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?

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?

And It’s Off….

Over the last two years, I’ve been working on a new full-length collection of poems. When I had some time off from teaching over Christmas, I had a chance to put the finishing touches on the collection and make more revisions. The manuscript, tentatively titled What Remains, is now sitting with the editors of a few presses and  book contests. I’m optimistic but also  realize more revisions may be made before it reaches print.  When I started the book a few years ago, I wanted to write a collection of poems that explored relationships and gender communication. Some of that is still there, and the book certainly explores relationships and what’s left after they unravel, but it also includes several blue-collar narratives and character-driven poems. Some of what I witnessed during the peak of Occupy Wall Street and visiting different cities is captured. There are poems that are a reaction to this strange time we live in and the ongoing political narrative about growing income inequality, but the political is always personal, and I tried not to preach. There’s also a few poems in the collection that are music-oriented, much like Front Man. Overall, though, I think this collection offers more depth, stronger extended metaphors, and greater reflection than my chapbook.

It feels good to conclude a project that has occupied my time for about two years or so. I look forward to hearing back from editors soon and seeing what happens. Then it will be time to start yet another manuscript.