For the last year and a half, I’ve been deep in poems from four decades, piled on table and floor, in folders and binders and notebooks, swirling around me in all possible forms, quite a few of them dating to before I had a computer: typewritten poems on onionskin paper adorned with erasures and white-out, carbon copies of poems, marked-up drafts, and even handwritten poems, as well as chapbooks, word-processed manuscripts in fat binder clips, and my several published volumes of poetry.
This isn’t how I imagined the process of compiling Spells, my selected poems, would go. When, occasionally during my life, I’ve envisioned putting together a selected poems one day, I always assumed the process would be almost entirely one of culling: assessing, judging, rating, and perhaps needing to make some hard choices. So when my editor at Wesleyan University Press suggested the idea of a selected in 2010, mostly I saw myself sitting down with The Encyclopedia of Poetry, Eve, Calendars, and Among the Goddesses and some sticky notes and choosing a dozen poems from one collection and a dozen from another, then excerpting the best passages from the long-poems. That was the gist of it, though I knew the process would need to be more complicated. She had gotten the idea by looking at a manuscript of fifty “lost poems,” experimental poems in meter that I’d written in the 1980s but had never found a place to publish, and she wanted some of those in the book as well. But still, I thought it would take a few months at best.
Later on, having talked with several other poets in detail about their experiences assembling their own selecteds, I changed this rosy picture and began to get nervous. Every poet I spoke with told me that the selection process had forced them to revise extensively the poems from the earlier books. Based on their reports, it would take a lot more work than I’d expected because I’d discover that half of the poems were embarrassing–weak or unfinished. Then I’d end up needing to spend at least another six months revising, polishing, and rewriting the earlier ones until they came closer to the level of the new work. Yikes.
But that’s not how it turned out. In spite of my fears, once I started selecting, I was generally happy with the state of the poems. I credit this surprising fact to several things: 1. My revision process tends to extremes: it can be long, up to ten or twenty years, and obsessive, with dozens of seriously altered drafts–or, sometimes, the poem arrives in an instant and I never change a word. Poems at these two far ends of the revision spectrum, once finished, tend to stay that way. 2. Because my volumes of poetry are thematically organized, poems that don’t fit the theme may wait decades to be included in a book, providing me plenty of time to make sure they’re ready. 3. I use strong poetic form, which makes it more likely, in my experience, that a poem will eventually “click shut like a box” (Yeats). 4. For most of my career, poetic recognition has not come easily. Though I began to write poetry early and have never stopped creating poems, I often struggled to find publication. As a result many of the poems I had accumulated unpublished in drawers were not unfinished scraps but fully loved poems— the case even for poems dating as far back as the 1970s.
So the process of creating Spells didn’t, in the end, require a lot of time for revising poems. But instead, I discovered that it required me to revise my career. The process of assembling the book became not an act of selecting but one of transformative reclaiming of my different poetic voices and finally, of necessary healing. Not only did I hear the voices of poems I had cherished and honored decades earlier calling out to me, and not only did I discover that I cherished and honored them still— even more importantly, I discovered that they might actually come to cherish and honor each other. And that in the process, I could, finally, come to cherish and honor parts of myself.
Before I put Spells together, I had felt there was a wounding and a betrayal at the core of my poetic process, but I don’t think I had ever understood either its depth or its extent. Did it come from the clash between the aesthetics of my parents, who loved such different and conflicting kinds of poetry? Did it come from the disassociation I had learned while keeping quiet for 22 years about incestuous sexual abuse? Did it come from the years of internal struggles and descents with my self-perception as I wrestled with the lingering effects of mind-altering poisonous plants? Or simply from my efforts to find an authentic female poetic voice in an elitist educational environment bolstered by an oppressive patriarchal culture? Since the age of 12 when I first learned to write in free verse because that’s how important poetry was written, through the time that I
Here was a chance to coax long-hidden yet still urgent poems out of their safe shadows, to weave the wildly, similarly different decades of my voice into an encompassing spiral of dance that felt as odd as it felt familiar. I’ve often imagined the Muse inhabiting a timeless space where nothing ever changes, where I have travelled regularly to visit Her since childhood. Working with years’ worth of poems confirmed my sense that their words all come from the same place, and that I, therefore, also have a cohesiveness across time that I hadn’t claimed in the same way before.
In an interview I once compared my poetry to an ecosystem like a forest, where the words, images, and inspirations from imagined, started, completed, or published poems rot into the earth and nourish the roots of other poetic writings. As in an ecosystem, the connections between the various parts of SPELLS will not always be evident on the surface. But they are there, interpenetrating voices and styles that grow out of and inform each other, linking poems written at the same time but never before published together, or intimately connected though written far apart. Over the months of making false starts, settling on an organizing structure, choosing and discarding and arranging, creating a literary object for the future out of the fragments and threads of the past, it seems it wasn’t only a book I was creating but something more organic, more like an imagination—or even a self.