Tuesday, October 11, 2005

Structuring books of poems

For anyone who may have missed it, Poetry Daily has reprinted Natasha Sajé's Iowa Review article on "Dynamic Design: The Structure of Books of Poems." It's been pretty widely linked-to, I think, so I'm mainly posting it here for my own future reference.

Allegedly, while I'm off work this week, I had planned to start seriously working on my own book manuscript. Haven't touched it yet, but there's three more days. (Eek.) Today I had lunch with some friends, then met with the friend who wants "poetry tutoring" -- we decided that "personal trainer" was a more accurate model though. We're going to meet for two hours every other week, starting the first week of November. Should be interesting.

Are there other books, articles, essays, chapters, etc. about how poetry books are organized, or how to put together a manuscript, stuff along those lines? Other than Jeffrey Levine's tips on putting together a manuscript (fairly general, but practical), it doesn't seem like I've run across that many, though it seems like something poets would want to write about now & then. Odd. Anyway, if anyone knows of such, I'd love to hear about them.

Will also happily accept general manuscriptin' advice from those of you who have done it before. I've put together several chapbook mss., and about ten years ago I put together a book-length ms. but it sucked. :) So I feel like I have a vague idea of what I'm doing, but not really. I would love to get the darn thing done so I can shut up about it, though.


Trista said...

This is probably worse than unhelpful, but I haven't read any articles or such on how to put a manuscript together. In fact, during my MFA, I spent 2 different semesters with our workshop focusing on putting together manuscripts. And in neither of them were we able to find and use critical texts on the subject. In the first semester the workshop leader assigned 1st books that had received awards (since we were all working on first books ourselves) and we spent the semester looking critically at what poems were included and their order and what we felt such choices were doing for the manuscript as a whole. The second semester (different teacher) we looked at each other's manuscripts and evaluated what the order and inclusions were doing (this was very helpful since we were all familiar with each other's corpus and could ask about why poems had been excluded or why they had been placed in the order they had) and if we were overusing any 'tricks' or specific words -- it's amazing how once can use the same distinctive words over and over in different poems and never notice till they're all together.

I wonder if the subject isn't such a personal one for so many poets that they would rather die than admit they were following some how-to list or some such. Personally I think that is a ridiculous notion and would have loved to have more perspectives on how to put a manuscript together, but I do know of others that would scoff at such a thing.

Peter said...

Thanks for the link to the article about ways to structure a book of poems: very interesting!

Lyle Daggett said...

Really interesting question. I also don't really recall running across much on how to put together books of poems. Most of what I know (or believe) about it, I've gathered by considering how books of poems I like by other poets have been structured.

The only poets I can think of who might have written something about the subject are (maybe) Robert Bly and Denise Levertov, somewhere in among their collections of essays. Of course by no means have I read everything that's out there.

A few poets whose books I've especially learned from (about how to structure books) are Robert Bly, James Wright, Audre Lorde, Etheridge Knight, Adrienne Rich, Tomas Transtromer. Some lesser known poets too -- Gerald McCarthy, Jenne Andrews, Gerrye Payne, Siv Cedering.

I read some of Iowa Review article by Natasha Saje you linked to, though found it a little dense to wade through after a while. I did like the other article you linked to, by Jeffrey Levine, which is (as you said) fairly general, but much of what he says is advice I would probably offer if someone asked.

I think of poems -- and books of poems -- as three-dimensional geometric structures. I feel the geometry. Each poem in the book could be though of as a fraction of a whole.

when I'm putting together a manuscript, I try to put a poem that's sharply provocative, sure of its footing, as the first poem in the book. I try to put the poem with greatest dramatic impact either as the last poem in the book, or next to last (in which case the last poem will be a kind of coda, a punctuation).

A poem in which the mood or tone changes noticeably between the beginning and the end might go well at roughly the halfway point in the book, or (if there are a couple of such poems) at one-third and two-thirds of the way through -- transitional poems, to change direction.

In general, I try to put the strongest poems at the pivot points of the book (at roughly one-third or one-sixth of the way through, maybe).

The geometrical structure doesn't have to be symmetrical (sometimes symmetry is overrated). In a book of twenty poems, the strongest pivotal poems might be the third, seventh, eleventh, fifteenth, and nineteenth poems in the order.

I try to "sandwich" relatively weaker or less substantial poems in between stronger and more substantial ones. (I don't mean poems that I think are weak, as such, but relative to the stronger ones.)

In listening for which poems should follow which other poems, I listen for contrast (of mood, tone, voice, resolution, -- though not necessarily of subject --) more than I listen for similarity. More often than not I prefer contrast.

A good exercise to help get a better sense of what you think about structuring about a book of poems is to pretend you're compiling an anthology. Pick some poems (a few, ten, or fourteen, or eighteen) by other poets, poems you especially like, and arrange them in the order you would if you were going to publish them as an anthology. Do this a few times, with various selections of poems, paying attention to what qualities in the poems are important to you in making your choices of sequence, which poems to include, which to leave out.

Sorry for going on so long here. Your post really got me started.:)

Anne said...

Trista, that's actually helpful in a way -- at least I'm starting to suspect that I haven't, after all, missed a completely obvious source that everyone ELSE knows about but that they're keeping secret from us non-MFA-having folks. *grin*

Lyle, really interesting comments, thanks! I love the idea of playing around with "anthologizing" other people's poems -- I hadn't thought of that, but it might be easier to understand the process by working with poems I'm not as close to as I am to my own.

It seems odd that there isn't more written on this subject. Maybe by the time poets are ready to put together a manuscript they feel like they shouldn't need a "how-to" -- or maybe it's just that first mss. are so often compiled while supported by the mentorship of an MFA program. Hmmm.