My poem Lac-Mégantic is a good example of revision and also trying different angles at the same poetic impulse until you find the poem. I’ll take you through my Lac-Mégantic poem revision story. I went to the Community of Writers Workshop in California in the summer of 2015 where you write a new poem a day and read it the next morning to a dozen or so excellent poets and a faculty member. In the workshop only what is working is discussed, the idea being you will try new things in your work, take real chances.
I made three runs that week at the topic of the tragedy at Lac-Mégantic after doing a lot of online research of in-depth articles written about the place, the people and what happened. I had a high level of emotion as well because of my work at Imperial Oil. But I wasn’t sure how to approach it as a poem. I was very aware of the problems around writing about tragedy, topics of high emotion and big issues like our fossil fuel addiction and its impacts.
The first poetic attempt being a kind of experimental form that I read to Brenda Hillman’s workshop. Brenda seemed appreciative but nobody else in that group seemed to really understand what I was doing. Also it turned out this horrific tragedy was not well known in the US so it failed to resonate without more explanation. A poetic failure.
The second attempt after this feeling of failure was a more traditional description of the scene the night of the explosion, those moments before everything changed. It was received well by the group and Evie Shockley the faculty member for that workshop. Good comments.
I should have felt better but I didn’t. I felt like the second poem was too soft given the horror of the explosion. The first poem had more of the commentary on the complicity of us all in the fossil fuel problem, our addiction to our way of life. I went and saw Brenda and asked her which of the two poems worked better. She told me she thought the more non-traditional one did, it was getting at big issues and those type of poetics allowed for more exploration of that in her experience, it was more interesting rather than expected.
Later in the week someone wrote a version of an elegy on a totally different topic, it used litany as poetic device. I was inspired to try that with Lac-Mégantic and wrote a prayer for the dead. I was uncertain. I discussed it with Evie Shockley before taking it the workshop the next morning and she told me she thought it was working. In the workshop with Sharon Olds it got a good reception.
But two years later in 2017 I was putting together my MFA thesis at Saint Mary’sand only the first two poems made it into it. The third one did not make the cut. The thesis became the basis of my manuscript. I still thought the topic was something I wanted to write about but didn’t feel those poems were that strong even though they were in the thesis.
In 2018 I went to the Writer’s Studio at the Banff Center with that manuscript and there Karen Solie did an great job of sorting through the poems. Mostly she re-arranged the order with some light line edits. But she also looked for poems to toss out, to get the manuscript down to its strongest work. About the two Lac-Mégantic poems, she said that they were doing the same thing somehow, maybe I could combine them.
I hadn’t really touched them much since that week at Community of Writers. I remembered that I had that third poem and found it. I looked at the three of them and took the parts from each that seemed to do the best job and wrote around them. The finished poem has three movements through it using the cores of each of those poems. It looks much different than the originals, seemed to be more stripped down to the essentials but also seemed to me much more powerful than any of the individual poems.
Often in workshops people will say that a poem is actually more than one poem and suggest splitting it. Billy Collins has a famous poem, Workshop Poem, where he satirizes that, just one of many things he pokes fun at in that poem. Here are those specific lines from his poem:
My three poems came close to being none. But in this case three poems were actually one. But the lesson for me here is how hard it maybe to find the poem. Writing on something multiple times may mean parts of the real poem show up in multiple pieces. I was pretty happy with those changes and that new version. Happy enough to submit that poem in a suite of poems that day in Banff to the 2018 CBC Poetry Prize where it ended up being long listed, none of the originals versions would have made it I’m sure.
When creating the video I realized based on the Community of Writers experience not everyone will know about the event or the area so there is exposition ahead of the reading, which turns out I think to be important even if you know about the tragedy. The reading section has three distinct movements and modes, representing the modes and material explored by the three original poems. So the video and sound also are quite different in the three sections. The lake seems to have taken a role in the video I didn’t plan on when I started putting this together and the video extends that beyond the poem’s use of the lake image or perhaps more highlights it.
I had lots of ideas. Show a map of the movement of the train from the Bakken to Quebec. Show the Irving refinery where it was going. Show a bunch of heavy traffic and industry to highlight our fossil fuel addiction. Part way through I realized this is really about the place and the people. That’s what’s important and that’s what the video is about. Because that’s what the poem was telling me it was about. So all those ideas are not part of this video.
Hope you appreciate the video. Here’s where you can see thebook that has the poem.
And this video gallery is being developed with funding from: