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Thursday, October 13, 2011

Emancipate Your Manuscript

Here's something I wish I'd had access to before putting my book together. It's a blog post by Jeffrey Levine, editor and publisher at Tupelo Press, giving advice on how to put your poetry manuscript together. Among the 27 different points he makes (some of them long paragraphs even), there is advice concerning big issues such as theme and artistic integrity,  and moving down to medium-sized considerations such as ordering the poems and choosing a manuscript title, to small details including adverbs and spell-checking.

Here's a sampling of his wisdom:

2) Every time we write a poem we announce to the world what we think a poem is. The poems you write when urging – wittingly or unconsciously – a particular aesthetic are the ones that belong in the same book. Spread all of your poems out on the floor, a floor that doesn’t need to be disturbed (easy for me to say, I know) and look at them. Read them. Live with them for days and days. See what relationships seem to be developing between the poems....Where do you see common images developing? In what directions do your various threads lead? What seem to be your concerns as a poet during this period of creativity, and how do they seem to want to group....

3) When ordering poems in your manuscript, pay no attention to which poems have been published (and where), and which poems not. At the conclusion of contests, I often (call me perverse) go back and look at the acknowledgment pages of finalists and semifinalists. I find that most poets place an inordinate and mistaken reliance on their publishing history in ordering poems (or in deciding to include certain poems). Many of us assume that because a journal editor smiled on a particular poem that it must be better than the poems not taken, or that a poem taken by Poetry or Agni must be better than one taken by a less well-known print or online publication. I am almost always amazed—amazed—on learning which poems have been taken and which not, and by whom. Nothing could be less relevant to creating a manuscript than whether and where the individual poems found a home. If you believe in your poems, and if you have good reason for believing that they belong together in a particular manuscript, then include them, and order them according to your own aesthetic judgment. Period.

11) Less is more. Keep your manuscript in the area of 48-64 pages – show your reader that you’ve done the important work of weeding and pruning.

15) Proof for the Big Abstractions (i.e., “infinity,” “eternity,”) – the 19th century is over.

16) Proof for small abstractions (i.e., “dark”) – the 19th century is still over.

20) Do you tend to sew up your poems with something willfully plangent (poetic with a capital “P”) or a Yoda-like dollop of wisdom?

21) Do you tend to begin your poems with a line or two (or an entire stanza) of throat clearing?

22) Re-read the two preceding questions. Pretend for argument’s sake that you’ve answered yes to both. Now look at each and every poem with fresh eyes and ask yourself: a) Where does each poem really want to start? b) Where does each poem really want to end? Make no mistake: these are deeply artistic matters we’re talking about, here masquerading as craft questions.

24) Don’t include dedications and thanks on a contest manuscript—there will be plenty of time for that later.

At the link above, there's all that and so much more that I wish I had known to consider when assembling my manuscript. It comes from a person who reads 3000 to 4000 poetry manuscripts a year, so sit up and take note. I sure did (for next time...please, let there be a next time).

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