THE JOY OF REVISION: Interview with Nora Claire Miller and the earthwords poetry team [Caroline Meek, Kailani Biehl, David Marquez, and Trajan Wells]
CAROLINE: Hi Nora! Thanks for joining us. Before we get into revision, can you catch us up on your journey as a writer? What are you currently working on?
NORA: Hi Caroline and earthwords team! I’m excited to talk with you guys.
I received my MFA in poetry from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop in 2019, and since then I’ve stayed in Iowa City. I currently work as a freelance writer. I wear many hats: I teach, I edit, I consult. Being a freelancer is busy—even though I make my own schedule, it’s often hard to make time for my writing. Lately, I have had a gap between major work projects, so I’ve given myself a sort of at-home “residency” this spring. I’ve revised an old manuscript and finished writing a newer one.
Currently, I am focusing on developing a project that I started when I first moved to Iowa City called “Deep-Fried Poems.” When I say deep-fried poems, I mean that literally: these are poems I have dipped in oil and deep-fried in batter. Right now, I am in the process of frying and photographing poems; I ultimately plan to assemble these photographs into a full-length photo book.
CAROLINE: Can you tell us more about deep-fried poems? How did this project start?
NORA: I started deep-frying poems during the first semester of my MFA. I spent much of that semester gripped with self-doubt. I was twenty-two, fresh out of college, and surrounded by some of the most brilliant people I’d ever met. My peers had written books, had lived abroad, and knew how to pronounce “Goethe.” Most of all, they seemed to know what they wanted their poems to do, and be, and be about. I didn’t know who I was as a poet or what I wanted for my work. Every time I had to submit a poem for workshop, I would revise it endlessly, questioning each word, chopping it into smaller and smaller pieces until there was nothing left.
One night, working on a poem I felt was going nowhere and dreading the next day’s workshop submission deadline, I got frustrated and decided to perform a more physical form of revision. I printed out the seventh failed draft of my poem, dipped it in the batter in which I had been planning to fry some chicken for dinner, and threw it into a hot skillet full of oil.
When it lived inside my computer, my poem had seemed small and fragile. Once deep-fried, it reflected that fragility in its form. My language, now encrusted with batter and oil, felt somehow more urgent. Though my deep-fried poem was basically illegible, it showed me the questions I had been trying to ask for years in my writing: how far can I push my own language? What makes meaning happen? What can be learned from the gulf between understanding and its absence?
I submitted a photograph of the deep-fried poem for workshop the next day. After that, I worked to bring the conceptual underpinnings of deep-frying into my written work. The revisions the oil and batter made to my poems helped teach me what I wanted from my poetry.
CAROLINE: You referred to deep-frying as a more physical form of revision—can you say more about how this project relates to revision for you?
NORA: Every step of a deep-fried poem’s journey is a revision. Deep-frying is a last resort—I only fry a poem when I feel it cannot be otherwise revised. I start by putting my uncooked poem in a word document and making some initial edits. Sometimes I delete particular words I don’t want fried. Other times, the form or font changes: prose poems tend to fry better than coupleted ones. Garamond is too flimsy of a font for frying—Times New Roman is much easier to read through the crispy outer layer.
The next step is to mix a batter. The choice of batter is itself a revision: I create a different recipe to suit each batch of poems. More water makes for a more transparent fried layer, so the text is more visible. Baking powder helps a poem puff up more in the pan. Cornstarch makes a poem sturdier post-frying but can also negatively impact its color and sheen. Once I’ve chosen my batter, I drop the poem into a pan of hot oil. Cooking, too, is revision. I paint batter over parts of the poem I want to obscure and leave out the parts I want visible. I choose my cooking time based on the color I want the poem to be—under a minute creates a golden poem, a little longer and it turns reddish brown. After three minutes in oil, the poem will start to char. Sometimes after frying, I’ll revise the poem again, dipping just part of it back into the oil with tongs to deepen the color of an undercooked corner.
The last step of the revision is photographing each deep-fried poem and then editing the images on Photoshop, making conscious aesthetic decisions about brightness, color-mixing and image size. Making my deep-fried poems into a book means still more revision: I must put the images in order, making decisions about how each poem speaks to its neighbors.
CAROLINE: That’s incredible. How do you feel when approaching the revision process?
NORA: When I write a poem, I usually let it sit in a document untouched for a while: sometimes for a few days, sometimes for a few years. Revising a poem too soon can be dangerous—I find that I get overly attached to certain lines or end up deleting the good parts in a moment of self-doubt. Giving myself some mental distance from a piece helps give me more perspective. When I return to a poem, I try hard to listen to what it’s telling me about itself. I assess what’s working, what flows well, and what needs to be altered. Maybe I love the ending but feel that the beginning needs to change. Maybe a poem works on a language level, but its form isn’t right. Maybe the poem actually wants to be two poems, or four.
DAVID: Do you have a default revision strategy, or one that you use more often than any other strategy?
NORA:I would say that I have a collection of different revision strategies that I employ at different times for different poems. Sometimes, I just do quick edits: changing the lineation, changing out a few words. Often, I’ll try reversing the order of a poem, starting with the last line and going back towards the first. I find this helps re-work a poem’s relationship to time. It’s surprising how many poems sound good in reverse.
If I’m feeling stuck on a poem and these minor edits don’t help, I do something more procedural. I like using Markov Chains to algorithmically regenerate statistically likely combinations of words from my poems. I spent a lot of time a few years back translating poems into Morse Code, trying to see what parts of my words can speak even through dots and dashes. Lately, I have been turning poems into clocks, where each line from the poem becomes a number on the clock. The changing time of day creates different combinations of lines and helps me see new possibilities in the way I assemble language.
KAILANI & TRAJAN: What do you feel is the main goal of the revision process? What’s the most important part, in your eyes?
NORA: Writing is about approaching the ineffable, the unsayable, and translating that into words. A first draft is often a very internal version of that: we write in a way that makes sense to ourselves. One challenge of revision, then, is figuring out how to both retain and challenge our internal language—to say what we mean while also helping that reach, and be somewhat intelligible to, an audience.
The most important thing when trying to translate your poem for an audience is not to lose the interesting parts of the writing while trying to achieve intelligibility. Tracie Morris, a brilliant poet and professor at the Writers’ Workshop, once gave me the advice to create “on-ramps” for readers—ways to help people access more esoteric parts of the work. She told me to ask myself what a reader would and should know when first encountering my work. For example, portions of my chapbook LULL are written in Morse Code; it was important for me to provide readers with a Morse Code dictionary at the end of the book if I wanted them to be able to translate those passages. With my deep-fried poems, it’s important that readers know they’re still poems and not weird food objects—as such, I try to keep a little bit of text visible in the frying.
KAILANI: Do you believe there are ever times when you don’t need to revise? Or do you think that nearly every piece can benefit from some sort of revision?
NORA:Sometimes, revisions can be destructive and unnecessary. A few years back, I felt that everything I was writing was “too weird.” Other people didn’t phrase things the way I did, and I thought that meant my poems needed to change. I would ruthlessly go through my drafts, cutting out each line that seemed “stupid” or “vulnerable” or “strange” or “unnecessary.” A full page of writing, after one of these revisions, would end up becoming this sad little shell—two or three lines, often, ironically, incomprehensible to anyone but me. Now, years later, I recognize that these weren’t revisions at all—they were, in the parlance of the TV show House Hunters, gut jobs. I don’t think those revisions were necessary, in large part because I was doing them for the wrong reasons.
Revising a poem always means breaking it a little. This spring, I have edited nearly a hundred images of deep-fried poems using Adobe Photoshop. When I started, I would make edits directly to the image files I was working with, changing sizes or their brightness or color profiles, erasing the backgrounds to make them uniform. I didn’t realize that with each alteration, I was actually degrading the image file. I had to learn to do protective editing, erasing the background a new “layer,” keeping the photograph intact beneath the changes. I think revising your writing should be like this, too. Save every draft. Never delete anything for good. Keep the essence of the work alive even beneath major revisions.
DAVID: What is one of the most drastic revisions you’ve ever done for your poetry?
NORA:Most people who see my work would think of my deep-fried poems as drastic. But the fundamental principle of deep-frying is about protection. Deep-frying is a way to cook something fragile without burning it or compromising its structure. The batter serves as a kind of buffer between the thing you’re frying and the oil. Recently, my cat knocked a platter of deep-fried poems off my kitchen counter. The poems smashed on the floor—the batter shattered off of many of them. Underneath, I saw that my words were still intact, and the paper was unburned. The original poem had simply been shrouded by batter.
Procedural stuff—frying poems, turning them into Morse Code, even doing an erasure, all make the process of revision visible, and thus somewhat reversible. I’d say my most drastic revisions were actually the gut jobs I talked about before—the revisions where I deleted too many words and could not get them back.
TRAJAN: How would you describe your revision style compared with your outright writing style? Can there be major differences?
NORA: I think revision works best when it is done with the same ethos with which you approach the original writing. Revising a piece of creative writing is really different from revising, say, an academic essay or another type of formal writing whose goal is to make a clear, direct argument. This type of writing, if it is to remain formal, must be revised in fairly regimented ways. But when we take that approach with our creative work, revising it like we would an essay, it can often go against the grain of the work. If you need to revise a poem about deer, don’t mark it up like you would a scientific lab report about deer behavior. Instead, go to the woods and read your poem to some deer. See what parts the deer like, and what parts make them bored.
KAILANI: How do you know when something is “done” being revised?
NORA: When I was a kid, I used to ruin all my drawings. Things would start out well, but I’d overthink it. I’d color in more than I needed to, I’d add more details than could fit in the picture. One day my mom told me about the little man with the hammer. The little man with the hammer, she explained, was a tiny, invisible figure who stood on my shoulder whenever I was drawing. When the drawing was done, the little man with the hammer would tap me on the head. Because he was very small, I had to learn to sense the hammer. The little man with the hammer still lives on my shoulder and helps me when I write. When he taps me on the head, I get a gut feeling—hands off.
KAILANI: Do you have any advice for trying to avoid making your work worse when revising?
NORA:The things we doubt in our work are often the things that make it unique: we doubt those impulses because we don’t see other people having them. In fact, these moments are often what make our work most interesting, and most ours. Don’t revise your piece just so that it looks like everyone else’s. Don’t edit yourself out of your own writing.
I said it before and I’ll say it again: save your drafts—all of them. Even the ones you think absolutely suck. If there’s a poem you hate so much you want to light it on fire and flush it down the toilet, you should do that (and take photos!) but save a backup first. I think every writer should have a graveyard—a document full of deleted sentences or scenes. This becomes a language bank. Periodically, I visit my graveyard and revive old lines. Sometimes they become titles. Sometimes they become their own poems.
CAROLINE: Give us homework! What’s something earthwords readers can try next time they sit down to revise?
NORA: This is a modification of a prompt first given to me by the poet Aracelis Girmay.
First, pick ONE WORD from the piece of writing you want to revise.
If your word starts with A-F – cake
If your word starts with G-L – rug
If your word starts with M-R – ladder
If your word starts with S-Z – light
Now, go and revise your piece of writing into a cake, a rug, a ladder, or a light. How you do this is up to you. As you wait for your cake to bake, admire your newly built popsicle-stick ladder of words, let your roommates trample over your memoir-doormat, or gaze upon your bedroom lamp now glowing with poems, think about what language was most important to your process. What parts of the writing demanded to remain written down in the revision? What parts fell away? Wait a day, or a week, or a month and try revising your object back into a piece of writing.
NORA CLAIRE MILLER is a poet from New York City. Nora received an MFA in poetry from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop in 2019. Nora’s chapbook, LULL (2020), was the winner of the 2019 Ghost Proposal Chapbook Contest. Nora’s poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Bennington Review, Gigantic Sequins, Bat City Review, TYPO, Tagvverk, Hobart, and elsewhere. Find Nora online at noraclairemiller.com.