Fall Out Boy)
  • Start the search process again using only the three words that made the cut

So clearly the revision process for one word, in one line that makes up one phrase, in one couplet of one poem, can take hours, days, weeks. This is the work we do. There is nothing lazy, haphazard or accidental about decent writing. Oh and did I mention all of this work is going into a poem that has already been published and that I considered "finished" nine months ago? This is the work we do: laborious, tedious, fierce, exacting, hard work. We hunt for clarity, every day, over and over again.

Here's the lesson: the next time you read a great article, stand in awe of a pristine poem or get your hands on a real page-turner, imagine how much hard work went into the piece,then do the author a solid and spread the word about its beauty.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Another Part of Me...

Can it be I stayed away too long?...Every impulse is an MJ song these days. It has been a long month with much excitement and travel, but it all comes back to what's now missing. I was on staff at Cave Canem when we got the news of Michael's passing and, though I missed being home with my parents--the folks who bought me all three of my Michael Jackson dolls, my red walkman, and my multiple Thriller tapes--there was no other place I would have wanted to be. The hardcore crew loaded up in cars and found a bar with CNN and some serious karaoke and sang ourselves into the night. When it was time to head back (since people still had those Off the Wall-inspired poems to write...), we lit up the campus with music and danced (and wrote!) until dawn.

To be among artists when a great artist is lost is truly a gift. No one questions why this work was invaluable and how it shifted lives because they are already assured that this is what art does, what it's meant to do. Music was my first art. My family says there is a reel-to-reel lost in someone's attic that has a clip of me singing Diana Ross' eulogy to Marvin Gaye and others with such feeling and anguish that no one would believe I was only three years old when the song was captured. And while I've always been 'struck' by certain music in a way I could never articulate, there are a few artists--Stevie Wonder, Michael Jackson, maybe one or two others--who, over the years, became the soundtrack to my life. It sounds strange to think of it that way, but there's no other way to explain it. I can pinpoint every moment of my life by their voices, their changes in style and movement, their lyrics, their harmony, their melodies. Every moment of my life has been punctuated by their work. And, as an artist, the loss of this kind of legacy, affects me so deeply. It's like losing someone who traveled with me every day of my life.

I'm always impressed by artists who live and breathe their work. This is not my life. If it were, I'd probably be a better artist or practicing another kind of art. But I am in awe of those who go unchallenged as some of the greatest artists who ever came to be. The video below shows Michael as that kind of consummate showman. He knew how to work a stage and whip a room into a frenzy. He perfected his art. He loved it, and how it moved us:

In the months to come, just like in all the years passed, we'll hear countless reports about money and drugs and all of MJ's humanness, what we won't hear enough about is his boundless charity and empathy, his 10,000 book library and his love for poetry. Friends say he was reading Tagore just before he passed and that he relished in Emerson. Emerson's words serve as a fitting eulogy the man who gave every bit of himself to art, to love:

Give All to Love

Give all to love;
Obey thy heart;
Friends, kindred, days,
Estate, good-frame,
Plans, credit and the Muse,—
Nothing refuse.

’T is a brave master;
Let it have scope:
Follow it utterly,
Hope beyond hope:
High and more high
It dives into noon,
With wing unspent,
Untold intent:
But it is a god,
Knows its own path
And the outlets of the sky.

It was never for the mean;
It requireth courage stout.
Souls above doubt,
Valor unbending,
It will reward,—
They shall return
More than they were,
And ever ascending.

Leave all for love;
Yet, hear me, yet,
One word more thy heart behoved,
One pulse more of firm endeavor,—
Keep thee to-day,
To-morrow, forever,
Free as an Arab
Of thy beloved.

Cling with life to the maid;
But when the surprise,
First vague shadow of surmise
Flits across her bosom young,
Of a joy apart from thee,
Free be she, fancy-free;
Nor thou detain her vesture’s hem,
Nor the palest rose she flung
From her summer diadem.

Though thou loved her as thyself,
As a self of purer clay,
Though her parting dims the day,
Stealing grace from all alive;
Heartily know,
When half-gods go,
The gods arrive.

-- Ralph Waldo Emerson