Talking with Poets (page 5)
Talking with Poets
page 1, page 2, page 3, page 4, page 5
When you write, do you begin with an idea, a word, phrase?
Brazaitis: I begin with a story. Something happened. I want to tell what happened.

Conlon: An idea, yes, or a word, or a phrase — there's no pattern. I start with anything I have and see where it takes me. Usually there is some kind of “story” in my poems — they have a strong sense of narrative, no doubt because I'm also a prose writer. So I usually have some sense of direction when I begin, but not always — and, quite often, the direction changes midway through.

Szumowski: I usually begin working on poems by writing in a journal. Then some days later, I may find some sentences that seem to move me toward a poem. The process is mysterious to me — and when a poem is finished, I think a magician must have intervened!

Neelon: Like everyone else, I've generated any number of poems from specific exercises. My very best poems, though, seem to grow out of existential hunches. I get the feeling that something important was lost or gained in a specific circumstance, and I struggle, often for years, to pinpoint what that something was. Usually, I come up with a constellation of images long before I get anywhere close to the actual language of a poem. The images act as talismans. If I'm lucky, the music eventually comes.

  How do you know that a poem is “finished”?
  Brazaitis: My poems are never finished. I tinker with them endlessly.

Conlon: When someone agrees to publish it! But even then . . .  In the past few weeks I've been putting the finishing touches on a chapbook of these Peace Corps poems of mine, to be called A Stained Dawn: Poems About Africa. Most are a decade old or more, and some were published in pretty big poetry markets, like America Magazine. And yet I still mess around with them, changing a word here and there, altering a line break perhaps. Some of these adjustments are no doubt just nervous fiddling, yet some, I think, represent genuine improvements. So the work is never really finished. I imagine that at 70 I'll still be toying
with line breaks I wrote when I was 23.

Szumowski: Someone once said to me that a poem is never finished. I know that I'm not alone in the practice of revising poems even after they have been published. Many of the poems in I Want This World, still needed revision, even though they'd been published, and I'd looked at them over quite a period of time. Giving readings helps the poet hear whether the poem still needs work or not. Sometimes I think a poem isn't finished until it is heard by an audience.

Neelon: I'm not somebody who revises poems for years on end. For me, a given poem is finished when I no longer feel like a fish swimming around inside it. When the poem's done, I stop being able to see underwater. I no longer have to breathe through gills while cooking dinner, answering the telephone, driving the kids to soccer, etc. There's no more slipperiness of metaphor on my arms and legs.

Rich: As Paul Valery said, “A poem is never finished, only abandoned.”

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