The Cheese Stands Alone; or On Ordering Poems in a Manuscript

Does order matter? I go back and forth about it.

Here’s how I approach a book of poems that I have not yet read. (I just got Bruce Beasley’s All Soul Parts Returned. Very excited. Love his work.) I check the acknowledgments page (professional curiosity — how many of the poems in the volume have been published and where. If there’s lots of good lit mags, I get to feel intimidated and bad about myself). I read any notes in the back, just to get oriented. (This one has lots of notes. I love notes.) I open to a random page and read a poem. I open another random page and read. I look at the cover art. I read the bio. I open another random page. I look at the table of contents to see if there are sections or some organizational system. Only then might I start from page 1.

But even then, I don’t read the book in one sitting, so if there is continuity at work, I might not even “get” it, as I might not come back to the book for another day or so. If there’s no clear narrative in process, the poems may still feel somewhat random, unless the sections clearly group like-oriented poems.

And yet, when I do feel a system at work inside a book, I really enjoy it. “Oh, look,” I can say, “see how this poem refers back to that poem on an earlier page.” I feel like I’ve gotten more access to the poet’s brain, feel a greater togetherness with the poet. Like I’ve gotten some inside joke, or we’ve shared a wink.

I recently got hold of a friend’s fresh manuscript. She is concerned about the order she’s established for the book of poems. So with this in mind, I started from page 1 and read right through. The sections were grouped with a clear idea of why. This appeals to my orderly mind. (Or maybe it’s a disorderly mind, which is why I like order.) But did the order enhance my enjoyment of the collection? I’m just not sure. Under ordinary circumstances, I’m not sure I’d notice much.

Nevertheless, because I was asked to think about order, I started wondering what the collection would read like if the distinctive poems in one section appeared dotted throughout the section. Would this give me a little thrill of insider perspective when I encountered this kind of internal rhythm of certain kinds of poems woven throughout? Maybe. Again, that is, once I settled to read from cover to cover, and if I read from cover to cover in one sitting or in sittings that were relatively close together so that that mind referenced above would remember.

So, does order matter? Maybe. Of course, if it’s a “concept” collection in which something is unfolding or the reader needs to be familiarized with how to read the poems in the collection, then certainly order concerns matter. But how many of us are writing collections like that?

I know that when I read for a contest, I taste from beginning, middle, and end. If every poem I encounter interests me, then that manuscript goes in the Maybe Yes pile. If even one poem falls short, the ms goes in the Maybe pile. If several of the poems fail to interest me, it goes in the No pile. That’s just the way it is. (For more on my experience as a first round reader, see links below.) So in this case, order doesn’t matter very much. But as an author, I want my collection to have a flow, a weave, a pulse of some sort. So in that, case order does matter, if only to me.

So I guess here it is: Does a disorderly order sink a manuscript? I don’t really think so. Can an interesting order enhance it? Yes, indeed.

Am I finding it enjoyable to think about the order of my poems in my ms? If yes, then I should go ahead and shuffle them around as long as I’m having fun. Is it a drag? I guess I wouldn’t expend too much energy, then.

But I’m enjoying shuffling this friend’s poems around, so maybe it’s worth asking someone else to look at order, if that person finds it fun.

But the bottom line is, if every poem doesn’t pull its weight, then no reordering is going to save the ms. It’s all down to the individual poem. Again.

And, by the way, Beasley’s book is fantastic.

https://marilynonaroll.wordpress.com/2014/04/15/notes-from-a-first-round-reader/

https://marilynonaroll.wordpress.com/2015/05/05/notes-from-a-first-round-reader-redux/

https://marilynonaroll.wordpress.com/2017/03/27/new-notes-from-a-first-round-reader/

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Now Hold On There; or Slowing the Revision Process

Recently I slipped while hiking and twisted both my ankles. I was able to hobble out, but this incident has considerably slowed my pace these last couple of weeks as I limp through the world.

I know I should probably say “Oh and this has enabled me to notice more of the details around me,” but I was already pretty notice-y, thus write poetry to do something with all those details I see. No, this change of pace has made me think about my editing process.

I tend to do many things quickly: I walk quickly (a friend of mine told me once she had spotted me “marching down the street” and I felt momentarily self-conscious of my purposeful gait). I think quickly (except in emergencies, during which I’m pretty useless). I drive at a fairly sedate rate, and I don’t know if I speak particularly quickly, but I write quickly, and I edit quickly. Limping through the world has required me to curtail some activities (like the other hikes I was planning to do, or really any walking much at all) but mostly to strategize better my movements and consider more closely my priorities.

This came home to me particularly at the grocery store. I was already in aisle 10; did I really need that thing I forgot to get in aisle 3? I had to think through the item, the impact of its absence, the significance of its presence in my post-supermarket life. Yes, I sighed, and shuffled back.

I wonder if this limping pace might benefit my editing process, that slower level of consideration of each word, image, line, stanza, type of rhythm, punctuation. I was thinking about this as I read a fascinating article by Denise Levertov in which she takes us almost step by step through the writing and revision process of two poems. She had kept her notes and so was able to recall the process that took place over days and weeks of two poems that were making use of ideas years in the making. (I was reading the article, “Work and Inspiration: Inviting the Muse,” in A Field Guide to Contemporary Poetry and Poetics, but the article originally appeared in Fieldin 1969.)

I recognized the one step forward, half step to the side to regain balance, a half step forward, the drag of the more-sore foot pace of the process she describes. It sounded like a good process, necessarily slow and halting in order to get at the depth of the work she was trying to bring forth. I’m going to try to consciously slow my editing pace, to limpify my revision process, in a good way, to bring more strategic thinking in terms of viewing each decision against the bigger picture, reviewing each step in light of the where-I’m-trying-to-go.

We’ll see. I make no promises. I’m already pushing my healing process with these ankles, impatient to march forth again.

Order! Order!; or, On Finding a Unifying Principle in the Disorderly Poem

I have been trying a new approach to writing poems these days, very different for me, who usually has a stranglehold on word and idea. I’ve been kitchen-sink-ing it these days.

I start with an image and anything that occurs to me around that image which seems at all relevant to why the image caught my eye, I throw down on paper. And I do this for a while, leaving a file open on my desktop to add stuff to as it occurs to me as I wander around my day. After a while I start rereading them to rediscover what’s there.

If it seems like I’ve got a heap of stuff that has some relation — a bunch of silverware perhaps, or cups and saucers — then I pick through to try to create short, more orderly passages. I try to find threads to weave and gaps to fill. I toss to the bottom things that either don’t seem to quite fit or are blathery or boring, but I don’t want to throw away just yet. Often I find similar versions of the same idea, so I have to decide which one is most interesting, or twist a handle here, ding a tine there, so there’s enough different that I can keep them both. And I start to try line breaks, stanza thingies, start to clip and shift my way toward rhythms. And I try to find the point beyond which an idea I’ve thrown in just cannot stay.

It’s in this editing process that I bring some order to the mess. I do insist, it seems, on having some kind of organizing principle or through-line of reason. (Which it seems puts me out of touch with so much of contemporary poetry I read, poetry that tolerates the, to me, wholly tangential, the inexplicable, the, what I call, “hunh? quotient.” Of course, these contemporary authors may indeed have their own organizing principle for the seemingly random utterances. But what is it? What is it? What the hell is it?)

I am concerned about making sure there’s some kind of connective tissue at work in a poem, a line of thinking that at least somewhat clearly loops back upon itself. I want the reader to happily take leaps with me, not find themselves legs flailing over an abyss.

It doesn’t always work, of course. I have heard from some of my readers that they have at times in reading my poems found themselves all Wile E. Coyote-like, dingetdingetydingety over a poetic cliff. They don’t care for it, I hear…

Some of these poems I’m working seem to want to stay long and unwieldy; some hope to strike out across the page width-wise as well as length-wise; one floundered itself into an essay form instead of poem; one just got whittled down from four pages to one stanza. I’m not sure if any of them quite add up yet to more than the sum of their parts. But I’m enjoying the process at the moment. This devil-may-care flinging of stuff into the sink with a clatter.

“Who am I, why am I here, why did I cut my hair, I look like a squirrel”; or Thoughts on Poetry of Place and Self

I periodically dip into A FIELD Guide to Contemporary Poetry and Poetics, an anthology of terrific essays, attested to by all the pages I’ve dog-eared because of the wisdom therein. This time I read Larry Levis’s meditation on Donald Hall’s meditation on the poetry of place, “Eden and My Generation.” He writes, “…[F]or a while in the late sixties and early seventies in this country, it seemed to me that almost every American poem was going to locate itself within a more or less definite place, was going to be spoken usually in the first person singular, and would involve, often, …testimony to the poet’s isolations.”

Levis suggests that from a poetry of place in which place was specific and represented a lost Eden, this kind of poetry of place has been shifting in favor of finding different ways to imagine the imagery and ideas of that loss. Of the poetry of place in general he notes, “It is the geography of the psyche that matters, not the place.” He notes “Eden becomes truly valuable only after a fall, after an exile that changes it, irrecoverably, from what it once was.”

“And yet most younger poets still testify precisely to this alienation and isolation, this falling from Eden. Only they have changed it. It is as if the whole tradition has become, by now, shared, held in common, a given…,” he observes. He wonders, “Again, in some unspecifiably social sense, it may be that places themselves became, throughout much of America, so homogenized that they became less and less available as spiritual locations, shabbier and sadder.” He considers, “it may be that this…new homelessness…is what a number of…new poets have in common when they practice the ‘meditational’ mode–for what they tend to hold in common is, at heart, a contradiction: an intimate, shared isolation.”

But I wonder if this isn’t exactly what poetry is, an intimate shared isolation? Don’t we sit alone with a volume in our hands seeking to find contact with another mind/body/soul/individual? Maybe I overstate it. And maybe he overstates a poetic drift away from poetry of place. But as I read desultorily across literary magazines and volumes, I do find less about exterior place and more about interior place, specifically the interior place of identity. Is this the new home that we’re writing about, the home of who we are, or think we are? And is self-identification by definition an exercise of comparison to others, in some way an oddly collective act? Funny.

Very Well Then I Contradict Myself; on the First Person Perspective in Poems

I have worried sometimes about my use of “I” in poems. The “I” is certainly not always me; sometimes it is a character or a handy perspective point for the observations around which it is wrapped, a simple first-person eye-to-the-telescope.

The tricky thing with the “I” is that often for an effective poem, the “I” can’t be too full of itself. It can stand in the way of the reader. Sometimes the “I” is useful for starting a poem, but then it might need to be edited out as, in the writing, the poem becomes more about what that “I” saw than the “I” seeing. What is the correct balance for an effective poem between the “I” doing the seeing and the thing seen? Sometimes the “I” throws off the balance.

If the “I” is needed, there needs to be enough transparency in the “I” that it can easily become you-the-reader.

This makes me think of a larger philosophical question about the self. This is the wonderful writer Olivia Laing from her book To the River: “…is it not necessary to dissolve the self if one hopes to see the world unguarded?”

It occurs to me that to make good art, there does need to be a dissolution of the “I;” but then possibly its re-creation as a vehicle for the art, an eye for the seeing.

Which makes me think about a rhetorical question posed in an introduction to a poet at a reading I went to recently, a question I thought was supremely dumb. The introducer asked: Are all poems self-portraits? Of course they are/are not and what’s your point? Of course they are a product of wild imagination shaped by the individual experiences of the writer, and a fake wig and glasses, or stripped down to nude and dancing a watusi. I mean, really. Then there are issues of form, function, experimentation, imitation. There’s wordplay, nonsense, dreamblather. And the possibility of this reconstructed “self,” this constructed “I.”

Lorrie Moore in an article on LitHub said this: “Fiction writers are constantly asked, Is this autobiographical? Book reviewers aren’t asked this, and neither are concert violinists, though, in my opinion, there is nothing more autobiographical than a book review or a violin solo. But because literature has always functioned as a means by which to figure out what is happening to us, as well as what we think about it, fiction writers do get asked: ‘What is the relationship of this story/novel/play to the events of your own life (whatever they may be)?’ I do think that the proper relationship of a writer to his or her own life is similar to a cook with a cupboard. What that cook makes from what’s in the cupboard is not the same thing as what’s in the cupboard–and, of course, everyone understands that….[O]ne’s life is there constantly collecting and providing, and it will creep into one’s work regardless–in emotional ways.”

Which loops me back to the “I” and who the “I” is or who it can be.

Bertrand Russell wrote: “An individual human existence should be like a river — small at first, narrowly contained within its banks, and rushing passionately past rocks and over waterfalls. Gradually the river grows wider, the banks recede, the waters flow more quietly, and in the end, without any visible break, they become merged in the sea, and painlessly lose their individual being.”

I think that merging occurs, in a poem, through the use of visceral verbs and vivid images, not through words that represent emotions. No “I felt…” but the depiction of a body feeling, a body in the world. Maybe it’s me. Maybe it’s you. But I know we’re all in this together.

The Best Revenge: or, Writing the Human

I’m not a forgive-and-forgetter. I’m more of a I’ll-let-it-go-this-time-but-it’s-going-in-your-permanent-record type. So you’d think I’d enjoy a good revenge fantasy poem. But, having encountered a couple recently, I find I feel impatient with them. Why? Do I think art should show the best we can be, not the worst? The best AND the worst, maybe. But revenge fantasy, nor even actual revenge, is not the worst of us. It’s the pettiest of us. And for that, perhaps, it has not, at least in these few poems I read, fulfilled for me the act of art. I can do petty any old day. It takes real strength of imagination to conjure the worst of the human impulse. And the best. I ask from poems this kind of imagination. In a revenge tale, there’s always a bad guy and the victim, even if the roles reverse. And the victim’s act of revenge has an aura of holy justice about it, no matter how bad is the act. There is a god-like nature of the revenge act that is not as interesting to me as the exploration of the flawed and contradictory human nature.

This is a bit of a tangent, but I saw the movie I, Tonya recently, and found it fascinating. The filmmakers gave us no heroes, nor anti-heroes. Every character is fucked up. But somehow not entirely unlikeable. At least not 100% of the time. It’s a crazy story of crazy people in a crazy subculture in a crazy world. Just as cartoons sometimes reveal the world more truly than a photograph, so this cartoonish movie somehow showed the tragic nature of humanity. It’s billed as a comedy, but only in that comedy and tragedy are so closely aligned. I found it a deeply sad movie. And satisfyingly so, because of the manifestation of gray areas, the beautiful chiarascuro of the human plight of living with ourselves.

 

 

Formtion, Functiorm; or On Navigating Form and Function

I had been working on a multipart essay when I wondered if it was really a sectioned poem. So I spent days and days easing, tapping, tweaking, clipping each segment into lineation, attention to rhythm, structures, and all the various things that poetic forms allow/require of us. And now I’m not sure it works. But the process has been interesting.

On the one hand, the poeming process helped me make the language and sentences more taut and efficient, catch repetitions, reorder thoughts. Creating lines allowed me to inject additional suggestions into the ideas, or even with a line break subvert what I was saying, or at least question it.

But too often, the lines gave gravitas to places I didn’t really want emphasized. It made some ideas too weighty, too self-important. Some ideas I wanted to slip in with more subtlety, subtlety that demands of lineation did not seem to allow.

So I’m going to take the newly taut language and spread it back out, give some good fat back to some of the sentences, allow a more languid pace.

But I also realized that one thing I was looking for in this poetic exercise was another layer of thinking, or a honing of direction. I am still in the process of finding that. I read a novel recently and thought, “Hm, that was a pretty interesting idea in search of a good story to find itself inside. This wasn’t it.” I fear that’s what I have on my hands right now.

Or maybe function will follow form. If I make it a play, maybe I’ll figure out what I’m trying to get at. Maybe an opera. Perhaps it’s best as a haiku.

I think I need to do more thinking work to distill what’s important about what I’ve written down. And I’m hoping this process of traveling back and forth between genres will help — the way you isolate an egg yolk by tipping it back and forth between pieces of egg shell, letting the egg white slop out.