Work in Progress — A Better Way


We all know the joke by now–the sign on the road reading MEN WORKING. It’s how we learned the word “oxymoron” as the car sped past workers in hardhats leaning on shovels, sipping Dunkin Donuts coffees, chatting each other up.

“Work in Progress” is another matter, one with greater meaning and impact. As my third poetry manuscript grows (though not in Brooklyn), I’ve changed my approach. With the first two books, The Indifferent World and Lost Sherpa of Happiness, I created a folder on my computer and then created separate docs for each poem within them.

With this one, I smartened up. The folder is called “Work in Progress,” and it is a single doc containing ALL the poems as I go along. I keep them in the order I wrote them, leaving any new arrangements for the day when I’ve mustered 45 or more–about the number you need to call it a poetry collection as opposed to its little brother, the chapbook.

The advantage to this approach has proven to be huge. Why? Often I’m not in the mood to work on my most recent poem because it is frustrating me. In the past, I would seldom click other docs to look at other poems in the collection. Instead, I would avoid the frustration of the recalcitrant new poem by reading a book or, worse, the online news.

Now? I open up the “WIP” doc and am faced with the first two poems I wrote every time. “Oh, yeah,” I feel like saying. “You guys!” I scroll down and see the whole parade of so-called “finished” poems.

Revising is my middle name (thanks, Mom). It is also the lifeblood of poetry writing. Using this system, I find myself tinkering, changing, and–blessed be!–deleting entire lines and stanzas of poems I had considered “done.”

A couple of times, I’ve taken on the revision task of working on each poem in order until I worked my way back to the present poem. More often, as a warm-up, I find myself reading random poems in the “Work in Progress.”

Interestingly, I often change a word in a poem one day and then change it back the next. Must be the different light on Tuesday vs. Wednesday, but over time and with enough looks, I settle on a word I like better, even though I could go either way.

The revision practice of a “Works in Progress,” all-in-one-doc approach has also reined in my habit of sending babies to market prematurely like so many poor Oliver Twist waifs. Now when I send poems, they’re a sturdier lot, more fully grown and refined. It’s even emboldened me to submit to tougher markets, what the going-to-college kids would call “reaches.”

Though it came about by accident and through convenience, the new method has won me over. It works. It keeps the whole brood of babies in front of me. And, after a few days of revision, I’m all refreshed and ready to tackle that tough poem I’ve been ducking–the one that used to send me to all the bad news on the virtual front pages.



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