Newsletter of the Chattanooga Writers Guild
January 14, 2023
Ray Zimmerman, Editor: email@example.com
In this edition, I present three reminders of upcoming opportunities. I am pleased to present a guest article by Finn Bille, in which he discusses the revision of a poem.
January CWG Contest
There is still time to enter up to three poems in the Chattanooga Writers Guild’s January contest. There is no entry fee, and the winner’s prize is $25. Please find more information on the website. https://chattanoogawritersguild.org/contests/2023-monthly-contest-series-info/. Information on other upcoming contests, including theme and genre, also appears the linked page.
Writers of Grace Contest
Writers of Grace, based in Oak Ridge, offer a contest with February 28 as the deadline for entries. Categories are Poetry, Fiction, and Creative Nonfiction. There is a $150 first-place prize in each category. See the website for more information. https://www.writersofgrace.org/writing-contest/
Mildred Hahn Review
The Mildred Hahn Review is published by Walters State Community College. Watch for open submissions later this month. The 2022 edition included several works by CWG members; poems, a short memoir piece, and a short story. https://ws.edu/special-events/mildred-haun/review/
Revising a Poem
The Evolution of my Poem, “Christmas Tree.”
January 12, 2023
by Finn Bille
Sawed off and severed from its native wood
the pine tree oozed its sticky pitch-like blood
of transubstantiated mountain dirt.
We found our evergreen within a grove
where sumac, sweet gum, poplar crowded round
to force the conifer to stretch for light.
Down on my knees, I crawled to touch this tree
whose one branch, broken, split and bent by ice
still grew and pointed green leaves earth-ward.
I grasped the scaly trunk and cleared away
loose sandy loam, leaf mould and spiderwebs,
breathed sweet soil and pungent dark decay.
At home, Its green scent filled the house, to fade
as needles fell. Buried in the compost heap,
it rots, awaits rebirth as cabbages.
(Published in The Avocet, Winter, 2023)
This poem, “Christmas Tree,” has evolved from sparse notes to a draft of 49 lines of loosely structured free verse to a 15-line American sonnet. This is my account of the evolution:
I wrote the first notes for this poem in my journal on December 12, 2018. I wanted to read a poem at the solstice celebration on December 16. My journal notes were a loosely connected series of impressions from earlier years of cutting Christmas trees in the country. I called the first draft “The Solstice Tree.”
I read this poem of 49 lines at the celebration, still fragmented and vague about its central theme, its title “Our Solstice Tree.” While the subject fit the occasion, the fragmented form bothered me. I was happy to read two other, more developed poems.
I reduced the poem to 35 lines the next day, now called just “Solstice Tree.” I struck 5 weak and misdirecting lines, including these: “No arcane formula/ or Druid incantation/ invoked the cutting of our tree.” I liked these lines. Before striking them, I rationalized that the “formula” and “incantation” contributed to a vague mystical tone in spite of–or maybe even because of–the denial.
I eliminated a favorite line, “nascent mycelia of Chanterelles” for being too much, like I was trying too hard to be poetic.
When I presented this poem of 35 lines to the poetry group of the Chattanooga Writers Guild, I got various helpful comments, but none that addressed the poem’s still-amorphous structure.
One reader said that the poem had lost the “magic of Christmas,” implying, I think, that Christian sentiments had been lost.
Helpful hints for revision included “use stronger verb,” “remove line,” a warning against “ending with a prepositional phrase.” Marked for attention were repeated words as well as pronouns. I also got some encouraging comments, like “love this,” “good job,” “. . . wonderful: I see it exactly,” three stars, and “beautiful,” “great sensory detail,” and “language is strong.”
I read it to our Christmas Eve dinner guests. I was not happy with it, and one friend thought it was too long. I could only agree.
So I cut it down to 18 lines and combined short lines to form lines of roughly ten syllables in roughly iambic rhythm to approximate blank verse. I wanted to cut it down to sonnet length, but did not see how at that stage. I also eliminated the repetition of the word “pine” by using “evergreen” and “conifer.” The repetition of “its” in two adjacent lines became “this” and “the.” By now I had changed the title to “Christmas Tree,” maybe because of the holidays.
To attempt the sonnet form, I counted the lines and the syllables in each, marked the text and worked on equalizing the lines and strengthening the iambic rhythm.
Finally, I changed “planted” to “buried in the compost heap,” hinting at another “transubstantiation.”
I was still uncertain about my use of this six-syllable word. I like the theological implications as well as the biological accuracy of one substance made into another. Then I read Elizabeth Bishop’s poem, “At the Fishhouses” in The New Yorker in which she uses the word “transmutation.” So why not?
I broke the strictly chronological narrative to introduce the pine tree in the first lines containing this long word and announcing the environmental theme. I also found the rhyme, “wood,” and “blood” to introduce the poem and reverse the traditional place of a couplet at the conclusion.
I like the line of all simple one-syllable words: “to force the pine to stretch both up and out for light.” And I like the sensory synesthesia of “Its green scent filled the house,” and the follow-up of “fade,” applying to both color and scent.
When I planned to present this version for critique at the Poetry and Creative Non-Fiction group of Writers Guild on February 5, 2019, my computer would neither print nor copy. When I read the poem out loud, one perceptive listener commented that the ending –” rots, makes earth for future festivals”–sounded much too light and easy for the rest of the poem. I agreed. It had been bothering me. This was an interesting test of sound, and not print. The next day I generated this line, keeping the echo of “transubstantiated”: “rots to await rebirth as cabbages.”
The poem concludes with earthy, observable transformation instead of invisible faith-based transmutation, but without rejecting the wonder and mystery inspired by close contact with nature.
So here it is: An American sonnet distilled from a rambling narrative and imagistic free verse draft.
I could have kept working on it, but I stopped when The Avocet accepted it for publication. Have I already revised it too much? Has the poem lost its poetic—its intuitive rather than cognitive—essence? I don’t think so.
I try to access my intuitive and emotional connection to this poem and what it might reveal. It is clear that my emotional attachment to traditional Christmas is fading.
Some say that the “magic of Christmas” gets lost in this poem. To demonstrate that I have sweetly remembered that holiday of my childhood, I give you my story, “A Marzipan Christmas,” published in The Danish Pioneer in 2019 and reprinted separately in 2022.
I thank my poet-colleagues, KB Ballantine and John C. Mannone, for their work, with me, on the so-far-unpublished book, Rules for Revising Poetry and How to Break them.
If you would like to write a guest article, please get in touch with Ray Zimmerman, firstname.lastname@example.org