Because sometimes it helps to get outside the box of your own amazing brain.
Unless you have a concept-driven manuscript that just writes itself, ordering and organizing is one of the most difficult parts. Since I’ve been grueling my way through it for the past month, I wanted to hand the help along. A few thoughts on how poems speak to one another from my notebooks:
Syntax is the way in which linguistic elements (as words) are put together to form constituents (as phrases or clauses). How does your syntax inform your lines? Which comes first for you—the line break or the thought? How can you maximize the effect of your syntax in a collection?
Some poems resist being paratextually situated. Poems not on the page. A poem in the DNA sequence of bacterium; on the wall of a city park. Give these extra space to breathe or become part of textual landscape.
Audre Lorde’s injunction to move away from the language of rhetoric that oppresses the body and kills the poem. The master’s house is a persuasive podium. What alternate stagings can you mobilize in a collection?
Paul Valery said the first line of a poem is like finding a fruit that has fallen from a tree; the poet’s take is to create a tree from which this fruit can fall. In the context of a collection, imagine the field where this particular tree must grow. Maybe Brooklyn?
A refrain is refrain, or a phrase, line, or group of lines that recurs at regular intervals in a poem. If the refrain is partial or irregular, it’s called a repetend. If the refrain is as long as a stanza, it’s called a burden. Slight modulations are called incremental repetitions. If the repetitions pop up in multiple poems, that’s called an obsession, or a great peg to explore as binding for collection. Maybe you can leave your hat on.
Julian Barnes sees past conditional tense as a form of privilege wielded by the present against the past. Like “What mother would have wanted…” a hypothetical based on a person who lived and now doesn’t. A double remove prone to projection. What tenses are you using in the poems? Is that an organizing theme or a layer that should be moving through each section?
Powerful images that create a place. Poems that journey over familiar terrain, often looking to find or retrieve something, a former self, a memory, a sense of home without motion. See “A Blessing” by James Wright. See “To Go to Lvov” by Adam Zagajewski— emotional landscape, place names, local patois and expression, local foods and colors. See Ilya Kaminsky’s Dancing in Odessa for a model on how this lyric placing becomes a collection.
“They betray their Gods, but remain on good terms with those who call themselves His attorneys." (Arnold Schoenberg, c. 1926)
Epigraphs are such a toss-up. They work or they don’t. It’s like nutmeg can make or mess up a quiche. For my first chapbook, Objects in Vases, the epigraphs were set up in dialogue with each other as well as with the poems and their container forms. I can’t imagine the book without those epigraphs. That said, I don’t feel as strong a need for epigraphs to frame this current collection.
Someone said think in sequences or series. And so I am. Because it really shakes up my usual process.
Get comfortable with the known forms and strategies of poets you admire. See Alberto Rios’ outline of organization strategies to broaden the base.
Print a copy of Rebecca Dunham’s easy PDF guide to making a poetry manuscript and study it. Then cut and paste and collage it into a series of poems. To catch your breath. From the terror of having looked at the big picture.
On to my betters now.
Katrina Vandenberg: “A poem is an accumulation of different kinds of repetition. When you repeat a pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables, you get meter; when you repeat sounds you get alliteration, rhyme, assonance; when you repeat images, you get a motif; when you repeat an idea, a theme. A poem's natural compression heightens these sensations of repetition. Something like this can happen over the length of a book as well, as various kinds of repetitions take place over a series of poems. / You can create cohesion in a manuscript by linking poems not just according to the obvious issues of theme, chronology, or similar forms, but also by repeated images, colors, and shapes. You can juxtapose: Follow a long poem with a short one; let a poem argue with whatever the last one asserted was true. Break up a group of similar poems to make the reading experience less symmetrical—intersperse, say, narrative poems from the point of view of a specific character with lyrics about objects that appear tangentially in the narratives. In this way the relationship among poems becomes more subtle and complex, more unexpected and, therefore, more exciting.” (Katrina Vandenberg’s “mix-tape strategy” to manuscript assembly hones in on multiple strategies by comparing them to music albums, including repetition, themes, etc. is one of my favorites on thinking through the collection.)
Angela Topping: “From that starting poem, find another one that speaks to it, either by contrast, similarity, different angle on the same topic, or any small link like a word in common, or a place.”
Zack Rogow: “If it’s poetry you’re writing, your target is probably 50 to 70 pages.”
Caroline Hagood: “In terms of choosing what poems to include, I like to use what I call the Marie Kondo method. Hold each poem in your hand and then put into the collection only the ones that “spark joy” in you. They can be exceedingly sad poems. I don’t mean that they all have to be joyous but just that they should each make you feel something like an inner flutter.”
Alberto Rios: “If nothing else, we might consider that a title not tell us where we've been, or where we are going. It simply might tell us where we are. It locates. It grounds. That is the first work of a title. There is other work, certainly, but locating is a first work, and perhaps the why of a title. It is the thumb doing what it must finally do: help when it can, which is often enough. It's not a decoration attached to the hand, no matter how attractive and manicured. And an absent thumb: well, picking up the glass of iced tea becomes a more difficult act.”
“What about “contexture”? The contextuality provided for each poem by the larger frame within which it is placed, the intertextuality among poems so placed, an the resultant texture of resonance and meaning?” Gerald Huml shares a bullet-list of handy notes from Natasha Saje’s essay on “dynamic design”
Kelli Russell Agodon: “Now on these section breaks, I could have used a symbol, a word, a number, anything to signal that we were at a place of rest, but I have had these quotes in my head that I have been wanting to use forever, so those became part of section breaks.”
Marilyn McCabe: “Imaginative + vivid + fully felt = winning combination.”
April Ossman: “Other ordering considerations include whether to heighten or downplay the poet’s repetition of particular imagery, words, or subjects. If there are too many repetitions of a word or image, I generally recommend making some substitutions, and placing those poems at strategic intervals in the manuscript. This can create a subtle sense of obsession rather than a numbing one.”
Roy Marshall: “Poems can enhance one another by echoing or expanding on an idea, emotion or image. You could group similar poems in section or sequence or space them throughout the pamphlet as a kind of recurring thread that ties the pamphlet together.”
Sandra Marchetti: “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.”
Marilyn McCabe: “I decided finally that what I was missing was a kind of reaching. This very able poet was not reaching beyond her grasp. She knew the world of her poems too well. If I call what I wanted from this manuscript more risk-taking, what do I mean by that? It’s a sense, I think, of a mind in motion rather than a mind at rest; questions asked and pondered rather than answered. What does it mean for any of us to take risks in our work? How do I write a poem that feels risky to me, that feels like I’m peering over the edge of something, and something that makes the reader tremble there too? Is risk about subject area, form, language, meaning?”
Leeanne Quinn: “You cannot ‘will’ order, so don’t force connections for the sake of it.”
Jamaal May: “Alan Shapiro pointed out that I had a habit of ending poems with three verb constructions. That's fine on its own but a bunch of poems in a row that end that will way feel samey. I recommend going through and reading the first two and last two lines of every poem. Do you always start with the same kind of syntax? Is the last line always a declarative sentence? How long are your first sentences? What about the last?”
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.”
Hila Ratzabi on how to use Scrivener to assemble a poetry manuscript.
Jeffrey Levine, the editor of Tupelo Press, has blogged quite a bit about the poetry collection assembly process.
Much gratitude to Nancy Chen Long for her list (which led me to many of these links), as well as all the writers, editors, and bloggers who share their advice and thoughts with others. Although we write alone in our loneliest, we publish together in hope and dread and terror.