Cheryl Quimba on “Scattered Trees Grow in Some Tundra”
This week, Cheryl Quimba offers us a view of the process behind “Scattered Trees Grow in Some Tundra,” the title poem of a chapbook currently available from Sunnyoutside Press.
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I first wrote the poem that came to be called “Scattered Trees Grow in Some Tundra” in 2009 as part of my MFA thesis. I had it in my head that I wanted to write a long poem. I was a big admirer of George Oppen, and I particularly loved his long poems with numbered sections, like “Blood from the Stone,” and especially “A Language of New York.” When I was an undergrad and just starting to read him, I wrote each word from the fourth section of “A Language of New York” in thick Sharpie on separate index cards and taped them to my dorm room wall so I could read it while lying in bed. I think I had hoped that by physically living inside his lines I might learn something about how to put words together, plus it was comforting to come home and see this looming tall on the wall—
Words provided one treat them
Not enemies — Ghosts
Which have run mad
In the subways
And of course the institutions
And the banks. If one captures them
One by one proceeding
Carefully they will restore
I hope to meaning
And to sense.
I pinned tie-dyed tapestries and Polaroids onto my walls too, but I didn’t study those nearly as much as the Oppen.
A note: I know the idea behind this “Revisionings” column is to discuss the revision process in regard to a specific piece, and ideally to describe how you got from Point A of an early draft to the Point B (or C or D) of a later, final version by comparing the two or more iterations, but I have a habit as a writer that prevents me from doing this—I throw early drafts away. It’s probably irresponsible but I mostly don’t care. My poems usually begin on scraps of paper, torn-out notebook sheets, Post-It notes, and other ragged bits, then I type them out as soon as they’re in a shape to do so. Once in a Word document, I toss out the handwritten page without thinking. I make edits in one Word document for each piece (without creating new files for each version), so older iterations disappear as I go along. My focus turns to what the poem is now and how I can make it better, and in my twisted little brain I don’t believe I need the first draft to move forward, or even to revisit later for posterity’s sake. I care only for what the poem can be and should be, and trying to figure out what I need to do to bring that about.
With that said, I have what I think is a good memory for the individual trajectories of particular poems and how they changed in the larger revision process. I remember, very clearly still, first writing the earliest drafts of “Scattered Trees Grow in Some Tundra,” and the poem I was trying to develop over the course of months, and what turned out to be years, out of what started as some very rough stuff.
The poem as it stands now is eleven pages long. Each page is its own small section, and the sections are unnumbered and unlinked. The poem began much longer, about two dozen pages, and it was originally titled “Possible Vistas.” I wanted to write a poem that was expansive and projected a sense of accumulation—so that as the reader progressed through the poem she could feel as though she was continually encountering new landscapes that were built atop what she had already traversed. I wanted the experience to be fragmentary, with images and bits of phrase and characters entering into and dropping out of view, and I wanted the pace to feel meandering, but careful.
What I first had on the page was dense and brambly. Many of the sections had full or full-ish sentences and “characters” that were placed within the loose outlines of scenes—for example, a brief flash of Eamon and Anne arguing over dinner at a restaurant. I was never fully satisfied with a scene like this because I eventually realized that I wanted less to be known. When you have a sketch of a scene like this, the reader can’t help but want to know more. What is the relation of Eamon to Anne, and why are they arguing? I wanted to cancel out the need for those questions. I didn’t want even the seed of them in the reader’s mind. It took me some time and some tinkering to understand that removing information—paring it down so that only the minutest, most essential details are left—makes questions about “what is happening” superfluous. Nothing is happening. Some things just are. This is that section as it stands now in its entirety:
a swift warning who might unravel off the cuff when Eamon hurried Anne calm as a restaurant bill folded in a leather case how should it capsize worn and edgeless and light and shuffling near
Just as in this section, the whole experience of revising this poem was a protracted series of cutting back and paring down. Because I like throwing things away (or reusing or recycling if possible!), the process was highly enjoyable. I liked seeing the poem shrink and condense and distill down to atom-sized bits. I worked it to the state where it felt submittable with the rest of the poems in my MFA thesis, then I sporadically revisited it in the years that followed, moving pieces around and paring it down more and more until it found its current form.
The title changed from “Possible Vistas” to “Scattered Trees Grow in Some Tundra” fairly quickly after I finished my MFA. The original title always felt like a placeholder to me, and I liked how “Scattered Trees Grow in Some Tundra” seemed to capture the feeling I wanted to evoke for the reader—that of coming upon disparate things in changing, accumulating landscapes—and I liked “some” tundra for some reason, as if I was offering up only a parcel of something vast and typically hard to contain, like “some” ocean.
At each point in the revision process when I felt I needed to make a decision, I made the change knowing that I didn’t really know if I was doing the right thing. Or, I knew that I couldn’t know if I was doing the right thing. I think part of the personal appeal of revising as I do is there’s no evidence of the past for me to analyze and question along the way; I only have the “active” draft in front of me—nothing else exists. Because I can’t compare draft to draft, I don’t ask myself the question of whether or not a newer version is “better” than a previous one. If I do pose a question to myself, it’s asking if a change has pleased me, and if it’s made me more pleased with the poem overall. Sometimes it’s difficult to know if I’m pleased, at least at first, and I’ll take a long time sitting with something, or trying to forget about it as much as possible so that when I revisit it later I’m reading it almost as an outsider, a stranger. I think one of my ultimate goals is to write poems (revise poems) that allow me to take pleasure in them as a stranger would.
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Cheryl Quimba’s poems have appeared in Dusie, Phoebe, Tinfish, Everyday Genius, 1913, Eleven Eleven, and Horseless Review. She is the author of the poetry collection Nobody Dancing (Publishing Genius) and the chapbook Scattered Trees Grow in Some Tundra (Sunnyoutside Press). With Joe Hall, she co-authored the digital chapbook May I Softly Walk: The Santa Fe Journals (Poetry Crush). Cheryl lives in Buffalo, New York.