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By Mary Claire Mahaney

Last of a 6-part series



I’ll never write another poem. That’s how I feel when I’m caught in revisions, and the impulse needed to start a new poem belongs to someone else, not to me. A first draft calls for my imagination to be in the driver’s seat, for that’s when I set down, without editing, whatever comes to mind. If I hesitate and say, “No, don’t write that, it’s silly,” then I’ve lost artistic energy. This type of no-holds-barred creativity is what people are usually referring to when they say someone is creative.

Once I’ve got my words on paper, with a certain voice, line length, meter, and so forth, I call on another type of creativity, one less acclaimed but just as important as its more glamorous cousin. This is the creativity of revision, where I work out the problems in the poem, justifying not only the poem’s existence but its life in a specific embodiment. Here I exercise creativity by making sure the poem expresses what I want to say. This type of creativity is grinding, and it’s at this stage I remind myself that fine-tuning really is part of the creative process. I narrow my focus from a wide angle to a close-up view of each line, each word, each punctuation mark. Big-idea inspiration segues into creative problem-solving.

A poetry class can serve both parts of this creative process. In my Fundamentals of Poetry class last year (www.writersonlineworkshops.com), each of the six sessions covered a particular poetic technique. Each session lasted two weeks, which gave me one week to study course materials and write a poem, and a second week to comment on my classmates’ work. I had six new poems by the end of the course as well as notes for revising each of them.

The course I took through the University of Minnesota’s Split Rock Arts Program last summer, Shaping the Page, provided instruction in formal poetry - poetry that follows rules. The acrostic and the villanelle, for example, are formal poems. Unlike an Internet course, the week-long class in Minneapolis allowed me to write in a retreat-like setting. I spent all day Monday through Friday with the same small group of writers and came home with a dozen new poems.

I signed up for my second class at www.writersonlineworkshops this spring to nudge myself toward revision. All the poems I posted for critique in the six-week Advanced Poetry class were poems I had drafted last year. In the Advanced class, our only assignments each week were to submit a poem of our own and to comment on our classmates’ work.

It helps my own writing to review other poet’s verses. I try to look critically at a poem and not say simply that a poem does or doesn’t work for me, but why it does or doesn’t work. I’ve learned to point out lines I trip on, passages that confuse me, phrases where the rhythm isn’t quite right. Both giving and receiving criticism help me understand the process of writing poetry. The more I put into critiquing, the more I get out of it.

Classes at Writers Online Workshops are run asynchronously. Students can log on anytime, day or night, to post poems, read critiques, and post critiques. In the Advanced Poetry class, we didn’t start out knowing our classmates’ identities, but by the last week most students had posted their e-mail addresses. We came to the class with a wide range of experiences. Several of us write professionally, two are physicians, one is a teacher and house builder, one a rancher. Our homes are strung from Maine to Florida to Washington State.

For the sixth and final week of Advanced Poetry at www.writersonlineworkshops.com, I posted for comment an acrostic poem. The first letter of each line reading down spells my name; the verses are meant to evoke something about me.





Acrostic



Many’s the time you look in the mirror

And see your mother gazing

Right at you, through you, and

You smile at her,



Clasping your hands the way she did,

Looking naturally back with

A dimple in that smile, and

In that way

Reminding you

Everyday of her.





Finally I had posted a poem that didn’t need a lot of revision. I changed through in the third line to into for clarity. I deleted naturally - poems improve when adverbs are excised, and naturally made at least one reader wonder how a person would look back unnaturally. I had used the word that twice in the second stanza, so I took out one of them. Finally, my teacher recommended I use my name as the title of the poem, and drop reference to the form.





Mary Claire



Many’s the time you look in the mirror

And see your mother gazing

Right at you, into you, and

You smile at her,



Clasping your hands the way she did,

Looking back at her with

A dimple in your smile, and

In that way

Reminding you

Everyday of her.





Having revised six poems over several weeks, I’ve put a lot of energy into the editing side of my creativity. I’m going to take a break. After a while, I hope to write new poems, possibly in free verse, possibly in a form I haven’t heard of yet. My poems have tended to be about my family; maybe it’s time for me to write about the seashore (although the seashore may well remind me of my family). The exciting part about writing is that even though I’m in the driver’s seat, I never know where the journey will take me.



Mary Claire Mahaney is completing her first novel, “Osaka Heat.” She lives in McLean, Virginia, and can be reached at marycmahaney@msn.com You can visit her website at www.maryclairemahaney.com

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