Grasping for Stove Burners (and other thoughts on editing poetry)

Hi. Hello. Howdy. Your friendly neighborhood Imposter here. On today’s episode of An Imposter Writes Poetry: an overly ambitious prose writer seriously underestimates the sheer amount of (mental and emotional) labor required in the poetry editing process.  

 

Because, as it turns out, editing a poem is not like editing an essay. It’s not a matter of logical consistency—you can’t simply ensure that every topic sentence reflects your thesis statement, that your arguments are supported with properly cited evidence, that you avoid passive voice.

Rather, editing a poem is a relentless series of impossible, subjective, detail-oriented questions, and they all matter. Punctuation matters. Word choice matters. Tense matters. Spacing and line breaks and indentation matter. Rhythm matters. One of my mentors explained it this way: editing is like putting on a blindfold, reaching over the stove with your bare hands, and trying to figure out which burners are hot. You need to feel the heat, the pressure points. The whole process is risky, dangerous, even a little futile. And, after considering every nook and cranny of the poem, after chopping and rearranging, after locating the heat and boiling some water and making yourself a nice spaghetti meal, you have to ask: does it still flow? Maybe? Somehow? Does it still mean anything?

The last time I seriously undertook the task of editing was in Gateway, when I repurposed a couple disparate journal entries into a (relatively) cohesive 12-page theory paper. When I consider this experience in the context of poetry editing, and I’m struck by a stark difference: whereas editing prose is largely a process of filling in gaps—to flesh out my repurposing paper, I added sources, filled in logical holes, refined personal narrative, and deepened my analysis—editing poetry is largely an effort in deletion. I look at my words and ask: Where am I over-explaining? Which stanzas are too opaque? What is unnecessarily repetitive? Whereas editing prose is largely a means of polishing—tighten syntax here, refine diction there—editing poetry is an exercise in destruction. One of my mentors explicitly asked me to “fracture” my poetry, to take away the tidiness. Perhaps I’d go so far as to say: whereas editing prose requires soldering words and binding thoughts, poetry editing requires breaking language altogether.

And so, after 5 iterations of drafts and 5 mentor meetings, I now pause and consider my collection. It’s funny how 7 poems seems like such a feeble number, but the effort itself feels so significant. It’s remarkable how much time I’ve spent on each and every word. Even as someone who deeply admires and appreciates poetry, perhaps never before have I considered the true feat that is the published poem.

I look at my collection, at my mountain of discarded drafts, and realize: there’s work yet to be done.

One thought to “Grasping for Stove Burners (and other thoughts on editing poetry)”

  1. Hi Stina,
    It sounds like you’ve accomplished a great deal this semester! I’m impressed by your determination and commitment to the integrity of poetry. It sounds like despite the immense work that goes into writing and editing poetry, it is rewarding beyond belief when you are finally satisfied with the product (even if it’s not totally done). I know that I never feel like a project is completely done regardless of genre, so it is easy to imagine why poetry might amplify this feeling – how can you know when you’re done if there’s no logical or ubiquitous measure of “done” to go by? I’ve only ever written poetry for “fun” or for a creative writing course three years ago. But from hearing about your journey through poetry, it makes me realize that there is so much more I can do with poems – it is not simply making something rhyme or sound “deep.” It is layered, it is a process, and it goes beyond surface level implications.

    You mention the idea of editing being opposites when comparing essays and poetry. I would agree that there are clearer expectations and widely applicable standards by which to judge essays, but the same can’t be said regarding poems. It makes me wonder, given the subjectivity and free-form nature of poetry, what about the motivation or effect of poetry gives it this quality? Why does this genre evoke such open ended questions? Why does poetry need to be more opaque or less straightforward than essays?

    Is it because poetry is such that the author isn’t supposed to give the reader the answer; the poems are meant to give an audience the space to insert their own interpretations? You raise an interesting quandary, and I would be interested to hear what you have to say about this. If poems are in fact so subjective and open to widespread interpretation, isn’t it up to you entirely where you would like to take them?

    I am excited to see your finished site at the showcase! I think it will reflect the work, time, and passion that you put into it.

    Che

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