Putting Together a Manuscript of Poems: Everything I Can Think Of; A Megablog

Putting Together a Poetry Manuscript: Everything I Can Think of at the Moment

You have been working diligently. You discover one day that you have 50 or 60 poems, maybe more, you think, gee, it’s high time I had a book of poetry published. What comes first? I’m not talking chicken/egg, I’m talking about which of the poems in the pile in front of you should come first? Gaah! you cry. This will not be the last time you cry gaah, but here are some ways to approach the process.

The Collective

You are putting together a collection of poems, so you might take a moment and think about the collective. A bunch of disparate poems may not a collection maketh. Nor does a tight group of thematically or otherwise related poems necessarily make a good collection. Too much difference makes a collection feel random. Too much sameness makes a collection feel boring.

If you’ve been lucky in your life, at some point you’ve been a member of a group that has cohered, has been able to embrace a level of diversity, strengthen the connective tissues, and make of itself a functioning thing. Experiences like this are fun, and fine. This is what you want to make of your poems. I was part of a singing group that started as the Five Fabulous Females. Tall, short, prim, ribald, soprano, contralto, Broadway-oriented, bluesy. Viva les differences. Things quickly fell apart, however, as one member seemed to want different things from the group through a different process, and we never actually performed together as five. Then we were Four Fabulous Females. A performance or two later, things fell apart as one member seemed to approach things with a different sensibility to the rest. Then there were three. We three went on to perform together many times and remain friends to this day. So it goes. You could put out a collection of poems some of which live uneasily with each other. Or you could hold out for a good team.

So taking a deep breath, ruthlessly read through the poems, and by instinct and without much thought, put to one side poems that cause a little hitch in your confidence, a tiny question of readiness, any momentary hesitation. They might be able to be saved, but for this first round, anything questionable has to be put aside. Don’t worry about how many you’ve set aside and how many are left. You want the core of your manuscript to be the best poems you have. Then anything new you have to generate or revise you know you need to raise to the same standard.

Ordering the Disorderly

Go through again the group that is left and again in a quick sort, without too much thought, mark poems that seem to be addressing similar themes or issues. Maybe put a different color dot for different themes.

Go through again and mark in some other way poems that are similar in form or approach.

Go through again and mark in some other way poems that use similar imagery perhaps or share some other similarity.

Now put all the like-themed poems together. You might find several streams of themes — put the groups in some (at this point perhaps random) order and read through the whole thing. Make any notes on what you’ve learned or poems that seemed particularly well suited together and poems that were too similar and should not appear next to each other.

Now maybe reorder them using the form markers and read through again. Make your notes.

Now reorder in whatever other similarity markers you have used and read through the whole thing again. Make your notes.

This is exhausting and you will periodically want to just go to the top of the stairs and throw them down and then leave them in whatever order is left when you clean them up. This is also legitimate. Do it. Read through and make notes.

You will probably come to find that there are poems that seem to want to be in close proximity and poems that do not. You should begin to find that some kinds of bunches work together and some do not. You may begin to feel that too much similarity of some of the poems will dictate that they should be spread throughout the manuscript, their similarity functioning as stitches that tie the whole thing together. Trust this process.

You will likely have some outliers. It could be that they belong to another manuscript all together. You will feel panicked by this, because you have now lost a number of poems and no longer have a full length collection. This is the way things go. Better to build from a good base than to shove 60 random poems together and hope they work.

Your chosen poems may be falling into natural groupings. Should you make them into discrete sections? Not all manuscripts have to have sections. But sections can help to focus the collective attention of both the poems and the reader. So if groups seem to fall naturally into sections, make sections. If not, don’t worry about it.

There are all kinds of ways to order poems. Try as many as you can think of, but keep in mind the idea of “collective.” I attended a dance performance recently in which one piece was made up of short dances to 24 short pieces of music. In the end, I felt that what we’d watched was 24 short dances, not one coherent dance. The performance seemed to go on and on because there was no arc connecting the dances together. The same can be found in poetry collections. Try to find and highlight some kind of connective tissue, to reveal some kind of arc.

Filling It In

At one point I thought I had a manuscript just because I had a bunch of poems I wrote in a certain (lengthy!) period of time. But in the end it felt like a collected works instead of a slice of a concentrated period of a mind working. In the end, as a collection it did itself a disservice by meandering and feeling jumbled and uneven after a while. I had to identify some central concerns and…yes…write new poems. Once you have a pile of your best work set in some kind of order, you will begin to see where the gaps are and/or where you need to create more work that supports and lengthens what you’ve collected thus far. Thus your assignment: write on.

But Wait

Give some thought to what the collection is getting at, what themes are being considered, what of your obsessions are being visited, or are you exploring a kind of form, or an image, or a period of time, a person, an event. If you had to write a blurb for the back of your book, what would it say? Once you’ve captured that, are there poems that clearly lie too far outside that statement? Maybe put them aside for another collection.

Take a Step Farther Back

You will not thank me for this, but I have to raise the issue: Is what you’re saying compelling? Is how you’re saying it compelling? The fact is the poetry publishing world is competitive. Many able poets are writing very competent poems in collections that are not very interesting. Many interesting writers are offering collections that are not very competently written. Why not strive to be both writing well and thinking deeply, imaginatively. Push your work into places where you don’t entirely know your way. Wonder does wonders for work. Imaginative + vivid + fully felt = winning combination. By imaginative, I mean evidence of a lively mind at work. By vivid, I mean something special in the language (my preference) or the form or the approach. By fully felt, I mean some emotional gravitas.

I was reading a manuscript of someone else’s poems recently, and they were really good poems. Very competent, lovely poems of domesticity and parenthood. But, I thought to myself, some element is missing. Is the problem that I’m just not that interested in poems of domesticity and parenthood? I didn’t think that was it. I decided finally that what I was missing was a kind of reaching. This very able poet was not reaching beyond her grasp. She knew the world of her poems too well. If I call what I wanted from this manuscript more risk-taking, what do I mean by that? It’s a sense, I think, of a mind in motion rather than a mind at rest; questions asked and pondered rather than answered. What does it mean for any of us to take risks in our work? How do I write a poem that feels risky to me, that feels like I’m peering over the edge of something, and something that makes the reader tremble there too? Is risk about subject area, form, language, meaning?

A friend says, “I demand emotional risk. Not necessarily confessional, but someone willing to open a vein, or why are we there anyway?” I think I agree about “emotional risk,” but I’m just not always sure what that means — both in what I read and in what I write. And I actually don’t always need “emotional” risk, but SOME kind of reaching, whether emotional, craftish, wordish, conceptual.

You do not want to hear this. You do not want to do this. You may not have sufficient distance to look at the collection from this perspective yet. Either put the collection away for a little while until you can get a fresh perspective, or…ignore me and sally forth. Whatever you do, do not give up.

Where To Begin

There is likely one poem you think is terrific and should open the collection, and one or two poems that feel conclusionary in some way. You may be wrong. Don’t settle too quickly on the opening poem. It may very well be the last decision to be made, once you settle in to the feel of the whole manuscript.

The first poem should teach the reader how to read the whole manuscript. It should give some sense of what the reader can expect.

The last poem should open out somehow, so the reader feels like they’ve opened a new door back into their own life through which they see things differently.

This is a lot to ask of opening and closing poems, I know. But if our reach does not attempt to succeed our grasp, etcetera.

And Then

Proofread. Proofread. Proofread.

Regarding typeface and format: Make sure the way you designate titles is simple — all caps for example, or bold. Don’t make it too fancy. But make it consistent. The same goes for section headings. In headings and text, don’t use obscure tyepfaces. If you are playing with spacing or other odd presentation on the page, be prepared to submit your work as a .pdf in case transmittal screws up your careful play.

The End

Make sure every poem kicks ass. The more poems you put into a collection, the more likely it is that you’ll include ones that aren’t as strong as others, which weakens the collection. Remember, there are a lot of poets out there, and a lot of people doing really good work. Be one of them.



Have no fear, Underdog is here; or Neverwhere Everywhere; or The Trick of Living Alive

I have finally “discovered” Neil Gaiman. Wow. I just finished Neverwhere, which I’d picked up on a whim, long after a friend told me that I should read him. Why the book was in the YA section of my library, I have no idea. I guess adults aren’t supposed to read works of fantasy? Oh, but the world is too much with us.

In Neverwhere, an ordinary bloke helps out a stranger who turns out to be a VIP with the London underground. Not the metropolitan transit system, but the world under the Underground, where people from aboveground have fallen through the cracks and time is a funny thing. There are all sorts of good and evil doings down there and our unlikely hero gets involved and comports himself admirably, all the while only wanting to go home to his normal life.

SPOILER ALERT here: His normal life turns out to be not all that, and he chooses to go back down to life underground.

This is a dangerous ending, it occurs to me. He chooses life underground because he had a purpose there, he could be of service, and things were exciting. This is why soldiers sign up for another tour of duty. This is why people join extremist groups. This is why I am, a year into my unemployment, beginning to feel desperate enough to consider taking a real job or some other insane thing that will just shake me out of the humdrum of this lovely life I have and purportedly give me purpose.

Our hero could have sought a better job, could have NOT settled for the girl in Accounting, could have shaken his normal life up in some normal way, rather than choosing to throw his lot in with the fantasyland of below. I’ll bet you that life didn’t turn out to be all that either.

This desire to live in a hyperaware moment can be dangerous. It is one of the things that makes homecoming so difficult for people who have been in combat. But it’s not so dissimilar to that living-wide-awake notion that Buddhists talk about. Is there some way to bring that alertness, without the fear-based edge, to daily life — that seems to be the challenge.



Trying; or On Writing in the Essay Form

I’m essaying essay again, and, I say, it’s not easy. I sway and sashay between knowing and no no, and oh, forget it. Foregoing knowing for shoving shovels of details, the retail of retelling, but what am I selling? I start with specifics and go on and on in hope the whatnot will give way to some what: a quest, a question that reveals itself in the veils. Or me. Oh me. Or you. The ideal “we” of the “in this together,” but I’m stuck on the weather. Whither from the wind and wet? Onward ot eht egde edge the to to the edge. Or start again. I want to write about what I’m writing about, but why? I can’t say. And so I can’t say. Oh, essay. I why. I try. I flail and flail again.

On Poetry Craft: A Megablog

I posted this a year ago, and am reposting it as full of useful thoughts on craft. Well, useful to me anyway. Maybe you too.

O Write: Marilynonaroll's Blog

I’ve been keeping this blog for several years now, and decided to combine all of my posts thus far that have dealt specifically with issues of poetry craft, as I’ve wrangled over the years with my own poems.

In the document linked below, you’ll find general observations, notes on some specific poems, and, most importantly, my thoughts on the guts of poems and editing considerations. I hope you will find something in there of use. Write on.


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Untitled; or WTF; or And So It Goes

“Will you let me take my long steps in the cold sand?” — Gerald Stern

Evening breathes onto Lake George, a subtle fog wrapping the hills, the electric lights slowly sharpening the figures of the Stony Creek Band, the Lac du Saint Sacrament eases its white bulk behind the stage, and a graceful touring vessel, its warm wooden interior lit against the night, drifts toward its dock. Beautiful. On the drive home down the highway, I suddenly flashed to Syria. No one can travel there with such aplomb. Bombs, checkpoints, gunfire. There may be beauty there — moments of it in a sunset, in a family celebration, a song or prayer. But can anyone there feel this freedom of movement and easy pleasure? I recently was among a small group of people listening to a woman tell of a decision she made that had had unexpected benefits. “It was meant to be,” she proclaimed weightily. Everyone but me nodded solemnly. “That’s a load of crap,” I thought to myself as I looked away. Things are not “meant to be” — my friend’s son’s death, an acquaintance’s stage four cancer, a refugee’s terror and desperation, a casual trashing of a pristine island, the just-in-time winning streak of someone at the racetrack, the missing of a ship that then went down, an unforeseen meeting of two old friends. None of this was fucking “meant to be.” It’s a lucky life. Lucky, lucky life. Sometimes. Or not.

Inside Out; or Engaging the Inner Life Outerly

Recently I read an article exhorting newly published writers, and the rest of us too, to protect the inner life. It suggested that the outer life of taking in hand the trembling self and promoting the work, giving readings, trying to get reviews can all chip away at the inner life. And I thought yes, this is my problem. I’ve been overly concerned with what my outer life could/should/would be, leaving my inner life to grow wan and undernourished.

But I wonder, as I wonder about all perceived dichotomies and dualities, if I’m missing something with this perspective. Because I have learned that so little of life is dual or dichotomous, so little is always one thing or another, so much is mutable, connected, tricksy.

When I am working well, I am at ease. My outer life can be whatever it happens to be when my inner life is engaged. At least, to some degree. If my outer life is engaged, my inner life is content to travel along. At least, for a while. So the inner and outer lives aren’t quite two things, nor are they a continuum. Are they that thing of light, particle and wave? Are they the Pushmepullyou?

Is it really about the sense of engagement, regardless of the nature of it? A sense that I’m “working,” the brain firing, the mind making leaps, that I’m reaching out and the world is reaching back in some way — is that what I’m looking for, whether it’s to be found in a rich discussion with other people, or a task well done, or a fruitful day at the page? In this way inner and outer are only the gallery of engagement, the engagement itself the goal.