Even though I may be working on my debut poetry manuscript, I hesitate to call myself a poet in response to the dreaded “What do you do?” question. I prefer instead to call myself a poet in progress, because poetry does feel like a flowing, ephemeral thing. Its life seems to depend on something intangible, a stroke of brilliance that is not often easy to pinpoint. But as a writer, it is also frustrating to watch poetry sit on this untouchable pedestal. To watch it be regarded as if it were written with a sprinkle of elfian magic.
This magic also seems irreplicable, which is why I’ve struggled with poetry editing. The music, rhythm, metre, beat, and impulse of the first draft is often hard to repeat with the second or the third. I fear tinkering with my poems rids them of the thing that made them work in the first place. But a writing workshop I took with poet Vincent Toro last month changed how I felt about poetry editing. Focusing on the act of reimagining a poem, Toro reformatted the writing space into a well-oiled mechanics workshop, where there is music in the screwing of nuts and bolts, in the hiss of warm oil. Where editing can be a malleable part of the writing process that does not interfere with any original impulses.
I met with Toro again to discuss the editing process. At the onset, Toro refuses to call working on a poetry draft ‘editing’. “It’s really just a semantic issue,” Toro tells me. “Editing, for some people, points to correcting grammar, spelling, syntax. Feels very mechanical to some people. I use re-envision or revision like a recalling of vision. There is a whole mental, psychological, spiritual aspect about being a poet. What are you trying to get at and is the work you’re producing doing that job? Which is opposed to the very capitalist idea of creating a product that will be a book on a shelf. What is the intent? That’s very important for me, coming from a theatre background.”
For his part, Toro does not dismiss the romantic notion of the first draft of a poem. He concedes that something inexplicable happens when a poet is cracking a poem for the first time. “And initially, we get swept up, there is mystery there, we don’t know what the intent is. We’re being touched by something more powerful. Part of what makes poetry so difficult to pin down is that it is so much an essence than an actual thing, at times. We say, ‘someone has the soul of a poet,’ or ‘that was a very poetic moment,’ and I think that’s because there is another aspect of poetry that is really about getting caught up in the dream. I think with poetry, we’re creating a thing we hope will get the readers swept up into a dream, into a mood, into an idea, into a notion. Because it’s about a poet getting swept up themselves. When a person is creating it, they have their hand on a light. Maybe that’s why it’s romanticised. Every poet worth their weight knows. I’ve had young students say they felt something, and it’s so powerful.”
And perhaps therein is the resistance or difficulty many poets face with revising a poem. How does one recreate that particular brand of magic? “You can always engineer your way out of a terrible first draft for a play or fiction, which I’m not sure you always can with poetry. I’m not big on absolutes, but I think it’s much more difficult. And so maybe there is a reluctance in saying that if I start tinkering, I might lose some of that magic. Marvin Gaye was asked about it when he was working on his album, What’s Going On. Until then, Gaye was famous for all of his soul songs, romantic songs. And What’s Going On is an incredibly political record, and when asked about it, he would say, ‘I didn’t write it. God wrote this and I was just a vessel.’ I think during the first draft, the poet is a vessel. The word ‘inspire’ is something I let my class use. Latin root of it means to breathe in, so I tell my students that poets are breathing in the world, filtering it in. So the first draft is us breathing in, but then we got to tune our instrument, rehearse.”
While Toro believe in, and even celebrates, the impulse of the first draft, he believes the language around its romanticization needs to shift. “A musician keeps playing a song until they get it right. But we don’t have that same language of working on something until you get it right in poetry, necessarily. It’s like when you’re at a cafe with friends and you step aside to scribble something because you’re inspired and you were swept away. That’s great, but then it’s time to step away. In theatre, my playwriting teacher would say when you’re done writing, don’t look at it for a month. It helps to return to a poem after a while and ask, ‘What was I doing here?’ The first moment is all about the head and the heart, and on returning to it, you can question the intention.”
For Toro, this process of returning to a poem requires active re-imagination. In workshops, he uses the example of Audrey Lorde who once went up to her publishers with edited versions of poems that had already been published, insisting that the edited work be published in her next book. “In some poems, she had only changed two or three lines,” Toro cries, “but she had reimagined those poems. Like a musician, she never stopped working on them!” Around 1999, Toro had the chance to watch an actor friend on Broadway in a revival of Arthur Miller’s A View From The Bridge. The night he visited, Arthur Miller was in the audience, about three rows away. Toro noticed Miller taking notes as the play was being performed. “He is rethinking the play as it’s on Broadway for the sixth or seventh time.”
The most important aspect of approaching revision requires a complete curbing of the ego. “When I’m writing poems, I try not to fall in love with anything I’m doing. Because I would like to go back and recognize the beautiful lines but not remain hooked on them. It’s not a part of me I’m ripping out during the revision process. Because when someone says that a line isn’t working, you do not want to take it as an attack on oneself. An engineer won’t take it personally if you tell them their model of a bridge could collapse and kill people. So that mindset of thinking of the work as an object or a product outside of oneself. I’m not going to say I haven’t fallen in love with lines, or my ego hasn’t been shot during a reading. But managing your ego is very crucial.” For this, Toro suggests making your poem accessible, not just to other writers in the poetry community but other people in your life. “Amiri Baraka said when you’re done with a poem, show it to your poetry friends, sure, but go out on the street and take it to a construction worker. I’m very big on non-poetry people reading my work.”
Revisiting the first draft of a poem, according to Toro, requires an awareness of intention. After the magic of the first draft, it’s essential to question the values a poem serves, and to look for those during the revision process. All editing methods thereafter need to be married to the intention, once it’s found. And the desire for intention is rooted in how we define poetry. “I teach MS, HS and college, the first thing I do is we discuss what poetry is. We have discussions in class, and in the end I always present them with the definition that I got from the Persian poet Adonis who said, per the Arabic tradition, that the general definition of poetry is Music plus Image plus Meaning. And so, when I teach a classroom, I ask them to look at the work we’re creating over the semester or school year, and ask themselves the question, ‘Is there music, is there image, is there meaning?’ For me, it’s an exploration of language.”
In workshops, Toro is big on the Oulipo method of poetry revision. A french tradition, the Oulipo was a gathering of French writers and mathematicians who came together to create work using constrained writing techniques. It requires a poet giving themselves strict rules in the creation of their work, rules that serves a role in the poem. “I was writing this poem, and it just wasn’t working. So I oulipoed it! The poem was about the public school system, so the rules I picked was that one, I would eliminate all articles since articles are very particular to the English language and can be quite foreign to students from other states and cultures. And two, I would only use one type of punctuation. Parenthesis seemed very appropriate because as a High School teacher, a lot of the teaching process feels parenthetical. That challenge made me rethink the piece and I found the poem. You want to pick the rules that aren’t just arbitrary, they should have a conceptual contribution.”
Having deep ties with the slam poetry and theatre community, Toro is also a big proponent of reading out or performing one’s work. “In theatre, when an actor is struggling with saying a line, you got to cut it. There is nothing like reading a piece out loud for revision. Performing out loud, over and over again. First alone, then to your partner or at a reading.” Toro also recommends the complete dismantling of a poem, where every line, every word is torn apart to create one big pile from which the poet can choose what they want to take for the re-imagination of the poem. A good amount of collaging is also how a poet can revise arrangement and structure, not just with a number of poems in a collection, but also within a poem.
Toro calls this the Bowie method. “In the mid-70’s, bored with the predictability of his own lyric writing, David Bowie adopted a method for songwriting from the novelist William S. Burroughs. Burroughs often took literal scissors to his novels, cutting them and improvising a reorganization of paragraphs, chapters, sentences. Bowie would write a song, then take scissors and cut up the lyrics and rearrange them like he was child playing with a puzzle. The method created some of his most compelling songs. Do the same for your poem.”
An active part of re-imagination also involves rewriting a poem as if it had already not been written. During our workshop, Toro had each poet think of a poem they were struggling with, and to use that very title for a new, reimagined poem. He then gave each of us five seconds to pick two sheets of paper from a stack of poems he had printed out up front. Toro then asked us to create a new poem entirely from the words used in the two poems we picked up. A shorter cento, if you will. The act of re-imagination, for Toro, sometimes does not include the originally used words at all. “My next book has a poem that is 20 years old, that I’ve revisited so many times that it has about 80 drafts. Only eight words from the first, original draft remain in the final version. The only way to describe this is that it’s nebulous.”
It is essential also to challenge oneself with style, instinct and form. “If you wrote a poem that is straight narrative, try to rewrite it as a dense lyrical piece. If you are spoken word poet, try to rewrite the poem as an experimental poem that it is almost impossible to perform orally. Turn an 8 page poem into a haiku, or a cinquain into a 12 page epic.” The key is to step away from the poem and return to it with fresh eyes. “In theatre, we’re told to step away from a play for a month once we’e done writing it. So take a while, when you finish a poem. And then return to it with a renewed perspective. Re-envisioning also means there is no one way to write something, one way to do a poem.”
For his own writing process, Toro keeps a few books on hand for inspiration. “I don’t read a ton of craft books, but a poetics book that has been incredibly helpful to me is The Heart of the Beat by Alexs Pate. It’s a book on Hip Hop Poetics, and as my start was in spoken word and I grew up a hip hop junkie, I align myself with hip-hop poetics even when my work doesn’t overtly seem to be hip-hop. This book really unpacks how hip-hop, rap, and writing bars works.”
“But I mentioned that stack of books that are on my desk with me as I am revising this next collection. Here’s what I turn to those books for: Haryette Mullen’s Sleeping with the Dictionary for processing how playing with forms and construct can enhance my poems thematically. J. Michael Martinez’s Heredities for understanding how to organize a collection in ways that create movement for the reader and builds lyrical tension. Evie Shockley’s The New Black, similar to Mullen, but with the added element of considering how the poem can be constructed visually to enhance the poems theme or concept. Craig Santos Perez’s From Unincorporated Territory [Saina] for figuring out how to give sound structure to a collection that is highly experimental. My next book, Tertulia, is structured in five acts like a play, and Santos Perez’ book is in five sections. His book shows the five sections to be conducive for creating a circular effect in a collection, which is what I am trying to do, though more loosely than he does it, with Tertulia. Layli Long Soldier’s Whereas, for working out how a poem can conduct an inquiry into its own use of language.”
“There are so many others: Ching-In Chen, for how to manage dissonance in a poem. Tato Laviera, for how to use spanglish to elevate the poem dramatically and musically. Naomi Shihab Nye, for how to utilize narrative to create intimacy. Tracie Morris, for how to challenge my notions of what sound can do. Alejandra Pizarnik, for how to write a line that induces mystery without being overly abstract. Pedro Pietri, for how to inject political poems with humor in ways that adds weight (rather than lessens the urgency). Garcia Lorca and Julia De Burgos, for considering how to infuse political work resonate with emotionally. Douglas Kearny and Juan Felipe Herrera, for examples of how to let the words play and burn free from anyone else’s damn rules.”
And when a poem still feels hard to come by, Toro says, “Don’t push it, don’t force it. I’m guilty of this in my own life, of pushing too hard. I am obsessed with getting things right, and that can almost be counterproductive. Or it can be less serious, keep tinkering. It’s part of the play.”
Vincent Toro is a Puerto Rican poet, playwright, stage performer, and educator from New York. He holds a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing from Rutgers University. He is the author of STEREO. ISLAND. MOSAIC., which was awarded the Sawtooth Poetry Prize and the Poetry Society of America’s Norma Farber First Book Award. Vincent is an English Professor at the City University of New York’s Bronx Community College, a poet in the schools for Dreamyard and the Dodge Poetry Foundation, and writing liaison for the Cooper Union for the Advancement of Arts and Sciences Saturday Program. His second book, Tertulia, is forthcoming from Penguin Random House in June 2020.