Every Thursday this semester, I've been taking one poem from my manuscript and revising it. A couple of times, I've posted poems on my blog on Friday to get some feedback, which has been helpful.
So last night, I pulled from my manuscript a poem that needed just a little work, figuring I could put it on my blog today, get some feedback, and then rewrite. I looked at the poem, which I haven't read in a year, and immediately saw some things I wanted to change – really, just a word or two. So I sat on couch with my laptop and began changing a few things. I started picturing what things my blog readers might say, and figured I might as well revise the poem before I even put it up. Soon I was in full revision mode, cutting out lines, moving things around, adding details. And then deleting details. And then adding more.
The poem was written from an experience in Gare Saint Lazare, a train station in Paris. I was traveling with my parents and sister, and we were taking a train to Giverny. As we walked to the station, my sister and I wandered down a side alley. A prostitute was standing in the alley, her make-up way too strong for the early morning sun. She was leaning against a parked cab, smoking a cigarette, and raising her legs up to pull her dark stockings tighter. Something about her pose, the dark legs silhouetted against these old stone arches – such easy grace – and the way she scoffed at us, obvious tourists with cameras around our necks, caught my attention.
The other image comes from inside the train station. For some reason, the station was filled with military men, who all seemed very excited, jabbering in French that I could not follow. Almost everyone was ignoring them, including the herds of school children climbing onto trains. One young man, dressed in camouflage and carrying a weapon, was guarding an empty platform. My parents and sister went off to buy our tickets, and I found myself talking to the young man. I don't speak French very well, but he was obviously flirting with me, and flirting takes little fluency, as most of the meaning is conveyed through body language, eye contact, tone of voice. He flashed white teeth as he smiled, and I smiled back. When my parents returned, we climbed onto the train, and my father, who seemed kind of freaked out, said to me, "Did you see the weapon he was holding? It was a semi-automatic. And his finger was on the trigger, the whole time he was talking to you."
So those are the details in the poem. With some figurative language thrown in. But as I read it over, I began to wonder what the poem was really about – what it says about sexual attraction, about flirting, about the body. And pretty soon I was questioning what the poem was really about anyhow, and why it was in the manuscript. I was looking at the two central images in the poem, two images that resonate with me because they come from my experience, and wondering what the images might mean to anyone else. How do you put a prostitute in a poem and avoid all the cliches? What does it mean to flirt with someone holding a weapon that could kill you instantly? I began to think that the original poem I had put in the manuscript was not at all the poem I wanted it to be, that I had something else to learn from the poem.
I love this process.
I love working with words, moving phrases around, sifting through my memories for other details, reading bits aloud to see how the words work together, playing with language and line breaks. I like freewriting to brainstorm more details, to see what else I have to say that I didn’t even know I wanted to say.
It is a slow, messy process. I didn't get the poem together in time to put it on my blog today. It's all ripped apart, details strewn about the page in untidy heaps. It lies inside my computer, waiting for my return. I love that.