Jamaal May on revision
The poems I recite by heart were learned because I edit until every line feels memorable to me. By the time a piece has gone through several edits over years, I should kind of know it to some degree. If it still feels foreign every time I see the poem, it’s probably got a lot of throwaway lines, bad transitions, clumsy sonics, or uninteresting ideas.
I do read my poems out loud as I’m writing, and these days, poems will change a bit if something feels off at a reading. A poem can do a lot of different things and I try to make sure they’re all doing as many of them as possible, including how they feel in my body.
I find it helpful to not have a ton of opinions and plans for a poem in the drafting stage. In the editing process I figure out what’s there, why it’s there, and how to deepen the core concern and tighten up the lines. Sound comes into the poems for the same reason birds and stone and light and silence and past loves and dead friends do. All words are just cardboard cutouts standing in for what we really mean to say. Our only power is in arranging them in a way that implies the intangible truths that matter most. Sound is just one of the many stones I pick up when trying to build a space for a reader. So it’s not arbitrary, but I don’t spend nearly as much time thinking about how to put sound into a poem as something like line breaks, pacing, the core philosophy or question of the poem, etc.