When is a Poem Done? -- and other questions answered by Kelly Fineman
You might have noticed that I only post when I've got something I really want to say. Today, is one such day.
The recent publication of Kelly Fineman's At the Boardwalk resulted in a really interesting email conversation about poetry and picture books and how they arrive in the poet's brain and -- even more interesting to me -- how the poet understands when the work is complete.
I loved the conversation so much, I asked Kelly if I could share it with you. She, kindly, said yes. And so, here it is:
But first, the book. Look:
Doesn't that look like fun? It is fun. The illustrations, the text, the rhyme -- it is just plain fun. And I wondered if it was top to bottom fun to write. But more importantly, I wondered if she had always conceived of this poem as a picture book. So this is what I asked:
Me: I know you to be a poet. I’ve read poems that you’ve written for grown-ups as well as for kids and I’ve had the pleasure of watching you craft an entire biography in verse. I’m wondering, specifically, about the poetry you write that is meant for the picture book format. Does it start for you as a poem first and then later you might see its application to the picture book format, or do you know going in that a particular work feels like a picture book poem and craft it with the form in mind?
Kelly said this: Your question presupposes that I know what I'm doing when I sit down to write, which is decidedly not always the case. AT THE BOARDWALK, which is my only published picture book to date, started out as a five-stanza poem, the first two stanzas of which essentially fell in my lap on the way home from a trip to Ocean City, New Jersey a few years ago. After I got home, I wrote a bit more, and it was a poem about the boardwalk, the beach, and the sea. When Tiger Tales approached me to ask if I had a manuscript that might be suitable for them, it occurred to me that the seashore poem I'd written might be good - but it needed work first. I scrapped one or two of the original stanzas in order to limit the book to the boardwalk, and expanded the entire poem to eight stanzas that covered the arc of a day. (It later expanded to eleven stanzas, which is what you'll find inside the book.)
The most recent single-poem picture book that I completed was most definitely a case of me picking a particular form and running with it.
Me: I love that you say that two stanzas fell in your lap – I imagine that happens a lot. And that other poems come as the result of much less magical circumstances. Can you describe what it is like to get the beginnings of a poem? Is it a feeling? A word? A desire to write about a particular topic?
Kelly: I have to laugh, because the correct answer is "yes": it could be any or all of those things.
I could just imagine Kelly laughing at this, because I've been lucky enough to hang out with her at a number of New England SCBWI conferences. In case you want to imagine her laughing, here's a photo:
It's a terrific photo -- Angela de Groot took it -- and it looks just like her. Keep the picture in mind as you read what else she had to say, and you'll see why she's smiling.
Kelly: Sometimes a line or two of a poem turn up all at once, seemingly from out of the blue, like the start of "At the Boardwalk" or the first two lines of "Lawnmowers," which is on my website and was printed in slightly different form in Summer Shorts, an anthology from Blooming Tree Press. The opening of that poem turned up while I was in the shower. (I get a lot of good ideas in the shower - I think it's the white noise from the water - the trick is remembering the lines well enough to write them down after you get out.) Sometimes I sit down to an "assignment" (often a self-imposed one), which could be a conscious choice to write a particular form of poem (say, a sonnet, a terza rima, or a haiku) or to write about a particular topic. That was the case with the poem "A Place to Share", which I wrote about the three guys who founded YouTube, which will be appearing in the forthcoming anthology Dare to Dream . . . Change the World (Kane Miller 2012). Laura Purdie Salas asked me to write a biographical poem about YouTube's founders, while she worked on a paired poem of a more inspirational nature (the marvelous "Just Like That!", also in Dare to Dream . . . ) Sometimes it's a word or a phrase that won't let go of me. So, basically . . . there's no magic to it, and no easy answer, either.
See? The smile is because even though there's no easy answer, she always makes it work. I'd smile, too.
Anyway, all of what she said above makes sense to me -- when I start a novel or even a picture book, I don't know where it will lead exactly, but since my form is character-based, I know when the book is done. The main character has achieved what she set out to achieve, or recognized that her goal is unattainable but that something else of value is good enough, etc. But with many of the poems that Kelly writes, there isn't a main character, etc. So, I wondered how does she know when a poem is "done"? And that's what I asked her.
Me: How do you know when a poem you’re working on is done?
It took Kelly another day before she could respond -- but her answer was worth the wait.
Kelly: I confess to this question bringing me to a hard stop. It's one of those amorphous sort of things that's even harder to answer than how you get started or revise or whatnot. I have decided to relate something that Billy Collins said when I heard him speak a couple of years ago. When asked "How do you know when a poem is done?" Collins first replied with this quote: "In order to be a great painter, you need two people: one to paint the painting and another to cut that guy's hands off." He went on to say (I'm paraphrasing) that he always feels like his poems are moving: he starts somewhere and is moving toward somewhere else. But because he feels that sense of forward motion, he starts to feel a sense of arrival when he gets near the conclusion. "The more of a forward roll and a sense of direction you have, the more of a sense you'll get that it's reached its end."
That is all true. It is also, of course, false. Sometimes you know for sure that the poem is done. For instance, if you're working within a closed form (a form of poetry that has a specific number of lines, such as a villanelle or a sonnet or even a sestina), you know where the end is because the poem must fit in its particular box. Sometimes, though, especially when working in free verse or in an open form (such as a pantoum or rhymed couplets, say), you can't be certain where the ending should fall. In those cases, you have to ask whether you've conveyed what you intended, and whether the place where you've stopped the poem is the strongest place - perhaps you've gone to far, or not far enough. Perhaps you've gone the right distance, but without sufficient oomph. Perhaps you ended in a straightforward way when a twist would work better, or vice versa.
That's why it's important (when possible) to let a poem rest for a bit, then come back to it with fresh eyes, so you can more easily assess it as a whole and evaluate whether it's doing its job the way you wanted. It's also why it's important to have a first reader or two, who can take a look at it and tell you whether it works, and where it needs improvement. And really, they almost always need improvement. It's a rare poem indeed that arrives in perfection.
And yet, so many of Kelly's poems reach that stage.
Thanks, Kelly, for letting me share our conversation. You gave me a lot to think about!