Bootprints on My Dining Room Carpet, and Other Clues That I’m Assembling a Manuscript

It’s first-book contest season, and new poets throughout the land are busy compiling, revising, and otherwise fretting over their poetry manuscripts.  Aside from self-publishing, first-book competitions are the most common way for poets to get their first books into print.  How these work, in the ever-tightening world of book publishing, is that the entry fees for each contest provide publishers with the funding to risk taking on poets who lack previous book credits.  (And ominously, some first-book contests are becoming first- and second-book contests, since these days, a successful first book is no guarantee that a publisher will break even on a poet’s second collection.) In the last seven years, I estimate I’ve spent enough on contest entry fees (most run $10 to $25 per manuscript) to fund the literary launching of Matthew and Michael Dickman.

In hopes of getting launched myself one of these years, I too am in the process of putting together my manuscript and researching which of the several contests with October and November deadlines to submit it to. This time around, I’m refocusing the manuscript to incorporate the large number of poems I’ve written in the last year, which seem (to me, anyway) stronger than than many of my earlier pieces. The subjects of my poems haven’t changed much–they still obsess about the food chain, theodicy, birds, the usual material–but in more complex and, I hope, skillful ways. My tentative title is “Myths of Origin, Falling Away” to reflect my increased use of mythological motifs and personae in the newer poems.

So I’m experimenting with different ways to organize this 60-odd-page pile of papers:

  • Good old topical sections:  a chunk of theological poems, a chunk of nature poems, a chunk of mythological poems… This method has never worked well for me in the past, but I did sequence one version of the manuscript this way just to take inventory as I was getting started last week. At this stage, I did a lot of pruning, taking out poems that appeared weak next to their stronger neighbors in each section, to get the manuscript down to a trimmer and hardier 52 pages.
  • Organization by “voice”:  after a brief section of strong poems that introduce the collection’s major themes, a long section of poems that are quiet-voiced and meditative, followed by another long section of poems that are more kinetic and lively-voiced. I like some of the poem sequences I came up with here, and sorting my poems according to “voice” was instructive as to the direction I seem to be moving in my writing (that is, away from the earnest-voiced poet-in-the-first-person and toward the zingy persona poem).
  • A more woven, cyclical structure:  following the model of some poem sequences that I came up with during my experiment with organization-by-voice, I’m currently trying to meta-sequence the whole manuscript accordingly.  By this I mean setting up repeating cycles, such as of three mythological persona poems followed by a theological meditation followed by a skeptical tantrum followed by a couple of consoling nature poems…and repeating. The actual formula is more complicated (and, to be honest, more flexible) than this, and it’s seriously bending my brain. I feel like I’m trying to juggle eggs, watermelons, chainsaws and flaming torches–about a dozen of each–simultaneously. If I can get it to work, though, I think this will be the best-structured manuscript I’ve come up with so far.

As I work on all this, I pace around my dining table, making numerous lines and piles on it with my poems, then writing down the sequences I’ve laid out–then gathering up the pages and laying them out differently, according to a different idea of order. This passage in Annie Dillard’s The Writing Life always comes to mind when I’m assembling a manuscript:

“I have often ‘written’ with the mechanical aid of a twenty-foot conference table. You lay your pages along the table’s edge and pace out the work. You walk along the rows; you weed bits, move bits, and dig out bits, bent over the rows with full hands like a gardener. After a couple of hours, you have taken an exceedingly dull nine-mile hike. You go home and soak your feet” (46).

At Dillard’s suggestion, that is exactly what I am doing as I write this. Cheers to you, Dear Readers, and more soon.

Note as of Oct. 10:  Jeffrey Klausman’s comment on this post, and my reply, ended up over here.

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