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.
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.
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.
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.
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.