Thanks to Sandra Marchetti, poet and poetry manuscript consultant, for sharing her thoughts and other poets' thoughts on ordering a manuscript.
Sandra Marchetti is the author of Confluence, a debut full-length collection of poetry from Sundress Publications. Eating Dog Press also published an illustrated edition of her essays and poetry, A Detail in the Landscape, and her first volume, The Canopy, won Midwest Writing Center's Mississippi Valley Chapbook Contest. Sandy won Second Prize in Prick of the Spindle's 2014 Poetry Open and her work appears in The Journal, Subtropics, The Hollins Critic, Sugar House Review, Mid-American Review, Thrush Poetry Journal, Green Mountains Review, South Dakota Review, Blackbird, Southwest Review, The Rumpus, and elsewhere.
Still Life with Book: On Ordering Your Poetry Manuscript
As a freelance poetry manuscript consultant, I have heard many poets, even “name” poets with several published collections, exclaim that they are “bad at ordering” their poems into books. It's akin to when students automatically believe they are weak in a subject because one teacher in the past told them that they struggle with it. Poets (including myself at times) seem to have this complex that we aren't good at ordering our poems, but it's just not something we do often for the first part of writing lives. When we later find ourselves in the murky waters of "figuring it out," we feel less than equipped. How long were you writing poems before you started compiling a book-length or chapbook length manuscript? For me it was at least 10 years. I knew the inner workings of individual poems so much better than a book. Even though I had read many collections by the time I began assembling my first book, I felt like the passenger in a car--I hadn’t paid attention to the route the same way I would have if I were driving.
After reading and ordering dozens of manuscripts over the last few years, I do have some advice. I always stress that a book must have its own internal logic. Just like a sci-fi novel, your collection doesn't need to be traditionally realistic, but inside the world of the book the ideas need to cohere. I sent my first full-length collection, Confluence out for five years to contests and open readings periods, revising the manuscript pretty heavily every six months during that time. I would revise it summer and winter, and let it lay fallow awhile, to sit with it. Every time I picked it up, I saw that there were a handful of weaker poems that should be removed and a handful of newer poems that needed to be inserted. Those long breaks were painful, but vital.
For Confluence, I knew the idea of "arc" would be hard to build, because so many of the poems are occasional. My first instinct was to refuse to build arc, and then to do the opposite: to super-impose a really tight structure onto the collection. Not surprisingly, neither of these worked. I wasn't sure how to reorder the collection until I met with poet (and National Book Award finalist) Harryette Mullen on a residency at Vermont Studio Center. She said my poems seemed very staid to her, which came as a shock to me. I thought, of course, that they were bursting with life! She made a point to say that I needed to put a fire in the center of my book--a beating heart--and so that's how I rearranged it. I knew it was done when I said to myself, perhaps arrogantly: "This is a good book. Why shouldn't it be published?"
Another exercise poets can do to see how their work might cohere is to write about the collection. It’s helpful first to read your poems and try to locate specific patterns, words, and motifs that recur within the set. This can also help you to create sections. Jot notes down on the individual poems. Then, write a journal entry explaining to yourself why these poems belong together. Talk about what the mission of the collection is, and keep writing until you figure out how the strands of the book weave together. Then, read over what you have written. Have you successfully articulated what this book is about, even if it took you awhile? If so, there is probably a book somewhere within that pile of poems. It’s now your job to carve that book out, the one you really want to write.
Finally, I’ve asked 10 actively publishing poets and editors, all with collections in progress or in print, to weigh in with their advice on ordering the poetry manuscript. Here’s what they said:
Lauren Gordon: Print [the book] out so you can see it lined up physically on the floor and live with it like that for awhile!
Nicole Tong: I tape [the poems] to my bookshelves and see how the images within them evolve. I kept them up like this for an entire summer (so a few months). A door or two would also work. A section per door?
Mx Mack: I make index cards for each piece (even within a sequence). And I code them like research data. Colors for themes/characters. Symbols for plot moments. [You can also use] Scrivener, which has an index card function. I carry the physical cards around with me. When I lay them out, I take pictures of different options.
Catherine Keefe: I tack twine to my office wall right by the door. Clothespins hold poems which I sneak up on several times a day. When they don't bore me, or beg me to revise, they're done so I look for ways they tell story. I try a spiral. I work out a narrative arc. I scatter. I discover the energy surge. I also find a poem that doesn't hold up on its own so it gets removed for editing or to leave space for something better. I leave a sticky note for the holes.
Julie Brooks Barbour: The overall narrative arc of the manuscript is what pulls poems together in or away from the whole for me. And I usually spread poems on tables or beds. This summer I'm going for the wall.
Leslie Salas: Get a writer friend to read through [the book] and put the poems into piles by theme/imagery/etc. Then look at the themes and see if they fit together or form some sort of narrative (like big to small, narrow scope/wide scope, chronological), and play with the manuscript from there.
T.A. Noonan: I tend to think in narrative arcs and repetition/evolution of images/ideas. Before I have anything close to a manuscript, I always have to have an idea—a direction to go, a vision to replicate. Once I gather enough raw materials into something that I can start shaping, I begin the process and look for the best ways to recreate that vision I had. And maybe the vision changes or the scope narrows or whatever, but I stick to that and look to the individual pieces for the teeth that connect the gears. Sometimes those gears are tiny, and very few notice the connections. But they're there, and the collection feels right when it all fits.
Erin Elizabeth Smith: Think about narrative like you would a story. Being linear can really help. Making sure all the characters are clear. Be consistent with your "you"s and "I"s. And don't get overly creative. A manuscript should tell a story, not carry people away on a soundscape of repeated S sounds or the repetition of birds in alphabetical order.
Les Kay: Think about images, settings, and internal consistency. Keep simplicity in mind and let the poems do the complicating. Also, if at all possible, minimize the problem by working as Iowa has taught: in sequences, series. Because that's the model of a "poetry book" these days. Finally, experiment. Try on different orders. Seek (and perhaps ignore) the counsel of others. Don’t be afraid to cut your "best" poems for the sake of the manuscript as a whole. Sometimes this is vital.
Raymond Gibson: Take everything you've written worth saving, group poems together that seem to have an affinity, then remove the weakest ones: why I've never made a book-length manuscript. Just go by emotion and tone, narrative's for fiction. Lyric verse progresses by association. Think movements in music. Life's too short not to play your trump cards. I may never see print again, so I better make it count.
Claudia Cortese: I think that the first few poems should introduce the key themes/characters/motifs/forms/concerns of the book. I also think that one has to really have kick-ass poems from beginning to end, and if they are killer, various orders will do. Also, I like when collections are a little messy in regard to tone and image, so that a poem sometimes comes out of left field and surprises me. The order should have ordered disorder, if that makes sense!
Ruth Foley: "Put your good poems up front" works fine for readers who only read the first few poems of the book, but then what? "Put a bunch of strong poems in front and another bunch at the end" works fine for readers who skip the middle. When I'm reading manuscripts for Cider Press Review, I read until a poem makes me stop. Then I read 3 more poems. If I get stopped again in there, I might--MIGHT--skip to the last few poems. But I might just decide I'm done with that manuscript. The books that have won our contests--since I've been involved anyway--have all, without exception, been books that compel me to read all the way through. So I would say "Put your strongest poems up front. And in the middle. And at the end." And if a poem bores you, or niggles at you, or makes you doubt its place...listen to that.