This is no. 45 in a series of micro craft essays exploring the finer points of writing. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.
When do you stop revising? How do you know when a poem is done? The short answer is that I consider a poem done once I have committed it to memory. I learned this from a revision exercise I borrowed from Danez Smith who, in turn, borrowed it from Lyrae Van Clief-Stefanon. The exercise begins: Open to a blank notebook page or Word document and rewrite the poem you are working on from memory. Following this initial rewrite, Van Clief-Stefanon’s exercise contains a series of prompts intended to clarify what is important to the poem, what it needs more of, and what is extraneous. Even without the prompts, rewriting from memory can, on its own, provide such information; what you remember will usually turn out to be what is essential to the poem, whether that is an image, a narrative, a line-length, a sound. If you remember the whole thing, it stands to reason that the whole thing is essential.
Poets often analogize the writing of poems to other artistic practices: sculpture, pottery, the making of boats. Embedded in each of these analogies is a different perspective on when to let a poem go. Has a particular affecting figure been etched from the raw material of language? Is the poem both beautiful and functional? Has it carried you—or will it carry your reader—somewhere new? But I tend to think of writing poetry as being less like art making and more like a biological process, like life making. Poetry is a place where I develop, a skin I make in order to make myself. Once I have outgrown it, I can examine the poem from all angles. I can learn new things about it and about who I became inside of it. I can polish its exterior, but there is no way for me to get back inside.
This account of poetry can seem like a rather dismal proposition, especially for those of us who give readings, who return again and again to poems that have already taken shape. It sounds like I am saying that the poem and I were briefly alive together and then, once it has been put down, the poem is no longer living. A reading, in this account, is nothing more than a display of dead language. But here is how I think about it: In the third episode of BBC’s Life Story, there is a vignette about hermit crabs’ elaborate, communal ritual of changing shells. Once a hermit crab has outgrown its shell, it does not simply discard it and move on to the next. Rather, it waits for a critical mass of its fellow travelers to gather and arrange themselves into a line by size order, so that they can transfer shells, one to another. The biggest crab moves into an empty shell on the beach, the next in line takes the big crab’s newly abandoned shell, and on and on down the line until everyone’s soft interior, hopefully, has new room in which to grow.
What I like about using memorization as a diagnostic is that it says nothing about the “quality” of a poem, so it discourages thinking about revision as “fixing.” Instead, what determines whether a poem is finished is the relationship between us, the poem and I. This perspective on poetry helps me to grow, helps me remember that I can be done with something and that it can be imperfect—it can be a shell with a hole in it—but that it might be precisely what someone else is looking for.
Cameron Awkward-Rich is the author of two poetry collections, Dispatch (Persea Books, 2019) and Sympathetic Little Monster (Ricochet Editions, 2016), which was a Lambda Literary Award finalist. He is a Cave Canem fellow and a poetry editor for Muzzle Magazine. He earned his PhD from Stanford University’s program in Modern Thought & Literature, and he is an assistant professor of Women, Gender, Sexuality Studies at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.