Drafting a Poem
Earlier in the year I wrote a piece for The New Writer about drafting poems. As the new year approaches I thought it might be time to dig out some of those poems in the 2012 drawer and give them an overhaul.
When is a poem ready to send out? Sometimes we’re too eager to submit our work when a little reflection and polishing might pay dividends in the long term and avoid those rejection slips. It’s becoming a costly business to submit to magazines and competitions (it costs £1 in stamps to send our work out with an SAE) so it’s important that what we are putting out there is our very best and to do that we must draft and redraft our work.
I know some poets who put their poems away in a drawers and come back to them later with a little more objectivity. Eliot started to write Little Gidding in July 1941 and put it aside for about 12months before picking it up again. After five drafts he sent it out and it was published in New English Weekly.
I’m not suggesting you leave a poem for months at a time, but often a little distance can be useful and avoids rushing something out to that’s not quite ready. It’s really helpful, almost essential, to workshop your poem or show it to people whose opinion you really value. I value Kim Moore’s opinions and have asked her to talk me through the process of drafting her poem The Thing which appears in If We Could Speak to Wolves (Smith/Doorstop).
We’re in good hands as this collection was a winner in the Poetry Business Competition judged by Carol Ann Duffy and Kim is a recipient of an Eric Gregory Award and the Geoffrey Dearmer Prize. So over to Kim.
When I’m writing first of all,
I like to write in a notebook.
When trying to decide which poem to focus on for this first draft to last draft exercise, I noticed something quite striking. A lot of my first lines in my first draft versions of poems remain the same in my final, published versions – it’s almost like the poem has to have that first line or ‘tune’ to get me started. I then had a look at all the false starts I have of things that are still just pieces of writing in a folder that I’ve given up on, and sure enough the various versions of these had different first lines for every version.
This poem came from a free writing exercise in a Poetry School workshop. I think this was one of the first times I’d ever done free writing. The tutor gave us the line ‘It was a morning like this’ and then told us to write without lifting the pen from the page for two minutes. I remember being surprised by what came out of that rather innocuous line
I was reading Don Paterson’s Rain at the time, and my favourite poem from that book was ‘The Lie’ and I think this poem is heavily influenced by that poem. At first I worried that it was too close to the poem to stand on its own and be original, and I did check this out with various writer friends.
When I’m writing first of all, I like to write in a notebook. Then I leave the notebook for a couple of days, and come back to it, and type up anything I think has something interesting. This first draft would have been written out as prose in my notebook – I don’t put any line breaks in until I put it on the computer.
The reading aloud section completely vanishes
after that first draft
There are 10 drafts altogether of this poem but by draft 2 I’d organised it into four line stanzas. By draft 2 I’d realised ‘so you didn’t wake it’ wasn’t quite right and changed it to ‘so you didn’t disturb it’. It took me till draft four to realise that left me with ‘disturb’ and ‘disturbing’ very close to each other, and it was then I changed it to alarmed.
The reading aloud section completely vanishes after that first draft, and never comes back again – looking back now, although poetry doesn’t have to be true, it does have to have truth in it, and that doesn’t seem believable to me, that the speaker wouldn’t ask any questions, so I decided to not elaborate on what the protagonists in the poem think about The Thing – but rather just to show what happened to them instead.
I remember liking the bit where The Thing is compared to various animals – it took me till draft 6 to take the two ‘crys’ and change one to ‘voice’ which makes The Thing appear more human than animal.
The pavement image came in draft 2 – relatively early on, although it’s not in the original first draft, and I knew that the ending to the first draft wasn’t right – it seemed to fizzle out and lose its energy but it took until Draft 8 until I was brave enough to put the two questions in to the poem – I’d been told by one tutor or another not to put questions in a poem unless it was for a very good reason, and it took me a while to get my confidence up to do this.
I don’t put any line breaks in
until I put it on the computer
My first drafts tend to be quite long – I imagine them as a huge lump of rock that I have to chip away at to get at the poem inside and to find the shape that it should be. I think this is why I think free writing is so important – because it gives you a chance to get all your ideas out without that critical voice in your head telling you they are a load of rubbish. I also print out each draft and keep them all in a folder, in order, one behind the other. I know this is scarily obsessive – but I have a mortal fear of deleting something that I might want later on.
The Thing (1st draft)
It was a morning like this when you carried in
the thing. There was no-one to see but me,
how it curled in your arms like something
with feelings, how you moved like a ghost
so you didn’t wake it. That night as I read
aloud to you, I thought there was little point
asking you where it had come from, or what
it meant. At night its cry was disturbing.
It was like a cat that asks for food at first
and then like a dog that’s been stepped on
and finally, when it realised itself abandoned
its cry was suddenly human and lost.
It drank all the colours in our house, sucked
the red right out of everything – the walls,
the tablecloth, my jumpers. We blamed
each other for leaving the curtains open
so it could steal the blue from the sky
and when it turned to us, left us grey
as faded newspapers, we didn’t look
at each other anymore.
The Thing (Published Version)
It was a morning like this when you carried it in.
There was no-one to see but me, how it curled
in your arms like something with feelings,
how you moved like a ghost so it wasn’t alarmed.
That night, its cry was disturbing, at first like a cat
wanting food, then like a dog that’s been stepped on,
and then, realising itself abandoned, its voice
became suddenly human and lost.
It drank the colour from our house, sucked the red
right out of everything – the walls, the tablecloth,
my jumper. When it turned to us, left us the colour
of pavement, we forgot how to see each other.
I blamed you for opening the curtains so it could
steal the blue from the sky. You went to get help,
the thing at your heels, bright as a bouquet of flowers.
How could you know that after you left the colours
came back, creeping, careful, wary? Each day
I wait for your return, the sky grey, like something
washed too many times. Will we leave it unspoken,
that the thing, like all things, needs a name?
from ‘If We Could Speak Like Wolves’ pub. Smith/Doorstop
and has an MA in Creative Writing from
MMU. Her poems have appeared widely
in magazines and her writing placements
include Young Poet-in-Residence
at the Ledbury Poetry Festival.