Behind-the-Scenes Look: Two Related Poems
A Pair of Annotations
I’m home from book tour for a spell, happy to be back with my kids (and yes, my sweet dog)—and happy to be back in my office, with all my files, so I could choose some work to share with you. This week I’ve annotated a pair of poems from my last collection, Goldenrod.
As their titles suggest, these two poems are closely related: “After the Divorce, I Think of Something My Daughter Said About Mars” and “At the End of My Marriage, I Think of Something My Daughter Said About Trees.” Both are collaborative, in a sense. Both feel like gifts I received as much as poems I made. The words in each poem are things my daughter said to me in conversation, and the titles are mine. I heard Violet’s words as metaphors for the end of my marriage, and the titles provide that figurative framework.
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First up is “After the Divorce, I Think of Something My Daughter Said About Mars.” We were having lunch at our dining table when my daughter told me what she’d learned at school about space travel to Mars, and I walked into the kitchen to jot down her words in one of my many notebooks. (I’m always collecting language, the way a magpie collects shiny things. You never know when the next idea might present itself!) Here in the annotation I’ve made notes about some of the craft decisions I made related to word choice, sound, and line breaks.
I say the poem is “almost verbatim,” but I did change a couple of words for sound and rhythm. For example I liked the er sound in the words returned, Earth, and turn, but it’s possible my daughter said something more casual, like “if you go back,” which lacks that music. I left in the more casual “I mean,” “sort of,” and the image of noodles, which all sound like her voice.
On line breaks specifically: I chose the breaks for tension and suspense, knowing the reader would have questions in each line that they would want answered in the next line. For example, breaking after “turn your bones” prompts the reader to ask “turn your bones how, or to what? Reading on provides the answer: “noodles.” It’s a tiny poem, so these pauses also slow down the pacing so we don’t rush right through it. The landing of the poem quietly devastates me every time I read it aloud at readings. There’s a matter-of-fact finality that I think is underscored by allowing “you have to stay gone” to live on a line of its own.
“At the End of My Marriage, I Think of Something My Daughter Said About Trees” predates the other poem. This one came first, and I didn’t know it would have a companion until the Mars conversation. Isn’t this often what happens in our writing lives? We’re surprised by the ideas that come our way and by how they may be connected.
This poem began in my car with my kids sitting together in the backseat. As we sat at a traffic light, watching some workers cut the limbs off a tree, my daughter said the body of this poem in almost these words exactly. I don’t recall if I wrote it down (or typed it into the notes app on my phone) right away, or if I remembered what she said and wrote it down later, but the process involved paring down the description to its essentials, looking carefully at line breaks and opportunities for music, and maintaining her voice the best I could (“the sky’s like finally” is one of those moments, but I also love the long I assonance in that phrase). I think the pauses after “branch” and “blue” are doing a lot in the poem. Those line breaks slow down the pace and give the reader time to reflect. I see the break between “branch” and “hits the ground” as enacting the branch’s fall and landing.
I found this idea comforting when my marriage ended: When something is gone, it makes space for something else. In this case, the tree losing its limbs made space for the sky. The view changed. My perspective changed with it.
More annotations, craft tips, revision hacks, writing prompts, writerly pep talks, and opportunities to pick my brain to come! Thank you for being part of For Dear Life. I’m glad you’re here.
And speaking of “here,” I have some May events in support of You Could Make This Place Beautiful, which is on the New York Times bestseller list for the third week now. (Mind officially, thoroughly blown!) I’ll be in Cleveland 5/8 with Laurie Kincer, New York City 5/13 at the PEN World Voices Festival with Isaac Fitzgerald and Ashley C. Ford, and Columbus 5/23 with Ruth Awad. I hope you’ll come say hello if I’m in your neck of the woods.