Thursday, March 10, 2011

When is a poem finished?

talking freshHow do you determine when a poem is ready to be submitted to a magazine, a manuscript to a publisher?

That's what an audience member at Talking Fresh 9 asked Karen Solie, Michael Trussler, Brenda Schmidt and Daniel Scott Tysdal.

I love listening to writers engage on issues of craft, especially when they hit home: I have a manuscript of poems... But are they finished? Is the manuscript safe to send it off? (I also have a manuscript of short stories I'm asking similar questions about.)

Panel moderator Katherine Lawrence asked each panelist for their impromptu responses.

Brenda Schmidt: 
I have trouble letting work go.

I hang onto a manuscript and it will go into this limbo state. I just have to leave it there and come back to it as an older Brenda and see if it speaks to me in any way, and if it feels ready to let go of.

I don’t rush my work out the door. Ever. My manuscripts are really quite old by the time they get published.

Daniel Scott Tysdal: 
I go both ways on that. 

I have poems that I get hit and I work on for three days straight, and I print, go over them, and that’s done.

I have other poems that are in my first book where every time I go to read, I have to make sure I take the right reading copy, because I’ve changed the poem, even in the book.

Michael Trussler:  
To me, it’s very simple. The poem dies.

The difficulty in writing a poem is that you start with an idea or sensation or whatever, and then your ego is there. If it is going to work — and most of the time I just throw stuff out — it tells you that it has a separate identity, is separate from yourself.

You have to listen to it, and the poem will essentially announce itself. And when it’s done, it’s done. and it just goes, ‘I’m not going to spend any more time with you — thanks. Bye.’

Karen Solie: 
You can potentially tinker forever.

It helps for me to leave things sit for a time, so I can go back to them as a reader, rather than as a writer.

The only thing that a poem has is what’s actually on the page. What you intend, if it’s not on the page, it’s not there.

Another answer to the question, "When is a poem finished?" 

Riffing on an earlier audience question about taxes and writing awards, Dan Tysdal offered an unusual solution: Poetry certification by experts in taxation. 

And, for me?  

Read. Revise. Rest. Reread. Rewrite.

Yes, I could tinker forever.

Time to stop, to step into "the river of no."*

* from The Hornbooks of Rita K, by Robert Kroetsch, University of Alberta Press. 



  1. I like your presentation of all this material, Shelley. And good to re-live a few sights and sounds from last weekend. Thanks.

  2. Thanks, Gerry! I've also just linked Poet Shoes, for more pictures. Looking forward to next year.

  3. Thanks for including links to each author's books.

    Kitty from Brick Books

  4. Hi Kitty! Thanks, and thanks for dropping by again!

  5. Thanks for this post. Of course it was Paul Valery who summed it up best when he said "a poem is never finished, only abandoned."

    Here's my take on when a poem is finished (or not). Making Poems Better (pdf):

    And a debate about whether a revision has gone too far:



  6. Yes, abandoned... How true.

    Thanks for the links. (And I love the third ending for your poem in your Revise post. It leaves us with a soft waving image -- some sadness, some hope.)

  7. I love the idea of establishing a separate ego for the poem, one distinct from our own identity. Great post--thanks for sharing !

  8. Thanks so much for dropping by -- and I really like the concept behind your blog... First drafts are what's on offer here, too. (And the power of xxxxx'ing out words! Why did we stop using typewriters?)


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