Thursday, December 11, 2008

Putting a Poetry Manuscript Together

January O'Neil has a great essay here about putting a manuscript of poems together. It made me think about my own process of putting together a book length work.

What helped me most was putting together chapbooks. Somehow, in a shorter form, it's easier to keep track of the overarching theme and how the poems work together.

It's much like the graduate school process. One gets used to putting together a 10 page paper in undergraduate school, so when I got to grad school and had to write a 20 page paper, I told myself, "It's just a longer 10 page paper." When I had to write my MA thesis, I said, "If you can write a 20 page paper, you can write a 50 page paper." And when I wrote my dissertation (a requirement which had terrified me when I started graduate school), I told myself to think of it as just a series of 20 page essays, which is how I shaped it as I wrote the first draft.

In fact, I've seen several books of poems that don't actually fit as nicely together as one unified work. But each section works on its own--the book is essentially a series of small chapbooks.

For all the thinking that we poets do about putting together a book-length manuscript, there's very little out there that I've discovered that analyzes the process. The only book I've ever seen about it is Ordering the Storm: How to Put Together a Book of Poems edited by Susan Grimm (published by Cleveland State University Poetry Center in 2006). I first read about the book on Kelli Russell Agodon's blog here.

I pulled the book off the shelf, but earlier this year, when I read it, I underlined passages that aren't really about putting a book together. For example, Jeff Gundy talks about his teaching job at a small liberal arts school and says, "I don't mean to complain--this is absorbing, engaging, rewarding work, it pays a living wage, my office is air conditioned, and my students and colleagues are mostly smart and friendly. It is just a lot to stay ahead of, it it's to be done right. Add in the effort to keep some kind of literary life going . . ." (page 14).

The main thing I learned from the book is that there are many, many ways to put together a book of poems. And I already knew that. But I often read books that don't tell me much that I didn't already know--it's nice to be reminded of what I know and nice to find solidarity in the voices in the book.

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