Take the worst poem you’ve ever written but that you haven’t
abandoned or tossed out—it simply doesn’t satisfy you. And no
one else thinks much of it either. If it’s long, reduce it to fourteen
lines plus three as a bonus. Re-think, re-imagine, the poem in that
shorter form. If a short poem, double its length. Enrich it with
details, observed or imagined, add one of the senses you’ve
omitted (probably taste or smell), or simply extend its possibilities.
Identify your dullest, most predictable verbs and substitute ones
livelier, more energetic, less expected. Your ending’s flat, or it’s
forced, or it’s ho hum, or it comes outta nowhere. It tells us what
we already know, or what we expected. It doesn’t draw from what
came before then take us to a new place. Deal with that. Or deal
with it later—hold the end in suspension until you arrive at a new
understanding. What are you trying to get inside of with this poem,
anyway? What are you trying to climb inside, or swim down into?
What do you want the reader to come away with? Don’t think of
yourself as You, think of yourself as your reader. Why should you
give a damn about this stuff, anyway, You the Reader? What do
you get from this, You the Reader? And while you’re working on,
or musing on, that— Don’t Make Any Mistakes. Fix all mistakes:
vague or inconsistent point-of-view, monotonous repetition of
words (as opposed to deliberate, strategic repetition that builds in
power), tense disagreements. Unless you’re writing in a persona
voice, a vernacular—of a people, a person, or a region—or unless
your poem includes spoken dialogue, be grammatical. No.
Grammatical. Mistakes. A poem is a kind of performance, one tries
for a 10 (and fails, usually). One tries for a Tony, an Emmy (and
some other guy gets it, some upstart—whaaa…?) But one Tries.
No actor walks out onto the stage, drops sections of dialog, misses
cues, fails to find the lighting and so is lost in the shadows then
passes it off as artistic freedom. At least, no one gets away with
that for long. Know your craft. Don’t bore your audience. Or your
Reader. Poet, Primum noli insulsus esse!* First, do not bore. Stop being so
constrained, so restricted. Let go. Let language pour into itself. Let
a few lines swing in on a jungle vine. Go wild. Go mad a bit—mad
as in crazy. Or, alternatively, Get Mad. Get angry—stop being so
cautious, so damn polite! Unless your poem’s already an angry
rant, is it? Then stop being so damn self-righteous. It’s boring.
Write an accompanying poem about saving the person you most
hate. Because they’re drowning. And there’s no one but you,
standing on the edge of the rapids, holding a rope. Saving or not
saving. You got that? Now return to your poem. It’s not murky, is
it? Murky is bad. Be lucid. Be clear, see-through as melted snow
in a wine glass. But not flat! Don’t confuse lucidity with flatness!
Don’t use too many multi-syllabic words, like lucidity. Or multi-
syllabic. Play with line breaks. If it’s one long streaming thing try
it in couplets, or tercets, or quatrains. Beautiful quatrains, narrow
ones, elegant little curio boxes. If the poem’s locked into stanzas—
why? What do they do for you, these arbitrary stanzas, chunky
things, like box cars on a train your car’s stopped in front of? Free
it—no stanza breaks anywhere, the reader in freefall. You—
in freefall. Send your subconscious a message before you go to sleep,
Help! Help! Help my poem! Write as soon as you wake up,
whatever lines come to you. If necessary, repeat the following
night. Then, put your Worst Poem entirely out of your mind. Read
and read—all kinds of good poems, fabulous poems, particularly
Los Angeles poets, plus César Vallejo, Robert Hayden, Neruda
obviously, the current U.S. Poet Laureate and the last one, and
Thomas McGrath —who stood up to the House Un-
American Activities Committee in the 50s and was fired for it (just a bit of
non-trivial trivia, there). And Nance Van Winckel, Carine Topal.
Yes, that’s right—the poets of the Pacific Coast Poetry Series.
Why not. And Lummis. Read Lummis. Return to your poem. Mess around with it.
See? It’s no longer your worst poem.
* Literally “First, do not be without salt/seasoning,” and metaphorically “First, do not be bland/dull/insipid”
Suzanne Lummis’ poems have appeared in The Hudson Review, Antioch Review, Ploughshares, New Ohio Review, Plume, The American Journal of Poetry and The New Yorker. Her most recent collection, Open 24 Hours, won the Blue Lynx Poetry Prize and was published by Lynx House Press in 2014. She hosts the YouTube series They Write by Night, produced by poetry.la, which discusses film noir and poets inspired by this sensibility. Also, she serves as the series editor of the Pacific Coast Poetry Series.