Friday, November 16, 2018

On Poetic License and Tough Editorial Questions

Melinda Palacio

Reading at the University of New Orleans on November 14, 2018

 On Wednesday, I had the pleasure of reading with New York poet Neil Shepard at the University of New Orleans. The students asked some great questions. The two that stuck out the were: What tough choices did you have to make in putting together your collection, Bird Forgiveness, and, Do you continue to revise a poem after it's been accepted for publication. 

The first question reminded me of my first poetry chapbook, Folsom Lockdown, These were poems that I wrote after visiting an father in Folsom prison. They spoke my truth, of what it was like to visit my estranged father in prison and of the childhood that I had without much interaction with him. Much time has passed between the events of those poems and their publication and the distance of time now that I’ve had three poetry collections published. At the time I wrote the prison poems, I had family members on my father's side ask that I not publish poems that told the world that my father was in prison. I wasn't about to listen to that advice. Those poems spoke their own truth and represented a collection that won a poetry prize and my father is proud of the fact that he is the subject of a book penned by his biological daughter. Even difficult or embarrassing subjects will stand the test of time if the work is genuine, honest, and good. 

I mentioned this first work in order to say that tough decisions are something I was so familiar with in my first book that everything else, writing about intimate moments or about my grandmother's last days were manageable because I had started off with such a tough mandate: having to go against an elder's wishes to not speak my truth. 

As a writer, you're not always going to please everyone and it shouldn't be a goal to please other people or to write for other people. The truth of the poem or the work, whether the writing is a poem or a novel, should  take precedence and be the most important thing, especially in fiction or poetry, which is only accountable itself, a challenge when writing poetry or fiction based on historical or real events. Some people want to box you in for not giving an outright journalistic account of what actually happened. Someone who interviewed me on the radio once read a line from my poetry back to me and asked, 'did that really happen?’, and the answer is both yes and no.  It's called Poetic License. 

With Bird Forgiveness, some of the tougher decisions were made by my editor. I tend to want to include every single current or newer poem into my latest collection. Two weeks ago, I had the pleasure of hearing Joan Baez sing at the Arlington Theater in Santa Barbara. She sang a song, 'The President Sings Amazing Grace, that reminded me of a poem I had included in the Human Forgiveness section of my book, but didn't make my editor's cut. After hearing Joan Baez's song, I wished I had lobbied harder and worked more on improving the poem. I will include it here for La Bloga. 

The last question about revision is one that I can easily answer. I am always revising. At readings, I may appear to be reading from a published work, but the truth is I give myself permission to continue to revise, even after a poem is in print. I might revise as I read and if a publication wants to reprint a poem, I will certainly revisit  and rewrite it if there is time. This may drive anthologist crazy because there might be two versions of the same poem. In fact, professor John Geary was in the audience and he asked Neil Shepard this very question. He had a poem of Neil's in mind for an anthology, but has seen more than one printed version of the poem, which version should he choose. Neil suggested running the different versions side by side, but in the end made it clear it was the editor's decision to make. 

Our President Sings Amazing Grace
Melinda Palacio

For the slain Reverend Pinckney and nine 
of his flock. Bible study will never again
be sitting in the same room, breaking bread,
discussing all things of importance, faith

On the other side of the fence, a divided
nation, the crazies call an obama nation, an obamination, 
an-oh-not-my president nation. 
Since when is the President, not your President?

Will you move to Canada?
Oops. You forgot Canada allows equal marriage.

Will you move to France?
You forgot France will not tolerated your ignorance.
Parlez-vous français?
That's right. You don't speak the language.
Go back where you came from.

Is your solution a fence?
Because all of a sudden you notice the town you live in,
the street your house is on is not spelled in English.
English only. You voted for it. 

A Mexican told you. I will marry your daughter 
and you will eat nothing but burritos,
burritos three times a day.

Which flag will you fly?
Will you hold up stars and stripes,
rebel stars and bars,
or will a white dove help you
with a white handkerchief?

For your pain, for my pain, for their pain, for our pain,
President Obama Sings Amazing Grace.
Amazing Grace,
How Sweet the Sound...

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I love this Poem, it is the raw truth. - Claudette Esmerelda