Blog Request: Compiling a Poetry Manuscript, Part 1 of Many...

R. suggested this for a blog topic:

I'd love to read a post about the process of compiling a poetry manuscript (like when to know to use sections, how to order the poems, what to exclude, etc).

Since this is a topic I could blog pages on, I'll be breaking this subject up over the next couple months, blogging about it then returning to it.

One book I'd definitely recommend for anyone wanting to read more on this and get their advice and ideas from not just me, but quite a few poets, I'd suggest this book:  Ordering the Storm: How to Put Together a Book of Poems  edited by Susan Grimm.  

The book is 112 pages with 11 essays by individual poets on how to put together a book of poems.  I read this book quite a while ago, but I do remember finding it quite informative and enjoyed getting personal takes on how to create a poetry manuscript.


To be quite honest, I always remember Marvin Bell saying when asked, "How should I order my manuscript?" -- You can throw all your poems up in the air and pick them up, that's one way...

He was making the point that there is no one way or one right way to order and organize your manuscript.  And I also believe that.

My biggest advice to the poet organizing his/her manuscript is to know why you do everything you do.  

If you put poem about robins after a poem about gravestones, understand why it's there.  If you have sections, know why you have sections.  If you've alphabetized your poems, know why you've alphabetized them.  If you don't have sections, know why you don't have sections.

I believe a book of poems needs to be deliberate, created and crafted.  It's not just your best poems in whatever order, there should be reasons for the order, reasons for the poems chosen, reasons for each part of your book.

Someone said once that the published book is the final poem, and it's something I believe in.  

Of course, I'm someone who likes organization and believes it's important and believes the book is the final poem.  Maybe you don't.  Just know why you are doing the things you do.  If you put a poem after another poem because you don't really care about order, that's fine, just understand that and know that in the end, it will affect your reader (maybe in a good way, maybe not).  But in the end, you need to be the one who is happy with your manuscript and to understand why you are making the choices you are when you are creating it.  

I was thinking about an image I saw recently of a Buddha and underneath it were the words, "Inquire Within."  I think much of that applies to poetry, creating a manuscript and art-- the poet in you knows the answers.  I'll give you some suggestions over the next couple months, but ultimately, only you know what is best.


More about compiling a manuscript in future posts...



  1. An important topic. I'll look forward to your others.

  2. I'm so excited that you are blogging about this!
    "I believe a book of poems needs to be deliberate, created and crafted."--so true. I've been sending out my first manuscript this year, and its so interesting to hear from a poet who has been there and done that--twice! i actually own "Ordering the Storm"--very good book, and I think it is possibly the only book on the subject? (a fact that I wish would change!)

  3. You are so right. Every organizational choice affects the reader.

    I've talked about this before. I like finding the hidden narrative, the story behind the book only the poet knows, and following that. It's worked for every chapbook I've put together and every full length book I've done. I'd rather the reader be following my lead (isn't that part of my jpb, anyways?)than stumble along in the dark on their own.

  4. Theodore Roethke wrote that once you're on your second book the poems order themselves as you write them. Of course he was Theodore Roethke. It's another way to look at the whole ordering conundrum though. It gets down to experience in the end. (Sorry I couldn't find where I found the quote)

    I think excluding poems also comes from practice. With my first book I wanted to include every single poem I had ever written. That changed by my second book and changed even more by my third book and has changed drastically now.

  5. Thanks for this, Kelli. Diane Lockward recently posted along similar lines but from the angle of the reader. She cites Frost for the quote about the book being the final poem.

  6. I ordered this book upon recommendation from Jessie Carty, and I am trying to savor it a little bit at a time. I often read these books at least twice in a row to absorb it...I look forward to hearing more from you.

    Comments on these things also help tremendously! Thanks for this...

  7. This is a great post, Kelli. I am sure that Robert Frost said, "If there are 24 poems in a book of poetry, the poem itself is the 25th poem." (I was asked how my book was the 25th poem as the opening question of my MFA thesis defense. Nothing like starting out with a softball question, eh?)

  8. Something I've done from time to time over the years, that I've found very good practice, is to pretend I'm going to compile a small anthology of poems by other poets. I'll pick 10 or 12 or 15 poems I like by a variety of poets, and start ordering them in whatever feels like a good sequence.

    I tend to listen for how one poem follows another, a similarity -- or contrast -- in tone or "voice" or pitch, or (maybe) subject matter.

    One of the advantages I've found in working with poems by other poets is that I don't feel so emotionally invested in which poems I choose to include or leave out, which one goes first or last, etc. It's easier to stay a little detached and just listen to the poem as poems.

  9. I honestly spent a massive amount of time ordering the poems in my book A Mouth for Picket Fences...trying to thread a narrative through the order. I am currently compiling for my second collection...a surreal book at its core, I think I may be a little unintentional with this one and let it create its own flow. Great post!


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