revision

It's a powerful word—if you're a writer, that is. Smoke rises off the word revision, and the smell of something burning. Sweat drips off it. Little demons hide behind the echoes, yet after the last sound fades, there's a sweetness on the tongue that can't be described.

I've spent the last few weeks making a deep revision of some 90 poems that make up my forthcoming book, Asleep Beneath the Hill of Dreams. This collection has aggregated, one poem at a time, over the last four years like a stalactite in my cave of imagination.

Along the way I've revised most of the pieces multiple times, carving away or blooming new phrases, breaking lines in different places, flowing text together, infusing new language into flat spots, and listening close to what the poems were telling me. It's a kind of play for me, but there's an edge to it, too. Hard to explain, except to say that it requires greater concentration than anything else I do. There's a zone I have to enter and sustain for hours at a time—a shell where distractions are utterly shut out and no one or no thing can enter.

I knew it was time to do this because about six months ago, new poems stopped coming in. Let me clarify. I was writing new poems—quite a few—but none that belonged in this particular collection. The new poems were tracking in a different direction and that was a sign that this manuscript was ready for the next phase: final revision.

Re-vision means, literally, to see anew. The tinkering I do while compiling the manuscript is one kind of revision, but the final comprehensive revision requires distance. That's psychic distance. It can form naturally as time passes, and in this case it was partly that and partly a decision on my part to publish this manuscript as a book—to grapple with it, shut it down, and give it to the world of commerce and readers and bookshelves. It's an objectifying process. The manuscript is not the book (yet), but in some sense, it never will be. When these poems appear as a book, it will belong to others and no longer to me.

Truman Capote is quoted as saying, and I paraphrase, that finishing a book is like taking the baby out in the yard and shooting it. That's nasty, but it does kind of make the point.

The reality that I am publishing this as a book rather instantly broadened the psychic distance and I fell into the task of reading the poems differently than I had before. My hand was freer with changes. I revised poems in relationship to one another, and to their sequence in the manuscript, not as individual pieces detached from other considerations.

Some poems fell off the manuscript, drunken tourists who won't be missed when we make port. These were mostly ones I knew a long time ago were malformed and beyond even the most skillful rehabilitation efforts. In some other cases I realized I had two poems that were echoing each other at some level, so I joined them, cut away the redundancies, explored the harmonies, made them one. Interesting stuff.

I say this was a final revision, but the manuscript is now in the hands of two readers who will each get back to me with some comments, and I want them to do that. I want to hear about what I can't see on my own. So there will be more buffing and shining. But the heavy lifting is finished. The book is about to happen.