As you may know, every week (usually on Wednesday) for the next little while I will be expanding on many of the 27 points covered in my October 2011 post about making the poetry manuscript. If you’ve not read that original post, it’s called “On Making The Poetry Manuscript” and is available here. This is the third installment.
Here’s point #3 from my three-year-old post on Manuscript Making:
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.
And now, here’s your advanced version:
Can we talk for a few minutes about these lines? 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.
I find that many poets I’ve encountered in person in seminars, conferences, and on paper through the evidences of the 4,000 manuscripts I read each year, and in the casual accumulation of day-to-day life experience, are almost universally willing—eager, in fact—to make the editors of journals who have taken this or that poem the arbiter of whether that poem is deserving, and by applying certain and perhaps understandable hierarchical algorithms to the world of literary journals and magazines (this journal has a difficulty/esteem ratio of 3.5, that one a 7.2), to judge exactly how many points a published poem has earned—how many feathers for the cap.
Let’s be honest. Would we really leave that poem we published in The New Yorker a year ago August out of the manuscript we’ve charged, lightly armored, to defend the gates of Troy? (Let’s just say for argument’s sake that we have, in fact, published a poem in The New Yorker.) Don’t we want that weapon? That kudo? That cred?
Of course we do! We love The New Yorker. We worship The New Yorker.
But, do we honestly agree with the aesthetic judgments of The New Yorker? (Let’s just say for argument’s sake that we have not, in fact, published a poem in The New Yorker.) (Let’s just say for argument’s sake that we could wallpaper a small mansion with our accumulated rejection slips—or the electronic equivalent—from The New Yorker.)
Of course we don’t. How many times have we heard ourselves to mutter, “Are they kidding with those poems? My two-year-old could write a better poem!” (Don’t hold this against me New Yorker. It’s just, you know, humor. Sort of an analogy! I love The New Yorker. I love everything about The New Yorker! Especially Roz Chast. Soon I will send you poems and I will pray to the gods that you take one, and my life will be all good or at least, better, my mother will paste it up on her refrigerator alongside Mary Oliver, and I will thenceforth only malign the aesthetic judgment of some inconsequential litmag. Promise.)
We hear the grief-laden stories and we ourselves contribute all the time—daily, really—to that Vast Edda of Rejection, Which Is The Void, Which Is The Destroyer of The Ego, Which Is the Legend of Incomprehensible Editorial Choices, Which is the Reason For Flourless Chocolate Cake.
The Internet (the social media part that applies and appeals to writers, which is, I think, most or maybe all of it) is always buzzing with the lore of rejections and exhortations to perseverance and of the merits of submission services and the advisability of multiple simultaneous submissions plotted against life-expectancy graphs, these tales leavened with the very occasional inspirational notes of triumph and consequential great relief and righteous celebratory just deserts of having one of our outliers taken on the 48th try. As if.
As if all of our poems deserve, equally, to see the light of print, and in Ploughshares or The Paris Review at that (see New Yorker? Just talking here.) As if this particular lamb rejected as unworthy two dozen times now is, in fact, the potential Giver of Fire to Humankind.
Not so fast, sailor. By what right do we get to overlook our own narcissism and grandiosity? Do we really feel that getting a poem published on the 48th try (or, for that matter, on the very first try) stamps said poem with the mark of deserved greatness? Is every poem we write a Worthy and Publishable Poem, ready to spring full-blown from the head of Zeus (or Hera)? Is every poem we fail to publish just another Sinner in the Hands of An Angry God (Jonathan Edwards, really, no kidding.)
Maybe it was justly ignored. Maybe it was outrageously and unjustifiably ignored. Maybe we were lucky to get it published. Maybe we were lucky not to.
But enough. Are we adults here? Maybe we should go back to thinking about the book we’re trying to make. Let’s concentrate on which poems go into the book, and why.
Here’s an important observation. Take it for what it’s worth. I don’t know any two poets who conceive of a poem in the same way, by which I mean, every time we write a poem we announce to the world what, for us, a poem is. Poetry inhabits an enormous house, infinitely expanding to accommodate each of our unique sets of concerns—and we keep raising the roof and busting out the kitchen walls in order to make room for the ways in which we go about expressing and exploring what matters to us as writers.
The individual poems? We send them out into the world, the ones we love, and we pray that somebody loves them, too. The poem says, “Go ahead, make my day.” And how we try to do justice to its imperative!
Therefore, build your audience by publishing all the poems you can. By all means, do that work. The communication of your poems with the world of readers is the essential underpinning of the art.
But the manuscript? That’s a book you’re making, and that book is a story that needs, first and mainly, to talk to you, and it talks to you only in the voices of its poems.
Practical Advice Coming: If you were to publish a book with Tupelo Press, we would send you an Author’s Questionnaire, and in that Author’s Questionnaire, among many other invasive questions, we would ask you to describe your book in a single sentence. And also in a paragraph. And, moreover, in a page. We would want to know that you know and can articulate what you write about, and how you write about it, and from what vantage point, and using what strategies.
At Tupelo, we encourage our authors to express what matters to them in their poems. We want to know that they know what the matter is that comprises their poems. And why does what matters to them, matter to them? What makes the 46 poems in their book work all of a piece? And how effectively do their choices of poetry-making strategies rub up against, buff and make shine the concerns of their poems?
At Tupelo Writing Conferences, by the way, these prompts and questions are the ones we work on together. There’s a great one coming up in the mountains of New Mexico at the end of October, led by Mark Doty, Veronica Golos, and me.
The Advice: I urge you to consider that it is beyond useful practice to try to answer these questions for yourself when you’re putting the book of poems together. It’s essential work. It’s how you know what poems belong together. Really, it’s the only way you’ll know.
Please do join me next week for “On Making the Poetry Manuscript, New and Improved, Part IV.”