Julie Elise Landry interviews Alison Pelegrin about her revision process


Alison Pelegrin has authored five poetry collections including Our Lady of Bewilderment, published by LSU Press in 2022. She was born and raised in New Orleans, Louisiana, lives in Covington, Louisiana, and teaches at Southeastern Louisiana University. She is the current Poet Laureate of Louisiana.

In Fall 2022, I conducted an email interview with the poet about her revision process, focused on several drafts of an in-progress poem. The interview was an assignment completed for Carolyn Hembree’s course on poetry revision at the University of New Orleans in the Creative Writing Workshop MFA program.


JEL: When you write on lined paper, do you intend for the width of the paper to represent a line of poetry? Or are you planning to address line breaks later?

AP: For me, typing up a poem too soon can trick me into thinking it’s finished—that’s why I try to handwrite at first. For this poem, I was working with a longer line, aiming for a sort of breathless utterance, and it stretched the length of this particular page. I like when everything fits on a single line of the notebook, but it’s not a requirement. I have a good sense of the line, and my line breaks are not very adventurous, so the poem looks pretty basic when written out. And here’s a note about that—my poems look pretty boring on the page. That’s simply how my poems are. Mostly rectangles. It’s tempting to mix things up visually, but I would never want to do that on a whim. If I started experimenting with lineation or fitting everything into stanzas based only on how the poem looked on the page, I would feel like I was doodling or doing a cheap imitation. I’m not saying that you shouldn’t experiment—how do you know how or what to say in a poem until you’ve tried everything? But I encourage you to ignore trends and listen to your poem. It will tell you what it needs. If the form and shape of your poems are organic and arise from content, rhythm, subject, etc., then you know it looks how it’s supposed to look.

JEL: Childhood diaries are in every draft but one. Why did the diaries get cut then restored?

AP: Looking back over these drafts, I think once I took out [other] stuff, it didn’t seem necessary to mention the diaries… Diaries with dated pages deserve their own poem—really, what better way to set a preteen up for failure than to gift a book with a flimsy lock that she is supposed to write in every day? I always tried, and I always felt like an actor unqualified for the role. Like, what is a girl exactly, and how do I be one exactly?

JEL: What typically signals to you that a poem is “finished”?

AP: I usually reach a point with a poem where I never let it out of my sight. It’s in my pocket, my purse, in the passenger seat when I’m driving. That’s the point when I obsess over tiny things—take stuff out, put it back in, start to feel really happy when I read it through. It’s hard to explain, but it becomes clear to me when I have solved what I thought was the last problem in a poem. At the book stage, I have to go back over those poems with a tough editor’s help—someone who will demand clarity of every line and not let me get distracted by what sounds good.

JEL: How many times do you typically revise your poems?

AP: I do not ever number drafts, but I can tell you I revise my poems many, many times. With [this poem], I have been revising the details and story as what I am aiming for comes into clearer focus. This feeling-around-blindly-in-the-dark is one of the ways I compose. If I am working in a fixed form, it’s totally different—I have to revise by the line and the sound as I go through the poem to avoid backing myself into any corners. But as maddeningly difficult as that is, it’s easier than the feeling-blindly-in-the-dark method. The restrictions of form limit the possibilities but also increase the importance of syntax—by a lot.

JEL: How has your revision process changed across your career?

AP: I think that I am slower to finish poems now than I was when I was younger. I don’t know if that has to do with the luxury of having more time—kids out of the house, a lighter teaching load—or with the realization that my poems weren’t always as finished as I thought they were. About twelve years ago, a manuscript reviewer made a comment about the endings of my poems that made my face burn: that I seemed to just quit or fall into an easy pattern. I took that comment to heart, and since then, have only increased the scrutiny with which I look at works in progress—and finished works.

JEL: Would you share any revision tips or exercises?

AP: Ignore deadlines but work diligently. No one is sitting around waiting for you to write a poem, so there is no need to rush.

Know your habits and revise with that in mind—don’t let yourself fall into one of your routines.

Make several passes through the poem—one for syntax, then sound, then sense, then form. You may need to do this multiple times.

If possible, draft the poem as close to its original impulse as possible. With this poem, I failed spectacularly at that, and as a result, I have lost my way.

Pay attention to your sentences, perhaps by writing out the poem as sentences.

In a workshop, know who your best readers are and remember that the poem is yours—no matter what anyone says to do, it’s always your poem.

Use a thesaurus—not just for one word. It can help you revise up and down from that one spot.

Be ruthless about cutting—what section, what lines can you cut? What words can you cut?

Is your poem strange? Weird? Are you having fun? Your answers should be yes, yes, and yes.

There is often a point when a poem gets worse before it gets better. Try not to get freaked out when that happens.

Don’t throw stuff away. If a poem isn’t working, put it aside. Maybe you’ll come back to it. Maybe you’ll strip it for parts.



Julie Elise Landry’s poetry has appeared in Backchannels Journal and The Sigma Tau Delta Rectangle; more is forthcoming in HOOT and Ellipsis. She holds an MA in English from the University of Louisiana at Monroe, and she is pursuing an MFA in poetry from the University of New Orleans. In 2023, she received an Honorable Mention for UNO’s Vassar Miller Poetry Award.