Poet Fiona Tinwei Lam Reflects on Poetry, Process and Polishing for Journals and Contests

Cynthia: What is the value of poetry?

In an excellent essay that compares poetry to other forms of expression, Mark Yakich writes, “Whether or not you view a poem as a machine or a wild animal, it can change the machine or wild animal of your mind. A poem helps the mind play with its well-trod patterns of thought, and can even help reroute those patterns by making us see the familiar anew.”  https://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2013/11/what-is-a-poem/281835/     

Robert Housden also has a wonderful article about the importance of poetry: “Poetry at its best calls forth our deep being. It dares us to break free from the safe strategies of the cautious mind….It is a magical art, and always has been — a making of language spells designed to open our eyes, open our doors and welcome us into a bigger world, one of possibilities we may never have dared to dream of…. the miraculous, the unexpected, the undreamt of. Poems are necessary because they honor the unknown, both in us and in the world. They come from an undiscovered country; they are shaped into form by the power of language, and set free to fly with wings of images and metaphor.” (From “Why Poetry is Necessary” http://www.huffingtonpost.com/roger-housden/importance-of-poetry_b_884319.html)

I’ve seen students have “Aha!” moments as a result of in-class writing exercises, where what was unconscious becomes conscious. I’ve had many of those epiphanies myself when working on a draft poem. Writing can somehow create pathways into emotions, memories, insights, connections and understanding. Poetry’s imagery, symbolism, rhythm and sound are all part of its “language spell” that can transform us in infinitesimal and profound ways.

Cynthia: What is your process for writing and editing a poem?

A poem might start as an image or a line and grow from there, or be a response to a photograph in the news, or a work of art or literature. It might emerge from brainstorming or a written prompt. Revising and editing are an absolutely essential part of the journey of any poem, and take up the majority of the total writing time. Revision focuses a poem to bring out its inherent truth: where does the true poem actually begin and end; what is the organic structure that would bring out the underlying spirit of a poem; are there unnecessary words, lines, phrases, stanzas, or are there gaps; do lines and stanzas need to be reordered; are the transitions between lines stanzas effective; does the rhythm need to be adjusted; is the imagery consistent and coherent; can I add energy to my piece through the use of dialogue, interrogatives, exclamations, varied phrase length; can I replace words with vivid metaphors or similes, etc. Editing is more about fine-tuning: are there too many adjectives and adverbs versus strong nouns and verbs; are there any clichés, wordiness, unnecessary repeated words or inconsistencies; any formatting, spelling or grammar glitches. I’ve revised poems after they’ve been published, and again years later.

It’s rare that the initial draft of a poem matches my vision of what it can be. It takes time to either carve away at it to get to its essence, or to slowly unpack and add layers of sensory imagery and meaning—or both simultaneously. Every word counts in a poem. Syntax matters, the use of white space matters (line and stanza breaks, how the poem looks on the page). My initial drafts that might fill a page might end up being less than half or a quarter of a page long due to the compression that is necessary to make it flow with the intensity and clarity necessary to give it resonance and power. Or a short draft might end up being expanded and developed further to add depth and complexity. In any case, it’s important to keep that initial draft in case I over-edit or find gaps that need to be addressed. Then I can tap back into that initial idea or impetus to find a solution.

Mary Oliver says “…I usually revise through forty or fifty drafts of a poem before I begin to feel content with it. Other poets take longer. Have some lines come to you, a few times, nearly perfect, as easily as a dream arranges itself during sleep? That’s luck. That’s grace. But this is the usual way: hard work, hard work, hard work. This is the way it is done.” She also says “…revision is an almost endless task. But it is endlessly fascinating too, and especially in the early years, it is a process in which much is learned (Mary Oliver, A Poetry Handbook)

May Sarton says revision should be exciting, because it’s the process when writers discover the heart of their poems. “We know only when we come to the end of the poem – after perhaps thirty revisions – what it is really about.” (May Sarton: https://www.writermag.com/2017/04/20/may-sarton-advice/)

Cynthia: Do you have any tips or suggestions for poets entering contests?

Be bold, be fearless. Find the spots in your draft poem where you might be glossing over something that is crucial to understanding the impetus of the poem. Don’t try to mimic other poets, and especially don’t try to mimic poets from other eras. Use contemporary language and diction to express your ideas in a voice and style that is true to who you are and what you want to say. Rather than making generalizations, try to ground your poem in something specific—an actual or imagined event, conversation, character. Is there a more effective way to convey your message? Emily Dickinson said, “Tell all the truth/ but tell it slant.” Are you expressing your ideas or themes in a fresh way that will capture readers’ attention, i.e. are you “making it new” as Ezra Pound advised?

After you have produced a first draft of a poem that you are happy with, let it sit for a day or two before you start revising to let the clouds of glory from creating something settle. Then look at the poem again to see more objectively what is working and not working. If you start hacking away too early, it might lead you to lose what’s actually working well. Always keep a copy of your initial notes and early draft in case you need to go back to find elements of your initial inspiration for writing the piece. Remember you can have a few versions of any of your poems existing concurrently. Your poem might end up being a story, a play, a screenplay, an essay, a memoir, or a novel instead of–or in addition to–being a poem. Also, even if a poem doesn’t win a contest, it doesn’t mean it’s not a good poem. You can still submit it to literary magazines, anthologies, or another contest. Persistence is key to becoming a published poet.