Poet's Corner is a column from Tucson's Poet Laureate, TC Tolbert, focused on revision and drafts of poems.
It’s fitting to me that this particular series on revision would begin in the month of October – this being the time, 12 years ago, when I began the most radical visible revision of body and life I could imagine. I have a visceral memory of the simultaneous fear and hope flushing through me as I squeezed testosterone cream on my finger and applied it to the most absorptive tissue in my body (FWIW, that’s only one way to do it – years later I switched to injections). But what I (and other people) would soon begin to see on the page of me – the acne, the sprouting and erratic chin hair, the broadening forehead, and shifting body fat – was simply the physical manifestation of an internal process that had been going on for years.
I’ve written elsewhere (and I’m always thinking) about how poetry – my process of grappling with poetry, in particular – in concert with meeting other trans* folks and reading writing by trans authors, made gender transition possible for me. The page was my first real place of transition – revising, re-imagining (on a daily basis) the narrative trajectory of my life by tinkering at the syntactical and linear levels (practice for the molecular) – small shifts which, over time, shifted the whole of me.
The purpose of poetry is to remind us/ how difficult it is to remain just one person, Czeslaw Milosz says in “Ars Poetica?”
The internet, and capitalism in general, might lead one to believe that finishing any product with the utmost efficiency (writing, included) is the most important goal one can achieve. But perhaps because of the profound impact poetic revision has had on my life, I much prefer focusing on drafts, process, and practice. And maybe this is why I’m so in love with any space that emphasizes learning over knowing.
But of course drafting, revising are usually done in private – there is real vulnerability in sharing a process of learning (which is why I’m always in awe of my students). And it’s tempting to see a published piece and imagine that the author simply has an inherent ability to write beautifully, that everything they write comes out whole or probably only needed slight editing. It’s equally seductive to imagine that revision is just an unfortunate phase for developing writers, that once one has published a book or two, revision isn’t arduous or even necessary. These myths do not serve writers or writing. (And it’s worth remembering that Elizabeth Bishop worked on “The Moose” from 1946 until 1972. And it took Douglas Kearney 10 years to write at least 3 of the poems in The Black Automaton.) This series is an attempt to celebrate the risks, failures, wandering magic, and careful thought that goes into making and re-making. It is to mark the path, to string lights up in the corners and along the bridge. Part personal obsession and part resource, it is to be a companion for poets at any point in their lives of revising.
It is crucial to me that these conversations exist outside of any one classroom. I also chose not to place them in a literary magazine. The UA Poetry Center blog is a space that is casual and open enough to invite my own revisions as we go along – who knows what questions I’ll be asking in 6 months or where the series will be? We’re starting here: I reach out to a poet I admire and ask them for 3-6 drafts of a poem, then I study it, and then I ask them some questions about their process of revision. All but one of the questions will be unique to that piece/author. The shared question, as I now envision it, will be a straightforward request for suggestion(s) for approaching revision. I’ll post a new conversation, along with images of the drafts, about every two weeks.
In the meantime, want more revision talk? There’s Underbelly magazine, which shows two drafts of a poem and has the author write up a short statement. There’s Back Draft, a series on Guernica, that also shows two drafts and has short interviews. There’s Carmen Giménez Smith’s “22 Poem Hacks” which is an excellent resource if you don’t know where to start a revision. And there’s The New York Times’ Book Review “Poetry in Action” feature with beautiful photos of drafts by Eduardo C. Corral, Jenny Zhang, and others.
In the space between chaos and shape there was another chance, says Jeanette Winterson.
Ocean Vuong says: The most beautiful part of your body/is where it’s headed.
I’ll meet you there – wherever we are going.
*trans – I use the term trans in its most spacious definition – including non-binary, transgender, transexual, and GNC folx – all of whom have made my experience of gender in the world more possible and more exciting.
TC Tolbert often identifies as a trans and genderqueer feminist, collaborator, dancer, and poet but really s/he’s just a human in love with humans doing human things. S/he is Tucson’s Poet Laureate and author of Gephyromania (Ahsahta Press 2014), 4 chapbooks, and co-editor of Troubling the Line: Trans and Genderqueer Poetry and Poetics (Nightboat Books 2013). www.tctolbert.com