When you love someone there’s always a better way to word something. Instead of saying, “You stink,” you might say, “Honey, let’s take a bath together.” I think of it as revision. Nothing says “I love you” like a little editing. Birthdays are great for critical improvements. En lieu of receiving a pair of beige chino slacks you might be prompted by gift-wrapped castile soap more commonly used on racehorses with dirty shins. “But darling,” you start to say, “I don’t have any racehorses.”
Recently, the Big Cheese added a twist to her pretzel, asking me to spend at least five minutes a day staring at myself in the mirror. “Look at your body, or your face, or your hair…you decide. Think of some way to make it better by tucking something in or combing something out. You don’t even have to make it better. Just spend a few minutes trying to grasp what others are looking at when they’re looking at you.”
Was she talking about me or my poems? My impression was that revising was just an excuse not to finish something. Sure, when you stop changing you’re dead, and a finished poem is a dead poem, but they don’t publish living poems. If I wanted to get a book I needed my poems to be finished. I needed dead poems. I needed to kill them.
I made sure no one else was looking when I peered into the hallway mirror. I’d always preferred the natural look–shaving once or twice a week, clipping toenails only after they started snagging my socks, perhaps a smear of Old Spice deodorant if I planned to be riding an elevator. But there aren’t a lot of elevators on a one story farm. I’d grown accustomed to the sweaty, smokey, musky vapors that swung around my torso. Poetry is what you feel inside, right? It’s not about smells. It’s not about whether the work shirt with your name embroidered in script over the left breast pocket is miss-buttoned.
I like to write about my experiences. My personal love-tossed dream of life. On a farm, this kind of poetry requires special shoes. The Big Cheese wasn’t alone in hoping I’d clean up my act. Mark Wunderlich once took me aside, saying, “One spot of manure is classy. Two spots are sloppy.” I looked down at my boots. There were five manure spots. I was at least four stains away from Graywolf Press.
It didn’t help that the Cheese had just published her eighth collection of poems with a nice press in North Carolina. She knew what she was talking about and I didn’t know, but that didn’t mean I didn’t completely believe in what I didn’t know.
The problem is that I don’t write poems as much as I just write them down. They begin as a kind of oral adventure when my hands are busy under a horse or over a tractor. I can sing as loud as I want to, in whatever way the music visits my tongue. It’s the only time I don’t stammer or stutter. When I see the words on a page I’m still hearing them, breaking the lines apart from how they’re written, ignoring the grammar, the spelling, and reducing fully formed articles of punctuation to long indecisive dashes.
The Big Cheese stepped into the hallway and gave my rump a skittish smack. “When I tell you to fix things about yourself I’m not saying I don’t want you; I’m saying I want more of you. I’m saying I’m greedy for the best of you and you should want to be greedy for the best of your poems.”
Everyone knows the drill. First you get yourself dirty in a poem, then you scrub yourself back out of it and let it become it’s own creature, or just voices in the wind speaking through you. Still, I resented all the cleaning, and verb detentes, like I was ridding the poem of my rustic soul. “What about Donald Hall?” I asked, pointing to one of his books. “Surely I look better than that old Hobbit.”
“Donald hasn’t written anything in years,” she said. “That’s because he can’t have sex,” I said. “He told me himself. He stopped writing poems when he stopped having sex.” The Big Cheese thought about that for a minute before chiding both of us: “Maybe if he got a haircut he would start having sex again.”
All of my poems need someone to buzz trim the gray hairs twisting out of their earlobes. That someone is me. Cut, comb, brush. Paste. Rip. Tear. Once you kill a poem the real work begins. A good poet is a better mortician. Revise. Make better. Create anew. Every “finished” line needs a Lazarus moment. What’s yours?