Photo Credit: Jennie Anne Benigas



July 2008

"Find a reader who has ambition for your work, someone who lets you learn from it."


Martha Rhodes, Poetry Workshop, Fine Arts Work Center, Provincetown, MA,
July 2007

Finding the Right Pattern: Organizing a Poetry Manuscript

Dear Reader,

Before I begin this month's topic, I want to remind you that, if you haven't already ordered your copy of my limited edition (100) artist's book, Reciprocity, you might want to do it soon. My plan is to place them on in the fall, and I want to make sure that my faithful readers don't miss this opportunity. Please go the link on the home page for more information!

Reading a book of poems is different from reading a novel or a collection of short stories. Hardly anyone reads it from beginning to end. My husband, John Gaumond, and I start the day by reading a poem to each other after breakfast. We choose a poem using the "box of chocolates method" - because of its look on the page, its length, its title, if it is written by a favorite poet, or if a word jumps out that piques our curiosity. And we're off into the poem.

If writing one poem is a mysterious process, then organizing dozens of them into a full length manuscript is daunting. This is my current project, and it is making me feel as if I am trying to decode the Rosetta Stone. And these are MY poems!

The Saga of a Poetry Manuscript
Herein lies the tale of my continued struggle to find the right order for poems in my new manuscript, Brush with Words. I remember the difficult time I had arranging my first book of poems, Gestures of Trees (Mellen Poetry Press, 2000), which were written over a fifteen year span. The poems were heavily laced with art terms and references. I called in the troops to give me advice, in the guise of John and my friend and poet bg Thurston. I met with paintings conservator Rita Albertson, who talked art terminology with me.

After several attempts, I finally organized the poems into three sections, using art terms: Mulling, Impasto and Movement and Sinking. I wrote a preface that offered definitions and explanations for the poems' placement in each section. For example: "'Movement' happens to oil paintings over time. Cracks appear as temperature and humidity fluctuate, causing paint to contract and expand…'Sinking' occurs as oil paint ages and becomes transparent - whites stay white, while mid and dark tones become darker, or sink - causing more contrast in the painting. Both terms describe part of the process of growing older, of being in the world. I think of the poems in this section as explorations of movement and sinking in life…" (pages iv-v).

Once I came up with a framework for my poems, I analyzed each with an eye toward where it might fit. However, in all of the thousand-plus poetry books we own, mine was and is the only one with a preface. My reason for supplying one was that, because I was reaching into another discipline - art - I owed the reader some explicit direction.

A few weeks ago, I revised my second poetry manuscript, Brush with Words, for the fourteenth time. Why so many? One reason is that I have been sending it out to competitions and small press publishers since November 2006, and it keeps getting rejected (see Judy's Journal - February 2008). As of today, I have sent Brush with Words out a total of 26 times; I am still waiting to hear from four.

Those of you who do not write poetry for a living (smirk-approval here for the preposterous idea of writing poetry for a living) must understand that between the time you belly-up to the post office counter and when you receive an acceptance/rejection, many, many months have passed. However, my writing teacher at UNH, Donald M. Murray, advised, "As soon as you get a rejection, REVISE the poem or manuscript and send it out again."

He was right, of course. A fresh set of eyes and more than a dollop of time allows the poet some emotional space to re-see (the root of revision) the work. Revision also keeps the manuscript alive, albeit in the same way that nursing a sick, very sick, or dying companion comforts the caregiver as much as the patient. At least you are DOING something! That is why I just mailed my fourteenth revision of Brush with Words to Akron, Ohio. I believe my revisions have made it a better manuscript than it was in November 2006. Poet Suzanne Cleary said, "…it only takes one editor, after all! - who will say, 'We must publish this! We must!'"

My title, Brush with Words, came early. Some rejected titles were: At Home with the Possibilities, Red Is My Palette, Blue of False Happiness, Dreams of Choked Time, This Brutal Crossroad, Borrowing Across Zeroes and Underwater Constellations. Most of them were garnered from lines or titles in the poems.

When I came up with Brush with Words, I was ecstatic. Again, art references abound in the 48 poems, but John noticed many references to writing and literature. There are at least two ways of understanding the title: I use a (paint)brush, but it produces poetry, or my act of brushing a canvas/page covers it with poetry.

But why has it taken me thirteen revisions to build a scaffold on which to arrange the poems in this manuscript?

I made the assumption that the order of the poems is what hurt my chances for publication. Unfortunately, I have no evidence because rejections come in a form letter without details. One might hope for any response, such as "Your poems stink." "Get a life." "We couldn't even get past the first three." Because more than half of the poems have been previously published in journals and anthologies, with some of them winning prizes or earning honorable mentions, I thought it safe to assume that my poems are worthy. So what was left for me to improve? The order.

Four Way Books editor Martha Rhodes, in a workshop at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, MA. last summer, suggested that the editor/reader is looking for a consistent set of poems, as well as a way into the manuscript. I remember thinking, "That's what I did with my first book. I used art terms to build a scaffold for understanding the poems." I dutifully wrote in my notebook, "USE ART TERMS." What I did not do is apply it to the structuring of the manuscript, as I had done in Gestures of Trees.

I emailed Suzanne Cleary (Keeping Time and Trick Pear, Carnegie Mellon University Press, Pittsburg), who was one of my instructors at the 2003 Annual Poetry Festival/The Frost Place in Franconia, NH and asked her for advice in organizing my manuscript.

She answered, "Years ago, at Bread Loaf, I asked Donald Justice…how to assemble a mss. His answer? 'It doesn't matter. Just make sure that they are the best poems you have. That is what really matters.' He said that most readers don't read poetry cover-to-cover (I know I seldom do), so arrangement is often lost on readers anyway." She added, "But I do believe this: place your most welcoming poems at the beginning of the mss…" Suzanne's generous comments helped me, even as I struggled to rearrange my manuscript one final time (I hope).

Brush with Words, Version Fourteen
It was one of those transformative moments, much like Scarlett O'Hara has at the end of Gone with the Wind. She hears her father's and Ashley Wilkes's voices saying, "Land, it's land…it's the red earth of Tara." I heard John's voice, "These poems are about art…and painting…and colors..."

I took a blank sheet of paper and made three circles because many books have three sections. I wrote one word in each: Portraits, Still Lifes and Landscapes, which are key subjects of objective painting. Then I removed all the poems from my binder, read each one and wrote its title near one of those three circles. Granted, some poems had a bit of two or even all three in them, but I looked at key images to help me place them. I also deleted two poems because I finally admitted that they were not strong enough for this manuscript.

When we sat down to supper that night, John knew that I had been working all day on reordering the manuscript. By now, he recognizes that special look of exhaustion, when I almost look transparent. He gallantly offered, "Why don't you put all the poems that are portraits in one section? And how about poems that are more about nature in a landscape section?" I ran to my studio and brought the scrap paper to show him. You might say that great minds think alike! It also shows that I am married to the person Martha Rhodes describes in the opening quotation, someone who "has ambition for your work, someone who lets you learn from it."

Extra tips:
Listen to editors talk about poetry manuscripts by attending conferences and workshops. Here are some from my notebooks:

Make your first and last poems relate to each other. - Susan Kan, editor, Perugia Books at The Colrain Poetry Manuscript Conference.

By the fifteenth poem, the editor should have been informed by the previous ones. There should be a cohesion present, with respect to moods, subjects, forms. They should shift and flow. - Martha Rhodes, editor Four Way Books, Summer 2007 Fine Arts Work Center poetry class.

Tape record yourself reading the entire manuscript. Take notes as you listen to yourself. Be brutal. Listen for repetition, when it works or does not work. Have someone you trust read your manuscript aloud to you. Take notes, be brutal. Poetry began as an aural tradition, so it is good to return there. - Susan Kan.

Give the manuscript a visual test: fan through the pages to see if there is a variety of shapes with respect to length and forms. [That is not to say that one could not have an entire collection of sonnets or quatrains or sestinas.] - Susan Kan

Take a favorite book of poems, read it from cover-to-cover in and try to figure out why and how the poet assembled the manuscript. See if there are patterns, echoes, or threads that are apparent. - [This was an idea I had when I was preparing for the Colrain Poetry Manuscript conference.]

There is more to say about this experience, but it is enough for now. I need to give it a rest, as the saying goes. Unless, of course, you have a manuscript story to share. It doesn't have to be about a poetry manuscript---I put a similar thought process in gear when I design an exhibition of paintings. Contact me: It would be great to hear from you!