On Making the Poetry Manuscript

Posted on October 12, 2011

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The Poetry Manuscript: Arts and Crafts

Here, adapted from my article in the 2007 issue of the AWP Job List (there titled Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Poetry Manuscript: Some Ideas on Creation and Order) is a revised and updated advice on making a book out of your individual poems, given as one who reads three-to-four thousand manuscripts a year.

Admittedly, some of this advice remains concrete, generic, and “merely” stylistic, although I suppose even nuts and bolts have some intrinsic value when collected in one place. As style is a matter of taste, you must take into account that what I say reflects my own prejudices and preferences.

Many of these thoughts concern more artistic matters: What is the artistic process as applied to making a poetry manuscript cohere? What are some useful approaches to the art of transforming individual poems into a transcendent whole?

In the next couple of weeks, I expect to expand upon some of these bits of advice, and at all times I invite comments and questions, which may be sent via blog commentary at the end of this installment, or privately, through the “contact me” email button. I hope that you’ll find this little compendium useful.

The art of the manuscript:

1)    When organizing the manuscript, you aim to create nothing less than a work of art. As Robert Frost famously suggested (in so many words) if there are x number of poems in a book, the book itself is the final poem. You’ll want to think about what your book is “about,” and to include poems that carry those themes, that are somehow related, that “speak” to each other. Also, I find that it’s a good idea to tether poems together that are written more or less in the same creative period, lest they sound as though written by different poets – different versions of you. By this I don’t mean to suggest that a book need be written in any particular time-frame, but rather that the book include poems written during a period (a year, two years, five years, whatever) when your creative strategies have been consistent.

2)    Every time we write a poem we announce to the world what we think a poem is. The poems you write when urging – wittingly or unconsciously – a particular aesthetic are the ones that belong in the same book. Spread all of your poems out on the floor, a floor that doesn’t need to be disturbed (easy for me to say, I know) and look at them. Read them. Live with them for days and days. See what relationships seem to be developing between the poems. What does that poem by the bureau have to say to the poem under the bed? Where do you see common images developing? In what directions do your various threads lead? What seem to be your concerns as a poet during this period of creativity, and how do they seem to want to group. What sorts of discoveries are your poems making? The process of inclusion and ordering is organic, calculated, thoughtful, instinctual, unconscious, and a somewhat Zen. You need time to permit all of those matters and anti-matters to work upon you, and upon your poems.

3)    When ordering poems in your manuscript, pay no attention to which poems have been published (and where), and which poems not. At the conclusion of contests, I often (call me perverse) go back and look at the acknowledgment pages of finalists and semifinalists. I find that most poets place an inordinate and mistaken reliance on their publishing history in ordering poems (or in deciding to include certain poems). Many of us assume that because a journal editor smiled on a particular poem that it must be better than the poems not taken, or that a poem taken by Poetry or Agni must be better than one taken by a less well-known print or online publication. I am almost always amazed—amazed—on learning which poems have been taken and which not, and by whom. Nothing could be less relevant to creating a manuscript than whether and where the individual poems found a home. If you believe in your poems, and if you have good reason for believing that they belong together in a particular manuscript, then include them, and order them according to your own aesthetic judgment. Period. If that poem that The New Yorker took doesn’t work in this particular manuscript, save it for another book.

4)    Continue to think about each poem according to: mood / tone; dominant images, characters / speaker, setting/season; chronology, and whatever other categories emerge as important to your own work. However you organize your collection, keep in mind that you are creating a book, and you cannot really know how the poems interact with each other unless you’ve done this work. Make multiple copies of each poem, try different orders with duplicate books, and live with them for awhile.

5)    Make sure the poems that begin your collection establish the voice and credibility of the manuscript. They should introduce the questions, issues, characters, images, and sources of conflict/tension, etc., that concern you and that will be explored in the book. Think about the trajectory of the manuscript: you want to set the reader off on a journey, a path toward some (even if undisclosed) destination, but unless you’re writing an epic, forget about “arc.” The notion of “arc” is, in my opinion, too subterranean to be willed into being in any artistic undertaking, except as a result of the felicitous intervention of the muse of artistic balance. First make the book as a whole work as a whole; let others praise your “arc.”

6)    Read your manuscript out loud, to yourself, start-to-finish. Slowly. Listen attentively. Repeat as needed.

7)    Just because a poem has been previously published, or because last Tuesday you decided it was finished, does not mean that you are required to leave it alone. Rethink, re-enter, and if possible, re-vision each poem as if the Paris Review hadn’t nominated it for a Pushcart Prize. The manuscript that recently has been declared a semifinalist or finalist somewhere is perfectly ripe for revision. The same thinking applies even after (especially after) your book is taken for publication. Each poem is trying to tell you something you don’t already know. Sometimes it takes a poem several years to get through to us. Be attentive. Listen closely. Try things. Try other things.

8)    Once you have created an order that you love, think about dividing the book into separate sections. You may or may not elect to go with distinct sections, but this organizational process will encourage you to think even more deeply about your order, about your concerns, and about what makes a book a book. When you see patterns emerging, you might want to go back and think yet again about revision, about further opening up the channels that permit the poems to talk to each other. Yes this is hard work. We’re poets. This is what we do. This is why it’s harder than the work of being mortal.

9)    Weak poems. You know which they are. Don’t “hide” them inside the manuscript. Don’t include them. Period.

10)  Find an effective title: from the title of a significant poem in your collection, or from a line in one of your poems, or from one of your epigraphs, or try something that may not appear verbatim in your collection at all, but some how signifies, or shapes the manuscript. That said, create about a dozen different titles and live with each for a while. Print out title pages for each possibility, tape them to the refrigerator door, and look at them early and often. Ask someone with cutting-edge aesthetic judgment: I suggest the 10-year-old who’s just figured out why your laptop won’t talk to the  printer.

Nuts and bolts:

11) Less is more. Keep your manuscript in the area of 48-64 pages – show your reader that you’ve done the important work of weeding and pruning.

12)  Beware the frontispiece poem (that poem of yours that you might have elected to place before your numbered pages or before your table of contents). This practice draws far too much attention to a single poem and, in my experience, the selected poem more often than not (80% of the time?) wilts beneath the bright lights. Apply this same cautionary note to the first poem in your manuscript, whether or not you’ve isolated it as a frontispiece.

13)  Spell-check. Spell-check again.

14)  Proof for consistency of grammar and punctuation. Have a friend do this—someone who can spell and has a deep understanding of the rules of grammar. It’s impossible to proofread for yourself, especially a document that’s taken years to develop. You “see” what’s in your head, not what’s on the page.

15)  Proof for the Big Abstractions (i.e., “infinity,” “eternity,”) – the 19th century is over.

16)  Proof for small abstractions (i.e., “dark”) – the 19th century is still over.

17)  Proof for adverbs (carefully). They’re not your friends, unless you’re blessed with the lyrical gifts of Seamus Heaney, the word-drunk genius of Albert Goldbarth, or the million megawatt intelligence and intuition of Anne Carson, in which case, go for it.

18)  While we’re at it, adjectives are abstractions: earn them well (see above, re. Goldbarth and Heaney and Carson).

19)  Proof for mannerisms, i.e., have you use the word “pale” 20 times?

20)  Do you tend to sew up your poems with something willfully plangent (poetic with a capital “P”) or a Yoda-like dollop of wisdom?

21)   Do you tend to begin your poems with a line or two (or an entire stanza) of throat clearing?

22)  Re-read the two preceding questions. Pretend for argument’s sake that you’ve answered yes to both. Now look at each and every poem with fresh eyes and ask yourself: a) Where does each poem really want to start? b) Where does each poem really want to end? Make no mistake: these are deeply artistic matters we’re talking about, here masquerading as craft questions.

23)  When submitting your manuscript, send a cover letter if you like, but not a c.v. If you do send a cover letter, make sure it’s addressed to the intended press and not to some other press or some other editor (you’d be surprised), and don’t address your cover letter to the contest judge (you’d be surprised), and don’t say you’re in the process of a complete rewrite and will be sending the revised manuscript in a week or two (you’d be surprised), and remember that if it’s a contest we’re talking about, then the cover letter won’t be read at all unless you win or come close. If it’s an open reading (i.e., not a contest), I love having an opportunity to know something about the poet.  All this said, in reading and selection manuscripts for publication, it’s all about the work, and it’s only about the work.

24)  Don’t include dedications and thanks on a contest manuscript—there will be plenty of time for that later.

25)  Don’t title a first book submission “New and Selected.”

26) Be judicious about epigraphs—they’re just so much hardware unless a poem clearly addresses or plays off of the epigraph in some intrinsic and transformative way.

27)  Beware the epigraph that you choose to begin the book with or to announce a new section. Ask yourself whether it’s really important to the poem it sits atop like so much hardware. Do you really want your own language to follow Rilke’s or Bishop’s?

That’s more than enough for now. Questions or comments? Please feel free.

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Posted in: Poetry