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.

 

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On Poetry Craft: A Megablog

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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New Notes from a First Round Reader

It’s that time of year again, and I am wading through the entries. Here’s how it works with this publisher: They amass a cadre of first round readers for this full-length poetry manuscript prize, then randomly assign 20-25 titles to each person. Our assignment: Find only a handful to recommend on to the second round readers. The few, intrepid second round readers then choose one or two from their piles to recommend up to The Final Committee, who hash it all out in some hidden corner of the world until the white smoke rises on a new winner.

Here’s the thing: I have an aesthetic. There are kinds of poetry I am highly unlikely to connect with.  There are topics I tend to be bored with. That being said, although I thought no more interesting work can ever be generated at this point, for example, about dead parents, I have found yet a new and inspiring take on the subject. I am always happy to be surprised, happy to be contradicted. I know I have a perspective on poetry that will inevitably exclude collections that others might fall upon gladly and lift to the heavens. I am, at least, aware of my biases, and there are times when I have the sense that a collection might be considered of high merit by someone other than me — in such cases I might throw it back to the editor to suggest someone else read it, or I move it forward in the hopes I’m somehow on track with that intuition, even if the poems themselves are not of great interest to me.

But mostly I just accept that I like what I like, and I’m doing the best I can to remain wide-eyed and open-minded. Ish.

That the publisher has identified a group of readers with varied aesthetic I believe is true, as there are years when the winner is a manuscript I would probably have passed over. This terrifies me, but should be of some comfort to you. When I, yearly, confess my terror to the publisher that my narrow view will fail to catch the Next Great Poet, the publisher waves me off with aplomb, assuring me that they know that good work will be passed over, but that good work also will rise. And there’s always next year.

If your collection is one of those that might fall outside the pie-slice shape of my taste in poetry, I now and publicly apologize. But contests are a crap shoot. You get the first reader you get. That’s why persistence is key. You might send the exact same manuscript to this contest next year and get a more sympathetic reader. It’s just the game.

So, please, I beg you, as a first round reader who knows my limitations, try, try again.

Post-script: Some notes:

– If the instructions say to take out the Acknowledgments, then TAKE OUT THE ACKNOWLEDGMENTS. That you’ve had a poem published in Poetry is not likely to make me more likely to move your work forward.

– Insert page breaks between your poems. Do not just hit return until a new page appears.

– Don’t do fancy formatting with titles. All that work happens when your manuscript gets accepted and goes to layout, and you’ll just have to strip out the fancy stuff anyway. Don’t underline them or bother to italicize them or indent them or such unless you have some particular reason for doing so.

– As I’ve said in previous posts, 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 good work, and I’m only supposed to forward a handful of the manuscripts, so in the end, I’m looking for reasons NOT to move your manuscript forward. Don’t give them to me.

Previous posts about this experience:

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

https://marilynonaroll.wordpress.com/2015/05/05/notes-from-a-fir…und-reader-redux/

https://marilynonaroll.wordpress.com/2016/05/23/no-good-news-not…sts-depresses-me/

No Good News: Notes from a Second Round Reader, or Why Judging Poetry Contests Depresses Me

This is a continuation of previous posts called Notes from a First Round Reader. This year, by reason of computer glitch and miscommunication which led to a slight sense of desperation on the part of the publisher, I was asked to be a second round reader. This time I’m to review a dozen or so of the manuscripts that have filtered up from the First Rounders. I’m to pick two or three to be sent up to the Powers That Be. I am one of four people with this task. Terrified with power, I quickly sweep through the first several poems of each manuscript. I more slowly read several more poems in each manuscript. Damn. There is not a damn thing wrong with any of these. If I were to encounter any of them between the covers of a nice looking book, I’d be perfectly content. None of my snarky “Really?”s, none of my “What the…?” or “Are you freaking kidding me?” These are all fine manuscripts. DO YOU KNOW WHAT THAT MEANS? Not only am I going to have trouble picking three, it also means that I now even more profoundly understand the competition when I send my own manuscripts out.

In the face of a dozen perfectly fine manuscripts, I must now try to identify factors that raise a few above the crowd. Now I’m searching for innovative, imaginative approaches — to language, to subject matter, to perspective or approach. I’m looking for something special, new (or, new to me), something to make me say Wow. Mere thoughtful autobiography is not enough, however lovely; musings on motherhood not enough, however, witty or gritty; that death comes to us all — insufficient; the way herons drag desire across a marsh, no; inexplicable juxtapositions of nonsensical utterances however whimsical, nope. I’m looking for guts and invention, for idea and blood.

And all the while I’m nursing a terrible sinking feeling that my poems do NOT yet have that something special, my collections are NOT yet innovative, inventive, or addressing something particularly compelling or in compelling ways. I HAVE TO UP MY GAME. Oh. Large sigh. Damn you, fine poets. Can’t you just go write fiction?

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Oui ou non?

Making conversation in French class, a classmate asked me if I write poems for myself or for my readers (or, at least I think that’s what he said…). I said that poetry was an inquiry and I wrote them to ask questions of myself (me demander) and hoped that the inquiry was of interest to others too. Now I have to go back to my current manuscript-in-progress to find out if that grand statement is in fact true. Nothing worse than catching one’s own self in a lie. But it occurs to me that bringing that mindset to an editing process is actually pretty useful. Often a poem isn’t working because it already knows too much. The more a poem can wonder, the more open-ended and interesting it can become, both for the writer and for the reader. Oui ou non?

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Notes from a First Round Reader Redux

I found myself quibbling quite a bit with Ted Kooser’s Poetry Home Repair Manual book, but I couldn’t help but think recently about his plea for clarity as I was once again enmeshed in my first-round reader duties for a poetry book contest. Wow, I got some really good manuscripts — fresh, creative reading pleasure. Of my pile of 15 this year, 3 asserted themselves right away but many of the rest were strong maybes. Of the maybes and the no pile, several were just too hard to figure out what the heck the poet was up to.  The maybes were at least being unclear in an interesting, energetic way that at least had me thinking the fault in comprehension and appreciation was mine. But in the end, if I can’t come away from a poem seeing the world differently in some way, or maybe not even the world, at least the world of the poem, or maybe the world of poetry, then what am I doing? If I the reader can’t hear what you the poet is saying, then has a poem been actualized? I’ve always resisted thinking of the reader when I write, but I did find myself sympathetic to Kooser’s call to have some regard for the reader, whoever your ideal reader might be. And now after this year’s reading experience, I may need to rethink my own approach. Maybe the reader is a necessary ingredient in the making of a poem — not in the initial impulse, as that would put a damper on it that energizing utterance. But as one part of the editing process, maybe this idea of considering the reader isn’t a bad one. This is a difficult exercise, as, of course, I know what I mean, so how do I go about imagining a reader who is NOT like me, and who may NOT know what I mean when I say the “rooster garbages the snow as a motocross,” or whatever. It will take a different kind of act of imagination. And how will I know when it’s worthwhile to make the reader take a leap with me? Sometimes those readerly leaps are what make reading poetry worthwhile. Hm. So much to think about.

For my earlier Notes from a First Round Reader, see here:

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

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Who are you

To continue the conversation from last time regarding putting together a poetry manuscript: I was reminded that who the reader is may have much to do with how he or she approaches a collection. A reader of poetry, one who bought my book or borrowed it from the library (or who had me thrust it upon them and he or she reluctantly opens it out of some sense of guilt or ancient loyalty), will likely enter and peruse willy-nilly. But a press editor or a book judge will likely start at the beginning. And as I don’t have an editor eagerly awaiting any output, I will need to create a manuscript that is likely to be read from the beginning, and in such a situation, the mind of the reader naturally seeks connectivity among the poems. I just found myself thinking recently, in my role as a judge of a book contest, “Hm, this just doesn’t hang together as a collection.” I was startled to find myself thinking that, in light of my own desire to have a collection that just exists because it’s poems I wrote in a certain period of time. What I think I meant in that case was that the poet, in the end, indulged herself too much and threw in what felt like all the poems she’d ever written. 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 tried my patience and did itself a disservice by meandering and feeling jumbled and uneven after a while. So am I saying shorter is always better? Well, maybe you can get away with more variation if you leave the reader-judge/editor wanting more. Which brings me back to an earlier posting complaining that so many manuscript contests are specifying 60 pages or more. So many opportunities to weaken a collection as I stuff more poems in to meet the minimum! Seems pointless and cruel.

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