Ordering a Manuscript

The other day, acclaimed poet Patricia Smith visited Keystone College for a reading. Before her performance, a student asked for advice on the order of poems in a manuscript. Her advice was unique and challenged my notion of how to structure a book of poems. Time and time again, I have been told that you should place your strongest poems in the beginning and the end of the manuscript to start and end the book with a bang. But Smith offered different advice, that you should place your strongest work in the middle of the manuscript because it is by that point you really want to keep and maintain the reader’s attention. You should think of a manuscript like a short story or novel, with rising action, a climax, and resolution. That climax should happen in the middle of the book.

She said this is especially important when you have a collection that does not follow a narrative arc or particular thread. Perhaps more importantly, she advised to simply follow your gut and trust your own familiarity with the poems to decide where to place them.

Her advice was also useful to me because I have until the end of the summer to make major changes to my full-length collection of poems before Unbound Content and my editor begin the layout process. So, I have been questioning the order of the poems, now that I have a limited window to change it. But, like Smith said, I am going to trust my own gut and instincts on this.

I am curious what the process of manuscript creation and the order of poems has been like for other writers. Is there an easy solution?

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