How do you know when a poem is finished?
There’s the first kind of finished, the moment in which I can’t bear to look at it anymore. On a small scale, this is when I think, “Good enough, whatever” and shove the poem in a drawer. On a larger scale: At this time last year I was on Toronto island for a self-directed retreat with a writer friend, the brilliant Sara Mang. I was finishing my collection, and after a few days of focusing on nothing but that, I knew that not only could I no longer look at these particular poems, but also that I had lost whatever spark it was that had made me think I could possibly be a poet to begin with. I thought I was done, that maybe it would be published and maybe it wouldn’t, but that my poet days were truly over. I sent the manuscript off to my editor, Jim Johnstone. Then I submitted a package of poems to The New Yorker as a last hurrah, then moved on to writing short stories.
This week, I read my book of poetry for the first time since the island. And it really is a book. It feels like a book — something a real writer wrote — even though the last time I looked at it, it felt like twelve million wriggling, disparate parts that made no kind of sense, rational or fantastical or otherwise. I was too deep into it to be able to see it. It spent many months unseen in the drawer. Looking at it now, I feel like the book needed that time to cure and become itself.
Now Jim and I are doing edits and the book is coming out in fall of this year. It’s like my poet self is waking up after a long hibernation. And funnily enough, as I’m coming to the end of writing my collection of short fiction, I’m feeling like I can’t possibly be a fiction writer, that it’s too hard, that this short story collection is going right into the drawer the second it’s done. And suddenly poetry seems like fun again.