Deborah Ager asks, “When to quit a poem?”
I’ve thought about this a lot lately. I said a while back that I was about ready to retire Rumsfeld’s Sandbox and start on something new. Of course, this is a book of poems, but the principle should hold for projects as well as individual poems. When it’s time to quit, it’s time. But when?
I’m not ready to give up on Rumsfeld’s Sandbox just yet. Emotionally, I’m ready for it to end, but there are still things left unsaid. Or perhaps it says too much. I feel that certain poems need more work, but I also feel that I’m missing a couple of poems and the hole that is left by their absence is gnawing at my intestines like a bad cancer. I can’t get it out.
I know, though, that some of the poems are “done.” They are complete. I know this because I can’t take anything else out of them and still improve them. What is there belongs. Nothing else belongs because to add to them would be like trying to pour a glass of water down the Niagara Falls. If that sounds absurd then I’ve made my point.
That’s when I know that an individual poem is finished: If I can look at it and not feel impelled to change it in any way then I’m ready to move on. But what about a book of poems?
I suspect that a book length project is the same. It isn’t finished until I can read through the collection and make no more additions, changes, or deletions and improve it. That’s quite a statement because if a collection is missing just one poem that belongs there then it isn’t finished. But what if that poem isn’t written yet? What if it is written, but I just don’t know it. What if it’s buried deep in my “come back to later” file and has been stored there for years? How will I find it?
I think finishing is a much more frightening experience than beginning. Because to finish a poem means that I’ve lived through it. Like a close call with death. As it happens you don’t notice, but after you’ve felt the tingling brush it becomes so noticeable you can’t get anything else out of your mind. And I’ve done this with poems. I have gone back and read and re-read a poem that I’ve written and finished and not changed it at all just to solidify in my mind that it’s done. And after about 50 times of that I am ready to share it with the world. Shards and all.
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