I have recently become aware of the ways in which I bulletproof my poems. The poems that I “bulletproof” are by no means perfect. Not all images are completely logical and not all lines work. But, in some way, I have made them inaccessible, protected from the ways in which they might be criticized and/or changed. In this post, I’d like to highlight some ways in which we might “bulletproof” our work, keeping it safely clothed in armor that may not only keep out others’ criticism and advice, but our own true intentions for the piece and subsequently, its potential.

A friend of mine mentioned that when she feels a paper she’s writing is not her best she formats the paper so that it looks somehow professional or publishable on the page. She might take more care with choosing a font and crafting a title. In poetry, I “finish” poems that I’m unsure about by also paying attention to form, trying to make the piece look so neat on the page that it appears almost impenetrable.

These format/form/superficial changes perhaps seem like a form of cheating, and in a sense they are. We are seeking a way out of a puzzle that we just don’t understand anymore, or perhaps we don’t even like. So, we tie arrange all the loose ends into a clean grid or interesting shape, but keep them from actually coming together.

Now, I don’t mean to say that these poems (or papers) don’t make sense; they’re just missing something. For me, my cleanly formatted poems are often devoid of fresh imagery. They have no wildness or interest or openness. They are cohesive, closed up, and at least for me, the writer, wholly uninteresting.

Sometimes the closed-up-finished-ness is not merely a product of the format of my poems. Some of the words themselves are overly “poetic,” trying to raise the poem up beyond itself, make it somehow “better.” But, what I am beginning to know these poems want is authenticity: staying in the subject, not trying to elevate the subject, but exploring it as it is, as it perhaps wants to be explored.

Now, this exploration usually requires rubbing the gloss off, and just writing without as much restraint, and especially attuning myself to the ways in which I might be cleaning things up as I go along that don’t want to be cleaned up yet. I may have to turn off my laptop and write in a notebook, sketchbook, back of a grocery list, medicine bottle. I have to get away from the usual canvas, to get away from the usual thoughts and pressures.

I also might reach for a crayon, a watercolor soaked paintbrush, a pen I especially love, a nub of charcoal. I change scenery. Go outside and sip the air instead of the foam topped latte. I might write in the kitchen, standing up, stirring a vat of macaroni. And then, right in the middle (or beginning or end) of a poem I’m either revising or writing, I’ll let my thoughts just stream, like I’m a conduit for the poem and spirits are jumping off the walls waiting to dive down into the piece. I try to be as open as possible, because the goal is to let my poems be open until they need to be tidied up, or perhaps open till the end.

Michelle Calkins is from Grand Rapids, Michigan and is currently studying poetry at Virginia Tech.


One thought on “Bulletproofing

  1. I don’t think it’s cheating to make what to you is an unfinished piece of work look as finished as possible at all. It’s finished for now. You can always go back and hopefully will when the muse leads you there. I’ve got TONS of them! 🙂 To me it’s about keeping the flow going (and gosh it flows). You’re smart I think in taking a rest and distracting yourself and coming back I do it every day. And take some time off and don’t write anything new (a day or two mind you),so I can come back fresh. Great post, thought-provoking and I like the idea and term “bulletproofing”. I’ll remember that. 🙂

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