On Making the Poetry Manuscript — New and Improved, Part I

Posted on September 3, 2014


sharpenerThis and every Wednesday for the next little while I will be expanding on many of the 27 points covered in my earlier post about making the poetry manuscript. If you’ve not read that original post, it’s called “On Making The Poetry Manuscript” (October 12, 2011) and is available here.

But first . . . many poets have asked me recently about the Tupelo Press Writing Conferences: what sets them apart from other manuscript workshops and writing retreats? What can I expect to come away with?

It’s important to me (and might be to you) to distinguish what Tupelo Press Writing Conferences are about, because great writing is at the heart of any successful publishing career, and because (as you’ll see further on) if you’re to make your manuscript a more successful swimmer in a sea of manuscripts, there are things you need to know.

So, here are a few words on what Tupelo Writing Conferences are all about, followed by the “advanced” manuscript-making tip of the week. Of course, you can skip straight to the tip. But the way to make the tip most useful to you has everything to do with knowing what your own, personal, particular poems “need” to set them apart, to make them transcendent, and that knowledge is the essence of what you get during Tupelo Press writing conferences–and it’s that invaluable knowledge that you take with you.

guest room-2The next Tupelo Press Writing Conference is the “Perfect Ten” Seminar in Truchas, New Mexico, high up in the Sangre de Cristo mountains, Friday, October 31st through Monday, November 3rd. Have a long, intensive, transcendent, career-changing four-day weekend with me, along with National Book Award winner Mark Doty and the sensational and inspirational poet, editor, and teacher Veronica Golos. Read about it, and register here.

I’m willing to guarantee you that participation in a Tupelo Press writing conference will be career-changing for you, and it might be worth your while to take a look at the next six short paragraphs before you skip to the tip. As always, I’m happy to answer your questions personally, and can be reached by email here: levine.mentoring@gmail.com.

As Publisher and Editor-in-Chief at Tupelo I have helped to establish and have frequently taken part in other manuscript conferences. About 70 of them, to be more-or-less exact. I call this the “hired gun” model. Poet participants gather and work on their manuscripts or packets of poems for a day or two, then publishers from various presses swoop in from on high, give a panel on what goes on at independent presses behind-the-scenes, and then meet with poets in small groups to give them a realistic idea of how publishers might actually read their work—a “real-time reading.” The publishers respond to each manuscript as if it had just landed on their desks, unsolicited, “over the transom.” After a full day of such critiques, the publishers leave the conference, and the poets and their poet-teachers spend another day or two working on the manuscripts, implementing as many new ideas as possible. This is a highly successful model, and I’ve enjoyed the work and appreciate and applaud the genius in conceiving of it.

But participants often tell me that the day with the publishers (their 45 minutes) seems only a tangential, vulnerable, all-too-inconclusive engagement with them, and that the guest publishers become essentially unavailable to the poets after the quick sessions are done. So that those participants who hang on their every word for those precious minutes then lose access to the publisher. As teacher at heart, and as a fan of artistic process, in this model I miss encountering the “before” without seeing the “after.” I miss the continuity of engagement. And I miss the chance for further, deep engagement with the poet and with the work.

truchas horsesTupelo Press Writing Conferences tend to be intimate (usually around ten participants) and highly intensive. I and the rest of the faculty (if I’m not working alone) are present from the moment we greet you before the first dinner through the farewell breakfast. We move between roles as the moment demands: as publishers, editors, teachers, critics and fellow poets. We dine together, share our stories, our work, and our experience. Before and after our working sessions, we’re available to talk with you about your concerns as writers: about etymology or the “poe biz” or about which presses or journals are right for you. Or we might talk about kids or gardening or the supermoon or Bob and Rex, the horses in the pasture outside the library window. Or our favorite Dickinson poem. (Right now, #325 “There came a Day – at Summer’s full – “ and #432 “I read my sentence – steadily –“ are gobbling up my attention.)

I bring to the Conferences my twenty years of experience (a) as founding Editor-in-Chief and Publisher of Tupelo Press, (b) as reader of thousands (yes, thousands) of manuscripts every year, (c) as leader of hundreds of workshops, and (d) as mentor to dozens and dozens of successful poets. Poets who come to me for guidance want to make important breakthroughs, to earn their way into an ideal readership, to see their work in print in esteemed venues. I am committed to helping poets come as close as possible to those goals. Through my teaching and mentoring I have helped more brave poets than I can count get their poems and books published, as together we unlock the secrets of mastering the art of writing.

I also join you in these Conferences as a fellow poet. My own new manuscripts sit on the shelf behind the desk where I write this. Those pages challenge me to enter and re-vision them, to “do something with them,” just as yours challenge you. Empathy fuels my teaching and mentoring. I leave these weekends with the same mix of feelings that other participants report: somehow at once exhausted and energized, ready to reenter the work, to find what Emerson called the sanity and the revelations of solitude, “up again, old heart!”

Because we know how intense these weekends can be, we have chosen the locations of our conferences with care: on the Maine seacoast (September), high up in the Sangre de Cristo mountains of New Mexico (October/November), down in the lush California foothills of the Bay Area (January). The salt air, the desert breeze, the rosemary- and sage-scented sunsets feed the senses and the soul as we engage together in the important work of reading and writing and revising: the work of being a poet. Candor and compassion arise naturally from these places of beauty.

Ok, you’ve been patient. Now, here’s the first of the advanced tips on the Making-of-the-Poetry Manuscript. (With more to follow next Wednesday, and every Wednesday, for the next few weeks):

 Pull up a chair.

Tip #1

 Here’s the first numbered point in my original post (from three years ago) on Manuscript Making:

 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.

And now, here’s your advanced version:

cattail w msHow do you turn the rather amorphous parts of my advice on manuscript making (i.e., “include poems that speak to each other”) into something more concrete and useful? You’ve sent your manuscript off into the void dozens of times, maybe you’ve had the semi-satisfaction of having been a semifinalist a few times, or the nearly heart-wrenching corroborative tease of having been an unrequited finalist. Or perhaps the void just gobbles up your manuscript over and over again, leaving behind not even a burst of photons.

So there you are again, weary, dispirited, courage at an all-time low, your floor covered with poems, scribbled notes and advice from your best readers on some of them, coffee stains on others, candle wax, a ring or two of red wine, and there they lie in a soup of assorted strategies and type-faces, grumbling at you in a Babel-like cacophony of tongues. You’re ready to let the cat choose the perfect order, but the cat is asleep, as usual, nesting in your shrinking pile of “keepers.”

Here are some ways to rekindle your passions and your justifiable hopes. Get ready to dust off those pages, wake the cat, brew some fresh coffee, and do some things that will make a difference.

First of all, from reading manuscripts, from teaching in about a hundred poetry conferences, from mentoring, from talking with poets, and from reading about 4,000 manuscripts each year, I know that most poets focus almost endlessly on the idea of order, as if finding just the right way to order the poems in a manuscript will make the crucial difference between having a manuscript taken (or win a competition) . . . or not, and that the process of finding the right order means, necessarily, deciding exactly which poems to include, which to exclude.

my desk 2Here’s a wake-up call: Even in the “final” draft, poetry manuscripts are still works-in-progress, the individual poems are works-in-progress (yes, even if they’ve been published), and will remain so right up to the time of the book’s final proofing, and then again before your New and Selected comes out, and once more before your Collected hits Amazon’s promised airborne delivery drones. (Skies filled with poetry; now there’s a dream!) (Sort of.)

As a publisher, I am mainly concerned with the writing. I have to love it. If the writing doesn’t stun me with its freshness, with the genuine feel of risks taken, with discoveries made—if the writing doesn’t make me want to – have to – keep turning the pages, then it matters very little what sort of order you’ve chosen. Don’t let poem order distract you from the more important task of making each poem a polished, exciting work unto itself. Concentrate all of your renewed excitement, commitment, and effort at the level of the line (every line a poem). Then, at the level of the stanza. Then, at the level of the entire poem.

Where to go from here? Well, start by inviting yourself to explore your poems, one-by-one, as if a total stranger to them. Speak them out loud, hear how your speaking voice responds to the inner voice of the poems. What discoveries do your poems suggest as you move through them—and trust that a poem is an exploration even more so than you may already think you do. In what way might a sound suggest another sound, a word suggest another word, and that word imply a different sort of language, and that language signal a different way of thinking or feeling?

Certainly, finding the right mix of poems will lend a deeper resonance to every other poem, and that’s a crucial, important step to take. You are an architect, building a book. Eventually. But you don’t get to reward yourself with raising the roof beams until you have re-entered the poems themselves. You’re going to hate me for saying this, but it’s a good idea at this stage of the process to simply assume that you don’t actually yet have a book. If the book hasn’t been taken though circulating forever, ten-to-one says it’s not the order: it’s the poems. Here, now, take time to imagine a place in which you can discover a deep, abiding, renewing patience.

Let me say it again: I’m suggesting that you start by re-reading your work – each poem in your manuscript – out loud, to yourself, many times over, and in a voice (your reading voice, I mean) that’s neither dramatic nor understated, that’s as devoid of ego as it is interested in the sounds the lines make. I want you to be able to hear for yourself when you might be moving toward a discovery – something you didn’t know when you started writing the poem, something you only dimly imagined being able to know.

truchas peaks placeHere’s a couple of hints about how to determine key re-visioning strategies for your own work. These are, admittedly, rather particularized responses to two rather generalized (if commonly shared) ways of writing. But if you skipped my earlier discussion of what Tupelo Press Writing Conferences give you, then I suggest that you go back and read that stuff now, because you will leave a Tupelo Press Writing Conference knowing how you, yourself, and only you, need to approach this re-visioning process with respect to your very own writing chromosomes.

Hint #1: If you tend to write lyrics that are heavily inflected with narrative elements, try forgetting what you know about making a story work. Forget scene-setting. Forget character introductions. Forget telling the reader how you feel and how you see things. Rather, see if you can find a way to let those elements emerge from the way you describe gestures and summon metaphorical language.

In other words, try thinking of your poems as potent “dreamscapes” in which you, the speaker, “escape” into a place where some of the story is hinted or sketched, but in which things do not necessarily need to add up, to make perfect sense—emotional or factual. Let’s see what happens if/when you permit yourself to revise your poems in a way that permits the dreamscape to take priority over the “story” you first imagined yourself telling. You can work toward this possibility by identifying and privileging evidence of the senses (all of them) that your poem suggests to you. Paint, don’t write, and your oils are images, your oils are the five senses, your oils are “risk” and “discovery,” and your very own unconscious self.

Hint #2: If you tend to write either experimental or highly-elliptical work, think about the place of the pronoun in your poems, think about how the poem might use “gesture” to invite the reader in, how it might use “gesture” to give the reader, even in a tenuous way, the shared experience of “having a look around the place,” and how the poem might make “place” itself signify in surprising ways, and then take leave of the reader in a way that leaves the reader transfixed, then altered. In other words, how will you create some element of dramatic tension where the element of “story” is subsumed? How will you take the chill out of the air? To what solid stuff will you tether your meditations, your language, your images, your questions?

truchas dawn w horses_2_2In any case, see if you can locate what resonates with you and for you. Where is the poem warm, where cool. And as you do this hard, rewarding work, be ruthless with your choices. Just as you’ve bravely assumed that you may not actually have a manuscript (no matter how many pages are strewn around the room), you’ll now even more bravely find the five or ten poems that resonate, that make even you say “wow.” As you work on other poems, you may find some that earn their way into the book. You may find that in order to create a distinguished (and distinguishable) book, you’ll want to be writing new poems. After all, if you do the hard work, you’ll make discoveries, and those discoveries will lead to further exploration, and that further exploration will lead to new poems, and those poems will cohere into a book that will stand an exponentially improved likelihood of finding a home.

Please do join me next week for “On Making the Poetry Manuscript, New and Improved, Part II.”

Posted in: Poetry, Uncategorized