On editing poetry, even the *really* old stuff

One bored summer afternoon in the heart of the pandemic, I pulled out two old laptops, crossed my fingers, and plugged them in. To my utter surprise, each powered up.

The teal green Apple (why was that designed to look like a purse??) was my late-college/just-graduated machine. And the HP was the laptop I used for years before my current machine (which, tbh, is probably due for an upgrade itself).

In both, I found the folders where I kept my poetry, pieces I mostly hadn’t edited since their first writing because, young poet that I was, I thought you didn’t edit poetry. You can’t edit art! Cue the pearl clutching!

Oh, you sweet, summer child. Not only can you edit poetry, but you really, really should.

The first piece I took a stab at rewriting from this batch of loot was based on a dream I had of an old beau. Was facing this piece as a thirtysomething woman, nearly two decades after the dream, strange? Honestly, not really. It was fun. Bringing the hindsight of the years, feeling detached from the details of the dream—it all let me be more playful than I might have been. It let me make some stuff up, take some risks, delete some stuff that didn’t mean anything to me anymore. (And it received an honorable mention in last year’s Writer’s Digest Annual Writing Competition, which had me legit hopping around the family room.)

What I share below, now called “A Bedroom Without A Woman, Just Like A Heart, Don’t Have No Beat,” is the second piece I dug into from that early batch, and I’m so pleased with the update.

Yes, I realize this may seem to contradict a previous post, about being kind to the writers we were. But I’m not bashing the college girl who wrote “Smolder.” There are some lovely phrases in that OG poem, and some rich vocabulary. But she was still learning, and the poetry classes she took in college didn’t address the more “mathy” parts of poetry, like structure. Most of that college girl’s hours were spent in journalism classes or the campus paper newsroom, and, unsurprisingly, “Smolder” reads like someone learning and writing a lot of journalism: The poem is a collection of facts, more reported than presented lyrically.

That concept–writing poetry through a journalist’s lens–is an interesting one, a connection I’ll play with (deliberately!) at a later date. But for now, I wanted to share the before and after and encourage those of you who have pages and documents and scribbles of old work: Go ahead and dip back and into it. Updating pieces that are years (decades??) old, remembering who you were when you originally wrote those words, is a delicious time machine.

New version

 ~ Luther Johnson

The other day, I fell in love
with three men at once. One: Robin

and his tiny Einsteins pulsing in the pads
of his fingertips, a body for good

warmth. Tuck me beneath your elbow, sir,
and keep me cozy during the thumpin

jump upon piano keys. Two: Mike, a face
chiseled like his Gretch, saved in stone or clay,

covered in lipstick marks that start as perfect
stamps then devolve to the smears of hurry, hurry

nowgodnow. The way he plays is music-as-acrobat,
crescendo’d body and its thick and plucky strings,

a whispered secret with Morse code blinks
and sign language in the smoke signals

drifting off the fret. Three: Wallace owns the hearts,
keeps them in an accordion of credit card

sleeves, rifles through them when he’s lonely
or calling to a muse. I study the way he plays

trombone, watch the breath stretch the flesh
of his face. I wonder if he’d let me climb inside,

set up a camp chair by a back molar, watch
the teeth, tongue, and saliva Warrior II

from cheek to cheek. I’ll hold his hat when he
really gets down so he thanks me in song, a vibrato

like a cigarette put out 30 years ago. Here, let me rub oil
on your vocal cords while others wait in line. They, like me,

like the others before, want only to help.

The OG poem


I fell in love with three men at once today.

Robin weighs 272 pounds and has gray hair. He is missing teeth, and his fingers house Einstein’s brain to grace the ivory.

Mike is beautiful like chiseled. He has a pointy nose, dimples and gel in his hair.

Wallace’s cheeks are made of flexible rubber. When he sucks in, the tender fleshy parts touch, and the saliva stretches a bridge from check-to-cheek. He has an old-man hat, and he is hip. His voice sounds like a cigarette put out 30 years ago. It still smolders.

Talent can create beauty where there is none: Mike’s guitar reaches a climax because his fingers are skilled in the way of the woman and her plucky strings. His face winks to me that he has a secret to tell. His lips are still while his fingers create a thick, invisible smoke only I can see because we made a pact to go backstage in an hour. I can see the tendons and muscles in his right strumming arm, and the veins in his hand give me directions from here to the House of Blues in Chicago.

I wonder how many times the three men on stage have made love to smitten women.

I bet they cling to Robin, Mike and Wallace with the skins of their nails and the hair on their arms. They don’t realize they’re falling to their deaths on the sharp notes below because they are lost in the music played by the beautiful men.

“A bedroom without a woman is just like a heart without a beat,” said Muddy.

3 responses to “On editing poetry, even the *really* old stuff”

  1. Editing is very hard Jaclyn. I will retire 100% next month. I will edit 30 stories and 2500 poems written over a 45 period. I enjoyed your words and thoughts.


    1. Congrats on retirement, John!! I have to say, I do enjoy the editing process—for both prose and poetry—a lot. There’s satisfaction in making something sing a little sweeter or weirder!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Thank you dear Jaclyn.


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