Thursday, October 29, 2009
Question: Once you were a finalist, did you stop revising?
Here's another question I was asked, it's quite intriguing and at the heart of it, it's asking, how do we know when to stop revising? Ah, the $100,000 question!
You said that you knew once you started to be a finalist in some contests that it was just a matter of luck/time from there. Once those finalist nods started coming in, did you stop revising? Do you think it's a bad idea to alter a "finalist manuscript"--or is there specific advice you would give about when/how to continue revisions, and still hold out hope for something that's getting that "bridesmaid" attention?
******** I think I'll break this question down into a few parts.
Part I: Once those finalist nods started coming in, did you stop revising?
Answer: Kind of, but not really. I am someone who loves to revise, revise my poems, revise my manuscript, revise my life. It can be a disease, whittling away on a piece of wood past the point where it's a flute to where it becomes a toothpick.
But, when I did start getting those finalist nods, I did feel less like the manuscript was "broken" and something I needed to fix and more with the belief that I was close and there was just a few things keeping me from being chosen.
These "few things" can drive a poet crazy though. It can make you feel like you just need the Secret Poetry Contest Decoder Ring and all will be fine.
But mostly, I stopped some. I stopped making swooping changes like with title. Mostly, if I go back to my mss from January of 2008, it's pretty much the same mss now just with a little different order and a few different poems.
But as artists, writers, poets, it's hard to stop messing with our work. Especially me, I love to mess with things.
Part II: Do you think it's a bad idea to alter a "finalist manuscript"--or is there specific advice you would give about when/how to continue revisions, and still hold out hope for something that's getting that "bridesmaid" attention?
I think if you're manuscript is getting chosen as a finalist, I think you're close and it is just a matter of the right reader (also luck and timing).
What I did when it got close was talk to two of my good poet friends who know my work very well and ask them, "What is this manuscript missing?" "Is there any poems that feel out of place or aren't as strong?"
They didn't have any major changes, but found a copy typos (ugh!) and offered some advice on order and what they thought were my strongest poems.
I would never just talk to one person or trust one person, but ask a couple or a few. It will remind you that poetry is subjective and people rarely agree, so it's up to the poet to follow his/her own vision for the book.
For me, I asked myself questions, "Why do I have this poem first? Why do I have this order? Why do I have these sections?" Etc. I needed to have an answer for everything, when I said, "I don't know," I knew there might be a problem. I think the poet should have an answer for every question, from "Why are you using this quote?" to "Why is the poem about the bird next to the poem about the miscarriage?"
Even if the reader doesn't see the whole vision, it's good for you to know why you did the things you did. For example, one of my poems end "Your psychic number is eight. Your psychic insect is the mirror beetle." While it's not important for you to know my favorite/lucky number is 8 or that the mirror beetle is this magical piece of artwork I purchased from a Seattle artist and an image that will reappear later in the book, it's important for me to know why I chose those images instead of say a dragonfly and the number 2.
Also, and this might sound bizarre, but I went through with each poem and asked each poem if it belonged in my book. Basically, this is me asking myself, "Does this poem belong in this manuscript? Should this poem be in here?"
And in the end I took the Johnny Cochran approach, "When in doubt, take it out."
Of course, we're poets, so we can always doubt our work, but I'm looking for that gut feeling that says, "This poem is not strong enough" or "This poem isn't finished" or "This poem doesn't fit in this manuscript." And I was tough on my poems, if I didn't think they were strong enough, they went back to the gym.
Other things you may want to consider--
Is the title working with the collection as a whole?
What is your first poem doing for the collection?
What is the last poem leaving your reader with?
Is there anything in here that shouldn't be?
Is there anything that is missing from the collection? (Or are their unwritten poems I need to write?)
If your manuscript is at the finalist level, these answers should be answered pretty easy and not require a lot of revision.
So yes, if you're being named a finalist, I do think it's a matter of time, so I wouldn't change too much.
If you're finding yourself the bridesmaid, I tend to think there's a wedding for you down the road. It's happened to all my poet friends, finalist, finalist, finalist, finalist, winner... (though sometimes there's many more finalist spots first). I can't think of anyone who is submitting after X number of years and still getting finalist status, at some point, you win.
* * *
Also, remember, I'm just one poet out of many, I think this is good advice, but maybe it's not, so in the end you need to trust yourself, your own voice, your own vision, and your own gut instinct.
This is what worked for me and how my story played out, yours could be a little different.
So M in St. Louis, I hope this helped. Thanks for your note.
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Written by Kelli Russell Agodon
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