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.