Growing Your Eyes, by Elisa Albo
When I tell my beginning poetry students at the college that Chekhov famously said he could spend all morning putting in a comma and all afternoon taking it out, a few will roll their eyes; the rest stare blankly. Despite discussions and exercises, the scant revision in the final portfolios of many students at the end of a term attests to their disdain for revision, their lack of understanding of the process of evolving their writing. Thankfully, I’ll also have one or two students who will write down a quote like Chekhov’s in their notebooks, take suggestions to heart, and work hard to find the poem in their respective rocks. They make teaching fulfilling; they may well be writers.
I wear contact lenses, and about every six months now, I make a desperate call to my optometrist. I can’t see, I tell him. When I’m in front of a class trying to read the tiny print in the encyclopedic literature anthology, the letters blur together, or I’m squinting and getting a headache every day reading off the computer. If I can’t read, I can’t work! I’m picturing poverty, meager disability checks, my children forced to forego higher education. Calm down, he assures me, we’ll fix you up, and he always does. He gives me new eyes.
As a writer, I’m always trying to improve my eyes, to learn to see and re-see my work with a fresh vision, to re-vision form, content, diction, delivery, music, meaning—every aspect of a poem I can and can’t describe.
While taking my first undergraduate poetry workshop at the University of Florida around 1980, I sat on the low wall between the old and new libraries, as we called them then, working on a poem when my professor, Lawrence Hettrick, who went on to edit The Chattahootchee Review, walked by. Without a word of greeting, I said, “I’ve written a poem.” He sat down, plucked a pen from his pocket, and immediately and silently made rapid and extensive revisions. “Type up the revision; bring copies of the original and revised versions to class.” Then he was gone. Instant class exercise, I now know.
I stared at his edits, how he’d pared away the detritus, replaced flabby verbs and Latinate words with simpler, more muscular and musical diction. It was as if my poem had burst the block and emerged with its original intention from my subconscious, if not entirely from my own pen. This was an early experience that helped evolve my editing skills to another level. That’s often how we learn, from such modeling and example, why artists copy the masters in museums, musicians imitate, why we type out a Hemingway story to learn how to manage dialogue, why we read widely and deeply, why we wait, and study, why we’re fascinated by process, how someone creates, so that we might glean a skill, hone our craft, push inspiration into the creation of art.
Several years ago I took a workshop with Thomas Lux at the Palm Beach Poetry Festival. After two or three days of listening to him discuss other participants’ poems, each one line by line, it suddenly dawned on me exactly what I needed to do to improve the poem I’d turned in with copies the first day. The next morning I rushed in about a minute late, new copies in hand, everyone seated and set to begin, and whispered to Lux that I wanted to replace my original poem with this revised version. “This happens all the time,” he said. I’d cut words, yes, but I’d learned in a couple of days to better break lines, simplify, clarify, how to have as much confidence in the phrases that “tell” as the phrases that “show.”
Instead of making editing suggestions, after discussing my poem, which celebrates my mother’s prodigious cooking talents, Lux asked if my mother might consider adopting him. I was pleased, of course, but more astonished that in so short a time span, Lux had given me “new eyes,” helped me better see what the poem required, and he hadn’t even seen the poem he helped me revise. This was the value of his workshop, the value of any such activity that refreshes and refines perspective. We can learn to revise, to re-vision in myriad ways. Writers are open to the evolution of their process, should be to these internal, crafty revolutions, nurturing and growing it in some way every day, growing their eyes, which is to say, their hearts, ears, and minds.
Below is the poem I revised in Lux’s workshop, recently further compressed and now divided into stanzas. As Paul Valery once said, “A poem is never finished, only abandoned.”
My mother peels ten pounds of potatoes
in one sitting. She mashes half, dices
and fries the rest to make three Spanish
tortillas, the thick potato and egg staple
of her country we eat in wedges with bread
or slyly slice away between meals, tortilla
diminishing like a clock vanishing five
minutes at a time. Each time she drives
four hours for a visit, she makes chicken
with the tortilla, breast filets pounded thin
and fried to a crunchy non-oily nirvana
in corn flake crumbs, or bacalao, salt cod
sautéed in olive oil, simmered in pimento
peppered tomato sauce, served over white
rice, though there’s no describing it and if
she serves it at a dinner party, you best
not reveal the menu to friends not invited.
My nephew nearly swoons when she cooks
vaca frita (literally fried cow—Cubans tell it
like it is) shredded flank steak cooked crisp
with onions. We won’t go into her egg-tuna-
potato salad with sliced olives, camarones
enchilados, or creole shrimp, the lasagna,
its huge pot of tomato sauce simmering on
the stove we dip hunks of bread in or steal
by the spoonful, her arroz con pollo, quick
omelettes for the just-got-home-at-an-odd-
time-and-starving, the late-night meals
following late evening meals. Settled into
recliners after dinner, kitchen cleaned up,
children put to bed, television on, she’ll look
up and say, What are we going to eat?
She finds nothing unusual in a French fry
or potato chip sandwich. My mother does
not believe in balance, but in abundance,
abandon. She downs Cuban coffee, many
cups a day, a whole pot in the morning
with several cigarettes, but come into her
kitchen bleary eyed, wanting, and she’ll offer
you a plate, a bowl, a taste of something.
Elisa Albo was born in Havana and grew up in Lakeland, Florida. Her poetry has appeared most recently in MiPoesias, Gulf Stream, and The Potomac Journal. Her chapbook Passage to America was published by March Street Press. She has an MFA from Florida International University and teaches English, ESL, and creative writing at Broward College. She lives with her husband and daughters in Ft. Lauderdale.