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.


Another Round of Notes from the First Round

It was time again for my task as first-round reader for a poetry book contest. Once again I approached with self-doubt and angst. Once again, I learned some things to apply to my own work.

The twenty-five or so manuscripts I looked at were uniformly pretty well-written, which tells me that people are taking the time to learn something of the craft of writing (or at least reviewing the rules of grammar) and the art of poetry.

But I found that several of these full-length manuscripts felt more like solid chapbooks with other stuff stuffed in around them. This is interesting and a useful cautionary tale. I need to examine my own current full-length ms to make sure I have truly a full group of good poems and not a core of good ones and some bubble wrap.

A corollary to this is that it seems like collections are getting longer and longer. And I’ve noted in an earlier post that contest rules are asking for mss that are of higher and higher page count. I just don’t think this is a good thing. I want a book of poems to be a small world I live in, roaming around, revisiting streets and vistas. I don’t want to wander forever in strange terrain. Too many times I’ve encountered collections that after a while make me say “Enough already.” This is not good for poetry, already fighting an uphill battle for readers. Too many poems invites too many weak poems. I favor shorter and stronger throughout. Whack ’em with some good stuff and go.

“Ahem ahem”: I found that, no lie, 80% of the manuscripts were chock full of epigraphs: epigraphs for the ms as a whole, for sections, for individual poems. And 98% of the time the epigraphs added nothing to the experience of the poem. Why why why do people do this? It seems like a lot of throat clearing and paper shuffling. Unless they provide some vital context, I just don’t see the point. I began to resent this imposition on my time. They’re unnecessary ruffles. Think of Jerry Seinfeld’s puffy shirt. If you want to use someone’s line in your work, have at it; just give them a nod in an end note. But epigraphs? Enough. Stop hiding behind someone else. Just start the poem, poet.

I also found often that I didn’t understand people’s line break decisions. I tried counting syllables or beats, in case I was missing a form or something. But an awful lot of the time the line breaks seemed suspiciously random. (I’ve written about line breaks before: Line Item) So I need to go back and stare down my line breaks, justify them to my now line-break crabby and hyper-vigilant self.

Finally I read a couple of mss that were interesting in content but in the end never transcended their own material. I talked about this a little bit last time with regard to essays. Where is the emotional center and how is my vision being shifted? The same goes for poems: experience has to launch to something beyond itself. Otherwise a cigar is just a cigar. And where’s the art in that?

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.


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?


Please, sir, could I have some blurb?

I have a new book of poems coming out in the spring, so that means I’m working with the publisher on cleaning up the poems, finalizing their order, and dealing with the cover, which includes the dreaded task of seeking blurbs for the back cover. I thought it might be useful to other people facing the same task to share how I went about it.

Who on earth to ask? You want to have as recognizable names as you can get, so people picking up your book will say, “Oh, I’ve heard of Blinky. If Blinky likes this, it MUST be good.” (Of course, reality check: Few people pick up poetry books at all and even fewer would recognize ANY name on the back. So you can’t sweat this too much.) So first I scrolled through my mental addressbook for better-published friends. They would be the easiest touch. But this is my second full-length collection and third collection overall, so I’ve already hit on many would-be blurbers already. I had two or three friends left on that list though, so I chose one of them.

I was fortunate enough to attend an MFA program, so I had a few people left from that experience whom I hadn’t already hit up for blurbs for the other books. (I had previously asked one of the people I worked with closely for a semester, but that person said “No, I don’t write blurbs for anyone.” Meeting faculty who will help you get your work out, including by writing blurbs, is one of the understood functions of MFA programs. So that person’s unwillingness, to me, is a violation of the understood contract of these expensive degree enterprises. Certainly, it could have been an excuse not to write a blurb for work the person did not believe in. But I really don’t think so. He/she had never been anything but supportive of my work. I would rather have been told “I’m too busy” than “I don’t do that.”) So I was left with: a mentor who had given me the impression he/she didn’t really think much of my work, the second reader for my thesis, and the program director, neither of the latter of whom I’d worked with directly at any depth. And I finished my program 5 years ago — would they even remember me? So I chose the latter two, figuring one of the two would be too busy, or I’d never hear back.

Then I thought, what current poet would I love to have see my work? Could I be ballsy enough to reach out to a stranger? Why not? What — I’ve never heard “no” before? So I found contact information for a poet whose book had come out to much acclaim and which I had greatly admired (and written a book review about), and sent off an email.

What on earth to say? I kept the emails brief and light. I gave them the option to opt out on the request entirely if they were too busy; and I requested only that they give the manuscript a read to see if they were inclined to write a blurb. I didn’t want to act presumptuous that if they read it they would automatically begin to spout praise. I wanted to at least offer them the option, however awkward, of begging off after they had seen the work. I thought this was important. I wanted to recognize that not all work speaks to all readers, and to make that okay. This was especially important for the person who didn’t know me at all. I also wanted to make sure I asked early enough that I could give them at least a month, preferably more, to read the ms and write the blurb.

I am happy to report that they all said yes. I was able to give them all plenty of time. I only had to gently nudge two of them, who responded immediately.

I now have an embarrassment of riches of blurbage, and am now negotiating with the publisher and book designer about how to fit them all or some portion of them all on the back cover. This is a good problem!


More Better Blues

I asked a group what they do to move their poetry to the next level. I got a lot of advice about writing prompts at first. But is the key to writing better poetry writing more? I guess it’s a multi-lock door requiring several keys. More is surely not necessarily better. You could just be generating more of the same. Engaging in translation projects has sometimes, I believe, helped me re-engage with my own work with new spirit, which can lead to work that feels more interesting. “Read widely in other arenas” is another useful piece of advice, I find. Reading in the sciences often jumpstarts me to try interesting things, which can often make for better work. Other good advice I’ve received is to examine my poems’ ambitions and in what ways the poems may fall short. Also, are there things I tend to do in my poems that end up being a crutch or a habit rather than a conscious decision that enhances the poem? Someone suggested reading outside my comfort zone, which seems like an interesting idea. Although given my tendency to be an impatient and crabby reader, that may not be the route for me. Another key must be to read more and to read with more of a “how’d this poet pull that off?” eye. I think the old arts tradition of imitation is a good idea too — painters recreate old master paintings, musicians copy great phrasing, we can write imitations by substituting our own words and leaps and silences into the structure of others’ great poems to try to get an intimate sense of how they did what they did. So anyway, write more, yes, but write more better. Now, if I only I could stop procrastinating.


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?