Forest for the Trees

by Gerry LaFemina

If you’re ever on the island of Tobago, I urge you to take a tour of the Main Ridge Rainforest with Fitzroy Quamina. He’s worked in the Reserve for years; he grew up on Tobago and studied forestry, so he knows his stuff. I met him when he pulled beside us as we walked through Castarra and asked if we had been looking for a rainforest tour. We had been, and quickly, his warmth and enthusiasm led us to trust him. We scheduled the tour for the coming Saturday, and off we went.

In the back of his truck, he had several pairs of Wellingtons in different sizes to ensure that we weren’t trekking through the mud puddles and waterfalls in our sneakers; his capacity to hear a distant call and identify it in a couple of notes could have made him an extraordinary contestant on Name That Tune, the tropical bird edition. The thing that impressed me most though was his ability to look to the left and point out the closed den of a trapdoor spider, then notice a flash of color in the distance 200 feet away and call our attention to a bird we hadn’t seen before: a green honeycreeper

Fitzroy saw things I couldn’t see. Even after an extensive tour, I still knew little. I was a novice with an expert. I asked a lot of basic questions, the way my students do. They often complain that they don’t see what I see. They have to be taught to pay attention to the poem in ways that writers do when looking at their own work: that’s one of the things workshop teaches–the crucial close reading that allows us to see the poem. Revision is a journey into the rainforest of the poem. We need to see everything, hear everything, and we need to tread carefully.

First off, it’s important to be prepared for the poem. I’m particularly thinking in terms of revision. We need to wear our Wellies, rubber boots with good traction, but loosely laced so that our ankles have flexibility. Not too high as to be uncomfortable, but not too short that water might get in over the top. Fitzroy made sure we had water and pointed out places to pluck mangoes. Sometimes it’s hard to be prepared to edit poems. In the workshop class we hope that entering the classroom, the supportive, scheduled environment will be preparation enough, but for editing on our own, it helps to have a clear head, lots of time, and our Wellies: which is to say we need to be ready that we might get into some deep mud.

Often, a student will point out a phrase in an early line in a poem, saying it “doesn’t work” or that she doesn’t know “why the poet chose that word.” Other students might agree, and just as I see the poet getting ready to cross the word out of the poem, I might point out how the sounds in a word on line 2 resonate with a sudden burst of internal rhymes in lines 17-20, thus the phrasing that didn’t seem to work actually was preparing the reader in a way for the aural sensation the poem emphasizes later on. The poem, like the rainforest, is an organic whole, and paying attention to the anthills underfoot (“don’t stand still too long, those ants will bite if they climb up your leg”) and the purple flora at eye level simultaneously is crucial. We have to be paying attention both to the various aspects of the poem and the poem as a whole.

The part and the whole are symbiotic. Forest and trees.

Often novice poets talk about the line break as if the most important aspect of the line is the word it breaks on, what resonates at the right margin, that word sitting at the end of a branch in its feathery finery, is the most important thing on the tree. But the break is only as important as the line it is part of. The break defines the line, not the other way around. More, the break also defines the next line by defining what’s on the left margin. The bird flies away; the branch remains. How sturdy is it?

Fitzroy pointed out the invasive bamboo that grew amid the forest. It looked beautiful like it belonged among the other flora of the preserve, but no. How do we recognize if something in our poems is alien, that it doesn’t belong in what we’re working on? Some rhetorical flourish or interesting metaphor might enamor us? Often, I’ve heard a student in workshop say to another poet, “I really love this image…” about a simile only to have me point out that the image has nothing to do with the rest of the poem, that it calls attention to itself in ways that might not help this particular poem. “Kill your darlings.” The invasive bamboo is beautiful, but it needs to go.

With that, of course, is the conservation and reforestation of other aspects of the poem: develop, pursue, push this image, that sound. Maybe add a metaphor that reconsiders phrasing from earlier in the poem?

In order to do this, we need to know the poem. Novice poets often begin workshopping as they read along the first time, crossing things out even before they’ve gotten through the poem once. Read the poem. Read it again. I’m Fitzroy in these moments, trying to point things out about the moment of line 3 and the whole poem simultaneously. Then, begin the work of editing it. Revise. Revise. Remember the poem is an ecosystem, a rainforest we’re trying to experience. We’re fostering growth even as we suggest paring back; every line break and image has to contribute to the experience. That doesn’t mean there aren’t tensions in the poem; it just means the poem is like a forest made of trees. Try to see both in the process of revision.

The fact is we need to pay attention. The rainforest is continuously changing, and the more Fitzroy’s seen, the more he’s aware of what’s new (to him) in the Main Ridge. Fitzroy, in the end, was always listening, always looking, always keen for what’s possible. Sometimes, it’s easy to think we wrote the poem, we know the poem—what’s there to pay attention to? The temptation is there, no doubt, to give the revision process less attention than the composing process. Give the fortieth trip through a rainforest less attention than the first, and we might find ourselves sliding down the wet rocks of a waterfall.


 

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