Updated: Oct 3, 2018
Many of you already knew that I’ve had to replace my computer. And so I have, just recently. I’m pleased to be up and running on the Internet again — especially pleased to return to the blog and the business of freelance editing and writing.
For my first Feature Friday since the end of June, I have a guest event to showcase. I’m grateful to The Centrifugal Eye’s past contributor, Colin Dodds, for his birthday gift to me of his essay, which concerns process (a favorite topic of mine to ponder and discuss), that I may share with all of you this day.
I’ll be back for the next feature in September, after I’m done partying here, but until then, give Colin your attention as he peeks "into the place of process in poetry.”
If you want to read more about Colin, also check out his guest essay on the blog from last spring (April 2017): There's a Story Behind Every Story.
~Eve Anthony Hanninen
A Peek into the Place of Process in Poetry —
Spokes of an Uneven Wheel
By Colin Dodds
There’s a lot that goes into writing a book. For starters, you have: The ideas, characters and setting; the inspiration; where you want to take the reader; what you imagine the book might do for you personally; the imagined audience; the process and the obstacles.
One surprising thing that happens along the way is that each of these elements starts to contaminate the others. The writing shapes the contents of the book — and the book shapes the writing. It never turns out like I plan. But it’s surprises like these that make sitting at a desk and scribbling in a notebook or tapping a keyboard into one of the most engrossing and fulfilling adventures of my life.
My latest book is called Spokes of an Uneven Wheel. From first word to final draft took about two and a half years. The publisher lists it as 80 pages. It’s a collection of poems.
That a book is a “collection” speaks to a tension: it is a single thing, but at the same time, it is also many things, collected together. The contradiction sits there, grasps irregularly for some sort of resolution, then withdraws.
A similar contradiction drives my own writing and editing process, especially when it comes to poems. Novels, essays, and short stories are another thing altogether.
But with poems, my own process has been to write here and there, for a year or two, and then collect everything — notebooks, paper scraps, letters (now, more emails and notes tapped into a phone). Once it’s all typed up in one place, I print it and, with a pen, start sorting lines, fragments, and puns of varying quality into families, according to idea, mood, sensibility, setting.
These “families” bicker internally, and war with one another. Similar families exchange lines until they even out, or until one eats the other. The winners — and sometimes the most remarkably abject losers — become poems. There are also those golden children born perfect and unchanged through the tumult, but there’s nothing to learn from them.
“Murder your darlings” is a popular piece of writing advice, attributed to William Faulkner, among others. And I say maybe. But I’d rather my darlings test each other — that they chafe, press, sand each other down, and maybe finally kill each other over the course of ten to fifteen drafts.
Ten to fifteen drafts may sound like a lot. But a poem is largely inconsequential to the world as it goes about its daily business. It affects very few people, who often have far more pressing business at hand, and whose minds are full of competing sensations and ideas. To function at all, a poem has to be perfect, however insane an aspiration that may be.
Within each of these drafts, new writing occurs. Language always leads somewhere, and I consider the editing process a chance to follow a stray line where it leads.
On the flipside, there are the casualties. A lot of things that sound great don’t quite add up or make sense. A lot of things that make perfect sense don’t quite matter. A lot of brilliant flashes of rhetoric will win an argument that’s purely internal.
Given all that can waylay a poem, fifteen drafts may seem like too few. But after that point, I stop seeing. I start cutting and replacing the same commas. I also start to go a little batty, get a little impatient, a little too severe in my cuts. We all have our limits.
I try to edit in different places, at different times. In the morning, at night, at home, on the train, in a park, at work, at a bar, sober, drunk, excited, angry, exhausted. Looking closely at the lines in different circumstances is a good way to test the material.
Among the lines and fragments, there’s a lot of competition, in part because of the shape of my life these days. I go to work every weekday. I’m married, with a young child. So, I keep regular hours, and don’t drink or indulge in the ways I did when I was younger. I don’t have the time or money to travel more than a few times a year, and then, mostly on business. So, certain settings, interactions and sensations repeat, and the ideas they inspire layer onto one another. This lends itself to a process like distillation.
It wasn’t always this way. But I like it. There is something to this process of writing and creating poems that keeps the physical feeling of being on the edge of the unknown very much alive. That feeling is another acid test for the poems as I work on them. If I know exactly what I’m talking about, then that material belongs in fiction or in an essay. For me, poems are that belligerent beachhead on the unknown, the mysterious and divine.
Spokes of an Uneven Wheel is a title that came to me very late in the process of shaping these poems, and this collection. I had a few other ideas kicking around — none of them great (Crepuscular Surgery . . .). This one popped up, and I didn’t think much of it. I just knew that was the title.
Circles and wheels are mysterious, and important. From Pythagoras to Buddhist iconography and doctrine, to Carl Jung and the UFO phenomenon, the circle is portentous. It’s symmetrical from every angle, where life is misshapen, out of tune with our hopes and out of step with our expectations.
The title, without really reckoning it at the time, was about the tension of these poems and the hope embodied in them — to arrive at a whole from disparate parts. It was also a statement of the process by which distinct statements from distinct moments and sensations could amount to something that, if indeed consistent and harmonious, indicates — and perhaps indicts — a much larger world.
Colin Dodds is a writer and poet. He is the author of several novels, including Watershed, Windfall, and The Last Bad Job, which the late Norman Mailer touted as showing “something that very few writers have; a species of inner talent that owes very little to other people.” Colin’s poetry has appeared in more than 270 publications, and has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and the Best of the Net Anthology. His book-length poem, That Happy Captive, was named a finalist in both the Trio House Press Louise Bogan Award and the 42 Miles Press Poetry Award. And his screenplay, "Refreshment," was named a semi-finalist in the 2010 American Zoetrope Contest. Colin grew up in Massachusetts, and completed his education in New York City. He now lives in Brooklyn, New York, with his wife and daughter. You can find more of his work at https://thecolindodds.com/