In our Craft Capsules series, authors reveal the personal and particular ways they approach the art of writing. This is no. 134.
Sometimes you have to admit that the most precious part of your poem isn’t working. Yes, it might include some of the more elegant lines you’ve ever written, and yes, it shows your grand talent in alliteration, line breaks, enjambment, or some other poetic technique. But the line just doesn’t fit this particular poem. So what do you do with it?
William Faulkner said, “Kill your darlings,” a directive almost every writer seems to know. But I want to make the case for holding your darlings. Over the last few decades, I have maintained a Word document—I call it my “Keeps” document—in which I collect phrases that weren’t right for whatever poem they first appeared in yet strike me as worth rescuing. Into this file I paste my “darlings,” margin to margin across the width and length of the page, smooshing them together with other beauties I couldn’t make work. When I’m drafting a new poem and looking for a remarkable verb or a fresh way to describe an action or emotion, I scan the hundreds of words jammed onto those pages of my “Keeps” document. There’s almost always something surprisingly ideal. And when I find that word or phrase that, by serendipity, suits the new poem I’m crafting, it’s exhilarating.
In a 2010 interview with the Times Union, a New York daily newspaper, poet Chase Twichell explained a poet's evolving approach to composition this way: “Like many younger poets, you’re kind of self-conscious about the language that you’re using. You find a word that you really love, like ‘flinch,’ and you want it in the line. It may or may not be the perfect word, but you commit to it, and the line takes shape around it. Whereas later it’s the tenor of the experience itself that you’re trying to go for, and language becomes more of a means to get there.”
Like Twichell’s “means to get there,” my “Keeps” document is a pathway to access what I want to say. When I draw from it, I am searching for surprising and powerful language to invigorate the themes and images within the poem. I go shopping in that document: When I want to use a line or phrase, I mark it in red; when I’m sure that line or phrase will stay in a new poem draft, I delete it from the document. At its apex, my “Keeps” document was thirty-two pages; it’s currently only nineteen. It’s an unholy mess, and a treasure trove. This process of returning to my “Keeps” document also allows me to work with a different version of myself, an earlier me that liked a certain description enough to keep it. The later version of me is gleeful to grab a stored phrase or image. Words that at one time may have described a favorite object can now be used to characterize, say, wind or sun—two elements that claim my desert landscape frequently.
I could probably look at any of my poems and find at least one word or phrase that originated in “Keeps.” In my poem “Learn the Silken Rendering,” for example, the words “lucky hum” in the line “The lucky hum of plums and peaches” was a fortunate find I owe to “Keeps.” I found “reason” in my “Keeps” document too, using it to enhance the line “I turn around, talk reason into a microphone to a blank wall.” The entire eighth stanza was composed with language from “Keeps” that turned out to be aligned with the emotional truth of this poem. I like the way my “Keeps” document enables a blending of my earlier self and present self. I’ve often found that I make my most intriguing poems when I reclaim some of my earlier vocabulary or perspective.
Lauren Camp is the author of five poetry collections, including Took House (Tupelo Press, 2020), which received the American Fiction Award in Poetry, and One Hundred Hungers (Tupelo Press, 2016), which won the Dorset Prize and was a finalist for the Arab American Book Award, the Housatonic Book Award, and the Sheila Margaret Motton Prize.Art: Carrie Beth Williams