Experiments in Revision, Part 1
Senior Poetry Editor
In 2007, I was visiting my friend Owen at his art show: portraits on the grandest scale done in aerosol on 8′ x 8′ panels. It was the last hour of the last day of the Durham Art Walk in North Carolina. When all of the passers by stopped passing by, I helped him take down those works that had not sold. Then he stepped on each skillfully rendered face, pulled up at the edges of the panels and broke all of them into pieces small enough to fit in the scrap bin.
The other artists at the show protested, shook their heads, shrugged their shoulders. But this was simply a practical matter for Owen: Where was he going to store all these gigantic faces in the long term? And what would be the point? He had photos of the portraits for his portfolio and he had the skills that he learned in making the portraits. He could make more, he could make better when the time was right. For now, it was time to move on.
His easy artistic confidence left an impression on me. Up until that moment the idea that “art is a process not a product” felt more like a cliché than something I had experienced. But there Owen was, no less of an artist for having created and destroyed his paintings than the artists who created and kept their work. In fact, I saw Owen as more solidly an artist than I was at that time due to my habit of clinging to old poems and old aesthetics out of fear that I wouldn’t know how to navigate new ones successfully.
I am grateful to Owen that I no longer do this. Now I see that amassing a bunch of things we can call “art” and putting them on display is what a collector does. It may also be what the “professional” part of the “professional artist” has to do to make a living or reach an audience. But it is not what the “artist” part of that “professional artist” does. Being an artist is more about fearlessness and play and growth, more about our unexplored potential than our fully realized projects. Because the minute we are unable or unwilling to experiment, to risk-take, we become artists only in the past tense, no longer artists in the present.
In this spirit, we are running a short blog series titled, “Experiments in Revision” to showcase the artistic process. Making a poem over means you have to be willing to break it into splinters and reframe, recycle, repurpose the pieces. Lucky for us writers, if we don’t like the new version, the old one’s still on the hard drive. It is easier to be fearless when the consequences are small! But, in the case of a blog, we do risk public vulnerability. Which is why I am grateful to Splinter web designer, Niki Selken, who courageously agreed to work with us on poetry revision and then put it all on display here at Splinter over the next month or so. This week, we start with her first draft. Two weeks from now, check back in to see how Niki guts the 300+ words below to carve out a 21-word, tanka-inspired poem.
My mom locked herself in her room one Christmas morning
Poetry by Niki Selken
My sister and I lived alone with our Mom in a small apartment on the edge of a ravine
___on the edge of Los Angeles County
We woke up early and walked out of the room we shared, in unattractive nightshirts (the
___kind that were popular in the late 80s)
One green, one red, to see what was under the tree
The presents we had left for our Mom, our cat, and each other lied there, lonely
___as the night before
Nothing new appeared
Our mom was asleep
My sister and I had been digging through our parents’ closets for our hidden presents
___since I was eight
We knew all about Santa Mom, as often our presents were marked, once we reached
___ten and eleven and Santas cover was blown
Slowly we gleaned that Santa Mom had either forgotten to leave our presents, had
___gotten us nothing, or had died in her sleep
We decided to knock on her door to see if she would wake.
We tried the door knob but it was locked.
We called to her
We begged for her to come out
She got quiet
She screamed back
She opened a drawer
We held our breath
She unzipped a pouch
We were alone
She put the gun against her head
She pulled the trigger
We skipped our hearts’ beat
She clicked like an empty chamber
We took a breath
She clicked again, three more times fast
We fell to our knees
She screamed like a gull calling or an elephant mourning
We said please, please, please no Mom, stop Mom, please
She dropped the gun
We sat on the floor next to her door
She never came out that morning or afternoon
We spent Christmas huddled alone on the couch watching TV