Blog Request: Compiling a Poetry Manuscript, Part 2: Order

So last month (really, it was last month though it feels like years ago) I wrote about compiling a book manuscript here.

From that poem I offered that each poet should "Inquire Within" - ask yourself why you are choosing to do the things you are in your manuscript (know why you do everything you do in your manuscript).


Today's post is on the book's order.  And I will admit right here, ordering is probably my weakest skill as a poet.  (Great, you're thinking, Thanks for offering your horrible advice.)

But I'm a good listener, so I can share things that have worked for others as well as what has worked for me.

There are many poets who said their manuscript finally won a prize after they took this advice -- Put your best poems up front and then a few of your best poems at the end, then the rest in the middle.

I'm offering this because I know some poets have been chosen because of this--because the readers are tired and they read the first section of the manuscript then skip to the back to see how it ends.

But my poet-self, the one who really believes if you're going to do something, to do it well and craft your manuscript just as much as you craft individual poems, doesn't really have buy in on this.

For me, I look at a manuscript as a work of art.  Novel.  Poetry Collection.  Memoir.  Collection of Short Stories.  Chapbook.  To me-- this is the art you are giving to the world, create it to the best of your ability in content and in the creation of its order.

Besides "put your best work upfront," here are a few other ways you can order a manuscript--

Narrative arc
Emotional arc
By theme/subject
By emotional/theme subject
Some completely different way
A few of the ways above combined

Again, I think a lot of the answers you need will come to you when you really ask yourself, "What am I trying to do?" and "What do I want to achieve with this manuscript?" (And I'm not talking winning a prize here, but what do you want the order of the mss to achieve?)

While I write answers to your questions, I need to be upfront here-- I do not know the answers to any of these questions for *your* manuscript.  I only know the answers for mine.  Just as while I might offer you parenting advice for your child, only you know what's best in raising her.

I feel this way about poetry and creating a book.  My child has different needs than your child.  But maybe in seeing how my child, I mean manuscript, was created, it will help you with yours.  Or you will get new ideas or hear something you haven't heard before.

So for my manuscript, (now book Letters From the Emily Dickinson Room) I wanted to have a conflict in the beginning, some tough emotional poems in the middle (I intentionally placed them there because in my mind, they were "safe" between the other poems and this allowed me to feel a little less vulnerable and I worried if they were near the beginning, they were too early...), and there was to be a feeling of resolution at the end.

I didn't want the reader to read the whole book and not feel as if s/he could come away with something.  I wanted him/her to leave the book feeling as if she knew everything would be all right.

Also, if you look at the poem titles you will see they are all in alphabetical order.  That was a challenge as I wanted them in a certain order and sometimes that order wasn't working, so I had to retitle my poems.

But since the book was called LETTERS from the Emily Dickinson Room, and the book deals with ritual and a bit of OCD/anxiety, for me it was important to have the poems alphabetical--that was one thing I knew from the very beginning.  I tried to put them in different orders, but they always returned to A-Z.

So when you are ordering your poems, again, know what you are trying to achieve.  Pretend this manuscript is never going to get published and that you are a master artist creating your best work ever, you can do anything to this manuscript, what would you do?

I know for me, I view each manuscript as an artist might view her work of art.  While I might not fully understand all it is doing (I believe much of our art comes from our subconscious), I have crafted it, revised it, cared for it.  I have chosen the best frame and its title.  I have thought about every detail in that book.  

For me, my poetry collection is much to important to me personally to just "put my best poems up front."  To me, this is like trying to sell your home just from the photo--yes, it's gorgeous from the street, but I open the door and all I see is clutter!  

Be able to open the door to your manuscript and know why you chose a potted palm instead of a ficus.  Know why you have crystal doorknobs and an old fashioned blender.  View your book as someone walking into a new home, what does your manuscript show you?  Where do you get lost?  Where you open a closet and have things fall on your head?  What can you get rid of to make it cleaner?

It's a work of art, not just a note on your resume.  This is how I feel about writing.  It's not about the sale of the house, but if your heart into it, and you can see the prayer flags hanging from the back gate and know, yes, this place was loved.




  1. I'm always interested in this theme. There's an essay on it in the new P&W that some folks might want to comment. I'll say this: in my first book MS, for years I thought I "had to" (why? why??) put the (oldest) poems about my childhood first, and then as a speaker "age" as the MS continued. I don't know why I assumed that; I suppose it seemed a natural kind of chronological arc. Later, it occurred to me I should put my BEST, not OLDEST, poems first, and the book immediately found a publisher. There are other kinds of arcs than you might initially imagine. Kelli speaks the truth!

    --Nancy P.

  2. This is a other writers struggle with this, too? It is also the hardest thing for me. I find I have a lot of poems (I relate to the feeling of clutter), and it is really challenging to figure out what "goes" together in all of them.

    I get hypercritical of my work at this stage, too, overthinking every bit (I get obsessed with my reader, imagining their expectations).

    This is excellent advice.

  3. Thanks, Kelli,
    I am doing a presentation on this Saturday morning and will point my students toward your blog post!

  4. I know that there are a number of different ways of organising, and I've used some. One way that I've used has been to select a strong piece as the first, then chosen links to the second, links from the second to the third, and so on, so that there is a chain of poetry. Another way is to consider the book as a single poem, and the constituent poems as elements or pieces: here the process of organising depends on the patterns, and the first poem tends to introduce the whole or the first section.

    There are, as said, others, and each poets are not limited to one way.

  5. very very helpful, Kelli! I love the candor especially, the realistic sense that readers might skip, that they might get tired (Lita)


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