Recently, I was organizing notes on my iPhone and ran across an early draft of a poem that I had written, complete with a list of publications that had rejected it.
I love my most recent version of this science fiction haiku (also known as scifaiku), which reads:
at the barre
the graceful arms
of a spiral galaxy
— first appeared in Rattle‘s Issue 49, Fall 2015, Tribute to Scientists
I was excited when this poem tied for a second place Dwarf Stars Award in 2016. The Dwarf Stars Award is given by the Science Fiction and Fantasy Poetry Association (SFPA) for the best speculative poem of ten lines or less published in the previous calendar year, as voted by the SFPA community. (Please submit your 2021 published science fiction, fantasy, and horror haiku next year! Nominations are open to anyone and usually occur in the spring.)
But my poem didn’t start out like this. In fact, early versions were barely comprehensible.
My inspiration for this poem came from my daughter, who was taking dance class at the time. One of the ballet positions – fourth, if I’m remembering correctly – had one arm curved over her head and the other curled around her waist. She reminded me of a spiral galaxy.
I thought this was a nifty comparison, and I conjured a row of little galaxies standing in front of a ballet barre. Such a lovely image should be easy to put into words, right?
I wanted to be scientifically accurate, so I began to research spiral galaxies. I discovered that their arm positions determine whether they are classified as spiral galaxies or barred spiral galaxies. The shape that reminded me most of my daughter was barred – an SBc, to be exact.
This is an early draft of my poem. Yes, I actually sent this out for publication. No, it was not accepted. At the time, I thought the image was perfectly clear.
spiral galaxies —
intergalactic dance troupe
in “b” position
Can you see me cringing? It’s my poem, and it doesn’t even make sense to me.
A good first step in editing haiku is to let the poem sit until you can look at it objectively. That might take days, weeks . . . or, as in my case, years.
I set this poem aside after it was first rejected. But I knew I liked the concept, so I kept revising it. I continued sending the poem out to editors, and it kept on getting rejected. Despite the rejections – and there were a number – I hung in there. I knew I had something beautiful. I just couldn’t figure out a way to express it to anyone else.
Another good rule of thumb: if you have a poem you believe in, don’t give up on it. Maybe the world isn’t ready for it yet. Or, perhaps, it just needs more editing.
My latest view on self-editing haiku is that I am going to keep reworking my poems until they either get accepted for publication or I am thoroughly sick of them. This method has led me to a number – sometimes, a frighteningly large number – of revisions per poem. (In last week’s New to Haiku, John Hawkhead describes a great way to organize these various edits.)
When you start editing a haiku, it’s helpful to determine the subject or subjects of your poem. What are the two images you want to juxtapose? What are the key words in your haiku?
I kept the spiral galaxy because I felt that was the core of the poem. I needed at least one dancer for the juxtaposition.
“Intergalactic” is a very heavy word – it takes up lots of syllables – and it wasn’t adding much to the scifaiku. Once I had a spiral galaxy, my poem was already set in outer space, so I didn’t really need intergalactic.
You might notice that the original version of this poem has a syllable count of 5/7/5, whereas the final version doesn’t. That reflects a learning curve on my part. I initially thought English-language haiku had to have 17 syllables. Haiku can be written this way, but it’s not required (by most haiku journals, anyway).
No matter the number of syllables, don’t add extra words to your haiku to pad the syllable count! Intergalactic was one of the first words I pared away.
Keep your focus on what excites you about the poem. What prompted you to write it? Thinking back to my original inspiration for this poem led me back to the ballet barre. Barre was a strong word to use because it both evokes the ballet and gives a nod to barred spiral galaxies.
When you can, make your words do double (or triple!) duty. Every word in a haiku has to earn its place. Once I put the barre in, I could take out the entire third line. The “b” in “b position” stood for barred anyway. Eliminating that clunky verbiage allowed the poem to flow. Soon after, I realized that I should use the word “arms” to evoke both people and galaxies.
Finally, I had the pieces I needed to assemble a comprehensible sci-fi haiku.
So, hang on to your poems that resonate with you, even if they start out rough and take years to write. Haiku (and scifaiku) can be deceptively tricky to craft. “At the barre” needed distance, perspective, and research to come together.
If you found this post helpful, check out Alan Summers’ New to Haiku interview, in which he describes the process of crafting one of his haiku.
Do you have editing tips to share? We’d love to hear from you in the comments!
Also, if you’d like to dissect one of your own poems (with an early version and a later published haiku) for an upcoming New to Haiku: Adventures in Editing post, let me know and I’ll be in touch. I’d love to make Adventures in Editing a regular offering. Thanks!
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(Author’s Note: An earlier version of this post appeared on my personal writing blog, Stars in my Sugar Bowl, in February 2017.)