This last year, for the first time, my university’s introductory creative writing classes were multi-genre. In fact, I taught Intro CW at two different universities, and both were multi-genre. This meant, for the first time, I taught poetry. I started the semester with poetry, thinking we’d start with the small and grow into reading and writing longer pieces. I also liked the idea of ending with the more familiar instead of starting with it but then having to leave it behind.
In what is something of a lucky chance of timing, this last year I have begun writing and publishing poetry myself. For a long time, I teased my poet friends, made fun of the genre—in part out of a kind of “siding with the home team,” us-against-them sports mentality as a prose writer; and in part for the reasons many often struggle with poetry: it seemed frustratingly coy, or like it was smarter than me, or that I just didn’t get it. In the classroom, I am rarely less than overly candid, and so I led with my own biases but also my recent excitement: I have come to be ever more excited by poetry in only the last six months, so let’s all be excited!
As long as I can remember, I’ve intro’d into the idea of workshopping in my Introduction to Creative Writing classes with stories I’ve asked to use from friends. The idea works twofold: we get to workshop the rough draft, learning our way through how to talk about the story, how to critique, how to be helpful while also respectful, all those “introduction to the idea of class workshop” ideas; and then, after a week or two of workshopping each other’s stories, we come back and read the revised/final draft of that initial story, as a way to talk about how to revise a story, how much it can change, etcetera.
As we approached our move into workshop, after a couple weeks of reading and discussing poetry and doing various exercises, in and outside of class, I asked some poet friends if they might not be willing to send me both a rough and final draft of a poem to share with my students. Matthew Olzmann was kind enough to send me, in essence, five poems: three rough draft, two final.
One of the biggest prerequisites I look for when sharing rough and final draft versions with my students is how different the two are. Seeing how a piece has changed, and trying to think and talk through possible whys is helpful, but maybe most of all I just want to show them that these drafts are allowed to change, drastically even, much, much above and beyond the comma and tense and basic grammar changes that they mostly think of as “peer editing.”
Two of the rough-draft poems Olzmann shared (“In an Asteroid Belt” and “Spock”), were combined into one final, a poem that is actually one of my favorite of Olzmann’s, “Spock as a Metaphor for the Construction of Race During My Childhood.” (In this interview, Olzmann actually talks about three poems becoming one; I suppose there is even a third that I haven’t seen that accounts for some of what I assumed was new to the final version.)
I’d already read the poem in his collection, Mezzanines, a collection that my enjoyment of had actually sparked me asking Olzmann if he might contribute to my classroom exercise. But now, having read the rough drafts, being able to see a bit of the process behind the curtain, I like it even more. I feel like I was lucky enough to receive a little bit of director commentary, the kind of technical director’s commentary I can only assume aspiring filmmakers most admire, devour, and steal. Oh, that’s how you did that!
It’s interesting, the larger percentage of every class I teach nearly always prefers the first, “rougher” iteration. Because there was something admirable in the rawness of that initial draft that spoke to them; or because we, as readers, just become attached to whatever we are introduced to first; or because they are subconsciously fighting against the idea of changing that much, of writing being a process and not just the you write until you get to the page requirement of the homework prompt and then you’re done and you turn it in process that school has seemed to teach them, I don’t know.
I’ve studied this Olzmann poem (or, rather, these three poems, depending on how you want to count) a lot in the last year. I’ve read, and made notes on, and read again, and made more notes, etc. in preparation to lead classroom discussions, and made more notes still in response to smart things students have added. But (and this is perhaps like many things in the classroom) I think it’s become far more instructive to my own writing than it has to my students. There’s something about the discovery of figuring out what a poet kept, what he deleted, what he changed, sometimes even just ever so slightly, to push a poem toward becoming better. And not asking the poet, but thinking through for myself the possible reasons why for each of these edits. And teaching myself what to keep, what to delete, when to push myself to find a better way to describe, to transition, to explain.
Aside from poetry, I’ve spent the last year working on a novel. It’s about two brothers who aren’t especially close, they don’t really know each other but, of course, over the course of the novel, they start to. And at some point—because I like road trips, I like going on them, I like reading about them—they embark on driving across the country. My problem was, I’d already written a (failed) road trip novel about two guys that had gone to high school with one another but hadn’t really been friends, they’d just ended up in this car together, on this journey. I started to fear repeating myself and let this new novel tread water for a bit, unsure what to do. Then, at some point, I had something of a revelation, and I’ve been sort of stitching the two together ever since. I didn’t notice the correlation to Olzmann’s poems until just now, writing this all up, but I find it reassuring. Maybe I’m not just stitching them together as a way to be lazy, to avoid “writing.” Maybe there’s something to it, maybe the end will turn out half as good a novel as “Spock” is a poem.
Aaron Burch is the author of the story collection Backswing, (Queen’s Ferry Press, Summer 2014) and the editor of HOBART: another literary journal.
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