Unediting Your Poem: Frank’s Letter to the Workshop

Frank Rubino’s letter of invitation and inspiration to the weekly Red Wheelbarrow Poets’ Workshop of February 23, 2021

Hi Everybody-

Perhaps many of you saw “Jack Kerouac’s Mexico City Blues” https://youtu.be/inMs5loNcvg this week on KEEN’s Facebook page  https://www.facebook.com/groups/1595959980642796/ . (Also at Penn Sound  https://writing.upenn.edu/pennsound/x/Bittencourt-and-Katz.php ) It documents a 1988 “investigation” of (or investigation using?) Jack Kerouac’s “Mexico City Blues” at NYCs The Kitchen  (A great excerpt from Kerouac’s 1959 poem of 242 “choruses” is here  https://poets.org/poem/mexico-city-blues-113th-chorus)

The Kitchen event must have been quite long, starting at 3 PM on a Sunday but the video features 26 readers, and runs a mere thirty minutes with some commentary. (We had about 26 readers at the last WCW Center open mike.)

Oh my goodness I just saw that Lawrence Ferlinghetti died. He is a commentator in this video… 


I really loved hearing Kerouac’s words, and I love the form of Mexico City Blues; it’s an ancestor of Ted Berrigan’s Tambourine Life, a compound of smaller pieces, which I talked about in an earlier note (remember Ted’s vast bandaid?) But I don’t want to talk so much about the long poem, or even the passages selected for the video. I want to talk about selection itself. Editing.

Unedited work. Doesn’t that idea make you squirm? Loong poems. Don Zirilli said long poems are like getting stuck in the corner with someone at a party.

I like the edited experience this video presents. (Of a writer who typed on rolls of paper and who stated that first, unedited thoughts were best.) Because who doesn’t have a half hour to watch this? I generated a whole load of lines this weekend which I want NOT to be one long poem and I’m thinking about what it means to edit them like his video was edited. How do I approach it? How do I find the succinct expression of length? The thirty minute version of my “choruses”?

Often we think of a poet’s job to be like an editor’s. The poet edits the poem to get the “ best” poem. To expurgate the “junk.” Poetic language is the product of the poet’s work.

But spokenness, appropriation, rhetoric, erasure admit the value of that junk line or junk stanza: that discarded speech has some human experience behind it, some lived-through impulse. To make your poem relevant to your contemporaries (which is the thing that matters most if you want your work to be read in the future, after you’re dead, and they speak differently about so many things) you have to really grapple with your discards, to acknowledge and draw in your poem’s opposition. Why did your poem want to say that? Is there something real in the cliche? Your poem’s length and ragged edges have crucial roles in making it fresh, responsive. 

What do you leave in your poem? There is natural drama in the high vs the low, the dirty vs the clean, the mess vs the geometry. My step Daughter, a fiction writer, said “Poetry is just word replacement, fill in the blanks.” Cheeky. It’s the blanks too though. Do you have blanks in your work?

Author: dzirilli

poet, cartoonist, editor of Now Culture