Photo Credit: Jennie
"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,
Finding the Right Pattern: Organizing a Poetry Manuscript
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 Amazon.com 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
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
" (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?
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
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
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
it's the red earth of Tara." I heard John's voice,
"These poems are about art
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
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
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
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!