Sunday, March 30, 2008

Working the Manuscript

Instead of doing actual work this weekend, after a long week and fulfilling my semester requirements for both the MFA and the MA programs, I decided to put in a bit of time on my full-length manuscript, which is taking shape quite well. I'm having a tough time finding a thread that runs through the pieces - I rarely write on one theme exclusively (I'd bore myself to tears), though I have discovered that seasons and place (mostly Kentucky and Long Island) get mentioned quite often.

As of right now, I am tentatively titling the collection "A Stranger in Tornado Country." I don't know why, but I like the ring of it, and I like the poem it comes from, so for now, that's the winner. I hate sending things off half-cocked, and there's nothing worse than a collection with a lackluster title, especially with all the volumes of poetry being written. I don't want editors and judges bored before they get past the table of contents.

I've culled the collection to only polished pieces, and pieces I'm very fond of. Right now that puts me at fifty, with my new poem "Summer Sings," though there are about five or six I may take out because they're weak and/or obviously don't fit the rest of the tone of the collection. For instance, I happen to be in love with my new poem "Love Letter from a White Woman," but it's jarringly different in both tone and style, and relies more on rhythm than most of my other pieces do. I want it to be as strong as possible, but I also don't want to wait until the end of the MFA program (November 2009) to start submitting the manuscript.

My goal is to submit the full length manuscript to at least 4 competitions this year, as well as to some open reading periods at places like Tupelo Press, where the editor sends a handwritten note and critique for their open reading period. For poets, a full length manuscript is generally between 48 and 100 pages. Chapbook competitions are markedly shorter than that, requesting manuscripts of about 16 to 30 pages (and often shorter than that). There are tons of competitions, but it gets rather expensive after awhile, since most are about $20 a pop, with the full length competitions running closer to $25. Then again, I need to remember to ask if I can write those off...

My next daunting task, after writing a few more pieces that will round out the manuscript, will be to figure out what order they should be in. I haven't found a decent software program to do this (I've heard Scrivener is great, but I don't work on a Mac), so I'm seriously considering doing it with index cards and a giant corkboard. Any other ideas or suggestions are, as always, welcome and encouraged.

Does anyone have much experience putting together a successful poetry manuscript? What say ye?

1 comment:

Helen Rickerby said...

Hi Colleen

Congratulations on all your recent acceptances!

I've been a bit slow to reply to this post. I’m sure there are lots of ways you could successfully put your collection together. But this is how I put together My Iron Spine, which is going to be published later this year.

Of course, I started with the poems. While I was still writing them, I started noticing recurring themes and ideas, and I wrote new poems building on those. I also noticed that they fell into three types: autobiographical, biographical, and poems that were a fantastical combination of both – where I hung out with various women from history (for example ‘Swimming with Virginia Woolf’). At that stage, I wrote some more poems to fill out the last section.

Then the ordering! The first section was easier, in that I was trying to create a (fairly) chronological narrative through the section – beginning with me as a child, ending with me as an adult (more or less). But I also wanted it – and each of the other sections – to have an emotional narrative.

For each section, I kind of pictured in my head a graph, plotting the emotional rise and fall. The first, autobiographical, section begins up high with innocence, heads downwards with experience and disillusionment, but then heads upwards again with a growing sense of identity and hope.

The second section, comprising biographical poems, has a similar emotional structure. The line of the graph doesn’t start so high this time, but it also heads downwards, but fights its way back up with hopefulness.

The third section begins low, but heads up, getting lighter and, again with hope for the future.

A friend told me recently that Sylvia Plath had a similar kind of structure in mind for Ariel, in which, after mining the emotional depths, would end on a more hopeful note. When Ariel was published after her death, Ted Hughes changed the order and some of the poems, leaving us with a very different book.

The way I got the poems into order in each of their sections, was to print them all out and kind of shuffle them. I’d start with one, and then pick up another poem, putting it either in front or behind, depending on what felt right, and what fitted with the emotional trajectory I wanted. I did a fair amount of tinkering later, but eventually got something that seemed kind of right.

Then, when I was ready, I gave copies of the manuscript to five friends whose opinions I trusted, who I knew would be sympathetic to what I was aiming for, and who would give me constructive and insightful feedback. I am very lucky to have such creatures. I also gave them a list of questions, including one about the order. They suggested a few switches, for various reasons (eg, a better poem to start the collection with, this poem goes really well next to this one), most of which I followed.

I hope might be of some use to you. All the best with arranging your collection.