Building a Manuscript/Building a Set

Lately, I have been working on my third books of poems, tentatively titled Waiting for the Dead to Speak. Right now, it’s nearly 90 pages and split into three sections. I spent several summer mornings and evenings putting the book together and ordering the poems. I recalled a conversation that I had with poet Patricia Smith when I was teaching at Keystone College and some of us had dinner with her prior to the reading. She encouraged an undergraduate student who was putting together her senior project poetry chapbook to let the arc of the book build. She recommended not front loading the book with all of the strongest poems, but save those for last.

I agree with Smith’s advice somewhat. I don’t like books that are front heavy and fall flat at the end. That said, I look at a manuscript like a punk rock set. Pummel the audience with a few two-three minute songs one after the other. Give them a taste of your strongest material. Engage them immediately, prior to slowing down, and after the halfway mark, step heavy on the gas again.  I think a poetry collection should start quite strong. Hit the reader immediately, with the first poem, and let the first few poems set the tone and style for the book, and then it may be okay to slow down some. But by the end of the book, like Smith said, the reader should be left with something memorable.

The same advice could be said about a featured reading. Think carefully about what you’re going to read, and this is just as important as thinking about the order of poems in a collection. Engage the audience immediately. Hook their attention, and then it may be okay to slow down in the middle of the set, or perhaps even read something new. By the conclusion of the set, end with something strong.

These are just some thoughts. Does anyone else have any advice about ordering a manuscript of preparing a reading set?

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