A Writer’s Notebook: Poetry-to-prose revision

For this exercise, I’m taking an old poem (which I don’t much like) and turning it into a piece of flash fiction (which I like only slightly better).  After that: why I did it.

A Long Distant Line

I am reminded of my dad’s woolen Boy Scout blanket,
fuzz balling across it like mold, laying lumpy across
the field I see as I rest my prepubescent palm
against the painted gray barrel of this old cannon.

Across this rippled drag of lawn
a row of blue matches, aims at me.
I am eleven, unafraid.

The narrow muzzles—too small for the great
steaming cannonballs I had imagined the whole
car trip here—some history student, some intern
cemented long ago. The boy I am is disappointed;

I long to see one thin muzzle
heavy with iron instead of cement
fire, flame and acrid smoke and hissing ball

spit forth across the blanket field.  I want the acid stench,
gunpowder burning, the rebel yell in my ears, blood,
the paint-red blood I’ve seen in films. I have come to see
the history once flat on a textbook page, now aimed

at my face.  I will move on—giddy
with my grandparents in their station
wagon, me sprawled in the open back,

staring at the thin lines of the heater in the glass—I will
visit other places.  Forests brackish green in North Carolina,
the sinking Washington monument, lost hazy days
through a foggy Tennessee. I will go home to my parents,

to my father of Boy Scout days,
my mother of classroom talk, I will
jabber youthfully about white-splattered statues,

echoing museums, silent cannon barrels. And later, when I am
grown, I will discover why they all—grandparents, mother, father,
cold statues on horses, swords drawn from stone scabbards—
why they all smiled sadly as I described the green blanket

fields in gray mornings and
the long distant line of cannon
blue aimed at me.


A Long Distant Line

Digging in the closet for the Uno cards.  Boxes and dust.  I found my dad’s old rug of a blanket from his days in the Boy Scouts, green balls of fuzz growing off it like mold.  It reminded me of something, some other green.

The news was on in the living room.  Friends arguing about the Middle East.

I dragged out the blanket, unfurled it across the bedroom floor, and stared at the ripples and folds it made.  Something.  Some memory.

Then:

The grass lays lumpy all across the field.  I rest my prepubescent palm against the gray-painted barrel of the cannon next to me.  Across this rippled drag of lawn a row of blue matches, tiny black irises staring mute at me from the distance.

I am eleven, unafraid.

Too small for the great steaming cannonballs I had imagined the whole car trip here—the narrow muzzles had been plugged into peace by some history student, some intern.  Cemented long ago.

The boy I am is disappointed; I long to see one thin muzzle, heavy with iron instead of cement, fire into the green summer.  Flame and acrid smoke and hissing ball spitting forth across the blanket field.  I want the acid stench, gunpowder burning, the rebel yell in my ears.  Blood, the paint-red blood I’ve seen in films.

I have come to see the history once flat on a textbook page, now aimed at my face.

I will move on, giddy with my grandparents in their station wagon, me sprawled in the open back to stare at the thin lines of the heater in the glass.  I will visit other places.  Forests brackish green in North Carolina, the sinking Washington monument, lost hazy days through a foggy Tennessee.  Then I will go home to my parents, to my father of Boy Scout days, my mother of classroom talk, and I will jabber youthfully about white-splattered statues, echoing museums, silent cannon barrels.

And later, when I am grown, I will stand not in a dewy morning field but in my own bedroom closet, a deck of cards in my hand.  Then I will discover why they all—grandparents, mother, father, cold statues on horses, swords drawn from stone scabbards—why they all smiled sadly as I described the green blanket fields in green summer mornings and the long distant line of cannon blue aimed straight at me.

This is an old exercise, one I’ve used successfully before (my story “Consuela Throws Her TV Away,” which appeared in Orchid back in 2002, started life as a poem).  The idea is that changing forms changes the way we think about a piece: changing from poetry to prose helps us uncover some of the deeper ideas and underlying story in a poem; changing from prose to poetry helps us hear the rhythms of our language and experiment with richer imagery.  A friend and early mentor of mine, David Breeden, used to turn his novels into screenplays just to tighten up the story and the language before he switched it back to a novel, and he turned his screenplays into novels in order to expand the story and explore character development in the script.

Changing forms of writing is a great revision tool, but what makes it especially cool is that we sometimes discover (as I did with “Consuela”) that the new form is the better form.

For one version of this and other revision exercises, check out the list on the Introduction to Creative Writing blog.

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