Ruthlessly pruning the overstuffed closet of a poetry book manuscript

After a shopping trip for school clothes on Saturday, my daughter, a rising high school senior, spontaneously cleaned out her drawers and closet to make room for the new. I cannot emphasize enough how out of character this was, but then again, she’s on the verge of so many changes. All summer she’s been doing ridiculously massive assignments for various AP courses in between touring colleges, drafting application essays, practicing with the girls’ cross-country team, babysitting, and volunteering. This time next year we’ll be packing up supplies for her dorm room at some college we can’t yet visualize. So yes, out with all those middle school notebooks and the keepsake tee shirts! Mademoiselle must be pitiless! The future is roaring toward us down the track, so pack light and zip up tight!

Madame is trying for similar late-summer ruthlessness. The biggest and hardest item on my to-do list is revising my poetry ms, Radioland. The editors at my press gave me brief notes to go on before more concentrated work scheduled for later in the year. Too many poems about poetry and famous poets, they said. And see if you can pare down all those first-person pronouns. These directives seem fair enough, especially the former. These poems concern communication and reception, so communion through reading books and letters is a recurrent theme. Honestly, Emily Dickinson is someone I talk to a lot. But you have to be careful about allusion. If a poem is just about poetry, that lowers the stakes. Plus, while a person who recognizes the reference may be delighted and feel suddenly able to place your poem in a long-running conversation, you can lose readers, too, when you get too insidery. A poem has to exert its own gravity, apart from the painting or political event or personal experience that inspired it. I can’t and shouldn’t cut all the poetry references, but I can weed out the flimsiest and hem up the trailing quotations in others. And other smart advice had been accumulating while I waited for press feedback—a friend gave me wise notes on cuts and rearrangements last February—so I was ready to eviscerate the closet.

I set to work. First you pull out the multicolored contents, try on each item, and sort the stuff into piles: essential, never fit though I wished it did, out of fashion. I had thought the former structure was successful and the poems polished, but knowing a mess of pages is really going to be a book makes you see the weak bits more clearly. Plus, I put this version of the ms together seven months ago. Then-raw poems had cooked up nicely since; magazine acceptance and rejections, plus hits and fizzles at poetry readings, had changed my sense of which poems represented my best work; and my life has moved on, so narrative threads connected to autobiography have unspooled in unexpected directions.

You have to review the whole and the pieces. I stitched and unstitched some poems, chucked others out, mixed and matched the core wardrobe with recent inspirations. Then I sought Chris’ fresh eye and perpetrated the whole process over again. My friend’s favorite section has moved up, as has the sequence about my father’s death. More theoretical poems about communication now come later, so they can be haunted by a specific and personal loss. There’s more light of all kinds in the book’s final movement. Now I’m resting and planning another read-through right before classes start, because every time you look at a manuscript you spot some new infelicity. Just last week, saving the seventh version of Radioland onto my computer, I noticed that the second and third poem both had the same word, “report,” in the title. That’s a pretty big, basic glitch, the repetition of an unusual noun on two consecutive pages, yet I hadn’t spotted it. It’s terrifying, really. I’m not a perfectionist, no publishing writer can afford to seek perfection, but the perfectionists do have a point. A book is never really done.

There are so many factors to weigh in revising a book of poems. Just a few I keep thinking about:

  • Is the book telling the most involving, interesting story I can pull off right now? Is the narrative arc complex yet clear enough to satisfy an involved reader?
  • And yet this is a collection of wayward fragments, not a wholly coherent narrative. Do the poems have some spiky independence from each other? Are they various?
  • Am I making the same moves not too often, but just often enough to keep the poems working in relationship to each other? This means reading for repeated words, ideas, stanza shapes, and other devices.
  • Who will be my readers, and how do I hope they’ll feel and think about this project? I personally believe the world is pretty awful and art should help us get through, so steering towards hope is important to me, but like many other poets I have a tendency to resort to black, the easiest hue to pull off without embarrassing yourself.

And then there’s the strategies-of-publishing level:

  • I love this one poem but it doesn’t go with anything else in the wardrobe. And since this is poetry, I’m not actually donating it to Goodwill and therefore sending it to a hypothetically happy home. If I leave it out now, is it basically gone forever? Would that matter?
  • If the poem did well with magazine editors, I should find a way to include it, right?
  • And what about the poems that keep getting rejected by the latter? For example, there’s a poem at the end of Heterotopia Chris still shakes his head over. He says “‘Forgetting Curve,’ that’s your Norton Anthology poem, man, and no one took it? What is with that?” I don’t know if he’s right about that poem, or whether I am about an orphan in this current ms called “Community Feeling,” but I bet you recognize the phenomenon, if you read acknowledgments. The Pushcart-winning ode seems mediocre, but the triolet that knocked your socks off didn’t even make Obscure but Noble Little Review.

And questions for the oracle who, sadly, does not perch on a nearby volcanic fissure:

  • Which of these poems, notes, or acknowledgment lines will upset or delight my relative/ friend/ mentor, and if so, that a fate to be courted or avoided?
  • What am I not seeing, or perhaps not admitting that I am seeing?

I don’t know, although I can tell you what the goal is: to put together the best book I can get someone to consent to publish. Whatever “best” means, knowing that five years from now, I’ll probably know better.

For the moment, anyway, it’s back to the late-summer frenzy. There’s dinner to cook, bookbags to pack, recommendations to write. I have a podcast to record tomorrow related to a recent essay in Poetry—yikes. And a son who keeps muttering about school: “I’m not going back to That Place.” I know how he feels. I’m pretty happy messing around in the closet, wearing black sweatpants I totally should throw out.

10 thoughts on “Ruthlessly pruning the overstuffed closet of a poetry book manuscript

  1. I’ve come back to re-read this as I launch in to culling and rearranging a new collection – thanks again, Lesley. Your entry makes me wish you were not only a writer and a lecturer, but an editor for hire, in fact!

    Like

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