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Sunday, October 27, 2013

The Not-So-Meandering Trajectory of "Tributary"

The usual lag time between finishing a poem and giving it a good home (if it's a poem that's home-worthy) is around a year, sometimes two.

The poem "Tributary," which appeared at The Awl on October 24, 2013, was an exception. Here's how it went: 

Date of first longhand draft: October 8, 2013, in a coffee shop with Kelli Russell Agodon (where many of my first drafts begin);

Date of first typed version: October 9, 2013; 

Which is worse:
too many walls, or not enough, the laciness

of curtains, or an endless hallway of bare
windows, a dead fly stuck behind each lone


Several more revisions (at least ten?): October 10-18, 2013;


everyone needs something, or we sit
in the lotus position six hours without

a twitch, while the twitching spider inventories
each of its dead fly’s compound eyes. Either

the fly is a mechanism for learning about
the brain, or else the fly is a fly that not only

tastes with its wings but uses those wings to fly.

revised to ...

everything is happening or it’s quieter than a feeder
bereft of its pecking/twirling flicker. Either everyone
is needing something, a jump or a stroke, or else
it’s a mojito in the lotus position, cancer punching
its melanomic clock. Neuron for neuron, fly brains
outclass the ones loaded down with game change,

watershed moment, tipping point. Also, haven’t yet
figured out how to navigate by the stars.
Date sent to The Awl: October 18, 2013; 

Date accepted by The Awl: October 23, 2013; 

Date published on The Awl website: October 24, 2013.

A breakneck pace, wouldn't you agree? 

Did I make all the right moves with this poem? It's hard to say, but I am pretty sure that switching out the twitching nose/spider with the mojito in the lotus position makes things more interesting/less cliche (nose twitch = fumbled keys/ butterflies in stomach). It also felt like the original ending  (the fly is a fly ... uses those wings to fly) was moving too much in the direction of a rose is a rose is rose, a language-y/rhyme-y truism I not only wasn't quite ready to buy but didn't quite fit the rest of the poem.

As I was revising I would also glance occasionally at the October 8th issue of the New York Times' Science Times section, scanning an article about an immune-boosting cancer treatment, how it represented a watershed moment. I was thinking about the original meaning of words like watershed, versus these word fossils, dead metaphors bereft of their metaphoric zing, joining the likes of old as the hills and knee high to a grasshopper: tipping point and game change were two others that came to mind. 

I was also thinking about this scientist at the University of Washington who studies Drisophila holistically, who shared in a recent article that flies navigate using the stars (have we figured out how to do that yet? Hell, no!), and also how the fly brain, ounce for ounce, trumps a human brain by far ("I mean - they fly!"). 

Which all got me thinking about where my poem needed to go. The poem seemed to want to go in the direction of pointing out how lazy we can be when it comes to language - or if not lazy than limited. Unimaginative. Especially when the goal is conveying information rather than imbuing words with a memorable voice and style. But mostly, the fly had to have a brain more complex than a human brain. 

I am not sure what prompted me to send out a poem that was so new. Kelli assured me that I had "something to definitely work on" as we were leaving Edmonds - she to her ferry, and me to my car - a draft with a chance. I agreed with her, but I knew there was a lot more work to be done.  I usually let poems sit at least a month, then come back and figure out what I can improve on - stronger verbs, a more interesting way of saying something, more compression, a new title, etc. - but something prompted me to trust and send.

99 times out of a 100 this is a bad move, but this one time I got lucky. 


Michael Wells said...

Gee Thanks Martha- with the year I've had of publications my number of available work has been dwendeling and I've felt a lot of pressure to produce work that can be sent out. I've already fretted over what mighht be close to ready and now I read this (very insightful piece, I might add) and feel all the more stressed.
;-) You've been a big help!

Martha Silano said...

Dear Michael -

Are you saying that you've had so many acceptances this year that you have little to send out? If so, cry me a river. Seriously, it sounds like a happy problem! If it's any comfort, I receive very few acceptance emails. Like most poets, most of the time the news is NO.

I did not intend to stress anyone out, especially not a fine poet like you. I shared because, well, this acceptance story is so exceptional it pretty much proves the rule.

Michael Wells said...

Martha... It's a Very good post. One I especially should have read the first year I was writing, but it's still good to be reminded not to rush work.

I'm not bragging about this year - but it is true I've little left to submit. I've worked very hard this year and exceeded 100 submissions. The success I've had, I view relative to past years but I do believe where a year or two ago I had come to hat submitting work I now make it an every Saturday thing. I guess the habit had made it far less drudgery.

The past few weeks i've been combing through old drafts and jottings from my journals in desparation. Looks like I'm going to have to do The Daily Poet ;-)

Martha Silano said...

I like the sound of your every Saturday submission method. The Daily Poet is a great way to replenish your poem larder!