Revision is hard. Editing a single line of a short poem is difficult; organizing a longer manuscript presents its own challenges. As I was working on my full-length poetry collection Sweetbitter, I was lucky enough to be an artist-in-residence at the gorgeous Wurlitzer Foundation in Taos, New Mexico. Most of the poems in the manuscript were solidly revised by that point, and the manuscript itself had taken shape. I had sent it out to presses and it had even been long-listed for a few contests. It was close, but not yet there, and I committed to spending my time in Taos perfecting it.
I printed the entire manuscript-in-progress and stuck each page to the wall of my casita with painter’s tape. Every day, I’d look at the poems on the wall, thinking of them as moving parts. I’d make a change, or two, or several, some mornings. Sometimes, I’d undo the day’s work by dusk. One afternoon, when I was feeling especially frustrated, I traded my piñon coffee for a canned IPA and decided to ask an ancestor poet for guidance.
I wondered what Sappho would do, and decided to just ask her for help myself. I pulled out my copy of If Not, Winter and set my intentions. I figured I’d focus on a question I had about the manuscript, then flip open If Not, Winter to a random page. Then, as if reading scraps of an ancient Greek horoscope or tarot card, Sappho would show me the way.
I started with the big picture. I knew I wanted Sweetbitter to have three sections, but I was struggling to make the structure work. At this point, I had a fourth section of poems that I wanted in the manuscript, but couldn't seem to fit within the other three sections. So I began by asking:
Sappho, tell me about the three-part structure.
I concentrated on this question while flipping open to a random page, and landed on Fragment 51:
I don’t know what to do
two states of mind in me
This fragment hit. Sappho was also conflicted! My confusion was validated. Okay, so I didn’t get an easy answer, but the game had begun and I had a new way of thinking about the problem. (I ended up trying to appease the “two states of mind” by breaking down the fourth section and incorporating those poems into the three part structure.)
The first section of Sweetbitter contains several erasures of 90s song lyrics, ranging from The Toadies’s “Possum Kingdom” to Led Zeppelin’s “Black Dog.” The second section is a long poem with multiple found text/erasure fragments. The final section, at the time, lacked any hybrid or erasure poems. So I asked Sappho:
Does the final section need a lyric erasure?
And she responded, with Fragment 118:
yes! radiant lyre speak me
become a voice
Done. I created new erasures and fit a few into the final section. Sappho was there in the room and the revisions were rolling. I was mesmerized: equal parts hysterically facetious and somber. This Sappho-summoning went on for awhile, and the responses ranged from random to uncanny. I asked about my manuscript’s first poem and final poem:
Should I start with History of the Apple as the frontispiece?
so we may see [
of gold arms [
What a cryptic, yet beautiful, yet utterly precise response. The gaps here felt like a pause--she had to think about it. “Go” felt like the push I needed to tell my story, so the reader “may see” everything from the “lady // of gold arms” to “doom.” Sweetbitter centers on a character named Apple-Child, a fiercely elusive girl beloved by the speaker as a friend, a sister, and perhaps more. The poems recount the girls’ adventures against the polluted, ill-fated landscape of central New Jersey. Doom, ladies, stories: the answer here is clearly affirmative. “History of the Apple” would be the first poem. Sappho’s final answer truly made the manuscript come full circle:
Should the final poem be about desire or radiation?
as the sweetapple reddens on a high branch
high on the highest branch and the applepickers forgot—
no, not forgot: were unable to reach
like the hyacinth in the mountains that shepherd men
with their feet trample down and on the ground the purple
Fragment 105a is central to Sweetbitter. I believe it was an epigraph to the collection even before my Q&A sesh with Sappho, but flipping to it at random in this moment felt like a crucial step in the revision process. I remembered how my reader would experience the manuscript; how they’d bring the epigraphs to the page with them and (hopefully) feel the echoes of apples, sweetness, and elusive desire, from the first page to the very last.
Was Sappho really there with me? Probably not. But the exercise of thinking of (and like) a foremother poet became a crucial part of my revision process. It forced me to consider my work from an outsider perspective. It helped me engage with material I love and respect in a new way. Perhaps most surprising and important, this exercise put my work in direct conversation with the lineage from which it came, which, though silly, had the surprising effect of making me see myself as a professional; of considering the collection as a book and not a draft.
The notion that conjuring up a long-dead poet’s opinions on my work made me feel professional may seem absurd, and that’s because it is. But it also helped me push my manuscript over the “almost-but-not-quite-good-enough” hump: Sweetbitter began to move higher up on the finalist lists was accepted for publication soon after. “Ask Sappho” was a ritual I had to develop for myself; there was no blueprint, no map. And this is the part of revision we cannot understand until we arrive: we must trust in our work, our process, our selves.
Stacey Balkun is the author of Eppur Si Muove, Jackalope-Girl Learns to Speak & Lost City Museum. Winner of the 2017 Women's National Book Association Poetry Prize, her work has appeared in Best New Poets, Crab Orchard Review, The Rumpus, and other anthologies & journals. Chapbook Series Editor for Sundress Publications, Stacey holds an MFA from Fresno State and teaches poetry online at The Poetry Barn & The Loft. Find her online at http://www.staceybalkun.com/