An art exhibition, called ‘Unfinished,’ held in London last year showcased the arguably incomplete works of artists, ranging from the Renaissance period to the 20th century, such as Monet, del Vaga, Rembrandt and others. However, the primary intrigue behind the exhibition was the question of incompleteness itself. Many artworks seemed to have been categorised as ‘unfinished,’ in the absence of concrete evidence that may have stated otherwise. Yet, a few pieces certainly seemed to possess wholeness, despite arguments and assumptions against the same.
As a poet, I am tempted to explore whether the same occurs in poetry. The poem is an ever-changing entity. It travels the dimensions of consciousness, of sub-consciousness, of language, of meaning, of sound, of landscape. It relies on the evolution of its elements and its perception, as defined by each reader.
There is an undeniable difficulty, even impossibility, therefore, in proclaiming the poem as something static. But given this conundrum, can the poem ever exist as something complete, or whole? Does it ever attain a final form?
Kersten: I’ve heard more than one writer with chapbook in hand express how they’d love to go back and edit or revise work differently, altering the published form. One lesson learned through my low-residency MFA program through the University of Alaska Anchorage is that every poem has a back story. If that kernel of a story, that narrative, is the ballast of a poem, it then leaves other constructs - form, diction, syntax, line break - subject to change through revision.
As for a poem achieving final form, it really is a question of process. At what point does a writer deem a work complete, or whole? The poet Mary Oliver suggests that revision is clearly an endless task. She states, “I usually revise through forty or fifty drafts of a poem before I begin to feel content with it” . She further speaks to the idea of a poem’s “self-sufficiency.” A poem that demonstrates autonomy is one that will resonate with readers outside of the immediate circle of the poet and their context.
Poet Marianne Moore’s poem, “The Fish,” demonstrates significant change in form from its initial publication in a magazine in 1918 to its second appearance in an anthology in 1924. Yet a third version of “The Fish” appeared in print in 1935 illustrating further “small adjustments.”  When a poem can stand on its own without the critical eye of the poet planning additional changes, then it has achieved completion.
Nate: For me, all my poems are in conversation with one another as much as they are with other art so in a way each poem I write is, sequentially and ostensibly chronologically, an answer to the previous poem. I have an abiding interest in palinodes; the late 19th/ early 20th century form of light verse in which a poet would respond to one of their own earlier poems. Ogden Nash and Gellet Burgess wrote some of the most well known humorous palinodes of that time period. I do that constantly (albeit not with rhyming, nonsensical, light verse) and would like to see the notion of a dialogue of poems taken more seriously. I agree with Kersten about every poem having a back story. For me that means a combination of preceding poems along with art, music and writing by other people mixed with current news and whatever is currently going on in my own life. The tricky part is allowing all of these things to naturally flow through a poem without it being stifled by context.
I think of my poems in somewhat cinematic, filmic terms: each one is a frame from a larger process trying to capture whatever theme it is that I’m currently worrying over. I don’t pay much attention to any notions of perfection because the word is often used to mean a stopping point, you can’t go any farther than that once you’ve reached it. My writing is a constantly shifting, slipstream process.
A while back my friend, the poet D.C Demarse told me an idea he had to use google docs to write a constantly changing poem that was new every day. That idea seems to me to be an accurate way of documenting the mutagenic process my own poems go through already, except that each iteration is a different poem rather than just erasing the previous variations every time. What I’m trying to get at is that it’s not about a final state but rather about a constant forward motion and each poem’s completed form exists in hindsight of that momentum.
Trivarna: I completely identify with what Kersten and Nate say.
Stasis has many stages of manifestation. A poem can never completely stop or cease to flow. It may feel "whole", at one point in time, but there's always room for revisiting it in an entirely different context. Like Fatimah Asghar says, "reading my older work today seems like conversing with layers of my younger self."
This is debatable, but I am inclined to believe that nothing about art is static. Nothing that surrounds and influences art is static. The places, contexts and ideologies that art derives its core from keep changing. Wholeness is momentary, but the larger picture clearly indicates that its difficult to attain absolute or unbridled wholeness and completion in any form of art.
Interesting perspectives. I kept thinking, while reading your responses, how the art of poetry is not embedded in its permanence. The sense of wholeness, or completion can be both visible and masked, I suppose. I recalled Charles Olson’s words from his poem, “Maximus to Gloucester, Letter 27 [withheld],” that went: “I have this sense,/ that I am one/ with my skin.” It pretty much exemplifies what I kept coming back to you as I read your responses. There’s a fluidity, and an inescapability to poetry.
I would like to turn to Kersten’s drafts for a minute.
What I really appreciate here, besides the obvious changes made, is how the poem attempts to assimilate itself. It keeps moving to attain its structure, a certain solidity, if I may. The third draft, in particular, appears to place the poem in its own becoming. (Kersten, is it the final draft?) I would love Nate and Trivarna to share their thoughts first before Kersten responds and talks more about this poem and its evolution in detail. Do let us know, Kersten, how long it took you to reach the most recent draft? How much, according to you, did the poem change? More importantly, how much did it change you?
Nate: It’s satisfying to see a poem like that in three stages. There’s a physical, almost geological process to it, first a raw and wild state then an expansion and then it contracts and takes on a form. The second phase, where it grew out, I think a lot of writers get stuck there sometimes and don’t push past their initial burst of inspiration, which is something I still occasionally struggle with. There’s an instinctual, breath-like aspect to shifting a poem from unfettered but blunt to the sharpness that allows such things as the slant rhyme of “flare/ scale” at the beginning of the final stanza. When I was younger, I worried a lot more about whether or not a poem felt authentic (maybe I’d read too much Kerouac) so I would hesitate about how much I was willing to shape that first splash of words which seemed almost sacred in a perhaps naive way. Shaping a poem into that relatively complete stage (which the third version of Kersten’s poem seems illustrative of) requires letting go of seeing the whole process in a romantic light.
Trivarna: The transitions here are gradual metamorphoses into more definitive and personal forms of being. The poem changes in subtle ways, but retains its nuances right through them. The geographical evolution only adds to its descriptive tone. I appreciate the poem’s urge to understand itself, to delve deeper into its own skin. Coming into its own is a process that every piece of art aspires to achieve, and it’s heartening to see how this poem finds way to do just that.
Kersten: I appreciate Nate’s description that the process is geological in nature. Drafting is both tangible and visible, and subject to change. Factored into this is the element of time. “Meditation” is a poem I wrote in 2013, revised in 2014 and settled on its final form in 2016 (included above). Three years it took for “Meditation” to settle, but not through broad, sweeping changes on the page. The narrative is consistent among the three drafts. It is the poem’s form that emerges from something akin to notes, to a draft that continues to explore word choice options and more expansive lines. To borrow Trivarna’s apt expression, this poem came into its own through the incorporation of stanzas. This added the breathing room called for by the poem, the pause between stanzas, the meditative effect. The lesson I take from this is that a writer needs to allow time for a poem to fully become.
That’s nice to know, Kersten. I like how Trivarna put it, “gradual metamorphoses into more definitive and personal forms of being.” I believe poems live more and greater lives within us, than outside us. And as poems become, like Kersten mentioned, they reflect our own becoming. Nate shared his hand-written drafts with me as well. This is a question many people ask or think about: Does it really make a difference when you write by hand? The answers, of course, are subjective and there is no correct answer to this.
Nate, I am interested to know your process and the thought behind the process. I have a much beloved journal in which I jot down ideas as soon as I get them. And I keep writing lines or phrases over a couple of days until I ‘feel’ that they’re ready to be put together. My journal’s also filled with a lot of Hindi and Urdu words, because those are the languages I am rooted in.
I tend to think of the poem as ever-present. It’s there, hidden within me, but it’s waiting to come out and it does—in its own time. When I have the opening line right though, the poem seems to flow naturally somehow. I always jot down the initial drafts in my journal and when I see the poem attaining a form, plunging deep, I type it out. Usually, I’ll take a print out and edit it further on paper. The process is elaborate and tedious. It takes me at least 6 to 7 months to write a poem I am even slightly proud of or happy with.
I was glad you shared pictures of your journal though. I know how personal those first thoughts can be, and that really motivated me to share my notes in future as well. I would love Kersten and Trivarna to talk about their process of drafting or editing a poem too. Here’s Nate’s poem, by the way:
Nate: Handwriting my early thoughts out lets me find the nuggets that will turn into one or more poems in a sequence. In this case, I couldn’t get the word “dustlands” out of my head so I wrote all the often nonsensical things that I associated with that term down over several pages of notebook until I had notes enough for several poems. Handwriting is, I think, more intimate than typing. It’s the first way you learn how to write so I find that when I’m writing in ink, it’s the closest to the poem I can mentally and physically get. When you’re typing, you’re using the same fonts and machinery as everyone else but everyone’s handwriting is unique, like their DNA or their fingerprints. Everyone’s is forged by different circumstances. For example, my rather graffiti-like scrawl was influenced from an early age by my learning Hebrew parallel to English. Though I have unfortunately forgotten most of that language by now, it’s still present in my handwriting like a vestigial trait (sometimes I’ll even jot right to left rather than left to right!) There’s a distance with typing that sometimes makes it so if I start a poem on my computer, I’ll skip over some of the small details that might prove vital to the work. A little distance helps judge and shape a poem later on but I don’t believe it helps at first.
Nabokov was reputed to have started all his novels on index cards and used a pile of them as outlines. While I’m not a novelist, I do find that such an approach gives me ground to stand on when I start a digital draft. The notion of the poem as “ever present” resonates with me because it often does feel as though, when one of those words or phrases that will grow into a poem or several comes to me; that there’s an aspect of rediscovering something I’d forgotten to it., like every poem is secretly familiar. This is a sensation that, with well written poetry, is shared between authors and readers.
Kersten: I admit, I’m smitten with the writing process. The backstory of a poem is as fascinating to me as a final, publishable draft. In my own writing journey, it has been helpful to see the origin of idea from the early handwritten notes in a journal to the marked up text of any number of drafts, handwritten or typed. There’s an evolution of writing that isn’t always evident by the polished, published book in hand. In addition, the demonstration of process helps demystify the act of writing, which in turn makes the practice more inviting.
I agree with Nate, handwriting is much more intimate than a typed document. I generally begin the process by hand and in a journal. At the point of exploring form is when I transition into technology to shuffle lines and rearrange stanzas. Before this year’s frenzy of completing my MFA project, I maintained good practice of returning to my journal to record the “closer to final” draft. Due to my interest in writing about the north, Alaska and the Yukon in particular, I record many place-based words with intent to work into various writing endeavors. I feel greater kinship with the work that through one draft or another is linked to a handwritten effort.
While I carry with me at all times a journal and pen, especially on the go, I realize that even my phone has become a writing tool. iPhone and various apps have given me a new range of technological options to inspire and record ideas for writing: Notes, Keynote, Pages, Camera, Instagram, The Poet Tarot. This tool has proven all the more useful when out walking, hiking, beachcombing, berry-picking, etc. I don’t often record entire drafts on the phone, but collected here is an assortment of interesting phrases, lines, and possible titles. Because I live in a rainforest in Alaska, the phone is sometimes a more viable option for outdoor recording than a paper journal.
A friend actually does her best writing not in a formal journal, but on any paper available to her at a given time. She pens verse on anything from the backs of pay stubs, the envelopes of electric bills, to bar coasters. All of these bits and pieces, the ephemera of her thinking, end up loose-stowed in a notebook for eventual sharing at the table of our writer’s group.
Trivarna: It is subjective, I think. Writing by hand allows me room to explore my deepest inhibitions without reticence. But it varies from artist to artist. Everyone has different ways of working. I agree that poems may be present all along, that they rise from something embedded deep within. That reflects in the first drafts of the pieces. I sense that in both Kersten's and Nate's poems. There's so much honesty and heartfeltness in the drafts preceding the evolution of the poems. They just go on to become stronger in their voices. As far as Nate's work is concerned, I loved the transparency of the first poem, the unmasking of the self without inhibitions. The second poem reflects a lot of silence, yet says so much. I really appreciate that.
First of all, I was really intrigued by what you mentioned, Kersten, about your friend. I am actually going to try jotting down ideas and things not on bits and pieces; I think it can help me re-evaluate many things on a personal level. I would like to move on to Trivarna’s drafts now. Trivarna shared a small note about her drafts with me, which I think one must keep in mind before reading her drafts or final poem. Here it is:
“Rumi moves me like no one else does. I've always wanted to write a series for him. So one day, I just sat and thought of him for a long time with my eyes closed, and wrote what came to my mind. I didn't intend it to be one long poem, but thoughts divided into little snippets. This I did to retain the honesty of the text. It reads now like a dialogue, a series of thoughts, a conversation. This is the rough first draft. The final poem, with some additions and changes, has been published in The Sunflower Collective.”
Trivarna’s notes to me reflect the power of the subconscious mind. Poetry, to me, resembles meditation. It’s almost like a thin, calm escape into a void. Some of my best poems have arisen from such a space. And I’d like you all to reflect on whether your poems ever speak to you consciously or subconsciously. Below are Trivarna’s draftsn and the final poem can be found here: http://sunflowercollective.blogspot.in/2016/06/poems-trivarna-hariharan.html
Kersten: Meditation is inherent to writing poetry. Trivarna’s work so fully demonstrates this. When a writer can take time to reflect upon, in this case Rumi, an author so removed by time, distance and translation, the process of focused contemplation can be grounding and yield rich results in writing as evident in Trivarna’s poems. Meditation puts writers into the context of a setting, an instance, a frame of mind from which to write. Further, it accompanies us into the more technical workings of a poem: syntax, diction and form.
The poem is always just below the surface. It’s not quite evolved enough to be the words lingering on the tip of one’s tongue necessarily, but it is a presence that given enough coaxing, in the form of time or reflection, the poem will find itself on paper. This is the “thin, calm escape into a void” that you speak of, Devanshi. This, too, is interesting ground for discussion. How do writers clear space - set aside the clutter of technology, or messy desk, or racing mind - to enter the void? Sometimes, I find that my entrance occurs in spite of the mess and chatter of the world around me.
Nate: I’ll be honest, I have trouble fully appreciating Rumi. T. S. Eliot got to me early and I have difficulty absorbing poetry that isn’t well, drenched in irony. But I do think the kind of poetry I gravitate towards and what could be called the radical simplicity of Rumi or Hafiz (or among English writing poets, Merwyn) share a certain meditative confidence in their centers. It’s just that poems by the likes of Frederick Seidel (to name one particularly standout disciple of Eliot) get there by first invoking chaos. That said, as I progress I find myself more and more interested in simplicity rather than a constant juvenile bacchanalia (even if I can’t yet fully grasp the former). Trivarna’s couplets in the final version of “Poems After Rumi” offer a ghostly conclusion, with things swimming beneath the surface. The drafts hide less so the evolution of that series seems like an act of disappearance. There’s a dichotomy at the relative conclusion of a poem that a lot of authors struggle with in their process, “Am I going to push the poem to its limit or erase it down like a painting with turpentine until its bones show?” Neurotically reluctant as I am to use such a sincere description, there is a balance between maximalism and minimalism that certain poems achieve in their last forms. “Thin calm escape into the void” is a good way to describe the alchemical process of it.
Trivarna: Poetry is very much like meditation, yes. I've been inspired by Rumi for the longest time, and I felt the need to put that on paper. As Kersten and Nate correctly put it, poems are always there, swimming beneath the surface. When nurtured and translated rightly, they can be given a shape. One needs room for that process, and meditation always provides enough space for it to occur smoothly.
Thank you all so much for being a part of this conversation. I hope you enjoyed it. More importantly, thank you for sharing your work and thoughts with us.
I will wrap this up with a question that Kersten mentioned in her last response:
“How do writers clear space - set aside the clutter of technology, or messy desk, or racing mind - to enter the void?"
I’d like to leave it at this thought: how do we emerge— changed or unchanged, finished or unfinished— from that void?
Nate: I think becoming a better writer is a matter or training one’s self to access that void, like a muscle memory, paradoxical as it might sound: it’s a place inside my head that I’ve learned to go to. I do tend to view writing in somewhat mystical terms because the process of accessing whatever that place is, that blank space is such an abstract process. There was a tradition among medieval Jewish mystics that if you meditated into a higher state (what eastern philosophies would call enlightenment) then your goal was not to attain that place permanently but to come back and share your vision with others. I like that concept and have often considered poetry to be the accompanying art form of such an experience. On more practical terms, I don’t generally have to clear time from my day for my writing because when it needs to happen it does. I’m fortunate to be able to trust in what abilities I have like that. Again, muscle memory: when it happens it happens and my job is to let it.
Trivarna: By acclimatising yourself to your ambience and environment. By learning to let yourself be grounded by it.
Kersten: We enter through a better understanding of the triggers and the identification of an entry. So often a word or line will come to me and while I may not be in a position to draft at that moment, I carry with the me the tools to record the word of line or later use. For me, the invites to entry are an odd mix: a stiff wind, the sun’s illumination, the energy behind a vigorous walk. As Trivarna stated, “ambience and environment.” Strangely enough, I draft a lot of work in my mind while out walking. The emergence from the void is wholly positive and ultimately strengthens me as a writer.
 Oliver, Mary. A Poetry Handbook. San Diego: Harcourt Brace, 1994. Print
 Wallace, Robert, and Michelle Boisseau. Writing Poems. 5th ed. New York: Longman, 2000. Print.
Members of the Discussion
Devanshi Khetarpal (Poetry Editor at Moledro)
Kersten Christianson is a raven-watching, moon-gazing, high school English-teaching Alaskan. Currently she is pursuing her MFA in Creative Writing/Poetry through University of Alaska Anchorage. Kersten co-edits the quarterly journal, Alaska Women Speak. She lives in Sitka, Alaska.
Nate Maxson is a writer and performance artist. He is the author of several collections of poetry including 'The Whisper Gallery' and 'The Torture Report'. He lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico.