I have a recollection of reading an interview with Eavan Boland (maybe in print, maybe in Poets and Writers?) where she talks about how the first book is changing. She pointed out that the "first" book of many a poet is actually their 2nd or 3rd (or 4th?) because there are so few ways to get a book of poems published. She was talking about the state of publishing before the explosion of electronic possibilities.
Still, I had her idea in mind as I revised my book-length manuscript one more time. By now, it would have to count as my 3rd book, maybe my 4th or 5th.
When I first put the manuscript together in 2004, I had published a chapbook, and I saw the book with a spine as a way of preserving the chapbook. Later, when I revised, I took out the majority of those poems. I am guessing that the primary buyers for a book with a spine would be people who have bought a chapbook, and I wanted to give them new material.
In 2010, I did another major revision. I took out some older poems and added some newer poems. I wanted to include poems that had been published in journals. I wanted these inclusions for 2 reasons: I thought it would signal to a book publisher that these poems were accepted, and I wanted to preserve them in a more permanent form.
I submitted the manuscript to contests, but only the ones where I got a copy of the winning book. I submitted to every publisher I knew of that takes manuscripts with no fee. Finally, I had to admit that it was time to revise it again. It's taken me awhile to muster the fortitude and find the time to do another revision.
This past week-end, I tried to be ruthless. By now, most of the poems in the manuscript have been published in journals, so I couldn't use that criteria as my first cut. I tried to take a hard look at each and every poem. Was it my best? Was it too prose-like? Had I covered the same material better elsewhere? If so, was the poem worth the risk of being repetitive?
I had pulled out my more recently written poems that I thought were my strongest. I went through my poetry notebooks and typed some poems into the computer. I took out about 25 poems and added about 27.
Soon, I will print out a copy of what I've created and once again, look for flaws. I'll fix the flaws to the best of my ability. And then, I'll call it done. And then, I'll send it out again.
I'm deeply aware that the world is full of fine manuscripts. But I'll try again.
When I assembled manuscripts in my younger years, I assumed that I would have several book-length publications. I assumed that once I was established with that first book, I would publish a book every few years.
Now, I am painfully aware that I may have just one book with a spine and that's if I'm lucky. As I've revised the manuscript, I asked every poem if it was worthy of inclusion if I only had one book that would survive me.
In a few years, I might be asking the same questions again. I'll keep writing, and eventually, I might have stronger poems to include.
I still find it fun to assemble manuscripts, to see how my brain has approached themes and symbols and history. I have no idea if I'll ever find a publisher who feels the same way about my work, but I do know that I've connected with readers along the way (chapbook buyers, journal editors, Facebook friends, blog readers), so I have enough encouragement to keep going.
Will any of it make a difference later? When I first started writing, I truly believed that writers could change the world. I still do. But that's a tough measure of success for my own writing. In fact, I'm willing to bet that most writers have no idea if they've changed the world or not. We just don't have the perspective to judge until time has gone by.
I've often asked myself if I'd keep writing if I knew that nothing would survive me. The answer has been yes. It's worth doing, as a way to know myself and the world. It's better than many ways I could spend my time.
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