Pat’s Latest Book

from Oxford University Press

how the light

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ask pat header

Q: How do I believe in my own poems? I have all these poems, and I have even had a glimpse of a possible book, but how do I believe in it enough to go on?

A: You are working as an artist. As a poet. When you begin to claim yourself as poet, just as when you plant an apple tree and tend it, and wait, and listen over time, apples begin to fall into your hands. So it is when you plant yourself within yourself as poet, — poems begin to take root, grow, and toss themselves into your mind, into your hands as they move the pencil or touch the keys. They are already a part of the book that in one moment you saw. It’s magic. It’s mystery. It’s being a poet.

Each poem is a work of art in itself. A wise friend once told me that the only critical question that matters is this: Have I really said what I want to say? I think she’s right.

In any art form there is craft to be learned, “tricks of the trade,” new forms to experiment with, styles and fashions that one can try on like new garments. That is important, but it must come after a firm foundation of accepting your own practiced, original, rich “voice of home.”

You can learn craft slowly by yourself by studying other poets whose work you love, and explorations into poets whose work you do not like, but a little help from a good workshop or a writing companion — one who is not in competition with you, who knows the difference between honoring your voice and trying to make your voice sound like her or his voice — can help a great deal.

In revising, you need to know which changes help and which changes detract from the original draft. If you do not trust your own voice, you may unintentionally change it to please some remembered high school teacher’s preference, or to fit a dictum from a how-to book that you don’t even remember reading. I have found it useful to ask poets in my workshops to bring to me a first draft and their final revision. That makes it possible for me to talk with the poet about whether revision is moving the poem to greater strength, or away from it. You don’t need a teacher of writing to give you that sort of feedback. A good, careful reader with some experience of reading poetry could be helpful. However, don’t trust any opinion-giver who tells you what you should do or what “doesn’t work.” Trust more those who say “I just wonder if . . . . . .but I may be wrong.” And remember, it is your poem. Only you can know for sure what it needs or does not need.

Finally, write. Write what ever comes. Keep one copy of every draft. When you are working on a draft, before you file it, read it out loud to yourself. Move around the room, reading as if you were singing a song, because you are. Read it aloud several times. Listen to the music with your physical ears, with your mouth and your heart as well as with your eyes and your mind, which is what you have been using at the computer or on a writing pad. Also look at it on the page. Do you like the shape of it? It is also a visual work of art. When you like it, when you have “really said what you want to say,” put it in the file for the book that it is becoming.

ASK PAT . . .

Writers and leaders of writing groups, teachers of writing, and young writers are invited to write questions to Pat. She will choose one question each month for response. The questions may be edited, and will be anonymous, but if location and identity such as “Writer”, “Poet”, “Teacher”, or age of young writer is offered, that will be included. Offer a question: HERE