Practicing What You Preach: When To Cut, Clip, or Keep.

5 Personal Maxims on Poetry

  1. Empathy above all else.  Be able to stand in someone else’s skin, be it for compassion or to dissect strange or selfish motives.  Study characteristics and circumstances to understand how they effect judgement for better or worse.  If the devil is in the details, and the details are unknown, then there can be no exorcism of any kind.  If you cannot see beyond your own views, values, needs and wants, do us all a favor, and do not write.  Ever.
  2. “The concise artist waits for inspiration.  The prolific artist waits for attention.” – Anonymous
  3. Editing.  True courage and true art are in what we choose to cut out.  Anyone can continue to add lines, stanzas, etc.  Oftentimes, the bravest thing to do is to trim the excess and leave only what is needed.
  4. Restraint.  As much as one strives to put as much passion into verse as possible, restraint must be practiced to avoid hyperbole.  Self expression should never stoop to a self-indulgent, exhibitionist, therapy session.  The reader/listener must be taken into account.
  5. Clarity.  ”Don’t be vague or gamey, spit it out” – Peter Jay Shippy

I wrote down this list in a journal a few years back.  I do my best to abide by it and I fully admit that item 3 is the most difficult.

Last summer I read some poems at DBAMfest in Brockton.  The last one I read was “Between Streetlights and Stars”, the title poem of my upcoming chapbook.  About halfway through reading it, I felt that draft of the poem to be a bit long.  A few days later I read it aloud to myself with a stopwatch going and noticed it took a whopping five minutes; way too long for such a high energy piece.

Put on any album from your music collection and play the fastest paced song on there.  Nine times out of ten, it will also be the shortest song on the album, usually clocking in at about 2 1/2 to 3 minutes.  If it comes in at 4 minutes, it’s most likely because it had a slow part somewhere, such as the intro, bridge, or outro.  The same logic and creative economy of songwriting also exists in poetry; the higher energy or pace, the shorter the poem.  “Light The City” for example takes me about 3 minutes to read aloud.  Note: by read aloud, I mean perform; changing pace, volume, inserting pauses, etc.

So when I returned to work on “Between…”, I had to face some hard choices.  A lot of work went into adding more lines and stanzas to make clarify the narrative, but the poem felt like a fast paced song that went on for too long, wearing out its welcome for both performer and audience.  A few weeks ago, I cut about 100 words out.  Last week, I cut out an additional 50.  That last bit was a stanza that made me proud, but when I was honest with myself, it was not a vital part of the poem.  Lines with strong musicality and vivid images are important, but so is keeping a poem  short enough for crowded open mic where everyone gets a very strict 3 minute slot.  I don’t know if I’ll be able to get this down to exactly three minutes, but I at least want to be able read it and not feel exhausted halfway through. Achieving a balance between what we want from a poem on paper and what we want from a poem being read a loud is a tricky thing.

This leads me to a piece of advice: should you be brave enough to cut a line or stanza that you worked on heavily only to find it not working out: save it somewhere for future use.  For example, I keep a separate file labeled “fragments”.  This is where I put lines, stanzas, and concepts that didn’t work out but were difficult to part with.  It hurts to cut, but that doesn’t mean what we cut cannot be used elsewhere.  Save that line, that stanza that made you glow with triumph when you first wrote it, give it a chance to find a purpose somewhere else.


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