Terrance Hayes on revision
Thelonious Monk says there is no failure, there’s only rehearsal and practice. That might be a better way of thinking about it. You write a poem, and you think it’s a failed poem, but maybe it’s a draft, and you just keep going onto the next poem.
I’ve been talking for a year about this poem that I started in 2009, and in 2013 I printed it out and it was 244 pages. It was sort of like Walter Benjamin’s Arcades Project, but it wasn’t working and it wasn’t good, so I stopped and finished How to be Drawn. Then last summer, in 2015, I pulled it out again, and I was like, “Okay, I’m going to get these pages down to sixty pages. I think there’s a good book-length poem in here.” But I still couldn’t do it. When I worked on it, after not having looked at it for two years, I decided it was still bad, and I was cool with that. I thought, “Maybe I’ll look at it in a little while.” That’s about failure and practice. It’s okay if I spent all that time on this manuscript, and it is, by some terms, a failure, but by other terms, it’s going to lead to something at some point. It’s still an open-ended process.
I had gotten into a habit of working as long as I wanted to on my poems. I didn’t write a lot of poems as an undergrad, but I was always working on them. I read “To Autumn” by Keats, and I was like, “This is blowing my mind! It’s so erotic!” And then for the next year, I was working on a poem that was totally a Keats imitation. Because I wasn’t in a class and didn’t have to turn it in at the end of the week and revise it and turn it in again in a portfolio at the end of the semester, I could just work.