Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Making a Manuscript

Sheila left a comment on yesterday's post that thanked me for mentioning the way in which I am beginning to experiment with my new poetry manuscript. This made me imagine that maybe it wouldn't be boring to talk a little more about that part of the revision process . . . because compiling poems into a book requires just as much creative thought as refining individual pieces does.

Think about your favorite album: Does the order of the songs feel inevitable to you? Do the emotional currents of those songs seem uncannily linked, even if the songs are stylistically varied? Do you feel a sense of momentum as the album progresses? But what about those albums that just seem like compilations of singles?--you know, the ones in which the catchiest song is always first and the rest of the songs feel like wavering reflections; the ones in which individual song textures create an overlay of blandness rather than a swelling unity.

And yet successful albums don't follow a formula. Some are dense and atmospheric, with one song merging into the next; some include wildly varying styles, instrumentation, and tempos; some are a stack of perfectly shaped pop hooks. Likewise, there are a thousand ways to organize a poetry manuscript, and much of that decision depends on where the poet is living at this moment in the world: what sounds are in her ears, what history is behind her, what other arts she has been pondering.

So I have a problem with manuscript editors who push a poet to follow a "how to get a publisher to pay attention to your book" formula. Yes, the poet wants the reader to become absorbed and curious, to eagerly turn the page. The collection itself must be a conversation. But as she does with individual poems, a poet must initiate that conversation from a point of inner silence and need. She cannot simply slot poems into what a disengaged expert declares is a marketable order.

I need an open patience to track the themes of my work, to follow the musical shifts and swells beyond the boundaries of one poem into another. I shuffle pages, set favorite poems aside, add old forgotten ones, shuffle everything again. I create sets and sections. I wonder about pacing, comedy, subject matter. I stare at the shape of the poems on the page. Then I stare at the clouds and get up and stop thinking about poems and walk around aimlessly. My mind requires a certain vacuity. Distraction is part of the work; creation doesn't move inexorably or logically. A thought arises as I watch the lightning flutter in the distance. Perhaps that thought will matter to the book.


Ruth said...

I've thought a bit about this since yesterday's post. So much of your work has a musicality and follows musical form. I hear Celtic and symphony and sonata and folk and blues in individual pieces. Just perhaps this body of work is wanting to be arranged as a concert or a festival.
I know your work will eventually tell you how to present it.

Carol Bachofner said...

This is my task at the moment: putting together The Boyfriend Project. Do I go for chronology or do sections? Do I lighten the mood when I place one of the darker poems and add one that is not so gripping? It is, as you say, about choices and style. It is also about what the poems want. Sometimes they want to comfort one another and sometimes they want to pick a fight. So, our job is (according to me only) to dance with them around the room and pay attention to the music.

Sheila said...

I love the album analogy. Printed!! Thanks again Dawn.

Anonymous said...

thank you for this meditation, dawn—marie