KYSO Flash
Knock-Your-Socks-Off Art and Literature
Issue 1: Fall 2014
Craft Essay: 998 words

Writer as Scavenger, Poet as Sculptor

by Ken Waldman

For a few years I visited an inordinate number of friends who had purchased, or were given, magnetic poetry kits. In those houses, most every time I had reason to walk into the kitchen, I’d gravitate to the refrigerator, and peruse the words and letters on magnets. Sometimes I might delight in the few short, clever poems which had been allowed to remain intact. Other times I might find neat columns of words awaiting me, or a temptation of single words stuck randomly across the refrigerator surface.

I usually lingered at the refrigerator to try my hand at it. Magnetic poetry certainly appealed to my sensibilities. There was the sense of play, the tactile pleasure of lifting the little rectangular magnets and setting them next to one another to invent a strange little poem or epigram I’d otherwise have never thought of. These ready-to-go words coupled with the constraints of the form—after all, we were limited to the words and letters on the magnets—lent a quasi-formal quality to the exercise.

I came up with a few surprisingly good ones, but never followed my own advice of copying them. In that way they were like some of the occasional poems I wrote on school whiteboards. Once they were erased, they were gone. But that was okay. These were modest poems written for practice, and there were always more where they came from.

Some day, when I have the time and inclination, it’s on my list to make my own non-magnetic poetry kit, a thousand words on cardstock, plus dozens of suffixes, prefixes, and punctuation marks. Then I’d give a few hundred of these to workshop attendees and see what they come up with. When the words are already there, it really is somehow easier.

Everyone can find a process that works for them. Though I don’t keep a journal, I recommend it for others, since that might be the routine that best helps a particular writer. In lieu of journals, what I’ve kept—or tried to keep—are early drafts of incomplete work, which might be from recent writing workshops, but range all the way back to graduate school, and work I did in workshops then, or when writing along with students in composition classes. Some of the notebooks I’ve successfully lugged for twenty-five years now. Some are in an Anchorage garage. Some, despite my best efforts, seemed to have disappeared into the void, undoubtedly beside the rest of my lost past.

I’ve always intended to get back to those old pieces, most of them prose. When I do finally clear away the time and space, I’ll treat them in various ways. One will be a technique I first used to write a successful poem in a way I’d never before quite imagined.

A casual friend from my time in Nome, Jim Lawhon, wrote me the summer after he climbed Denali, the Alaska mountain that’s the highest on the continent. I don’t remember whether he made the summit—I believe he did—only that his letter was not a letter in any regular sense. He’d sent me a handwritten journal entry about the ascent, without further explanation.

Frankly, I didn’t know how to respond, so didn’t write him back, and instead kept his paper amidst a pile of other sheets. Periodically, looking for something else, I’d find Jim’s letter, reread it, and then furrow my brow. I wanted to throw it out, since I already had enough papers cluttering my days. But that felt wrong. Clearly, there was something I was supposed to do. But what?

And one day I knew, or thought I did, and in retrospect the answer was obvious. Jim knew I wrote poems. If I were to take his journal entry and somehow make it into poetry, I could send him what I’d written, and be finished with it. Why he didn’t tell me this directly, I don’t know. But that had to have been the point.

And if it wasn’t, well, that was too bad.

The resulting poem? That was where the sculpting came in. The original journal entry was a full page of small print, maybe 500 words. I combed through it again and again, and thought if I just pared most everything away, maybe I’d have something.

15,000 Feet, Denali

		for Jim Lawhon

Blue ice
chips and skitters.

Three breaths. Step.
Right foot. The ax.

His pack
would have him backwards,

tumbling. He trembles,
feels sweat trickle

and clump in his beard.
Above, God’s porch,

his summons. 
Climb, he hears.

So he kicks.
Foot in. The ax.

Because of the brevity—this whole poem was less than 50 words—it made sense ultimately to choose two-line stanzas, which gave the words room to breathe. Better, by having successfully finished this, I could send it to Jim, so I put in the mail along with his original journal entry (which I now wish I’d kept, so I could show all that I cut).

It’s easy to see that any journal entry could be treated similarly. And if there’s enough time and space from the original writing, it hardly feels like yours, which makes it easier to be fully objective, so as to be properly ruthless with the cuts. As is, I’ve been doing this long enough that not only can I not remember the impulse behind some of my published work, I can’t even remember having once done the writing.

Recently, visiting a college Creative Writing class, I was asked to respond to a student’s prose poem that badly needed tightening. I took it home, spent proper time, and suggested changes that saved the language, but shortened an already brief poem by half.

Sure, what I offered was only editing. But when half or three-quarters of the words are eliminated, it feels more like sculpting. When doing so reveals the power inside a piece of writing, it may even go beyond sculpting to alchemy.

— Essay is from a book manuscript, The Writing Party. The poem, “15,000 Feet, Denali,” is from the author’s collection The Secret Visitor’s Guide (Wings Press, San Antonio, 2006), and is reprinted by permission.

Ken Waldman
Issue 1, Fall 2014

Has six full-length poetry collections, a memoir, a children’s book, and nine CDs that combine original poetry with Appalachian-style string-band music. He tours nationally, appearing across the continent at performing arts centers, concert series, festivals, colleges, and clubs.

More on the Web: By, About, and Beyond

Late-Bloomer, Are You? guest post by Waldman in the 49 Writers blog (18 April 2011), in which he describes five tips to find the time and inspiration to write new books

Alaska’s Fiddling Poet Coming to Cal Poly by Patrick S. Pemberson, The Tribune (12 April 2012); includes the poem, “Nome Celebrity,” from Nome Poems (West End Press, Albuquerque, 2000)

A plane crash poem from the fiddling poet, an article which helps illustrate that Waldman is always writing poems, even while in the air; includes the poem, “After the Plane Crash,” from Nome Poems (West End Press, Albuquerque, 2000)

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