How I Edit My Poetry (And How You Can Too!) ✍️✨
my guide to revising, reimagining & listening - welcome back to the Slush Pile!
To my subscribers old and new, welcome to Issue 06 of The Slush Pile, the newsletter where I rant and rave and offer up my forgotten, unwanted words! If you don’t know me or my work, my name is Sofía and I’m a Chicana writer and editor based in Los Angeles. As someone who writes in a variety of genres including fiction and nonfiction, I’ve found that it’s actually poetry that has informed most of my work in its very foundation. The way I structure sentences, combine clauses, craft my descriptions and turns of phrase, is all due in large part to my poetry practice and how I approach this genre in its purest form. While writing down a piece is the first battle, revising it and finding techniques to make that part effective continues to be an ongoing process. This month, I want to talk about how I approach taking my poems beyond their first drafts, give some of my tried-and-true tips and strategies, and offer advice from the wider writing community to help make your work extraordinary.
With my second poetry chapbook releasing in a little less than two weeks, this idea of revision has obviously been on my mind. How do we use the power of editing to ensure that our audience is reading the best possible version of our work? How do we envision a different future for our words? How do we bring our best literary foot forward? How do we, in turn, become better poets?
My hope, of course, is that these poetry-specific tips can serve as jumping-off points for revision for any genre that you’re working on. Just as poetry can be a fluid, experimental genre all on its own, so does the way it influences and is in conversation with other forms of writing. Because the writing forms we so carefully separate are actually more similar to each other than different, it’s becoming part of my process to question, blend, and cross the boundaries of genre, which informs both my writing and editing processes alike.
Stage 1: Handwriting +/ Transcription
Personally, I’m of the mindset that revision can occur from the very beginning. Don’t get this confused with self-editing on the first draft—imagining or being aware of an audience and its opinions, expectations, and questions can be detrimental to starting a page and putting your most vulnerable truth on the page.
No, I’m talking about rethinking how to jump from an initial draft almost immediately. When I first have an idea for a poem, I like to write down the germs of inspiration, the single lines on my phone’s Notes app, then physically handwrite a draft on a piece of paper or journal. There are few things more effective than engaging my train of thought wherever it wants to go, even if it’s gibberish, even if what appears makes no sense and I already know what I want to eliminate from this initial brainstorm. When I handwrite my poems, it’s harder for me to self-edit because I’ve relinquished all my control to my hand and am more interested in physically following the flow.
This leads me to my first revision technique: transcription! With my notebook in one hand and my computer or laptop in the other, I go ahead and transcribe my first draft into a Word or Google document, revising and changing words, phrases, and lines as I go along. This is a good way to get a better idea of the piece’s shape, what it wants to talk about and explore, the lines I know I want to keep or discard, and where it feels like going—all from the very beginning.
Stage 2: Initial Revisions
During and after the transcription stage, here are a few techniques I use to clean up and prepare the next draft of a poem:
Cutting unnecessary, extraneous words and phrases
I often catch myself using certain words and phrases as buffers or placeholders or simply as fluff in a piece including: that, of, because, still, like. Even and can become a hindrance if used too often. Keep a special eye out for these small words that nevertheless can take up a lot of space in a piece if you don’t cut them back.
Think: would it still make sense without this word or phrase? How much does the line or poem’s overall meaning change, if at all?
Replacing commonly used words with synonyms
Find yourself using the same words over and over again, playing it safe with familiar phrases within a poem or a collection or across pieces? Lately, I’ve been loving the website Power Thesaurus to choose more interesting replacements for words that are widespread in my work. And the nice thing is that it’s community-generated, so I often get synonyms that neither I nor a standard website would ever even consider! That way, I can increase my vocabulary and strengthen the word choices of my poem at the same time.
Note: This is a great tool not just for poets but for any writer, even students writing an essay or assignment for school who need that step up to elevate and/or lengthen their language.
Reading the poem backward from the last line up to the first
After a while of editing a poem, I can get lost or too familiar with its flow and pattern. I can get comfortable and settled, and look over glaring inconsistencies or errors that I wouldn’t otherwise. Instead, reading a poem backward forces me to see each line as a separate entity, deeply considering each word, every line break, every turn of phrase, even the order of the lines themselves. That way, you can catch misspellings, errors, and missed opportunities for exploration. Try focusing on one element at a time (i.e. description, voice, language) and giving enough attention to each.
Think: how can I make this line or stanza stand stronger? How can I make it hold its own and stand on its feet?
Printing the poem out and marking up the page with notes
Studies have shown that we read differently from our screens compared to the physical page. Just like reading it backward, this is a great way to view my piece in a new way, a different light, and catch even more revisions. This method is particularly helpful for me to edit my punctuation choices and line or stanza breaks, and make general notes and questions for me to think about for the next draft.
Think: why am I using a comma here and not an em-dash or semicolon or period? How can I expand and push this idea further? Where and how can I add more detail to ground the reader? What am I still afraid to say?
Reading the poem aloud
This is probably my favorite and most effective method to get my poem to where I want it to be, and I’ll use this many times throughout the course of revision. Because when I read it aloud, I’m hearing its rhythm, pace, flow, and musicality in real-time, which helps with how it will be read. At this stage, I wholeheartedly welcome the imagined presence of an audience in my work to bring a piece to its most polished version, even practicing how I might read it aloud in a real reading or performance (though I know that may not work for everyone).
Think: how will a reader/audience read and hear this piece? How does it roll off the tongue and make for a natural reading experience? How do the structure and sounds accurately and effectively reflect the content?
Allowing the poem to rest
Hopefully, this point is self-explanatory. When I’m struggling or can’t figure out a poem’s purpose yet, it may not be ready to see the light of day yet! Poets have different measures of how much time is enough for the poem to marinate and for me to return to it with new eyes and move forward with even more revision. Some say three days, others three weeks, and even others three month, which goes to show that poetry is a highly personal, individualized form. In any case, some time away from my poem is necessary to see in a fresh, less unbiased and familiar way to catch what I may not have before.
Stage 3: Reimagining
This past weekend, I completed a three-day poetry retreat with Open Mouth Literary. From Friday to Sunday, I was in community with other incredible poets and participated in all sorts of activities meant to keep us active and engaged with the material: generative writing activities, recommended readings, discussions, panels and talks, and, for one day, how to revise. Faculty member Alison C. Rollins brought forth a radical approach that I haven’t stopped thinking about since; that is, revision as reimagination.
Instead of thinking of revision as deleting and cutting and making a piece perfect, she invites us to simply consider making different versions, to reimagine how else a poem might look and understand no draft or version is better than the other, only different. These questions and tips call for more overhaul, which is why it’s important to keep all your drafts in case you want to return to an earlier version. But if you’re looking to make a major shift or change, here’s what I recommend, inspired by Alison’s revision workshop:
Switch the poem’s verb tense — what would it look like to place the poem in the past or present or future?
Change the poem’s point of view — what would it look like to tell this story or moment from another person’s perspective, an inanimate object in the room, an omnipresent narrator?
Upend the poem’s structure by borrowing from other poets and outside elements — what would it do to make the poem look like “Glossary of Terms” by Franny Choi? What if we incorporated images, illustrations, diagrams, charts, tables, graphs? Or made the poem a certain shape to reflect its content?
Break the poem down to its bare essentials and transform it into a performance art piece
Think: If I performed this poem onstage as a performance art piece, what are the images/sounds/descriptions of your piece that must be included? What is its emotional/visual center? How would I use myself and my body to tell the story? How would I translate my poem to the stage and make it so that the original meaning wouldn’t be lost but transformed? How would I physically immerse the audience in my poem?
For more background and content, check out Alison’s Powerpoint here.
All these strategies are trying to break down a poem to its skeleton, its bare bones, its essential images, so it’s easier to figure out what’s really important and most crucial to keep, even elevate and bring to the forefront. Ask yourself: what’s really at stake? What’s really at play? How can I reimagine this poem and make it even stronger?
While I’ve always thought of writing as the real work of poetry and revision as merely an extra step, to the point that the latter scared and intimidated me, I’m learning to think of them both as different, yet interconnected processes. Whereas writing gets you to put all your emotional truth down on paper, revising is where the real change, experimentation, and transformation can happen. Where new possibilities and more powerful language can emerge in ways you could’ve never predicted. For me, that’s the most exciting part. Where potential becomes realized and how I first imagined the poem in my head becomes real.
P.S. Looking for even more poetry revision tips? I recently invited my Twitter following to offer up the strategies they use in their own work to edit, revise, and reimagine everything from language to structure to form. Simply click on the tweet embed below or click this link!
notes from the writer’s desk ✍️
my favorite recently pub’d pieces:
Op-ed: Nineteen & Two: A poem for the victims of Uvalde, Los Angeles Times
In Conversation With Lexi Jayde, Unpublished Magazine
I’m excited to announce (again!) that STREAMING SERVICE: season two, the sequel to my self-published debut poetry chapbook STREAMING SERVICE: golden shovels made for tv, will be releasing in less than two weeks on JUNE 28TH, 2022! Digital and signed physical copies will be available, as well as the option to bundle both chapbooks and receive a bookmark and sticker with every physical order! Read more about the project here! Thank you as always for your support :’)
I’ll be hosting a variety of online events throughout July to promote STREAMING SERVICE, including a book reading/launch party and a writing workshop to help you write your very own golden shovel poems. Keep an eye on my Instagram and Twitter for more details!
Remember! If you want even more tips about how to edit your poetry (or really, any genre at all), check out this Twitter thread where I asked poets to offer their own strategies and tips! Enjoy!
other stories i’m loving 📖
In the Dream House by Carmen Maria Machado
S4 of Stranger Things
currently listening to:
“Jericho” by Landon Conrath
all my love,