(This article was written for Read Write Poem.)
This is it. You’ve spent years polishing your poems. You’ve shared them in workshops and at readings, even published a handful of your best work in a few journals. Now it’s time to tame those wild poems for your first manuscript. What now?
Assembling a full-length manuscript can be both challenging and exhilarating. It’s the culmination of months and years of hard work. And while the process may feel as if you’re attempting to solve a Rubik’s Cube, there’s nothing more satisfying than seeing the end result of your poetic “sweat equity.”
Start by organizing your poems by topics or related themes. Do your poems speak to you in a certain way? Do they work chronologically or through a persona’s voice? You should notice the emergence of a narrative arc, or a natural fit between and throughout the collection. Consider putting your strongest poems in the beginning and end of your collection, because it helps to frame the rest of the book, giving you a solid foundation to build upon.
For my first collection, I spent hours laying out poems on my office floor. I needed to do this visual exercise so I could test the strength of each poem. I wanted to make sure that the first poem, and every one that followed, was able to stand on its own. I spent a good amount of time grouping strong poems in sections, removing the weak ones, and filling in the holes.
The distance from the end of one poem to the start of the next works only to enhance the tone. You’ll find your poems working together, taking advantage of momentum and seizing on the expectation. As a reader, I enjoy exploring the evolution and range of a poet through the choices he or she makes. But too much of a particular form or tone can spoil even the best collections. You want your manuscript to bob and weave—to feel organic yet structured at the same time.
I am of the school that in a poetry collection, less is more. I recommend leaving out your weaker poems. Most poetry manuscripts average between 40-72 pages, so you want the reader to experience the best representation of who you are as a writer. This is survival of the fittest, or Thunderdome—only include the poems you feel are rock-solid. In the long run, you’re much better off with a small collection of well-rounded gems than one filled with unfinished lumps of coal.
After the hand-wringing, the midnight organizing, and the Zen-like approach you’ve now adopted to get you through the process, carefully vet your work. A good way of doing that is reading your newly arranged poems aloud, from beginning to end. Pay attention to the repetitions and the silences. Don’t be afraid to move pieces around. Do you still hear that music? And this goes without saying, but carefully proof your collection for grammar and punctuation errors. Nothing is more off-putting to a publisher than good work riddled with careless mistakes.
One thing I did do was send my first manuscript to a broad group of poets and trusted friends. The edits I received were tremendous, and while I didn't take them all, the different perspectives helped to shape the final manuscript.
Lastly, take your time. You have been living with these poems for years, and, in some cases, decades! There’s no rush, except maybe in your own mind, to publish your work. Be faithful to the poems and don’t send out anything that’s not ready for publication. When in doubt, trust your gut.
Believe it or not, this process is F-U-N! Sure, it could cause the onset of gray hair, but it will show you where you are as a poet. Don’t let the process intimidate you. Once your first collection is finished, you can say goodbye to those old poems and start something new.
Full disclosure: my first book, Underlife, will be published in October 2009 by CavanKerry Press. Manuscript #2 is in the works because … well… there’s just a long gestation period before manuscripts go to press. Yet, being in the position to create a second manuscript is a dream come true—a position I never thought I would be in when I was creating my first.
Now, I am by no means an expert in assembling a manuscript. So if you are in the process of putting together your first or your 10th collection, give us your insights. Any advice on how to organize a poetry manuscript? Leave a comment here or at RWP.