Thoughts on Putting Together a Poetry Manuscript

I have spent a lot of time the past three days Zooming with Susan Rich as we prepare for our class on putting together (and publishing) a poetry manuscript--and let's just say, there is a lot to cover!

In 2016, we started writing a book, Demystifying the Manuscript, where we talk about how to put together a poetry manuscript and I believe the first thing we learned and agreed on is: There is no one way to put together a book. 

Putting together a manuscript really requires each poet to go deep inside themselves and determine their own vision for the book. For me, it comes down to--what am I trying to share with the reader and what is the best way to do it?

Of course, we're going to share different strategies of ordering and organizing from chronological to narrative arcs to about 7 or 8 other different ways one can order their manuscript! As well as tips we've learned around the way--and I'm truly excited to hear from our special guest poets--Diane Seuss and January Gill O'Neil who will be discussing their process! But there are many ways to order...

My second manuscript, Letters from the Emily Dickinson Room, was alphabetical by title. Because I wanted certain poems to appear earlier in the collection, this constraint of alphabetizing made me have to be more inventive with my titles, which ultimately strengthened my books. (One of these blog posts, I'm going to have to talk about constraints in our work as I feel it's one of the most powerful tools for artists, poets, and writers for inventiveness, imagination, and getting out of our own ways...) 

But back to this manuscript stuff, my new book (which is currently heading to the printers as I type this!), Dialogues with Rising Tides is in sections, and it's the most sections I've ever had in a book. Seven! 7 freakin' sections! I would have never thought I'd write a book full of sections, but I realized for this book, for me to weave together the different themes (environmental collapse, suicide, relationships, love/desire, melancholy, anxiety, cruel politics), I needed the reader to have more pauses in the book so they could have space to take it all in. 

Because the ocean plays such a big role in my book, my section titles are named after lightvessels (also called lightships). These are huge ships that act as floating lighthouses to keep people away from hazards. There's a section called Break Sea (ways the world tries to break us), Black Deep (lots of melancholy themed poems in here), Shambles (poems about America and getting an IUD during 45s inauguration!) My hope was also the poems would be lightvessels for readers--even while they explore some tougher subjects. 

For me, at some point in the creating of the book, there is clarity of what I'm trying to do. Sometimes it takes a long time to understand it. My last book came out in 2014. This book went through a lot of outfits and names. And while I think it can be useful to ask others about your manuscript because sometimes we can't see our own blindspots--for example, a poet forgetting that we don't know the backstory and sometimes we need a bit more so we're not lost--I also think we need to trust our greater vision for the book and develop a strong level of taste (by reading and reading and reading) but also of craft--revise, but kill the spark. 

If I can compare this process it's like blowing glass, getting it just right, but something things break and crash through the floor. Thankfully with poetry, there is less mess to clean up. And our biggest hazards are papercuts...

Wishing you all the best on your own future books, 

~ Kells 


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