I always like to begin the mentorship process by asking the poet to explain how they landed on the poem. It begins with a simple question: What inspired the poem? I do this so that the poet can circle back to the root of the poem’s origins. Sometimes this helps the poet consider (or reconsider) things they may not have initially considered when writing—the poem’s goal, word choice, form, and so on.
When I explored this with Laura Maloney for her poem, “An Unhinged Jaw,” I encouraged her to consider telling the truth in her poem since she shared with me that her poem was inspired by an actual event (the poet witnessed a snake in the beginning process of swallowing a frog). In the first draft of her poem, Maloney decided to change the frog to a bird because she initially thought the chirping she heard was coming from a bird, not a frog. I believed the image of the frog (“front legs pressing against / the snake’s slit eyes”) was more striking and interesting than Maloney’s initial image of an imagined bird.
We also considered changing the form of the poem. At first, I thought the poem would benefit from being a single stanza (to compliment the shape of the snake and to speed up the pacing). However, Maloney and I both discovered that the couplets were more powerful because as Maloney stated, “[the couplets] swings it back and forth between the two species.” I also realized the white space created a slowing down of the poem, adding to the impact (or lack thereof) of the grim moment.
Every step of the way, Maloney was open and attentive to the revision process, and this is how I know she has a bright future as a poet.
Ali Black Ali Black is a writer from Cleveland, Ohio. Ali is a current graduate student for poetry at the Northeast Ohio Master of Fine Arts program and she is the poetry editor for Gordon Square Review. She is the recipient of the 2016 Academy of American Poets University & College Poetry Prize for her poem “Kinsman.” Her work has appeared in December, The Rumpus, jubilat, The Offing and elsewhere. Her first book of poetry, If it Heals at All, is forthcoming from Jacar Press.