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Expelling Emotions: The Process of Writing a Poem

I've been writing poetry for a long time. What's amazing about that is that I was writing it before I could properly define what it was, or what were the constraints necessary to write it. I have studied poetry so I can definitely give you a list of techniques necessary to make a poem and point to the best examples if you wanted to emulate it, but I can't honestly come on here and say that is how I write poetry. That I sit and agonise about form, rhythm and whether or not my work will be culturally significant. Well, I do a small amount but that usually comes in during the editing process. The writing process, for me, feels like an expulsion of emotion, using visceral imagery to create a small story that will gut-punch the reader into experiencing something they've been refusing to feel. Putting these images in just the right order to build tension and making sure that the words you pick are only the essential ones because every line in the poem is itself a poem. It's taking established forms and playing with them in radical ways. As Shira Wolosky states, a poem is a 'careful, intricate pattern of words' where no word is 'idle or accidental'.

Obviously, that's just me and, even with all this, it takes a long time before I have anything close to the quality I want, where I'd feel comfortable showing it to people. Sometimes, my poems will go through 3 or 4 edits. As of writing this, I'm on the second draft of my poetry collection, a piece of work that has been several years in the making, with poems in there that began life when I was 14. I would never show anyone a first draft and call it a good poem. And I would definitely not show the bare bones of a poem that I wrote as a teenager. Because they're not good. The first draft is that initial release of emotion, that initial establishment of themes and running motifs. It doesn't have to be more than that. That's why I like to write all my poems in a notebook, because I have no way to edit them. Sure, I could cross things out or tear out the pages but the integrity of my beautiful notebooks, which are often gifts from friends, compels me to leave them intact. I write what I need to there and that's where the first draft lives.

Since my early adolescence, I've gone through around 3 'official' poetry notebooks (I'm not going to count the poems I wrote on scraps of paper or in the back of school books). Once I finish a notebook, I will take out a highlighter and some adhesive page markers, and go through the whole thing. On reflecting on my own work, I'm often disgusted with how bad a lot of it is. It's my worst nightmare for these books to be found and published after my death, as a showcase of my 'secret' work, because none of that work is fit for publishing. Most of it reads like a diary entry and without proper editing, it would barely pass for a good paragraph. Nevertheless, I take my highlight and perform a disembowelment, where I take out the phrases or imagery that could be supplanted into another poem or built up into something else, and discard the rest. The poems where I believe the structure and themes are good enough to be a proper poem are marked with the page tabs. Even these will go through several transformations.

I then move onto the Google Drive stage. This is where I type up my poems in individual documents on my Drive, in my 'Poetry' folder. It's at this stage I refrain from doing any major editing, even though it pains me. What I want to do here is simply transcribe, with the purpose of giving future me an idea of form and structure. Sometimes I will leave comments for myself at what edits I could make in the future but I restrain myself from making any changes. I let the first draft remain until it's officially time for the editing process. As for disemboweled phrases and images, I will put them in a separate document altogether, often arranging them by potential theme. I will use these during the editing process, open in the background of my laptop so I can dip in when I'm struggling to make a piece come together.

I would argue that the editing process is the most rewarding part. That doesn't mean that it's not also incredibly difficult. I will often spend many hours collectively on one poem, tailoring it and chipping away at the original idea so that it's more focused and better conveys the themes, in a way that my automatic and often random brain just can't do during the writing process. I will often have to abandon whole ideas because I don't agree with the sentiment of them anymore or because I'm so detached from what was definitely an emotional affair at the time but is barely a blip in my life now. My goal is to express an emotional truth but one that I can get behind. Publishing poems about friendship drama from Year 10 just doesn't seem worth it, particularly because it's just not something I care about anymore. And if I don't care, there isn't any way for me to make the reader care either. This doesn't make it hurt any less when I have to abandon a whole poem because there is nothing to salvage, not even a good image, particularly at the editing stage. It feels like giving up. But what I've found, and what is evident by the amount I write, is that there will always be ideas. The fact that one doesn't work doesn't meant that none ever will. Concision and brutal honesty about your own skill is extremely important at this stage.

What I will say here is that I'm aware I have some advantages in this process, having gone to university and done several courses on reading and writing poetry. The skills I learned there are invaluable and I use them whenever I come to write any poem. But, as I've made clear in the past, I don't believe that writing (or reading) poetry should be this inaccessible, very academic thing. I believe expressions of creativity are valuable because they are expressions of humanity and a desire to connect with others, and that's true even if no one ever sees it. The process of writing anything is a skill that's developed through a want to learn, not a university education. I hope I can make that very clear in all of my work.

As for my own poetry, it is difficult to discern if a poem should see the light of day, either through immediate submission to a journal or by just publishing here. Often, I like to work on larger pieces, creating a narrative through a collection of poems, putting them in an order that creates a story. Because of this, people might not see my work for years after I started writing it. The collection I'm working on right now might never be published. I'm not under the impression that that's a definite, even if it's something I want. But I enjoy the process of putting it together. It's the same reason I like making themed playlists and incredibly specific film lists - I like having a clear map of who I am as a person. And this collection, whether you ever get to read it or not, is an expression of my poet status. Even if I'm the only one who ever acknowledges it. 

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Shira Wolosky, How To Read A Poem (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001).