Friday, April 9, 2010

On the Importance of Ordering Your Poetry Manuscript

This is a topic I don't know that we discuss enough as poets. There are a bare handful of articles about it, but nothing truly substantial, likely because it's a personal and very dependent-on-the-content endeavor: ordering a poetry manuscript. Most fiction - and even non-fiction - that I've read moves through a sense of time in the narrative. Poets are not always so lucky, and our pieces don't always cohere to each other the way a novelist's chapters do.

It's not enough to have just written enough (and hopefully more than enough, so you can toss some) poems to fill a book (usually between 48-75 pages, for poetry books). You have to make sure they go together, that they're ordered in the most attractive fashion possible so that each poem's strengths are highlighted. Now, I'm not saying you have to write a themed collection, though those seem to be increasingly popular. I am talking about that ever-elusive, oh-so-ephemeral sense of flow.

An example. My manuscript Gonesongs has poems in it that I wrote 15 years ago (though I revised them some in light of the training in craft I've had since then), some were written shortly before turning the manuscript in as my creative thesis for my MFA. The poems range from remembrances of childhood and my parents, college days, love poems, grief poems - it runs the gamut of personal experience and family history for me. Jeanie Thompson, my last-semester mentor in the program, and I worked hard to find an ordering of the poems that suited. Because of the family and history arc through the poems, we essentially ordered it chronologically so that the poems tell the history. We wrestled over some placements that weren't obvious in the timeline, and after looking at the manuscript, some poems dropped out completely because they didn't "fit" - they were so wildly of the topics addressed in other poems, so structurally or imagistically different, or surrealist as opposed to the very realistic narrative of the bulk of the manuscript, that we dumped a few. *This* is why you have to have more poems than you need to start out with. You'll find a poem (or three, or seven) that you thought worked just doesn't once you look at the manuscript as a whole.

In any case, Jeanie and I wrestled the collection into an order, I was pleased with it, but after working so closely with a single manuscript for that long, I never really wanted to see Gonesongs again. I know some poets work on one project at a time, or even one poem at a time, for years - I need to have multiple manuscripts or series going at a time to keep me firing on all cylinders. So, after spending May through November on only that book...I was ready to put it away.

That isn't to say it's a meh manuscript - I think it's quite good, and there are a number of poems in it that have been picked up by high quality journals. My editor at Bellowing Ark seemed quite taken with it, and recently offered to publish it. He also mentioned he'd like to take some liberties with the ordering, and that he'd send his recommendations to me. And so here we are.

I just received his suggested re-ordering of the Gonesongs poems in the mail. It's like a completely different book (in a good way). I am utterly floored at how the same material in a different order can make such a huge difference! He utterly upset the chronological narrative ordering (much like, I admit, a novel would have moved) of the original, creating instead of my three part storyline a book in four parts where each part focuses on relationship and emotion instead. I don't know if it is the re-ordering or because I've been some months away from the book, but to me it seems to have more emotional depth this way. I have one or two recommendations I'll send back - minor swaps, moving a poem one or two paces to the left, not a whole 'nother re-ordering, but I am pleased.

Lesson #1: When your editor asks if he or she may take liberties with your work in the interest of making it the best it can be, let them. It's incredible what fresh eyes can bring to a piece, and remember: they want it to be the best book, too. It's in their interest to up the holy-crap-awesome factor. Remember this, don't be offended, and loosen your grip on the work. You don't have to sell out on important points or compromise your integrity, but you should take constructive criticism and recommendations from the good place they are given.

Lesson #2: Walk away a bit. hate your work? Tired of it, though you were passionate about it a week, two weeks, a month ago? Walk away. Replenish your energy. Work on something different, go to the beach and relax, read a book or seven. Come back to it later and read it anew with fresh eyes.

Lesson #3: Ordering is CRITICAL to the bang of your manuscript. Try it a few different ways. I know poetess Kathleen Driskell makes it a habit to rent a room, string twine, and actually hang the poems with clothespins as she contemplates order. If I can remove the dog from the area, I do mine strewn about the floor. Whatever works for you, but try it.

In the end, though, as much as your editor wants to help you make the work the best, it's your decision. if it's not something you'll be proud to have your name on forever and ever, you need to speak up. I will again recognize that I have been incredibly lucky that the universe matched me with a generous and sensitive editor.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

you might not want to use the word Poetess -- it is poet for these times.