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Poetry Workshop: 015

There are many ways to try revising a poem; I hope that's a lesson that is delivered by these poetry workshops. Of course, another rule that I hope hits home is that there is no "one true way" to write a poem. The goal of any workshop is to point things out, make some suggestions, but ultimately leave it up to the poet to make a decision about how to revise. (By the way, click here to learn more about how you can workshop your poetry with other poets and an instructor.)

Such is the case with this week's workshop poem:

Untitled Poem, by Lesa Stember

I lie peacefully in my bed,

as my hopes flutter behind closed eyelids.

At the sound of his tiny cry,

I am shaken from my sleeping fantasy

where he does not quake.

Where every day does not bring a new foe.

Where I do not watch pieces of him jerk away.

I open my eyes and instead of daylight,

darkness consumes me.

Blinds me.

The abyss of the unknown invades every part of me.

Choking my hope.

My peace.

Chaos scrambles my thoughts.

Fear envelopes my world.

It burrows deep into my being,

and twines itself there like a tuber.

A permanent fixture in my soul.

Unreachable, it gnaws at me,

poking little holes in my security,

my certainty,

my future.

The holes become cavernous and I fall into them,

only to drown in the unrelenting quicksand of my fear.

Fear of tragic helplessness.

Fear of hurting him.

Fear of the metamorphosis of my family.

Fear of being alone,

of losing myself,

and greater yet,

of losing him

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Now, Lesa told me this untitled poem was written about the mother of an epileptic child. I have two general rules about poetry: 1. The poem should communicate its message without explanation from the poet, because the poet won't always be there to explain it; 2. Poems should have titles (unless there are rules against titling--as with haiku), because titles are a good framing device--even if the poem just uses the first line as a title. So, those are the two places I would focus my attention on in trying to revise this poem.

Let's start with the title. Since this poem starts off with the narrator waking up, I'd recommend making the title something that addresses the late/early time of day. Maybe something like "2:30 a.m."

I usually avoid epigraphs (a note or quotation that precedes a poem), but in some cases they can shed light on a poem. If you can find a very good and brief quotation addressing childhood epilepsy or parenting children with epilepsy, that might work wonders for this poem in setting the scene.

The next thing I would suggest is to change the narrative from first person to third person. Here's the reason: This poem is getting lost in abstractions and emotions. The most powerful poetry moves readers by provoking emotions, not by explaining them.

Here's an example of what I might try to do:

2:30 a.m.

She wakes to crying in her son's room again.

For a moment, she wishes she could get
a decent night's sleep, but then, she catches
herself. She stands up and rushes to his room,

which has gone silent. She thinks, no, no, no.

He's shaking in his crib, and she watches,

though it never gets easier. When he finishes,

he screams, and she picks him up, pats him

on the back. But nothing helps, nothing helps--
not rocking, not singing--nothing brings solace.

*****

That is just an example meant to show how the third person can help get a poet away from abstractions like "Fear of tragic helplessness" and "Fear envelopes my world." It's always a good idea to remember that poetry developed as a way to tell stories. So, don't be afraid of telling stories in your poems. And the best way to tell a story is to show, not tell, what is happening.

So, here is what I'd suggest for this poem (in bullet list form):

  • Title the poem.

  • Replace abstraction with specifics.

  • Consider switching narrative voice from first person to third person.

  • Consider hunting down a fitting epigraph. 

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These are my thoughts on the poems, but I encourage others to give their views as well in the comments below. My best workshop experiences have been those in which many writers gave me their suggestions, which I could then apply or ignore as I saw fit. So please help Lesa out.

I'd like to thank Lesa for offering up her poem. It's always a very brave act to share your poetry--even more so when you know that it's going to be poked and prodded in public. Thanks, Lesa!

*****

If you're interested in sharing a poem for workshop, click here to learn how to possibly make that happen.

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Follow me on Twitter @robertleebrewer

(I can also be found on Facebook and LinkedIn)

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Learn more about creating poetry with John Drury's Creating Poetry and The Poetry Dictionary.

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