IF YOU follow any number of poets on social media, you’ve probably seen a version of this photo: the pages of a collection in progress, spread across the floor or perhaps taped on a wall. Sometimes it’s an orderly line across the room, sometimes a flurry of printer paper, sometimes a spiral. Often there’s a cat and a joke about its editorial feedback. But what exactly are those poets doing? How does a whole bunch of poems, printed out and arrayed in space, become a book?
I’ve been obsessed with this question since the first time I tried to order the poems of a manuscript, in my final semester of college, when my best friend and I decided that the morning after we’d thrown a big party in our cheap, large off-campus apartment was the perfect moment to revise our senior theses. (I’m thankful that, back then, we did not have smartphones or social media to document the sticky cups or ashtrays we pushed out of the way to make room for the poems that stretched across the couch to the coffee table and onto the floor.) Since then I’ve published a book and a chapbook, and I’ve read for chapbook and book contests, so I’ve seen many, many approaches to making order out of the chaos of a group of poems.
The advice I’ll offer here is all underpinned by an argument that the poetry book should be more than just a shuffling-together of the best fifty or so poems you’ve written so far. Instead the poems should sit deliberately together to create a world. Together, their shared concerns, their order, and their relationship to one another make something greater than the sum of their parts.
These suggestions are meant to be generative and spur you to draft new poems and explore new avenues for your writing. If you think of your poems, whether you’ve got twenty or eighty, as the core of a possible collection, you can begin to observe how they hang together. You can write new poems into those connections, and you can also challenge yourself to draft pieces that will vary the patterns you’ve detected. In fact, the ideal time to start reading your work as a manuscript may be earlier than you think: once you have twenty or so poems, when themes are beginning to emerge, but the manuscript as a whole is still highly malleable. At that point you can start to see the shape of your obsessions and follow them to a completed manuscript.
START just like the poets on the internet, by spreading out all your poems. What you’re aiming to do here is to see your work at a zoomed-out level so that instead of just polishing individual poems, you can notice the shape of the collection emerging.
What do you actually see when you look at your work from a bit of a distance? If you stand a few feet away from the pages, you can note formal trends in line and stanza length and visual density and space. You will be able to discern if you’ve unknowingly fallen in love with the couplet, or if you tend to end every poem just short of a page. If you get a bit closer, you can consider how you open poems, how you close them, what you do with line breaks and sentence structure, which words you repeat. Patterns aren’t necessarily a problem—in some cases they lend cohesion, as an image or form recurs throughout the book—but you do want to be sure those patterns are a considered choice and not just a habit you’ve fallen into. Repetition easily makes for monotony, unless the word or image or form carries some new weight or nuance when it recurs. (I say this as someone who had to CTRL + F to find all the times I’d used several beloved words, including tiny and rot, in my most recent manuscript and then cut all but one or two uses of each word. I recommend putting your manuscript in a word-cloud generator, which will provide a visual representation of how many times you use each word in your book.)
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November - December 2020