Poetry: Drafts of ‘Split My Thumb’

Last week, in the creative writing classes I teach, we read Richard Hugo’s essay “Writing off the Subject,” and then I asked my students to write a poem in the way Hugo describes: starting from a particular idea, following the lead of one’s inner voice to end up at a new idea, a new place, something one hadn’t planned to say (Hugo implies a method like that in his discussion of “Autumn Leaves”). I followed the same instructions, and below are two free-writing drafts before the final (for now) draft.

But here’s the difficulty, of course: the real writing process is in my mind, and what’s in the drafts below is only the residue. Since my mind during freewrites tends to work associatively, I can’t explain why one thing led to another. And I can’t describe why I ended up with the poem I did, except to say that it felt right, it felt interesting. It might not even interest me later.

A student brought up a good question: when does an artist ever know when a poem is ready for publishing on a blog?  I don’t really know, I said, thinking out loud that the costs are low, which encourages publishing, but is the poem worth sharing? That answer requires thinking about what readers might appreciate, but also about being willing to send writing out that isn’t perfect. I guess my answer for these things below is  that the creative writing process is mysterious enough, and fascinating enough, that I want to discuss it, and these are at least a model, if a poor one.

Freewrite 1

(The two freewrites were hand-written, but the final poem was composed via word-processor. This freewrite started from the prompt word “surge,” given by a random word-lookup technique — picking shards of words out of newsprint that had been through a shredder — and an image/memory of a finger being jammed while playing basketball came to mind.)

Surge into the top joint, the basketball did, and rough skin slid back into my hand and pores spread open, air met body, lines decline to limit the me from the sky — the nearby sky the air-ocean we are pressed down by – impressed – tender is the light that strikes us – surge, the burst surges out from me and yet I stay the hand, the skin the sh!t box – swipe the keen face of the tandem bike rhizomes – strawberry marmalade takes tokens from toad

Freewrite 2:

(I took “rough skin” and “tandem bike rhizomes” from the previous freewrite, and then tried to let go, encourage words to come to mind without being too particular about which words got written down. It’s a process skill that has taken me a while to get good at doing.)

Rough skin slid back into my hand and pores spread open.  The world – the air confronts an enemy, the closed sealed entombed world of the blood – the inner sanctum where air is blocked – and tandem bike rhizomes – and air is the enemy, air is the enema, and toads kill the healing vice – the red rice bucks company plans – the rough skin slid again (over?) my hand – pores opened, veins poured open, the blood leaks like a radiator, like a brake line, and I push and no resistance – the blood leaks out – it’s under pressure inside, like a break line, like a family – the air is the enemy but the body pushes out the blood – the air-skin boundary – where I stop – leaks into air – where a r becom – I likes into a r to become “air” – where I becomes it

Final — for now — draft:

I liked the image of the air-ocean and the body-air boundary, but wanted to be more concrete, less philosophical here, and so I went with a description of an event that really had happened to me days earlier, which event-image had been in my mind as I had written earlier about the body-boundary. This poem is  blunt, which was an intentional — at this point in the process – choice of voice/mood, and so I was restricting my word choices to one-syllable ones where possible. When I am less self-restrictive, more automatically voiced, in my freewriting, longer words tend to come out (see my recent poem, written the same week, using a similar process, called “The Whistle of Heat“).  I made a choice to use spare language here, to show as rawly, bluntly, physically as possible, the action — with my impulse to make interpretive associations held in check.

The stainless-steel paring knife
splits my thumb where it
backstopped
a tough tomato skin.
Blood comes to the air.
A paper towel
records
the blood drop
as a red dot.

This was where the poem stopped as the class period ended, but I was feeling like there could have been more added to it. I’m not sure more was needed, I’m not sure what the more would be, but I remind myself that poems don’t need to be long — I’m just not sure I’m entirely satisfied with this poem being short.

But I do like the simplicity of the images: skin being split by a knife, blood “comes” (“oozes” or “spurts” didn’t seem right, nor did the idea from earlier of blood under pressure seem interesting in the end) to air, and the implication of the verb “record” — that the body may not keep the record of the blood, blood being temporarily and not permanently liquid, but that the paper might — our bodies write themselves into their surroundings, the 3-D drop of blood becoming a 2-D stain, etc.  As I talk about the poem, I could associate further, but this poem’s strength, such as it is, comes from being minimal.

Of course, this demonstration can’t really be a tutorial of how to write a poem — a new poem, at its most creative, has no model, and so is a new island, so this  demonstration cannot be imitated the way other modeled skills can be. And writing about a process like this feels like that quote about how writing about music is like tap dancing about sculpture (or various other activities).  A new poet must figure out her own process.  But as a teacher, I’d hope to give at least an idea of a path — those suggestions seemed to help me, I recall.

40 responses to “Poetry: Drafts of ‘Split My Thumb’

  1. I usually consider my poems done when they’ve expressed what I wanted (or needed) to express in a way that captures and, hopefully, conveys the feelings I had when writing it.

    That’s not to say I’m always 100% satisfied with them, or that more hours or days spent toiling over them might not produce at some point a better, more poignant, original, or (perhaps someday) famous poem that does not quite exist in this moment… but sometimes you just have to say ‘it’s done’ and move on with life. If you get too caught up in one moment, you miss everything else to come.

    Besides, you can always go back next year and see if the poem gives you any different insight into itself.

    • I definitely agree on letting a text go at some point, (W.D. Snodgrass says he lets a poem go when “I feel it going dead under me” and I also like the idea of going back a year or more later and seeing how a piece of writing feels when I’ve forgotten the context and circumstances of its creation. As to the point about expression, I’d say that, for me, I write poems in order to find what it is I want to express — I often need to write first (the freewrites) in order to figure out what it is I want to say, and I feel I’m done when the poem says something I hadn’t anticipated saying! I like to amuse myself by surprising myself.

  2. I thoroughly enjoyed this post, and will continue to stop by your blog in the future.

  3. Hi Matt, Perhaps your students work will have a great impact on the music world through the inspiration that their words just like Victor Hugo’s works provided for composers of the 19th and 20th century. Thanks for sharing. http://www.segmation.wordpress.com

  4. I never thought about the actual writing process before. It’s always been something I just did-everything off the top of my head, dictated by my mood at the time. So this was quite a read for me. Someone did ask me once how I came up with stuff to write, and I had to answer that I had no clue. :) Congrats on Freshly Pressed! Nice work.

    • Thanks for your comment and for your attending to the post. It’s cool that writing off the top of your head works for you — it sometimes works for me, and that’s the freedom I hope to feel when I freewrite. Breaking through my mental chatter to hear what my “mind voice” is trying to tell me can sometimes be a challenge. But, as you say, I can’t explain where the words come from, and I feel more like a conduit for words and ideas than a creator of them. As far as thinking about process goes, I’ve done much more of it in the years since I’ve been teaching high schoolers to write creatively (Natalie Goldberg says something similar). I’ve had to ask myself what it is that I do before I instruct students to do it.

      • “Breaking through my mental chatter to hear what my ‘mind voice’ is trying to tell me can sometimes be a challenge” –> well said!! Great post and really enjoyed Hugo’s essay. Sounds like a course I would like to take ;)

  5. Fascinating to read about the process and see it in action. Always very useful to see different ways other people approach writing poetry. Your classes sound like they would be both fun and inspirational ~ a great combo.

    • Thanks for commenting. Writing about process is hard — It can feel so foreign, and at best is vague. I tell my students that, since there’s no one way to be creative, and since there is no standard or model poem, that they can just trust their feelings/instincts and write what seems/feels interesting. I hope, each semester, to establish a classroom mood where students can feel it’s OK to take risks, to try things, and to do that, it seems to help to have a relaxed mood — and I’ve been lucky to have students who recognize this opportunity. You are right, too, about my classes; they are pretty terrific, I’m humble enough to admit! Now if you’d tell my principal and help me get some of that “merit pay” I keep hearing about …

  6. Pingback: when you know the words are a drug | jelly pom

  7. Occasionally, creativity is spontaneous, but in the main it must be constructed. Well explained.

    http://cartoonmick.wordpress.com/humorous-illustration/

    Cheers

    Mick

  8. I like hearing about the process….writing process is so difficult to describe because I feel like much of brain-storming and early writing is much mental and just gut feeling as it is actual words on paper. But the end result is a terrific poem. I especially like the vivid simplicity of the images.

  9. One of the joys I’m finding in “working in series” is that it allows for ongoing exploration of the initial impulse/inspiration.
    You do a fine job of showing two tensions in any reworking of a draft: to elaborate it, on one hand, making it longer, in contrast of distill it, on the other.
    Oh, my!

  10. Your explanations of what you do are wonderfully articulate. How do you address a student who wants to write to express a specific thought or feeling rather than exploring what’s in his/her mind?

    • Two things: One, I think the same process of freewriting, even if it starts from a particular topic, can be helpful, but Two, I would suggest the student follow R. Hugo’s advice in his essay “Writing off the Subject,” in which he says the following:

      “A poem can be said to have two subjects, the initiating or triggering subject, which starts the poem or “causes” the poem to be written, and the real or generated subject, which the poem comes to say or mean, and which is generated or discovered in the poem during the writing. That’s not quite right because it suggests that the poet recognizes the real subject. The poet may not be aware of what the real subject is but only have some instinctive feeling that the poem is done.
      “Young poets find it difficult to free themselves from the initiating subject. The poet puts down the title: “Autumn Rain.” He finds two or three good lines about Autumn Rain. Then things start to break down. He cannot find anything more to say about Autumn Rain so he starts making up things, he strains, he goes abstract, he starts telling us the meaning of what he has already said. The mistake he is making, of course, is that he feels obligated to go on talking about Autumn Rain, because that, he feels, is the subject. Well, it isn’t the subject. You don’t know what the subject is, and the moment you run out of things to say about Autumn Rain start talking about something else. In fact, it’s a good idea to talk about something else before you run out of things to say about Autumn Rain.
      “Don’t be afraid to jump ahead. There are a few people who become more interesting the longer they stay on a single subject. But most people are like me, I find. The longer they talk about one subject, the duller they get. Make the subject of the next sentence different from the subject of the sentence you just put down. Depend on rhythm, tonality, and the music of language to hold things together. It is impossible to write meaningless sequences. In a sense the next thing always belongs. In the world of imagination, all things belong. If you take that on faith, you may be foolish, but foolish like a trout.”

      Sorry for the lengthy quote, but what I love about Hugo’s approach to writing poetry is that it allows poets to write poems that are more interesting (more beautiful, more subtle, more graceful, more insightful) than we can be in our conscious minds. I humbly suggest that if a poet isn’t at least trying something new, venturing beyond what is known, beyond the starting point, then the poet isn’t really allowing the poem to grow beyond the limits our conscious minds tend to put on our art. When I say “conscious mind,” I’m referring to that pattern of thinking that we use in our daily living, the mind that keeps us from taking physical and social and emotional risks. That mind is helpful for getting us through our days, but it’s not the best for exploring the unknown, or lesser-understood, aspects of our lives. That’s why I ask students to freewrite, so as to get beyond their first ideas of what a poem (or any creative writing) ought to be, and to allow their full faculties to help make the poem.

  11. Some writings are always reflection of mood and thinking of writers, publise or not is mainly based on writers if they want to share these with their friends or readers.

    • Well, yes, in one sense, we share (or publish) what we want to share or publish. But something that took me a long time to learn is that my writing process is the most satisfying to me when I’m writing for myself, and not writing to get the approval of others. In fact, I’m not even writing just to create the writings — the texts themselves can always be lost — I’m writing because I enjoy the act of writing, I enjoy spending some of my waking hours, my life-time, that way. And so, from that perspective, it doesn’t matter whether I share any writings or not, and so I become ambivalent about publishing. Yet, of course, if I didn’t want to, I wouldn’t be posting on this blog!

  12. magnificent

  13. Sounds the the Dadaistic approach taken place after the 2nd world war. A technique to write a poem weaving words randomly collected from a newspaper, merely written not for the art’s sake rather to raise voice against meaninglessness of life.
    I really loved your style not only as an inspiring teacher but also for your persuading style of writing: ‘Great Art Simple’ , as coined by Mathew Arnold.

    • I do like starting with random words (from newspapers or overheard speech or by opening a book and pointing and taking whatever word my finger lands on), and in class, I even have students do an “Exquisite Corpse” activity where each student adds 4 words to a poem and passes it on to the next student. (I’ve also read that John Ashbery gives students samples of languages they can’t read and asks students to “translate” these). But I would argue that such techniques do not have to be merely in advocacy of an idea that life is meaningless. Perhaps a random technique does dethrone the conscious-mind, the ego, which knows what it wants and seeks to promote its interests, but certainly theories (from Freud, Derrida, etc.) have also pointed out that we do not necessarily understand all that we say and think and do, that we aren’t in full control of it. And I guess I like to think that creative techniques that allow us to get beyond our egos allow us to continue the exploration of life, a search for understanding and meaning, that can grow out of an initial sense of life-as-meaningless. Thank you for your comments — I like having my thoughts provoked!

  14. I particularly liked when you said: “a new poem, at its most creative, has no model. . .”
    Poetry, like music, dances to its own beat.
    Blessings!

  15. I love the craft of poetry…that sweet discovery. I have to admit, I havent written a poem in months, which is a long time for me. Im gona try this exercise and see if I get back my running legs and swinging tongue. THnx.

  16. Poetry is just one of those things that can’t have rules, or else it’s too “try hard” and isn’t really poetry at all. I love what you’ve done. I love how you took a word as inspiration and wrote from it. Watching another poets process is very interesting. We’re similar in the sense that we take a word or phrase and expand from it, but I generally get my poem done in one sitting, without any drafts. Minor editing is usually all that’s necessary for me, if not I get way too frustrated and abandon it completely! Great post :)

    • I sometimes write one-draft poems too — for example, my this one, even though it came after earlier drafts, was so new that it might as well have been a first draft, and there was very minor editing. The “Split my Thumb” poem above was more tightly edited in the final draft. I try to vary my process so as to not get into a rut.

      • It’s lovely! I agree, variation is so necessary for not getting in a rut. I love having “poetry challenges” with my friends… we name a color, or word, or person, and we have to write a poem about it… due at 8 pm that same day! Its fun and great for practicing

  17. sweet words and nice poetry…thanx…:)

  18. I love poetry & just thinking of my own, its just a sort of journey in your mind thinking of new ideas and new places to go…I just love how such a simple thing can create so many images and feelings.. I love the whole 3-D to 2-D blood, awesome idea just made the imagery so familiar :) x

  19. really liked it… I liked ur second draft the most… probably because the idea was the simplest and the easiest to grasp…or may be because it was too detailed….. but I m sure the detail is where you wanted to trim it too…
    I think in poetry, you dont need to elaborate on your idea too, and let the readers interpret their various meanings…
    speaking of, i think your poem is ready to be shared and published when you are ready to hear what different people had to imply from it…the idea in ur poem is totally urs, and dear to you, so when you think you are ready to take criticism and hear different connotations of on it thats when your poem should be ready

  20. all good poetry in my opinion tends to be minimal and raw. love it.

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