Organizing a New Poetry Manuscript

Nancy Flynn Apostrophe Blog Archive, Writing

The Apostrophe Blog

Musings on Writing and Life.

Suddenly, out of the blue, I’ve found myself motivated to gather up a whole passel of my relatively recent poems into yet another book-length collection. Well, it wasn’t exactly out of the blue. I was spurred onward when I saw the notice for the John Ridland Poetry Prize, a new competition open to poets 55 years and older, deadline December 31, 2023. Why not toss my aging baby boomer poetry hat into that ring?

So I set about combing through the work I’d done since my collection, Every Door Recklessly Ajar, was published by Cayuga Lake Books in 2015 to see which new poems could be huddled together into a new volume. What I quickly realized is that this past five years, I have written many poems in “conversation” with other poets and writers—via epigraph, title choice, speeches and essays as well as lines and phrases I have deliberately chosen to weave into my poems. This includes an entire manuscript of a kind of found poetry called the cento entitled I Am Speechless that I completed in 2022. And a whole batch of poems I started earlier this year in dialogue with lines from Emily Dickinson. How could I weave all of these into a coherent whole?

Below is my summary of few things I learned a while back about organizing a poetry book from an essay in in the May/June 2008 issue of Poets & Writers by Katrina Vandenburg, Putting Your Poetry in Order”:

—The right order can make a poet’s “obsessions” more rather than less interesting. The climate crisis, white supremacy, gun violence, the long arm of history informing our current political moment—all of these are topics that crop up again and again in the work I am drawn to do of late.

—The right order implies coherence. According to Vandenburg, a whole work that is “greater than the sum of its parts [becomes] a poem made from all of your poems.”

—The white space between poems can—and maybe should—function as a form of innuendo. This includes the division of the manuscript into sections and the titles of those sections.

—It matters which poems you put side by side; they do interact and speak to one another. Vandenberg writes: “Sections are often the building blocks of good books. Each section…needs its own theme…within sections, something from the last poem has to link to the next one.” I have paid close attention to this in other manuscripts I’ve created over the years so it was easy-peasy to use this as a guiding principle once again.  

—Sometimes poems that won’t work alone can find a home in the lineup of a book, providing links or needed contrast, texture, and resonance. I found a few of my (unpublished) poetry “darlings” and scattered them here and there in this new Learning to See draft.

Before I did a first pass at organizing this newest batch of poems, I also returned to “Organization Strategies”, an outstanding article by Alberto Ríos I was given by a teacher a while back. It catalogues many possibilities to consider when organizing a poetry book. In the past, I’d organized one of my chapbooks using a combination of Ríos’s “last-line-first-line dialogue” with a nod to a spiral structure (meaning associations based on similarity) as well. This time around, it seemed like the poems wanted to be in partnered or thematic groupings. So I ran with that. For now.

If I included a handful of the centos in the manuscript, I figured I had about 44 or 45 poems to work with. My “preoccupations” of the past several years—which included a pandemic, social justice protests, an insurrection fomented by a president and his criminal accomplices, numerous extreme weather events, the twin nightmares of ascendant fascism and the ever present scourge of white supremacy—well, the poems quickly began to gather themselves into affinity groups.

My stream-of-consciousness brain must have been tuned up when I started this work because boom, boom, boom—section titles came to me in a flash. Each was culled from language in one of the poems I had tentatively grouped that particular section: A Familiar Poetry; Fractures Courtesy of Centuries; Unblinking; Only Consonants and Vowels; and Festival of the New Fires.

Because of the handful (six) of poems “in conversation” with Emily Dickinson’s work, I decided to start the book off with one of them. The final poem (for now) is “How I Wasted My Life” and that speaks to being farther along in this journey of living a life—fitting given the 55 and older requirement for this particular book prize. It was prompted by the last line of James Wright’s much-anthologized poem, “Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy’s Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota.”

And thinking about Emily Dickinson led me to a potential title for the whole collection: Brief Campaigns of Sting and Sweet. It is a line from her 1860 poem #135,“A little Bread – A crust – a crumb – .”

As far as “data” about which poems made the final cut: just under half of the poems have already been published; five are from my cento manuscript, I Am Speechless, and four others are “found” poems that worked with other texts; three are ekphrastic poems; and nine have received some kind of Oregon Poetry Association recognition over the years. The manuscript also has a good number of poems written in form including syllabic verse; the fib; the golden shovel; the haiku; the sonnet; and a three-part poem called a triptych. What else does all of this mean? Well, there will probably need to be many notes to explicate all of these details at the end of the book!

The edited draft is now printed off after a poetry friend went over it with a fine-toothed comb. Today I tinkered with ever more words! Now I am going to let it sit for a few days before taking a look at it again. Hopefully by early November, I can get it into its final incarnation and can then hustle it off to that over-55 book contest…and maybe even a few others…

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