Thursday, December 22, 2011

Putting Together a Poetry Manuscript

I was recently asked by a good friend of mine for some assistance with assembling her poetry manuscript. Apparently, she's heard that I'm pretty decent at it. Where she heard that? I haven't a clue!

But it got me to thinking -- how does it all come together?

It's kind of a mysterious process, but it doesn't have to be so mysterious! Anyway, I thought it might be helpful to share MY process. Maybe it'll work for you, too?

So for my first poetry manuscript, The Garden, Uprooted, was actually a real challenge to assemble. I had a pile of poems on my lap. And they were precious poems to me, they were really all I had as a writer. You see, when you put together your first poetry manuscript, you're pouring in years of learning the craft. These are the poems I grew with, learned from... they are the ones who chronicle my journey from wannabe to... well poet!

Luckily, I had a lot of support when it came to pulling it all together. This manuscript was actually my thesis for my MFA. I had my thesis adviser holding my hand through the process, teaching me what he'd, too, learned through years and years of being a poet. He was actually very helpful, reading through my countless drafts. My adviser never told me HOW to do it, but he did help me to understand what was working, what wasn't, and even more importantly, he was there to kind of "talk" things through with me. He'd ask me -- "Katie, why did you put this poem/section first?" and I'd have to explain. So a lot of thought went into the process, which I think is essential. Each decision you make needs to be for a reason, a purpose.

So that leads me to piece of advice #1:

Have a reader, other than your mom.

For me, I was fortunate enough to have a little team of readers (my thesis committee!). Now, The Garden, Uprooted, isn't an exact replica of my thesis manuscript (which, actually, carried a different title). Some of what my profs told me I followed in my thesis, but then when the manuscript was in my hands only, went back and changed. For example, adviser told me he didn't like particular poem. Fine. It's out of the thesis, no biggie. But guess what? In The Garden, Uprooted, it's going to be there! Unless, of course, editor shares the same opinion as adviser....

Other changes include many added poems (this summer, I worked a lot in meter, so I included a metrical element throughout the script) revisions of poems, and I ended up taking out some poems, too, that no longer had a place. 

Having a reader isn't everything, though. You're going to have order your own storm, to borrow a metaphor here. No one else can do it for you.

My next piece of advice:

Study the first books of poets you admire

Before I started assembling my manuscript, I went on an amazon shopping spree ordering other poet's manuscripts. One in particular I read over and over again was Anna Journey's If Birds Gather in Your Hair for Nesting. I think that book taught me a lot :-)

Try to disect their work -- how does each poem speak to one another? What works, and what doesn't? How are they sectioned off, if at all?

Now as a reviewer, I'm reading a lot of first books. Some of them work, some don't. But I think this teaches me a lot more than any MFA could!

Which brings me to my next piece of advice.

Print out your poems, feel them in your hands, and spread them across your living room floor.

You will, indeed, look like a maniac in front of your family. That's ok -- your family should be well aware already that you're a maniac if you're this far along in putting together a manuscript. Poets have strange habits, and families learn to deal :)

This is what I did -- I laid all my poems out on my (actually office) floor, and stared at them for awhile. When they were all spread out, I could piece poems together that I knew were related, spoke to each other. I started by grouping them by common themes/images/tones/obsessions.

Now how do you do that?

Good question, glad you asked!

I would jot down little notes on the corners of the pages, central images and themes. For example, reading through my poems, I noticed a good chunk of them were about fairy tales. Fine. I write fairy tales on the corner, or more specifically, red riding hood, or Repunzel, or the frog prince, or whatever. With these poems, then, I found an overarching similarity -- they were all about the complex relationship between innocence and sexuality. Great. This later became a section -- Germination, along with other poems (non fairy tale related) that were still meditations on this theme.

My other sections included my "eve" poems, my "procreation" poems, and my "feeling out of place" poems. That's of course way oversimplifying things, but you get the general idea, I hope.

Once grouped, then it would be easier to order them. I started thinking of the individual sections as chapbooks, about 20 pages in length each. This was really helpful for me. I'd try to begin each section with a strong poem, and end with a strong poem, too. The first poem had to really stick with the "theme" of the section, to help the reader get the idea behind my madness, to introduce everything. And what goes in between? I don't know... I tried to tell some sort of a narrative. Let's look back to my "fairy tale" section.

Here, I started off with a very clear poem that referenced little red riding hood (actually, you can read it here.)

My next poem, while not clearly adhering to the fairy tale/red riding hood theme, did, instead echo similar images, and the theme of innocence lost. So it kind of opened up the section, in a sense. Throughout the section, there are more fairy tale poems, they're pretty evenly spread out, so my reader will not forget. The last poem of the section speaks very significantly to the first poem -- it's about red riding hood overcoming the wolf, and becoming a being of the forest, a being of her own woman, comfortable in her bare feet, her strength. In the end of the poem, she rushes off into the forest, the dark forest -- which becomes a metaphor, actually, for the next section!

So you see? Direction. No choice can be made haphazardly!

Are you starting to notice a theme? I am. Assembling a manuscript requires a very intimate understanding of your own work. Without that, you won't get very far.

So let's recap Katie's "expert" (ahem) advice on assembling your first poetry manuscript.

1. Have a reader, or several, that you trust. Works best if this person doesn't love you :) You need for them to be honest, and love has a way of making liars out of even the most honest of men.
2. Study the first books of poets you admire.
2. Gain an intimate understanding of your work. This takes time,and simply cannot be rushed.
3. Group your poems into groups, either by theme/tone/image... something needs to bind them centrally. You might learn that you don't want to have sections at all, and that's ok. But explore this, it will make your manuscript that much stronger.
4. Choose the order of your sections -- make sure there is a method to your madness
5. Order the poems within your sections. Make your first poems strong and introductory in some manner, setting up your reader's expectations. And choose your last poems just as wisely. Leave your reader with something to ponder and meditate on.
6. Understand that these things take time. And that you will go through many many drafts. And that's ok. My first manuscript was five years in the making. That was a lot of years of writing, but I've been in the "assembling" stage for at least a year and a half. And you know what? I was constantly poking at it, changing it, making it into the beautiful beast it is today.
7. I'm told that your 2nd manuscript is much easier to assemble :) So let's hold out hope together, ok?

I've just begun work on my "2nd born" myself. She's coming along quite nicely, if I may say so. This time, I'm starting out with the big picture in mind. I'll let you know how that turns out for me :)

So there, my two cents. Of course, there is some required reading and places you can read and learn from people who probably know a lot more about this than I do.

This article from AWP was very helpful to me.

Ordering the Storm is another good resource, I've heard, though I've never read the book myself. Maybe you should read it, and let me know how that goes for you :) :) :)

So go forth, and make your poems sparkle!


  1. This is a great post, Katie! Good luck with your next manuscript.

  2. Thanks Elisa! Glad you enjoyed :) :) :)