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The Poet’s Process

by Janet S. Wong

I sold Good Luck Gold, my first book, a week before my son was born. I might not have started a second book soon, except I heard people criticize another author because “she had only one book in her.” I would’ve paid no attention if my first book had been Gone With The Wind, but I decided that I would need to write another book right away. I started A Suitcase of Seaweed when my son was two months old.

My son was not a napper, and I struggled to write anything more than random notes or a few drafts of a poem during the day. But I was determined: every night I put Andrew in his crib at nine, tiptoed out, and plopped down in front of the computer. Exhausted and not at all inspired, I would sit staring at my notes and beginnings of poems. The key was to type something—anything—into the computer. It was crummy stuff, but it started looking much better at two in the morning.

“Campfire” sprang from a sliver of a memory of my first camping trip. I wrote some notes, probably while my son was rocking in his battery-operated swing. Two possible poems emerged: one about my dad, struggling with our tent, and another about my mom who, squatting by our campfire, told me that she grew up in the country, “real country,” where she roasted chestnuts and grasshoppers as a child.

Here are those first scribbles:

scribbles 1scribbles 2 

One of the first drafts of that poem read:

Image 3 - Campfire early draft

You can scribble whatever embarrassing, meaningless, shameful nonsense you want, but type it—for publication—and all of a sudden The Reader is watching over your shoulder. Will the reader laugh at your country-bumpkin Korean mother? Will the reader not even blink because, being well-read, he knows that your people eat dogs?

Being the child of Asian immigrants and one of a handful of Asians at two of my schools, my parents often reminded me that my whole people (or peoples, as I am both Chinese and Korean) would be judged by what I did. So: goodbye, grasshoppers. I doubt that I thought about it as deliberately and consciously as I’ve described here, but between the handwritten stage and my first typewritten draft, I chose to focus on chestnuts. Here is Computer Draft #1, which actually was Draft #4:

Real Country
“This is the real country,”
my mother explains,
picking her teeth
as she squats near
the fire, pants rolled up.
We are roasting chestnuts.
“Here,” she says, picking one
up with a thick green leaf.

This is the real country.

I stuck with chestnuts in Drafts #5-10 and also decided to put myself into the poem. Here is #10:

Roast Chestnuts
“This is the real country,”
my mother explains,
prodding the fire
with a branch.
I squat next to her,
my pants rolled up
like hers
and we listen
to the chestnuts pop
and we watch
the ants carry bits
of our dinner away.
When their skins have split
enough to show their fur,
she scoops one up
with a thick green leaf.

“This is yours,” my mother
says, and I taste
the real country.

I thought that poem was finished. Well, I probably didn’t consider it “finished,” but I was finished with it. I’ve always been eager to remind myself that the body of work is what counts, not any particular poem or any particular book; this is how I save myself from suffering massive writer’s block. I moved on, writing more poems for A Suitcase of Seaweed. Finished as I thought I was, though, the poem itself told me otherwise. Part of the poem-making process is fermentation, and as the poem sat in the computer, it started to stink.

Serious rethinking occurred in Draft #11. “Real country”: those are the exact words that my mother uses when she describes her rural Korean village, Kum San, where tigers ate babies in the woods (a whole other poem). But “real country” means nothing to most people. Real as opposed to what—“fake country?” Obviously not. How could I “show not tell” the reader about “real country?” Roasting chestnuts is authentic, and my mother has always enjoyed roasting them at holidays. But roasting chestnuts wasn’t the interesting thing about her story. Besides, sophisticates from Seoul eat roasted chestnuts. New Yorkers eat chestnuts! But if you grew up in the “real country” of old Korea, you might find yourself eating something a little more unusual. Downright disgusting. The grasshoppers came back.

Draft #11:

Campfire
Prodding the fire
with a strong thin
branch I found
when wandering
in the forest,
I squat next to Mother,
my pants rolled up
like hers, still wet
from washing dishes
in the river.
When she was my age,
she used to catch
grasshoppers,
build a fire
with the sparks
from rocks
and dry straw,
and eat them,
fresh, char-roasted,
whole, soft, succulent
grasshoppers.

When the fire is
spitting ready,
Mother gives me
the sign to go
get them.

Fresh, char-roasted,
whole, soft, succulent
marshmallows—
my kind of
grasshopper.

I didn’t know, when I started writing that draft, that I would end the poem with the marshmallow stanza. I thought of it only when I sent my child-self to go get the grasshoppers. How could I—raised in Los Angeles on pizza, burgers, and burritos—possibly eat grasshoppers? And would my mother, now so American, ever be able to eat a grasshopper again? No matter what they ate once upon a time in the old country, here we eat marshmallows.

Another significant change happened by the final draft, Draft #15: I deleted the squat. I had been squatting next to my mother in Drafts #5-14, but having opened my people(s) up to some ridicule with the grasshoppers, I couldn’t also subject them to the embarrassment of the squat. The Squat: this is something that I’ve seen dozens of Asians do. Tired of standing in a place with no chairs, they will sometimes squat in a way that evokes thoughts of the “hole in the ground” toilet found throughout Asia. This is cleaner, of course, than sitting “criss-cross applesauce” on dirty ground the way many of us Americans do when caught in a similar situation, but the squat (to my eyes) looks so much more awkward. Maybe some non-Asian people squat this way, too, but I have never seen them. (Baseball catchers do not count.) It was time to dump the squat.

Draft #15 (almost final draft):

Campfire
Just think—
when Mother was my age,
she could build a fire
with sparks from rocks,
catch a bunch of
grasshoppers and
roast them whole
for a summer
night’s snack!

“Get me a good stick,”
she says, “thin but strong,”
and I bring her one
from the woods
behind our tent.
On the way back
I see a brown bag
by her feet—
could it be?

When the fire is spitting
ready, she reaches in the bag,
rustling, and hands me
one big, fat, luscious
marshmallow.

The final change was made after Margaret McElderry bought my manuscript. I don’t remember if it was she or the copyeditor who made the suggestion, but someone thought that the word “ready,” fourth line up from the bottom, should be moved up a line.

It took ten months to write A Suitcase of Seaweed, mainly from 9pm to 2am. Not every poem went through so many drafts, but I do write usually at least ten drafts of each poem, and sometimes—especially when playing with alignment—up to fifty. Even if I love the first draft, I try a second draft. I’m not trying to make it better, but simply to make it different. The great thing about working on a computer is it takes all of about 2 seconds to copy the file as Draft #2. Your brilliant wording is not erased, mutilated, obliterated; Draft #1 is always there for you.

How to make drafts different? By questioning yourself constantly about what it is that you really want to say. By acknowledging The Reader. Or by playing with rhyme, repetition, and rhythm. If I used rhyme in Draft #1, I’ll often attempt a second draft with zero rhyme or only off-rhyme. If I didn’t use repetition in Draft #1, I might find an important line or word and repeat it. I might write a poem in strict meter just to see what happens. Each draft is another chance to win.

When I visit schools, I like to tell kids that I have twenty books published and another three coming out soon: twenty-three books—but I’ve written over two hundred. Yet I don’t consider the hundred eighty or so that didn’t sell to be a complete waste of time. Each draft that I don’t use, each book that doesn’t sell, is still good practice. I tell kids: if you want to be a star athlete, you know that you have to practice. And when you’re practicing, you don’t stick to the easy shots, things you know how to do. You challenge yourself. You stretch. You try different angles. When I sit down to write, I’m trying those different angles, too.

 

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{ 8 comments… read them below or add one }

Frances Lee Hall July 31, 2009 at 11:52 am

Janet,
I enjoyed reading about your process with Campfire. This line about revision caught my eye:
“Even if I love the first draft, I try a second draft. I’m not trying to make it better, but simply to make it different.”
This realization takes so much pressure off us, at least for me.
I have a new appreciation for A SUITCASE OF SEAWEED, knowing that you wrote it after you put your son to sleep. I referred to one of your poems in my critical thesis at Vermont College. Thanks again.

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Julie Larios July 31, 2009 at 2:03 pm

A lovely look at process, Janet. Thanks! I especially love the advice to come at the poem from different angles – head-on revisions can be intimidating, but playing and imagining new angles – yes! I love the sounds in your final version – that sequence of think,/sparks/rocks/ snack/stick/thin – all of it sounding so much like the snap of twigs and the crackle of a campfire – very subtle. I do believe poetry is about indirection, and coming from different directions at the same poem (sound-wise as well as image-wise) is always exciting, no matter what determination is made about the final viewpoint. Nice to see you here at Hunger Mountain!

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Dianne White July 31, 2009 at 10:05 pm

Thanks for sharing your revision process, Janet. It’s so instructive! I had to run upstairs to pull out my copy of A SUITCASE OF SEAWEED to read your final, published version again.
I read your discussion of another poem revision on Sylvia Vardell’s blog a while back. It’s nice to get some insight into the how’s and why’s of each revision. THANKS!

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Uma Krishnaswami August 4, 2009 at 10:43 am

Janet how lovely to “see” your words here. I love the onion you’re peeling for us here, and the idea that all those different perspectives might lead us to the truths we don’t even know we’re after. Welcome, virtually, to VCFA–maybe one of these years we’ll welcome you to campus in person!

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Joyce Ray August 6, 2009 at 12:01 pm

Janet, thank you for the clear and thoughtful look at process. It’s very interesting to watch your drafts move from a more adult perspective to a true child’s perspective. These examples show that we can start anywhere and through time and honing our words, achieve what we set out to do. I like your comment about reminding yourself that the body of work is more important than one particular poem. That really does give one permission to move forward.

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janet wong August 13, 2009 at 4:26 pm

Frances: I remember being incredibly exhausted when I wrote A SUITCASE OF SEAWEED. But the poems in it are some of my favorite (of all my work), so perhaps fatigue makes a poet more honest (at least this poet).

Julie: You are a master of sound, so I really appreciate your praise!

Dianne: I’m working on a collection now where I include two significantly different (yet somhow related) versions of each poem, to show the power of revision. I’m worried that regular trade book publishers will find it boring, so maybe I’ll end up submitting it to an educational publisher.

Uma: You have an open invitation to visit Princeton for my onion soup!

Joyce: Moving from an adult to a child perspective in that poem is, yes, something that I constantly am reminding myself to try to do. Thanks so much for commenting on it!

Thank you, all, for your kind words!

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Dianne White August 16, 2009 at 10:41 am

Janet – Both my teacher and writer selves *love* the idea of a book that shows the relationship/transformation between drafts. I look forward to seeing this collection on bookshelves!

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Annie Jiang February 4, 2011 at 7:40 pm

My Language Art teacher tell us to chose a poem, and i chose yours because it tell about Chinese, i am a Chinese too!!!

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