LA Blog #3 Death Valley edition — July 10, 2020

As promised, this week’s blog will demonstrate how a poem, or more specifically, how one poem, the Pushcart Prize nominated poem Death Valley 6.2 developed from an idea to a finished poem.

Let’s get started.

At the onset, I had an idea of using the idea of Death Valley as a metaphor for both the way I was feeling at the time, and for something larger than that. It would probably be useful to know that in Los Angeles, where I live, we were having one of our yearly heat waves when I started the poem. To say life was uncomfortable is an understatement.

Here is the first draft:

Death Valley

Arid moonscape
no living thing
visible in post nuclear
light —
there are days
the very letters of its name
taunt you to stay alive
and the sound of that valley,
what sound there is,
is your own voice droning
endlessly behind your shadow

Who could stand
to live in such a place
where the only embrace
you allow is the desolate highway
fleeing from you as fast as it can.

_______________________________________________________

That was my rough draft. I put my ideas, basic imagery and the tone I was attempting to achieve in this first draft, however I knew that this was a draft and there was much work to be done.

Here comes a confession: I number and keep copies of most of my poems as a teaching tool for my students (here comes the confession part) — somehow, however, I have been unable to find Death Valley 2. I will proceed with Death Valley 3.

_________________________________________

Death Valley 3

These are the penned in days
you stay alive just to taunt
the letters of its name;
and the sound of that valley
what sounds there is,
is the endless whine
of your own mocking voice

Who could stand
to live in such a place —
where the only embrace you allow
is the desolate highway itself
fleeing from you as fast as a dervish
or the memory of spring.

The husk that was once
your heart lies face up
on the valley floor —
the breath
animating the tumbleweed empties
into a hellish salvation.

Arid moonscape
no living thing
visible in post nuclear
light–

____________________________________

You will notice a few things between the two versions — for one I’ve moved some of the ideas around. For example, in the first version, I began with the arid moonscape. In my mind I was imagining a full moon in a cold blank sky. By the time I got to the third version, I realized that if I started instead with a human being (i.e. the self) I could engage a reader more easily. And being a lover of puns, I added one: These are the penned in days. What does that mean? I write most of my work with a pen first before it gets to the computer or what not.

________________________________________

Death Valley 4

These are the penned-in days
you stay alive just to taunt
the letters of its name;
and the sound of that valley,
what sound there is,
is the endless whine
of your own mocking voice

Who could stand
to live in such a place —
where the only embrace you allow
is the desolate highway itself
a ribbon of ink

The husk that was once
your heart lies face up
on the valley floor —
the breath
animating the tumbleweed empties

into the visible salvation
of post-nuclear
light

_____________________________________

The poem is getting closer now to what I envisioned when I started. I often read my work aloud to myself as I am working because I can tell where the clunkers are that way. The poet Michael C Ford shared that technique with me when I was a baby poet myself. You might not think that reading the poem aloud would do much, but just try it.

What has changed: I dropped the dervish idea almost immediately along with spring and the arid moonscape. (I will put the arid moonscape back in later) At the end of the second stanza I added a ribbon of ink (which pleased me mightily) as you will see later on.

Now, I’m not going to tell you everything there is to know about the different versions, you need to see for yourself how they change and how the changes work . Let’s go on.

_________________________________________

Death Valley 5

Who could stand
to live in such a place–
where the only embrace you allow
is the desolate highway itself
a ribbon of ink
and the sound of that valley,
what sound there is,
is the endless whine
of your own mocking voice.

These are the penned-in days
you stay alive just to taunt
the letters of its name;
the breath
animating the tumbleweed empties
into the visible salvation
of post nuclear
light.

The husk that was once
your heart lies face up
on the valley floor.

__________________________________________

Here comes the final version:

Death Valley 6.2

Who could stand
to live in such a place–
where the only embrace you allow
is the desolate highway itself
a torn ribbon of ink
and the sound of that valley,
what sound there is,
is the endless whine
of your own tattered voice.

These are the penned-in days
you stay alive just to taunt
the irony of its name;
the breath
animating the tumbleweed
empties into the visible salvation
of post nuclear
light

In the arid moonscape
the husk that was once
your heart lies face up
on the valley floor.

__________________________________________________

That’s it for tonight — if you have any questions, send me a message.

Laurel Ann Bogen

___________________________________________

One note about the title of the poem. Originally it would have been Death Valley. It would have been through six revisions. I gave it one last look-through and changed two words. So I wrote (for myself) Death Valley 6.2 (six versions / 2 words) but when I stopped and looked at what I wrote I realized that that made a cool title itself and I kept it.

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