Yesterday I decided to reorganize my poetry files. My former method had worked fairly well. I ordered files by month and year and moved poems forward as I wrote, leaving the duds behind. Occasionally, I’d comb through old files and bring something with a spark to the present and try to make it publishable.
Recently, I realized that I needed better access to earlier drafts. As I revise, poems fall apart, or I cut them so strenuously that a thirty line poem becomes four words. When that happens, it means that the poem has become a shadow of the passion that created it. But I might find that excitement in an earlier draft.
I reunited my drafts today, made a folder for each poem’s title. It’s harder than it sounds because titles change. “Final Honors” was once, “His Final Identity.” Before that, it was, “The Faceless.” While chasing around its fifteen drafts I remembered what a struggle it can be to bring a poem to life. Of course, once it’s written, it seems that the end result was inevitable. Or at least I aspire to that level of polish.
One poem, about an evening in the Chihuahua Desert, went through 38 saved drafts before publication. It started out as a sonnet, became a free verse poem, a prose poem, and finally a haibun. At last, I had the key in hand that fit the padlock of the poem. The editor of the journal published an article in its next issue commending the poem as an example of a travel haibun. In effect, the editor published it twice. And of course, when I read it in print the second time, I saw something else to change. I’ll save it for my next chapbook.
Thankfully, successful poems don’t always require a huge effort. Sometimes they just emerge pretty near to what they should be. This is more likely when accompanied by a heavy commitment to poetry reading and writing, such as that required in Tom Montag’s Mill classes.
On the other hand, fabulous amounts of effort don’t guarantee a great poem. I have 22 drafts of a poem that no editor wants. It’s down to about 3 lines now and I’ve been working on it since 2016, so I bet I’ll find still more versions hiding under forgotten titles. Still, the poem talks. When will you unmask me?
I don’t know, but maybe an earlier draft will tell.