Pulling Back the Curtain on Poetry – New York Times

For the drafts of poems in this issue I approached a handful of poets, explaining the idea and giving them free rein to pick whatever poem they felt best suited. “The main criterion,” I wrote, is to “pull the curtain on your writing process so readers understand what goes into the end product: the poetic version of a director’s cut, say, or of a math student showing her work.” Not everybody responded, but the six who did all said yes: Mr. Corral, Mr. Collins, Mary Jo Bang, Robert Pinsky, Jenny Zhang and Marie Howe (who sent in not a single draft but a wonderful sequence of pages tracing the evolution of her poem “The Map,” which logistics demanded we run online only — the print edition simply ran out of space).

I wasn’t sure what to expect, especially in an age when so much writing takes place onscreen. The backward-running cursor, innocent as it looks, can obliterate all traces of revision. But the submissions surpassed my wildest hopes.

The first to arrive was Mr. Pinsky’s, which not only included a charming doodle of his floor lamp in the margins but also showed him finding the poem’s ultimate title and homing in on a particular stanza for compression. And the others, as they landed, demonstrated equal care and flair.

Happily, all of the edits and the accompanying explanations gave a warm sense of the person behind each poem. The personality, too. Consider Mr. Corral’s encouraging note to himself even as he ruthlessly cuts a phrase. “Good line!” he writes, followed by a smiley face: “Use in another poem.” Or his puckish comment after he strikes out his dedication to the Wilde Boys: “They should be so lucky.” You don’t need to know who the Wilde Boys are (“a roving salon for self-described queer poets,” as The Times put it in a 2011 article) to sense that there’s a whole story in that deletion about belonging and identity and independence.

It’s almost a poem in itself, and reason enough to hope we’ll see more drafts — from poets, and from other writers too — in future issues.

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